The news is real. Barack Obama will be on the WCU campus on April 2, along with Chris Matthews, for an episode of “Hardball.” Since I’m going to be out of town anyway, it won’t really effect me, but it’s giving me flashbacks to my undergrad days.
In 1988, when I was at Wake Forest, George HW Bush and Michael Dukakis debated on campus. Don’t get me wrong; this event was one of two that put WFU on the national map (the other was recruiting the nation’s #1 ranked high school basketball player), and I’ve ridden the coattails of those moments ever since. However…
Three things about that week in 1988 that stick out in my head. First, there wasn’t any space on campus large enough to accommodate the press corps besides the cafeteria. Neither was the cafeteria large enough to accommodate the entire press corps AND the students. Guess who won? That’s right–for an entire week, the student body had to either: (1) eat off campus–more on that in a minute; (2) eat in the snack bar–nasty pizzas, burgers, etc; or (3) live on whatever we could find in the unreliable snack machines around campus. I ate in the snack pit most of the time anyway, but the lines got 30 times longer and the staff (unsurprisingly) got 30 times crankier.
Second, security on campus was ridiculously tight. Wake was (maybe still is, I don’t know) the kind of campus where you didn’t even need your ID card to check books out of the library. As long as you could tell somebody the number, that was good enough. That was even true at the Bursar’s Office, where I worked for year; we’d give people student loan checks without ID. So for this particular week, you can’t imagine how troubling (inconvenient, annoying, and paranoia-inducing) it was to walk across campus, knowing that any moment somebody in a suit, probably carrying a loaded gun, would demand, “ID! Now!” And if you didn’t have it on you, they’d escort you directly the campus security office, where an officer would check you out. I don’t know of single instance where they caught somebody who wasn’t supposed to be around, but they hassled hundreds of people. It was worse trying to get back onto campus if you left (to go eat somewhere besides the snack pit, for example). Both entrances were guarded; every car that came in got checked. It was ludicrous.
To top all this off, after a week of low-food-high-security silliness, the university announced that of the 1400 seats in the chapel (where the debate was happening), students were allotted 30 of them. Yes, 30. And of those 30, the Student Government Executive Council got 8 of them. That’s right. Twenty-two students out of nearly 4000 were able to see the debate, after our campus got taken over for a week. It was outrageous.
About two months after the debate, former President Gerald Ford was on campus; his son was the Director of Resident Life, and it wasn’t unusual for him to come by occasionally. This particular day, I was standing on a balcony, hanging a sign for a Student Union event when I saw President Ford and a small entourage of Secret Service agents approaching the building. In one of my klutzier moments, as I turned to look at them coming, I accidentally kicked a pair of scissors off the balcony. They landed about 10 feet from President Ford, and suddenly his Secret Service agents were yelling and scrambling (nobody drew a weapon, thank goodness, or I’d probably have fallen off the balcony in shock). They yelled at me for a few minutes for being a menace to society, in full view of hundreds of other students walking around on the Quad, and then decided I was too klutzy to be really dangerous–an assessment I heartily concurred with.