Cigars & Academia

The hallowed halls of higher learning often contain a whiff of cigar.
| By Gene Crume | From Danny DeVito, Winter 96

The new president of Huxley College prepares to take the podium to deliver his inaugural address to the trustees, faculty and students of that fine institution. He doesn't hesitate to take his freshly lit cigar with him. However, the past president of the college disrupts his successor's presence by stating, "It would please the faculty if you would throw your cigar away." President Quincy Adams Wagstaff promptly replies to this pompous suggestion in his usual style. "The faculty members might as well keep their seats," he says with a smirk as he glances out of the corner of his eye. "There will be no diving for this cigar!"

Of course, this wry bit of humor can only be delivered by the incomparable Groucho Marx, and the fictitious Huxley College is merely the setting for the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers. While those who work in the hallowed halls of higher education today may not be actually "diving" for cigars, the popularity of cigars continues to be as accepted as robes and research.

So, what is it about cigars that make them so enticing to those who labor on campuses across the country, these same bastions of intellectualism where buildings are adorned with Smoke-Free Facility signs? The answer, quite simply, is culture.

To a cigar smoker, culture means the environment in which one savors a good smoke. To those on college campuses, culture means intellectual discovery, inspirational research and enriching philosphy. In other words, the ability to reflect, ponder and gain insight. What better environment to smoke a cigar. And what better person to start examining these compatible cultures than a professor of philosophy.

"Aristotle said that without leisure you can't have philosophy," says Reginald Lilly. "Cigars are an experience of a qualitative difference in life."

Lilly should know. He is a professor of philosophy at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. His specialty is nineteenth- and twentieth-century European philosophy, and with degrees from the University of Vermont and Duquesne University, he has all the makings of a traditional academician and intellectual. What inspiration does a man this worldly find in cigars? His quotation from Aristotle hints at the answer--leisure and culture.

"You think about the cigar when you smoke it," Lilly says. "And it goes along with reflecting on other things. I find academic culture to be pretty hospitable to cigars. In some very real senses, I'm probably intellectually closer to my cigar smoking academic friends than those who are specialists in my field." Or, summing it up nicely for us laymen, he says, "It's sort of: Light up and let's see what you're made of."

Let's ride this intellectual wave by consulting with a cultural anthropologist on the subject.

Professor Don Pollock of the State University of New York at Buffalo has always enjoyed the flavor of tobacco. His mother was a cigarette smoker and he can recall the "delicious aroma" whenever she would light up. It was natural for him to be curious about, and experiment with, tobacco. His taste runs to cigars, not cigarettes, and being a part of the college scene only enhances his pleasure.

Even though there's only one other regular cigar smoker among the 22 professors in the anthropology department, Pollock realizes that cigar smoking requires the more leisured study that academics can give to anything. The image of smoking a cigar conjures up associations of mahogany-paneled smoking parlors or attending the faculty club at an Ivy League school.

"The self-image of an anthropologist is of a bit wilder and unbridled person, perhaps bearded and dripping with native decorations from research locations," Pollock says. "The cigar feeds into that sense of self-certainty for an anthropologist. It is the extension of university life and the kind of freedom it offers, unlike cigarettes, which are corporate tobacco--simple, neat and efficient, and you're done."

Pollock welcomes the new wave of younger cigar smokers. Similar to the increased access to higher education in the 1960s and '70s in the United States, cigar smoking allows people the opportunity to refine their tastes and their own sense of style.

Former professor Jivan Tabibian notes the paradox between the increasing popularity of cigar smoking and our no-smoking culture. "McDonald's and America's interest in gourmet cuisine go hand in hand," he says. "Education is not that much different." Tabibian notes that academicians often feel that culture begins and is fostered at colleges and universities, then it moves into the masses and becomes watered down. The debate about political correctness is perhaps the most recent example. He claims that the culture of higher education is more elite than it ever was, but at the same time applications to institutions of higher learning have also increased. This sense of elitism is part of the university culture. We can see the seasoned line worker commenting about the "he-thinks-he-knows-it-all, smart-aleck college boy."

Tabibian taught political science at the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles and the California Institute of the Arts during the same period. He has since traded the academic life for a consulting practice and entrepreneurial interests in Southern California, including part ownership of Remi, a hot (and cigar friendly) Los Angeles restaurant. Still, the lure of the college setting is as enticing for Tabibian as a fine cigar, and he enjoys studying this same relationship in the masses.

"The relationship of academics and cigars is one of context," he says. "Many of us in academia are not at the top of the economic heap. We've traded dollars for psychic activity. In that environment of the self-made poor, we have subtle signals to reveal our indulgences."

Sometimes it's much simpler than that.

Smoking cigars "is something that I like to do if I'm doing paperwork, reading or writing. I don't get metaphysical about it," says Theodore Hesburgh, a priest and former president of the University of Notre Dame, who is known by many as the "elder statesman" of American higher education.

Hesburgh joined the faculty at Notre Dame in 1945. Seven years later, at the age of 35, he was named president. During his 35-year tenure from 1952 to 1987, the number of students, faculty and degrees awarded doubled, Notre Dame's endowment climbed from $10 million to $400 million, the number of library volumes increased fivefold and the total of buildings on campus went from 48 to 88. During all of this academic progress, the school's football program produced four national champions, outstanding coaches and some of the finest players the sport has ever seen.

Hesburgh now enjoys an occasional Macanudo--when someone gives him one, because he thinks they're too expensive to be a personal indulgence. A native of Syracuse, New York, Notre Dame's president emeritus was a cigarette smoker for many years. However, he gave them up for health reasons, and also because he didn't think that smoking cigarettes was setting a good example for his students. He toiled with pipes briefly, but found them to be too much trouble, so he settled on cigars. However, just to prove to himself that he's not addicted and because of his religious commitment, he gives up cigars every year during Lent.

