A Room with a (Beloit) View
Its uniqueness rests in its canted bay window and the broad perspective it offers of Middle College, the World Affairs Center, the mounds, the Beloit College sign, and College Street. Through that window, the seasons of life can be traced on campus: families looking for the Admissions Office; students finding that mound which offers special inspiration; parents showing up at dawn to get a good seat for Commencement; alumni embracing classmates at Reunion; visitors trying to find Flood Arena or the residence halls (or delivery vehicles seeking 700 College St., which is merely a mailing address). The view changes daily, and while the styles vary, the pattern is predictable.
For 16 years, I have been fortunate to occupy this piece of real estate—Apartment A, first floor, in the Blaisdell Guest House, at 645 College St. on the corner where Chapin and College Streets merge. Most people on campus are unaware of its very existence. It is a much re-worked 1855 farmhouse that was saved more than once from the wreckers by historically minded members of the college community.
I have nice neighbors in the Bierman family across the street and a campus security officer upstairs. That’s about it. Most of the time, it’s pretty quiet.
Apartment A has provided a portal to life at Beloit—literally and figuratively.
On the literal side are the frequent surprise visits to Apartment A by parents, potential students, faculty, and others who, late at night, have found the back door the perfect entrance to the campus. Every couple of weeks, somebody wanders into the kitchen seeking directions or information. From my study (where the annual Mindset List is worked and reworked) it sounds like somebody returning home, and I anticipate hearing “Hi, I’m home.” Most visits ended in a good conversation, if not a bite to eat.
But the people who attended the dinners and receptions here during the time that I worked for the college were most memorable. There were large parties that brought town and gown together for everything from pizza before Folk ’n’ Blues, to a tie-dyed reception preceding a concert by Arlo Guthrie and champagne before the Beloit-Janesville Symphony.
Some events stood out. A dinner for a Chronicle of Higher Educationreporter drew so many people to talk about teaching that we had to keep adding seats and then even a couple of tables when the numbers got out of control.
And then, in the fall of 2000, rumors swirled that Bei Dao, Beloit’s Mackey Professor of Creative Writing, would be the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature. Bei Dao had been on many short lists for the Nobel for several years. That year, the word was that the Swedish Academy would recognize a Chinese writer. Anticipation increased when the Associated Press showed up and said they were going to stick around to find out what developed.
Now a Nobel Prize may be huge for the recipient, but introducing a Nobel laureate to the media is a dream for a PR guy. We started planning. We talked to local Chinese chefs to arrange a Chinese buffet if needed, to be delivered to Moore Lounge at 5 a.m. We made sure rooms and sound were available. We prepared a dinner and invited some reporters and faculty along with Bei Dao, who was living upstairs in Apartment D.
Cocktails, and then dinner, and then a lot of wine and brandy took us into the early hours as we awaited the phone call. Bei Dao went to his apartment so he would be close to his college extension.
The message came early in the morning that the Nobel had indeed gone to a Chinese writer, but it was Gao Xingjian, a novelist and dramatist.
There were many other nights at the dinner table and in the kitchen with Billy Collins, William Least Heat-Moon, Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray, countless string quartets and guitarists, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the NIU Jazz Band, author Gerald Posner, art dealer and Antiques Roadshow authority John Buxton, and a very long night that exhausted the bar and most of the guests trying to keep up with the late English writer and literary critic Christopher Hitchens.
Now, I am giving up the room with a view, and the bright red dining room and gold living room walls will soon be sealed beneath (several coats) of off-white. I bent the kitchen counter using it as a bar, and the carpet could use some work. And the Eaton Chapel bells—loathed by poets, cursed by overnight visitors, and questioned for the first week or two by each new college president—will no longer measure my life in 15-minute increments as they have since I set foot on campus in 1996.
But the bay window’s awesome view of the campus will continue to inspire warm reactions and devotion to the college for a fortunate new resident.
It has been a pleasure to live and serve here.
Ron Nief is director of public affairs emeritus for Beloit College and co-author of the Beloit College Mindset List. He left Apartment A this fall for a new home in Madison, Wis.