By Jan Todd, Ph.D. (CLA ’74; M.Ed. ’76)
The late 1960s and early 1970s were turbulent times at Mercer University. With our troops fighting in Vietnam, marchers both for and against Civil Rights filling our nation’s streets, women demanding equality in the workplace, and the leaders of the counter-culture in full gallop, Mercer’s faculty had to face the same question that occupied universities throughout the United States—how could they make the curriculum and college life more relevant and meaningful? Many, perhaps most universities were not up to the task. But at quiet little Mercer University, a small core of Liberal Arts faculty decided that Mercer needed to do more than ponder the problem and write reports. They decided to undertake a grand experiment — to move learning from the classroom to the world at large, to work with students in small groups as mentors rather than lecturers, to involve older undergraduate students as assistant teachers and to give students some control over their own academic destiny. What they created was called the Experimental Freshman Program and, in the fall of 1970, 150 freshmen were invited to take part.
For many of those who participated, EFP was a life-changing experience. Instead of working their way through the standard required core courses, EFPers could take any classes they wished on a pass-fail basis for their first two years at Mercer, and the only regulation for graduation was that you had to have the right number of hours and a major in something. The program’s other departure from normal academia was that EFP students took a special seminar class each quarter — run by a faculty member and several older student aides – in which they talked about real world problems like poverty, race, bad schools and the environment. Perhaps the most important part of the program, however, was that many EFP students became friends with faculty members and older student assistants in ways that normally didn’t happen then in universities, and that rarely happen even now.
As to whether the effect of this grand experiment was either profound, long-lasting, or both, I offer in evidence the remarkable turnout we had when the word went forth to rally the troops on the yard once more. I take the position that it was largely because of the Experimental Freshman Program that approximately 100 people gathered just outside Macon at Camp Martha Johnson over the weekend of April 24 & 25 to celebrate the retirement from the Philosophy Department of former Assistant Dean Tom Trimble; to share their memories of recently-deceased Philosophy Department Chairman Ted Nordenhaug; and to give thanks to the other CLA faculty who played such important roles in the early years of the experimental program — Tom Glennon and Jean Hendricks in psychology; Mike Cass, and Jay and Diana Stege from the English department; former Dean of Students Joe Hendricks; Peter Brown from philosophy; Al Bond from sociology; Terry Todd from education; and Mercer administrators Bob Davies and Jerry Stone.
The idea for the reunion began following the unexpected death of Ted Nordenhaug on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004. As former students called one another to share the news of Dr. Nordenhaug’s passing, Martha Ham (CLA ’75), Bob Goodwin (CLA ’74) and I decided that we wanted to formally honor Dr. Nordenhaug’s contributions to our lives in some way. As we talked about the idea of holding a memorial service in Macon, we learned of Dean Trimble’s imminent retirement and realized, that if we could find a way to hold a two-day event, we could commemorate both milestones and have much more time to reconnect with our old student and faculty friends. We also decided — since Martha, Bob and I share majors in philosophy as well as our EFP experience – that we wanted to try to bring together not only our EFP friends but also our fellow philosophy majors and, of course, students from both before and after our years in Macon who had been close to professors Trimble and Nordenhaug.
Once we had our vision, we needed only two thing — a place to hold such a reunion, which we hoped would be fairly large, and a way to find our friends and classmates, most of whom we hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years. After considerable searching for the right spot, we settled on Camp Martha Johnson, owned by the Girl Scouts. The camp is located in Lizella, just outside Macon, and their extensive conference facilities were just what we needed. Attendees who wished could spend the night in the fully air-conditioned bunkhouse, while the conference rooms — with their state-of-the-art technology– were perfect for the two “formal” sessions held on the weekend.
Finding everyone we wanted to invite proved to be a bit more difficult. We started by contacting Raleigh Mann in the Mercer Alumni office and asking for his help. He graciously provided us with the names and addresses of the alumni he had on record from our years at Mercer. So, in early February, we did a mass mailing and started building our network. Then, using the internet, we began searching for our friends and classmates, and asked them to spread the word on to others. Ten years ago, we would not have found nearly as many people as we did. However, by working collectively, and using the net, we gradually built our mailing list to include many of the people who’d been involved in the early days of EFP and/or who were philosophy majors.
When we gathered for the memorial service for Ted Nordenhaug on Saturday, April 24, the room was filled to overflowing, as Dr. Nordenhaug’s former students and colleagues rose to the podium to share their memories of the man who shaped so many lives. Speakers at that ceremony included myself, Bobby Robbins (CLA 6_ ); Katie Cantwell Askier (CLA ’75); Martha Ham; Weyman Johnson (CLA ’73); Ted Cornwell; Tim Estes (CLA ’75), Dr. Charlie Thomas (CLA ’89), the current chairman of the Department of Philosophy; Jordan Nordenhaug, Dr. Nordenhaug’s 11-year-old grandson; Ben Brooks (CLA ’90) and Dr. Michael Cass, Director of the First Year Seminar Program, who sang several songs written by Dr. Nordenhaug.
