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'Flunk-Out U' alumni reunite

Rich Dixon, left, and George C. Jordan III, both 1968 Parsons College graduates, mark the 30th anniversary of the school's closing.
Rich Dixon, left, and George C. Jordan III, both 1968 Parsons College graduates, mark the 30th anniversary of the school's closing.

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FAIRFIELD, Iowa (AP) -- They weren't the cream of America's academic crop -- in fact, they were just the opposite.

Now, 30 years after Parsons College went bankrupt, alumni of the school dubbed "Flunk-Out U," a haven for those who failed classes elsewhere, have gathered to remember the good times and bad grades of their undergraduate days.

"It's just too bad it didn't last," said Hank Trenkle, class of '65. "It was a hoot."

Along with nearly 100 other Parsons graduates, Trenkle made a triumphant return this weekend to Parson's former campus in southeast Iowa, a space now occupied by the Maharishi University of Management, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the transcendental meditation movement.

Even if he could have attended Harvard or Yale -- an admitted impossibility given the grades on his high school transcript -- Trenkle said he still would have chosen Parsons.

"You had people with life experience here, some life history," said Trenkle, a Chicago insurance executive. "But they came here and worked through it. It was a good place to go to school."

Established in 1875 by a group of Presbyterian church leaders, Parsons operated in relative obscurity for its first 80 years. That changed in 1955 when the flamboyant Millard Roberts assumed the presidency with the goal of establishing a national reputation for the college.

Roberts installed what became known as the "Parsons Plan," a team-teaching concept that attracted one of the nation's highest paid faculties to teach students who had either been tossed out of other schools or were unable to meet admissions requirements elsewhere.

"We brought them along slowly, like a meal, so they could digest it intellectually," recalled Harold Eastman, 87, who served as head of the sociology department from 1963 to 1971.

Roberts succeeded in raising the college's profile. In 1966, Life magazine tagged Parsons as a magnet for flunk-outs and "rich dumb kids" intent on avoiding the military draft and, by extension, Vietnam.

Bankrupt and with its admissions hampered by the end of the draft and the emergence of community colleges for students academically unfit for four-year schools, Parsons passed into history on June 2, 1973.

Extracurricular activities

With the loss of the campus, the weekend reunion was bittersweet for the Parsons alumni, who came in from across the country.

"One of the things that is most difficult for us is that we have no bricks or mortar to return to," said John Braidwood of Traverse City, Michigan, who arrived at Parsons in 1964 after a less-than-stellar academic performance at the University of New Mexico.

Maharishi officials welcomed the alumni back for a tree planting ceremony and processional. But absent beloved campus landmarks, the graduates felt more comfortable socializing at an Elks Club on the town square of Fairfield, population 10,000.

start quoteYou had people with life experience here, some life history. But they came here and worked through it. It was a good place to go to school.end quote
-- Hank Trenkle, class of '65

The reunion was organized by George C. Jordan III, who first came to Fairfield in 1959. Attending Parsons on and off for 10 years gave Jordan the dubious distinction of personally taking classes with at least two generations of the school's alumni.

The publisher of a small Massachusetts newspaper, Jordan still bristles at Life's characterization of his alma mater.

Parsons also "flunked out kids," he pointed out. "It was academically rigorous. Does taking second chance students lower your standards? I don't think so."

The alumni spent less time on academics than on summoning memories of extracurricular activities, few of them suitable for publication.

Like the time Trenkle and a group of students indulged in a time-honored Parsons' tradition of using cherry bombs to blow up rural mailboxes. That venture ended with the culprits driving a car through a cornfield -- with lights off -- to elude an irate posse of vigilantes from a neighboring town.

Their escapades notwithstanding, Parsons graduates emphasized they've fared pretty well in the real world.

"It's amazing, starting out at Parsons, what we all became," said Darcy Mellen-Sullivan of Naples, Florida, class of '72.

For those willing to put in the work, say alumni, the Parsons Plan nudged them toward what many once believed to be an impossible achievement: the "C" average necessary to receive a degree.

Even Jordan, after a decade of academic toil, emerged from Fairfield with a sheepskin.

His grade point average?

"Enough to get a diploma," he said.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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