Baby boomers: Returning to College Life at NIU 40 years later

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Baby Boomers: Returning to College Life at NIU 40 Years Later

By Ray Hanania

I wasn’t ready for college when my mother drove me to DeKalb to sign in to my first year at Northern Illinois University. I had lost my father the year before, but really had no idea why I was going to college, except that it was the next thing to do.

It was the Fall of 1971. I remember carrying my clothing in A&P paper bags and wondering how we would pay for everything. I received scholarships, not for achievement but for economic need. But I still had to cover a lot of costs.

I was assigned to a room in Grant North, the dormitories on the furthest end of the campus. My roommate was African American, on a basketball scholarship, Clarence Patterson. It was a good friend, though Whites and Blacks really didn’t hang around together. I learned a lot about Black culture during my year as his roommate in the cramped, narrow dorm rooms.

High school wasn’t very successful, for the most part. I attended Bowen High school my freshman and most of my sophomore year, but racial tension split the community and White Flight changed the East Side Chicago neighborhood from 100 percent White to more than 90 percent Black, all within a six month period. We moved to the Bogan High school area, but I was there only two months before the school, which was on the frontline of White resistance to integration, booted me out for a lot of reasons, though the unspoken one was that I was just too dark for the very White student body. I had a lot of friends there, but parents were not keen to me being there. I finished my sophomore year at Little Flower Catholic High school at 87th and Wood Street where I had my knuckles rapped often by the Nuns for not listening, not writing clearly, and for poor grades. I did meet my first real girlfriend there. Wouldn’t it be that way at a Catholic Religious school?

We moved again to Burbank and I entered Reavis High school. The streets were barely paved with no curbs. We had well water. There were a lot of children of farmers at the school and mostly blue collar, middle to lower income families. Poor White in many cases, so they really didn’t linger on why I always looked so much tanner than the other kids. My junior year was spent building friendships and working at the Ford City Mall at a shoe store, drinking Malt Liquor, and driving around in a rebuild 409 converted to a 327 Chevy Super Sport.

I was flunking English for the third time, but a teacher, Mrs. Harris, took the time to help. She asked me what I liked and I told her I played guitar in local bands and loved Rock and Roll music. She asked me to write a column on new albums and rock music for the school newspaper, the Reavis Blueprint. I did and the senior year, I was named Editor of the School Paper. My writing career was off to a good start.

My first week at Northern Illinois University was packed with activities. I attended orientation programs and signed up for Pre-Med classes, studying chemistry, biology and zoology. I wanted to be a doctor. Every week, there were things to do. I didn’t go home much as I didn’t have a car. And although it was only just under a 2 hour drive from Chicago’s Southwest Suburbs on Route 30 to the DeKalb campus, my mom only drove up there about once every two months to bring me money.

I didn’t have a credit card but was able to open a checking account at a bank in downtown DeKalb although I intially didn’t have a lot of money in it. I had worked all my life, starting at age 14 working at a Burger King restaurant at 87th and Luella Avenue across from CVS, so I had a strong work ethic. Really, it was the need for money. I learned to appreciate a paycheck. I earned 95 cents an hour at Burger King. I had been hired at 14 without a work permit because my family knew the owner, who was American Arab and Muslim.

I got a job at Franks Shoe Store in DeKalb working about 20 hours each week, mostly in the evening during the week and on Sundays, for about $1.95 an hour. That 30 bucks I cleared each week went a long way to cover my expenses. I ate at the Grant Towers cafeteria. It was unmemorable, just a place to hang out. I also worked at lunch time at a sorority house serving dinner and washing dishes. They had great meals and part of the pay also included eating there as well. I think it was at the Tri-Delta House or the Delta Gammas.

Every evening, we would hang out in the lobby of the building on the first floor. There were chairs and a circular marble table. I met a lot of other musicians, some really good, and a lot of people who smoked pot in the lobby and in their rooms.

About three weeks into college, I had my schedule down. Most of my classes were on Monday and Wednesday and some on Tuesday and Thursday. It was a big campus to walk but when you are only 18 going on 19, walking was easy. Male and female students were separated into different dorms. We didn’t have coed dorms until later at one of the smaller dorms, I think it was Douglas Hall.

But I remember one of the first big events that I participated in was a Panty Raid. Actually, no one broke into the women’s dorm rooms at all. They just stood outside of the women’s dorms and chanted “Panty Raid” … “Panty Raid” and the girls would throw their panties out from the window. There must have been 400 guys standing outside of the dorms yelling that night just before the homecoming. Grant North faced a gravel parking lot, near a small lake. Today that lot is paved and tree lined with homes and buildings across Annie Gliden Road. But back in 1971, the area was surrounded by corn fields. Lots of corn fields. Lots of sky. And lots of space.

Down the street to the eat, towards the class buildings, was the indoor sports center that doubled as the concert hall, across the street from the Village Commons Bookstore. I saw the Beach Boys and Carlos Santana perform there in 1971 and 1972. During a break in the Santana concert, Frank, who was a wrestler and later a fraternity brother at Theta Chi, went outside in the small parking lot on the south end of the hall and we were smoking some pot when Santana came out and we shared the dobies. Back then, smoking marijuana was not that unusual in college. Some students dropped mescaline, a natural hallucinogen while others dropped acid (LSD). I never did try the LSD. Too many of my friends got whacked out with it.

Speed or White Cross was also very common and most of the students used it to stay up at night to study for tests.

That freshman year, I pledged the Theta Chi house, which was located on Greenbriar Avenue just north and east of the campus. It was a two-story flat roofed building with about 24 rooms in it. I moved in there my sophomore year, leaving the dormitory. We had a large pledge class that was inducted into Theta Chi.

The pledge year, we wore red caps, and carried a little black book where we had to get the signatures of the fraternity members and also our sister sorority.

