My love affair with TU, by alumnus Gustavo Coronel

Gustavo Coronel, (BS ’55) geology

An April morning in 1951, I left New York City for Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had been studying English for 15 weeks at Queens College before going on to The University of Tulsa to study geology. I had traveled to New York City from Los Teques, Venezuela, a town of about 10,000 people, quite a change of scenery for a 16-year-old, small town boy. I paid $19 for the Greyhound bus ticket and started on my 42-hour trip to Oklahoma.

We traveled from New York to Saint Louis and, from there on to Tulsa, with some brief stops to get something to eat. My first travel companion was a black soldier to whom I gave some Venezuelan cigarettes. At a point in time he stood up and left to the back of the bus. I thought I had said something he did not like but I later found out that we had reached the border of Missouri, where blacks were discriminated.

My second companion was a sweet old lady who looked very concerned when I told her I was going to Tulsa. She told me that she understood the Indians were still in the war path.

I fell in love with Tulsa at first sight. Los Teques, my hometown, was a small, charming community and New York an overpowering metropolis. Tulsa was a city in the human scale, with wide avenues lined by trees, with schools and churches all over the place. Downtown had a few tall buildings, up to 15 stories high, but the city was mostly flat with single homes, most of them with well-kept gardens. There was a big, artificial lake, several parks, a zoo and several museums, one of them dedicated to western American art, particularly the works of Frederick Remington.

In Tulsa I found the ideal balance between a big city and a small town. When I arrived at the Tulsa bus station I decided to walk to the university to save some money. In those days the suitcases did not have wheels. During the walk I got a good first impression of the city. I arrived at the university U and saw, at its center the imposing Mc Farlin Library, built of limestone and granite from the surrounding mountains. I had received in the mail a map of the campus and this allowed me to identify the different buildings along the U: the men’s dormitory, John Mabee Hall and the Engineering Building on the one side and the Music School, the Business school and the women’s dormitory, Lottie Jane Mabee Hall, on the other. The center of the U was a well-kept, large green.

TU had about 2,000 students, one professor for every 14 students and an administrative body of some 60 persons, including security and maintenance workers. Much of the work was done by the students themselves, in exchange for food and, if I remember correctly, some tuition discounts. In a second line behind the U there were smaller buildings, including another dormitory. A little further away the university had a large stadium, Skelly field, where football was played. This seemed to me an impressive infrastructure for such a small amount of students.

There were also fraternity and sorority houses near the main campus. These organizations were a mixture of social clubs and secret societies with, it seemed to me, strange initiation rituals. They were exclusive and demanded special attributes from their prospective members. Coming from Venezuela, a complete outsider, I did not even try to belong to one of them.

The imposing infrastructure was mostly financed by donations from the alumni. At this time the university had a fund of about $100 million and prominent alumni had donated entire buildings to the university. I found this admirable because in Venezuela the tradition of donations from alumni was (and is) almost non-existent. In the 1950s almost all Venezuelan universities were state-owned and were free (in fact, they still are). Free education was considered a right by the students and, as they graduated they felt no sense of duty regarding financial support to their alma mater. This striking difference between the two countries largely explains the reasons for Venezuelan underdevelopment, the belief that the state must assume all burdens and must provide all basic services either free or at subsidized costs.

Like most international students that are uprooted from their familiar surroundings I experienced a cultural shock, coming to Tulsa from a small Venezuelan town. However, it was not as strong as it could have been because Tulsa was a placid city. People were kind and cordial and I immediately became aware that they emphasized the positive components of my personality. In my hometown, as a rather unattractive teenager I was often the target of unkind comments that led me to social isolation. When I arrived in Tulsa my self-esteem was very low. But at TU people told me: “Your English is very good,” “Your accent is very nice.” “You have pretty brown eyes.” I was particularly happy when a girl told me I had “bedroom” eyes. I considered this comment very promising, although the bedroom never really materialized.

The kind treatment I received in Tulsa did wonders to my self-esteem. I started having a much better opinion of myself. This was one of the several wonderful gifts I received from Tulsa. The timid, insecure person I had been in Los Teques began a transformation, the worm becoming a butterfly. Since nobody knew about me  in Tulsa I decided I could be any person I wanted to be. I had never danced in Los Teques but started dancing in Tulsa, with the help of a couple of lessons at the Arthur Murray studio. I had natural rhythm and I added a lot of improvised steps that everybody in Tulsa took as genuine.  I acted at Varsity Night at the university, wearing a Venezuelan native dress called a “liquiliqui,” I sang “Besame Mucho,” made a few jokes which were so  bad they were good and even did a tap dancing routine, “Tea for Two”  teaming with Tom Sullivan, a student from New York.

My first roommate in John Mabee Hall was Lee Hall, from Nevada. He kept his side of the room very well organized and had an impressive collection of multicolor shirts neatly hanging in the closet. In my second year I moved to Kendall Hall and had a roommate, Tom Tipping, who shared with me a great love of classical music. The next room to ours was occupied by Ronnie Modell, a trumpet player. Ronnie later on became a member of the New York Symphony orchestra, working under Leonard Bernstein. A few years ago I made contact with him.

