I got my undergraduate degree from Metropolitan State College (now called Metropolitan State University) in 1989, and after a little work stint in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, went to graduate school at Southeast Missouri State University, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I went there, well, for a boy. My long-distance boyfriend (now husband) was going to Southeast (aka SEMO) pursuing his degree. We wanted to see if we could make it work. We did.
Cape Girardeau is a fairly small university town, located in southeastern Missouri. The University, which was first a teacher’s college, is not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. Mark Twain once mentioned the University’s iconic main building in his memoir, Life on the Mississippi, a quote that is now engraved on the wall of the ‘new” Academic Hall, “There was another college, high up on an airy summit — a bright new edifice, picturesquely and peculiarly towered and pinnacled — a sort of gigantic casters, with the cruets all complete.” I put the quotes there because the old building burned down in 1902, replaced by the Academic Hall.
Cape Girardeau started out as a trading post around 1730 by a Frenchman named Jean Jacques Girardeau, and “Cape” because the land jutted into the Mississippi, causing the river to bend around the area. Cape Girardeau, now spoken of as just Cape to many, was occupied by the Union Army during the American Civil War (despite many of its prominent citizens owning slaves). The town grew slowly, due to the fact that it was a hilly place, surrounded by many swampy areas, but population growth was really helped by the establishment of Southeast Missouri State University, then known as a Third District Normal School, in 1873, training elementary and high school teachers.
By the time I moved to southeast Missouri, in 1990, we had entered the new, more enlightened era — at least to some — I did look into renting an apartment, found a Nazi flag on the wall, and got the hell out of there.
Cape was lovely, in some ways. The campus was hilly, with dogwood trees, magnolia trees and Japanese gingko trees blooming in the spring, and changing brilliant colors in the fall. I lived a stone-throw away from campus, and my building, the English building. I loved my tiny apartment, my job for the University publication department, my boss and most of my teachers (even those who gave me two lousy Bs. In my defense, how do you argue against, “This just doesn’t work for me?”). I actually sailed through graduate school, getting (almost) all As and then I learned the art of levitation. OK, that last part was a lie — I do not know how to levitate.
Most of my time was spent on Southeast’s campus, but Cape itself was also charming. Cape was large enough to have its own TV station, a daily newspaper, and a large new mall (with the Pasta House Restaurant — a restaurant that served my absolute favorite salad, read about this salad in one of my previous blogs if you’re curious). The old riverfront neighborhood, with aging brick buildings, and a large clock in the middle of the brick streets, is just a few square blocks. This original downtown had a large wall by the river, with a gate section that slid closed if the Mississippi was at flood stage. It also had a spate of quaint little art, antique, and junk shops and still-affordable but yummy restaurants. One of the better restaurants was called Broussard’s — a Cajun restaurant where you could get a 24-ounce Budweiser, a platter of crawfish and a shrimp po’ boy sandwich I still dream about.
In this Bible Belt town, there was even a synagogue, albeit used only once a year, on High Holy Days, with the rabbi driving down from St. Louis. We attended services there, with my (now) husband especially glad he was there to make an official minyan (a prayer gathering of 10 or more people). There was also a small Asian market, where we would buy glass noodles, dried mushrooms, and this wonderful-smelling Chinese soap with a bee on the label. Cape is also where we saw our first drag queen “pageant,” at a gay bar — if you don’t know where this bar is in Cape, I’m not telling.
I knew, even as I was getting sick of schoolwork, that I was going to miss Cape. I was going to miss the rains and fogs, the kindness and big-heartedness of most of the people. What I was not going to miss was the unrelenting heat of the late spring, summer and early autumn that was accompanied by huge high humidity (even before so much global warming — temperature in the 90s, humidity at 70–80%). I was not going to miss the occasional sight of people walking around with shotguns on their shoulders (just a little bit spooky, because I wasn’t used to that).
So yes, we usually go to Cape Girardeau when we visit our family in St. Louis, at least for a drive-through tour of the campus and the old downtown. Alas, the Pasta House Restaurant is no longer in the mall — they built themselves their own building, and then, about 10 years later, went out of business. (There’s still one in St. Louis, and you can still buy Pasta House salad dressing in the St. Louis grocery stores.) The town is much larger now, the University has grown tremendously, with the large, new school of Engineering as well as other expansions. The building I used to work from is still there (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places), but the Publication Department moved from it long ago.
And we still show our kids the campus, fondly remembering the dorms my husband lived in, the main campus library, the football field where the Indians played (they’re now called Red Hawks, although we’ve never seen a red hawk in those parts), the Academic Hall and my little apartment.
Let’s say that I disagree with the Peter De Vries quote, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” But it is.