How We Survived in the Communications Desert of Our College Years

While today’s Ephs are said to exist in the Purple Bubble during their Williamstown years, they nevertheless live their undergraduate lives in the era of telecommunications miracles and global interconnectedness.  In contrast, although we of the Class of 1968 thought we were living in an era of space age technology, the communications tools personally available to us were quite basic and limited.  Students came to college usually equipped only with a radio, and perhaps a stereo phonograph (or, in some cases, a reel-to-reel tape recorder).

We had grown up at a time when remote, person-to-person communication was conducted only by telephone and snail mail; when news and information were available through radio, television (provided exclusively by the three major broadcast networks), newspapers, weekly news magazines, books, and library microfiche; and when entertainment (other than live events) was accessed through radio and television, long-playing records and movies, and books and magazines.

Nevertheless, student life, then as now, depended upon effective communication links. In our day our most basic needs of this nature were maintaining contact with family members and friends outside of Williams; contacting dates/girlfriends; and finding transportation for rides to women’s colleges, rides to and from home for breaks and summers, perhaps, travel to and from spring break vacations, or even, for a few, junior year abroad.

For our college generation, personal phones in the rooms were exceedingly rare, and usually locked by a key.  On campus there were a limited number of pay telephones, which required exact change (indeed, in the case of long-distance calls, lots of it). Although slow, the postal service was an important communications link to the outside world, and the arrival of mail at Baxter Hall and the residential houses was an anticipated daily occurrence of great importance.  It provided everything from news from parents, siblings, and hometown friends, to love/shootdown letters, and the announcement of grades and warnings from the college administration.

The other major communications medium in our undergraduate lives was the bulletin board at Baxter.  This provided an unregulated marketplace for the sale of goods and services which would have made Milton Friedman proud, as well as display space for announcements about student activities.  In addition, the all-important ride board section, as supplemented by telephone calls to the houses during mealtimes when seeking rides, enabled our romantic lives to flourish (or wither), and it also provided us with economical transportation home.

Televisions were only found in the “tube rooms” of Baxter Hall and the residential houses, which became popular gathering places and social crossroads. By our senior year, trendy offerings like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In were big tube room draws, and we experienced the tumultuous national events of the first half of 1968 on the communal TV sets.

Daily newspapers and periodicals were available in Stetson, and the Williams Record was distributed around campus.

Of course, these communication tools only provided us with the means to contact others or stay in touch with what was happening in the outside world. Lacking today’s devices for social messaging, we actually had to talk to one another in person at school.  For young adult males, who are prone to be the less communicative human gender anyway even in face-to-face encounters, the absence of today’s social media, which reduces face-to-face encounters, was probably a good thing.

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