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The White Rock Days

In 1960 my college acceptance letter from New Mexico State University assigned me to a dormitory called White Rock, which sounded pretty exotic to a seventeen-year-old from Carlsbad.

These artifacts of 1960s college days, link to an article about White Rock, NM.

In the blush of that vernal autumn I arrived with conventional gear and airy surmise. It was the days of slide rules and portable typewriters; record players and footlockers; brief cases and spiral notebooks. I even brought a shelf of real books.

The dorm proved to be a collection of recycled barracks from White Rock, New Mexico. Surplus WW II barracks were the go-to temporary buildings of the day, and they'd been pulled onto the campus in response to the GI Bill. There was no air conditioning. The bathrooms and washing machines were in the middle of the building, near a tiny lobby with ugly chairs. I lived in White Rock one semester until the slick new Regents Row complex opened. We haven't found many actual pictures of White Rock, save from a story about one of them burning in 1966, and a distance shot below, so we've included some protypical views from other venues to suggest the moment. If you're wanting to flip through some old NMSU yearbooks about now, click the title block, at the top.

I don't know if this is the actual building I lived in for the fall 1960 semester, but if not, it was a neighbor. These things were always a fire hazard. Picture links to the story.
This picture of Regents Row links to the history of buidlings at New Mexico State University.
The picture above is from 1962, looking over the newly opened Regents Row complex, with the soon to be empty White Rock Barracks in the background. The picture below is an enlarged detail of the barracks. I was walking just outside the right-most barracks building on the afternoon of October 13, 1960, headed for the cafeteria. I’d been listening to a baseball game but was certain the Yankees had it won. I was startled by a rousing cheer behind me when Bill Mazeroski hit his World-Series-winning homerun for Pittsburgh. I missed it by a couple of minutes. The picture links to a story about the pitiful decline in White Rock traditions by 1963.
This enlargement of the above picture is a rare glimpse of White Rock Barracks. Dave Denzler, David Sears, and I lived in the one on the right. The picture links to a Youtube recording of the famous Mazeroski homerun. We appreciate Mr. Buccos(?) for posting it, but he betrays his youth when he calls it the greatest homerun ever. That would be Bobby Thomson's shot heard 'round the world in 1951.

White Rock Barracks just before destruction in 1963

David W R Denzler, Roomie

David Denzler helped resurrect the dormant literary magazine, "Puerto Del Sol". Picture links to the story.

My roommate was David Denzler, also a freshman, but with a difference. David had graduated from Albuquerque Adademy, a prestigious private school, and was eons ahead of me in sophistication. He majored in mathematics, because, he said, the weirdest people he knew were mathematicians. His high school Latin teacher had been the poet, Robert Creeley and David had lots of stories. David loved classical music, opera, and literature. He had a girlfriend, owned a car, and knew how college life should proceed. He'd even attended a semester at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, marking him as a venerated elder, although he was younger than me.

David Denzler was instrumental in resurecting the dormant literary magazine, "Puerto Del Sol".

I was without such savoir vivre, but barely realized it. I wanted to be a physicist, and had a goal of learning everything. I had a staggering case of homesickness that nearly put me on a bus back to Carlsbad. I affected a taste in jazz, although I tolerated David’s classical stuff, since he owned the record player. In retrospect I see my musical taste as a mimic of that era's intellectual cool set. Eventually, I changed my major to math also, because it was easier than physics, and I was beginning to suspect I wouldn't be able to learn everything.

David got a gorgeous meerschaum pipe (similar to this one) for Christmas.

David realized the beds in our tiny room were stackable. That freed up space for the easy chair he'd hauled down from Albuquerque. He spent a lot of time in it, reading, studying, and philosophizing. He had a souvenir from a bout of childhood polio, but he made no concession to it, except for a slight limp. His parents visited a few times and they took us out to dinner at La Posta. His father was a well-known doctor in Albuquerque. David's pride was a meerschaum pipe. He also got brownies from home, which he shared from a fruitcake box kept in the closet. He was a valuable asset to a bewildered young freshman, although I didn't realize it at the time, and wouldn't admit it to myself for years.

Farris Bakki (back right) was one of David's most interesting friends, a renaissance man of mystery.

