Fab (Four) Storytellers

Published: Dec 7, 2016

(Hrabowski poses with large group on concert hall stage)
A collection of vivid vignettes from UMBC’s founding.

The Stoop Storytelling Series – created by Laura Wexler and Jessica Henkin – has become a fixture in Baltimore arts community, encouraging “ordinary” people to tell the extraordinary stories of their lives. So it was a natural for the Stoop Stories team to organize “Retrieve Your Memories: Stoop Stories with the ab Four and Friends” to tell stories of UMBC’s first students and faculty, with a special guest appearance by UMBC President Freeman A, Hrabowski, III. Each speaker stepped into the spotlight for a few moments and brought the early days of the university to life for a packed audience in the Linehan Concert Hall.

What follows are edited excerpts from the event.

Laura Lefavor ’13

Mimi Dietrich ’70: On September 19, 1966, I came to UMBC as a student. I am a member of the Fab Four, which is the first four graduating classes. I want to set the stage a little bit by telling you a little bit about what it was like in 1966. Imagine. There were 750 freshman commuter students. There were no upperclassmen. There were three buildings. Everything that we did was in those three buildings.

We had professors that we had never heard of before. We had no idea what they were like, and we had no idea that they were really as new as we were to this whole thing. It was amazing. It was exciting. We came with notebooks. We did not have any computers. And the best thing of all is that everybody left their phone home, because it was hooked to the kitchen wall with a curly little line. So tonight we’re going to tell you some stories about those days, and take you back a little bit.

Louie (Linda) Sowers ’70: I came to UMBC in 1966, not really knowing what to expect, but I was hoping to play sports here. I had played volleyball in high school. I loved volleyball, so I was really hoping to play volleyball in college. But unfortunately, freshman year we didn’t have any intercollegiate women’s sports. There were men’s sports, but there were no women’s sports. So when sophomore year rolled around, there were still no women’s sports. And I was getting a little nervous, because I really wanted to play volleyball.

So I thought: “Well, I probably need to get a little proactive.” So I decided that I would go speak to Dick Watts, who was the Director of Athletics here. And he was a little bit gruff around the edges, and very intimidating to me anyway, a little shy sophomore. I had no idea what his reaction was going to be, but I went up into his office and I said to him, “What are the chances that we could have a volleyball team this year?” And he never smiled at me. He was very serious. Just stared at me, which seemed like forever.

And then finally he said, “I’ll tell you what. If you bring me a piece of paper with the signatures of the girls who are interested, and if there’s enough interest, I’ll hire you a coach.” So I said, “Okay, fair enough.” So I went out and I did my little recruiting thing, and evidently I was pretty good at begging people, because I came back with 66 names, and he hired us a coach. So this was about four years before Title IX, so we had no money. There was no budget….

We had no uniforms. We wore our gym uniforms that first year. And we had no away games because we didn’t have money for transportation…. [In] junior year, things got a lot better. He hired a woman named Joan Chenoweth, who was the Women’s Athletic Director, and she coached field hockey, basketball, and volleyball. Now, I played on all three of those sports, but please don’t be impressed by that. If you showed up the first day of practice, you were on the team….

By the time I was a senior, our basketball team had a nine and two record. We were invited to the State Championships. We were seeded second in that tournament, and I’m really proud of that. And I’m really proud to have been a part of women’s sports and the starting of it, and I loved every second of going to school here.

Ed Berlin ’70: We all showed up in tribes. There was the Calvert Hall tribe, and there was the Parkville High tribe. And even though we went to different classes, we all found each other back in the cafeteria – our tribe. I happen to be a member of the Jewish City College tribe. And there wasn’t a lot to do. There were some sports, but someone had this great idea that it’s fall, “Why not have a Halloween party?” And for some reason – I can’t remember how – I got to be the facilitator, or the student activity person putting it together.

The very first party in the history of UMBC: October, 1966. And I wanted to make it special, so I scrounged around. I found some pumpkins. I thought that would be great. It’s pumpkin time. And then I realized the pumpkins were rolling around in the cafeteria, and you couldn’t dance or anything like that with these pumpkins rolling around. So if we were going to have a party, we needed to do something about the pumpkins.

It was a facilities gentleman who offered me some old picket fences that looked like they had been here since the beginning of time, and he found me some whitewash to dress them up. And I put the fences around (if you remember) the columns in the old cafeteria, so there were these nice pumpkin patches. And I was feeling pretty darn good about myself.

