From IWU Magazine, Summer 2010
Memories of a Faculty Brat
Ralph Townsend '53 writes about what it was like
to have the University as a childhood playground.
A recent picture of Depression-era faculty included IWU Professor of Biology Myron
Townsend, inspiring his son, Ralph ’53, to write the following reminiscences of what
it was like to grow up on the Illinois Wesleyan campus. — Editor
Myron Townsend carries his daughter Jean on his back during studies in the Adirondacks.
All my early years (until age 11 or so) I lived essentially in and on the IWU campus
— in an old house just south of the Presser Hall music building that was owned by
the University. The campus was our gigantic playground. I recall many cowboys-and-Indians
games played around the college buildings. We would hide in the window wells at the
back of Presser Hall, much to the consternation of the voice majors practicing their
scales (it all sounded to us like yodeling), and with an occasional threat from an
The whole campus was a wonderful collection of nooks and shrubs around the buildings,
ideally suited for hide-and-seek or “kick the can.” The sidewalks radiating from Hedding
Hall and around the edge of campus were great for biking, and we would zoom along
these paths, dodging the students.
Because my father and, later, my mother were in the biology department, I spent lots
of time in the Science Building, especially the biology rooms. Of course I shook hands
with the skeleton, examined preserved cats and frogs in their formaldehyde smelling
tubs, and watched amoebas oozing across the view, paramecia scooting around and rotifers
whisking food in, looking like miniature vacuum cleaners. Probably my most impressive
sight was a large plaque on the wall of a mounted tapeworm. The image still gives
me shivers. Again, when young, we would scamper up and down the rows in the lecture
hall, and scribble on the marvelously wide blackboards with abundant colored chalk.
As I grew older, we faculty kids took advantage of admission privileges to the basketball
and football games and made a junior cheering section. (Somehow all the ticket-takers
knew who we were and passed us through.) I hope the players appreciated our youthful
I have only a vague memory of Hedding Hall burning when I was young, but recall the
shock and despair my folks felt. Somehow, from out of all the rubble, I came into
possession of some fire-scorched rocks that supposedly had been collected by Major
[John Wesley] Powell during his tenure at IWU. I have always regretted I didn’t recognize
their significance, and eventually discarded them.
As a biologist interested in small mammals, my father obtained summer positions for
several years working for the Roosevelt Wildlife Survey in New York’s Adirondack forests
and of course took us along. Several summers we stayed in old lakeside hunting lodges
and truly had wonderful experiences. I recall catching a porcupine under a tub, swatting
at bees and chasing raccoons. Another less pleasant memory is of a cook at one resort
wringing chickens’ necks for the day’s dinner and watching them flop around on the
ground. A more pleasant recollection is my father’s description of the Side-Hill-Wampus.
This was a creature that lived on mountainsides in the Adirondacks. There were two
kinds: those that walked to the right around the mountain, so had longer right legs,
and those that walked counter and so had longer left legs. I suppose if they ever
mated, the offspring were either giraffes or dachshunds! Anyway, it was typical of
My father spent several summers banding and tracking habits of field mice, so he was
always trying to devise a live trap that was raccoon proof. Years later we still had
some of these trap boxes around home, but again I didn’t have the sense to save some
over the years.
I suppose it is no wonder that I grew up regarding the life of a college professor
as ideal and so went the same way when I finished graduate school. I majored in math,
so I didn’t have all the exciting contacts with nature as my parents did, but I do
look back on my nearly 40 years in a university (Bowling Green State in Ohio) very
happy that I picked that life.