story by Rachel Holdmeyer / photography by Jeganaath Mudaliar
In light of the new university policy banning all tobacco on campus this fall, I sat down with Dr. Frank Nickell, associate director of the State Historical Society of Missouri and former professor, to investigate the bans in our past and the context behind them. I soon learned Beaumont wasn’t the only place needing to cut footloose, and no man could hold back the force that was the 1960s.
The 1920s were roaring with lively beats and fresh perspective following World
War I. Jazz, born in the wide open city of New Orleans, became the sound of the decade as musicians from the city traveled up the Mississippi to Chicago and other destinations, including Cape Girardeau. It quickly became a phenomenon across the nation.
With jazz came the Charleston, wild dancing, bras and bobs. Hair wasn’t the only thing losing length. A shortage on cloth resulting from the war meant shorter dresses for women. The new attire was liberating for those who were tired of the harsh restrictions before and during the global conflict. Particularly rebellious young ladies became known as flappers, but today we might refer to them as modern women.
Traditional Americans were appalled by the behavior of young men and women. In attempts to regain control and reinstate their values, jazz was banned in many parts of the country and dancing to jazz was banned in over 60 cities. Where dancing did occur, chaperones were present and administered warning cards to those who danced too obscenely.
Meanwhile at a former normal school in Cape Girardeau, a verdict was made by the Board of Regents regarding the fate of President Washington Strother Dearmont. Dearmont transformed Southeast from a teachers college to a four-year college with majors beyond just education. Students enjoyed him and enrollment tripled. However, Dearmont’s views were fairly progressive for the time period, which troubled Louis Houck, president of the Board of Regents, and the rest of the very conservative board. Despite a successful presidency, the board fired Dearmont in 1921, much to the dismay of students. In protest, students hung and burned the Board of Regents in effigy on the steps of Academic Hall. They refused to let anyone enter Academic that day, referred to now as Dearmont Day.
President Joseph Archibald Serena, whom the Board of Regents knew shared their ideals, replaced Dearmont. Serena was an ordained Disciples of Christ minister who believed moral education is equally as important as academics and that college existed to both educate and uphold traditions. By the time he settled in Southeast, he had already been witness to the horrors of women performing shimmies and grinds in New York and other parts of the country. He was not about to let such debauchery take place on his campus, so he banned dancing.
Apparently Serena didn’t get the memo that college was supposed to be a good time. Not to fret though; students could look forward to the assemblies about morals and proper behavior each week in Academic Auditorium. These gatherings were made extra fun with assigned seating.
I know what movie fans are probably thinking: “When does Kevin Bacon come in?” While there is no role for Kevin Bacon to play in this story, keep in mind that this was the 1920s, and they roared for a reason. During the time of prohibition, speakeasies and a clash between traditional values and new morality, the youth-gone-astray knew the secrets of the underground dance scene; that, and campus regulation didn’t restrict the rest of Cape. Serena’s ban wasn’t stopping legs from flailing and bodies from shimmying. By the end of his presidency and the turn of the next decade, Serena realized he could no longer fight the student body, so he succumbed to the fever and lifted the ban on dance.
President Walter Winfield Parker succeeded President Serena in 1933. After serving 23 years, Parker retired in 1956 and was replaced by President Mark F. Scully, the first Southeast alumnus to serve as president.
Despite a couple decades between their presidencies, Scully shared Serena’s view that traditions and morality are equally as important as the academic experience. Scully attended Southeast during the latter half of Serena’s presidency, so perhaps this is not astonishing, or maybe Scully had two left feet.
Not one for smooth moves, Scully instead enjoyed riding his horse around campus. One night on patrol, he made the mistake of riding around the dormitory, Cheney Hall. There he found young men kissing their lady friends. Distraught over this, Scully did something drastic: he banned kissing. Anyone caught kissing was subject to expulsion. As outrageous as that sounds, it doesn’t stop there. He also banned holding hands, smoking and alcohol. Scully caught some national attention for this when Readers Digest wrote a story about the man who tried to ban kissing on a college campus. It does make quite the headline.
Kissing? Students weren’t even allowed to walk on the grass! Doing so without avoiding Scully’s watchful eyes would equate to a scolding and a lecture. Dr. Nickell recalled the story of one unlucky graduate assistant. The grad assistant had just gotten married and was fresh from the move to Cape. Every morning, he and his wife would ride together in their pickup to drop him off for the day. When he exited the vehicle, he would turn and kiss his wife goodbye. On one unfortunate morning, Scully witnessed this and pulled the grad assistant into his office where he was lambasted for his lack of appropriate conduct. There’s nothing like being the new guy and getting reprimanded by your boss’ boss.
Similar to Serena’s assemblies in Academic, Scully held social affairs with coffee and teas designed to teach students etiquette. Yet coffee and tea did not quench the desire for physical human contact. Students, resourceful as ever, snuck around or simply hung out elsewhere in Cape Girardeau. A popular spot for shenanigans became the dome of Academic Hall, so it should come as no surprise that Scully closed the dome.
Another view of Scully’s, akin to Serena’s dated morality, was the idea that women should not be an enticement to men. Thus, women had to be wearing nylons and dresses on campus, a policy that extended to faculty. However, it only takes one fed up woman to round up her troops and revolt. Such was the case when a group of women employees collectively marched up the steps of Academic sporting slacks. They didn’t make a show of it; instead they went about work as usual, opting for their silent statement to speak volumes. The message was received by Scully, who said nothing of the women’s obstinacy.
Turning a blind eye became an increasingly common practice by Scully with the change in decade. His stark traditionalism could not compete with the new morality of the 1960s or the influx of students from St. Louis who brought that morality to Southeast. Dances were held in Academic with use of tobacco, alcohol and even marijuana. Far from etiquette soirées, these wild parties were a culmination of Scully’s nightmares. Scully, though not feeling the love, reluctantly began allowing changes to occur.
Today we can dance to our hearts content; we even have a major dedicated to it. Kissing is common, and the grass is a place to play with puppies or a helpful shortcut when rushing to class. Just don’t light up a cigarette.
With the bans and stifling policies of the past being rejected and redacted, is the ban on tobacco doomed to fail?
Although too soon to tell, it has a fair chance of success. Two aspects set it apart from the ban on dancing and the ban on kissing. First, prohibiting smoking follows national trends instead of fighting against them. Study after study confirms the dangers of tobacco smoke for both smokers and the non-smokers around them. Anti-smoking messages have circulated throughout the country, and the population of tobacco smokers has decreased to the lowest percentage in decades. Banning tobacco is taking a step forward, not an attempt to pull back.
Second, the ban on smoking is not made without the consent of students. Surveys were administered and discussions were held to hear the varying opinions of the student body. The new policy is what the majority agreed they wanted.
We’ll wait and see if the ban sticks, but until then, strap on your dancing shoes and take that special someone out on the town, or rather, the lawn, because no one is banning your fun-loving spirit.
*Special thanks to Amber Marisa, Assistant Professor of Theatre, Costume Design; Kat Kreutz, hair and makeup artist; Bethany Whitehouse and Sean Seifert (1920s); and Alyssa Wolf and Ryan Adolph (1950s) for their help capturing the decades.
November 02, 2017
November 02, 2017
November 02, 2017