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The Timid Generation
William Johnson
March 11, 1968
The popular view is that youth is in revolt, but a look at Duke University suggests that a professor there, Jack Preiss (right), is closer to the truth: quiet anxiety is the prevailing mood
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March 11, 1968

The Timid Generation

The popular view is that youth is in revolt, but a look at Duke University suggests that a professor there, Jack Preiss (right), is closer to the truth: quiet anxiety is the prevailing mood

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Duke University probably would like nothing so much as to be utterly Ivy League. But, of course, it is in North Carolina and, for better or worse, North Carolina is not Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut or even New Jersey. No, Duke is not Ivy League, not even Ivy League with a drawl. For miles beyond the 7,000 acres of pleasant pine stands named Duke Forest there are other pine woods, unnamed, and they are laced with innumerable squiggles of sylvan roads leading to settlements of fundamentalist fiddlers and secret sunlit glades full of steaming distilleries of white lightning. The Bible Belt holds up the moral pants of the region, some radio stations feature programs of smite-the-devil evangelism and it is not unusual to dial in on such witnessings as that of a woman yelping gleefully that she prayed and—"Instantly, brother! Instantly!"—a growth the size of a hen's egg vanished from her shoulder. In North Carolina, Demon Rum is allowed in public only if you semismuggle your own bottle (usually concealed in a paper bag) into a restaurant that is licensed to serve setups to "brown-baggers." Legal though drinking is, the furtive logistics required tend to discourage any true enjoyment of it outside your own hall closet, which, they say, is exactly what the state's Baptist-oriented legislature figures the Lord has in mind.

Duke gets along all right in North Carolina, for a sizable percentage of the people in the state are neither fundamentalist nor particularly folksy. And those who care most about Duke have an affinity for airs and values that are as Ivy as they are Tarheel. For example, when they come down for The Game at Duke each November against the University of North Carolina the dead-grass parking lots around the old stadium in Durham are aswarm with flocks of cashmere jackets and tweedy plaid skirts—sort of mini in concept, but quietly appealing instead of thigh revealing—and almost everyone is munching something like deviled ham sandwiches from the tailgates of station wagons, or maybe mixing martinis, illegally, of course, on the roofs of low-slung, high-priced sports cars. It could be Cambridge.

But it is Durham, N.C., a thriving, workaday community with a hard-selling chamber of commerce. Durham has its share of up-to-date urban problems, such as traffic jams, public housing and a resistance to total racial integration that reflects not so much red-neck bigotry as it does a far broader U.S. malaise—the smug white citizen's passive but immovable resentment at having his suburban inertia threatened, taxed or tilted ever so slightly because of a black man's needs. Durham is built of, from, by and because of tobacco. Each day the factories founded by the Liggetts, the Myers and the Dukes produce a colorful river of 14.5 million cellophane-wrapped Chesterfields, Pall Malls, Lucky Strikes and the like. Each package is stamped with the warning that smoking may be hazardous, even though the town would sink in ruin if everyone believed it.

Durham's calendars are filled with Kiwanis Club luncheons and Methodist Sunday School affairs, and the layers of its social strata are quite rigidly defined. It is a place that seldom tempts the emotions, the morals or the imaginations of the people who live there. Of course, that is true of a lot of college towns—and noncollege towns, too—and Duke University does not necessarily suffer from Durham's lack of distinction anymore than Yale does from New Haven's.

Yet at Duke there is an air of docility, a feeling of acquiescence to the sturdy, placid mood of Durham. Oddly enough, the atmosphere is somehow unsettling because of its very calm. These are supposed to be the Sacrilegious '60s, the years of youth in rebellion, the decade when all the values and all the valuables accumulated by the Over 30s are supposed to be under siege by blazing young dissidents. This is, by headline acclaim at least, the era when a man can hardly respect a dollar—let alone worship it—without being accused by some bearded child of committing a crime of moral turpitude. These supposedly are the years when people can smell the very fabric of the American Way smoldering in the ashes of every draft card destroyed. At any rate, there are precious few pulpits or editorial pages or polished-prose magazines that have not recently propagated an alarmed message about youth in revolt. But if this era of revolt is not all slick-paper myth, then it is something that has passed Duke University by, flowed around it, like an army skirting a city to which it can return and lay siege any time it pleases.

Because the emotional detachment pertains to all aspects of campus life, sport, too, has dimmed at Duke.

It may be no horrendous loss, but the heady Saturdays of constantly winning football teams at Duke are almost surely things of the past. When Wallace Wade, now 75, retired to his cattle farm 18 years ago, he took with him a bit more than his memories. With Wade as coach there were sellouts almost every week in the 45,000-seat Duke stadium, which is now named after Wade. People came for hundreds of miles through the North Carolina piney woods to see a clash between teams that might well be among the best that year. No more. As a matter of economic policy, Duke seldom plays more than four games a year at home. In 1967 there were just three in a 10-game schedule. The reason is that the team usually does not draw more than 27,000 or so people for home games. On the road, Duke does much better at the box office, thanks to the fact that nearly all of its alumni live away from North Carolina.

Under Wade, Duke football teams compiled a dazzling 110-36-7 record, and in 1941 he presided over what is likely to be the proudest achievement ever for Duke football. His team got the Rose Bowl bid that season but, as everyone too old to burn draft cards will remember, 1941 was not a good year—particularly after Dec. 7. Everyone was suddenly worried that the Japanese might bomb, strafe or invade the West Coast, and the military flatly canceled all large public gatherings, even the Rose Bowl. But Wallace Wade had come to like those Rose Bowl games; he had coached in four others. Since the East Coast was not considered to be under siege, he called California and suggested that the game be played at Duke. Thus, for the first and only time, the Rose Bowl was played outside of California and bucolic little Durham became Pasadena East for a day.

Duke rented bleachers from every school within trucking range and enlarged the stadium to 57,000 seats. Local residents threw open their homes to spectators, and even the drinking press was taken care of with a supersecret bar upstairs in an old Durham mansion. Wade handled most of the logistical details himself and, as he admits now, he overdid the impresario bit and underdid his coaching, for his team was upset by Oregon State 20-16.

To be sure, there have been good football teams since Wade left. Duke twice has been to the Orange Bowl and once to the Cotton Bowl. Yet in the past five years something exceedingly average has happened; the team record has dropped to 24-24-2. Not only, they say, will Duke never again play host to a bowl game, it may never again play in one.

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