This one goes out to all of my CMU-affiliated peeps, in honor of the #PolarVortex.
I see people on social media griping about Carnegie Mellon University being closed due to extremely cold weather. Some people think CMU wimped out, while others think they should have closed sooner.
Well, kids, grab your cup of cocoa and settle in as Uncle Jay tells you a story.
It was January 1994 — exactly 25 years ago — and I was an undergraduate commuting by bus from the Mon Valley to Carnegie Mellon.
And it was cold. Not cold like today.
Cold like the heart of your student-loan collection agency.
Cold like a College Republican wearing a MAGA hat walking past a little girl collecting donations for UNICEF.
I mean, COLD.
We were in the 1994 North American cold wave, the all-time coldest in U.S. history. On Jan. 19, 1994, Pittsburgh recorded a temperature of -22 degrees Fahrenheit — before the wind chill — which still stands as a record.
The high temperature that day — again, without the wind chill — was -3 F.
Did I mention it was cold? Freeze-your-boogers in your nose cold.
We’d also gotten more than a foot of snow, which wasn’t melting. In fact, it was freezing more or less solid. Because of the temperatures, salt and ice-melt chemicals had stopped working, and the passing cars were polishing the snow and slush into solid, smooth ice.
And it lasted for about a week. We got a brief respite for a day or two, and then the temperatures plunged again. It was so cold, for so long, that energy reserves began to run low. Duquesne Light and West Penn Power were facing coal shortages. So, too, were the various natural gas companies.
Everyone was urged to turn thermostats down, not up. The U.S. Steel Tower shut off its escalators to save power. The Port Authority Transit light-rail system closed entirely at one point due to power outages.
Then-Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey declared a state of emergency and banned all non-essential travel.
Pitt announced it was canceling classes. So did Duquesne. One by one, all of the Pittsburgh universities and colleges closed or canceled classes.
Guess who didn’t cancel classes?
I was working at CMU’s student newspaper, The Tartan, at the time. As college after college, and business after business, announced temporary closures, we asked then-University President Robert Mehrabian if the school was closing the next day, due to the emergency.
His office sent back word: Of course not. What are you, wimps? CMU doesn’t close for severe weather.
We were told: It’s the beginning of the semester! We can’t cancel classes at the beginning of the semester! We’ll never be able to catch up! You shouldn’t go to CMU if you don’t expect some hard work!
And blah-blah-blah. CMU was very proud of its “stress culture” in those days. It was the era when student tour guides, showing around incoming freshmen, would still do the shtick, “Look to your left, and now look to your right — one of you won’t make it through your first year.”
(This was the era when CMU also didn’t observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for the same reason: “We can’t afford to give up a single day of classes!”)
Well, we asked, what if faculty couldn’t make it to campus? Then it was up to them to cancel their own classes. What about staff? They could use their vacation days, if they had any.
So, I bundled up in three layers of coats — a heavy winter coat over a lighter winter coat with a hood, over a lighter summer coat with a hood, over a hooded sweatshirt — and made my way to Oakland on a 61C. The bus was almost empty. We picked up some people in Squirrel Hill: They were all CMU students, too.
I trudged to my classes all morning. I had one late-afternoon class, and at lunch time, I checked with the department: Are we still having class? Yes.
I was in the Tartan newsroom when the news came down: Duquesne Light had informed Carnegie Mellon University that they could no longer guarantee power to the entire campus unless CMU cut its power consumption and closed most non-residential buildings.
There also was a rumor that Mayor Murphy’s office, or the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, had put pressure on the administration, essentially saying: “Knock off this macho bullshit, nerdlingers.”
CMU, for the first time in anyone’s memory, was canceling classes due to weather, effective immediately, and also would be closed the following day.
Almost simultaneously, we got word that Port Authority was suspending transit service, due to the conditions.
Did I mention that I was commuting by bus?
I turned to someone in the newsroom who I considered a friend. He lived nearby and had a car. “Can I catch a ride home with you?” I said.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said.
“Dude, how am I supposed to get home?” I said. “Seriously, as far as Homestead or West Mifflin. I’ll chip in for gas.”
“Um … no,” he said.
He remains dead to me, 25 years later.
My poor mother made the trek in and fetched my raggedy ass back home.
CMU was closed the next day. In the paper, we ran a cartoon of Mehrabian in his office, with a mug of coffee, staring down at a student who had frozen into a block of ice.
Mehrabian remains dead to me, too. Whenever I pass the building on campus that was renamed in his “honor,” I lift both middle fingers in a silent salute.
I’d like to urinate on the building, but not today. It’s too damned cold.
But not as cold as the day, almost 25 years ago, when CMU made everyone come to campus because of their macho workaholic bullshit.
(P.S.: In case anyone thinks Kindly Uncle Jay is making this stuff up …)