Dr. Phil Is Leaving The Building
By Kevin Hyde
Sitting is Phil Laemmle's long, narrow office on the first floor of Ford Hall is like sitting in the middle of a delightfully vulgar shrine--a cluttered, chaotic monument to 34 years of college teaching.
A poster on the far wall depicts a two-story outhouse: faculty on the second floor, students on the first. On a shelf behind Laemmle's desk are two plastic blow-up dolls and a "Wham It" anti-stress device. Atop a file cabinet, an aerosol can is labeled "Bull---- Repellent." Next to it is a hat embellished with the words "Gravity Sucks."
In every corner, visitors are greeted by words of wisdom and ridicule. "You can't soar with the eagles when you work with the turkeys," says a coffee cup.
"To do good is noble. To get others to do good is also noble and a lot less work," a small sign counters.
The office is wallpapered with political cartoons, protest signs ("When money is speech, Speech is not free"), campaign stickers (Lacocca'88), buttons and posters, and sundry other political paraphernalia spanning the past three decades.
To say the least, Laemmle's office is an irreverent feast for the senses.
And every item has a story. For example, during a moment of student unrest in one of his classes Laemmle yelled for attention, and a small piece of ceiling plaster landed on his head. That incident yielded the "Gravity Suck" hat, a present from the class.
Yes, every item has a story--some true, some embellished over time. "But the truth is always in there somewhere," he laughs.
And now everything must go.
At the end of this semester, Phil Laemmle, a political science professor who came to U of L in 1972, will retire from the only academic job he has ever had. But in true Laemmle style, his former students will pay tribute with Phil Laemmle's Orderly Dispersal of Office Relics (Phil Laemmle's O.D.O.R.) on May 19 in the Red Barn (www.roastphil.org).
In what promises "not to be a tea and cookies" affair, every weird item in Laemmle's office will be auctioned off with proceeds going to upgrade student facilities and resources in the political science department.
"We're selling out to the bare walls!" Laemmle yelled during an early organizational meeting for the event, his boisterous laughter echoing through the halls. "Every penny must go to refurbishing Ford Hall--improving classrooms, getting new furniture for the students. I would love to replace every stick of student furniture in this building.
"Not a cent to the faculty!"
While that sentiment might not be in keeping with his outhouse poster, it certainly is consistent with his career. U of L is losing not only an accomplished poly sci professor but one of the university's great student advisers--an advocate for all students at U of L.
As an active figure in freshman orientation and as the "Ritualist" at Commencement, for thousands of U of L students over the years Laemmle was the guy who greeted you when you started your college career and saw you off when you graduated.
The Biscuit Speech
Laemmle first got involved with freshman orientation in the mid '70s when he was asked to give a talk to incoming College of Arts and Sciences students about "what to expect from college." He started making the speech to university-wide orientation a few years later.
From the beginning, he had fun.
"Do you remember Snot? The candy?" he asks, referring to the infamous gross-out candy that was packaged in plastic noses. Dean James Carter, head of advising at the time, would come on right after Laemmle. So Laemmle would have a little fun by introducing him as Snot's creator.
The student's would ask him, 'Did you really invent Snot?'" Laemmle giggles. "It pissed him off so bad. That was the cherry on the sundae."
The message Laemmle imparted to incoming freshmen did not change much over the years--prepare for the "full" college experience.
"My belief is that 50 percent of what you learn in college is learned outside the classroom," he says. "Dealing with people, dealing with situations--you've got to take advantage of the opportunities. If you look at college like high school, it will be just like high school."
And he offers his own cautionary tale. "I flunked out of college when I was a freshman," he admits bluntly. "So I tell them, 'I was young and stupid once. You're young and stupid now.'"
After being asked to leave the University of Texas, Laemmle joined the Army "to make myself a better person," he smiles. When he finished his military commitment, he returned to UT, graduated and then went on to earn his doctorate in political science from Indiana University. He then accepted a position on U of L's College of Arts and Sciences faculty and has been here ever since. Not that he hasn't had the chance to leave.
"When you first start, you don't really know where you'll end up," says Laemmle, who has worked under six U of L presidents. "It's always a function of who's asking. None of the offers ever looked very attractive. We liked the community. The university was growing--sometimes painfully. We changed a lot. We went from 9,000 (students) to 16,000 in one year."
Laemmle's famous annual speech to entering freshmen evolved over the years into what is now known as "The Biscuit Speech." Using a tin of raw biscuit dough, he tells students that they can mold themselves into whatever they want. If they don't take advantage of all that college has to offer, they'll emerge as the same chunk of dough they were when they started.
"The metaphor is a good one," he says. "If you don't avail yourselves to the opportunities--not only here but everywhere--you will be able to get through. Sure. But you will have cheated yourself. Everybody pays the same amount of money, and you got half of what everybody else got."
And, of course, he reminds them to have a good time. "Because you'll never have another chance to have this kind of fun."
Doug Kemper, a 1986 political science graduate and a member of the university's Student Orientation Staff during his college years, remembers Laemmle's support of "the whole freshmen experience."
"He was there all summer long. He'd be there flipping burgers at the picnics," Kemper says. "And he'd take his time advising incoming freshmen on a personal level--general A&S students, not just those who were interested in political science."
Of course, Laemmle became a favorite of the orientation staff leaders, Kemper says. And Ford Hall was always included on the campus tour for freshman.
"One time, Robin Chilton (now Robin Rouse) was taking her group of 20 freshman on their tour. It was their first day ever on campus at U of L," Kemper chuckles. "Phil just happened to be in his office with the window open, and she hollered up at him. So he stuck his butt out the window and wiggled it at the new students. He didn't drop trou or anything but just kind of stuck his butt out the window. "That was just so typical of him. Whatever comes to his mind to be silly. He's not a bit bashful about doing it."
When chemistry professor Gradus Shoemaker retired in the mid 80s, U of L lost its longtime Commencement "Ritualist." University President Donald Swain asked the students who they wanted as the new one. They overwhelmingly chose Laemmle, who had been involved with the graduation ceremony since shortly after arriving at U of L.
He enjoys it.
"Most large state universities don't do a lot of things in common," he says. "I'm a big believer in a common experience, in ritual. The ritual itself isn't all that valuable. It's the experience that's valuable.
"Even if everybody comes together and hates it, it's a common experience."
How do you reconcile Laemmle, the notorious prankster, irreverent jokester, purveyor of collegiate fun, with Laemmle, the lover of ceremony and devotee to formal ritual?
"The way the the two things exist side-by-side is that he has such respect for the institution - - both the institution of U of L and the institution of higher education," Kemper says. "Yet he also knows the human side of it, too. We're all here to support each other, help each other and love each other through life."
During a planning meeting for his O.D.O.R., Laemmle noticeably winced when Julie Soule, one of his former graduate assistants who is now special events coordinator in the U of L President's Office, said, "You've saved a lot of people's lives. Your advice, your support has helped so many people."
Soule was making a case for giving Laemmle's past students' an opportunity to show their love as well as their laughter at his retirement event.
For the retiring professor who has never been very retiring, the two--devotion to students and devotion to fun--have always gone hand-in-hand.
Phil dishes out a lot of good-natured barbs at his students," says Neil Gibbs, another former graduate assistant. "But it always helped take the pressure off them, which is an important reason why he is such a great mentor and such a great friend."