Mom and Dad took me to college that year. I was so glad to go and so excited about getting out on my own. I wanted to get away from Dad, make my own decisions, and do things my way. We stopped at the Springfield Mall on the way to school, and I bought two Madonna posters for my dorm room. Dad did not like that at all. In high school, I loved Madonna’s music but Dad would never let me have a poster like that up in my room at the house.
They dropped me off at Memorial Hall and we took some pictures of me in front of the dorm and I said, “Toodle-oo.” That was a “cool” word I was using to say “bye” in those days. I had no fear about being at college, and Dad had raised me to be independent. That’s one of the difficult things about being a parent. We work so hard to make our kids independent so they can survive on their own, but when they leave, we really want them to miss us and wonder how they will make it without our help. I’ve since learned that Mom and Dad felt a little sad that I was not more disappointed to see them go.
Like most college kids, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, but I was sure ready to save the world. I went to all of the functions for freshmen, made many new friends, checked out all the pretty girls, and learned my way around campus. I had saved up some money that summer and, after buying my posters, I had about $300 left for setting up my dorm room.
I decided to run for freshmen class vice president. I remember trying to look funny by giving my election speech in Bermuda shorts. I was running against two really nice girls, and I didn’t do a lot of campaigning. I teamed up with this guy who was running for class president, and his girlfriend basically got us both elected. She told all of her friends to vote for us and hung up our posters, which helped me the most, because I thought I could just smile crack a joke and they would all vote for me. When the votes were all counted, it was close. I mean really close. I beat one girl by two votes, and she was only one ahead of the other girl. It was my first “big” election, and I was now vice president of the freshmen class.
I was getting discouraged about the running program because we were two weeks into the semester and practice had not started yet. It turned out that the cross country coach was caught having an affair and had to resign, so we were left without a coach. Thankfully, Tim DeClue was willing to take the job. We had a five-mile time trial, and I came in first. I was excited about beating all of the other runners, but of course the upper-classmen didn’t like getting beat by a freshman. I was very happy to be number one and called Dad to tell him about it.
Memorial Hall was the oldest and “wildest” dorm on campus. Most of the freshmen athletes lived in Memorial because it was not air-conditioned and had the old-time steam heat. Suffering in the heat that first summer gave us an esprit de corps, and I immediately made some very good friends there. In the first three weeks in college I was the number one runner on the cross country team, freshman class vice president, and lived in the coolest dorm on campus. The flames of pride were stoked by these successes.
Broke in College
One thing college teaches you is how to be broke. In college, most of your effort goes into your class work, so you can only have low paying, part-time jobs while you’re studying and working. It’s hard to watch your friends who are not in college enjoying the easy life while you’re paying for the opportunity to learn. Kids just out of high school can live like kings working forty-plus hours a week with very few bills. They live with their parents or in cheap apartments, buy cool clothes, nice cars and have plenty of money for entertainment, which is normally the top priority at that age.
I brought $300 to college, and it didn’t last long. My work-study job during my first semester was to wax and strip the floors in the student union. I was paid $3.35 an hour and rarely worked over twenty hours a week which left me with less than fifty dollars a month, after taxes. Needless to say, that went fast and left very little money for my number one priority… entertainment!
I would try to save on laundry expenses by stuffing the washing machine as full as I could get it, and I was the only kid in the dorm who used the clothes-line to dry my clothes. Mom would send me popcorn, and the dorm mom would let us borrow oil from her to pop it. We were always trying to bum laundry soap off of each other. If we went to a buddy’s house or home for the weekend, we took all of our laundry with us and did as much “free” washing we could while we were there.
None of us had any money, and only about half of us had a car. We had all of our meals paid for and a place to live, but spending money for pizza, sodas, dates, gas, snacks, clothes, or anything else we wanted was limited. The bad thing about getting all of my meals at the cafeteria was that I always got hungry when the chow hall was closed. Running all those miles burned a lot of calories and I was always hungry.
