‘Tis the season of college reunions! Today’s post is a short essay on the occasion of a fiftieth college reunion the author attended a few weeks ago. (Some of you may remember that I posted a few thoughts on my twentieth reunion last month.) I thought his observations about college then and now, and his concluding thoughts on the importance of the college years and college mentors might be of interest to many of you.
In 1960 my college in the pines in northern New Hampshire was all-male and isolated. Interstate highways were just a dream. Road trips to women’s colleges were a way of life. This common bond fostered very close alumni and frat brothers – who for years after graduation would often hold mini-reunions and vacation together. This back-to-the future time warp sometimes seemed odd. Alcohol abuse was a problem; weed and street drugs were non-existant. Every few years, prior to major reunions, a professional scrapbook MUSINGS would contain the thoughts of most of our class of 800. The reading was fascinating, funny, and often weird.
One outstanding event at the college in the late 1950s was the Freshman “Great Issues” (a.k.a. “Grey Tissues”) course – every Monday night a prominent person was invited to speak. In 1956 the list included Adelaide Stephenson, Clement Attlee, and Robert Frost. Our silent generation was unaware of the explosive change that civil unrest, war, coeducation, and sexual liberation would bring only a decade later. But two events come to mind: our college chapter, along with some California and Wisconsin chapters, were unable to delete a discriminatory clause from the bylaws of our national fraternity. Blocked by a southern vote, we were forced to go local. On another occasion I watched as members of a Jewish fraternity, sitting in the balcony of the college auditorium, tomatoed a neo-Nazi visiting professor off the stage and into his car. Wow. In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy stopped by during his Presidential campaign to talk and answer questions.
Twenty four of us were cherry-picked to enroll in our two-year medical school. We were very close then and even more so over fifty years. Our dean commanded us to always wear coat and tie. Dr. Savage told us to watch for patients with green pee during asparagus season and other pearls from his life as a rural G.P.
Fifty years later we tearfully embrace roommates we have not seen in decades. Our conversations dwell on artificial body parts, grandchildren, longevity, and grandchildren. Some jog well, others walk with canes or move in electric carts. Our wives hear stories never before told. At least 120 have died. In MUSINGS, classmates often gave thanks and testimonials to professors. Some 1960s touted their business achievements- one publicly admitted he was a former S.O.B. alcoholic who treated his children poorly. Our gay class president told of his decades-long angst before his sexuality became public. One classmate boasted of fathering twins at 56. (There was no comment from his first wife.) Our class gave 32 million over the last six years- mostly for scholarships.
My medical school classmates did not retire particularly wealthy. One died of HIV. They are all altruistic – one plastic surgeon has made multiple trips to poor counties to repair cleft lips and palates. One friend is a nationally known neurosurgeon – who does pro bono surgery in semi-retirement.
On campus, coeducation has proven beneficial to both students and college – despite mutterings from classmates. One coed local fraternity now sponsors a fantastic array of projects – such as Big Brother/Big Sister, prison literacy, and battered women programs. The tri-semester system and overseas programs make lasting friendships more difficult. Dorms now sport gyms and mega flat screens. There are dining halls to accommodate any special food wish. Alcohol and now drugs are still a problem. Students sell or share ADHD and other prescription meds. Interestingly, the new president of the college wants to reinstitute Great Issues.
I tend to be a glass half full type of person and this all may sound a bit Pollyannaish – but here are the take-home messages. Students do remember mentors – often fondly. They can make a huge difference. College’s life lessons are remembered even fifty-some years later, and friendships are often lifelong. There are often strange twists in the road. But as a deputy sheriff offered in the novel Eden Close, “ if you have your health and family, the rest is bull…”
Have you attended any reunions? Why (or why not?)