Aquatics Blog

Joe Hunsaker – College Freshmen

Note to Reader: Dad has written a memoir he has shared with the family. This document is around 500 pages and covers most of the significant events of his life. He wrote about his college swimming experience and we will be sharing these as blog posts (Freshmen, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior years) over the next couple of weeks. While Dad had a great memory, he was not perfect. If you have any additional information or pictures to share, please comment. - Scot Hunsaker

I spent my summer of 1955 in Champaign, Illinois, the home of the University of Illinois, at the invitation of the varsity swimming coach, Mr. Al Klingel.  It was a pleasant summer, primarily because I worked at the country club as a lifeguard and had 2’1/2 months to become familiar with the campus and the lovely community of Champaign/Urbana.  These two sister cities have grown up side-by-side with the University campus straddling both sides of the common city limit boundary line.  My memory of that summer is quite idyllic because it involved very pleasant working conditions, many new friends including and lazy days bike riding around the campus, which was almost deserted and quite picturesque with its many trees, broad campus walkways on the quadrangle and the sleepy stirrings around the fraternities, sororities and rooming houses.

The adjustment of becoming a college student was difficult and yet my particular case was eased considerably by my relationship with the swimming team and the coaching staff.  Many helpful suggestions were given me and doors were opened by coaches and varsity swimmers, which gave me an immediate network on campus, something that most students who attend school out of state seldom have.

In 1955, the NCAA rules stated that freshmen could not compete in varsity competition.  This was based on the rationale that it takes a student the first year to get well-situated and acclimated to the university and, most importantly, to his studies.  In this regard, I believe the rule was correct.  The downside of the rule, however, was the fact that without competition and the motivation for training, the first year becomes sort of a period of limbo with regard to athletic development.  In any case, I tried to swim to a certain degree although there was a lack of incentive because of the eligibility rule.

The fall semester did, however, introduce me to another extracurricular activity, which was the Dolphin Fraternity.  The Dolphin Fraternity had one function and that was to produce the annual Dolphin Show during football weekends at the University.  The Dolphin Show was a water show, which was written, staged, produced and performed in the swimming pool natatorium using the water for most events but also with dry land acts, which took place on a small stage that was built out into the water and was at the center of the pool.  This was my first opportunity to become active in an extracurricular activity other than the swimming team.  Upper classman had written the show and was going to direct it.  It was based upon a television studio, which was a takeoff of a popular TV show that was broadcast out of Chicago at that time.  In any case, the real show featured a host by the name of Dave Garroway, who wore horn-rimmed glasses, was tall and spoke with a rather slow and easy manner.  In any case, the selection of the host/MC for our Dolphin show finally came down to me and I accepted.  It was a great experience and looking back on it now I realized it was somewhat of a gutsy thing for a freshman to volunteer for.  At the time, I felt that a lot of the exciting things in life occur because you take chances and I was willing to take a shot at this opportunity.  We spent weeks preparing the flats and stage craft, practicing lines and acts and then several rehearsals.

The opening night occurred with a full house of 500 parents and students following the football game on campus that day.  The show went fairly well with a minor number of hitches and we all had a great time.  I thought it was especially exciting and fell in love with the Dolphin Show, which became my private project during my last three years at the University.

Later in the month of December we had a freshman/varsity swimming meet, which gave all of the freshmen an opportunity to swim for time.  Most of us had been training to some degree, however, none with the commitment that was necessary if we were eligible for competition.  As I recall, I won the 100- and 200-yard breaststrokes.  Several weeks after the freshman varsity meet, the team left for Fort Lauderdale, Florida for the Christmas vacation training session.  This is still an annual affair and it is the same program that I attended my senior year in high school with Ernie Vornbrock.  As a freshman, we were given the least attractive lodging facilities.  They were still quite good and very conveniently located near the city-owned Casino Swimming Pool.  The two-week period that we spent in Fort Lauderdale was very beneficial.  We worked out twice a day and sometimes three times a day.  In between we would spend the afternoons on the beach or sleep in the morning after breakfast, which was prepared by the coach’s wives, after our early morning workouts.  The beach at Fort Lauderdale was great because it is unrestricted and a public beach for a number of miles, unlike Miami Beach, which has beach property owned by the respective hotels, which prevents walking along the water’s edge.  At nighttime we would usually go out to a restaurant to eat, study, go to movies and sometimes have a beach party.  On Christmas Day there was the annual water show, which included clown diving, fancy diving, synchronized swimming, as well as a number of exhibition races.  On New Year’s Day there was usually an East-West swimming meet.  The coaches divided up the athletes into an east team and a west team.  It was a great opportunity to see some of the best swimmers in the country perform head- to- head even though it was early in the season and the levels of performance were not that good.

