My Alma Mater: A Grand Tour

Five Illini, one VW Beetle and a European adventure

Five Illini, one VW Beetle and a European adventure

Three young men stand, on a country road, around a white Volkswagen Beetle. Inset shot is a portrait of Ton and his wife Maureen.

Left: This Volkswagen Beetle took Thomas Tierney and his friends to 12 European countries in the summer of 1963. Inset: Tierney with his wife and co-author, Maureen. (Images courtesy Thomas Tierney)

It was the summer of 1963—pre-Beatlemania, pre-JFK assassination—and I was about to embark on the greatest journey of my life.

On June 18, four of my Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity brothers and I hopped on a DC-7 plane for a non-stop flight from Chicago to Paris. Fourteen hours later, we were on the other side of the ocean, ready to face anything we met and experience cultures we’d only dreamed about.

On our second day in Paris, we took the Metro—so much better than any U.S. subway!—to a Volkswagen dealership, where we bought a VW Beetle for $1,200. With the five of us and our luggage stuffed inside, the Beetle felt a bit like a clown car, but it got the job done. It was our transportation, our magic carpet, our skeleton key to all
of Europe.

Over the next 10 weeks, we visited a dozen countries, traveling from Paris to Berlin, Rome to London, and everywhere in between. In our Camelot-era uniforms—white shirts, dark suits and crew cuts—we strolled the Champs-Élysées; toured the gardens at Versailles; attended a hunting festival in Remagen, West Germany; answered questions about JFK in East Berlin; made wishes at the Trevi Fountain in Rome; and inventoried the finest English pubs.

Everywhere we went, we found ourselves surrounded by European history, culture and food. It was an experience that broadened my horizons and made me feel like a citizen of the world.

I returned to campus that fall forever changed—recharged, and with a renewed commitment to my greatest passion: musical theater.

I had been writing songs since the fifth grade, and even as a U of I student majoring in communications, I found opportunities to compose. During my freshman year, some of my songs had become a musical revue, Livin’ the Life, and I later wrote several “Stunt Shows” for my fraternity, as well as songs for the Varsity Men’s Glee Club.

After college, I moved to New York City to pursue my music. While looking for composing jobs, I began to write songs for corporate events. I realized that I had found a niche, and I started a music producing company that specialized in that kind of work.

But I also continued to write stage musicals, and to my delight, some were produced throughout the world.

A few years ago, I rediscovered another form of writing: the letters and postcards I had sent to my mother from Europe in 1963. My wife Maureen and I decided to compile them into a book, which became Five Guys in a Beetle: The Grandest Grand Tour—Europe, 1963 (Sunstone Press, 2021).

So here I am, 60 years after that European vacation, having written more than a dozen full-length musicals, many songs and corporate shows, and one book of happy memories about five guys in a VW beetle. And through it all, I remain an Illini guy at heart!

Thomas Tierney is a composer-lyricist. His book about his European travels, Five Guys in a Beetle, is available for purchase through online retailers.

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