An Ozarker Abroad
Wed, 12/16/2020 - 1:06pm admin
Lonnie Whitaker, contributing writer
During my junior year at Mizzou, my friend Steve and I had two buddies who spent a summer in Europe. They returned with hair growing over their ears, daring and radical in 1967 in the Midwest, and with fabulous tales of their adventures. Paris. Rome. Munich. And Rickey’s Bar in Sitges, Spain.
Loaded with envy, we daydreamed of our own adventure in Europe the next summer. And the fact that WSHS classmate and fellow Mizzou student, Glenda Turner, had parlayed her musical talents into a job playing the piano at the Grosvenor Hotel in London, made the prospect seem possible.
However, I had another problem—the Selective Service. The only reason I hadn’t been drafted was my 2-S student deferment, which every summer changed to 1-A—ready for service.
As a result, I had been discussing my future with the Marine Corps campus recruiter. I passed the aptitude tests and had an appointment with him to sign up for a program that would have me spending the next summer at the Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia.
On the morning of my appointment with the recruiter, I met Steve for coffee at the student union beforehand. With no uncertainty, he said, “You don’t want to join the Marine Corps. Let’s make a pact. Skip the Marine Corps, and we’ll go to Europe next summer.” After some discussion, we shook hands, and I went to the lobby and told an upset recruiter I had changed my mind. [But I spent the summer of 1969, courtesy of the U.S. Army, at Ft. Benning, Georgia.]
We discovered a $300 roundtrip charter flight from St. Louis to London that departed in June and returned in late August. Our traveler friends told us about a $175 Eurail Pass that provided unlimited first-class train travel for two months. After scouring the popular travel book, Europe on $5 a Day, we estimated the cost to tour Europe would be about a $1,000 each. But how could we get that much money?
We got part time jobs. I stacked books at the University library, and Steve processed credit applications for a local loan company, but neither supplied enough dough to fund the trip. We started brainstorming. What if we could find a product to sell to students? Within the student population, we decided sororities and fraternities would be a prime market. Every spring the Greek organizations bought small keepsake gifts for their dates at spring parties. With a leap of imagination, we thought, perhaps, we could manufacture party favors for sororities?
We came up with idea of bath sarongs for men. A sarong is a garment consisting of a length of cloth wrapped around the body that ties at the waist. Basically, wrap-around towels with sewn-on Greek letters that girls could give to guys, who could wear them to the showers in the dorms or fraternity houses.
We brought Steve’s girlfriend, Susan, a home economics major and excellent seamstress, into the planning. For the fabric, we chose gold terrycloth (most sororities had gold as a color). She made prototypes, with sewn-on Greek letters, cut from felt, for two sororities: Kappa Alpha Theta and Delta Delta Delta. Both had spring events.
Steve’s mother, Dorothy, dated a textile salesman who agreed to supply terrycloth at wholesale cost. Susan joined our venture as a partner for the major sewing responsibilities. All we needed to do was sell the sororities on the idea.
At that time in Columbia, a national jewelry company’s representative named Troy Newman, had the market for party favors cornered. With his smooth South Carolina accent, he made the rounds to the Greek houses and essentially took orders. “Why, I sold this mug to your sisters at the University of South Carolina, and they just loved it. How many do you want?”
We had to beat Troy to the punch. I called the social chairman at the Tri-delt house, and she told me I could make a presentation at a house meeting. Steve was out of town, so it would be a solo act. When I arrived, 50 meticulously groomed women sat on the floor of a well-appointed living room waiting to hear my pitch. After I was introduced, the room became silent. Suddenly, I had stage fright.
I never know when my WSHS education is going to come into play, but on that evening, advice I had received from Raymond Newby, the speech and dramatics teacher at Willow, served me well. My senior year, Mr. Newby directed a three-act comedy play, Adam’s Evening, which played for two nights to mostly sold-crowds in the WSHS auditorium. I played the title character, but classmate Buddy Stuart, demonstrating formidable acting chops, quickly became the crowd favorite playing the part of a whacky character.
Unlike Buddy, Mr. Newby sensed nervousness on my part to transform into the character. He bluntly said, “On stage, don’t be Lonnie.” In other words, hide behind the character.
That night at the Tri-delt house I became Troy Newman, the salesman from the South, albeit southern Missouri, and hawked the bath sarongs. I modeled them and did a little dance that I suspect looked more like an Ozark “double-shuffle.” [I wish I had paid more attention to Willow banker, Joyce Burns, when he demonstrated his “old soft-shoe” for me.]
In the midst of all the laughter, the president called the room to order and by acclamation they voted to buy the sarongs for their Spring Steak Fry. We priced the sarongs at $15 apiece, and because we didn’t have money for production costs, I collected a $5 deposit on each one.
My routine at the Tri-delts worked so well that Steve and I refined the act and went to the Theta house where it also worked. They agreed to buy the sarongs as party favors for their Theta Kite Flight event.
Several women who saw our product commented they would like a women’s version. Susan designed a women’s model, which tied below the arms, that we sold to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, as date gifts for their “Plantation Ball.”
With over $500 in deposits from our customers, we ordered the terrycloth and made arrangements to spend spring break at Dorothy’s house in St. Louis. We planned to rent sewing machines after we got there.
Susan, Steve, and I arrived at Dorothy’s and immediately arranged the basement into a workshop. That night we went to a fabric store and bought the felt. The next morning, we called everyplace we could think of that might rent sewing machines, with absolutely no luck. No place in St. Louis rented sewing machines.
How could we have made such a blunder in our planning? We had over $500 of our customers’ money, bolts of terrycloth stacked in the basement, and no sewing machines. As my Irish grandmother might have said, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”
To be continued…