Each pledge was nominated and the fraternity members dropped a white ball or a black ball into the box If you got three or four black balls, you were rejected. It was the only house I pledged, the first American Arab ever to join a fraternity house at Northern Illinois University and one of the first in the country. They assigned me a Jewish Fraternity brother as my sponsor and big brother and he and I had to make wood paddles that we exchanged, when finished, his read “To the Arab from the Jew.”

I think I got one black ball.

During my sophomore year at the Frat House, I was elected as the Social Chamber, so I organized the parties. Probably not the smartest thing to do in terms of trying to achieve high grades. But I did organize some great parties in the Fall of 1972 and Spring of 1973. We would start our House Party on Thursday Night, and it would continue through Friday with the second party launching in the evening. I would mix a concoction in a large (new) garbage can with a plastic liner that consisted of slices of fruit, six bottles of Boones Farm Strawberry Hill Wine, six bottles of Everclear which was 190 Proof, and six bottles of Maddog 20/20 (Mogen David Wine). We even added some beer, and lots of fruit punch and handed out plastic cups.

One drink turned your mouth purple inside and we ended up calling it Purple Heinous. It was very potent.

We had a large party room on the second floor where we processed the women and took them back to our rooms to smoke or continue drinking. Sometimes we would have a band, but often it was a sound system of Eight Track cassettes and 33 RPM albums and 45 RPM records playing. Smoke on the Water was a popular song, as were all of the Led Zeppelin repertoire of songs.

If we weren’t drinking at a Theta Chi frat party I organized, we’d shoot over the McCabes and have some beers there. No one cared we weren’t 21 years old. The fake IDs gave the bar and us cover.

It was surprised I made it through the year.

That Spring, we all drove down to Ft. Lauderdale to party for Spring Break. More booze and more women. Ironically, we ran into girls from Northern Illinois. We packed 20 fraternity brothers into one motel room. Three brothers checked in and after the manager cleared them, everyone else snuck in. I remember driving through Gatlinburg, Tennessee and sleeping on the beach where we were allowed to park our cars on the sand near the waters. It was more fun. A guy in his 50s lived on the beach collecting beer bottles that he cut in half, flipped around and turned into glass cups that he sold after sanding the edges down prevent cuts.

Our fraternity also had an annual social and we would rent a boat in Lake Geneva each year and invite a sorority sister to be our date. We had a band and usually spent the night up there.

One time, I went with the Frat Brothers to a strip club over the Wisconsin Border. It was famous. I think it was called the Sugar Shack. One of the strippers took a liking to me — I had more cash because i worked — and she insisted that I stay with her as she toured strip clubs over the next two weeks. My fraternity brothers thought that was a good idea and left me with her. When the club closed around 4 pm at night, I ended up hitchhiking back to DeKalb all night, arriving just in time to take a micro biology exam. Not pretty.

The drinking age was 21 but we all had drivers licenses that were adjusted with a surgical knife. It was pretty simple to cut the numbers and replace them to change the birth dates. Back then, there were no computers. Of course, at age 18, I had been given a draft number that as the year went on slowly closed in on me, number 63. I ended up enlisting that summer in the U.S. Air Force to train for departure to an F-111 Base in Vietnam outside Saigon. But after enlisting and quitting school, President Nixon stopped sending draftees to Vietnam about two months later. Although I received a Vietnam Era Service ribbon, they cut-off the VFW qualifications (overseas service) a few weeks before my official enlistment date.

I came back to Northern on leave a few times to party at the House but by 1974, my ties had been cut. Not everyone had been drafted. Good grades, or a clout connection to the reserves or National Guard kept you out of active duty service overseas.

I recall in 1972, there was an anti-War protest that marched down Fraternity Row on Greenbriar. The frat brothers stood on top of the roof throwing bottles at the peace protestors and fighting with them. I stayed out of it watching from the roof. It was another great way to meet girls. But it did nothing to help my grades.

In 1975, the war  officially ended and I was offered an honorable discharge (with three stripes — as a sergeant). They had a program called Palace Chase, which allowed me to trade in my remaining two years of my four year enlistment for four years or service in the Illinois Air National Guard. I did qualify for the GI Bill and received $485 a month in college subsidy. I enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago (Chicago Campus) and completed two years there.

And I got married while in the service to my first wife and we had a daughter, which made all of the twists and turns of college and the military service well worth it.

That was all 40 years ago. Hard to believe how fast life speeds by. One day you’re a teenager and the next you are 60. I returned to Northern Illinois this past week for the homecoming game, with my son from my third marriage, Aaron. He’s only 12 but I wanted him to see what college life was like. Things have changed a lot. DeKalb has expanded considerably. The Village Commons Book store is still there. Theta Chi’s old house now is owned by another fraternity. Northern’s Epsilon Pi chapter of Theta Chi shut down a number of years ago but this year is being revitalized. I don’t think I would be the writer I am today had I not had this wonderful Fraternity experience and made so many friends. Each Theta Chi member is a brother and we all try to stay close, helping out and networking to give each other a helpful nudge when needed.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter @RayHanania.)

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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning political and humor columnist who analyzes American and Middle East politics, and life in general. He is an author of several books.

"I write about three topics, the Middle East, politics and life in general. I often take my life experiences and offer them in an entertaining way to readers, and I take on the toughest topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict and don't pull any punches about what I feel is fair. But, my priority is always about writing the good story."

Hanania covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).

Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at, and at, and at He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper,, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media. In 2009, Hanania received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

His writings have also been honored by two national Awards from ADC for his writing, and from the National Arab American Journalists Association.

The managing editor of Suburban Chicagoland Online News website, Hanania's columns also appear in the Southwest News Newspaper Group of 8 newspapers.

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Ray Hanania