Viterbo University Strides Magazine Online

If Chicago is the City of Neighborhoods, Darrell Pofahl has been to almost all of them.
And, thanks to Pofahl, so too have nearly 1,000 Viterbo students. Since before it was fashionable for schools to offer living and learning experiences, he has been leading an annual cultural/educational tour of Chicago. Pofahl, a sociology professor at Viterbo University, began the trip 32 years ago as a way to give students perspective in his classroom discussions about sociological issues and different racial and ethnic groups.

Though the trip has undergone many changes in itinerary since the first trip in 1969, its purpose remains the same -- broadening students’ horizons by expanding their level of exposure to different cultures. Having fun along the way just happens.
So, come on. Get on the bus, step back in time, and relive the memories of the Viterbo Chicago trip with your tour guide Darrell Pofahl.

“We’re getting near the neighborhood I used to work in before I came to Viterbo in 1969. I worked the west side of Chicago for a year. You get used to the neighborhood. I used to come take a nap in the park, read a book. You get comfortable because people know you belong there. But it wasn’t comfortable the day we were evacuated when the riots started.”

Though from Bristol, a small, rural community in Wisconsin, Pofahl lived in Chicago from 1962?69 -- first as a student at DePaul University and, later, working there. He was even there during the riots of 1968, which followed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, the racial tensions of the time heavily influenced his decision to become a sociologist.

“I was a psychology major but switched to sociology because of everything that was happening around me,” said Pofahl. After finishing his degree, he worked in Chicago for another year before accepting a teaching position at Viterbo in 1969.

The majority of students attending Viterbo during the ’60s and ’70s were from small-town America, to which Pofahl could relate. Few had traveled much beyond their hometowns, let alone the tri-state region.

“During the first five years, I had one student who’d never been farther east than Sparta and never been farther west than Rochester,” Pofahl said.

It quickly became clear to Pofahl that ethnicity and diversity was a mostly foreign concept to his students.

“Most students had never seen inner- city neighborhoods, ethnic neighborhoods. They didn’t know what I was talking about when I spoke the words in class. I wanted to give them a reference so they had images, so we had common ground,” he explained.

So, Pofahl used his ties to Chicago to create a trip that would provide that ethnic exposure to Viterbo students. “Diversity can be exciting. I don’t think students thought of that as something a city had to offer. Diversity of neighborhoods, restaurants, types of people. That’s something people who live in a big city appreciate—the cosmopolitan nature of it. For some, this trip did that and, for others, it reinforced why they wouldn’t want to live there and made them glad they grew up in their hometown. For some, this is the closest they’ve come to taking a world tour,” he added.

Still, Pofahl found the Chicago riots caused rippling effects on his trips during the first 10 years. “There was no place that I felt comfortable letting a busload of people out,” he said. “On the west side, people weren’t invested in the neighborhood. Things just went out of hand. One of the worst riot sites, Roosevelt and Kedzie, was basically rubble. It was like a bombed out wasteland. You didn’t see places to buy things. You didn’t see places to work. For 25 years, there was nothing built there.”

Aside from an eye-opening learning experience, the results of the riots did create an economic benefit for students. Hotels in Chicago weren’t doing well financially so students got good deals on their overnight stay at the Palmer House Hotel, a site on the National Registry of Historic Places. In fact, in 1969, the hotel stay was $4 a night for those staying four to a room. The bus trip was more than double that cost at $10.60.

Economics aside, Pofahl always enjoyed taking students, especially those who’d never stayed in a hotel, to the Palmer House for the first time. With an intricate, ornate, and gilded lobby, it was an awe-inspiring experience. “That was always fun to see -- when students walked into the lobby for the first time and just said, ‘Wow!’,” he recalled.

“We just turned onto Halstad Street which is a long street that goes the whole length of the city from the north side to the south side. This part of it is Greek Town ...Some of you from my class remember that Greeks were heavily involved in the restaurant business. Not only Greek restaurants but restaurants in general.”

Times they are a changin’. With the expansion of downtown Chicago, many of those living in Greek Town moved out of the neighborhood, according to Pofahl. And, though no longer on the itinerary, Greek Town was a stop on several trips during the ’80s and early ’90s.

“I remember Greek Town, though I didn’t like Greek food,” said Jean Pintz Olson ’85, “It was neat because it was a new atmosphere that I had never experienced -- from the people to the food. 
It was a fine-dining experience. It was festive and had colorful wait staff. The waiters were men, which was different for me because it was mostly women where I came from.”

Olson and her mother went on the trip in 1983. She enjoyed it so much she went back the following year with her boyfriend, now husband, Joel Olson.

She admitted the main purpose of the trip was initially different from her own. “I was honestly looking forward to the Art Institute the most. I was really excited about artists and here I was studying their work and I was going to see the paintings and works of these famous artists. That’s what I vividly remember,” she said.

But Olson was surprised to learn and experience much more during her time in Chicago. From Greek Town and Chinatown to the museums and Michigan Avenue, it was an experience she never forgot.
“I remember being a little afraid because I’d never been exposed to inner-city neighborhoods before. When I did go through the different neighborhoods, I was apprehensive. For me, the trip was about learning not to be so afraid and it was about being exposed to the whole other culture of the big city ... It was an amazing and very positive experience for me,” she explained.

