My long-ago drop-in on a University of Iowa course — in billiards!


IOWA CITY, Iowa, Feb. 5, 2015 – I had a flashback the other night to April of 1983, when I learned that the University of Iowa was offering a course in “billiards.” So of course, I drove right over here to audit the class one evening back then, and wrote the following column for the Des Moines Register. What made me think about it recently was that one of the U of I students I played in pool that long ago night was Kevin Boyle, who’d been a star basketball player for the Hawkeyes. Boyle went on to become an assistant coach in men’s basketball up the road at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. He is now doing color commentary on the radio broadcasts of UNI Panther games, with Gary Rima on the play-by-play. When I heard Boyle talking on the air the other night, it took me back 32 years to my classroom visit. Here’s the column as it ran back then:

The school year is slipping away and I hadn’t yet audited a college class, which I always like to do to stay in touch. So I popped in on a University of Iowa course that is listed in catalogs as “Section 79, Department 10-21 – Billiards.”

There is a danger in visiting Academia and writing about something like this for the general public. The narrow-minded will start chirping about the punt courses being taught for actual credit in our tax-supported institutions. They’re the same old mossbacks who always are yipping at Iowa State for those little creampuffs tucked away in the Home Ec curriculum. Those people never understand the “liberal” in Liberal Arts.

But I do, and that’s in spite of the fact that, when it comes to pool, I’m from the Old School. In other words, I learned my game in a beer joint. My teacher was the late Harry Spargur, whom many of us called “Harry the Hustler.” He was no college man, unless attending an occasional football game makes you one.

Some will jump to the hasty conclusion that a guy like Harry would sneer at pool’s being taught at a university. Hardly. Two things Harry always told us: 1) When we were cussing too loud, he’d growl, “Pretty rough language for a boy,” and 2) when we were whining about school, he’d say, “Get that education or you’ll wind up working in a pool hall like me.” To think, if he’d hung on a few years more, what with his keen eye and steady hand and smooth stroke, he could’ve been a faculty member! Harry would love this course.

Now, I said the name of it is “Billiards.” You think immediately of the snobby, pocketless game played by rich men wearing smoking jackets and sipping brandy. Indeed, they give you a brush with that game here at the U of I, but mostly they teach 8-ball, straight pool, rotation and snooker. And as for dress and drink, it seemed to be all T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, Mello-Yellos and Cokes.

Instructors are primarily grad students in Physical Education. However, John Bowlsby, 27, director of the recreation center in the Iowa Memorial Union, where the classes are held, also teaches a couple of sections. You may remember Bowlsby as the great Hawkeye heavyweight wrestler of a couple years ago. Gee, I hope he likes this column.

Bowlsby said billiards is one of the more popular of the minor Phys Ed classes. He said everyone is especially anxious for the appearance here soon of Sue Warnes, a trick-shot artist of national renown. Aha, visiting lecturer? “You could say that,” he laughed.

Presiding at the class I attended was the youngest member of the teaching cadre, Chuck Meardon, a 20-year-old Iowa Citian, himself an undergraduate student. He is a sophomore in everything but pool, in which, believe me, even Harry Spargur would say the kid is a veritable professor.

When one of his students gets uppity, Meardon fetches a mop from the storage room and, using its handle as a cue, plays against the fool. Isn’t that degrading to his students? “Of course,” said the witty Meardon. “The mop shows ’em who’s in charge. Teaches ’em humility.”

He never loses. He was just one ball shy of skunking me, although I’m proud to say he felt it necessary to use his $400, custom-made Szamboti cue instead of that darned old mop handle.

He moves with cockiness and confidence among the tables, showing those in the class of 17 how to make a good bridge with the hand, to pay attention to where the cue ball might meander and how to use the cushions. “Some of the other teachers use group instruction,” he said. “I teach table to table because different people have different abilities.”

Meardon introduced as one of his most skilled students former Hawkeye basketball star Kevin Boyle, who is completing work on his degree. Boyle was much tougher in hoops than he is on the felt; I waxed him. “You’ve embarrassed your teacher,” said Meardon to Boyle. “You wanna flunk this course?”

Few do flunk billiards. Meardon said of 20 students he had last semester, two were taking the course for actual grades. They both got A’s. The other 18 were taking it on a pass-fail basis. The only two who failed did so because they never showed up.

Meardon is not paid for his teaching. Instead, he gets a financial break on his university bill.

I asked if it had ever occurred to him to think of himself as “a faculty colleague” of, say, James Van Allen, the noted physicist.

“Dr. Van Allen doesn’t have the same status at the university as I do,” Meardon said, “but it’s okay with me if you mention our names together.”

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