Remembering Guy Payne and the College Inn

By Bill Curnow ’61

Like the Roman god, Janus, with one face forward and the other back, I have two views of the Class of ’09 — one in the rearview mirror, the other on the road ahead.

Soon after arriving at Bucknell in 1957 and settling into a dorm at the top of Old Main, I confirmed that the spirit of the Class of 1909 was still very much present at the College Inn, the mid 20th-century version of a fast food shop, convenience store, game center and just plain enjoyable place. Presiding over the establishment was its owner–operator, a fascinating codger named Guy Payne ’09, known simply as “09” to the Bucknell campus community for more than half a century.

The legend of Guy Payne came as no surprise to this former freshman. My sentimental father, Bill Curnow ’32, had told me about his own adventures with “09” when dealing with the Great Depression was a daily chore. Like many classmates, Dad scrambled for cash to stay in school. He generated a small income by selling candy to the men of his dorm. He bought supplies wholesale, then sold individual candy bars to his customers. All went well, until Guy Payne caught onto the fact that nearby competition had caused a small leak in his own cash flow. Guy raised a howl. Dad, the sentimentalist, finessed the situation, and both survived those bleak years.

How this entrepreneurial member of the Class of 1909 happened to own and operate a business right in the heart of the most historic campus turf was always a bit of a mystery to me. According to the University website, “The original College Inn building was the first wooden structure on the Hill. It was built by Guy Payne ’09 in 1908 on the west end of property rented from Dr. George G. Groff … In 1915, the original structure was replaced by a brick building in which Guy prepared and served food to college students. In an agreement with President Harris, the profits from the sale of tobacco, about $500 yearly, were given to the University.”

The house that Guy built kept growing in a Rube Goldberg sort of way — a barbershop here, a basement apartment there. It didn’t take long for me to build my own memories of the College Inn. It was a convenient spot for something quick to eat. Walk through the door and greet an omnipresent crowd, some waiting to place orders, while others held down booths and visited with friends. To the left were a couple of pinball machines, seldom idle.
Behind the counter was Guy Payne himself, wearing a white apron that had once been spotless. First, he would build a sandwich, chicken salad on wheat. Then he’d pat his dog. Next, egg salad on white. Then pat the dog. Both customers and dogs got plenty of attention. In 1977, Professor Emeritus C. Willard Smith wrote an essay about Guy’s College Inn, noting that hospitality was shown to all creatures, including cats and dogs, especially Guy’s own proud Chinook named Bering. Wrote Smith, “It was known among patrons of the College Inn that ‘What’s good enough for Bering is good enough for you!’” The health department never looked too closely. In fact, Guy did lots of good and very little harm. He rented rooms above the shop, employed students and helped people in his own quiet way.

This rearview mirror glimpse is now long in the past. Guy died in 1962, and the memory of his College Inn lingers only with older alumni. Now, it’s the Class of 2009 that has stepped forward. If he were still here, “09” would likely raise a cup of his famous coffee, pat the dog and surely join me in wishing the current ’09s a successful journey ahead.

Bill Curnow enjoys retirement in southwest Florida after a domestic and overseas career in the petrochemicals industry. Blessings that please him most include his grandson Connor being a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd and, of course, his Bucknell heritage.

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