So people start to show up, and they have amazing costumes. The music was terrible. I think someone had some 45s or something like that. The sound system in the cafeteria was, as you could expect, pretty awful. But I felt pretty good about it. It was packed. It was hot. People were dancing.

And then all of a sudden, I started to hear this shrieking, and people were turning around and pointing at each other’s costume, and there were white streaks all up and down everyone’s costume, right? And people were angry. Who was crazy enough to paint those picket fences, and they were still wet, right? So I didn’t really know what to say. In fact, I think I left early.

Simmona Simmons ’74: I came to UMBC in 1966 as a staff person. I was really, really young, and so was everybody else. I came from Bowie. I had been at Bowie for about two years. I worked there, and then I also was a student. I wasn’t able to finish my education, so I withdrew from school and decided to take the state test so that I could get a state job to fund my education. When I took the state test, the first job that came up was UMBC. I came for the interview with Mr. John Haskell, who was their librarian at that time.

I had just gotten married, so when he interviewed me, he said, “Just got married – you probably won’t be here very long.” So I got the job, and believe it or not, the library was at Hillcrest. Many of you probably don’t even know about that building. Hillcrest was a leftover from Spring Grove, and in the basement, I understand, there were bars. But I never went down there, because it was too spooky. I stayed on the main floor and did what I was supposed to do.

Later on, the library moved to the Biology building. We stayed there a few years. In 1968, the first phase was completed of the library, and I helped move into that phase. Then later on, Phase II was completed. We moved into Phase II, so I helped move that library. Then in 1994, we moved into the Tower, as we know it now, and I think that’s the last move for me.

During that whole time, as UMBC was growing, I decided I would start taking classes. I loved going to school, and I loved learning. I decided: “I will complete my education.” So I started to take classes. Early on, I was an English major. Then I decided I would switch over to American studies. I completed my B.A. in 1974. Then I went on to get my master’s in Library Science, so I’d be a certified librarian. And then I went on and got a second master’s in American studies.

The whole experience here at UMBC was gratifying, and I learned a lot. There weren’t that many people around early on that looked like me, so I was very shy…. Sometimes I felt a little invisible, but I hung in here, and I’m glad I stayed, because as UMBC grew, I grew with UMBC. This has been a wonderful experience. I’ve grown up with the university, and I have to say, some of my best experiences, some of my growth experiences, happened here.

Diane Tichnell ’70: On September 19, 1966, I came with a mission, and I came with an attitude. Now, my mission was I was going to get a cheap education, and I was going to hang around this little rinky-dink place for like two years, and go to the real University of Maryland at College Park. So that was my mission. Now, my attitude was that I was going to wow this campus and everybody else with my journalism
prowess. So the first year, as you’ve heard from our speakers, was kind of kludgy. We were freshmen. There were no upperclassmen…. But there was a newspaper, and second year,
I made my way into the newspaper office….

My first assignment, I was told to go out and count the parking spaces on campus, and then go to Facilities and find out how many more we would have that year. So that got about two inches published in the newspaper. My second assignment was to go and seek out a commissioned sculpture that had been placed on the campus (it was called Entropy Machine No. 7 and Micro Mantis) and find out about it. Well, this gentleman, this sculptor, had been paid $40,000 for this and yet another sculpture.

So I found it, and apparently it was all made out of big iron pipes, and there was a praying mantis for one end, and there was this big machine at the other end. It was to show that when UMBC was developed, we displaced thousands, apparently, of praying mantis colonies…. I actually had a picture put in the paper with that, and maybe four inches of copy that time. So I was so excited.

Finally, [the editor] called me in, and he said…. “There is a group coming on campus, and I would like you to go and interview their leader prior to a seminar they’re going give this afternoon…. It’s in the Student Union….”

So I walked through those doors, and two guys were standing in front of me in guerilla-style warfare outfits. They had boots. They had fatigues. They had berets, and they had bullets across their chest. And they just looked at me. So I [said], “I’d like to speak to the leader of your group….”

That moment was a life-changing experience for me, when Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers for Self-Defense, started talking to me. He was so articulate. He was so committed. He was bang, bang. I couldn’t write fast enough to get down everything he said….

