The day before I graduated from Lon Morris College, my friend and I took one final walk across the deserted campus. We completed finals on a Tuesday, graduation was held on a Saturday, so most students, even those participating in the commencement exercises, had gone home in advance of the ceremony. Only a handful of students remained on campus, mainly foreign students with no other place to go. A small group of us remained by choice, trying to prolong the inevitable, saying farewell to a place that impacted our lives in a powerful way.
Dr. Frank Thornton, the Vice-President of the school, spotted us and motioned us over to talk to him. We spent the next thirty minutes in his office discussing our future plans. Before leaving, he reached out to shake both of our hands and told me that considering my experiences on campus, he looked forward to one day reading my memoir of my “sojurn mid the Pines.”
I’ve tried several times before to put down on paper what my experiences at Lon Morris College meant to me, but struggled to find the words without sounding trite or cliché. Considering that the college as we knew it ceases to exist, I felt it only fair that I complete Dr. Thornton’s last assignment to me.
While Americans can’t take credit for inventing the idea of higher-education, we certainly perfected the idea of college. We took a system long reserved for the meritocracy in most cultures and opened it up for anyone willing to fill out a FAFSA and enrollment form.
As a result, millions of Americans celebrate college as a right-of-passage, a transformative time of experimentation and exploration that sometimes ends with a degree. Others rush through the process, treating college as glorified vocational school, hoping to gain the skills necessary to land a good paying job, but in between the two extremes lies a third group of college students, those seeking to allow this ephemeral experience to enact permanent change, as they devote themselves to the studies of a classical education rooted in the humanities, while seeking to find themselves along the way.
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be part of this third way.
My parents began preparing my sister and me for college at an early age, taking us on improvised campus tours any time we visited a town with a college or university. By first grade, I had visited every school in the old Southwest Conference, with the exception of the two geographic outliers (Arkansas and Texas Tech), as well as countless smaller colleges throughout the South.
Methodist colleges and universities figured heavily into the Ellis Family Tour, making stops at SMU, Southwestern, Centenary, and Wylie College.
Somewhere in the late 80’s, on our way to College Station for an A&M football game, my dad made a slight detour through Jacksonville, Texas, to show us yet another school affiliated with the UMC, Lon Morris College.
With the exception of Texarkana Community College, it was the smallest college I had ever seen, encompassing only four blocks, comprised of only a handful of buildings. To say that I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. By the time were back on Highway 79, my sister and I both made it clear neither one of us would ever attend Lon Morris, under any circumstance.
As I grew older, and our campus visits grew more serious, I narrowed my college search down to two schools. Sensing what I interpreted as a “call from God,” and curious of exploring the ministry as a vocation, I kept SMU on my short list for its ties to Perkins School of Theology. But by the end of my junior year, it became apparent that I would follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather, becoming a third generation Aggie.
Right before the start of my senior year, one of my closest friends began talking about Lon Morris. Like me, he was Methodist. Like me, he was exploring a call to the ministry. He told me about the several thousands of dollars in scholarships the school offered him and told me about the school’s Church Careers program, which seemed perfect for the both of us.
The way he presented it, Lon Morris didn’t sound that bad—a great place to get the basics out of the way and, with the scholarships, a great value. Plus, the thought of living in a real dorm, with all of the modern luxuries of home, and a roommate I knew, seemed enticing, especially when compared to the spartan quarters I would call home if I were to be a part of the Corps at A&M.
By October of 1996, he convinced me to do the unthinkable, turn my back on A&M and commit to LMC.
In August of 1997, just two weeks prior to scheduled move-in, my friend backed out on me. The thought of having to start college on my own, at the college I vowed to never attend, scared the shit out of me. At least at A&M I would have had a host of friends from my high school class starting the transition with me. Now, I was forced to face college on my own.
On August 17, 1997, I moved into Fair Hall on the campus of Lon Morris College, I had no clue whether or not I would be assigned another roommate, but sure enough, when I walked into my room there was one waiting for me.
He brought exactly one duffel bag, which he stuffed on top of three cases of ramen noodles on the shelf in his closet, and the stereotypical bikini-clad-girl-on-a-motorcycle poster, which he affixed next to his bed. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and walked out the door. It would be two weeks before I would see him again, as he stumbled into our room heavily intoxicated one night. Later that night, I awoke to him standing naked next to the door, complaining about the need to piss. I opened up the door and pushed him out into the hallway, where he slept the rest of the night.
Luckily, one of my suite mates turned out to be a higher quality individual. He walked through the bathroom, into my room, and introduced himself to my parents and me. He told us his name was “Michael” and then proceeded to help me unpack my things, as my parents went on their way. A few minutes later, a tall, lanky guy in glasses appeared at my door. He told us his name was Eric, but that folks back home called him “White Chocolate,” because of his basketball skills.