We all griped about being poor, and Jon Cook said once, “The only reason our parents sent us to college was to teach us how to be poor!” Mom and Dad didn’t have a lot of extra money, but one time they sent me ten dollars for no reason. I was so happy when I opened up that letter, because I was out of washing soap. I used that ten bucks to buy soap and wash all of my clothes. Don and Nancy Crader from First Baptist Church in Marble Hill used to send me checks once in a while. Those checks really came in handy!
First Drug Test
When we started cross country practice, the NCAA required us all to take a drug test. I was very scared that my dope smoking back in Charleston would make me pop positive. I had no idea how long that stayed in your system, and I was extremely worried. I could see myself getting kicked off of the team and out of school and then having to explain all of it to Dad. Nobody told me they gave drug tests in college, or I would have stopped smoking weed sooner. Smoking dope was not something I was proud of, and upon going to SBU I never touched the stuff again. Not only was it illegal, but it made no sense as a runner.
I kept my promise to stop drinking and get on a good path during that first month of college, but it wasn’t long before I found friends who wanted to party. At SBU, most of the partiers were football players, but there were plenty of kids who came to a Baptist school and still wanted to have a good time. Don’t get me wrong, SBU was a good Christian school and they discouraged drinking, but we partiers found ways to get around the rules. It was a bit like living at home, because we had a curfew, weekly room inspections, and chapel twice a week.
To stay out of trouble we would go down to frat parties in Springfield or out to the river in the country. We had no problem getting beer because we knew so many kids over twenty-one in college. Sometimes we just went to older students’ houses and had a good time, and we never kept alcohol in our dorm.
I was involved in a lot of activities that year, but the top three were the Student Government Association (SGA), cross country, and church. My first three Sundays at college, I overslept and missed church. I was surprised by how bad this made me feel and how it messed my week up. After that third week, I decided I had to get up and go to church on Sundays. From then on, even when I partied on Saturday night, I would be in church on Sunday morning.
While most people probably think I was strange to keep going to church while I was partying, I believe it saved me from total self-destruction. Without church, I would have been able to shut out the voice of conviction in my head that was telling me that what I was doing was wrong. God’s grace and my parents training are the only reason I kept going.
Since that time, I have always gone to Church on Sunday. I used to tell my Marines, “Go to church and thank God for the week he gave you, and ask him to be with you in the week to come.” God appreciates when we are not too prideful to ask for His help. Going to church and praying to Him shows God that we know who the boss is even if we’re living our lives in a hypocritical way.
I also feel that church on Sunday breaks up the week. When I miss church it seems like one week runs into the next, and I don’t ever get a break. Going to church and using Sunday to rest has been one of the most helpful habits I have developed. Again, something my parents taught me turned out to be right. In Mark 2:27 Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.” I believe resting on Sunday has made me a lot more productive during the week.
The only real girlfriend I had during my freshman year was a junior named Tracy Turner. She was a good Christian girl, and I am convinced that God deliberately put her in my life. I had been drinking that fall but, as always, I was trying to quit and Tracy helped me with that. I went out with her for about three months that spring, and she showed me a better way to live.
We did things with her friends, and they were all good kids who had fun but didn’t do all of the bad things that I had grown used to. I noticed that they all came from churches that had strong youth groups. Her example impacted my life even though I started drinking again after we broke up.
Finding a church with a strong youth group is very important for teenagers. Joining a group of kids who are doing things that do not involve drinking, drugs and sex will greatly improve their chances of avoiding the normal teenage temptations. Unfortunately, when you kids grew up we only had a strong youth group when Uncle Courts was the youth director at New Salem Baptist Church. I pray that you find a good church for your kids to get involved in.
Succeeding in College
One thing I did not care about when I started college was classes. Now I wish that I would have. When I went to college, I only went for one reason: to run. I had dreams of going to the Olympics and believed that they were achievable. Everyone from Charleston thought that I could make it. I was the fastest runner they had ever seen, and they saw me running all the time. Most people I knew predicted that I would be in the Olympics, because most people wanted to encourage a young kid and it was easy for them to be overconfident. I thought that if I just stopped drinking and trained a bit harder, I would be fast enough to make it.
