A brief break from sports, starring William Windom

On the “About The Sports Arsenal” page, I wrote that this blog “is intended to be a place for me to post my thoughts about sports, and maybe a few other things from time to time.” Consider this post to be one of those few other things.

I subscribe to Google Alerts about various subjects, including The Citadel. Sometimes alerts for “The Citadel” are actually about the military college; sometimes they aren’t. For example, I get a lot of notices about a theater group in Edmonton, a hedge fund in Chicago, and more than a few stories about fortress-like structures in the Middle East.  There is a broadcasting company that always seems to be in the news because someone is suing it. There are also a bunch of people out there who are a little too serious about video games.

There are also alerts about topics that touch on The Citadel, not as the main focus of an article, but in a tangential fashion at best. This post came about because of one of those alerts.

(Don’t worry, I’ll be ready for football season.)

William Windom, a versatile American character actor, died last week at the age of 88. You may not be familiar with the name, but you would almost certainly recognize the man. Among his credits: a key role in the movie To Kill A Mockingbird; a long-running stint on Murder, She Wrote; and countless other guest appearances on television shows, including memorable roles on Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and Gunsmoke. Prior to his TV/movie work, Windom had enjoyed an extended career on Broadway. He won an Emmy award for best actor in a comedy series in 1970.

Windom had an eventful life, one that included a sojourn at The Citadel — though not as a cadet.

Windom started his academic career at Williams College, but when World War II broke out he joined the Army.

Before becoming an Army paratrooper in World War II, he joined the Army Specialized Training Program, under whose auspices he studied at The Citadel, Antioch College and the University of Kentucky.

During the war, with most of the cadets in the armed forces (and the school needing some extra cash), The Citadel worked out a deal with the Army to help train soldiers in various disciplines, with the men housed on campus. Windom was one of those soldiers. This in itself was not unusual, but while reading about Windom’s subsequent academic career I stumbled down an information rabbit hole — for after leaving Kentucky, Windom was not finished with higher ed. In all, he went to six different schools. Those six institutions only added up to “about two years’ worth of education,” according to the actor.

It was his fifth school that caught my attention. During the postwar Allied occupation of France, Windom enrolled in the Biarritz American University.

After the war three overseas universities were established for demobilizing GIs. These schools were temporary in nature, as you might imagine, and were shuttered (as planned) in 1946. One of the three was located in the French resort town of Biarritz. That’s the school Windom decided to attend. He chose wisely. None other than John Dos Passos called the students at Biarritz “the most contented GIs in Europe.”

Much of the resort had been mothballed since the fall of France, when its rich and aristocratic clientele stopped coming. The Americans simply took it over, billeting instructors and students in 300 hotels and villas.

The lowliest privates, accustomed to draughty barrack rooms, slept in soft beds with linen sheets, private bathrooms, hot water and maid service (as many townsfolk were glad of the work the new college brought).

The Hotel du Palais, built by Napoleon III for Empress Eugenie, became a regular college hostel; fine-art students at Villa Rochefoucauld were surprised to find one of Queen Victoria’s inventories in an armoire. Ten professors were billeted in what had been the resort’s top brothel, and were disturbed nightly by former customers. The casino became a library, with bookcases replacing the roulette wheel.

The wearing of uniform[s] was about the only piece of military discipline to be retained at BAU, though soldiers cutting lectures could be summonsed and fined. But there was a sense that this was not just a U.S. campus transplanted on to French soil.

BAU didn’t have any fight songs or school colors. It did feature guest instructors of international fame. Of course, sometimes this came at a cost:

Marlene Dietrich came to lecture on movie acting techniques (and the hapless GI charged with looking after her found himself tasked with sucking her toes to help her sleep).

Windom caught the acting bug at Biarritz, playing the title role in a school production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”. He returned to the United States and continued his studies at Fordham before beginning his professional career.

An obituary posted in The New York Times included this sentence about his time at Biarritz:

“To be honest, I signed up because I thought it would be an easy touch,” he told The New York Times in an interview for this obituary in 2009, “and we had heard that actresses had round heels.”

Imagine being about 85 years old (or any age, I suppose) and getting a call from the Times about an interview for your eventual obituary. That’s…different.

What does it all mean? Not much, really. For me, it’s just a reminder that the internet can be a very interesting place, full of information, occasionally surprising and/or educational. You click on a link, and then one thing leads to another, and then another, and soon you realize that it’s well past midnight…

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