Ronald Gault '62

  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: My name is Ronald Gault. I’m of the class of 1962. I guess, a good starting point is how I chose Grinnell. I went to high school in Chicago, Illinois, DuSable High School. It’s on the South side of Chicago. At least it- I think the high school was being downsized if not discontinued about ten years ago, so quite frankly I don’t know where it is now. But, in the 1950s and early 60s it was a teeming inner-city high school with about 2,000 students.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: When I was there, that is 1954-1958, there were- the enrollment was 2,000 African-American students and one White student. I don’t know how he got there or how happy he was, but he seemed to be OK and everybody seemed to- ‘cause he was in ROTC and quite frankly I don’t remember his name, but it was essentially an all-Black high school, an inner-city all-Black high school which had won prominence in the heart of Chicagoans because of a stand-out basketball team.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: The 1954 DuSable High school Basketball team went to the state finals. One of the first teams in the city of Chicago to do that in the history of the state basketball championship league, and that was largely because of the configuration of the tournament. At any rate, that was pretty much kind of the background that DuSable was when I entered. When I left, we had moved from cheering the basketball team to talking about the importance of Sputnik.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: I arrived at Grinnell as a result of the counseling I received from Chesnia- (Phone alert noise) Hello? I lost you. -but counseling that I received from a high school counselor. Her name was Chesnia Wiseberg, and she asked me what kind of college did I think I wanted to go to, and I said- well, I wanted a school that first of all looked like a college, and in my mind, a college was something that was at a pastoral setting, that students could wander out, meander out along the countryside and contemplate everything from the universe to their navels.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: Much of that had been framed because I’d gone to the University of Chicago for a number of summers as a high school student, participating in one program or another over the summer, and the University of Chicago, which was in walking-distance from my home, was clearly not what I had in mind in terms of a college experience.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: The second thing I said I wanted was a college that had a good academic reputation, and was well-respected. I didn’t want to go to someplace where you would have a lot of people saying, “You go where?” Y'know? And Grinnell fit the bill for that, and then the third thing was that I had a high school sweetheart and she was a year behind me, and I had seen, from friends and associates who had gone off to college with high school sweethearts still in Chicago, that represented a perfect storm for a flunk-out. That is, men trying to come back to see their high school sweetheart and maintain their grades, it just didn’t work.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So I said I wanted a school that was far enough away from Chicago that I was not home every other night, visiting my high school sweetheart. So, Grinnell and Lawrence College were the two schools that came on the screen and in the end I chose Grinnell. I mean, Grinnell, in their approach, was pretty laid back. They said, “This is what it is. We hope you like it. You’re gonna stay in X dorm and there are a number of activities going on. I will give you a student to show you around, and you let us know what you think.” And at the end of the day, that experience, laid alongside of the Lawrence College experience, was clearly the superior experience that I had and I chose Grinnell.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So that’s kind of the first point. Second point was, what was the atmosphere generally in the country in the mid-to-late fifties? You’re much too young to realize this, but it was a period of great movement in terms of civil rights issues. All over the country, the elementary, secondary and higher education was being challenged on all fronts.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And there was, in the Midwest, and largely because of Grinnell’s experience, an atmosphere of liberalism at least on the College, and while it wasn’t slurpy or terribly sentimental, you had a sense that a majority of the people that you encountered, particularly in the Grinnell setting, were there to do the right thing, as far as race and race relations was concerned.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: Here’s a very interesting aspect of that: Grinnell had, at the time, I think about between 900 and 1,000 students, and of that number there were no more than five or six African-American students. And those that were there came from private and highly regarded public schools. Francis Parker in Chicago was a big recruitment source for students, Hyde Park and Parker. Those were the three schools that stuck out in my mind as a student from DuSable, which had a very different student mix and a very different reputation.