I couldn’t have cared less about grades. Running was the only thing on my mind. The old rule of making “C’s” took over. I slept through classes, didn’t take notes, threw away class syllabuses and just floated along. I took my first tests and didn’t do very well, but it didn’t worry me. In high school, I flunked a lot of tests but I could cheat on homework and still pull out a “C.” The big shocker in college was that there were only three tests a semester, and they didn’t even grade homework. About two-thirds of the way through my first semester, I realized that I would have to make straight “A’s” on my final tests to even get a “C” in most of my classes. Then I was hit with another big surprise, the final test would be over everything we covered during the entire semester. Even the information we had already taken tests on. I had no idea that flunking one test could pull my grades down so much.
Here are a few pointers on how to make good grades in college that I, unfortunately, learned the hard way. The first and easiest thing to do is to show up for class and stay awake. Keep your syllabus even if you don’t know what a syllabus is. Trust me, it’s important. Take all of the notes you can. Keep all of the returned papers, tests and handouts given to you. Always know your grade in the class and, most importantly, make sure the professor knows that you think he or she is the smartest person you have ever met, and that their subject is one of the most interesting you have ever studied. It’s even better if you let the professor know they are making this subject so interesting that, for the first time in your life, you’re really enjoying learning about it! You are probably laughing as you read this, but the whole world loves flattery and even crusty old professors, who have heard it all before, love to hear those words tactfully said.
The next thing is to understand the professor’s expectations by asking questions. Everyone says, “There are no dumb questions.” I don’t know if I agree with that, but I do know there are questions that make you look dumb for asking them. First, ask classmates and then the teacher if you’re unsure about something. Asking well thought-out questions will get you noticed by the teacher and classmates.
Imagine that you are the teacher. How would you feel if you spent your whole life preparing to teach eager young minds, only to find that when you pour out your heart to them, nobody cares? Your typical class includes students who are asleep, students who do not seem to care and students who are totally lost. But then, you see this one kid who takes an interest and has a couple of serious questions for you to answer. How would you feel about that kid? I was joking just a bit about flattering the teacher. You do not want to manipulate anyone, but taking an honest interest in the teacher and what they are trying to teach you will help you learn more and will almost certainly improve your grade.
When you are having trouble in class, ask the professor for help. Most teachers will help a kid who earnestly wants to learn. Also, find one or two smarter students in the class and study with them. Share class notes, quiz each other and write sample essay answers for practice. Other students can be a real help when preparing for a big test or finalizing a term paper.
Do all of your reading and try not to put off writing papers, doing assignments or studying until the last minute. Waiting until the last minute is probably one of the biggest temptations for college kids. Many students stay up late each night watching TV or playing video games. Then on the weekends there are football games and parties to attend. Suddenly, the paper is due or the test is tomorrow and they have not written one word or read one page. So they stay up all night cramming for the test/paper and are proud when they make a “C” or “B.” This ability to pull out a passing grade only encourages them to put off class work in the future and do the same thing all over again.
You may think that these things sound simple, but as a freshman I had no idea how to do any of them. I was not the only one. In the old Memorial Hall flag football photo that was taken our freshman year, only seven of us out of about thirty ended up graduating in four years. I was extremely fortunate to make it through my first year with a passing GPA.
My life plan going into college was to become a professional runner, then go into coaching high school track and teaching history. I figured that being a well-known runner and successful coach would be a great launching pad for public office once I was about thirty. I also thought that thirty would be a good age to get married and start a family.
Unfortunately, my lack of effort in high school algebra came back to haunt me. I was not able to pass college algebra, and it was a required class to be a teacher in the state of Missouri. I took the class twice, and the second time I picked the best instructor and focused hard on all of the homework, but each day he would move onto something else before I had learned the last day’s lesson. My laziness in high school forced me to abandon my plan to become a teacher. Had I spent more time learning those lessons in high school, I would not have struggled so much in college.
My habit of not paying attention in high school and not knowing what was going on in class carried over to college. As I mentioned, I almost flunked out of my first semester. After going into finals week and needing almost straight “A’s” to pull out “C’s” in my classes. I ended up with a 2.02 GPA that first semester. In three classes, I made a “C” by only one or two points. Thank goodness I earned a “B” in history to offset the “D” I earned in English. I could have easily gotten a 1.2 GPA, which would have caused me trouble with my running scholarship.
