Seven countries in one summer

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • 1954 bearcats bike across Europe
    A group of 11 Willamette University students led by philosophy professor Thomas Bennett biked across several European countries in 1954. In this photo, the group is at the Crosthwait Hostel in England’s Lake District on Aug. 5, 1954. (Image courtesy of Larry Monk Europe 1954 scrapbook)
  • alumni in library
    From left, Gino Pieretti ’56, Carol (Hewett) Erickson ’56, Larry Monk ’55, Dale Harris ’55 and Carla (McKeen) Harris ’56 reunite in Salem to donate their travel journals and memorabilia to the Hatfield Library’s digital archives.

Photos and letters from 1954 Willamette student bike trip are available in university archives.

A remarkable journey to Europe more than 60 years ago has come full circle back to where it started: the Willamette campus.

In the summer of 1954, 11 Willamette students biked across several European countries in a one-off, one-credit “Summer Seminar in Europe” led and organized by philosophy professor Thomas Bennett.

Earlier this year, several of them — Gino Pieretti ’56, Carol (Hewett) Erickson ’56, Carla (McKeen) Harris ’56, Dale Harris ’55 and Larry Monk ’55 — returned to Salem to donate their travel journals, photographs and other memorabilia to the Hatfield Library’s digital archives.

College students today are accustomed to globetrotting for vacation or scholarship; in fact, Willamette students can choose from a variety of study abroad programs in 38 countries. But in the 1950s, the trip presented a rare adventure for the students — a chance to explore parts of the world none of them had ever seen.

They rode Hercules three-speed bikes, cycled dozens of miles a day and repaired numerous flat tires. They stayed in hostels, visited museums and art galleries, and marveled at Roman ruins and historic churches, cathedrals and castles.

As they sat in University Archives and passed around old photos, the former students marveled at the simplicity and ease of their three-and-a-half month journey across France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, England and Scotland on a shoestring budget. They all agreed it was an empowering opportunity, one that enhanced their self-confidence and independence.

“The trip exceeded our expectations,” says Dale Harris ’55. “We were comfortable, we were happy, it was a good experience.”

By summer’s end, the students sold their bikes in Edinburgh, Scotland, boarded a train back to London for one week then headed to New York. All told, they biked more than 1,000 miles.

Mary McRobinson, university archivist, says an exciting adventure emerges from the group’s letters, photographs and oral histories.

“The details and accommodations are in stark contrast to what an undergrad doing this would experience today,” she says. “But it’s fascinating to note the desire in Willamette students for new experiences remains the same.”

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