St. John's in a whirl for 300th Birthday: Alumni and friends gather to celebrate tastefully a milestone year for that dignified and quiet college in Annapolis.

December 15, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

You'd never know there was a 300th anniversary celebration going on at the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis.

No big rival football game or wild tailgate parties. No smiling, waving homecoming queen or huge fireworks extravaganza. For these fun-loving "Johnnies" -- some of whom traveled across country to revisit their alma mater this year -- it's all about lectures, seminars and time capsule burials.

For the past year, this off-beat liberal arts college has been welcoming alumni back for tasteful events that are characteristic of a campus known for its unique charm and traditions. On Friday, a few hundred of the school's closest friends and alumni gathered in powdered wigs, period garb and masks to dance the night away at the Lafayette Ball, the social highlight of the anniversary year.

"Everything in Annapolis is done in a very quiet, sophisticated manner," said Lady Alice Prather, a school supporter whose descendants can be traced to the 1600s. "And that is no exception at St. John's, which is a very small, genteel college. They are an intellectual and cultural oasis in our fair city.

"This is a very, very special event," said Prather, in her black, Colonial shepherdess dress as she glided across the McDowell Hall dance floor with her masked and tuxedoed companion, composer Leonard Moses. "After all, it's not every day you turn 300."

The gala ball was a re-creation of an 1824 event held in the hall in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette's visit to Annapolis.

Decked with boughs of holly, white roses and U.S. flags with 13 Colonial stars, Friday's elegant shindig even managed to get college President Christopher B. Nelson into a pair of black tights.

"People don't always believe it, but we do know how to throw a party here. We just try to be a little understated about it, but sometimes that's not always the case," said Nelson, laughing about his gray velvet waistcoat and buckled shoes -- an outfit worn by John McDowell, the hall's namesake and St. John's first president after the college was granted a charter by the state of Maryland in 1784.

St. John's, which traces its history to the founding of King William's School in 1696, is one of the oldest and sometimes considered one of the most unusual colleges in the country.

It's a school where professors are called tutors -- merely a name explaining that they are the most advanced students in the class -- and where students master geometry by studying Euclid and learn relativity by reading Einstein.

It's a place where many students prefer attending swing dance parties with Billie Holiday tunes blaring from the speakers rather than knocking back cold ones at fraternity keg parties. Or where an April croquet match between Johnnies and Naval Academy midshipmen can be the sports event of the season as spectators dressed in Victorian outfits, white gloves and sun hats cheer the players on.

It's also a campus producing students and alumni who can effortlessly mix the names of Euripides, Aristotle and Ptolemy into everyday conversation and pursue careers in entertainment, business, law, politics and medicine.

It's no wonder that St. John's is planning community seminars on topics from the great books to musical concerts with tunes from the 1690s to round out anniversary celebrations. The college buried a time capsule in September during homecoming.

"We're not all long-haired, hippie freaks," said Emily A. Murphy, 23, a recent graduate who wrote and published a book detailing the school's 300-year history.

"But we do take a lot of pride in the fact that we are unique and different and weird, and we're not the Naval Academy. We've been here so long, we don't have to be loud about our presence here."

Boasting a colorful background, St. John's has endured tough times since the Civil War, when Northern troops used the school as a receiving station and barracks. After its use as a hospital by the medical corps, the library was destroyed by troops who left the school in ruins. Repairs drained the school of money.

By 1884, with the college funds depleted, St. John's became a military school -- and was named one of the country's top five such institutions by the War Department in 1905.

In 1937, with financial troubles again nagging the school, the board hired Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, two academics who had revolutionized educational thinking, to offer a different direction. And so began the New Program at St. John's, which required students to focus their studies on 400 great books.

"We were the enfant terrible of the college world back then because St. John's had come up with this weird idea to go back to the old, liberal education of studying the great books," said Peter Weiss, Class of '46. Weiss received special recognition from the school's alumni association this year for his work in human rights cases and his role as co-president of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms.

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