Eye on the Quads

Office Hours with Lorna Straus

A former dean recalls College traditions, from Sleep-out to the family origins of Scav Hunt.

By Elizabeth Station | Photography by Jason Smith | Illustration by Matthew Elliott

As the cascade of degrees after her name implies, Lorna Puttkammer Straus, U-High’49, SM’60, PhD’62, has a long history at Chicago. A professor emerita in organismal biology and anatomy, she served as assistant dean and dean of students in the College from 1967 to 1982, dean of admissions, and University marshal. Her teaching—including a biology course taught with her husband, Francis, MD’57, SM’64, emeritus professor of pathology—helped earn Straus two Quantrells and a Norman Maclean Award. Two of the couple’s four kids attended the College: Helen, U-High’80, AB’84, MD’90, and Christopher, U-High’84, AB’88, MD’92, now an associate professor of radiology at Pritzker.

You’ve called yourself a UChicago “lifer.”

When people ask how long I’ve been associated with Chicago I always chuckle, because it says how old I am. I was born at the University hospital. My father was a student and then faculty member in the Law School. I grew up on 56th Street near Woodlawn Avenue, and when I got married, my husband and I bought a house on the same block. When the leaves are off the trees, I can see the back of the house I grew up in. Our children, growing up, were able to visit both sets of grandparents without crossing a street.

Did you ever leave?

Well, I went to Radcliffe. I got my degree in French history and literature, but I was taking science along the way. I came back to Chicago and got a job as an administrative assistant in the hospital and took biology courses. The more I took, the better I liked it, and I ended up with a PhD in anatomy.

Your courses were very popular—particularly the biology course you and your husband taught. Did students really sleep outside to get a spot?

In the ’70s and ’80s, to register for the upcoming year, students used to meet with their adviser in May and sign up for classes. To be first in line to get an appointment, you’d have be right at the door of Harper when it opened on Monday. Some students would get to Harper Quad one or two nights before. They’d bring tents, boom boxes, food, liquid refreshment—but we won’t talk about that—and they’d have a high old time.

What classes were most in demand?

Jock Weintraub’s and Eric Cochrane’s Western Civ sections. David Bevington’s Shakespeare. Our course, Mammalian Biology, was popular because it was recognized as a good introduction to the structure and function of a typical mammal for someone thinking about being a pre-med.

What was it like to teach with your spouse?

I put the mammalian biology course together in the late ’60s. When I had an occasional pregnancy, my MD husband did a couple of lectures for me and found that he enjoyed it. Eventually he became a formal coteacher.

When I was lecturing he’d sit in the back. As soon as I was done he’d get up to leave for the hospital. I’d say, “When will you be home for dinner?” The kids would laugh, but I think it was a way of demonstrating the reality of a working woman’s life.

What was your approach to being dean of students?

I would have liked the job title to be “dean for students.” I felt very strongly that was the correct preposition. I saw my role as dean to make the education here as workable as possible. And by “education,” I meant well beyond what went on in the classroom.

Sometimes individuals had a stumble, a sticky wicket, a problem that was making their academic life here very difficult—it could be housing or athletics, curricular or financial, or something from home. My job was to see if we could work our way through it.

Here’s an example. This morning I had breakfast with a friend at the Medici and as I was leaving, a man on a bike came by and said, “Lorna Straus!” I said, “Yes?” He said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” and I said, “Yes, I do. Incompletes.”

How did you help him?

He said we talked a couple times and I glared at him and said, “Okay, so they won’t be the A+ papers that you know you’re capable of, but write a B paper. Just get those incompletes done.” He said, “I did, and I graduated. And it made all the difference.”

How has undergraduate life changed over the years?

The fact that there are more students now is very significant. We have improved facilities for athletics and student activities. We always had fraternities, and the fact that women now have comparable organizations—six sororities—is a good change. The increase and improved ease of study abroad is very important.

Is it true that Scav Hunt originated with your family?

Yes. When our eldest son, Francis, was about 14, he put together a scavenger hunt for his younger siblings on Mackinac Island in Michigan, where we have a home. He had them chasing all over the island to find this, that, and the other. They loved it, and the scavenger hunt became a part of our kids’ summers.

Then Christopher came to the College; he lived in Hitchcock. He started talking about the scavenger hunt with his roommate and a friend, and they said, “Let’s try it.” They put it on that first year, and it was a roaring success. Christopher was a major part of running it all four years in college.

What elements came from your family scavenger hunts?

The idea of a road trip was a part of it. For instance, the kids had to get a ticket of admission to the old British fort on the island. Some years, they needed to get an autograph from a sort of curmudgeonly man who was a native islander. Everything was accessible, but not always easy.

Any final thoughts about Chicago?

There was a Hutchins quote that resurfaced in the ’60s or ’70s in one of the Faculty Revels: “Not a very good university … simply the best there is.” That was said tongue in cheek, but there was an element of validity in it. We can always be better and that’s what we’re striving for.