Home / Fall Table of Contents When UMass wunderkinder wowed the nation
Mike Berrini '66 is too modest: "We were good at remembering," says this key player in one of UMass's most public triumphs of this century. On March 1, 1964, between 13 and 15 million people nationwide were watching as a four-student team fielded by UMass racked up its final, championship ouster of its fifth rival team in a row, on the NBC television quiz show The G.E. College Bowl.
Berrini and his three fellow champs needed more than good memories for mountains of information. They also had to be versatile, smart, and above all, fast. Their training for that nationally televised competition involved practice in responding to verbal questions at lightning speed and using a buzzer system designed by a member of the electrical engineering department. It was that practice, says Dan Melley '55, a former UMass administrator who advised and eventually coached the team, that gave the UMass team the edge over their fifth and last opponent, the University of Arizona. "The Arizona team was brilliant," says Melley. "But they'd never practiced with buzzers, and they were just too slow."
Town and gown response to the team's five-week-long winning streak, and its final triumphant victory, was huge. The battered UMass bus that met them at the Springfield train station on March 2 was escorted back to Amherst by a convoy of state police. The team were conquering heroes, whose arrival on campus was greeted by cheering crowds and a victory celebration in the Student Union. Telegrams and letters poured in from civic leaders and ordinary folks alike, from Francis X. Bellotti, the acting governor, from presidents of other universities and colleges. A letter preserved in the university's archives, written on pink notepaper in a careful Palmer-Method hand, came from a lady in Holyoke who awarded each of the team an A+, and promised that, although neither she nor her husband were UMass graduates, they would certainly be keeping their eye on the university for their children. A congressman from upstate New York introduced his congratulations into the Congressional Record.
It was a great moment for UMass. Team member Susan Tracy Grant '65 says she was surprised at the time how important it seemed, but thinks she understands it better now. "The university had been known for agriculture, for some sports, especially football, but it always had a poor image of itself in academic spheres. A kind of inferiority complex." The College Bowl victory validated exactly the kind of excellence that was being promoted and encouraged by then-president John W. Lederle, who also presided over the exponential growth in size of the student body and the physical campus during the 60s. On the same front page of the Collegian that celebrates the College Bowl victory, there is an article about the latest annual president's report. The headline reads: "Lederle Envisions UMass As Total Educational Resource." It was a grand vision, and these four young quizmasters were helping to flesh it out. The national publicity had a direct effect on applications, says Melley, with many more coming from metropolitan New York and New Jersey after the 1964 victory.
The UMass College Bowl contests had originally been set to begin on November 24, 1963, but history stepped in to change that. President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, and all regular broadcasting was swept off the air. The team's initial appearance was postponed until January 26. Now tragedy of a more local sort struck: In mid-January the team's coach, English professor Albert Madeira, died of a heart attack while shoveling snow in his driveway. Dan Melley, who took over the coaching job, describes Madeira as a "wonderful bear of a man" who was adored by the students. But the show went on, and the prize money of $10,500 was used to establish the Albert P. Madeira Scholarship Fund, the proceeds of which continue to assist students today.
Dave Mathieson '64 was a political science major, but his specialty on the quiz show was music. "I can't read music," he says, "but I can recognize a piece on hearing the first chord." He was also able to answer this musical question: What symphony was flown out of Leningrad during the war on microfilm to be played in the West? Answer: Shostakovich's Seventh.
Susan Tracy Grant '65, the team's only female member, was majoring in veterinary medicine, but was also, she says, a "voracious reader" and often able to answer literary questions. But during one show, this question came up: Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Jasper Cropsey are all painters known as what group? "Back at the dorm, they were all watching," says Grant, "and one of my friends said, 'She'll never know.' When I answered, correctly, the Hudson River School, my friend said, 'But she's not supposed to know that!'"
Then-physics-major Bill Landis '65 remembers best the questions he missed. "Robert Earle, the moderator, brought out a piece of wood with two nails and a loop of string. I knew the answer before he asked the question, but someone on the other team hit the buzzer first." The answer was an ellipse; the question, what geometric figure would be traced using this device?