When I went to college, my spelling and grammar skills were way behind. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Fenton, (who also directed the school musical), sat me down and talked to me about college when she learned that I was going to attend SBU. She told me my English skills were not good and that this might cause me trouble in college. She urged me to work hard to improve in that area. She was such a good lady, and I should have listened to her when I had the chance.
As I already mentioned, I didn’t care about grades then either, and I paid very little attention to her advice. It wasn’t long before my political science professor, Dr. Whatley, told me that he needed to talk to me after class one day. He was very kind and told me that he enjoyed having me in class, but he mentioned that he was concerned about my writing. He stressed that he was in no way trying to embarrass me and seemed nervous as he looked down at his desk and slowly asked, “Has anyone ever mentioned that you may have a learning disability?” I told him, “No,” and he explained how my spelling and grammar on the essay tests was very confusing to him.
Dr. Whatley said it was clear that I understood the questions and knew the material, but my writing was extremely hard to read, and he wondered if I was seeing the letters correctly. I confidently brushed him off and told him that I had always been a terrible speller. He encouraged me to get it checked out anyway and told me that in order to graduate I would have to become a better writer.
Fortunately, I did get better as I wrote more, but I still struggle with spelling. I learned to read with the sight method that quickly recognizes letters but does not focus on correct spelling. I have always been able to read fast, and my ability to remember what I read has pulled me through several classes. As a history major, I could read a lot of material quickly and then do well on essay or multiple choice tests.
In life, that talent has helped me overcome my spelling weakness. In my political career, I could read reports, briefings, or budget summaries and easily retain the content for later speeches and press conferences. But I still have to have someone look over everything I write because I cannot see spelling errors. I always told my teachers that someday there would be a computer that I could talk into while it spelled the words for me. Unfortunately, that technology came about twenty years too late for me.
As I’ve already mentioned, our cross country coach was fired and Tim DeClue, a former college All-American high jumper, volunteered to take the job. Coach DeClue was a great high jumper, but knew absolutely nothing about long distance running. He was a computer professor at SBU, and he was one of the greatest guys I’d ever met. He was a good Christian man, and his faith was probably the only thing that allowed him to put up with a nineteen-year-old know-it-all like me. I was disappointed in our training and I let him know it.
Coach Dixon had taught me a great running program, and I was mad because we were not running it. Since Coach DeClue didn’t know about training, we only had one workout a day which usually wasn’t very hard. I ran a lot of extra workouts on my own that year. I had a good freshman year and was one of the top runners on our team.
A typical week of self-guided training included two workouts a day, Monday through Friday, and a long run or race on Saturday. In the off-season my mileage was higher, and as we went through the season we would cut down the mileage and run more speed workouts to try peaking for district and nationals. Running ninety to a hundred miles a week in the off season was required, but we would cut it down to thirty or forty miles a week before district and nationals.
In those ninety-mile weeks, I would get up at 6 a.m. each morning and run five to ten miles, depending on the day. Our main workout was at 4 p.m. each afternoon. We usually hit good tempo runs of seven to twelve miles and I would sometimes sneak a short three to five-miler in on Monday or Tuesday evenings to hit my hundred mile goal. We ran a hard and fast three to five-miler on Wednesday afternoons if there wasn’t a race scheduled that Saturday. On weeks with no race on Saturday, I would get a long, slow twelve to twenty mile run in, and I usually took Sundays off.
A good Monday would consist of a nine-mile run in the morning and a nine-mile run in the evening, with a short, three-mile run later that night. Starting the week off with twenty-one miles made hitting a hundred a lot easier. Then, Tuesday would consist of a six-mile run in the morning, a seven-mile run in the evening, and an easy five-miler that night. If I could get forty miles ran in those first two days of the week, I knew I was home free. Wednesday morning, I would do an easy five-mile, then a hard and fast, timed three-mile run in the evening. Thursday I would hit six miles in the morning and eight miles in the evening, with no night run. Friday would be a slow five-miler in the morning and then a seven-miler in the afternoon. On Saturday I would take a long, slow fifteen-miler, which gave me eighty-eight miles for the week. If I needed a few more miles, I could always put a Sunday run in and easily push into the ninety-mile range for the week.
