Senior Cords, which were corduroy pants or skirts, became tradition in the early 20th century at Purdue University. (Courier staff photo by Peggy Vlerebome)
Senior Cords, which were corduroy pants or skirts, became tradition in the early 20th century at Purdue University. (Courier staff photo by Peggy Vlerebome)
By PEGGY VLEREBOME

Special to the Courier

Back in the day, Indiana teens wore their life stories on their clothes—specifically, decorated corduroy pants for the boys, skirts for the girls. Fabric paints illustrated their interests, their loves, their accomplishments and the icons of the times that would become memories.

The pants and shirts were called senior cords. Tradition demanded that only seniors could wear them. The tradition of corduroy pants being for seniors and only seniors began early in the 20th century at Purdue University and filtered down to high schools, where senior cords were a tradition across the state lasting into the 1970s. Senior cords were possibly unique to Indiana.

Gwen Liter of Canaan was a junior when she started at Madison Consolidated High School after Central High School was closed due to consolidation. Hank Bentz was a senior at Madison. He played basketball and she was a cheerleader. They fell in love. As fate would have it, severe burns when Hank was in the sixth grade had kept him out of school for a year; if not for that, “We would not have met,” Gwen said.

This year, the year of their 57th wedding anniversary, Gwen dug out their senior cords from the cedar chest and the Bentzes donated them to the Jefferson County Historical Society’s History Center. Society director John Nyberg hopes it is the start of a collection of many former seniors’ life stories as told on their clothes. Each one is a personal mural.

The Bentzes’ senior cords were put on display immediately at the History Center museum, joining a display of cheerleader uniforms and letter sweaters that was assembled recently and that Nyberg would like to see grow with more donations. Gwen Bentz donated her green and white Central cheerleading uniform and her Madison Consolidated letter sweater to that display. Other memorabilia are in display cases, including a basketball that Hank donated and a yearbook with pictures of senior cords. The basketball is one that Madison Cubs coach Bud Ritter handed out at the end of the season—balls that had been used in practice or games—and told his players to “wear them out” practicing, Hank said.

The Bentzes’ faces beamed when they saw their cords for the first time at the museum. They had not seen them since the day they turned them over to Nyberg.

“It was a bittersweet thing to let go of them,” Gwen said.

Hank’s senior cords pants—peg-legged with the upturned cuffs sewn into place—have a large drawing of MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman on the front; on the back of the pants, the back of Neuman’s head. There is a picture of a cheerleader and Gwen’s name. Down one leg are the first names of Hank’s Madison basketball teammates; the Larry on the list is Larry Humes, inductee at multiple Halls of Fame and Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1962, the year after Hank graduated. Other words and pictures decorate the front and back.

Gwen’s skirt, also decorated all over, includes a picture of a basketball player and Hank’s name and a picture of cartoon character Huckleberry Hound. When she had taken the skirt out of the cedar chest, it took a while for her to remember why G10 is on her skirt; it was her telephone number in Canaan. Her cord skirt also has pictures of her soon-to-be life: A sparkling diamond ring with the words “A girl’s best friend” and a pair of towels on a rack, one labeled “His” and the other “Hers.”

Hank graduated in 1961 and she graduated in 1962. Hank had received a basketball scholarship to University of Dubuque in Iowa but got a year’s delay so he could wait for his sweetheart to graduate. He worked at Grote that year. Three months after graduation, they got married and moved to Dubuque. They returned to Madison two years later and he worked as the darkroom technician at The Madison Courier, then became the interim sports editor. A couple of years later, they returned to Dubuque when Hank was invited to add sports to the university’s news and information service.

They returned to Madison for good about a year and a half later. He was the news and sports director at WORX radio for 10 years. Both of their children, Brad and Nicole, were born in Madison. Brad and his wife, Dottie, and Nicole and her husband, Keith LeGrand, and the Bentzes’ five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren all live in southern Indiana.

Senior cords are traced to 1904, when two male Purdue students saw a bolt of corduroy material in the window of a West Lafayette store and liked it. They bought enough to have pants made, and a tradition was born when other seniors had pale yellow cords made.

Artwork and high schoolers came later. Some of the earlier artwork shown in pictures used dark markers or ink. Sometimes pale yellow or wheat-colored corduroy was used, or white as with senior cords in Madison. Later, the artwork used fabric paints and inks.

Senior cords were the social media of their day, and although they are missing now from high school hallways, decorated cords are not gone.

This year singer-songwriter Leon Bridges wore a decorated corduroy suit to the Grammy Awards. His suit, described by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as having “stuff all over it,” was designed by Emily Bode, who has added cords to her fashion line.

But to see authentic senior cords, go to the Jefferson County Historical Society, 615 W. First St. in downtown Madison. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It is closed Sunday and Monday. Admission is free.