It’s subterranean champagne soirees and secret speakeasies. High adventure propelled by hurricanes and blizzards. It’s fraternity forged in the clandestine heist of a decommissioned missile. It’s street cred earned in hall jai alai and inspired scribbling done in drafty garrets.
It’s a story nested in stories so numerous they’d tax Scheherazade in the telling. At the center of it all is a house with space for infinite memory, by a beach with no sand nor ocean.
Over its 177 years, the College has offered a variety of residences for students, yet none seems to have an everlasting pull on its former residents like Wheeler Hall.
Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, S.J.‘s 516-page history of the College, “Thy Honored Name: A History of The College of the Holy Cross 1843-1994,” states that Wheeler was built to alleviate overcrowding in Fenwick and O’Kane. The dorm opened in January 1940 and was named (quite ironically, it would come to pass) for the late Rev. John D. Wheeler, S.J., prefect of discipline. Initially, seniors occupied the first four floors and juniors, the fifth. Total cost: $415,000.
College Archives and Special Collections is home to blueprints, newspaper clippings and pictures of Fr. Wheeler, but save for a single newspaper clipping about the opening of his namesake’s short-lived basement bar, culture and pride aren’t so much the concern of historical record. So, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, the question is put to alumni: What is it about Wheeler?
“I really don’t think anyone was there by accident,” says Cyndi Tully Webber ’89, a former RA. “Whether you had big hair and high heels, were a tough-as-nails straight shooter or from a sheltered, single-sex Catholic school upbringing, you found your home in Wheeler. We all bonded. Everyone I met along the way there belonged in Wheeler. Everybody.”
Stephen Hickey ’73, P01 arrived at Wheeler in the fall of 1969. Then, the newest dorm, Mulledy, was the place to live. Hickey preferred Wheeler. “People didn’t tend to leave Wheeler because it was the most convenient dorm. The Field House and Hogan were half a hill up; the library was half a hill down. And Wheeler had a sense of community. Wheeler was the only totally integrated dorm on campus. We had students from all four classes in it. A lot of guys spent their whole college career at Wheeler.”
It was in an enviable location for another reason. “The College would bus women from all-women’s colleges to the Field House or the Hogan parking lot and what was the first dorm you’d see? Wheeler,” he says.
At the ready was the lounge, The Brickskellar. A black-and-white photo from the 1973 edition of the Purple Patcher shows a motley arrangement of folding chairs and mismatched tables, ashtrays, playing cards and empties. “A certain amount of interior renovation made Wheeler a more comfortable dwelling for the hundreds of Stephen Daedalus’s [sic] that descend yearly to the house,” the Patcher reported. “This title is appropriate because the undergraduates’ years spent within the confines of the house are still those years of hopeful searching, to come to a full realization of what life at Holy Cross entails. From the penthouse level of Wheeler, one may oversee the seven hills of Worcester, but hopefully no one will attempt to make his flight from this height before coming to terms with his values and goals.” (Clearly the writer was in Professor Edward Callahan’s Joyce seminar.)
Hickey was one of 10 students with keys to The Brickskellar. “We served beer and booze. Wine? Ha, no,” he says. “It was 25 cents for a 12-ounce beer and 50 cents for a hard drink. You had to buy tickets, $1 or $5 tickets. A dollar got you five beers. It was always packed. We opened when we opened, and we closed when we closed. Every Friday in the fall each academic department was invited over, providing a relaxed atmosphere for the students to get to know the faculty and have a drink with students. Although the room was open most Friday and Saturday nights, the rest of the week was open by request for Bruins or Celtics games or other special events.”
And this was a business with a social mission decades before there was such a thing, Hickey notes. Proceeds of the Wheeler social room were often donated to student organizations.
At the time of the lounge’s opening, the administration praised the enterprise. In a letter to the dorm’s residents, Dean of Men McClain wrote, “The other houses now have a new standard for which to strive, both in fellowship and style … from now on when I think of community, I will think of Wheeler House.”
O’Neil, director of the RA program, was even more effusive in his praise: “I think the men of Wheeler House did a fine job in offering the campus something with a little class,” he wrote to the residents. “I hope that you are successful in making Wheeler House the best place on campus to live.”
