It is interesting to see how quickly the dynamics of Villa Madonna College changed from one year to the next in the early days. As the (now) University pushes forward to the 100-year mark, it’s easy for us to forget amid today’s challenges that there were any number of challenges all along the way that could have derailed a fledgling college from making it to this juncture.
The subject of this issue’s history column is Wilbert Ziegler ’53. Will was a first-generation college student and says the decision to attend VMC in 1949 was not a hard one, “My parents had not gone to college. Dad went to one year of high school and my mother went to the eighth grade. Nobody else in our family had gone to college, and I had never been on another college campus. I went to Covington Latin School and it was just logical to walk another block and a half to college. There weren’t too many other options; it was Xavier, UC or Villa Madonna College. The girls had Our Lady of Cincinnati (OLC) and the College of Mount St. Joseph available to them, but the boys did not.”
VMC had been enrolling male students only since 1945 and the then all-male Covington Latin School was a tremendous source of students. According to Will, “In my class there were 10 of us that went from Latin School to VMC, that’s why I was elected the first year to Student Council. By 1952, when I was a junior, there were 165 students in the school. Out of the whole school – 85 men, 57 women, and 22 religious – there were 28 Latin School kids. Nearly 20 percent of the school came from Latin School. We graduated 30 from VMC in 1953. I would guess we started with 35 and lost some to the military draft; there were no college deferments then. We’d be in class one day with our classmates and two days later some of them were missing, having to report for the draft.”
When he was a 15-year-old, first-year college student, extracurricular activities made a big impact on Will’s life and provided some interesting anecdotes. Will recalls there were quite a few formal dances, which were particularly popular with the women on campus. “We had the Thanksgiving ball and prom or a sweetheart dance in the spring. The women would make an effort to get a date for every girl in the school. So, for a month or so before each dance, efforts were made to match people up so that every woman got to go. My freshman year, they lined me up with Jo Ann Ballinger, who was two years older than me. I knew her only in the sense that we were both freshmen.”
Will also was almost appointed by fellow Student Council members as the “fashion police” for the Thanksgiving Ball. “At the September/October meeting the big topic was modesty. We had a discussion regarding the wearing of off-the-shoulder dresses (issue of cleavage) and the Student Council was supposed to address that issue so people didn’t arrive dressed immodestly. Charlie Deters (class of 1950, see history column fall 2018), to the best of my recollection, made a motion and it passed that we appoint somebody to stand at the front door to inspect whether those arriving were modestly dressed, and not let them in if they weren’t. I was elected. I went home, told my mother, and she said ‘NO.’ Anyway it didn’t happen.
“Another interesting thing I remember is a group of us (men/boys) were invited by the Sisters at Our Lady of Cincinnati to go to OLC one Saturday night. They had a dance for the girls and matched up maybe 10 or 12 of us from Villa Madonna. They played music and, it was funny, we were in this rather formal looking place and all around the parapet up above were Sisters looking down, watching the dancers. The dances at that time where the Virginia Reel, the Jitterbug, and waltzes. Just the boys were invited, OLC was an all-women school.”
Will was also the business manager of the Triad, the student newspaper at the time. When asked how the reporters found their leads, Will’s response was, “There were 140 full-time students in the school with one men’s lounge and one women’s lounge, where the men and women separately congregated. Sitting across from you was a guy who was a senior and across the room would be a junior, so you knew one another. You got to hear it all. I had four issues of the Triad come into my hands very recently, they were preserved by Tom Kennedy ’52. Tom was the president his senior year and died within the past year. His widow Kathleen, who is also a graduate of the College (1958), passed them on to my sister, her classmate at VMC. My sister gave them to me. A light bulb went on in my head and I thought, ‘I wonder if we (TMU) have an archivist?’ (We do.) These were issued monthly. I think Judge Donald Wintersheimer ’53 was the editor in our senior year. I don’t know if at that time there was any idea of archiving. The College was only what? 25-30 years old? That’s like telling an 18- or 19-year-old now that you might want to preserve things so in 70 years, you can look back at them.”
