Dorm History

Ron Michener '71:

To cut to the chase, I was one of the original residents of Random Hall. Visiting your web page brought back a lot of memories. I have been to Boston only a few times since I graduated and while I have walked past Random I haven't been in it again. Back when I was there, the address was 282-290 Mass Ave. The entryway nearest the Tute was 282, and the one nearest central square was 290. Did they renumber it to give it but a single street address? I recall some midnight drunken discussion in 1968 that they ought to call the whole building 288 Mass Ave, since that would be exactly two gross.

The story about Bennett Cerf nixing our suggested name--"Random House"--is very true. I was there. You see, someone in the administration got the bright idea that the students ought to be permitted to name the new dorm. Now, if you want a short introduction to what the original Random crew was like, just watch Revenge of the Nerds. That was us. So you can imagine the politically incorrect suggestions we submitted to the administration. One that I still recall was "Whore House". We defended this suggestion as historically accurate. There used to be a dive of a bar just on the Central Square side of the building, known as the "U-City Bar". Rumor had it that Random had previously been a rooming house with a varied clientel, including prostitutes who hung out at the U-City Bar and brought their clients back to the rooming house to complete the transaction. This, and a great deal of wishful thinking on our parts, accounted for the "Whore House" suggestion. Of all the names we suggested, only Random House passed the morals test, and then Cerf got in the way. The administration, having tired of the game, finally just imposed Random Hall on us. However, in the years I lived there, I never heard a resident call it Random Hall. We all called it Random House.

Some of the residents printed a dorm newspaper. In the late 60s the Harvard Lampoon had printed a spoof of Playboy magazine which they called Pl*yb*y. Taking the hint from them, the newspaper was called the R*nd*m H**s* R*g. I threw away my copies, but perhaps some other old timer hung onto a few.

I described the original residents as the cast of Revenge of the Nerds and that is roughly accurate, with one exception. The first floor of 290 was architecturally different. Half was devoted to an apartment occupied by a dorm RA, the other half was carved up into dorm rooms for 6, rather than 7. For some reason, the six residents of the first floor of 290 were preppy, clean cut, socially adept, etc. They looked more like the bad guys in Revenge of the Nerds than the Nerds themselves. There was a term for these outliers. My best recollection is they were the "Odd 6" or "Queer 6" referring interchangably to the people or the first floor of 290. I recall practically no interaction between those 6 and the other residents.

Socially, we were a pathetic lot when we moved in in January of 1968. Most of the original residents were freshman who hadn't returned their housing forms early enough, and were thus put in whatever housing was not spoken for. The vast majority of those moving in that first semester were freshman, and my impression is that we had whole floors of socially inept virgins. One interesting thing that happened is that as the original residents got older, the flavor of the place changed. By 1970 or 1971, it was not unusual to bump into a woman in her underwear stolling out of the bathroom. The dorm hadn't gone coed: the residents had begun to grow up, some even had girlfriends, and some of the girlfriends ended up as defacto residents.

Speaking of nerds, there was a minor incident in the first year or so when someone had an old high school friend, then a student at Cal Tech, come to visit. The person took his friend on a campus tour, and at some point in the tour, they needed to know what time it was. They were over near East Campus and spotted an attractive young woman. The Cal Tech student walked up to her to ask what time it was. Apparently, he was unprepared for even this modest social interaction. He became hopelessly tongue-tied, turned beet red, then ran off in embarrassment. I remember the utter astonishment that swept the dorm along with this story that evening. THEY ARE WORSE THAN WE ARE! About this time the Globe published a survey on venereal disease at Boston area universities. Harvard had the highest rate; MIT the lowest. The MIT response was that we preferred quality to quantity, but I think it was closer to the truth to say that disappointingly few of us were at risk. The sexual revolution seemed to have gotten lost in the maze of streets up at Harvard Square, and not to have made its way down past Central Square. As you probably know, MIT in this era had only a handful of female students. A reciprocal program with Wellsley began in my second or third year, but initially there weren't enough Wellsley women taking part to make a dramatic difference in the atmosphere of MIT. It was almost as if one were attending an all male school.