The trip back to Champaign from Fort Lauderdale was always a grind because it was over 1,500 miles on two-lane highways.  With the return to school and classes staring one in the face, it was quite different that the excitement of driving down at the beginning of the vacation period.  In those days, the semester ended in late January, which meant that all of us had work assignments including term papers that had to be prepared during our Christmas vacation.  This was always very difficult because it was hard to stay inside and work on school work when your friends were out on the beach or playing in the surf.  Regardless, we managed to make it through our commitments for school and end the semester with passing grades.

The spring semester was somewhat uneventful because I was a unable to swim on the varsity team.  Several of the freshmen did to go two AAU meets as a means of keeping our interest and motivation.  With the arrival of late spring the fraternity became involved in an annual spring rite called Sheequon, which was like a large carnival or a fair held inside the huge armory at the university.  A fraternity and sorority would team up to write, produce, build and operate a large booth, which would have skits or games.  With the arrival of May, I had to decide on what I was going to do for the summer.  I had inquired about a lifeguard job back in St. Louis.  However, I was not real excited about spending the summer there.  I didn’t particularly want to work for the Champaign Country Club again because that could be rather tedious over a long period of time.  In addition, 1956 was an Olympic year (Melbourne, Australia) and while I had entertained thoughts in the last several years of training for the Olympic trials, I felt that my performance at the university my freshman year was mediocre and hardly put me in a position to compete effectively for the Olympic team.

For reasons outlined earlier, I had decided not to spend the summer of 1956 in St. Louis or in Champaign.  Following a weekend visit to the home of one of my fraternity brothers, Ralph Hough, who lived on a lake in Wisconsin, the two of us decided that I could stay with him and his family for the summer months.  Ralph had just graduated and had majored in journalism.  Understandably, the prospects of finding a job in journalism was somewhat difficult for a college graduate looking for an entry-level position, who happened to live in a rural environment on a lake in Wisconsin.  In any case, I made my way to Stoughton, the town close the Lake Kegonsa.

I was able to land a temporary full-time job within a few days.  It was outside work participating in the hay cutting and baling season for a farm family who lived across the highway and back away from the road in a two-story farm house with several barns.

My compensation was $1.00 an hour plus lunch and dinner (in the rural areas at that time, the midday meal was called dinner and the evening meal was called supper, unlike our terminology in which we have lunch at midday and dinner in the evening).

Learning to drive a hay cutter was not very difficult and turned out to be a lot of fun.  I drove a tractor with the cutting rig behind and was told to cut a 40-acre field and do it in a way that did not waste any of the hay.  Once the field was cut, which took two days, I was then briefed on how to work the hay baler.  As with many farmers of that time the owner hired a baling machine and its owner to come in and bale the hay with a percentage of the hay going to the contractor.  My job was to ride on the hay wagon and catch the bales as they came out of the machine, which was being pulled along by a tractor.  It was terrible work because the hay chaff got in my clothes, down my back, in my mouth and in my eyes.  Very quickly the owner gave me a pair of goggles to wear, which helped avoid the eye problem.  All in all I worked approximately one week and it was great fun and a quick start for the summer.  I have to admit that during this farm work I frequently thought about friends of mine or people I knew who were training for the Olympics.  For that reason, I felt guilty about my swimming and managed to develop some sort of a training program under the circumstances.

Throughout the summer I would swim, usually every other day and sometimes every evening.  Since there were no parallel walls I would make long distance swims out into the lake and come back.  We did not have swimming goggles at that time and so it was kind of creepy swimming in a lake that did not have clear water.

I also did dry land exercises in a shed that belonged to the Hough’s and rigged up several weights so that I could do a little bit of weight work. I also ran in the evening and on one occasion ran all the way from Stoughton the Lake Kegonsa, which was about five miles.

During the 4th of July weekend, Ralph and I drove up to the tip of the Green Bay Peninsula in Wisconsin.  The beauty of that state is tremendous and I had not been aware of how rugged it really is.  We camped out for two evenings, the last one being on the shore of the Green Bay in a State Park. Sunset was very dramatic and led to a quiet time around the campfire during which we were just lost in our respective thoughts.

The week finally came for me to leave Lake Kegonsa and go back to St. Louis before my return to the campus.  I am sure I had outlived my welcome by that time.  It was difficult for someone of my age and experience to understand how difficult it can be to have a stranger in your home for eight weeks.

Follow along the next leg of Joe Hunsaker's college journey with Joe Hunsaker - College Sophmore

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