Campus bar, no more: what happened to “The Rat?”

The Rat bartender at the time, Harley Simmons, likely filling a pitcher of beer for students.

Kiersten Resch, Herald Reporter

When RWU students over the age of 21 want to go out on a Friday night, they tend to go to Aidan’s Pub or Gillary’s Taphouse just down the road. They plan ahead and either Uber, walk or have a friend be their designated driver for the night. 

In the 1970’s, Roger Williams College students were able to go to the Student Union for a good time. This hall was home to the cafeteria (which doubled as an auditorium, dance hall, disco and lecture hall for special events) on the upper level, and a game room, snack bar, book store, student mailboxes and club offices on the lower floor. But the most coveted hang-out spot in the Student Union was The Rathskellar.

The “Rat,” as it was nicknamed, only served wine and draught beer by the glass or pitcher. It opened at 11 a.m. so students were able to enjoy a beer after class or on their lunch break between classes. When students went to RWC in the 70’s, almost everyone was over 18 — the legal drinking age at the time. This allowed for everyone on campus to have a good time at The Rat.

Scott Yonan, Assistant to the Vice President of Student Life and Director of Special Projects, and graduate of RWC recalls the good times he had at The Rat when he was a student here.

“I have to say that for me and most of my friends, having the Rat on campus was terrific. We learned how many beers we could drink before getting really drunk and/or sick,” Yonan said. “Drinking in The Rat didn’t hinder our academics at all. It was rare that students got really wasted drinking in The Rat.”

Yonan also recalls some intense conversations that happened between students and professors over a pitcher of beer. There were enough tables at The Rat to seat about 60 students and when that wasn’t enough, an accordion wall was opened to allow for more seating at the snack bar next door.

Unlike today’s culture, students were less likely to binge drink because they were able to participate in so many different activities at The Rat. According to Yonan, drinking on campus was more of a social activity. There was always the chance to hang out with friends, play cards over pitchers of beer and listen to the jukebox or someone playing guitar and singing. As there was a dance hall on the second floor, students were more intoxicated there on nights when there was a dance or concert, which occurred almost every weekend. According to Yonan, kegs of beer were usually set up and beers were never more than $1 each.

When the drinking age was hiked up from 18 to 20, then to 21 as we know it to be today, The Rathskellar felt the heat. It was unknown for awhile how strict bartenders at The Rat were to their newly underage clientele. While they were able to adjust to the new drinking age, it didn’t last for long. The Rathskellar was closed shortly after in June 1985 due to insurance issues. Students were so upset over the closure that an ad selling “re-open the Rat” t-shirts ran in an old RWC student newspaper. The nights of live student artists and accessible beer and wine in a centrally located hang-out spot came to an end. 

Much like RWU today, many students who were over 21 at RWC lived off campus, making arguments for bringing The Rat back less powerful. Administrators at the time were quoted saying they would rather have students drink on campus but did not want off-campus students driving to RWC for The Rat then getting back into their cars intoxicated.

In the days of RWC, students tended not to drink a lot unless there was a Happy Hour special in the Bristol bars. Yonan, having been an RA on campus for three years, said that most alcohol-related incidents were due to drinking at the bars in town, not due to alcohol consumption at The Rat.

According to Yonan, occasional events that were held after The Rat closed were for students who could prove they were over 21. Most were called Chameleon Club events.

“I often volunteered to chaperone those. As I recall, every time we had a Chameleon Club event, there were big problems all over campus following the event due to intoxicated students,” Yonan said.

When asked if it would be a good idea to have a bar on campus again, Yonan said no.

He stated the same reasoning as past administrators, that having so many upperclassmen off-campus would more than likely lead to more students driving under the influence. 

“If things were still like the 70’s, absolutely yes,” said Yonan.