Then and Now: The Pit
A look back at the the beloved, yet infamous basement floor in Centennial where just about anything could—and did—happen. Plus, plenty of photos of some memorable Pit moments.
The experiences one has during college in a non-academic setting can be as formative and frequently more memorable than those that occur in the classroom. With that in mind, TCNJ Magazine would like to hear and share your stories about the events and places on campus that resonated with you. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Following are a few anecdotes from residents of the infamous Pit.
From the 1970s to the mid 1990s, The Pit was an all-male enclave in Centennial Hall’s lakeside basement known for the parties its residents threw and the pranks those students pulled on one another. The Pit earned quite a reputation during its three-decades-long heyday, but to the men who lived in it, the bonds formed during their time in Centennial’s basement left an indelible mark on their lives.
Perhaps the quintessential story about The Pit is the one involving the car. At some point in the early 1970s, someone—no one is really sure if it was a student or a campus visitor—decided to drive a car through Centennial’s ground-level basement floor. Every former Pit resident we spoke with knew the story; two of them even witnessed the event happen.
“It was one of those times that you just scratched your head and said, ‘What’s going on here?’” laughed Ralph Taber ’77, remembering his reaction to seeing the car sitting in his dorm’s hallway. “I mean it was just incongruous. I was sitting in my room, and I heard honking and an engine revving. I came out into the hallway, and there were headlights staring at me.”
Chuck Ronkin ’77, who lived in The Pit from 1973–74, remembered the scene. He said that in order to get the car into the building, it appeared someone removed the metal pole that stood between the double doors at the back of Centennial (the side facing Norsworthy Hall). Once that pole was gone, it was a straight shot down the hall.
Neither Ralph nor Chuck could remember who was driving the car, and there is still some debate as to what make and model the vehicle was: Ralph remembered it being an MG, while Chuck said he thought it was a Toyota. As the story was passed from generation to generation of Pit residents, that minor detail continued to change—later Pit alumni remembered being told it was a VW or a Fiat that had once driven down their floor. Yet the specifics of the story don’t matter much; it’s what the story illustrates that gets to the heart of what life in The Pit was like. First, the exploits of former Pit residents were “ceremoniously” passed down to future generations both to create a bond between the floor’s residents and to keep the floor’s reputation alive. Second, when you lived in The Pit, you could expect just about anything to happen—and it usually did.
Ralph can attest to that latter statement. As the floor CA, his job was to keep order, which wasn’t always an easy task. He witnessed plenty of “good-natured” mayhem during his two years there, including the time he awoke in the middle of the night to loud, crashing noises coming from the hallway. “I walked out there and saw that someone had gone to Slocum’s and ‘borrowed’ 10 pins and a ball, and the residents were bowling in the hallway,” he said.
“When you moved onto that floor, you were told by the others who had lived there before you, ‘You’re living in The Pit now. You have a reputation to uphold.’ So you tried to live up to it—which we did,” Chuck said with a laugh.
For starters, Pit residents embraced the nickname given to their floor and made t-shirts with “The Pit” emblazoned on them. “We made living there something to be proud of,” Ralph explained. The t-shirts were a tradition that continued throughout the Pit’s existence.
It was also during those early years that “Pizza Paul” Leestma ’77 started a pizza parlor in Centennial’s game room, which was adjacent to The Pit in the basement. The location became a popular eatery for students. (A Signal ad from 1974 indicates that a large pie was $2.50 and slices were just 35 cents!)
By the mid 1980s, The Pit’s reputation on campus was well established. “People knew we had the best parties down there,” said Jerry Richards ’86. That’s not surprising when you hear tales about some of The Pit’s legendary blowouts. Jerry, who lived in The Pit from 1984 to 1986, said those were the best years he spent at the College. Having lived elsewhere on campus prior to moving into The Pit, he said what drew him to the place was how well everyone got along.
“When I lived on the third floor of Centennial, there were these small groups of people who would hang out with each other or go to dinner with each other,” he said. “But when I lived in The Pit, the whole floor did things as a group. You didn’t just tell certain people you were heading off to dinner. The whole floor went together.”
The memories for Jerry and Bill Price ’88 (Pit resident from 1985–88) go beyond the partying and practical joking, they said. Both remember that each Christmas the residents of the lakeside dorms did charity work for underprivileged children from the area.
They were, for the most part, a sports-crazy group as well. From at least the mid 1980s on, The Pit’s intramurals teams were among the best on campus in volleyball, hockey, football, and soccer. At times, the floor fielded two teams due to the number of residents who wanted to participate. The “A” team was known as “The Pit,” while the “B” team was called “The Pitifuls.”
Getting into a friend’s room to play a prank on him was also a common practice in The Pit. Rob MacNett ’91 (Pit resident 1986–88 and 1990–91) remembered when someone filled a friend’s room with Canada Geese. Both he and Eric Gehring ’95, who lived in the Pit from 1990–92, said a common prank was to empty someone’s room while that person was away for the weekend, and recreate the scene elsewhere on campus. The person might return to find their dorm empty and their belongings set up in the Cinema (the name given to the floor’s lounge) or even on the island in Lake Sylva. The painstaking attention to detail was what made that prank stand out, Eric said. “You’d find your clothes hung up in the same order they were in when they were in your closet,” explained Eric, “and your posters would be hung in the same way as they were in your room.”
Though legendary, the pranks, stunts, and parties are not what ultimately defined what was so special about living in The Pit, said the alumni with whom we spoke. If the only ties that bound these former floor mates were parties and practical jokes, they likely would have lost touch with each other long ago. That is decidedly not the case. Most, if not all of them remain close friends with large numbers of their former Pit brethren (case in point: Rob said there were at least 40 Pit residents in attendance at his wedding a few years back). Obviously, the camaraderie forged among them during their time living in The Pit was something very special.
Jeff Kagan ’90 (Pit resident from 1986–87) might have summed it up best. “It was my first time living away from my parent’s house,” he said about moving into The Pit in his freshman year. “I had never even gone to summer camp as a kid. But the upperclassmen took us young people in and made us feel like The Pit was a special place to live. It was like a family. It was your family.”
The early 1990s would turn out to be the twilight years for The Pit, which remained an all-male floor through the 1993–94 academic year. The next year it was switched to an all-female floor. It remains that way to this day. Over the years, the sights, sounds, and atmosphere downstairs in Centennial has changed significantly, and it’s unlikely that you’ll see bowling balls or small, foreign cars making their way through the halls of The Pit. But the memories of those times, as well as many others, live on with the former Pit residents who called that special place home.
Have a story to share? Leave a comment below, or write us at email@example.com. Older photos below courtesy of Jerry Price and Eric Gehring.
Posted on October 21, 2008