That was a typical week, and my tempo runs were averaging about 6:00 to 6:30 a mile, while the long, slow runs were about 7:00 to 7:30 a mile. Hard and fast runs were 5:00 to 5:15 a mile, but back then I was light and fast, so running slower than 7:00 a mile was hard unless it was over nine miles. I weighed between 155 and 160 pounds, depending on my mileage in a given week.
When we started speed workouts, we would drop the mileage down and put more intervals in. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were speed workouts of quarter or half-mile intervals and we always had a race on Saturday. The long, slow weekend runs were seldom over twelve miles, but each morning we would run four to six miles to keep the legs loosened up. Speed takes a lot out of you, so the mileage had to come down as we got closer to districts.
Coach DeClue was a kind and patient man, but more than once that year I pushed him to the limit. I would argue with him about my workouts, and sometimes I would just do what I wanted. I kept backing up all of my opinions with Coach Dixon’s program and that spring, during track season, I basically trained myself with Coach DeClue just watching. With all of the other events and athletes to manage, he didn’t have time to pay as much attention to me as he had during cross country season. I had a very good season and Coach took me to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Nationals meet. I set a school record that year in the 10k, running 33:07.
Coach DeClue came up with a great idea for our team to go to West Plains before the fall semester to do mission work during the day and do a running camp with Coach Dixon each morning. Coach Dixon said that would be great, so our team spent two weeks learning Coach Dixon’s program and doing mission work with the First Baptist Church of West Plains.
We ran twice a day and did missions in the afternoon. Coach Dixon also gave one class a day on his running program. After that camp, I never had much trouble convincing Coach DeClue to take my advice about our workouts, and the whole team ran better. We had several kids break school records during those years.
That summer, I stayed in Bolivar and worked as an electrician at the physical plant, which was the maintenance shed at SBU that the repairmen worked out of. I was in charge of changing light bulbs, replacing ballasts, and fixing furnaces and air conditioners. I also hardwired all of the smoke detectors in Memorial, Beasley and Leslie Halls. It didn’t pay much, but I ran a lot, went to my summer classes and worked. I got in great shape but it was very boring and I was lonely. This was the first time I had ever been alone and I found that I didn’t like it. Very few kids stayed in Bolivar for summer school. All of my friends were gone and being alone taught me something about myself that I had never known while growing up in big family.
I also met someone at that time who became a very good friend and mentor to me during my college years. Charlie Miller owned the local jewelry shop and was a runner. In the summer, he put on a 10k road race, and I decided SGA needed to do one too, so I asked him how to organize a race. He gave me a lot of good advice on races, and I started going to him for advice on a lot of other things in life as well. He was so kind and always took time to visit with me.
With his help, I organized the SBU 5000. It was a fun race, and we had a lot of local participation. David Evans, a good friend from Memorial Hall, ended up making a whole big SBU festival called Spring Fest around the race, which was good for recruiting students and improving community relations. You will notice several SBU 5000 T-shirts in family photos taken during the late eighties.
Summer school improved my GPA. I retook English that summer and was able to replace a “D” with a “C,” plus I was able to transfer a history class that I had taken through SEMO and earned a “B” in when I was at Charleston. This allowed me to start my sophomore year with a 2.5 GPA. It was not very good, but it was better than a 2.2.
While I started the year by sending Mom and Dad home with a “Toodle-oo,” I ended it by appreciating them a lot more. I didn’t call Dad much at the beginning of the year, but by the end of it I was starting to wonder what Dad would advise me about different decisions I needed to make. I also developed a new appreciation for Mom’s cooking. When I came home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, I finally realized how much I missed her meals and wished that she was at Bolivar to cook for me all the time.
I even missed having Courts as a roommate after going through three roommates who were a lot more trouble that Courts ever was. Spending time alone made me conscious of just how much I missed having my sisters and brother around to talk to and play with.