Widely regarded as the dean of leadership studies, Warren Bennis ’51 has advised four U.S. presidents and written 30 books, many on leadership. A distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Southern California, he is also chairman of the advisory board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. As he writes in his latest book, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership, recently published by Jossey-Bass, he was a teenaged officer in World War II. Able to go college because of the G.I. Bill, he only applied to one — Antioch. In this excerpt from the book, written with long-time collaborator Patricia Ward Biederman, he recalls the campus of 60 years ago.
Antioch College called to me long before I went there. During those battlefield lulls that soldiers invariably fill with talk of home, Gunnar, my runner in the Army, often rhapsodized about his century-old school in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Gunnar, who wanted to be a clinical psychologist, lovingly recalled Antioch’s wilderness preserve, the quality of its teaching, and the merits of its work-study program. At some level, I knew I wanted to go there because Gunnar would never be able to return. He was hit by a mortar shell and killed in 1945 during our last day of fighting in Germany.
I fell for bucolic Antioch as only a city boy could. Only 20 miles from Dayton, Yellow Springs is a lovely old town, born as a Utopian community that soon failed. In the years after the war, it was filled with small businesses that reflected the entrepreneurial spirit of the area and shops that catered to the earnest bohemians on campus — you could always replace your sandals if a strap broke. If Brigadoon existed, Antioch would be its local college. Behind Main, as everyone called the school’s stately central building, lay Glen Helen. I don’t know who Helen was, but the glen named for her was the perfect campus amenity. A thousand acres of ancient trees and shrubs punctuated by meadows, the Glen would have become a wilderness if the college’s busy gardeners hadn’t kept it in check. The Glen was achingly lovely, close at hand, and a constant surprise, changing hour to hour, day to day, season to season. Not a river, but a stream ran through it, albeit a stream that we were not supposed to fish in. And, of course, there was no charge for using the Glen, which meant a great deal to Antiochians like me with little money. Even with the G.I. Bill, money was so tight that I joined the Ohio National Guard, earning a few extra dollars for training one night a week.
You could amble through the Glen with a friend or retreat to it alone to escape the intensity of daily life at Antioch, where the gladiatorial exchange of strongly held views ended only when all parties fell asleep. You could turn to the Glen knowing that nature would work its magic and resolve whatever problem was nagging at you. You could wander through it with a girl. Although it sounds quaint in an era of unisex bathrooms in co-ed dorms, sexual activity was forbidden on the Antioch campus. As a consequence, the couples who walked into the Glen with picnic baskets were not necessarily there for ham sandwiches and deviled eggs. I always thought there should be a concession stand at the entrance that rented blankets.
Once you left the Antioch campus, you encountered the ugly signs of black exclusion, even in a relatively tolerant town like Yellow Springs. Coretta Scott (later married to Martin Luther King, Jr.) had to do all her practice teaching in the campus elementary school because the faculties of the local public schools were all white, although their classes were integrated. Antiochians took seriously their commitment to improving the world, just as Horace Mann urged them to a century earlier. One white barber in Yellow Springs refused to cut the hair of blacks, so Antiochians boycotted him. Many white students went to a black barber instead. Com’s was the only bar in town that welcomed both blacks and whites, and Antiochians flocked there, especially the campus intellectuals who played John Coltrane all night on the jukebox. There was only one movie theater in town. It did not bar blacks, but it limited them to the five rows of seats all the way in the back. The Negroes-only section was marked off with a white rope in what I believe was an unintended irony. It can hardly be described as one of the great moments in the struggle for civil rights, but one night a group of us decided enough was enough. After buying our tickets, we marched to the back of the theater and put an end to its separate-but-unequal seating once and for all. We removed the offending rope, rolled it up, and carried it out of the movie house. I doubt that we changed the racial views of the owner, but the white rope was gone for good. From then on, anyone could watch Humphrey Bogart from any seat in the house.
“Launch” is an excerpt from Warren Bennis’ memoir Still Surprised. The photo is his freshman portrait.