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Fiction #118
(published January 23, 2003)
Hall of Famers
by Stefan Kiesbye

"I love my job, I really do," Shirley Helling tells everyone who comes to her office at Eastern Michigan University, and she means it. Helling has said good-bye to the daily business of evaluating students' applications and devotes her time mainly to Ypsilanti's Admissions Hall of Fame, where she oversees Acquisitions and Storage. The old Victorian mansion on College Street was donated by the state of Michigan and Peer Drysdale, an Eastern admissions legend. For five dollars, you can pick up a catalog and guide to the Hall of Fame and its inductees, and read the histories of the men and women who advanced university enrollment.

The town of Ypsilanti is about thirty miles west of Detroit— car and bus are the preferred travel options. Even so, Helling says, out-of-state tourists will find that it is only a short drive from Motown's Metro airport to their final destination. And many will be welcomed each year by the petite, energetic admissions officer. This, at a time when many traditional tourism hot-spots are seeing steep declines in attendance— no thanks to the crumbling economy and lingering memories of Sept. 11, 2001.

Near the entrance of the Hall of Fame, a small office has been re-created. "That's our founder's," Helling explains. On the walls of the office hang awards for admissions excellence, and on the gray metal desk, next to folders which contain the "Drysdale System for Student Recruitment," stands the famous baseball, Peer's first homerun in college baseball. Although he never reached beyond a workout with the Milwaukee Braves, he remained fond of the game and was known as 'Slugger' Drysdale.

Helling has worked twenty-nine years in her profession, but as of late, she is worried about the future of the university's admissions. "People are disappearing," she claims, and accuses the department of foul play. "They will tell us our people left for the Public Safety department or for Adrian or Wayne State, but I for one, I never hear anything about them again. And no one else does. Laurie was said to have left for Records and Registration, but I don't believe a word. She was such a nice girl, and we always took our lunch together, and suddenly she's gone and not even calling."

In front of Hal Hundley's life-sized picture, Helling clasps her hands as if in prayer, staring at the mustachioed man in his fifties, a smile exposing crooked teeth. "This is my hero," she exclaims. "I've read his biography three, oh no, four or five times. Hal Hundley. I learned so much from him." Next to the photograph are the green and blue of his college, and a smaller picture of Hal showing students around at Hilbert. "I used to devour his articles in the Chronicle. His methods revolutionized the university. He developed the charts by which we rank high schools. He got rid of the application essay and applied the rules of telemarketing to the admissions process."

Since late spring, a regional campaign for Michigan tourism has featured children and their parents in a TV spot touting the state's historical and cultural destinations. In the ad, Ypsilanti's Hall of Fame is dubbed "the home of heroes."

This year's inductees were Mervin Stern, Elise Granger, Robert 'SAT' Bestwell, Dan Tanner, and Mary-Louise Goldstein. Stern was the first inductee from Buffalo, and was enshrined in the white and blue of the school. Elise wore the purple and gold of Albion, even though she only worked for the Brits the last four years of her illustrious career.

Many admission insiders believe that Stern should not have been inducted at all, after spending five years on the ballots and never getting much more than the necessary thirty-five percent to stay in contention. What finally caused the jurors to relent stays a mystery, but Buffalo, as Helling assures me, is thrilled nevertheless.

"Redeye" Mervin once recruited more than three hundred students in one day, at seven different high schools. He was also known as "Rubbermouth," and although critics doubt the exactness of the recruits' number, arguing that reasons for enrollment can never be traced with complete certitude, the seven high schools Mervin visited in the fall of 1972 sent 343 students to Buffalo the following year. In 1973, when Mervin was taken off his downstate tour and sent to Albany, the number of recruits from his old district shrank to seventeen.

"Mervin had that touch," Helling sighs, although Stern never repeated his success. "He came close," she notes, "but he loved the City. He never got over being sent to Albany. It broke his heart. To Mervin, that was a demotion."

In the months leading up to his induction, Stern gave interviews to his old Buffalo director, "Colonel" Ben Hermansson, who was working on a book about their shared campaigns, called "We Made It Happen Once." But when Stern later received a copy of the Colonel's memoir, which featured a picture of Mervin in a blue pinstripe suit on the cover, he put it down without even leafing through its pages. As he often told his closest friends, he was uncomfortable with a book that portrayed him as a larger-than-life hero. "The real heroes have run-down heels and are still doing the job."

How did Mervin convince those 300 students to come? How did he sell them the City of Buffalo?

