`I AM a certified ``Atha-holic,'' confesses John McIntire, a senior here at Claremont McKenna College, 35 miles east of Los Angeles near the San Gabriel mountains. Micah Jacobson, a freshman at the college, makes the same admission in a different way. ``I'm an Athenaeum junkie,'' he says.
These college students are not talking about substance abuse. Far from it. John and Micah are attracted to the ``intellectual smorgasbord'' of the college's Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Affectionately known as ``the Ath'' by the 800 students at this liberal-arts college, the Athenaeum building occupies the center of this expansive campus.
Several times a week, John and Micah, along with hundreds of other students and faculty here, attend events at the Athenaeum. It serves as a meeting house and alternative dining hall for students, faculty, and a roster of visitors.
``I view this as part of my studies,'' Micah says, admitting that it can be time-consuming to spend four nights a week at the Athenaeum.
Not all Claremont McKenna students are as devoted to the Athenaeum, but it's hard to find one who hasn't set foot in the place.
``The Athenaeum is the college's living room,'' says director Jil H. Stark. Described in a brochure as reflecting ``the amenities of a 19th-century London dining club,'' the Athenaeum promotes the British tradition of afternoon tea. Between 3:00 and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, students and faculty drop by for tea and homemade cookies in the richly furnished library. Despite the formal setting, students in shorts and T-shirts comfortably lounge in leather chairs and plop down on the oriental rug to talk with a professor or fellow student.
In the evenings, an informal dress code manages to turn out students in collared shirts - even ties - and skirts. ``When students dress up, they raise their mentality a level,'' says Jason Marshall, a senior majoring in international relations and history.
``Generally the college atmosphere is very informal,'' says student John McIntire, ``[the Athenaeum] provides a balance.''
Dinners Monday through Thursday are followed with an address by an honored guest speaker. Last year's guest calendar included Dianne Feinstein, Carlos Fuentes, Eleanor Smeal, Ray Bradbury, Neil Sheehan, and Bruce Babbitt. If interest is expected to extend beyond the maximum of 200 dinner guests, the speaker and guests move just down the landscaped walk to McKenna Auditorium, which can accommodate up to 600 people.
An ``Open Forum Lunch'' every Wednesday offers a break from the usual cafeteria fare and a chance for students to talk with professors outside of class.
Occasional theme dinners, such as a ``Madrigal dinner'' or ``Evening with Bach,'' add variety to the schedule.
The idea for the Athenaeum originated with Donald C. McKenna, who founded the college in 1946. Mr. McKenna grew up in Claremont and his father hosted weekly gatherings of students and faculty from the existing colleges in the area.
Beginning in 1970, the home of the college president was used as a gathering place and given the Athenaeum title until a specially designed building was completed in 1983 and named the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. It includes four dining rooms of varying size, each with elegantly furnished sitting rooms for more comfortable conversation before or after the meal.
Despite its recent establishment, the Athenaeum has an air of tradition. Eclectic furnishings and original paintings by such masters as Calder, Chagall, and Buffet lend a subdued formality that doesn't seem to stifle the liveliness of college life.
Claremont McKenna is one of five contiguous but separately administered private colleges in the city of Claremont. Students at the other colleges are welcome at all Athenaeum activities, but they attend less frequently.
Mrs. Stark, the program's vivacious director, is a careful guardian of the Athenaeum mission. ``What takes place here at the Athenaeum is 100 percent for the students,'' she says.
Unlike most colleges where visitors meet with the president and faculty before addressing a large audience, Claremont McKenna students pick up visiting dignitaries at the Los Angeles airport and drive them to the campus. Receptions are open to everyone and students sign up in advance to sit at the head table with guests - faculty and administrators are excluded from the head table.
``So much social integration later in life takes place at luncheon meetings and dinner events,'' points out Stark. ``I think socially [the students are] learning a great deal.''
Each semester, three ``Athenaeum Fellows'' - students who receive a stipend for their work - organize events, introduce speakers, and produce a biweekly publication outlining the month's activities. Barbara Clark, a fellow this year, calls it an ``eye-opening experience'' to spend time with well-known people. When leveraged-buyout guru Henry Kravis drops his fork, for example, ``you realize that they're just people,'' Barbara says.
Michael Rossi, a junior at the college, says: ``When I first came to the Athenaeum, I was afraid to ask questions of the speakers. Now I am not afraid to ask provocative questions.''
ABOUT 65 speakers come to the Athenaeum each academic year - and many come at reduced fees. ``My philosophy,'' Stark says, ``is that the leaders of today should be interested in talking to the leaders of tomorrow - and it shouldn't cost $15,000.'' The program's annual budget for speakers is about $60,000.
``I think in the long run they're going to remember this [part of their college education],'' Stark says. ``They may have an exam, they may not get an `A' - instead they'll hear this and get a B-. But I think it's much more important to have a broad education and have these opportunities.''