So positive was her experience that she and her husband have made many return trips over the years. “We’ve brought our children to Chicago, too, because we wanted to show them what we experienced.”

According to Pofahl, it was during the ’80s that Chicago finally caught on as a tourist destination. This transition had an impact on trip costs and hotel accommodations.

Due to booming business at the Palmer House, the trip was cancelled during 1996 and when it came time to book there again, the cost had risen beyond affordability. That summer, Pofahl scoured the city for hotels and found the Executive Plaza on East Wacker. And, though not as ornate as the Palmer House, it offers larger rooms and a more convenient location -- right on the Chicago River and just off Michigan Avenue, the Windy City’s main downtown artery.

Also new to the tour is a juvenile court experience. In 1989, after a sabbatical working part-time at the juvenile court in Chicago, Pofahl began taking students there. Since then, students have been able to listen to and ask questions of a panel of parole officers who work daily with juveniles from the inner city.

“The juvenile court experience gave us the opportunity to hear stories that were graphic enough for us to form a strong mental image of the situations being talked about. I know the images formed in my mind won’t be going away for a long time. I admire the parole officers who try their best to make the world a better place to live by helping the kids who need it the most,” said Amy Prill, a sophomore from Bloomer, who took the Chicago trip for the first time in 2001.

Pofahl agreed. “Social work started in Chicago and the first juvenile court started there as well. They developed the idea that juveniles were still in development and that they ought to be dealt with in different ways to rehabilitate them so it’s a great experience for sociology, social work, and criminal justice majors. Plus, the officers reference many of the neighborhoods we drive through,” he said.

“Here’s an example of black gentrification. These homes were falling apart, slums. As the group of middle class blacks grew, they came into this area, fixed the houses up, and built new homes. So not all urban renewal is coming in and forcing out blacks. It’s called the ‘Gap’ because it’s a gap between some poor neighborhoods. It gets national attention because it’s a black neighborhood coming up rather than down.”

With increasing gentrification and revitalization, much has changed within the city of Chicago during the past 32 years and so too have the students taking the tour each spring.

“It used to be that many of the students had never stayed in a hotel. Now, there are more opportunities in high school and with families. In general, students now are a bit more sophisticated and a little more used to being around people of color,” said Pofahl.

“Still, many, until this trip, haven’t been in a situation where they’re surrounded by people of color and where they’re in the minority,” he added.

Junior Nicole Ellefson, from Gays Mills, agreed. Until taking the trip, “I was somewhat a racist. I did not realize it before, but the majority of minority people I see in La Crosse I am often afraid of and try not to get too close to them. In Chicago, I got over that very fast. Just because someone has a different color skin than me doesn’t mean that he or she is a bad person,” she said.

Pofahl said that kind of inner exploration is a healthy result of the experience. “We have to look in our own hearts about where our discomfort is coming from. We can use the experience to close our minds and forget poverty exists. As a sociologist, I’m a great believer in exposing ourselves to things that make us uncomfortable.”

In fact, Pofahl often prepares his students for the realities they will face and lays basic ground rules that include respect and courtesy. “I don’t dictate what people think and feel but reinforce that the purpose of the trip is to increase people’s appreciation and understanding of diversity. There’s no place for slurs or narrow mindedness. I’ve been proud of my students. They haven’t caused problems.”

The cultural exposure is equally as important as the racial exposure. No matter how much or how little experience a student has had in this world, it’s easy to get lost in the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago. In fact, one student on this year’s trip found herself shopping in Chinatown, picking up an item, and wondering aloud to her friend, “I wonder how much this costs in the States?”

Another found the trip like traveling abroad. “The whole trip was fascinating to me. It fascinated me how various neighborhoods can change when you just simply go under a bridge or pass a factory. You enter into another country without ever leaving the one you’re in,” said Prill.

One of Pofahl’s fondest memories about his trips is that “on the way home, we get involved in discussions about what aspect of the trip students were most excited about or about something in the trip that triggered their curiosity and thirst for knowledge. That’s my purpose.”

One thing that’s notably different on today’s Chicago experience is the bus trip itself. With the invention and increasing portability of personal radios, computers, and video games, and with the availability of a TV/VCR on the bus, there isn’t as much group interaction as Pofahl enjoyed in the past.

“Students used to talk more and process the trip. People would sing to entertain themselves. They talked and sang group songs. Now, they’re tuned into their own world more and less likely to talk. That’s one thing I do miss a bit,” he said.

But change or no change, something keeps Pofahl and the Viterbo students coming back each year. “Often times, I do all the details and wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But when I get on the bus and so many students come to say ‘thanks’ or I read what they wrote for class, they get excited about these things and that excites me about sociology. It gives me the energy to continue.”

“And so we say goodbye to Chicago. And we hope that one day we’ll return -- maybe alone, maybe with someone we love -- or maybe not.”

This article was written by Beth Erickson ’93, who took the Chicago trip for the first time in 2001. What are your memories of the Chicago trip? Let us know by emailing Beth at