Do you know what a Podicep is? If you’re an ornithologist, or attended Bellarmine or worked at St Johns Parish in the 1960’s, you might know. If not, then Google can provide one answer, and this article another.
Google says Podicep is a bird similar to a duck, that swims upside down, is prone to fall over, and reluctant to fly.
This was intriguing to a bunch of Bellarmine students in the turbulent and irreverent 60’s, looking for a name (preferably nonsensical) for their newly formed and unsanctioned social club. Bellarmine officially sanctioned only one fraternity – Alpha Delta Gamma, a national Catholic social and service fraternity. There were several clubs, one of which was the Podiceps. Mike Nabicht ’68 said “Bellarmine was so new then, there wasn’t much campus activity. The dorms didn’t have much room for activities, and the day-hops needed a place to hang out with their buddies.” So, we wondered, where do you go to hangout, drink, dance, brainstorm, or even just to live together?
The answer was the upper floor of the recently closed convent at St Johns parish at Clay and Walnut. It had 6 bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, a library, a living room and a gathering room (big enough for parties.) Yes, we had parties in the former convent, we drank beer and other alcoholic beverages, played loud music (yes rock and roll) and had girls into our hangout.
Several of our members actually lived there, with the usual dorm/apartment decorations. It was a little tacky and gauche, but it was ours and we thought it was great. Our heartfelt thanks go to Father John Elder, the St Johns pastor, who trusted us enough to let us repurpose the former nun’s space. He even showed up at a few parties, and could actually dance (like a priest).
The picture we have painted so far seems a bit shallow and maybe focused on beer, parties and dancing, and irreverent fun. But that’s not the whole picture. There was much more than that to the Podiceps, and the center of it all was St Johns.
We had discussions in the same rooms we partied in, argued about racism, the Vietnam war, poverty, the state of education, and the poor condition of the neighborhood of our clubhouse. Just walking out the door of our clubhouse was a reminder of the world we lived in and that our social world was a part of a troubled society.
So we tried to create projects that addressed some of these problems and made our college (not yet a university) a more lively and stimulating and relevant place to learn and grow. We thought and worked beyond the fun and frolic of college life. We marched against the war, sponsored a Thanksgiving dance and gave the proceeds to St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, participated in student council, student newspaper, and worked on the yearbook. We brought the Louisville Orchestra on campus to perform in front of Horrigan Hall with our members on the roof shooting fireworks as the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
And we are still Podiceps more than 50 years later. In Fall of 2020 Podiceps from Connecticut to Louisville to Hawaii worked together to raise nearly $7,000 for the St. Johns Center for Homeless Men. It was thrilling to learn about and support this new use of our former clubhouse. Our hangout has become a place where some of our college ideals become a reality. Doug Brown ’68, now of Austin Texas, reflected on “the lifelong friends who have traveled the road together.” We had a 50 year reunion in 2018 attended by 80 former members and we have a monthly zoom meeting to catch up with Podiceps from all over the US.
Major General (ret) Ed Tonini ’68 reports what most of us feel about Bellarmine: “I know that my years at Bellarmine… with the incredible young men known as Podiceps, form the foundation of everything I was able to accomplish over the last five decades.”
For Ed, and his fellow Podiceps, St Johns was the physical space that made possible the fun, the arguments and discussions, and the friendships that made the Podiceps a successful, long lasting and still productive organization.
Quotes and other information courtesy of Harry Rothgerber’s ‘69 Bellarmine Alumni Magazine article about off campus clubs in Fall 2018. Bob and Dan Albers are both Bellarmine graduates and were members of the Podiceps.