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So, Grinnell had, for me, a very, very different twist to it. I mean it was not an environment which I was terribly comfortable in initially, nor was I terribly uncomfortable. When I felt that my experience at DuSable had been one that was very good, I went from being a high school student who had polio in his first year of high school at thirteen years old, to a graduating senior who was the president of his class and president of the student body and in a top-five graduates academically. So it was a- and I played sports as well.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So, it was an experience. It was somewhat of a humbling experience to come from that environment that was warm and familiar to one in the Midwest with fewer than 1,000 students, most of them White, and had very little in common with me. But nonetheless I was not put off by it, nor particularly daunted by it, but that was pretty much the setting at the College.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: The setting in the town was different. I think they saw Blacks as very much of a novelty. I remember one occasion when my first cousin, he and I were like brothers when we grew up, came to visit. He’s very dark in complexion, but he was quite a novelty in one of these stores that we went into, to buy something or other. This is- these... all the customers, one or two ladies in particular, couldn’t take their eyes off of him and I think they were transfixed by his color. But nonetheless, they weren’t hostile. I think they were more curious than anything else.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: The rest of the town, y'know, we didn’t have that much interaction with it, because largely the students at Grinnell stayed on Grinnell’s campus. There was some who went downtown to a beer parlor and had beer, but for the most part, the students stayed on the campus and the town stayed in the town. And so, there was not a whole lot of interaction, as it were.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: As far as race relations, I’m going to spend a minute on that. Grinnell was in- largely in search of the issue, and I mentioned earlier, there were only five or six African-American students in the College. At that point in time, 1958, I can’t remember any Black people living in the town of Grinnell and it was something that, as a civil rights issue, was kind of a non-starter.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: But on one occasion, I guess it was my sophomore, junior year, it became known that Three Elms, it’s down on highway six- I don’t know what’s there now, I think it’s a pizza shop or something, it’s right on highway six- let it be known that they would not serve interracial couples. They would not serve interracial couples.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: But as it turns out, they had a very selective policy. They didn’t want to serve interracial couples on Saturday, Friday night and Saturday, because they had a heavy clientele of truck drivers and people using that highway route who are- or were certainly hostile to the idea of interracial dating. So, I and a few others, like-minded and like-spirited, decided to challenge this restaurant-bar called the Three Elms, and we had two people who agreed to go inside and witness what was going to occur so we could then report it to the Human Relations Commission of the state.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So, as the two people go inside- went inside to settle in and be witnesses, I and this woman, a student, another student, walked around the block to establish clearly that we were a couple coming in and were not with a larger party. So, as we walked around the block to establish this, we started talking about an incident which had occurred to one of the other Black students. He was an excellent athlete and he was dating the town sweetheart, a girl named Susie Gustafson, and she was a- the queen of the high school prom, etcetera, and had come to Grinnell, and she had a strong dating relationship with this fellow.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And so, the word was, I told this- the student who was walking around the block with me, that there were townies who were going to come to Grinnell and beat this guy up. And just at that point we had reached the restaurant door, and as I reached for the door she said, “No, No, that’s not right. They weren’t going to beat him up.” And I said, “Oh yes they were. What d’you think they were going to do?” She said, “They were going to castrate him.”
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: Well, there was a lump in my throat because 1,000 things flashed across my mind, not the least of which the idea of being castrated, but inside of the two fellows who were there one was an avowed pacifist, and we had had a long, Grinnell-type conversation about pacifism and what that meant, and he said, “You know, if my mother or sister was being raped, I could not react violently. I could not intervene in a violent way to stop the rape from occurring.”
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And so, all of this flashed through my mind as I’m reaching for the door, knowing that these are the people who are inside, who are not only gonna witness what happens, but are going to be somewhat of our protectors and our defenders. So I said, “Well, wait a minute.” We paused, "We have to pause here, because while I fairly agree that racism should be challenged, I’m not, as a student from Chicago, I'm not tied to this notion of non-violence."