Eric and I turned out to be from the same small little community in Northeast Texas. He attended my high school’s cross town rival and while we knew many of the same people, we had never met. We also learned that all three of us would be participating in the Church Careers program. Needless to say, this helped to calm my nerves.
That night, the school held its Opening Convocation at the Cox Memorial Chapel, the landmark building on campus, which all students were “strongly encouraged to attend.” This meant it was compulsory, without being compulsory, or you better be dying or have someone in your family dying, in order to miss. Michael, Eric, and I made our way into the chapel and took our seats.
The processional began with a rousing version of Bach’s Ein Feste Burg, with professors marching down the aisles in their robes and hoods. It was easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, but I still felt a disconnect. After a few hymns and some liturgy, the President of the school took to the podium to address the students. Like a real life Ricky Roma, he launched into his “hard sell” of Lon Morris College, a speech we had all heard during the recruiting process.
He spoke with a stutter, which miraculously disappeared when he sang. An ordained Methodist minister, he was famous, or infamous depending on how you viewed him, for his “singing sermons” he would often deliver whenever the college choir would travel to local churches. Never one to shy from self-promotion, he often set up his own merch table at school events, including Opening Convocation, to sell his cassette tapes and audio CDs.
As he closed his speech, he reflected on his own days as a Lon Morris student—the “not only am I the hair club president, but also a member” moment. He claimed those to be the best days of his life and that the friends he met while as a student remained his closest friends to that day. If we allowed it, he stressed, Lon Morris could be the same for us.
We left the convocation that night empty handed. While we really wanted to hear his cover of “I Can Love You Like That,” we walked out the doors of the chapel without any CDs or tapes, and without believing word of what he had said about the magic of Lon Morris.
An upperclassman stopped us as we headed back towards our dorm and asked if we wanted to ride with her to a party. We didn’t need much convincing and soon found ourselves in the back of a Ford Taurus cruising down a one-lane blacktop in the middle-of-nowhere. The entire trip the upperclassman told us how much she hated LMC, while Michael, Eric, and I mocked the President’s speech.
Doubts, Even Here
After the first month, I was ready to come home. In spite of the close friendships I formed, my college experience felt like an extension of high school. My courses neither challenged me, nor inspired me. While the school required almost all students to live on campus, it was a ghost town by noon on a Friday, with most students leaving for their parents’ homes, eschewing the cafeteria’s usual offering of pigs’ feet and mash, for a home cooked meal, or the chance to do some laundry.
Those of us involved in Church Careers, choir, or theatre didn’t have that luxury, since we were usually involved with practices or performances on the weekends.
“A&M wouldn’t be like this,” I thought, and immediately began plotting my escape. Since I missed the Spring transfer deadline, I decided to move home, take classes at Texarkana College, and then slide into A&M the Fall of ’98.
Towards the end of that first semester, Peter Hoheisel, the celebrated poet and English professor, gave the assignment that forever changed my life. It required us to partner up for a unique interpretation and criticism of a classic. My partner, Chad, and I began working on a modern day film adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. We enlisted the help of the school’s theatre department to help. It was my first time meeting most of these people and it felt like I had found a home.
Throughout its history, Lon Morris College made a name for itself producing preachers and performers, with graduates going to hold high ranking positions in the Methodist episcopacy and other alums winning Tonys, Grammys, and Emmys.
I fell somewhere between the two. In fact, I often remarked there wasn’t much difference between them. When I preached, I felt as if I were learning a script, taking on a character, and then putting on a show. Growing up in the Methodist church, I found the Methodist style of preaching to be boring and a bit pedantic, especially when compared to the aggressive, in your face approach of the televangelist and tent revivalist.
For thirty minutes, I would strut around the front of a church, doing my best to imitate these preachers. I learned to mimic their diction and cadence; I learned when to remove my coat and when to wave my Bible. Most importantly, I learned how to encourage the crowd, soaking up their “amens,” the way an actor absorbs the applause.
As I began to reflect on my first semester at college, I saw clearly the internal metamorphosis sparked by my time at Lon Morris, filled with both learning moments and personal growth. I learned 8 a.m. is too early for any class, especially one involving the Old Testament. The passion shown by the Doctors Ross for their respective academic disciplines instilled in me a thirst for knowledge yet to be quenched. While I certainly wasn’t ready to abdicate my faith, I knew my “call” lay elsewhere and it was time to give up the show.
The theatre crowd fostered this evolution and encouraged me to find myself. For a brief moment college began to make sense, but it was too late.
After completing my finals, the last thing I had to do to complete my transfer was to have the President sign my transfer card. As he handed the card back to me, he shook my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Josh, we’d love to have to you back, should you change your mind.” A few months later, I’d take him up on the offer and he would rue the day he ever made it.
(This is the first in a series on my life at Lon Morris College. Please be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2)