“Sophomore year, Lehy, Hanselman, Clark and Mulledy houses were the preferred resident selections,” says Paul Howard ’71. “Wheeler 507, a.k.a. The Penthouse, was our home. Our roommate, Ed, built a bar and we painted our ceiling in lime, pink and yellow. We viewed Wheeler House as the epicenter of our Holy Cross campus and Wheeler 507 cemented our lifelong friendship and treasured memories of our Holy Cross experiences.”
Diane McDonnell Pickles ’89 and Bill Pickles 88 can be found (somewhere) in the sophomore Wheeler 2 photo from the Purple Patcher.
Feng shui dictates that a building be designed to encourage optimal flow of energy, qi. It’s unlikely Boston architectural firm Maginnis and Walsh had this in mind in Wheeler’s design (they also designed St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, Dinand Library and Alumni Hall), yet alums like Dave Curran ’73 say the dorm’s layout created a neighborhood atmosphere. Students took to the halls like city dwellers to stoops. “You walked out your door,” Curran says, “and you were immediately part of things. No one ever wanted to leave Wheeler. We had the luck of having a good mix of people.”
The hallway was a living room, notes Mary Lynch Supple ’82, P17, P13. People would gather and chat over popcorn or even pop champagne, on occasion. “We held a reception on Wheeler 5 when Luke and Laura got married on ‘General Hospital,'” Supple recalls. “It was a real community with a special bond. We would gather to walk to Kimball together and gather to walk to 10 o’clock Mass Sunday nights — and go to the pub on our way home.”
“There was something about the way the light came in through the dorm room windows, casting a cozy glow in the afternoons and the old-fashioned radiators that smelled so good when the steam heat came on,” remembers Lesley Stackler ’88. “These contributed to an atmosphere of comfort and happiness that invited friends to visit and hang out in each other’s rooms for hours on end. I met my best Holy Cross friends in Wheeler and our friendship has endured to this day.”
This caused concern for some parents, especially dads leaving their 18-year-old daughters at college for the first time, recalls Diane McDonnell Pickles ’89. “My dad took one look around and said, ‘Get back in the car. You’re not staying.'”
The pair reached a compromise. “I’ll let you stay, but you have to promise not to date anyone on this floor,” Pickles’ father told her. “And no football players.”
This year, Pickles celebrates her 30th wedding anniversary with hallmate and former Holy Cross football player, Bill Pickles 88.
A metal fire door divided women from men on Wheeler 2. It was mostly left open except during hall jai alai matches, says Jonathan “JW” Cahill ’88, P23. The door had to be closed to play the game, and it kept the women from serious injury.
“Well, it involved throwing a golf ball against that door, and it would come flying back and it was dangerous and that’s what was great,” Cahill says. “It wasn’t advisable for anyone to play, but it happened quite often that guys from other dorms came to play.”
Another Wheeler draw: TRM, Cahill’s band, which won the College’s Battle of the Bands four years in a row. “The gigs in Wheeler basement were some of the best gigs I’ve done. We’d walk downstairs to the Wheeler social room and people would be lining the hall and cheering,” Cahill recalls.
And about that decommissioned missile.
“Well, Bill Pickles says, ‘I know where there’s a decommissioned missile and we’re going to get it.’ So, we got into my car and headed to an airfield on the South Shore. We strapped it to the top of my car and, miraculously, didn’t get stopped,” Cahill recalls. “I think a state trooper even followed us for a bit. When we got back, we hung it up in the dorm until the next fire inspection. Then we had to take it down. The last I saw of it, it was rolling downhill at Wheeler Beach. Then I heard it appeared in a Worcester parade.”
“Idiots,” Diane Pickles says, fondness honeying her tone. “And to think I married one of them.”
A student outside the lounge collects entry fees.
The arrival of the class of 1989 marked another historic moment for Holy Cross, as the incoming class was 60% female. This caused overcrowding in the building and rooms designed for three had to fit four. Susan Lennon Capot ’89 discovered a crawl space between the two dormer windows in her triple-turned-quadruple on Wheeler 5. The roommates outfitted the space with a rug, a beanbag chair and a lamp — creating the perfect dismal garret to inspire an English major like Capot. “I would crawl into this space on my hands and knees. There was nothing above but rafters. There was no insulation. Heat may rise, but it never made it to Wheeler 5.
