Friday, June 5, 2009

Bowdoin Beata: 50th Class Reunion

When a letter arrived announcing the 50th reunion of the Class of 1959 at Bowdoin, I quickly realized that my retirement income wouldn’t allow me to contribute the amount our reunion committee had suggested as a basic pledge from each member. As a consequence—and perhaps out of embarrassment—I decided not to attend. Yet I was torn. Although I happily participated in our class’s 25th reunion and I’ve visited the College on annual trips to Maine, it has been many years since I’ve reconnected with classmates and friends, several of whom have died in the interim. And of those who were still alive, I wondered what we would have to say to one another, considering that my own life has hardly been what I or my classmates might have expected. Under those circumstances, what sort of account could I give of myself?

But the reunion was not about success or failure—it wasn’t even about expectations (except perhaps for the College’s need in a time of economic crisis to depend upon the generosity of graduates to strengthen the endowment and contribute to its many innovative programs). The reunion was, as Judy, my ever practical and consoling partner of twenty-two years, suggested, an opportunity, perhaps one of our last, for the surviving members of our class to reconnect with each other after half a century apart.

“Wouldn’t it be fun?” she offered. “Besides,” she added, “I’d like to go. I want to meet your old friends. Let’s treat it like a mini vacation.”

So we signed up and I pledged what I felt I could afford to the Alumni Fund before falling back into my daily life of writing, political meetings, emailing my children, my addiction to television news, and the long walks Judy and I take each day by the ocean that has sustained me ever since I came home to Gloucester and decided to live and work here—again, much to my surprise.

Of course, the reunion was great fun. Once we were safely inside the College gates and had registered and been assigned our dormitory suite (no less), we began to feel part of the swing of things. Students chauffeured old grads around in golf carts from dormitory rooms to parties and dinners. Everybody you met exchanged the famous “Bowdoin hello.” The liquor flowed, as we did, from one reception to another; the food was, as always, superb, the hospitality legendary. In short, I felt back home in college again.

The best part, however, was meeting up with old friends, many of whom I had not seen since our 25th reunion—and some of whom I hadn’t laid eyes on since graduation. The laminated tags we dutifully hung around our necks with our names and graduation pictures helped us to avoid the embarrassment of not recognizing each other. Though it was amazing to consider than many of us hadn’t changed that much, give or take some hair, the addition of a beard (I noticed many more of those since our undergraduate days, when few of us dared to go unshaven), and a little extra weight (I vainly tried to walk some of mine off before reunion, to little avail).

Members of our class have distinguished themselves as physicians, lawyers, scientists, artists, writers, photographers, teachers, pastors, scholars, public officials, business executives and investment bankers. We’ve started companies, gone into politics, sat as judges and served our country in the military. We even have a brigadier general in our midst. One of our classmates has practiced Yoga for many years while also involved in holistic healing; another developed a well known ski resort and wrote a book about it. Some returned to the small towns of their origins, while others have lived and worked all over the world. All of us have had interesting lives, and it was amazing to hear classmates share their insights and experiences over the far-too-brief weekend.

What was incredible, though, was how much we remembered about each other, not only from fifty years ago, but from the class notes we’d been sharing in the alumni magazine in the intervening time. In fact, we knew a lot about what each of us had been up to in the way of children, grand children, great grandchildren, second marriages, vacation or retirement homes in Maine (in Brunswick even). There was a moving service in the Bowdoin Chapel on Saturday afternoon to remember those of us who are no longer alive; and among those of us who made it back to Brunswick, there was a great deal of serious conversation about what we’d done, where we’d been and how we felt about it all.

I had several talks with classmates about attitudes like homophobia that were often prevalent when we were undergraduates, prejudices that we have since regretted and tried to outgrow. In fact, we paused to reflect upon what it must have been like for our gay classmates in those far less tolerant times, not to speak of the very few people of color who were present on campus. We talked of class, too, and of the social and ethnic backgrounds so many of us came from in small Maine or Massachusetts towns, from families among whom we were the first to attend college. There was, we agreed, a pressure on those of us from immigrant families to succeed, just as those students from upper class families were held to certain norms of behavior and social expectation.

The College was small in the 1950s, fewer than 800 young men, and the campus was pretty much centered around the original quad, with athletic buildings and playing fields, along with most of the fraternity houses, on the periphery of the college grounds. Since then the College has expanded incredibly. There are residential towers on campus, a huge new student union, new rinks and field houses, and many new dormitories built to house a student body that is equally comprised of men and women, nearly 1800 in number. Who could not feel this change around one, returning to the campus after so many years away? And who could not also feel an immense sense of privilege after touring state-of-the-art laboratories, class rooms and lecture halls, a newly renovated museum displaying world-class works of art, a stunning new library; privilege, also, after meeting members of this new student body, so attractive and self-possessed, so worldly and articulate, as if chosen for those very qualities, even though some of those students may still come from Kezar Falls, Maine or Norwood, Massachusetts.

Though it offered an education of the highest quality, the Bowdoin we matriculated at was a small, provincial liberal arts college, located in a quiet Maine community. Today’s Bowdoin is all of that and much more. It seems far more sophisticated, indeed an elite educational and social environment, just as Brunswick itself is no longer the run down mill town it was during our college days. With its upscale boutiques and restaurants, its bed and breakfast inns, its farmer’s market, Brunswick has become as gentrified as the College. One must suppose this change, reflective of the changes in the larger world, is for the better. One also wonders what qualities of intimacy in student relationships and the classroom experience—the educational encounter—may have been exchanged for it.

By the same token, when our class entered Bowdoin, in 1955, we met many older students, some married with children, others who had fought in Korea or served elsewhere in the military before matriculating. The presence of such students with broader life experience was a benefit, both in the classroom, where their maturity enhanced discussion, and in the relationships many of us cultivated with them in our fraternities, in clubs or in simply joining them for coffee between classes. One would hope that the College has continued this tradition of admitting older students or those with a background of diverse non-academic experience. I can also imagine the benefit of having students on campus who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Though I felt a bit shy as we all marched in straw skimmers, wives and partners alike, to Convocation, the ceremony itself, at which President Barry Mills ‘72 spoke and Dr. Michael Fiore ’76 received the Common Good Award, was moving; and the reception our class received at our fifty year mark was memorable. Not one of the formal events was overbearing, all having been planned and executed by our class reunion committee and the College Staff with a light touch, another of the welcome things I remembered about college life, even those sometimes onerous daily chapel services, which many of us endeavored to avoid as students.

Underlying the entire weekend was the theme celebrated at Convocation, that of the Common Good, which has expressed the philosophy of the College since it was initially articulated, in 1802, by Bowdoin’s first president, the Reverend Joseph McKeen, who urged his students to commit themselves to lives “in the interest and for the benefit of society,” disregarding personal gains in wealth or status. With some of the greediest decades in American history hopefully behind us, it is not such a bad idea to be reminded of the principles we were taught at Bowdoin, though from what I heard and learned from the classmates I met at our 50th reunion I think those ideals have animated the lives of most of us since we first came to Bowdoin.