By Collin Hall (’21)
Editor In Chief
New London, NH
NEW LONDON, N.H. — The Rev. Leslie Smith, born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, Gordon class of 1959, was the picture of genteel hospitality on a recent foggy Tuesday evening when he hosted this year’s “Tartan” editor for a long conversation about Gordon in the 1950s. When was the first editor of the newly renamed “Tartan,” the college faced challenges that may seem surprisingly familiar to today’s students.
He invited us into his house late night on a foggy Tuesday; after fumbling around with our audio equipment, Smith handed us hot apple cider and began to remember what the school’s atmosphere was like 60 years ago, who he was at Gordon, and where the past sixty years have brought him.
He began by talking about his time as “Tartan” Editor-in-Chief. It would not become “The Tartan” — with “The” included in the name — until years later. Publications generally did not add “the” before their names, hence names like “Sports Illustrated,” “Time,” etc. He remembers being alone in the “Tartan” office well past midnight to finish the paper. Things haven’t changed much in that regard!
There was no digital layout, so each page had to be created on a large piece of paper by hand and taken to Manchester where printers would take a photo of the proof to make the plates for presses. Smith says the first logo was only possible because they printed on smooth white paper instead of newsprint; it was not possible to print such a fancy logo on newsprint.
“And I ended up being the only one there because although the rest of staff were very loyal and helpful and courteous and kind and all that, it was still two or three o’clock late, and none of them stuck around, and I had to lay out the paper. Physically lay it out!”
Smith admitted to a severe time management and overcommitment problem; while he worked sweatily as the “Tartan” chief, he also was elected president of the student council. He told us that in order to join the student council, students had to affiliate themselves with one of two political parties. The names changed often, but Smith ran for president under the party “USS Gordon,” i.e. “United Students to Serve Gordon.”
He explained: “The Brigadoon party was our opponent and we put political pamphlets in every student box. We had an airplane fly over and drop leaflets on the campus for our party. And we pointed out in everything we published that our opponents from Brigadoon are certainly gentlemen and ladies, but Brigadoon on Broadway was just a fantasy, and that’s all they have to represent!”
When asked if students liked chapel back then, he mentioned that chapel was mandatory every single day of the working week. He remembered publishing a criticism of Gordon’s chapel services during his time as editor of “Tartan.”
“I’d say most of us were relatively bored. It was compulsory every single day,” Smith said.” Every day they took attendance. If you didn’t show up you were given some form of punishment; it was not corporal, obviously.”
He did mention spiritual revival services that would rollock campus every so often.
“They used to have a week of revival… Gordon would go around the country where they’d bring in some very special, high powered evangelist to make sure the Holy Spirit was called out upon the student body and ‘revived’ our Christianity. We’d get up and give testimonies about how we’ve had our eyes open to the new strength of spirituality, and some people would confess!”
A confession might be along the lines of: “I have to admit, I cheated on my second year Greek exam and I know God will forgive me” he said.
“One guy gets up; I can picture him today! I forgot his name but I know him quite well. He was in the class ahead of me and he said meekly: ‘I just need to tell you. I’m deeply deeply ashamed, and I’m deeply hurt. But Phyllis and I have had sex down on Coy Pond.’
“We all looked around thinking ‘where the hell is Phyllis? The poor thing!”
Smith, despite his journalistic pursuits in school, was an Episcopal priest for 50 years after graduation. He pursued this career after working as a book publisher in Boston for half a decade. He is a gentle man who evinces a deep love for the Lord; his tired eyes and slight hunch betray his quick wit and far-reaching memory.
When he was at Gordon, he and his friends were frustrated that Gordon did not feel like a “real college,” and felt Gordon’s brand of Evangelicalism was alienating to many. “Gradually over my time at Gordon I moved away from what today would be called the Evangelical Baptist tradition which at the time was Gordon’s main bread and butter.
“When I went to Gordon it wasn’t even accredited. It did not have national or regional accreditation. It happened either my senior year or the year or two after that.”
He was frustrated with Gordon’s “insular” attitude towards the outside world, but he and his peers did all they could to change the atmosphere of the school.
“In those days many of us at Gordon wanted Gordon to be aggressive within the conservative Christian community of the United States, to be more worldly. But I don’t mean that in the sense of misbehaving or going to brothels or whatever the heck people might do to be worldly, but to be aware of what they might do at Harvard, or what they might do at Michigan.”
“They say that the sexual revolution more or less passed us by.” He was shocked to learn of sexual escapades that reportedly happen in Gordon’s prayer room today.
He said: “I suspect at least half of the Gordon graduates literally had their first sexual experience on their honeymoon. I mean first sexual intercourse. I would consider that was normative. I’ve talked with a lot of people my age, and it wasn’t just religious people. It was just part of the American culture!”
The idea behind the Scottish rebranding that took place while Smith attended was to make Gordon feel like a real, robust college that offered a taste of what the college experience was like, he said. Gordon athletes were previously called “Couriers,” and would later become “The Fighting Scots.” Gordon, shortly prior to Smith’s time, had been a “Bible College” focused on theology, ministry training, etc. and largely shunned liberal arts.
Smith grew up fundamentalist evangelical Baptist and struggled, and still struggles, to reconcile his tradition and upbringing with the diversity of Christian belief. He said: “You can be a profoundly dedicated follower of Christ and be Greek Orthodox or a Roman Catholic bishop, some trouble they’re in, or an Episcopal retired priest.”
“There’s all sorts of avenues for Christianity and that’s what gradually evolved in my life, to be where I am. So when I look back at Gordon, if you’re still struggling with things like ‘how strict are we?’ ‘How isolated are we from the mainstream of American culture? ‘Is our president in trouble for writing this letter?’ In a sense things haven’t changed in 60 years.”
He continued: “Christ reaches the world in broader categories and concepts and methods than Gordon was promoting.”
“You didn’t build soup kitchens if you were a Boston Baptist Church, you built youth groups and would go out and witness for Christ on the sidewalk. And there were those of us who felt that was not a full gospel. You needed to feed people as well as ask them to meet Christ.”
Smith described the average Gordon student in 1958 as “working class and middle class at the best.” He remembers having to hitchhike to get basically anywhere. When it was time to go home for break, he “put all my worldly goods to go home for Thanksgiving in a suitcase, and I would go to the overpass on Grapevine road, put my suitcase down on the sidewalk and the sign said something like Amherst College. I was looking for a ride to get me west toward Springfield.”
On the whole though, Smith remembers his time at Gordon with great fondness. It is there that he met his wife, Lois Smith. They were married when he was 21 and she was 19. One week graduates would get their diploma, and the next they would run to the town clerk to get a marriage license, he said.