Written May 30, 2003
Over the holiday weekend, I learned that one of my former classmates has chosen a simpler life. She no longer owns a car. And she repeated a joke: "Vandals broke into my house and left a TV set."
I might have been offended. My father made his living in the automobile industry, and I make my living in television. I'm invested in the technology that this woman rejects.
But, as I was reminded repeatedly that weekend, we alumni live in several different worlds.
At Oberlin College, a private liberal-arts school 30 miles west of Cleveland, it was the annual Commencement. The weekend also featured reunions for various classes. My Class of 1969 was included. Actually, to get more acquaintances together for these events, the classes of '67, '68, and '69 have been grouped into a "cluster," so this year our three classes celebrated our 35th anniversary (approximately).
I arrived in Oberlin on a quiet Saturday morning, May 24, 2003, expecting to find the campus thronged. But although alumni were around, most of the graduating seniors' families had not yet arrived for Monday's big ceremony.
Oberlin students are discouraged from owning motor vehicles it's a different world of pedestrians and bicycles and there usually aren't many cars parked on the streets surrounding what used to be called the Men's Quad. But this Saturday, alumni were in temporary residence in the Quad's dormitories, and they'd taken every on-street parking space. (Below is Woodland Street, looking south past my old dorm Noah Hall towards Wilder).
At an earlier reunion, I myself had tried to return to dorm life. But I live in a different world now. I've grown used to more privacy. This year, I stayed at a motel outside Cleveland and drove in to Oberlin each day. On-street parking being in short supply, I parked in the lot near the Field House.
The dorm assigned to our cluster was the one that we knew as North Hall, a building at the north end of the campus with four wings in the form of an X. Recently, they've added a central section with lounges and other amenities, and the building is now called Langston Hall. Although I didn't have a room at Langston, I went there on Saturday to register and to meet my fellow cluster members. We all donned name badges, but even without the badges I recognized some of my old classmates like Bill Edwards and Art Westneat and Matt Rinaldi.
One cluster activity that first day was a symposium on political evolutions. The moderator was Chip Hauss '69, one of several clustermates who now work in the field of conflict resolution. He used one of his professional techniques, the "Samoan circle," to get people talking. (In the center of the photo below, Roger Conner '69, facing the camera, is speaking from the circle; Hauss is in the white shirt behind him, standing by the door.)
However, facilitating conflict resolution may not have been an appropriate technique for this gathering. There were a hundred people in the room, and the extroverts who joined the discussion (I was not one of them) all shared the same liberal viewpoint. Any conflicts were between the speakers and the outside world.
Therefore, the symposium became a series of five-minute personal stories, including the remarks of the woman who had given up driving. Here are three other highlights.
"Religion might be on the right track, but it's the wrong train."
This summary of recent history is a composite of several speakers: During the Cold War, the threat of the Soviet Union restrained the actions of the United States. John F. Kennedy might have openly invaded Cuba had it not been for the fear of a Soviet reprisal. But now the U.S. has become the sole superpower and can throw its weight around. If it doesn't like another nation's leadership, the U.S. can just use its military to drive out that leadership. What can a small nation do to deter a possible U.S. invasion? Learn how to make atomic bombs. Nuclear weapons proliferate, and we're less safe than before.
"Show of hands: how many of you stood around that car?" Several hands were raised. We all knew which car was meant: the one driven by Lt. Cmdr. C. R. Smith, a Navy recruiting officer who was trapped on Main Street on October 26, 1967. Fifty-three anti-war students surrounded his car that morning in a symbolic protest against the war in Vietnam. Their aim was to keep the officer from joining two other recruiters interviewing students on campus. A fire truck was brought in, but the protesters doubled in number before they finally were dispersed by tear gas.
But unlike many in the symposium, I had not demonstrated that Thursday. The protesters, the activists, were part of a different world. That day, I was where I belonged in class.
Throughout the weekend, various Oberlin organizations hosted tours and open houses.
Some of us showed up at the college radio station, WOBC, including Steve Katz '68 and Jud Leonard '69 from my generation. The graduating station manager showed us around the studios, which seemed unchanged from my last visit two years before.
Leonard had been involved in engineering at WOBC, including wiring the studios and building much of the equipment. But there's not much of that being done nowadays. If the disk jockeys need a wire spliced, maybe there's somebody over at TIMARA who can help them.
TIMARA, pronounced the same way that Ohioans pronounce "tomorrow," is a studio in the Conservatory of Music's basement where students learn how to compose and create electronic music.
Engineer John Talbert gave a handful of us alumni a tour. There were a few analog synthesizers and open-reel tape decks dating from my era, but TIMARA mostly uses digital synthesizers and Apple computers. There's a digital multi-track recording studio for live performances, which then can be mixed and modified in various creative ways.
Another open house was held at the Weltzheimer-Johnson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1950. I've toured many of Wright's buildings over the years.
Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
remodeling of The Rookery
C. Johnson & Son Administration Building
County Civic Center
But although I've spent much time in Oberlin, I had never before made it to the local example, hidden on a secluded lot off Morgan Street.
Built for the Weltzheimer family and restored by the late Ellen Johnson of the College, this is one of Wright's "Usonian" houses. These were simple one-story dwellings designed to be constructed inexpensively, to improve the lifestyles of ordinary folks.
The ceilings and some walls are redwood; the rest of the walls are brick. The heating system uses no ductwork, merely a series of hot-water pipes concealed in the red concrete floor. The lighting system is mostly natural, with floor-to-ceiling windows and clerestories and skylights, so there is minimal electric wiring.
At times, I've wondered what it would be like to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. One drawback would be the responsibility. You'd have to give tours of your home. You would be the curator of a beautiful work of art, a building that needs constant maintenance to keep it in near-original condition.