All the rooms were off a single hall, and ours was the first room nearest the parking lot. We got a lot of visitors, partly because of our location, and partly because of David’s gregarious and scholarly mien. People were always dropping in for help with homework or just friendly advice from the Sage of White Rock. He made friends among some of the foreign students, from Iraq and other middle eastern countries.

Newly minted PhD Tom Erhard, Frank Thayer, fellow White Rock denizen, and Dave Denzler huffed breath back into the defunct literary magazine renamed, Puerto Del Sol.

One of these, Farris Bakki (see above), introduced us to Turkish coffee, and became a confidant and portal to the world beyond. Dave and Farris shared a love of Madame Butterfly. There was always a discussion going on.

David involved himself with Frank Thayer, another White Rock resident, in reviving the campus literary magazine, renamed Puerto del Sol.

Marion Hardman, campus legend, and longtime stalwart of the English Department, had helped found the Rio Grande Writer, at some point in the 30s or 40s. It died in 1949 from lack of interest, and in early 1960, newly arrived Tom Erhard conspired to reignite the long cold ashes. Frank Thayer, Denzler, and others helped him get it going again, with a new name, during the 1960-1961 term.

For some reason the current English Department thinks literary life at NMSU began in 1964, but the youth have a fuzzy concept of history.

One night a frequent visitor, it might have been Charley Weaver, wandered in to get David's help with a math problem. He paused as if seeing the room for the first time and observed to the assembled, “This room has a lot of character.” He was right.

David Sears, Denizen of White Rock

David Sears at Cordele High School, Cordele GA. Dave fell into my roommate's orbit. He befriended me as well, and taped a tiny portion of his 78 collection for me.

Denzler made friends with David Sears, another White Rocker from the other end of the long hall, and the three of us hung out frequently in our spare time. David Sears was from Georgia, and had a jazz collection acquired from various junk shops. Today we would call these relics, “78s,” but at the time they were just records, distinguished from LPs and 45s. That jargon and its nuances are now as foreign as slide rules and typewriter erasers.

Jimmy Rushing has an expansive fame, and this song marks his literary influence.

I knew very little about jazz at the time, an ignorance of which I was largely ignorant, having heard of Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and little else. My older brother was a jazz aficionado, so naturally I assumed I knew about it too. David Sears introduced me to Bix Biederbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy McPartland, and a slew of other artists I've cherished since.

This Grundig looks similar to David Sears' but his had more exposure of the mechanism of whirling spindles, relays and armatures.

David Sears had a Grundig tape recorder, reel-to-reel of course, and he agreed to record some of his collection for me. The Grundig was a wonderful machine. Push a button, and lights flashed, spindles whirred, relays clicked, and armatures maneuvered, during a moment of mechanical ponderation. Then, smooth-as-fresh-cream, it took off like a wisely trained race horse (I was learning similes and metaphors in Freshman Comp). We made two tapes of my favorites from his collection. I typed up notes. The Grundig picture links to a Jimmy Rushing song we would have recorded if David had owned a copy.

Jimmy Rushing did an interview in 1962. Wish I'd known at the time.

The tapes have survived, with only a short interval of magnetic interference owing to me hitting record, decades ago, during a playback. I had no way to play them after about 1970, until I recently had them transferred to digital media. Some day I need to capture the notes as well.

I regret losing touch with David Sears in 1963, and in failing to reconnect for six decades. Now, I find he went on to great things, including that greatest achievement, a loving family. Click this recent picture for the story.

Now, of course, many of the recordings can be found online. One of our favorites was Barney Bigard playing “Steps Steps Up,” and “Steps Steps Down.” There was a lot of Coleman Hawkins, a little Duke Ellington, and some great Jimmy Rushing.

I lost track of David Sears. He left NMSU about 1963, and, as I recall, headed for California. He may have been an IT consultant in Atlanta, but I’m not sure. I hope, wherever he went, he kept those records, and that magnificent Grundig machine. What a piece of engineering that was.

Tom Erhard was a powerful, and positive, influence in many young lives during his long tenure at NMSU. We took him for granted, not realizing his rarity, but Frank Thayer corrected the record in the link above.
Here's a short bio of Mr. Rushing after he left Count Basie. He got around.

