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.


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.

"It gave the school a certain excitement back then," said Weiss, a New Yorker who returned for the school's homecoming in September but ducked a seminar on Shakespeare's "King Lear" because he had failed to read the assignment.

"I was going to participate," said Weiss. "But I followed what St. John's always taught us and that was 'If you haven't read the book, don't bother going to seminar.' That stuff really stays with you."

St. John's has about 400 students at its main campus in Annapolis. Another 350 students are on its second campus in Santa Fe, N.M., which was opened when college officials decided to expand enrollment but wanted to maintain a small student body in Annapolis.

Students, all of whom must enter the school as freshmen regardless of how much education they may have, study the same material at the same time. No tests, no midterms and no finals are given. Students attend seminars and are graded on oral exams and a senior essay. It doesn't come cheaply. Students pay about $27,000 a year for that unique college experience.

Today, the school boasts a distinguished list of alumni including philanthropist Paul Mellon, Time magazine editorial director Ray Cave, Newt Gingrich's speech writer Robert George and Lee David Zlotoff, writer and director of the recent movie "The Spitfire Grill." Another notable alumnus, Francis Scott Key, founded the college's Alumni Association.

But it's not just the curriculum that sets the school apart, the school's supporters say; it's the whole outlook on college life from parties to athletic prowess.

St. John's is probably the only place in Maryland where one can find a "bloodless" version of lacrosse, in which players cannot touch each other at all, their sticks can strike only below the knee, and they must run the ball into the goal instead of shooting it in.

"Oh, don't get me wrong, we're not stodgy or stuck up or dull by any means," said Daniel J. Schoos, a 1986 graduate who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

"We cut loose and dance and drink and socialize just like any other college campus. It may look sedate to the outside world how we're celebrating our anniversary, but inside, we're having a good time."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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