I now realize that another drawback would be the lack of modern amenities. One might expect a house by a famous architect to be luxurious, but the weatherbeaten unpainted redwood makes the Weltzheimer-Johnson House feel like a rustic cabin in a camp in the forest. And the lack of such conveniences as television sets and air conditioning would leave most of us feeling deprived.
The house implies a spartan, monastic existence. There are shelves and desks in the bedrooms, but they hold only books and art objects no computers or entertainment centers, essential to most homes today.
Wright was a child of the 19th century, and in his day, a family used a house for dining, conversation, reading, and perhaps writing or making music. They did not have to be plugged into a satellite dish or the Internet. It was a different world.
On the other side of Morgan Street is the College Arboretum. I had been aware of the existence of the "Arb," but I had only a vague idea of where it was. It turns out to be not a carefully cultivated tree preserve but a rather overgrown woods, threaded by a few muddy paths.
These pillars mark the entrance to the Ladies Grove. "According to the 1859 College rule book," a publication explains, "Young ladies who do not reside with their parents are not allowed to walk in the fields or woods excepting the grove assigned for this purpose. Some women used to meet in the forest near here to hold debates, because women were not allowed to debate in public. Among them were Antoinette Brown Blackwell, who became the first woman to be ordained as a Protestant minister, and Lucy Stone, who fought for women's suffrage."
Yes, the 19th century was a different world.
Sunday, on the lawn known as Wilder Bowl, the "Champagne Alumni Luncheon" was held in a huge white tent. Our 35th year cluster was represented, along with the 15th year cluster and the 25th, 50th, 55th, 60th, and 65th year classes. Banners of the various classes were on display.
Now it's time for two trivial questions, which will be answered by the next pair of photos.
First, what does the Class of 1969 banner look like? I had no idea, but it turns out that it celebrates the moon landing of that year, a memorable event that we students had nothing to do with and that took place, let's see . . . two months after we graduated. But take a closer look at the Earth. The black area represents the true preoccupation of our college years, Vietnam.
Second, the college's Finney Chapel has a new pipe organ, but its console is on an isolated platform ten feet above the stage. How does the organist reach it? Here, Timothy Spelbring '03 demonstrates that a ladder is not necessary; to the left of the keyboard, there's a concealed door in the woodwork.
Spelbring played a half-hour organ concert Sunday, a suite by Maurice Duruflé which was well suited to the new instrument. And we in the audience listened attentively.
I recall my undergraduate days, when attentiveness was often lacking. Before each assembly, an organ student would play a prelude, but the music had to contend with a lot of noise. Not only were people filing into the Chapel and shuffling into their seats, they were talking to each other. To be heard over the conversations, the organist played louder. To be heard over the music, the people talked louder. This escalated to the point where the organist was pounding out Bach with the full resources of the pipe organ, and still people weren't listening. I think that the frustrated students in the organ department finally gave up providing preludes for assemblies.
But the audience this Sunday was better behaved. And after the Duruflé, we had our own assembly speaker: the college president, Nancy Schrom Dye, seen below in a composite of two photos. Her presidential address was an upbeat presentation, reciting the college's accomplishments while mostly avoiding the problems (many of them financial).
For example, she referred proudly to the new Science Center. As a former physics student, I had visited this classroom and laboratory complex when it was dedicated the previous fall. But we scientists are in a different world from the activists, interested as they are in public policy and interpersonal relations. We're also in a different world from the conservatory musicians, except perhaps for the computer programmers at TIMARA. And these other groups tend to avoid our world. President Dye acknowledged this when she mentioned the Science Center, saying, "Even if you gave science a very wide berth when you were at Oberlin (laughter), please go take a look at it."
(The Science Center library, shown above, is in a section of the building that is designed for use by non-scientists as well.)
The president also related some recent encounters with colleagues in Asia. There, universities are starting to become independent of government control. But if the state doesn't support a university financially, who does support it? The Asians had heard that at American institutions such as Oberlin, a large portion of the funding comes from alumni donations. They asked, "Could this really be true? Do your former customers just give you money, for the rest of their lives, expecting nothing in return? Why would they do that?"
Her first response was that college is a happy time of life when we discover ourselves, our careers, and often our life partners. Therefore, we're inclined to feel benevolent to alma mater.
But then she also reflected that the college and its alumni are an example of an American "voluntary association," as described by Alexis de Tocqueville.
From de Tocqueville's Democracy in America:
Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.
Among democratic nations, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another.
The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures.
The commencement exercises were scheduled for Monday morning in Tappan Square. So they were when I graduated except that it rained. The 1969 ceremony was moved indoors to Finney Chapel, where unfortunately fewer guests could attend. But in 2003, the plan was to hold the commencement outdoors, rain or shine!
Some precipitation was in the forecast, so on Saturday, a worker tied a plastic bag to each graduating senior's chair, using alternating Oberlin colors of crimson and gold. There was a good chance that the Class of 2003 might have to accept their diplomas while wearing this inelegant rain gear.
But on Commencement Eve, it became apparent that the weather would not be a problem. The lobby of the Science Center glowed in the twilight.
Also that evening, ropes of paper Japanese lanterns with candles were strung across Tappan Square. It was the traditional Campus Illumination, featuring a concert at the recently constructed bandstand designed by Julian Smith '69.
And the skies were sunny the next morning, when the Class of 2003 assembled across from the Memorial Arch. They found their numbered places, marked in chalk on the sidewalk.
The traditional cap and gown have been optional at Oberlin for years. Some graduates wear them, others don't.
But the VIPs always wear the traditional robes. Here, the Academic Procession steps off from Peters Hall on its way through the Arch.
The speaker's platform soon was filled with honored guests, and the traditional college Commencement Ceremony began.
As much as things may differ in our different worlds, some experiences are still the same through the ages.