Columbia College Today: What was your experience at the College like?
Dr. G.J. “Dan” D’Angio ’43: It was a complete change from high school, but I think I fit in almost immediately because my brother [Carl D’Angio ’41] was there; I was following along behind him and he was my guide. What I remember is that we were wearing jackets and neckties in those days.
Bernie Weisberger ’43: You’re right about the formal dress; we wore jackets, ties and beanies and had classes that started at 8 a.m. The first teacher to make a big impression on me was Monsieur Clamens — I was taking elementary French — and he was always dressed to the nines, very dapper and very formal; it was a totally different experience from having a high school teacher. My overpowering memory of those years was that they were dominated by the war. We ’43ers entered in September 1939, just when the war was declared. For the first semester there was talk that it was a “phony war” and it made no impression on us — but then in the second semester, spring 1940, the Germans occupied Norway, Denmark and France. After that it was nothing but daily headlines of war. I had a sense that we were going to be in it sooner or later.
There was also a heady feeling of entering a very new world, which partly frightened me and partly elated me. A feeling of being on your own, of being an adult and of being introduced to a dazzling world of learning. For me it was because of two freshman courses — one was Humanities A and the second was the social science course, I can’t remember the name of it. Suddenly we were reading books at a level I had never read before — Greek plays, Plato, political classics like The Republic. Even now, I’m grateful for that first introductory year.
D’Angio: I tried to get involved with sports. I had been a fencer in high school, so I joined the fencing team and the rifle team, and I became coxswain on the lightweight crew team. All of that broadened the learning experience; I tried to do that because it was so easy to lose ourselves in all of the demands of the academic year. Incidentally, I look back on the first two years with tremendous admiration and fondness, but as far as our teachings were concerned, the world ended in Athens — we learned zero about the Indian subcontinent, the Far East, or Chinese and Japanese literature. My class was completely ignorant of that and to a certain extent I’ve had to teach myself.
Weisberger: Can I jump in on that comment? Now I remember the name of the other basic freshman course — it was Western Civilization. The assumption was that it was the only one. Although, because Columbia had some graduate programs in Asian cultures it meant that when Pearl Harbor occurred they could offer a freshman Japanese course. I was able to enroll in that and start on my military career as a Japanese translator. But it’s true, the world revolved around several European capitals.
CCT: What sort of changes have you seen to the campus?
D’Angio: The playing field was still there in front of Butler Library. Isn’t that right, Bernie?
Weisberger: I do indeed remember South Field, and I remember hearing the story that they played baseball there and that Lou Gehrig [Class of 1923] once hit a homerun that went all the way up the steps of Low Library.
D’Angio: And of course, 116th was still a street, so cars were running [through campus]. There have been some major physical changes since we were there, but fundamentally the quad is the same and all the rest are very much part of the scenery.
Weisberger: The other great divide was Broadway, which separated us from the Barnard campus. I only occasionally crossed that for social events. It was like a great wall.
D’Angio: I had some of the Barnard ladies in my fine arts class, so there was exchange at that time but not a lot of activity — the College certainly wasn’t coed; it was very much a male place.
CCT: Tell us more about how WWII affected life at the College.
Weisberger: It changed it considerably. Once Pearl Harbor occurred, right before the spring of my junior year, the Columbia campus became the scene of a V7 program to train deck officers. The campus was filled with students in Navy uniforms marching hither and thither. I did take two regular courses, but most of my studying efforts became focused on learning elementary Japanese. I was only on campus for three years but the faculty kindly gave you academic credit if you were in the armed services, and that enabled me to show up at Commencement in June ’43. I was stationed in Washington, D.C., and came to New York on a weekend pass. Dan, you were in the medical program, right?
D’Angio: That’s right, I was pre-med. Up until December 1941 we were just chugging along. I had exercised what was called the “professional option” so I could leave Columbia at the end of my third year, so I did that and went on to medical school. I spent very little time on the Columbia campus during the actual war years.
Weisberger: The war didn’t change the academic courses; they were still taught as if nothing was happening. I would go from reading the morning headlines about the fall of France to Professor [Jacques] Barzun [’27, GSAS’32]’s class, where we would talk about 19th-century literature. It was an odd transition between the real world and the world of scholarship. I always say the first two years of courses were my education and the rest were just add-ons.
D’Angio: Thinking back on it, we students were all shoulder to shoulder. There were no protests. There were, of course, people who avoided the draft, but there were no student protests against the war because the war had been foisted on us, unlike during the Vietnam years and the Korean War when the country was electively engaging in combat. The solidarity of the public and the students behind the government [during WWII] was palpable. There was also the bulwark that President Roosevelt provided. He and his team were there, and I for one believed they would pull us through.
CCT: Do you remember your dean?
D’Angio: Dean Hawkes!
Weisberger: Yes, Herbert Hawkes! He was a very well dressed and neat-looking man, and I remember that when we assembled the first Monday after Pearl Harbor he gave us a talk that sounded a little elitist but was actually very accurate. He said, ‘Don’t rush off and join the infantry; the Army will have need of various specialized talents that you’re developing here.’ He said, ‘Keep your nether garments in situ!,’ which translates as ‘Keep your pants on!’ That’s my major memory of Dean Hawkes!
CCT: Is there anything else you want to share?
Weisberger: With all the seriousness we’ve been talking about, I remember having a lot of fun. There was the tug of war between the freshman and sophomore classes — the losers were dragged through the stream of a hose. Unfortunately, I was on the losing team both years!
D’Angio: I would add my memory of getting on the subway and going up to Baker Field with the crew; we would finish a class and go to 215th Street and get in a boat and go out on the water. During the season we actually lived at Baker Field. That was a big boon to not have to pay the dormitory fee! We got up in the morning, got back on the subway to head down for classes and then repeated that throughout the season. It gave another dimension to the college experience for me, and I certainly enjoyed it. Thinking back on it, I was kind of stupid — I never really took advantage of the fact that we were in New York City.
I never went to a Broadway show, I never went to the Metropolitan Museum as a student. The campus enveloped us. For me, it was invisible boundaries — I just didn’t particularly want to go beyond the campus; I had enough to do there.
Weisberger: I lived off-campus, so I remember arriving at campus in the morning and leaving around 3:30. It was a great experience, but it’s always great to be young if you’re lucky.
CCT: We’re looking forward to seeing you both at reunion!
D’Angio: We’re looking forward to reunion — we’ll be there if we have two legs that function!