We all moved out of White Rock Barracks at the start of the next semester, into the swanky knew digs called Regents Row. That soon-to-be-demolished complex was the dream dorm of its time: air conditioned with a bathroom shared between two rooms. I learned the word "suitemate," and found out how to manipulate the sealed thermostat by draping a damp cloth over it. My education was thorough. My next three years were spent in Garcia Hall, now an administration building, more primitive than Regents Row, but lower "camping out" credentials than White Rock.

A moment for the ages occurred when David Sears and I listened to Jimmy Rushing sing "Good Morning Blues". Could there be such a talent?

I now recognize my White Rock experience as a watershed. My old roommate and I seldom saw each other during the next three years, but the friendships, acquaintances, and social understandings acquired in that first year informed the botheration that followed.

David Denzler went on to be the editor of Puerto del Sol, and encouraged my writing efforts, and we both formed friendships with an important mentor, Tom Erhard, in the English Department (see link above). That semester at White Rock is the nmeonic touchstone for my college days.

I still have the tapes Dave Sears and I made of his ancient record collection, and hearing them connects up some old memories, but the music is just a click away.

An icon of 1960s college chic.
Louis Armstron All Stars, St James Infirmary.
Louis Armstrong, Wild Man Blues
Duke Ellington, Take the A Train.
Bix Beiderbeck, Singin the Blues.
Fletcher Henderson, Teapot Dome Blues.
Duke Ellington, The Mooche.
Cootie Williams, Echoes of Harlem.
Jimmy Rushing, Good Morning Blues.
Jimmy Rushing, Sent for You Yesterday.
Barney Bigard, Steps Steps Up.
Barney Bigard, Steps Steps Down.

Magic in the Desert

Peris Atkins claimed the 1960 Aggies' season was "magic"

In those days it was common for young men to join the service out of high school, and attend college later. Several of these veterans lived in White Rock, and considered the accommodations upscale. One NMSU alumnus, Pervis Atkins, who was part of the undefeated Aggie football team of 1960, lived a while in White Rock. His picture at right links to a remembrance of his experience. Here is how the barracks were described in a history of the NMSU agricultural department.

This picture of Pervis Atkins links to a review of Dan Perry's book, "Magic in the Desert".

"Right after the war, when veterans were returning, they were given priority for jobs. Since Ralph Skaggs was not a veteran, he was invited to make way for a veteran to run the State Experiment Farm in June 1946. He immediately called Professor Cunningham and asked if the faculty position was still available. Since many veterans were being discharged and wanted to go back to school under the GI Bill of Rights, this proved to be a very good change in jobs. During the war the dairy department had an occasional student from some country other than the U.S., who pursued a degree in animal husbandry and required a course in dairying as part of the curriculum, but no U.S. citizens were ever enrolled in the department during these years.

"The first dairying class in the fall of 1946 contained fifty returning GIs where there had been almost no students in the previous four years. The campus was swamped with GIs. Old army barracks buildings were moved in and used as student housing. Married GIs were placed in small trailers. Both temporary types of housing were located along the south edge of the campus. Some of these came from the construction town of White Rock, NM, near Los Alamos. They were named White Rocks barracks and given the number corresponding to their building number when used in White Rock."

Dan Perry, witness to magic in the desert, and author of "Magic in the Desert."

Let's not forget, 1960 was the year of Magic in the Desert, the undefeated season for the New Mexico State Aggies Football team. To a freshman it seemed the natural order of things. It wasn't. Click the picture for a review of the book written by those who witnessed it.

Dan Perry, Journalism Major, was a junior in 1960 when the heretofore and hereafter hapless Aggies had their undefeated season. He wrote a book about the fabulous experience. It was published posthumously by Frank Thayer and other friends.

Ferlinghetti in the Desert

And while we're thinking about sporting events, let's not forget the first annual literary awards, sponsored by John G. Kuhn, my freshman comp teacher, in his second, and last, year at NMSU. The top prize went to fellow math major, Jimmy Johnson (called J-squared, of course). Dave Denzler and I both won prizes, but we weren't roomies by that time. See the pop up link at left.

Ferlinghetti Agrees

Meeting Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who'd been somehow co-opted by Kuhn to pass out the awards and read his poetry, was another of those undergrad experiences that seemed one-in-a-long-string until the string proved very short.