When asked about his impression of attending classes downtown, Will remembers the scattered campus. “The halls that were truly Villa were Aquinas Hall, Bernard Hall, and Cabrini Hall – those were old houses. We also had the firehouse, I don’t recall whether it had another name. It was a single bay firehouse with a classroom on the second floor, right behind the Cathedral. Across the alley was Cabrini. When you went around the corner on Scott Street facing Newport you had Aquinas and Bernard. Of course, there was the four-story administration building on 12th Street which had been the convent building. That was where you had the women’s lounge, the men’s lounge, registrar’s office, the bulletin board, two classrooms, the library, and the president’s office. A few classes were held in Saint Joseph’s School. That building faces the back of the cathedral; it’s one of the Catholic ACUE grade schools now. Either my senior year or shortly afterward, VMC acquired a saloon and called it Talbot Hall. It was on the southwest corner of 12th and Scott. That’s what constituted our campus. Never having gone to college or having been on another campus, that’s all I knew. We didn’t think of ourselves as underprivileged. The education was so good, which of course we probably didn’t appreciate that completely at the time; how would you know?
“When I started, tuition was $75 a semester, by 1958 it had grown to $100 a semester. All of the athletics were intramural; we had no teams that competed with other colleges. Each class had a basketball team and they played one another. We had one football game called the Finger Bowl, when the upperclassmen played the underclassmen toward the spring of the year. A number of guys had some equipment left over from when they played in high school which they brought and we would interchange those. The Finger Bowl was a big deal for a couple of years but it didn’t go on long. There was also one fraternity and one sorority. The fraternity was Sigma Alpha Lambda and the sorority was Alpha Lambda Mu.
“I remember too that, at the time I started, we did not have a cafeteria. You either packed your lunch or down at the corner of 12th and Greenup there was a saloon, Metz’s Café. There were other bars and saloons that would have soup or something so I and some of the other students would go and sit at the counter. There was also a place at the corner of 12th and Garrard called Reckers, you could go there and buy lunch; it was more of a restaurant. That’s where many of the students, male particularly, hung out between classes. The student council started the cafeteria on the second floor of Bernard Hall, maybe in 1950? Students did all the construction work, the Deters brothers were particularly good with that, doing it on their own outside of college. Villa hired a lady cook so we could get food there. At least there was some place we could get something to eat. It’s mentioned in the “Triad” at one point that Student Council was pleased that the cafeteria had not lost money. The idea of a cafeteria emanated from the students, they had to get permission but all the work was done by the students.”
Will did not recall taking many classes with the Sisters from the religious orders. He explains, “The Sisters weren’t exactly part of the full-time class because they didn’t come for four years. They would be there for some courses and then be gone. You didn’t get the feeling they were part of the class. They didn’t participate in any extracurricular activities. There were also some nurses in training from St. Elizabeth Hospital, who would come down to Villa to take individual classes. I think mostly in the science field, but they were not an integral part of the class either.
“The education we received was very, very good predicated on where you were able to go with it. It was probably narrow; I didn’t recognize that at the time. We didn’t have a lot of the extracurricular activities and all of the different things that students are exposed to today. The choice of subjects was limited, with very few electives. Villa wasn’t a very big college and could not offer a bunch of classes with only 150 students. The education was particularly to my benefit because it was heavy in history, philosophy, and English, which prepared me well for law school.”
Faculty and staff made a lasting impression on VMC students. “All of our professors were either Sisters or priests,” Will states. When asked if he had favorites, Will offers, “Sister Mary Camilla, Ph.D., CDP, was my philosophy teacher (philosophy was my major). And I recall Sister Mary Rosina, Ph.D., CDP. Those were the two. If we had had counselors, Sister Camilla would have been mine. Sister Albert with the history department was also well known to me. She was a Sister of Notre Dame and the Notre Dame nuns knew me from the time I was four years old. My dad was their chauffeur, the Sisters didn’t drive back in the 1920s and 1930s and he took them to doctor’s appointments and such. I was not very good in science and lucky to get through math, so I didn’t relate with teachers in those fields. After Villa, I went on to law school and I didn’t have a connection with the College until recently when I became a member of the TMU Board of Trustees.”
It is always enlightening to hear from this generation, their thoughts on how the University has fared through the many years of change. “It’s 15 times bigger than it was when I attended, but I don’t know if over 70 years that’s big growth or not,” Will states. “I think the College, now University, has maintained its mission as it has grown and has matured very well. There are many challenges for Catholic education. There are and will always be, by nature, challenges to maintaining balance.” Will’s advise for current students includes, “Study hard and don’t waste your time while you’re here. Take advantage of all the off-the-beaten-path programs that might be offered to you. Don’t just go down the single path of your major, but sample all the different experiences that the University can provide, take advantage of them because those are learning experiences in and of themselves.”