Tipping and I became used to studying with classic music playing in the background. Brahms was good for chemistry. Wagner was excellent for physical geology, Rachmaninov helped with algebra and Gershwin was welcome at all times.

Classical music also provided me with welcome, unexpected funds. The music students had a game which consisted in identifying musical compositions played in a record player by the “house”, a kind of roulette. I started to participate in this game and, being a geology student, I posed no apparent threat to the “house”. In fact, I started winning consistently since I had been listening to music since I was a child and knew composers the musical students had not even heard of. I won more than once recognizing McDowell, a relatively little known composer I was very familiar with because he had been a student of the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño.

I also started to make a little money singing Spanish in a Tulsa downtown nightclub.

In my second year at TU my sister, Cristina, came from Venezuela to study a semester at the university and stayed at Lottie Jane Mabee Hall. One night I was returning from a movie and saw a big crowd in front of the dormitory where my sister was staying. I went closer and heard shouts from the windows and saw   some of the male students trying to get into the dormitory. I planted myself in front of the door and shouted that anyone trying to enter would have to fight me. There was great confusion in the faces of the boys and I heard shouts from the girls, something about “my hero”, mixed with laughs.

Next day in the cafeteria the story of the day was about the Venezuelan jerk who had tried to spoil the panty raid because he thought his sister was in danger. Opinions were mixed, some blamed my father, some my mother.

As I started my geological studies I welcomed the manner they were conducted. Every Friday we took a Quiz, a test on the material given during the week. This was easy, as the amount of new material was limited. The results of these quizzes made up a sizable percentage of the final grade. The final exam, although important, was not the only deciding factor. This meant that if I studied a little every day I had an excellent chance of getting a good grade. In Venezuela our system relied primarily on the final test. The material to be digested by the end of each semester was enormous. We studied into the long hours of the night, day after day, before the test. Many students took pills to keep awake and, by the time they sat in front of the test, many were mental wrecks. I felt the system at TU was highly civilized. Only once I came close to failure. I had to take a final test on Paleontology and the night before I had spent most of my time in a date. The results of my test were poor and my professor wanted to know the reason. I explained it to him and he said: “As these results are inconsistent with your weekly quizzes, I will give you another final, come tomorrow to my office.” I went and found the test on his desk with a note: “Answer questions and leave test on my desk.” I did much better and gave me a passing grade but also told me that I had been irresponsible. This admonition was all I needed never to fail my responsibility again.

As I left the room he added: “I gave you a second chance because you have been the best Venezuelan student I ever had.” I later found out that I was the only Venezuelan student he had ever had.

University life in TU was idyllic. There were no labor, student or professor strikes like the ones we frequently had in Venezuela, there were no “professional” students, those who never graduate because they become political leaders within the university classrooms. There were no recurrent financial crises such as the ones afflicting our universities. The walls of the university buildings were free from graffiti or “revolutionary” slogans. Libraries and class rooms were open to students. Books, new or used, could be found in the bookstore of the university, together with all kinds of personal utensils and university logos and memorabilia. All of this helped to identify the student with its alma mater, to make them feel members of a big family.

For the size of the university it was surprising the amount of sports and cultural events throughout the whole year: games, concerts, plays. The surrounding areas abounded in small eateries and drug stores where you could either get a hamburger or a couple of alka seltzers and both were often required. The owner of one of them, Ben, was like a big father to us. We could always eat there until our monthly check arrived. My father sent me $90 a month, which almost lasted until the end of the month, not quite, but the gap was filled by Ben. In my second year I earned a Shell Company scholarship that ended my financial worries.

My favorite place was the McFarlin Library, which I remember with long and tall study halls of partly medieval aspect. Few would know that this library of a small mid-western university would have so many treasures. It would come to possess the best collection of James Joyce manuscripts outside of Dublin.

I came out of Tulsa with a degree, yes, but, almost more importantly, with a new personality. TU prepared me for life. I almost got married to a girl of blue eyes and long legs but her mother disapproved of me, because I was not very religious. I have never forgotten either the girl or the mother.

I graduated in 1955. When I was a senior I once sat in a bench near the TU green and reflected that after many years I would come back to this bench to think back of my beautiful Tulsa days. I thought then that a son of mine would also graduate from TU. I smelled the air and admired the colors of the autumn leaves. I have been back to Tulsa many times after I graduated. When I returned to celebrate the 50 years of my graduation I sat on that bench. My son had graduated from TU Autumn leaves were turning and the air smelled just as before. It was a sweet, melancholy moment.

TU gave me several gifts. One was education. Another was self-esteem. A third was the gift of generosity. I became a Distinguished Alumnus, a member of the College of Engineering Hall of Fame and a member of the Board of Trustees.

I have been overwhelmed by distinctions from TU. Although I have had a very successful life in terms of career and personal happiness, I never made any money and have been unable to give TU any significant material gift. I almost succeeded in getting a million dollars from the Venezuelan state oil company to fund a chair at the university but this attempt failed at the eleventh hour due to Venezuelan internal politics. At the end I could only give TU my love.

Every time I return to Tulsa and get to the U I feel I am, again, at home.