"He might have...exaggerated." Helling smiles knowingly, and leads the way upstairs, to the more recent Hall of Famers. For a considerable time, she stands quietly in front of Elizabeth Becher's shrine, the woman who applied her experience as a registered nurse to the requirements of recruitment and introduced the Counselor-on-Call system, in which one admissions officer worked three interview rooms to reduce time wasted on leading parents and prospective students into the room, on seating them, and asking them to produce their transcripts. In Becher's system, a keyboard specialist does all this, and once the counselor is finished in one interview room, he goes briskly to the next, finding his clients alert and prepared.

"This is Elmira Tranch," Helling smiles with delight. "She invented the Flowers-and-Chocolates method. Every candidate admitted to her school received a small gift basket. 93.5 percent of students admitted enrolled. Phenomenal." She stops, and her forehead creases with worries.

"Five in seven months," she says, referring to the recent firings in the admissions office at Eastern, which is threatened by privatization. "And neither Candy, nor Marleen, nor Ethel have ever heard of them again. And I'm telling you, I'm next on the list. Did you know they keep files on everyone in the office? They have a whole cabinet of material they collect about each and every one of us. When they have enough evidence, our director is informed, and boom— that person is fired. I don't know what they have against me, I could do no harm to no one, but whenever they send someone into my office, that person opens my drawers, and when I ask him what he's doing, he tells me he was searching for a student's file. He asks if I mind— do I have something to hide?"

"Here," Helling says in a whisper, and it becomes clear what caused her outburst. "Ghastly Greg. Oh my God, he should not be here, although, I guess, in his own way, he was a pioneer." Ghastly Greg is all too well-known among the admission officers' ranks.

"He bugged the offices of his counselors. He was the director of admissions at Kenton. He not only installed microphones, but also cameras— for quality improvement, as he put it. They were installed in ventilation shafts; the counselors had no clue. Greg was merciless. Fired people for private phone calls, playing solitaire on the computer, you name it. He's still around." A remark that causes her to think of those who aren't. "Gloria. A nice girl, her car stood three days out in the parking lot before it was gone. And they said she had left for Oswego. Why would she keep her car in the lot even after five, when she wasn't even working here anymore? Alissa, a really nice person, fat, but nice, I can't say anything bad about her, and one's weight is nobody else's business— she never cleaned out her desk. She had a globe sitting on top, and oh so many beanies, and pens, and an umbrella, but she never came to clean the desk out. I'm telling you, this is scaring me. You don't watch what you're doing or saying and you're gone and nobody knows where you are. They were all single women, no families, no one to ask questions. Would you miss me?"

Ypsilanti is on a roll — more of a roll than the university. Attendance at the Hall of Fame was up eight percent through September. The town is a star for Michigan tourism, despite glitzier possibilities. More may be on tap.

At the end of a dimly lit hallway is a photograph that shows— nothing. "Ralph Jerome Traflon, a genius," Helling explains. "Nobody knows anymore where he lives, if he's still alive." But there must be pictures? "No. After he left Brenkenwood College, a fire broke out in Admissions and destroyed everything." Did he have family, friends? "No friends, only his wife. She and his co-workers were never allowed to take pictures of him. From '73-'84, he was the only recruiter for Brenkenwood. But the freshman class was never smaller than 600. For a college that size..." Helling pauses, then tries to explain Traflon's secret.

"There were rumors. Rumors that he threatened students. Once they were admitted, he personally visited them. He was known as 'Fune-Ralph.' Drove a black Cadillac. He was even better than Becher's Flowers-and-Chocolates. Not a single admitted applicant ever refused to come to Brenkenwood. Well, there were a few deaths, but people are exaggerating. Nothing was ever proven. One hundred percent. A modern legend." To the question what happened to Traflon's wife, she answers by pointing at an interview in the Hall of Fame catalog. A former colleague of Traflon was interviewed on the topic of the famous recruiter's disappearance:

I've tried to tell [his wife] Annie this, in a way, but she's not ready yet for the truth. In the next weeks or months, I'll take her down to the marina and we'll take a long walk along the water, and I'll explain these things. People like him, they don't die at home. They aren't destined for that and it isn't right for them to do so. It just isn't right, by God, for them to become feeble, old, and helpless sons of bitches. There are certain men born in this world, and they're supposed to die setting an example for the rest of the weak bastards we're surrounded with.

The following day— Helling has agreed to open her archive, located in the Hall's basement — a young man in a tweed coat opens the door of 200 College Street. Is Shirley there? "Who?" he asks cheerfully. "The Hall of Fame is closed today for repairs." Will Shirley Helling be in tomorrow? "The Hall of Fame won't open to the public today." The young man blocks the door, the tip of his left foot scratching the ground as if to extinguish a cigarette.

Has Shirley Helling been fired? "The Hall of Fame will re-open tomorrow."

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