Related topics

Brooklyn College Alma Mater: Change That Tune 3/8

May 16, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ In 1933, Brooklyn College staged a competition to choose an official anthem. The winner began with these inspirational lines:

″On campus green, with towers of marble

Lifting white spires in the air.

Oh, Brooklyn is our Alma Mater,

And she is wondrous fair.″

Not to mention wondrous gullible. Those lyrics, it turns out a half century later, were a joke, and the college has decided to adopt a new alma mater.

In 1933, the college was a new, working-class school spread out in rented space in a half-dozen buildings in downtown Brooklyn. There was no campus green, no towers of marble to lift white spires in the air.

But a professor decided that the college needed an alma mater.

The contestants included Sylvia Fine, who would later marry entertainer Danny Kaye and become a songwriter, and Robert Friend, who would later move to Israel and become a serious poet.

Miss Fine, an earnest music student, wrote her score in the style of a 19th century German university anthem. Friend, a rebellious young leftist, wrote his lyrics to parody the genre and sarcastically acknowledge the school’s gritty surroundings.

But Friend’s satire was lost on the college community, even though his classmate Irwin Shaw once described the old campus as ″a scatter of buildings which we shared with running packs of lawyers, (and) lofts whose previous tenants had gone broke. There was a burlesque hall you hurried past on your way from Victorian Poetry to Economics 1.″

In the official college history, a graduate recalls pushing his way through ″a crowd of lawyers, politicians, businessmen and office workers ... to the sound of auto horns and trolley gongs″ on Smith Avenue. The gym, in the basement of a loft building, featured a ceiling 8 feet high.

Over the years, the song’s words and music came to be credited, incorrectly, to Sylvia Fine Kaye, who never cared for them. She cleared up the misconception at a college awards luncheon two years ago, and offered to write new music and lyrics that would acknowledge the college’s move in 1936 to a pleasant new campus with trees and grass.

But there was a problem: she was reluctant to proceed without Friend’s permission, and no one knew where he was.

There things stood until two months ago, when college president Robert L. Hess was in Jerusalem at a Brooklyn College alumni reunion.

In walked Friend, who recoiled when Hess hailed him as the ″Alma Mater″ lyricist.

″Please, I really want to forget about that,″ he said.

Friend, it turned out, was an established poet who had published several volumes, one dedicated to the college’s students and teachers. Now he was embarrassed by the poetic lengths to which his youthful radicalism had pushed him.

″I decided I would write a parody of alma maters,″ he said. ″Brooklyn College had just opened, and I thought (a traditional alma mater) was terribly inappropriate. Who needed it?″

He told Hess: ″I wish you’d get a new alma mater.″

Back in New York, Hess notified Mrs. Kaye, who produced a new song entitled, ″A Field in Flatbush.″

Its opening lines:

″On a former field in Flatbush,

Now a campus lush and green,

Proudly stands our Alma Mater,

Ever lovely and serene.″

Hess says he thinks the song is a big improvement, and not because the composer recently donated $250,000 to the scholarship fund.

″I thought the old one was unsingable,″ he said. ″The lyrics were not right for something as down to earth as Brooklyn College.″

Update hourly