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: "So, you need to go inside," I told this girl, "and tell those two guys we’re going to step back and reconsider how we’ll approach this." Which we did, and that made somewhat of a news story in that the owner of the Three Elms. He did not- they had such a racially discriminatory policy, or practice, and said they would serve anyone.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So, a week later, the same thing occurred, but this time there were a dozen or so students, men, who had decided to join us. I mean, we really didn’t solicit their help. I mean, on their own they just joined us. And one guy was from Oklahoma, was a football player and I just assumed that his attitudes about race certainly didn’t coincide with mine, but I was totally wrong because he was quiet, he was right there up front as someone who was prepared to step in and prevent mayhem from happening to us.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So, as we went in to the restaurant the second time, one of the patrons said to me, “Hello, Rastus.” Do you know who Rastus is? It’s the butt of a number of jokes that are told about Black people in the South. It’s sort of like an (inaudible). Y’know, slow-talking and head-scratching and “Yessah boss, Yessah bo- yessim.” And it’s a derogatory term.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: Well, I’m from Chicago and just like you, I had no idea who Rastus was. And I thought he was saying- he got confused, and thought my name was- my name was Ronald and he got Rastus out of Ronald. Anyway, he says, “Hey Rastus, how you doing?” I said, “Oh, how you doing, man? How you doing?” So I spoke back to him, which kinda left him disconcerted. The other students that were there ordered what we did and we got served, and our point was made. And as we leave, and we stepped outside the restaurant, this table of six or eight guys, they get up to leave.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And our plan was that our friends who were outside, again, intent on help- on not letting mayhem occur to us, they saw us come out and they started up the street, I guess there were a dozen or so pretty hefty guys. And a police car from Grinnell rolled down the alley and says- the guy, the Deputy Sheriff called out to one of these six or eight guys from town and called ‘em over to the car and I think he blessed him out and told us to head on back to the campus and that was the end of that.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: That restaurant never, to my knowledge, never practiced or even discussed its racial discriminatory policy on Friday or Saturday night, and I- And that was seared in my memory as a stand-up opportunity for the College and for the state. And it did, and that was a very positive thing but it was a... it was Grinnell’s kind of contribution to the Civil Rights struggle, as it were. At least many of us saw it, being in the middle of Iowa and not having an issue really to address other than one that was academic.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: What’s another experience? Oh, here’s another experience. You- Grinnell I guess had just come through a football- a basketball season, and all this points to the issue of race in Grinnell in the mid-to-late fifties, and how it was an issue on a number of different fronts, and how the- and I think how the school dealt, for the most part.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So, a heated basketball game, I think Grinnell is tied for conference leadership and we’re playing either Coe or Cornell. I think it was Cornell. And the center for Cornell was injured, and his arm was in a cast and he was seated on the same row that I was seated on in the old Darby Gym, and the gym is packed, because as you know, Cornell is seen as a local college with a lot of locals going there. Grinnell is a, y’know, on a Friday night, what else is there to do but go to a free basketball game?
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: It’s a very tight game, and at one point one of the Grinnell College players is scoring very well and he’s keeping Grinnell in the game, pulling ahead. Every time Cornell scores, this guy scores. And at one point, the center jumps up, he’s got his arm in a cast, and says- I mean, loud, and there was a silence just at that moment in the gym, “Will somebody stop that nigger?”
