Tradition and Change at Transylvania

Every so often, I hear of a big change at my alma mater. A newspaper article, the alumni magazine, or a piece of gossip from a friend clues me in to something new and different at the old school. Sometimes it's interesting and exciting. Sometimes, it's perplexing. And, more often than not, it just feels a little unsettling. That just isn't how things are supposed to be.

via Transylvania University.
These days, many new and exciting things are happening at the school.  Last spring, Transylvania University welcomed its 25th President, R. Owen Williams, amidst much fanfare. This year's incoming class, the first who'll matriculate fully under the Williams Administration, were recently welcomed (three weeks earlier than we began the school year in the '90s!) with a formal induction ceremony and a commemorative coin.  It's a far cry from our orientation weekend dances and move-in days, that's for sure. Every time I hear of a change, I immediately rehash my findings with my beau with a little disbelief: Can you believe they're doing things that way? It certainly isn't how it was done when we were in school.  

Sometimes, I'm elated to hear of fun little changes to The Transy Way; the UK-TU basketball series is fast becoming a tradition among my friends.  Sometimes, my reaction to the changes comes out of a true desire to learn more. I'm interested to hear the mechanics of the new "August term": How does it impact GPA and tuition rate? How will three weeks of freshman-only classes impact the campus socially and academically? I approached the dramatically abbreviated recruitment plan with trepidation, for some of my fondest college memories involve late-night voting sessions and long hours of planning and practicing those over-the-top rush skits.   And, I suppose, some of my reactions are simply a by-product of my own era. When I heard of the school's quidditch team, I imagine my reaction came across a lot like Dame Maggie Smith's famous Dowager Countess line: "What ... is ... a week-end?" It was simply something so far out of my field of experience that I didn't know what to make of it. The truth is, I just want to believe that things will always be exactly the way I left them. 

I like to believe this is the last moment that Transy made any changes.
 Most of us have built a lot of our self-image around our school years. "I majored in Political Science", "I was a Phi Mu"; these choices stick with us for a lifetime. Our school years were momentous and filled with hope and unlimited potential. For most of us, the worst thing that happened in college was a grad school rejection letter or a bad breakup. We didn't yet know the banal realities of mortgage applications and entry-level jobs. We hadn't yet dealt with true disappointment and loss. We were young and perfect and unformed. High school had been about preparing ourselves to study, and professional school would be about preparing ourselves for real life, but college was about learning how to think and how to be. There's something magical about that, and it's only natural to want to preserve those years in amber, pulling out lovely memories on special occasions.
I spent four years locked in this basement.

From the moment you enter Transylvania's campus, you're immersed in over two centuries of culture and history and tradition.  Everywhere you turn, there's a reminder of famous names of Lexington's past -- the troublesome architect Shryock brothers, the mad genius Constantine Rafinesque, the infamous Belle Brezing.  It's easy to lose yourself in the idea that things have always been the same at old TU.  But, it's simply not true.  My Transy experience is undoubtedly different than John Marshall Harlan's was in the 1850s, or Ned Beatty's in the 1950s.  And, as a friend and fellow alumna recently reminded me, my experience is a good bit different than the current students'.  To be fair, I suppose most Transy kids aren't listening to Nirvana and wearing plaid Abercrombie shirts these days.  And that's a very good thing.

A couple of years ago, I found myself at a wedding reception at Graham Cottage, Transy's alumni house. As the festivities drew to a close, I jokingly texted some Transy girlfriends that I was thinking of crashing some fraternity parties while I was on campus. It was Saturday night, after all. Now, of course I knew that none of the guys on the halls wanted to deal with a thirty-something retired sorority girl busting up in one of their parties. Nor did I think that my palate was exactly up to the bitter, hoppy notes of Natural Light or Milwaukee's Best. (An anthropology thesis could be written on the complexities of each fraternity's choice of crappy beer, but that's another story for another time...) Sitting in Graham Cottage, looking out the window at the dorm-dwellers gearing up for Saturday night, I felt like I was 21 again -- young and carefree and pretty. (OK, probably not as pretty as I thought. See, e.g., Natural Light.) I didn't want to think about the fact that some classmates' dreams came true, while others' didn't. I didn't want to recall that a few folks aren't still with us. It was a convenient fiction to tell myself that the parties were going on just as I remembered. It's simply nicer to believe that things are exactly as I left them.

The Commonwealth's Spookiest College

Transylvania.  Is that a vampire college?


Ok, now we've got that out of the way.  Lexington's Transylvania University -- the two hundred thirty-one year-old private liberal arts college nestled in the oldest part of downtown -- is the alma mater of actor Ned Beatty , Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, and  author James Lane Allen.  It's also where Sarah and I both earned our undergraduate degrees. 

Transylvania University was founded in 1780.  Kentucky was still part of Virginia, and Bram Stoker's legendary vampire novel wouldn't be written for another one hundred seventeen years.  Transylvania Seminary, as its earliest Boyle County incarnation was known, took its name from the short-lived Transylvania Colony.  Both the colony and the Romanian region derived their names from the Latin for "across the woods."

When I was selecting a college, I chose Transy for its small class size and its remarkably high acceptance rates to professional schools.  As a Transy student, I was less than amused by all the vampire crap.  Puns and cheesy jokes have never really been my thing.  The only problem  is that the college itself has embraced its spooky ties.  Transylvania -- the one on North Broadway -- does Halloween remarkably well.

The Curse plays a big role in Transy's connection to the macabre. Professor Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who taught at Transy from 1819-26, was widely regarded as both a genius and a trouble-maker.  Teaching Italian and French as well as his field of expertise, Botany, Rafinesque was responsible for the discovery of thousands of genera of plants and hundreds of Native American sites.  He even briefly served as the University's librarian.  By all accounts, though, he was an erratic and arrogant lecturer.  He seldom showed up for class, and he argued with his colleagues constantly. And he may or may not have had a fling with the University President's wife.  When he was finally let go from the University faculty in 1826, the last words he uttered were "Damn thee and thy school as I place a curse upon you."

A professor is legit buried in here, y'all.
Now, my twenty year-old self may not have wanted to admit it, but that's some creepy stuff.  Even creepier is the fact that Rafinesque was originally buried in a pauper's grave, but a century later,  his remains were  moved to the basement of Old Morrison, Transylvania's administration building.  That's right.  You meet with the Dean and register for classes right over a tomb. As if meeting with the Dean and registering for classes aren't already scary enough.

Over the years, Transy has played up the Rafinesque stuff quite a bit.  Every year, a group of Freshmen are selected to spend the night in Raf's Tomb.  Even the campus grill is cleverly known as the Rafskeller. (Best hangover food ever, y'all. Or so I've been told...)

Fall 1999
Transy Kids take Halloween seriously.
When your college shares a name with the ancestral home of the vampires and just happens to be cursed , then I suppose it's only natural that you go ahead and turn Halloween into an event.  Sarah reminded me of the annual costume contest in the Transy cafeteria, as seen in the photo at right.  This year, Transylvania is taking it one step further, hosting a Pumpkin Mania event  this weekend in which an anticipated 1,000 Jack-o'-lanterns will illuminate the steps of Old Morrison.

I guess Transylvania's history is a little bit spooky, given the tombs and curses.  And, it'll certainly have the Halloween spirit going when Pumpkin Mania lights up Gratz Park.  Still, as an alumna whose interest in the school spans nearly two decades, I've never once seen a vampire there.