After talking with him, I realized I got nothing. This man put his life on hold, put his family on hold, put everything on hold to walk out there, to come across-country, and to do a big sweep of the East Coast. He could’ve walked out of UMBC and been shot. He could’ve been arrested, as his co-founder was, on trumped-up charges, Huey Newton. It changed my life. Not only the way that I approached journalism, but it changed the way I thought about causes.

They are not abstract. They are people, putting themselves out there for the rest of us. When I finished my interview, I thought to myself – obviously, I didn’t make it to College Park. I changed my major to political science and stayed here. Where can you go and get an experience up-close and personal with the movers and shakers in the country at that time but here? Dr. Albin Kuhn must’ve had some kind of
vision of what was going to happen here, in this microcosm of America that we had. He must’ve known….

John Titchener, emeritus professor, philosophy: My name is John Titchener. I came in June of 1967, one of the hottest summers on record, and taught in the library, first floor, in the classroom facing the pond. The average temperature was between 100 and 110 [degrees].

The ’60s, late ’60s, these people have been saying, were the times of the troubles. Campus was in turmoil. We had all kinds of furor about censorship…. A threat to The Retriever, and the question of prior restraint, all that kind of stuff. I had the misfortune, I think – or fortune, I’m not sure which – to be the President of the UMBC Assembly, which was alleged to be a governing body composed of students, staff, and faculty, and to represent the interests of the entire community.

It fell to me to go to the Board of Regents and complain bitterly about this prior restraint and censorship. So I said to [founding chancellor] Albin O. Kuhn: “I have to go to the Board of Regents meeting, and I have to tell them how much we dislike what you’re doing.”

Now, this was not a very comfortable position to be in. But Albin Kuhn took me aside, and said: “Now look, I understand what you have to do, and I respect you for doing it. But you should know some things about these Regents. One of them is tone-deaf. Not tone deaf, totally deaf, so make sure you face him. He’s important. He’s the one you need to impress.”

He wanted to take me down in a limousine, and coach me, and I said, “I can’t do that.” I was too proud. I mean I represented the faculty; I couldn’t be seen with the administration. But he helped me there, and I did my testimonial. I can’t say it was because of me – I think it was Dr. Kuhn – but the cause was resolved.

I just want to join all the other people who thought about him, because he was an extraordinary person, and an extraordinary first president.

Allen Holtzman ’70: I was in the first UMBC class, 1966, and the first class that graduated, in 1970. I was on the lacrosse team….We went down to the University of Virginia, and we had some fairly good players. But the University of Virginia was a top-rate school, and my friend was the goalie. And he had just told me, when I told him we were going to come down and play (after he stopped laughing), “Oh, that’ll be an easy game for us.” And he predicted a shut-out, which is very unusual in lacrosse. And I said, “Well, we’ll see.”

[At] UMBC, there were no scholarships, so in order to go down, I had to get an okay from [a professor] to take a test before I left, so I did that. And we got on a bus on a Saturday morning really early, like about must’ve been 6 [a.m.], and we drove down there. It seemed like we were in the bus forever, and I remember getting a lot of homework done on the way down…. But we got out there, and we started playing. And it was an unusual game because it was very low-scoring, and we found ourselves playing just as well as they were.

All of a sudden, we were close. I didn’t play that much, but I was a midfielder, so I got in there ccasionally. And lo and behold, the game was over and we won four to two. So every time I see this guy, I don’t say anything. I just mouth the numbers: “Four to two.”

William Rothstein, emeritus professor of sociology: In the spring of 1966, I drove to Baltimore to find housing and visit the campus. I drove down Wilkens Avenue past the dairy farm and the cows, which made me wonder if this was really an urban university. I drove past the Beltway, took a right, and entered Spring Grove State Mental Hospital and saw the bars on the windows, raising more doubts about this new urban university. I eventually located the campus, got out of my car at the top of the hill above the campus, and looked down at UMBC.

The land had been dug up everywhere. None of the three buildings was finished and there were no roads. I had taken a job at a university and there was no university. Could they start classes in the fall? And more important, if not, would I have a job? The first years at UMBC were notable because practically all of the faculty were new Ph.D.s like myself, and not much older than the students, who were mostly freshmen. There were faculty-student basketball games and faculty-student softball games. A faculty colleague was playing basketball in the gym, and saw a student playing basketball who had told him earlier that he had missed class because he was sick….

