• ,

Silver Threads: Stamping out a noxious weed

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

On Sunday morning I was reading a newspaper article about Louisiana State University’s new ban on smoking on its main campus, and it got me to thinking about an embarrassing encounter I had with a cigarette as a college freshman.

I was entertainment columnist for The Student Printz -- the paper at Mississippi Southern College -- and I’d assigned myself my first interview with a celebrity. He was handsome John Agar, veteran of six movies with superstar John Wayne and former husband of Shirley Temple, with whom he‘d famously appeared in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”

I don’t remember why on earth he’d made a visit to MSC, but I met Agar and his pretty new wife, Loretta, at their car outside the college’s administration building and rode along with them -- crammed into the backseat with her in between -- to a hotel downtown. Along the way he offered me a cigarette, which I accepted because not to do so would have been frightfully unsophisticated.

I was no stranger to cigarettes: In the early ‘50s, major tobacco companies flooded college campuses with those little sample packs containing five or six of them. If you wanted to smoke, you never had to buy! But trying to hold my pencil and pad and take notes and ask intelligent questions and light and then smoke a cigarette proved too much for me. I embarrassed myself, strewed ashes all over Loretta, blew smoke in both their faces and generally revealed myself as a dweeb (a category of inept persons that didn’t get that name until about 10 years later).

What I can’t believe in recalling this episode -- given our eventual history of intolerance for smoking -- is that Mrs. Agar didn’t yell and demand that the driver stop the car and put me and her husband out. After all, SHE wasn’t smoking.

And there were non-smokers among us college kids, too, despite our being in the sights of the tobacco companies. I don’t remember anyone lighting up in my dormitory or at sorority meetings in the Panhellenic house, although I’m sure it was a different scene at the frat houses.

But in classrooms! It’s going to be hard for you youngsters to believe this, but we could smoke cigarettes literally right under the professors’ noses. Our journalism prof smoked like a stack, and we followed along, perhaps thinking we’d eventually be at jobs in newsrooms where you could barely see the wire machines and copy boys through the haze. (We were right.)

Had no one in those days heard of the dangers of side-stream tobacco smoke? It was a hazard yet to be identified, undreamt of except by one Dr. Alton Ochsner, way down yonder in New Orleens.

LSU students have a few months to smoke on the main campus; the ban on cigarettes -- and presumably cigars and pipes -- won’t begin until Aug. 1. It’s being driven by Fresh Campus, a group affiliated with the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living, and will impact about 30 percent of the university’s undergraduates.

The newspaper article I read reported that the no-smoking policy will also serve as a recommendation for campus visitors and tailgating football fans. Lotsa luck, to the enforcers of a ban that carries no penalties and essentially operates on the honor system. Want to hear how loud a middle-aged, nicotine-addicted Tiger fan can roar?

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]