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WOSTER: Spring days serve as reminder of SDSU professor's ourdoor class

Terry Woster

One of the best college class periods I ever had came the late spring day Mary Margaret Brown led her "Literature of England'' class out the north door of Lincoln Memorial Library onto the grass of the Coolidge Sylvan Theater stage.

Even with the best of instructors (and Dr. Brown was the best), college students start acting a lot like fourth-graders when the weather warms, the days of the spring semester wind down toward finals and the view through the classroom window to the outside is more inviting than the next poem on the next page of the thick textbook.

Sure, it was a little difficult to hear Dr. Brown and the other students as cars went past on Medary Avenue or along the street between the library and the union building. Sure, attentions sometimes wandered as much outside as they had been doing inside. Even so, it was a wonderful setting for reading the classics of English literature, and it made up for long, cold February and March days huddled inside the classroom in the far corner of the library building.

Lincoln Memorial Library, by the way, was always my favorite building on the campus at South Dakota State University. The J-School was a close second with the musty smell of old newspapers and the constant chatter of the Associated Press news printer at the north end of the second-floor hallway. But the library was far and away the best place on campus.

President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the library building, I know from reading recent books of SDSU history. He and his wife, Grace, were returning in the fall of 1927 from a summer vacation in the Black Hills. South Dakota and its neighboring states weren't flyover country then, I guess. Even a president and his wife stayed close to the ground.

(If I were in a philosophical mood, I might wonder whether presidents stayed closer to the people, too, in the days when they traveled by car or train instead of jets that roar from one coast to the other without once touching the vast heartland between the distant shores. That's a musing best left to another time.)

The Coolidges helped place the center stone for Sylvan Theater on that visit, the books say. I didn't know that bit of history the day I read English poetry on the grass of the theater. I didn't know it the May day -- it might have been May First, I'm not sure, but I know it was called Women's Day on campus at that time -- I stood in the shade and watched co-eds in fancy white dresses dance around the Maypole, weaving colored ribbons from top to bottom. Some years, I'm told, the Maypole was pulled to the ground.

The Maypole dance went the way of other outdated traditions as things changed on campus. So did Lincoln Memorial Library, which became Lincoln Music Hall after the new university library was completed over on the other side of campus.

I've been in that building a couple of times, but when I think of the college library, I think of the huge reading room at Lincoln Memorial Library. It was a great place to cram for exams, a good place to scribble notes for term papers, and not a bad place to go on a Thursday evening to pick up a date for the weekend. (I only heard about that last part).

The new library came into existence long after I'd received a diploma and left Brookings for a career in newspapers. I received my diploma during an evening ceremony at Sylvan Theater in early June of 1966. Spring commencement was held outdoors for years, even though some years the weather disrupted the solemnity of the event. My senior year, the rain held off just long enough for the final handshake. Then the clouds let loose with a tremendous amount of water, and a horde of capped-and-gowned college graduates made a mad dash for the shelter of the union building.

When it rains in the evening in late spring these days, I sometimes recall graduation. On warm, sunny spring afternoons, I remember Dr. Brown and literature on the lawn.