His appearance was impressive, and we're lucky it was memorialized by competent observation. All I remember about Ferlinghetti's talk was his dismay with Ernest Hemingway, who'd recently shot himself. Lawrence, head Beat at that time, at least on the West Coast, dismissed Hemingway for not engaging the politics of pre-Castro Cuba in his latest book, "The Old Man and the Sea." Oh well.

Others in the Cast

Muata Weusi-Puryear, whom I knew as Stanley Puryear, was my freshman math instructor, and so much more.

There were other significant freshman influences, mostly positive, the more remarkable for seeming ordinary at the time. There was Stanley Puryear, math instructor, who, being black, informed my assumption I'd reached an airy height of social maturity. I didn't realize the rarity of black instructors, then and for years after. Mr. Puryear revealed the beauty of mathematics like a Pythagorean initiating his iron-age novices, then went on to an inspiring career in writing, civil rights, community activities, and academia, with stopovers in Aerospace. He is now known as Muata Weusi-Puryear and has been inducted into the Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame at Asbury Park High School, Asbury Park, New Jersey. My old math teacher has filled his life with passion and accomplishment. Salute, old friend.

There was also my first-semester Freshman Composition instructor, Peter B. Walsh, who demonstrated the pathological depths of eccentricity required to pass as a rare bird in the Beat Era. He'd been the editor of Pen, the literary magazine at the University of Utah, and had published in Poetry Magazine. The poem was anthologized as one of the best of 1955, the year Emmett Till was murdered. He was active in the campus theater, Shakespeare's Caesar, and some avant garde stuff, and seems to have had a voguish politics, think Dr. Strangelove, signaled to his classes by his assertion, hardly credible even to a freshman from the sticks, that the Civil War hadn't been fought over slavery. The poem links to a few letters to the editor, included not for edification, but as reminders of the dernier cri of the time. But I learned most of this later, after the culture that birthed the poem had long evolved. Peter disappeared without a trace as far as I can find.

Part of the 1961 NMSU English Department: back left-John Kuhn, back right-Peter Walsh, front left-Dr. Hardman who sponsored the first literary magazine, and front right-Dr. Erhardt who revived it under a new name. The link is to a news article about Kuhn.

John G. Kuhn, my second semester composition instructor, introduced me to W. B. Yeats, analyzing the famous Irishman's poetry with an expository crispness never elsewhere encountered. His analysis of Lapis Lazuli is the only one I've found that treats the theater allusions.

Kuhn once invited me to his house, and admonished me for complimenting his wife on her coffee. He threatened to flunk me if I ever dropped another possessive apostrophe. I did and he didn't. Good man.

I've recently learned of John Kuhn's passing. Sad news, but I'm proud of having known him, if very briefly. Picture links to a remembrance.

Kuhn was a ruthless critic, the only valuable sort. He disappeared in my junior year, memory suggesting a migration to the University of Texas, but now I find he went on to a career of academia, literature, and dramatic artistry at Rosemont College. He was theater director for years, and is now retired. There must be, by this time, a cracker-jack diaspora of Kuhn-trained thespians, masters all, I'm sure. They probably have a secret handshake.

Dr. Harold Daw, Physics

Before majoring in math I felt called to physics, but shortly abandoned the frictionless planes, and weightless strings for the ephemeral certitude of axiomatic logic. I hadn't heard of Kurt Godel yet.

I had to explain myself to this gentleman, a much-admired inspiration for young scholars. I couldn't tell him a truth I hadn't admitted to myself. Math was eating popcorn and physics was chewing nettles. I just wasn't up to it, and always felt I'd let him down.

I eventually got around to a few other poets, but Yeats remains my mysterious force. No one does a very good job of reading him, but it's hard.

W. B. Yeats Reading his own verse.
The most beautiful openning lines of any English language poem.
The Rose Upon the Ancient Rood of Time
Lapis Lazuli, and the best reading on the page.

Undregrad Symmetry

In the 1960s New Mexico State University became a force in a branch of mathematics called Abelian group theory.

Elbert Walker recounted the Abelian group days at NMSU for a 2001 conference.

Group theory became important in Physics because of its methods in handling symmetries. Abelian groups apply to a special type of symmetry found in current models of reality. But, the theoreticians assembled at New Mexico State University were not working on the application of Groups. They were stimulated by aesthetic allure.