Mike Berrini, too, is haunted thirty-five years later by a question he got wrong: Which fictional character was involved in the Napoleonic wars at sea? His answer, real-life Admiral Horatio Nelson, was wrong. The fictional character was Captain Horatio Hornblower.
The trips to New York for the competition were an adventure in themselves. The "varsity" team along with a second string who practiced and accompanied them to the city took the train from Springfield on five Friday nights, then spent several hours on both Saturday and Sunday in practice runs with the other team. (Their toughest opponent, says Melley, was St. John's University, which tried to intimidate them in advance. "They trash-talked us," he says. ) The quiz show put them up in a hotel, paid for their meals, and arranged for them to see Broadway shows, including Hello, Dolly and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. They even went to hear Il Trovatore at the old Metropolitan Opera House.
On Saturday nights they went out to dinner. Their favorite place, says Dave Mathieson, was Luchow's on East Fourteenth Street, with its stag heads on wood-paneled walls and a string trio playing Victor Herbert tunes. They enjoyed the substantial German fare and got to know the waiters, who soon also became fans.
There was much to remember, much to feel good about, but for Mike Berrini, the most touching moment was an encounter he had in Amherst as he was returning from the celebratory reception at the Student Union.
"I was walking back to town, heading for the Drake, when I passed by two little kids," says Berrini. "One of them said excitedly, 'Is that one of them?' And he came up to me and just touched my hand."
1964 was not yet the period that we think of as "the 60s." Although John Kennedy had been murdered and the Civil Rights movement was well underway, the Vietnam War and its attendant protests, the revolutions of the women's movement and gay liberation, and sex, drugs, and rock and roll had not yet made their impression on the national psyche. In its public manifestations, the country was still calm and essentially optimistic. The students in the pictures of UMass's College Bowl team are well-groomed and conservatively dressed. No one had to tell these young men to wear coats and ties. And in spite of the scandals that had rocked the big-money quiz programs such as The $64,000 Question, such programs still represented what one social commentator refers to as "the myths of eternal progress and manifest destiny" that guided the country through World War II and the Cold War. These team members all look back with pride on this chapter of their lives. Their well-scrubbed young faces shine with pleasure in the photographs that appeared in local and national newspapers. But where are they now?
MIKE BERRINI grew up in Worcester and started his UMass career as a Stockbridge School student, then transferred to the four-year program as a history and anthropology major. He lives in Downington, Pennsylvania, where he holds down two jobs: one doing energy audits for CMC Energy Services, the other marketing ad specialties and promotional items. He has been married for twenty-eight years to the same woman, and they have two daughters.
BILL LANDIS is professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular pathology at Northeastern Ohio University's College of Medicine. A UMass physics major, he got his Ph.D. at MIT, then taught at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital for twenty-six years. He is working on the effects of biominer-alization, especially the effect of exercise and gravity on bone development.
DAVE MATHIESON was a political science major who got his M.Ed. at Syracuse. Active in the anti-war movement, he spent time as a VISTA volunteer. During the riots in Detroit, he was chosen to help "soothe things down," an activity that included talking to armed snipers. Sidelined by multiple medical problems, he lives today in housing for disabled people in Northampton. He works as a volunteer at Manna, a soup kitchen, and has been a member of its board for the past eleven years. He still listens to a lot of music, especially of the twentieth century variety.
SUSAN TRACY GRANT went on to do graduate work in zoology, completing her UMass Ph.D. in 1978. Also a Northampton resident, she has taught science at Holyoke Community College for thirty-two years. The author of a popular science book, Beauty and the Beast: the Coevolution of Plants and Animals, she is now at work on fiction and a murder mystery. Despite her triumph of thirty-two years ago, she no longer watches quiz shows. In fact, for the past seventeen years she has no longer watched television. "We ditched our TV," she says. "We decided it was either that or never read another book."