The 1980s was a tough decade at CU-Boulder. The ’60s and ’70s had stamped their respective imprimaturs on everything from campus politics to postgraduate expectations. When we met alums from other eras, they seemed smug and self-satisfied — or maybe we were just envious of their big times in Boulder.
“You should have seen the war moratorium protest on the quad. . .” those from the counterculture said. “You know, since AIDS wasn’t a part of our lives, sex was everywhere. . .”
You get the idea.
The ’80s kicked off with a recession, but back then, CU was pretty cheap. My tuition and fees ran about $900 per semester, if memory serves. During my junior year in 1985, my three roommates and I each paid $187.50 a month for a spacious condo in north Boulder. With a decent student job, things were affordable for me and my middle-class parents.
On campus, though, costs weren’t on most people’s minds. Instead, we searched for what would define us as a generation. Some students dug in their opposition to President Ronald Reagan and adopted the appearance and philosophies of their late ’60s and early ’70s campus radical forebears. Other students looked to the 1950s and ushered in a Greek revival — think Animal House, not Doric columns.
Most of us, however, took a buffet-style approach to creating our identities. I sported a ’70s-era hairstyle, espoused ’60s political values and listened to ’80s music. My wardrobe was too awful to describe, and I would not want to malign an innocent decade by explaining it.
In fall 1986, the campus was abuzz. It wasn’t about declaring the campus a nuclear-free zone or debating the strengths of the Buffs. Rather, it was a rumor that struck campus: Tom Cruise had enrolled at CU. The Tom Cruise.
I first heard the news from a friend who had heard it from a friend who, in turn, had heard it from a friend who allegedly worked in admissions. Another person claimed to have seen Cruise make the announcement on Good Morning America. The source wasn’t important. He was here. Tom was one of us. Or would be.
At parties, speculation turned to anecdote. Cruise was seen at the UMC Connection having a beer. He was living in a secluded Boulder Canyon house protected by a possibly armed entourage. A friend knew someone who had met someone who had sold Cruise a tennis racket.
This was in the days when doing detective work on a celebrity rumor was, well, no mean trick. There was no Internet, so no constant flow of entertainment news existed to help you geo-locate celebrities. There were no cell phones for on-the-spot actor tracking.
I remember a party where one well-connected friend told me that he would check out the Cruise rumor by talking to students from Hollywood, presupposing that everyone from Hollywood knew each other and would know Cruise or be able to confirm his whereabouts.
Today, cyber-culture would have crushed our fragile hopes within hours or even minutes. But back then, the Cruise line limped along. I don’t remember any official statements or stories in the Boulder Camera, the Colorado Daily or the Campus Press to crush or fuel our hopes.
As a result, nobody stepped back and asked the obvious question: why would the hottest star in movies abandon or postpone a lucrative career to come to Boulder and attend a public university where his privacy would be shattered like an old skier’s knee on a bad landing?
How naïve and quaint we were during the salad days of Entertainment Tonight. We really hoped — and some of us believed— that Tom would be one of us. We would high-five him in Folsom Field as the Buffs turned it around and thumped Nebraska. Maybe he’d go rock climbing with us in Eldorado Canyon, developing the mad scrambling skills he would use years later in Mission Impossible.
It wasn’t to be. Or rather, it just simply wasn’t. By October, the rumor was dead, and so was the Buffs’ offense. They were 0-3 with no Top Gun to be found anywhere, particularly not in the option attack.
And our hopes of defining our decade as the “Tom Cruise era” would go tragically unrealized. Of course, the Buffs recovered, but I’m not sure we of the ’80s ever have. We’re still looking to define our decade.