“And I wouldn’t crawl out until I’d written something: a poem or a paper. Wheeler could be a hotbed of craziness, but I had this space I could crawl into and do this thing,” Capot recalls. “It was of lifesaving importance to know I could be alone in this space and recharge.”
That cradle of craziness required a sense of humor, says Marc Thibodeau ’80. “Senior year, I was an RA on Wheeler 1 and on April Fool’s Day, people waited until I left for class and then — using 40 boxes of Jell-O, water heated on hot pots, and several bags of ice — filled a tub up with Jell-O,” he recalls. “People came from all around campus to see this. So what do you do with several pounds of Jell-O? My roommate Dave Boulay ’80 and I know from experience that it’s too heavy to drag away in trash bags. And there was too much to try and melt it to flush it down the drain, so we shoveled it out the window. It left quite a red stain for quite a long time.”
College President Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., joins Bob Tracy ’81 and his fellow 1979-1982 alumni at Winter Homecoming 2020.
Bob Tracy ’81, P15, P12 lived on Wheeler 2 for the whole of his college career. He saw big changes over those four years. He was there for the legendary Fantasy Island Party of ’79 when residents built a tiki bar, bridge and a little waterfall in the lounge, and party-goers tried their luck at roulette, baccarat and poker. He was there when Wheeler 2 went coed. “One of the ways the College tried to calm Wheeler down was to add women to the mix,” he says.
Mingling of the classes was Wheeler’s strength, Tracy says. Cultural transmission, Wheeler style, fostered pride and cemented traditions. There was even a Wheeler aesthetic. “It was a preppy time,” Tracy recalls. “And we were sort of the Timberland boots, jeans and a flannel-shirt-over-a-band-T-shirt type of crowd,” he says.
Garbage can frisbee games, backgammon, cribbage and poker, shared meals, sledding on Kimball trays in hurricanes and blizzards, time logged in the hall: What seemed like ordinary, even banal, activities fostered extraordinary friendships. For 20 years, Tracy has hosted an annual Wheeler reunion — Wheeler-palooza — at Winter Homecoming. It started out as a few guys getting together for lunch and a basketball game, he says. More than 50 people attended this year. “It’s a good group of folks,” Tracy says. “People looked at Wheeler as this party dorm — and it was — but it was more than that. There’s a real affinity between people. It’s good folks.”
Carlin alum John Forsythe ’89 observes there has always been something about the building’s culture. “Did admissions assign certain incoming freshmen there? Or did the mantle of passing along the culture fall on returning upperclassmen?” he asks. “Was it something about the relatively isolated location? Was it the physical layout — for example, Wheeler Beach — that led to that culture?”
“Everyone who lived there was really proud to say they lived in Wheeler —like people you meet on the street who say they went to Holy Cross,” notes Hanselman alum Rebecca Karos ’13. “That’s how Wheeler people talk about Wheeler.”
“Maybe it was the fact that Wheeler was regally located on the hill and not crowded down below, like Beaven or Carlin,” says Ron Makovitch ’65. “Maybe it was that we were removed from the bustle of the quad and the cafeteria. Maybe it was having a bird’s-eye view of the completely darkened panorama of Worcester at the outset of The Great Northeast Blackout. Or maybe it was just experiencing our first real home away from home as we lived, shared and learned that first year at Holy Cross.”
“Wheeler is home to a big, crazy family. Somebody knew what they were doing in placing us there,” Webber insists. “And the people who were there, they were invested in sustaining the culture for the people who came after. We all found our way together and nobody would rewrite that story.”
Today Wheeler is still going its own way, the only underclass dorm not located on Easy Street. For those who return, Wheeler rewards by making the past present again.
When you walk through Wheeler’s doors, TJ Treanor ’89 says, “it’s physically like going back in time to your college years. You expect to see those same folks you went to college with walking down the hall — which is made more real when you see young folks who look like your old dorm-mates.
“It’s a time machine that brings you back to the best years of your life.”
Written by Marybeth Reilly McGreen ’89 for the Spring 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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