It was the fall of 1973. I was a freshman studying biomedical engineering at Purdue University. Purdue is a large midwestern school, with an enrollment of around 35,000 students, situated in the middle of large farms in northwestern Indiana. It’s in the middle of nowhere. You went to Purdue for one of two reasons: because you lived in Indiana and wanted to study agriculture, or because you were an out of state student studying engineering.
Which is why I found myself in one of the largest lecture halls at the university, EE123. EE123, a first floor room in the electrical engineering building, was a cavernous place where mandatory mathematics and engineering classes were taken. One professor for 500 students. Of course, by my modest standards, it seemed to me that he was a very good professor.
I didn’t mind the intimidating nature of the class, because I didn’t know what to expect. I was the older of two boys, so there were no older brothers or sisters to guide my path. My parents were foreigners who didn’t grow up in the American school system, so they didn’t know what to expect. And I was alone at this university – no one else from my high school chose to attend Purdue, so I couldn’t even hang out with people that I’d already known. Once my bags were dropped off and my parents left, I was on my own. Good luck, son! It was marvelous. I was a goofy kid who drifted through life accidentally doing all the right things, guided only by an inner prime directive that said (1) have fun, and (2) whatever you do, do well.
Consequently, while many other students were shocked at the size of the calculus class, I, who had no expectations, waltzed in, found a seat toward the front, opened a notebook, and waited: Let the fun begin! Oh boy, calculus! Good professors! I couldn’t have been happier, because I didn’t know I was supposed to be miserable.
There must have been 300 students in the EE123 lecture hall with me. All mandatory classes were like this. They weren’t weed-out classes. The school wanted you to get your basic courses over with as soon as possible so they could get you into smaller classes, but it was absolutely mandatory you had a firm footing on the basics: mathematics, physics, chemistry, writing classes, a basic general lit class, etc. etc.
Marsha Davis was a fellow freshman who sat close to me. Marsha was a tense, attractive looking brunette from upstate New York. She was studying pre-medicine. Marsha had been prepared for collegiate rigors by her older sister. Her older sister was the successful one of the family, I gathered: she’d gone to an Ivy League school (Marsha wasn’t admitted to Cornell), she’d done better in high school, she’d scored higher on her SATs, and she was more attractive. The way she said it, Marsha considered herself to be the runt of the litter.
Marsha compensated by working harder. Don, Marsha Davis and I were a calculus study team, and we three all did calculus problems before and after class, sat together, helped each other through differentiation tricks, integration tricks, exponentials, logarithms, multiple integrals, coordinate system transformations, and so forth. Don and I lived on the same hallway at Cary Quadrangle, an all men’s dorm, and for a time were inseparable friends. Marsha was our third. She knew the schedule for every quiz and test and could calculate her grade based on her homework and test scores like a computer. She was amazing. I could care less. I did my homework problems and forgot them as soon as I handed them in. To me, it all made sense, but Marsha never got calculus. It was a constant struggle. She would ask us questions about Rolle's Theorem or whatever. I just looked at Don, because I couldn't understand how someone could not understand it. Don would merely laugh and say, "It's intuitively obvious." Biology was kicking her ass too. Marsha bit her nails to the quick and labored on.
Don and I treated Marsha as a sister. Don was a tall rangy hockey player from Michigan. Although he was handsome, there was something fearsome in his visage that caused other young men to keep their distance from him. Don and I told Marsha she should date sensibly and not let men prey on her. We had a protective feeling about her.
Don and I made Dean’s List our first semester and then our first year, which was not unexpected, but also not really deserved. We weren’t working too hard yet. But Marsha deserved every A that she got. We knew how hard she struggled. She made Dean’s List too, but instead of dancing in the streets when she got her report card, she was miserable. Seems she’d gotten one or two Bs. She may have cried. I think she did. I said, Marsha, why distraught? Look, you did so well. She just looked up and said, “But I need straight As to get into medical school.”
Since I did not know anyone who went to college, I had no clue that there was a species of undergraduate called pre-med students. But very soon after starting, I developed an awareness of them: They were always in the library. They were ultracompetitive with not just themselves but each other. They were noncooperative with each other in the extreme. Marsha found the spirit of the pre-med school daunting and unpleasant. She much preferred the convivial engineering atmosphere. I think she would have transferred into the engineering school if she hadn’t developed a morbid fear of mathematics and physics.
