The semi-precious joy of a campus tour

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Charles Martin Hall is not famous in the way that, oh, Monty Hall is famous. Which illustrates the deadening effect of TV, since the place in our brains where the shrieks of strangely costumed audience members on “Let’s Make a Deal” still reside could instead be dedicated to the young Ohioan who discovered an easier way to extract aluminum from ore.

Though the most common metal on earth — present in almost every plant, animal and rock — up to Hall’s discovery in 1886, aluminum was vastly expensive to refine, and what little was made was seen as a novelty of the wealthy, a semi-precious metal used in jewelry. The crown jewels of France included bars of aluminum. That changed after Hall went on to found Alcoa. The price of the metal dropped to 1/1000th of what it had been previously, which is why we use aluminum in soda cans instead of wedding rings.

The only reason I know this is because — gosh — 20 years ago I wrote a book on college pranks, and Hall was a 21-year-old graduate of Oberlin College working on the college campus when he made his discovery. At his death, he gave a ton of money to the school, which expressed its gratitude by naming a variety of buildings after Hall. Alcoa continued the praise by commissioning a life-size sculpture of the lad out of aluminum and donating it to Oberlin, which for the next 50 years had to contend with students — who like nothing better than to mock the pieties of their elders — stealing the easily transportable, hollow-aluminum statue and dragging it to various spots around campus.

Mildly interesting, perhaps, but not the kind of knowledge that has much practical daily value, and it sank deep into my subconscious until early last week when, snooping around Oberlin’s campus with my family on our first official college visit for my older boy, nearly 17, we strolled past Hall Auditorium.

“Who Hauled Hall on Top of Hall?” I exclaimed, to puzzled stares. “It was the name of a song.” I described the Hall saga to my boys who, truth be told, couldn’t have cared less.

No matter. As much as parenthood involves sacrifice, there are eventual benefits, such as the chance to hie yourself to various college campuses around the country and kick the tires of academic institutions. This is a new joy for me. People didn’t do it back in the 1970s — at least not people in Berea, Ohio. I signed up for Northwestern having never seen the campus, and still recall my relief, pushing beyond Norris Center and glimpsing the little curling promenade along the lake and thinking, “Hey, this is nice...”

Nowadays we hedge our bets, and parents of college-bound kids are convinced that if we’re going into hock for decades, we better go see what our sprouts are getting. Though I almost missed out a second time. My older son is nothing if not headstrong and at first dismissed with a wave of the hand our suggestion that he visit schools. A waste of time. He would attend Johns Hopkins, become a doctor of neurology, end of story. My wife and I exchanged worried glances. You need to go take a look first, we insisted. “What,” my wife ventured, “if you don’t like the campus?”

“Mother,” he said, in a tone of frozen contempt that I’ll be chuckling at for the rest of my life. “I’m not going there for the campus.”

I’d like to say that our reason prevailed but suspect we had nothing to do with it. Rather a book he is reading — The Thinking Student’s Guide to College, I believeencourages visits, adding that students hot to do research should consider small liberal arts colleges, because while at a big university you’ll end up in an auditorium with 150 other freshmen listening to some grad student mumble about the research a professor you’ll never meet is conducting in a lab you’ll never see, at a small school you might work with the professor yourself. Hence Oberlin.

I went along for the information session — a good thing, because I could counter my lad’s revulsion at the idea of co-ops, a bewilderment that some students would voluntarily choose to manage their dorms and cafeterias when they could be studying the folds of the brain, and I could explain that it takes all kinds to make a world, and some kids are interested in business management.

But I skipped the walking tour and hot-footed over to the college’s art museum, a lovely building resembling an Italian villa, which reminded my younger boy of the Gardner in Boston. Later, I walked the dog on the quad, marveling at my good fortune: Now I get to visit colleges. With time growing short, I realized what I had to do — hurry over to the science building to pay my respects to Charles Martin Hall, tucked away on the second floor, his statue bolted to a one-ton block of granite, to discourage future wanderings, but decorated in sunglasses and a lei by some creative student carrying on the fine tradition of undergraduate derision.