Following the memorial ceremony, the group shared cocktails and a catered dinner and then watched a slide show of photographs a group of us had put together from our years in Macon. Prior to the gathering, we’d asked people to submit copies of their personal photos and so those present were able to see these plus a large number of images scanned from the Cauldron, which provided the opportunity for many chuckles and comments about how we all looked back in the day. Following the slides, the majority of the group gathered on the moon-lit deck while David Hibbert (CLA ’72); Tom Maddox (CLA ’71); Travis Trimble (CLA ’86); Stewart Trimble (CLA ’88, MD ’03); Mandy Meloun (CLA ’01, JD 2004); and Bill Ott played guitars and mandolins while the group sang along as we so often used to do.
On Sunday, the mood was considerably lighter. Before the Trimble Retirement Roast officially began, I told the large crowd in attendance that the weekend’s reunion was actually designed to honor all the faculty who’d worked with us years ago, not just Dean Trimble and Ted Nordenhaug, and I went on to explain that the reason we’d decided to hold the roast on Sunday afternoon was so that Joe Hendricks and his wife, Betty, could be present. (Dean Hendircks couldn’t attend Saturday’s activities since he was officiating at a wedding.)
Dr. Tom Glennon, the Reg Murphy Professor of Leadership at Mercer, presided at the roast, dressed with his trademark casual elegance. The roast got underway with a wonderful reminiscence by Erik Nordenhaug (CLA ’85) of the role Tom Trimble had played in his childhood. Erik’s memoir was followed by several hilarious stories from Bobbie Robbins, who first met Trimble in the early 1960s, just after Tom had joined the faculty. Patricia Nordenhaug then presented Tom with a stuffed turkey to make up for the fact that the weekend’s festivities were interfering with turkey-hunting season, a matter that had been much discussed by Dean Trimble when he learned of the planned event. Will Bushnell (CLA ’76) spoke next, and then the ceremony shifted to a long skit written and directed by Martha Ham which involved her, and at least 30 other attendees, entitled “The Tribunal of Tom Trimble.” David Hibbert, Ted Cornwell and Travis Trimble, attorneys in real life, brought “charges” against Dean Trimble on behalf of various students during the skit, and even Tom’s wife, Myrl, played a role in the spoof as the plot developed. The Dean was found guilty on all charges, and the crowd roared throughout the presentation as his former students and Martha’s version of a Greek chorus called the Dean to task for his many misdeeds.
Following the skit, a number of people related humorous and/or heartwarming stories about their own interactions with the Dean. Atlanta attorney Tom Maddox, for example, told the crowd that Trimble had unexpectedly helped him raise his own children. “When I had to punish my children,” Maddox told the group, “I reminded them of Trimble’s First Law, ‘If you get it, you need it.'” Katie Cantwell Askier, Tere Tyner Canzoneri (CLA ’75) and Susan Shipley (CLA ’75) presented Dean Trimble, Joe Hendricks and Ted Nordenhaug’s wife, Patricia, with satiric versions of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award for their various “contributions” to our education. Dr. Peter Brown, who taught philosophy in the early days of his career at Mercer, reminisced about his first meeting with Dean Trimble, while Drs. Charlie Thomas and Mike Cass added music to the program with a selection of songs written especially about Mercer and/or Tom Trimble. One surprise speaker was professional wrestler Mark Henry, a friend of the Trimble family, who suggested that the Dean should start a new career as his wrestling manager. This prompted Trimble to leap to his feet, to raise his finger in the air, and to extemporaneously “preach” to the laughing assemblage of the various dangers and pitfalls that might come with such a course. It was unquestionably the highlight of the afternoon.
It’s difficult to be objective about something you helped organize, of course, but I have the impression that most people seemed to think that the reunion was a success. I am certain about one thing. It allowed me (and others) to give long overdue thanks to the faculty who shaped and molded our academic and personal lives, and it also provided us with the chance to renew the friendships we forged with our former classmates and teachers during that Golden Age. As for the future, Bob Goodwin is exploring the possibility of establishing a scholarship fund in the name of Ted Nordenhaug, and Martha and I are already thinking about what should be done next. It seems clear that no one wants another 30 years to pass before we all get together again.
Jan Todd, Ph.D. teaches Sport Philosophy, Sport Ethics and Sport History at the University of Texas at Austin.