In our series UChicago Myths, Eli Sentman, AB’12, explores several idiosyncratic features of the University to see just what the truth behind them is. For more on the history of UChicago, go here.
The story of the C-Bench is, in some ways, the story of the University of Chicago. Originally a gift from the Class of 1903, it has been a part of campus for most of the University’s history. For being an important campus landmark, these days it’s usually pretty devoid of activity. Many students retain only one bit of knowledge about the bench: it used to be reserved exclusively for athletes and their girlfriends. But, as the story goes, as athletics waned in importance, so too did this tradition.
Let’s travel back in time over a hundred years. Will Cuppy, AB 1907, AM 1914, a humorist noted for works such as The Decline and Fall of Nearly Everybody, would be an excellent student to ask about the C-Bench. In 1910, Cuppy put together a book of short stories called Maroon Tales. While these stories are fictional, they paint us a telling picture of early student-life at U of C.
The first story of the collection, entitled “The Extra Major,” follows a college freshman named Phil Jennings. Phil goes on a walk about campus and, of course, ends up at the C-Bench: “When he reached Cobb, he thought he would see how it felt to sit on the attractive stone bench in front of the entrance. Several fellows were lounging on it, chatting familiarly. Phil sat down on the edge, next the walk. No one had told him that he must not do this.” After some razzing from the guys seated there, Phil finds out just what his error was—“freshmen” were not allowed to sit on the bench.
A current UChicago student would likely find several things humorous about this passage. For one thing, the use of the term “freshman” is now all but dead at the University, in favor of the title “first-year.” Even more striking is how the C-Bench, which is now something of an afterthought to many students, was once a bustling social spot. But only freshmen seem to be barred from sitting there. If anything, the people sitting on the bench in “The Extra Major” are distinguished by the fact that they’re fraternity brothers.
What were these early rules and traditions surrounding the C-Bench? Issue No.1 of the 13th volume of The University of Chicago Magazine, released in November of 1920, also mentions the C-Bench. The section entitled “News of the Quadrangles” features a blurb stating, “The Three Quarters Club has started its activities again and is under probation to prove its worth. An effort at improvement was made in having the ‘Its” guard, the ‘C’ Bench, Mitchell Tower seal, and Senior bench, to see that the traditions regarding them are maintained.”
So what exactly was this Three Quarters Club? According to The Chicago Alumni Magazine, it was an “honorary freshman fraternity.” The 1907-1908 edition describes some of the activities of this group: “Thirty-one lusty freshmen have been accepted [into the Three Quarters Club] and forced to don the green cap and streamer. Each Wednesday at 10:30 on the ‘C’ Bench before Cobb Hall an open-air exhibition of songs, dances, and orations is given.”
Early on, “no freshmen” seems to be the only hard and fast rule of the C-bench, even though a group of freshmen were occasionally tasked with both protecting the bench and performing at it. What is abundantly clear is that the traditions regarding the bench were taken very seriously by the University population. The same volume of the The Chicago Alumni Magazine quotes at length an article originally published in The University of Chicago Weekly, entitled “The Chicago Summer Student: What Is He?” One of the article’s gripes was the disregard summer students had toward established tradition: “[the summer students] blissfully disregarded all established properties of place and thing—the women sat upon the ‘C” Bench unblushingly! They were always doing such ridiculous things—one found it hard to forgive them.” It’s difficult to imagine the University, in its current state, taking any traditions as seriously as the C-Bench was once taken.
As for the popular story that the C-Bench was once reserved only for athletes and their girlfriends, this tradition seems to be of a much later era. In The University of Chicago: An Architectural Tour, it’s stated that the C-Bench, “was for the exclusive use of athletic lettermen (and the girls that they were kissing). Segregation of this sort was abolished (or it simply faded away) after World War II when athletes lost a measure of their prestige on campus.” But other sources mention different dates to mark the death of this tradition. The website of the University of Chicago Magazine writes, “until the 1960s convention dictated only lettermen and their dates could use the circular C-bench.” I’ve heard word from the son of an alumnus that the C-Bench was reserved for athletes even into the 1970s. Although it seems that the bench was, at one time, reserved only for athletes, it seems unlikely that this tradition started as early as 1903.
Why do we constantly repeat the story that the C-Bench was once reserved for athletes when it’s unclear when this tradition began and ended and the tradition of the bench being barred to freshmen (and perhaps non-fraternity members) is never mentioned? My thought on why this “athlete” version of the C-Bench story is told so frequently is because it’s of greater use in creating an identity.
The University was once one of the bastions of college football, as an original member of the Big 10, remaining in the conference until 1946 under President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins arrival as president of the University is often marked as the true beginning of its “intellectualizing” and the emphasis on education over athletics was part of this. By telling the story of the C-Bench being reserved only for athletes, the bench becomes a symbol of the University’s transformation into a full-blown intellectual powerhouse by sacrificing athletics.