Before we walk… Forgotten stories of the university

Tyger Allen, Special to The Hawks' Herald

Five years here — yeah, five — have given me time to learn more than I think I would like to know about this school. The university has a strange history and some of it should not be forgotten. 

Over the summer, I spent some time in the archives on the second floor of the library. The school’s archivist, Heidi Benedict, played such a vital role in showing me the documents from the football team in the 1980s, and I cannot thank her enough. 

I spent hours searching through scanned newspapers, other documents from the school and posts from history enthusiasts.

I wrote a story about the missile base last week that you should definitely check out.

The dorm that was the former barracks received a lot of criticism in the ‘80s for its appearance and functionality. It was a one-story building with an overflowing dumpster, all surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Upon its destruction, the underground base was filled in with cement and likely will not ever be seen again.

We also learned earlier in the year from a Herald writer that GHH was once the Student Union. It had an entirely different appearance and a bar inside, nicknamed “The Rat.” 

The Mario J. Gabelli School of Business has its home just a short walk across the quad. This building was the library before the other structure was built. In 1992, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time had named, with no vote, Gabelli as the commencement speaker. The school paper reported that students were outraged by this decision, as they felt their voices were not being heard. It was even reported that some students chose not to walk because of this. But Gabelli spoke anyways, was given an honorary degree and donated money to RWU.

According to the school paper, in the building that is now the library, the men’s bathroom was where police found the body of a 70-year-old man from Newport. The article also said that the library created a sign-in policy shortly after.

Scandal hit the Mail Center in 1992, according to the newspaper. A freshman employed through work-study managed to steal ATM cards from students from Fleet Bank, which has since been bought by Bank of America. The student withdrew $1,460, which would be worth around $2,600 in 2019, from multiple accounts before it was noticed. The student was caught withdrawing the money from a security camera in the Student Union, and was charged with five felonies and eight misdemeanors.

The school earned itself a nickname in the 1970s. Known as “Roger Dodger” College, students looking to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War came to the school because making a transition from junior college to a higher education establishment meant that students could attend and opt out of the war.

It was reported that some students who attended RWU at this time were not there to receive an education. Classes were said to be experimental and professors, some of whom were not much older than the students, had no guidelines on how to teach their classes. It was not until the war was over that curriculum was solidified and certain lessons were required to be taught to students.

Of course, I can’t leave out Bryan Nisenfield — the student who mysteriously disappeared from the school shortly after a class in February of 1997 and was never heard from again. His shoe, with a part of his foot, was found along the shore of Hog Island a few months later. The case remains unsolved and the university faced a lot of questions for the way it was handled.

There’s a lot more fascinating stuff to find out within the RWU community. Although I’ll leave here with a degree in journalism, that does not mean that only a journalist can look into this stuff. Be curious about the ground you walk on and the buildings you enter. Ask questions about what campus was like to those who have been here for a while. Despite only being in Bristol for 50 years, the school has a lot of untold history.