First Steps Outside My Comfort Zone
As early as I can remember I was destined to go to RPI, or “THE RPI” as we called it in “THE Burgh”. My Grandmother, Nana, was a cook in RPI's Sage Dining Hall. RPI garnered a lot of respect in the Burgh. I dare say that most families in the Burgh would have been pleased to have their son or daughter attend RPI.
I was fortunate enough to be accepted at RPI, entering the Math program in 1964. But RPI was more than academics. It presented me with a more diverse look at life than I had experienced in the Burgh.
Lansingburgh in the 1960's was a working class community: Catholic, Protestant and white. Attending RPI as a freshman opened my eyes to a more diverse society. RPI's diversity was still limited in many ways because most of the students came from well-to-do, educated families, especially the students from New York City. But RPI provided me with the opportunity to live and interact with an internationally diverse group of young people.
At RPI, I also met students from our area: Watervliet, Latham, Albany. One of my fraternity roommates, Dan, was from Watervliet. We are still close friends today. In 1965, I met my wife Terri who grew up in Latham. She still needles me about my lack of knowledge of anything outside of the Burgh. I argue that we had everything we needed in the Burgh. Although we occasionally ventured into the City (Troy), my adventures were pretty much limited to those areas served by the Fifth Avenue Bus Company. For me and many of my friends, there was really no need to cross the river.
I lived on campus as a freshman, in Bray Hall. Tom Burke, Lansingburgh '64, was my roommate and a close friend from high school. Tom and I helped each other make the transition from our isolation in the Burgh to college. Our next door dorm neighbor was Georges from Cuba and his roommate was from New Jersey.
The Phalanx Freshmen Mixer was part of the RPI freshman orientation. The RPI Phalanx Society was, and still is, a service and leadership honor society at RPI. Phalanx members are the crème de la crème of the RPI students. The Phalanx Society sponsored the annual Freshmen Mixer. This was a required event for all RPI freshmen and, in 1964, the event was held in the Field House. Seven hundred RPI freshmen sat on one side of the Field House and the other side consisted of seven hundred Russel Sage, Skidmore, Albany State and Saint Rose freshmen girls. Although my RPI class had about 20 females out of over 700 students, I can't recall how they were accommodated at the mixer, but since they all lived off campus at Sage, I believe they were included with the 700 girls.
In 1964, RPI freshmen were nerds and geeks before the terms were even invented. We were called "tools" back then. Pocket protectors and slide rule holsters were part of our normal garb. Women were a low priority in our lives, although that would change for some of us during our four years at RPI.
At the Phalanx Dance, each freshman had a number. Supposedly, dates were matched by age and height. Funny, since we were all freshmen and about the same age. When your number was called, you walked to the center of the hockey rink and met your "Phalanx Date".
The Phalanx Dance was a big thing for us, a real diversion from the grind of class work. Even a “tool” needed diversion. My date was a nice girl from Saint Rose. I feel bad that I can't recall her name. I do remember that she was from South Troy. Although the details of our first "date" at the Phalanx Dance are sketchy, I do remember that we had a good time. It helped that we were both from Troy, albeit from opposite ends. We dated a couple of times after the dance.
Our last date was at a Bob Dylan concert at the Troy Armory in February 1965. This was a blanket concert and tickets were $2. Dylan's set list included “The Times They Are A'Changing” and “With God on Our Side”. Dylan was always a favorite of mine and we both enjoyed the concert. To this day, I remain a Dylan fan. My daughter and I danced to Dylan's “Forever Young” at her wedding in 2010.
Now, I finally come to the Burgh connection of this story. All through high school we had dances at the Burgh. It seems like we had a dance very week, sponsored by one of our organizations. Sometime in the fall of 1964, my freshman year at RPI, Lansingburgh High held a dance for alumni. I think this dance was near Thanksgiving or Christmas to accommodate alumni who would be home for the holidays. I invited my Phalanx Date to this dance.
My date, I'll call her Mary, lived in South Troy. The streets in South Troy are named for our Presidents, starting in order with Washington, just south of Liberty. I think Mary lived somewhere around Polk, the last presidential street in South Troy. To me, South Troy was another country and not a friendly one. It was far south of downtown Troy. I was uncomfortable the night I picked up Mary in South Troy. I parked as close as I could to Mary's house and picked her up, hiding the stress I was feeling.
Mary and I had a good time at the alumni dance. Part way through the dance, we took a walk on the streets around the high school. We walked down by the river. Mary seemed anxious and confessed that she was frightened walking around North Troy, not a friendly place.
In just a few months, I had learned that leaving THE Burgh, going to THE RPI and dating a girl from South Troy were nothing to fear.
Bill Lorensen, Lansingburgh '64