From the Editor

Service, usually with a smile

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If you checked out the full-page Last Look photo at the end of our September/October issue, you saw the Pierson College dining hall in 1940, filled with undergraduates at dinner in jackets and ties. Also in the photo were three servers, apparently readying the coffeepots. In the caption, we noted that although Yale undergrads had their meals served at table in those days, the students themselves never waited on each other in the residential colleges. 

But one of the great benefits of writing about Yale for Yale alumni is that we have at least 140,000 fact checkers. Two of them wrote to correct us.

Some background: when the residential colleges were built, a financial aid fund was established for students who needed to work in order to cover their tuition. It was supposed to ensure that, as one Yale publication of the time put it, undergrads would “not wait on table, for that would be wholly contrary to the plan”—that is, the residential college plan, which was meant to foster undergraduate community. But if that proscription went into effect, it didn’t last. 

Dino Cerutti and E. F. Snelgrove are both in the Class of ’45W. Snelgrove wrote that during the summer and fall terms of 1942, he and several others waited table in Berkeley “in crisp white jackets.” Cerutti had the same experience. “It took about eight hours a day of my study time,” he says. “Three meals a day, seven days a week.” The students he waited on “were great guys, really nice,” but the demand on his time was a burden. He had to arrive early, serve a table of 12, clean up afterward, and then stay for his own meal. During that year, his grades averaged about a C. But when he came back from serving in World War II, he had funding from the GI Bill, and those eight hours were his own. He became an A student.  

Table service ended after the war. But for the next six decades, undergraduates kept working in the dining halls, setting up the rooms, dishing out food on the cafeteria lines, busing trays. (Food service work is still open to students, but not in the residential colleges.) Sky Magary ’63, whose letter in this issue calls the job “a loathsome duty,” tells me he was joking. But it’s not the most exciting work. (I speak as a former fast-food employee charged with keeping the dining area clean.) And I’ve heard stories of arguments between student workers and student diners. Asked about that, Japanese literature professor and former busboy Ed Kamens ’74, ’82PhD, says the busboys would hurry to clear abandoned trays so the full-time staff could take their break. If a diner had finished eating but was still sitting and talking, the busboy had to ask, politely, if he could take away the tray. And “that didn’t always lead to the most pleasant interactions.”  

But the job had a value beyond the pay. Magary wrote that it built character, more so “than classes or sports.” Kamens agrees: “It was humbling. And it was good to be working alongside longtime members of the local community, to get a sense of what kind of a city this was.” Yale vice president Bruce Alexander ’65, who was employed all through school, remembers the summer he worked in construction while his roommate went to France. But he’s grateful to Yale, he says. And the jobs he held, in the dining hall and elsewhere, “gave me the ability to be very efficient in what I did. I was very prepared to go out into the working world. I had a work ethic. I understood lots of different kinds of people. And I appreciated them.”

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