Hurricane Harrison, as some of the undergrads called him, has an impressive acedemic and mentor legacy. While he was at NMSU, Dr. Carol Walker was one of his students.

One of the Abelian Group Theorists to arrive in Las Cruces in 1963 was Dr. David Harrison, on leave from the University of Pennsylvania. He was among that rarest of sightings for amateur Prof Spotters, the research fellow who teaches undergraduates. A friend and I had the pleasure of taking an advanced algebra course from Dr. Harrison. Besides being an excellent teacher, able to articulate complex concepts, he was a high-energy entertainer. He became "Hurricane Harrison" to us. Nicknames for professors were normal. There was H2O, aka Howard O. Smith, the Chemist, Tugboat, the rotund and languorous physics prof who chugged into class puffing a pipe, and "29," the econ prof who began and ended every paragraph with the great depression. These names normally stayed within student control, but my friend once slipped in a conversation with his adviser and referred to "Hurricane." He was rewarded with the enigma of a mathematician's smile.

This picture of Carol and Elbert Walker links to the proceedings from a 1976 conference on Abelian groups held at NMSU.

The Abelian Group episode at NMSU was exciting from the periphery of undergrad status. There were international conferences that anyone could attend. My friend made another rare sighting, a slender fellow with a beard to his navel, and identified him as, "the original Abelian Group." One of the Abelian forces was Dr. Elbert Walker, an object of special admiration to us because he had a beautiful wife who was also a mathematician. In fact, Dr. Carol Walker was, years later, the head of the department. The Walkers, Harrison and others were among the young, energetic PhDs on campus who gave NMSU such a vibrant ambience in those days. He has written a synoptic history of the Abelian group days, and you can access it nearby.

This photograph was taken in June of 1994 on the campus of The University of Oregon. The three mathematicians visible in the picture are (from left to right) Timothy J. Ford, Frank R. DeMeyer and David K. Harrison. DeMeyer was Ford's Ph.D. thesis advisor and Harrison was DeMeyer's. The picture links to notes on Harrison's theory of preprimes.

The Abelian Group stampede is long over now at NMSU. We close with some echoes.

Carol Walker is more than a mathematician, and more than the emeritus head of the department. Here is what she tells us about herself.
Elbert Walker passed away recently. Here is a remembrance.
Things everyone wishes they understood better.
Elbert Walker speaking at an NMSU event for Carol Walker.

After graduation David Denzler, my old roomie, married his dream girl and made a singular life with accomplishments unique to him. I suspect he was always a mentor. I suspect there is a broad wake of friends, current and former, who share my appreciation of his leadership.

Renaissance man

When I think of him now, I think of the famous quote from Fats Navarro, jazz trumpeter of the 1940s, who said, "I'd like to just play a perfect melody of my own, all the chord progressions right, the melody original and fresh -- my own." That was Dave.

My old roommate of the White Rock days passed away recently, a truth weighted with unexpected emptiness. Our life journeys never steered within hailing distance, even though we worked for vigorously competitive rivals. I saddled up with Telecomputing Services Inc, thanks to a family friend, Jim Rucker, whose father happened to run an employment agency. I rode with the company for decades, through its many incarnations and cattle drives. David's employer, Computer Sciences Corporation, was a nemesis of ours, too often a step ahead in must-win competitions. I didn't know David worked for them until much later. But he was in the set of my hat, the grip of my reins.

David was a shaping force in my life. His significance far outweighed the short time I spent with him. He was a model of confidence, endurance, even exuberance. He failed as often as anyone, but David had a peculiar confidence in ultimate success. He never doubted it. If his car broke, he had a plan. If he failed a test, he learned why. Every moment changed him a little, but he was always his own person, making adjustments on the fly, confident he'd get there. A typical memory involves lunch in the cafeteria during "Sadie Hawkins Days," the post-Al Capp generations can look this up, when Dave put a hand-lettered sign on our table, "Notice! Still Available!" I couldn't have had a better freshman roommate.

White Rock Barracks barely survived our tenure at NMSU. The flashy new Regents Row that replaced them is probably torn down by now. The university, indeed the world, has passed into, and largely out of, the hands of our generation, and nothing seems the same anymore. Yet, that autumn glow of slanted sunlight reveals the truth, the only change is the modest tampering we did on our passing through.





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