"Life is full of checks and balances," Hesburgh says, "and it's important not to go overboard on anything--except God, if you will. It's like asking someone why they like caramel custard. I suppose it's because he likes it. I don't want life to be defined by a cigar."

There's little chance of that. In addition to his academic achievements, Hesburgh helped start John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, has been awarded more honorary degrees than any person in the world (133) and was the recipient of the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson.

Hesburgh's desire to be defined by his service rather than his pleasures is shared by an ally from across the Atlantic. Robert Eisenthal is a biochemist at the University of Bath in England and his progression to cigars mirrors Hesburgh's. Although he prefers to smoke an inexpensive Hamlet cigar as a daily indulgence, Eisenthal won't turn down a fine Cuban if offered. However, he, too, keeps his cigar smoking in perspective.

"I do actually enjoy it, but I have to admit it's an addiction as well," Eisenthal says in his acquired British accent. Born in England but educated at Amherst College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has made his home in England since the mid-1960s, when he fell in love with a British woman while completing a fellowship at Cambridge.

Still, Eisenthal appreciates the residual benefits that accompany a cigar, like sharing a smoke and a pint of ale with a friend in a local pub. He doesn't see a cigar smoking craze in England like the one that is sweeping the States, but he does see the allure that a cigar has to conversation when enjoyed among friends.

It's an allure that attracts students as well. "I like to dive into debate both pro and con," says Rodney Cohen, a 30-year-old doctoral student at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College in Nashville. "This kind of debate helps me look at life through different lenses. The cigar is somewhat soothing and stimulating for intellectual discourse."

Cohen is a well-dressed, articulate young man who speaks like a professor of 25 years tenure. His academic experiences have assisted in his cool, comfortable demeanor. Cohen earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University). He remained at his alma mater to teach freshman chemistry and conduct biomedical research. After picking up a master's degree in student affairs (higher education administration), Cohen moved to Nashville to conduct his doctoral work. He hopes to parlay these experiences into a position in university administration.

He remains quite philosophical about his cigar passion, one that he has maintained since he was an undergraduate in Atlanta. "The cigar is artistic itself," he says. "It's not the act of smoking, but what the smoking represents. It's an act of pleasure."

Cohen also believes that where you buy your cigars is as important as what you smoke. After all, it is difficult to pick up the newest $100 biology book at Waldenbooks, as opposed to the campus bookstore. The same goes for the choice of tobacco shop. "At the tobacco shop I frequent, there is almost always a game of backgammon or chess," says Cohen. "I find myself smoking my first cigar there and getting into a conversation with the others in the shop."

Some 60 miles to the north at Western Kentucky University, talk flows just as freely at the Bowling Green Pipe and Tobacco Shoppe. Lee Davis has been selling cigars to faculty members and administrators of Western for several years. On any given day, her shop is full of conversation from many of the local townsfolk, who are often waxing philosophical. Some of them linger, while others add their two cents worth while purchasing their cigars and then leave.

English professors, development officers and even the men's basketball coach wander in and out of her establishment and its walk-in humidor, much like undergrads frequent the campus student center. This scene isn't unlike that of many tobacco shops around other college campuses. It is the culture of college.

Ron Beck has been prowling this small university town for more than 25 years. After graduating from Western in 1968, Beck attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Shortly thereafter he came back to Western Kentucky, where he has served as the assistant dean of student affairs, associate director of alumni affairs and director of planned giving, his current position. The one constant in this mix is his love of cigars.

"Actually, I started smoking cigars when I was a junior in college during finals week," Beck says as he enjoys a Rolando Perfecto outside the Craig Alumni Center on Western's campus. "My roommate was a cigar smoker, and we sat out on the lawn late one April day and smoked cigars while we were cramming for our finals."

Beck almost always wears a serious expression that is punctuated by a firm brow and deep, inset eyes. However, his expression warms and his eyebrows lift when the subject turns to his passion for cigars. "One of the unique things about working in the university environment is the freedom that it offers for individual expression," he says. "That is one of the hallmarks of university life."

With the passion of a preacher gliding into the crescendo of a Sunday sermon, Beck warms to his subject. "Working in this environment for almost 26 years, you have the opportunity to work with young people who are generally highly motivated and a more inquisitive type of people. In the process, you set higher standards for yourself in all facets of life--and that would include cigars."

The cigar has served Beck in other ways. It isn't uncommon for him to make note of a donor's love of cigars and share a smoke upon subsequent visits. The art of donor relations is the process of cultivating friendships. While the relationship may be as much professional as it is personal, the cigar enhances the bond much like fine conversation between old friends. Beck agrees: "The cigar is a currency of friendship among fellow cigar smokers."

A few years back, Patricia A. Cooper published an interesting study of the work culture of American cigar factories in her book, Once a Cigar Maker: Men, Women and Work Culture in American Cigar Factories, 1900-1919 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987). Cooper defines work culture as "the patterns of daily work into which any newcomer would be initiated after a time--the unwritten rules, the ways of doing the job, and how one thought about his or her work. But work culture is not simply a collection of interesting traditions. I found a coherent system of ideas and practices, forged in the context of the work process itself, through which workers modified, mediated and resisted the limits of their jobs."

Practices that "modified, mediated and resisted the limits of their jobs." Cooper could have easily described the university lifestyle and its cultural affair with the cigar.

Gene Crume is the director of alumni affairs at Western Kentucky University and a regional freelance writer.

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