She was admitted into the Alpha Delta Pi sorority because of her good looks and her fun personality, which emerged after a few drinks. This helped her social life somewhat. She asked me why neither Don nor I had asked her out on dates when I saw her a few years later. I was puzzled. I’d always thought of Marsha more like a sister than as a dating partner. Don did too. We had offended her without even knowing it.
I should also mention parenthetically that Marsha always wore skirts and dressed fashionably, with scarves, a bit of eye makeup, and some modest jewelry. This set her apart from many women of that time. She had nice looking legs, which drew stares from campus men. Years later other engineering students who happened to be in that same calculus class mentioned me as being that lucky guy who sat next to the dark haired chick in Calculus lectures, you know, that one.
It turns out that Marsha didn’t have much luck with guys. She needed someone as dedicated and serious in school as she was. (This is partly why she enjoyed hanging out with Don and me.) But she also needed someone who had a silly side, someone who could make her laugh. Someone who could take her outside of herself and show her her own foibles, who could say, Marsha, stop taking this so goddam seriously and R E L A X.
Fraternity guys saw in Marsha only what they wanted to see: a petite, attractive woman who could make conversation easily. They’d drive her to dinner in their fancy cars and buy her flowers and dress up for her. They couldn’t get her into bed, however, so that was that. She dated a few off campus guys, but with no more luck.
Marsha was downgrading expectations both academically and socially. By her junior year she’d switched to a straight biology major and dropped her dreams of attending medical school. (She would have made a wonderful doctor.) She was also dateless and unhappy.
We ran into each other occasionally and always promised we’d see each other over dinner or something, but it never happened. My sister Marsha and I were drifting slowly apart. Life was treating her unfairly. It was a sad thing to see.
It was the end of our fourth year when I ran into Marsha again. She was heading into the geology building. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Marsha was looking relaxed in jeans and a backpack. I’d never seen her so casually dressed. Her face wasn't lined with worry. And the sparkle in her eyes! I could have wept. She was glowing.
I was across the street, but crossed over quickly and yelled out to her, “Marsha! It’s so great to see you!” She held out her arms and gave me a big hug. I’d never seen her so happy.
Neither of us was graduating. I was on the six year plan, having done cooperative engineering with NASA and a random walk through various engineering and science disciplines. (I still loved school.) In the meantime, Marsha had switched to geology. She needed to go an extra year. And…
“And… I met a guy.”
“His name is Bill, and he’s also studying geology.” Turns out this mysterious Bill also studied calculus with us that first year. He also remembered Marsha vividly. But he dismissed her as unapproachable. She was too perfect, too good looking.
OK so tell me about him. Is he in a fraternity? No.
Is he outgoing like she is? No. He’s really shy.
What sorts of things does he like to do? He’s into camping and backpacking. He’ll go out west and spend two or three weeks in the backcountry by himself.
Well. I was flummoxed. He’s not at all the kind of person I would have thought would have captured Marsha’s fancy. It was very clear, however, that he had won her over, and in a big way too. This is how Bill won Marsha’s heart.
(Pay attention, guys.)
Bill lived very modestly far off campus, by the U.S. 54 Bypass, which was perhaps five to ten miles from campus. And one day, after they’d gone on one or two dates together, he decided he wanted to see Marsha. Bill didn’t have a car. So he walked.
Marsha grabbed my arm and pinned me with her piercing gaze. She had a surprisingly strong grip from tennis. “He walked from the 54 Bypass all the way to my sorority house just to see me. No one’s ever done that for me before.”
“He walked all that way without knowing if I was at the house or not. If I wasn’t there, he was just going to walk back.”
Marsha was at the AD Pi house, fortunately. The rest is history. Bill had fallen in love with Marsha well before she did. He had a patient attitude she liked. Nothing ruffled his calm. It was just what she needed.
It wasn’t flowers. It wasn’t sweet talk. It wasn’t an impressive body or athletic talents. Bill literally walked miles to get his girl, and it worked.
And that is how Marsha Davis got her boyfriend.