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And there was a deafening silence in the gym, and no one ever said anything, that I saw, to him, and he didn’t look particularly embarrassed, but Cornell went on to lose and that was, you know, kind of, I think, a moment of embarrassment for Grinnell and Grinnellians. I’m sure that when the game was over someone probably said something to him because that was, in my experience, never a thing that was repeated, and there was never any racial mimicking of Black athletes or anything like that.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: So, those are two incidents that are very vivid in my mind about Grinnell and race, as such, on campus. There was no BCC House, and you know, whether or not that would’ve been something that would’ve had a great deal of patronage or not is something that’s open to question. But any rate, those, I think, those were important experiences in terms of kind of the view that I had of Grinnell and how, more importantly, Grinnell responded.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: The last point I said I wanted to make is, what does it say about the college experience? I talked to some of my white classmates, particularly at this last class reunion, and there was a lot of succor and support that they got within their respective halls from upperclassmen and others as well, but basically upperclassmen, and it was much appreciated by them.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And when asked, who did I turn to; I said, "Well I didn’t really turn to anybody." There was no upperclassman in Gates Hall that I saw as a mentor or someone that was going to help me deal with the experience. No one came forward in that way, and quite frankly I didn’t really expect anyone to. But, I, in contrast to some of these other experiences, some of my fellow students, White students, had an experience where there was someone to kinda help them over the hurdles and act as a mentor.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: I did have a professor, a Latin professor by the name Mr. McKibben, he died a couple years ago, who was particularly helpful. I was struggling with second year Latin. I had unfortunately placed out of first year Latin on the Latin exam, and so the prerequisite of having two years of foreign language could be met by taking one more year of Latin, and then I would be freed of the language requirement. And that was kind of the skewed view that I had at that point.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And then another student said,"Oh the prerequisites, you can take and get them out of the way and it’s an obligation but you may or may not enjoy it." You didn’t really see it as an opportunity to learn a foreign language which I would, if I approached it now I’d approach it very differently. I’d probably take something like Chinese or Spanish, since Spanish is- they're growing in such- the Spanish language people are growing in such numbers in New York and elsewhere.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: But any rate, I took Latin and struggled with it and Mr. McKibben offered a really strong helping hand and he would have me come to his office and he would take me over the conjugations and the verbs and equally important, the pronunciation, because you often had to stand and recite in his Latin class and that was quite a deal if you had not done that much in high school. In fact, we didn’t do a lot of recitations in high school. We would read, but it wasn’t like standing and giving an oral recitation. And so, Mr. McKibben stands out as the- my response to some of my classmates was to say, “Well who did you turn to, to kind of get you out of difficult spots and difficult hurdles?”
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: I really turned to myself, and the reason was, that failure was not an option for me. It was just clearly was not an option. At mid-semester my first year, my grades and my- I didn’t have a roommate. I lived on the first floor in a single and the guy right across the hall was from Chicago and our idea of an academic day was we go to classes, we finished around one or two, we go over to the gym and play basketball or go swimming and do whatever for a couple of hours. Then, come back and have dinner. Go to dinner, finish around 7:30, and then put in two hours of hard study and go to the Student Union at ten and stay till midnight and that was it.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: Well, as a student at Grinnell, you know that that’s not gonna really get it for you. So, at mid-semester, that was a wake-up call for me like you would not believe. I stopped studying in the library. I stopped studying in my dorm and I went to ARH and found a room on the second floor of ARH that was quiet. I could focus intensely and my grades came up, I guess about a B average at the end of the year, but that was quite an experience in terms of the environment itself was, for me, there wasn’t really anyone to turn to for help and support. I mean it wasn’t structurally built that way.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: But two, it said to me, the environment, here’s something that you’ve got to master and you can do it by focusing very sharply on what it is that needs to be done, and I think that lesson has stayed with me for a lifetime, and I guess- I mean, that’s where I’ll pause and stop.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And I know, my wife says in the background, “Well that’s about time.” But, I was very glad that I went back to Grinnell for the- my class reunion, this fiftieth. I serve on the Board of Trustees as you may or may not know. But my residence for the last seventeen years has been in South Africa, and so the opportunities that I’ve had to be in attendance at board meetings have been limited. I’m a lifetime Trustee.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: You know, I've found very few young people, one, that I would recommend to Grinnell, and two, who would do well in the Grinnell environment. I mean, it’s a... I think students who go there, students like yourself, I think are a special breed of student. I mean, you think about it, Grinnell is in the middle of Iowa. 300 miles due west of Chicago, 50 miles east of Des Moines. I never went to Des Moines in my four year college experience. So, Chicago was it on holidays and big break days and in the summer.
  • Ronald Gault
    Ronald: And the academic environment is very rigorous. People don’t go there who are not serious about studying. I lived in Gates Hall and at the time, most of the people, 40, 30- 40 guys that lived there thought they were a fairly iconoclastic group and you would always hear someone say, “Well I didn’t really study for that,” and that was.... "I didn't have time to." I mean, they’d get an A minus and what not, so I’d say, “Yeah right, I understand that.” But it’s a place where, if you’re a serious student, I think you can do well and the results will be reflected in the careers that you choose and the life that you lead.
Alumni oral history interview with Ronald Gault '62. Recorded June 11, 2012.
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