So many things had to be decided in the early days that we were creating the university as well as teaching and doing research. I found it very exhilarating and collegial, not bureaucratic. At the end of my second year at UMBC, I was walking across the campus and thought to myself, “I think I’ll be a college professor.”
Donna Hekler ’70: I was another one of those commuter students. We all were. There wasn’t a dorm…. So the cafeteria was really a melting pot, as you’ve heard. And I was sitting there one day with my tray and it’s full, ’cause everybody ate lunch in the cafeteria because that was the only place to eat.

So I’m standing there with my tray, looking around, going, “Oh, geez, it’s full. Where am I going to eat?” And I saw my girlfriend, Maria Adams, and she was eating with this sort of nice, distinguished-looking man. And I figured since she was in American Studies, and I was in English, he was probably one of her professors that I hadn’t met yet. And that was normal for the professors to come down and eat
with the students.

So I’m standing there with my tray. I walk over and look at Maria and this gentleman, and said, “Can I sit here?” So I put my tray down, you know, I’m eating lunch. And this gentleman looks at Maria, and says, “Maria, I don’t believe I’ve met this young lady yet.” She said, “Donna, this is Dr. Kuhn.” I went, “Oh my God – I’m eating lunch with the Chancellor of the University.” And I kind of checked myself, and I thought, “Oh, please manners, don’t fail me now.”

Dr. Kuhn wanted to know what these two freshmen, who had only been at the school for a few weeks, thought of our experience. And he wasn’t asking for us to say things he wanted to hear; he really wanted to know what was working, and more importantly, what wasn’t working. What needed to be changed? What did we think really needed more oomph? And as I look back on it, I realize that this is probably the first person of stature that ever listened to me. Really listened, truly wanted my opinion, and heard everything we said, and was willing to act on it. It was quite an amazing luncheon…. It took some grit to open this school, and if the faculty and the students and the staff were the grit, my friend, Dr. Albin O. Kuhn, was the greatness.

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, UMBC President: In 1992, Michael Hooker accepted a job in Massachusetts, and invited me to go with him. But somehow, UMBC was in my blood, and I knew I wanted to stay here in my role. And yet several faculty members came and said, “We’d like you to think about being our interim president.” I’ll never forget it. Came to my office and said, “You can do this.”

So I became the interim president, and it was a new role, and I felt very humble, but I was so excited. The economy, unfortunately, was in really bad shape. The resources got to the point where the regents decided they had to cut all budgets by millions and millions of dollars. And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, here I am president; what do I do?” Immediately, the regents had a major discussion about the future of each university. And what came through was that they decided which programs would be cut.

We, the presidents, had said, “Please let us make those decisions.” They said, “No.” They decided that a number of programs would be cut, including our fabulous theater program, our ancient studies program, our social work program….

What happened was this: the campus came together. They could’ve said, faculty against administrators, students against everybody else. Instead, when times are tough, and it’s about character, people come together. All of a sudden, social workers from all over the state were saying, “You cannot cut this program….” The faculty in ancient studies were able to get the head of the Greek Church of North
America to write a letter. And so when I went to talk to the regents, I was with God on my side. I want you to know that it was really powerful.

And I’ll never forget being fortified, because I kept thinking, “I wonder if what I say will determine whether I will keep this job?” Because I was so angry that we were treated that way. And I did say to the regents, some of whom I knew had children in very wealthy institutions. And I said to them, “Is it your thought that only rich kids should be exposed to Greek and Latin?” And faces turned red. You know, a lot of people turn red. I don’t, but a lot of people do, right? I said, “I am a strong believer that working-class people, middle-class people, should be exposed to the best, because they’re going to be the leaders, whether you like it or not.”

Amazingly, they listened to me. But then the most exciting part of all came. The [theatre] students took their creativity and decided to come before the Board of Regents. The students came in. All of a sudden it was quiet. They were all in black, and there was a coffin with Theater written on the side, and they put it down in front of the Board of Regents. And they just stood there in silence. It was the most powerful moment. But it said, “This is who we are. We come together as a community.”

The liberal arts are important. If it were not for what they did, we would not be sitting here today. Thank you.

Watch the entire “Retrieve Your Memories: Stoop Stories with the Fab Four and Friends” at 50.umbc.edu/weekendroundup.

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