Digging through the artifacts in the Oakland City University library archives can be enlightening, sometimes dredging up little mysteries to solve. On the initial surface, one of my recent discoveries in the archives suggested that early Oakland City College professors held complete power in the classroom and that students often received harsh and sometimes unfair retribution when someone broke a class rule. I also found that to balance out this unequal power arrangement, the college student newspaper seemed to allow students to occasionally blow off steam at instructors and administrators, even at the expense of a full and balanced story.
I happened to come across the story in an article in an Oakland City College Collegian newspaper dated 1931. What made the material even more interesting was that the main focus of the article, Professor Otis Johnson, was present day OCU English Professor Dr. Roxanne Mills’ great uncle. I knew several things about Otis Johnson from reading prior histories of the university. He had been at the college for five or so years before the 1931 episode, and it had been noted in more than one school yearbook during those years that he was an excellent and well respected teacher. By 1931, he and his wife were an important and valued part of the college community and their son, Paul, was a well-liked high school student and skilled basketball player. (Later Paul would be inducted into the Illinois High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.) Professor Johnson had often taught without pay during the Great Depression era, struggling so hard to help raise money to keep OCC open during the financial crisis that it eventually ruined his health. The detailed 1931 story in the Oakland City Collegian that I recently discovered, however, seemed to offer a very different view of the professor.
It was eleven fifteen A.M. Monday, April 27 and chapel being over early the worthy students of economics had foregathered in Johnson’s room to endure the daily recitation ordeal—which serves but to expose ones ignorance. A few dilatory seniors and a love sick couple or two lingered in the hall, awaiting the coming of the professor, reluctant to enter the classroom until the last moment.
Among the loiterers in the hall were a certain sophomore from Indianapolis and his lady love—a fair damsel from Kentucky—and with the ringing of the second bell came a flash of inspiration to these scheming lovers and quickly they concocted a plan which was immediately put into action.
Walking to the door of Johnson’s torture room this love sick plotter falsely announced that Dean Simms had asked him to inform the class that Prof. Johnson would not meet them that day. A mad rush for the door ensured followed by a scramble down stairs and a hurried scattering in all directions.
Soon the errant Professor put in a belated appearance—rushing madly up the walk from the east entrance to the campus—and seeing members of his class idling in the well house and various other places about the campus, hurriedly consulted his watch and breathlessly inquired why his class was not at its post.
He herded the unlucky students whom he caught into his class room and bullied the truth out of them.
We have thought from the first that our dear Professor Johnson is a hard hearted man and the fact that he demanded a five hundred word theme on “The Walkout” from each member of the class confirms us in our belief.
Perhaps the writer exaggerated some, but it does certainly seem unfair that all the students had to suffer in having to write the essay for one student’s misbehavior. Like most stories, however, a little bit of deeper digging uncovered further complexities, in this case an event that might better explain Professor Johnson’s harsh actions regarding the “unfair” Walkout writing assignment. The event was detailed in another article in the Collegian which appeared exactly a week before the Walkout incident.
O. C. Boys Suffer Mishap
Six members of the local high school basketball team were in a serious automobile accident Friday afternoon in route to Cannelton to play a game there. Noble Carey suffered a fractured skull and a wrenched back and five others suffered cuts and bruises.
The team, composed of Paul Johnson, Noble Carey, Orrin Stucky, Ralph Jones, Vaughn Tooley and Eugene Blough left Oakland City Friday just after noon in Johnson’s automobile. They had reached a pint about one mile east of Degonia Springs east of Boonville when the accident occurred. A slight rain was falling making the pavement slippery and Johnson states that he was driving about 35 miles an hour when he felt the car begin to slip. He applied the brakes and the car overturned in a ditch.
Carey suffered a slight fracture of the skull and a badly wounded back. Tooley suffered a severe cut on one knee and all the other boys received cuts and bruises.
Anyone who has a son or daughter can image the state of mind Otis Johnson was probably still in after the wreck the week before. Lingering shock, bouts of anger mixed with relief, and thoughts of looming financial consequences from the wreck probably knocked about in his head as he came up the hill, past the well house, and up to the Administration building where his class was to meet. This would perhaps explain the article’s descriptions of the errant Professor, his belated appearance, and his rushing madly up the walk from the east entrance to the campus.
This understanding further offers an explanation concerning the gap between what is commonly known about OCC professor Otis Johnson and the man revealed in the Walkout article in the 1931 Collegian. With this new knowledge in mind, perhaps Professor Johnson can be forgiven for being a bit grouchy that day.