It being the 60s, quite a bit of pot was consumed at Random. If anything more potent was in use, I was not aware of it. However, anyone with a working nose would have been aware of the aroma of marijuana. We even had a dorm drug dealer, who supplied all this pot. Since, for all I know, he is now running for president, I will omit mentioning his name. However, on one occasion he baked up a batch of Alice B. Toklas brownies (Brownie mix plus hashish) and left them in the third floor kitchen to cool. His unsuspecting roomate came in, saw the brownies, and without asking ate the entire batch. The brownie snatcher then hallucinated for three days. He described the situation as bizarre, since while he was hallucinating, he could simultaneously detach himself from the hallucination and see that it was not real. Afraid of what might happened if he walked around in that state, he spent the three days in bed.

Herman Quincy Witherspoon hasn't been mentioned. The institute required we all take a token humanities sequence in our first year. One resident (the brownie snatcher, in fact) resented that, and refused to attend any of his humanities classes. Nonetheless, he went to the final exam, hoping to be able to BS his way to a passing grade. As soon as the test was passed out, however, he saw that it was hopeless. The questions were too specific to fake. Too embarrassed to walk out of a huge exam room just 2 minutes into the test, he amused himself by writing a short story. The title, as I recall, was Black Bart and the Shootout at Dry Gulch. After a couple hours, he finished the story, wrote the ficticious name "Herman Quincy Witherspoon" on the test, and left. He listed a friend's professor as the instructor, and sent him to retrieve the test after the story got out in the dorm. The professor grinned as he passed back the test: "Very original. I wish I knew who it was so I could give him an A." Various folks from the dorm then amused themselves by attending large group exams in subjects like nuclear engineering they were not registered for, and turning in blue books filled with "The continuing adventures of Black Bart, and the shootout at Dry Gulch." To do so was known as "witherspooning an exam." Witherspoon even had an unofficial room - a closet on the third floor of 290.

Truth be told, the biggest depravity of the original Random house crew was card playing. Bridge and poker games were going on around the clock. I was a bridge player, and we would often have duplicate matches involving 16 people running until three or four in the morning. The two best bridge players were Steve Ligas and Everett Ayers, or "the walrus and the eggman" as they were known -- nicknames that would make some sense if you met them.

Another unusual incident. One of our housemates, in the summer after his freshman year, impregnated his girlfriend. Late in the fall semester of our second year they were wed. She was very young, no more than 14 or 15. They got an apartment in a married student apartment building across the street from Random, but they were constantly over at the dorm. The infant -- a little boy named Peter -- often ended up in the care of a group of bridge or poker players. Cross Three Men and a Baby with Revenge of the Nerds and you have the general idea. The girl in question, after several months, became enamoured of another fellow living at Random. There was a big hoo-haw about this, and some of the dorm residents wanted to declare her persona-non-grata in the dorm, but her new husband intervened and expressed his general satisfaction with the emerging relationship. I don't think any of us ever entirely figured out what that was all about. But the new boyfriend briefly moved into married student housing to live with them. The husband at some point moved out, and he actually spent his last couple years at MIT living in the Student Center Library and showering at the Cage. He continued to pay the rent on the apartment he no longer occupied. The girl and the new boyfriend eventually parted ways, too. Peter must be about 30 now. I and a lot of other old timers would be interested in knowing what became of him.

Is the Neccho (how do you spell that?) factory still in operation? When we lived there, there was a candy factory just one block down Mass Ave towards the institute. One of my distinct memory is the overpowering odor of the candy factory as we passed by ever day going to class.

Mike Linehan, who still lives in the greater Boston area, told me a story once of a reunion many years ago when a group of the original Random residents got drunk and decided to pay the old dorm a visit. They got into the building somehow, and tried to incite the residents to drunken mischief. The then residents were appalled at having their study hours interrupted, and threatened the interloppers with the police if they did not leave immediately. Chastened and stunned at declining academic standards of drunken debauchery, the original Random crew slunk away.

I could go on like this for far longer than anyone would want me to, but this is probably more than enough.

Ron Michener (Course 17, Class of 1971, 290, Room 313)

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