Mullets and burgers at the Rat: The ’80s

Rachel Cohen

When Wash U’s current students were learning how to read and ride bikes and the Rubik’s Cube and Michael Jackson’s jackets were major trends, the average person was even more likely to think Washington University was located on the Pacific coast or the nation’s capital. However, according to a few former students, Wash U was not as different 20 years ago as one might expect.

The University was well out of its “streetcar college” phase by the 80s, and had successfully recruited students from across the country and many foreign nations. However, in the early 80s, Bruce Bikson, Class of ’80, sensed “a significant us vs. them feeling,” on campus. Bikson explained that “being form Kansas City, everybody from the East Coast was a New Yorker, whether from Baltimore or Boston,” Bikson said.

The 80s was an important period of expansion for the University, which The Hatchet cited as the nation’s 14th wealthiest university in 1982. The current Athletic Complex opened in the middle of the decade, and was a major selling point for Wash U at the time. Still, many students said the campus felt smaller and more contained, with more green space.

The South 40 was dominated by the Eliot and Shepley towers, which were the most popular dorms on campus, and by a wooded area where WGE Residential College is currently located. Park and Mudd, which students considered the “new” and novel dorms when they were erected at the end of the decade, were other desirable housing spots.

The Greek scene was big in the 80s and frat parties were raucous, according to students and faculty. Jeff Mishkin, Class of ’85, remembers parties as wild as Animal House, which was released in the late 70s and was still a popular movie among Wash U students in the 80s.

Thursday nights brought many students to “The Rat.” The current site of Subway, in the 80s the Umrathskeller was home to a bar with live music and a great grill. Students remember bands, beer, milkshakes and burgers that were good enough to stick in the minds of both Mishkin and Rob Wild, Class of ’93.

Since fewer students had cars and there was no shuttle system, getting into the city was harder, leading many students to complain about feeling isolated on campus. Some students relied on the one resource they did have: their feet. Wild remembers frequent trips to Cicero’s on the Loop, and walking to Forest Park to watch the St. Louis Blues play at their old venue.

Wash U had achieved a reputation for being an elite university, and according to political science professor Marvin Cummins, students were happy with the quality of education the school offered at the time.

“I remember studying in the library on a Friday night thinking there was no way anybody at Harvard was working harder than I was,” Cummins said.

Mishkin remembers the Business School students partying much more than he and his fellow engineers.

Many former students claim that the biggest difference was the lack of computers. While Wild and many of his peers brought typewriters to school, some, like Mishkin, had computers. Mishkin remembers receiving his first computer while in college, a first-generation IBM PC with no hard drive that cost almost $5,000.

The big trend in television was soap operas, and Mishkin claims that many female students would organize their schedules around major events on their favorite shows. As for fashion, some students still dressed in three-piece suits and bell-bottoms, though disco was certifiably dead by this time.

And, of course, “there were a lot more mullets in 1989 then there are now,” said Wild.

The upper floor of Wohl used to be home to three separate food service locations and sandwiches were available at the Gargoyle. Wild claims that the food quality was about half of what it is now, and he said the choices were limited.

After the high tide of young activism in the 60s and 70s, the 80s was a relatively calm period politically for most Wash U students. Though there was some anti-Reagan sentiment on campus, politics did not play a big part in student life.

Despite the advances in technology, hairstyles and major physical changes on campus, some things about college never change. Mishkin described his college experience compared to his life in the “real” world: “It was a great time, just being in college. Just an easier, calmer life, you’d only think as far as your next exam, and what you were doing next weekend, and how you could sleep an extra ten minutes and still get to class.”

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