“You can always tell a Harvard man, you just can’t tell him much.”
In McKinley Park, I was taking a break after pounding spikes with my fellow extra gang members on the Alaska Railroad, and a passenger on the recently arrived train asked a co-worker if I went to Harvard and made this snide but classic remark. I had traveled around the world for two years after college, finally ending up in Alaska, far far away from the Ivy League only to be tracked down and given grief. OK, I am a Harvard man, Class of 1972. I don’t very often explicitly mention my alma mater since so many presumptions are made when ”Harvard” is heard. Is this false modesty? I think not, but perhaps I protest too much. When I meet people, I prefer a little time to get acquainted before labeling intrudes. Even the guys on the extra gang had not known from which college I had graduated. They just nicknamed me the Professor because I had the ability to compose letters for them.
[ No one wants to be labeled prior being understood as the person they have worked hard to become. I was approaching the American Embassy in Rabat, Morocco when a young FSO employee introduced himself and asked me to lunch at his home. A struggling grad student, I accepted. After spending some time with the gentleman and his wife, he asked if I was a Christian Scientist! What the heck? I had not been in a Christian Science church since I was 11, so where was the label on me? They were practicing CS folks and had a sense about my Being. You would think I would run for the hills (or the Middle Atlas Mountains) but I accepted their home as a base for my monkey business. That is the Truth. Ve Ri Tas.]
College reunions are not on any of my bucket lists, yet the 50th reunion invitation caught my attention as well as the chance to participate in Harvard’s first Alumni Day. I had not made a very large network of friends during college. I was an introvert who spent every summer and one semester studying monkeys in the Caribbean and Colombia, and then focusing on biological anthropology studies during the school year. Vietnam protests interrupted the first couple of years. (I took pass/fail grading in the spring of 1970 so that I could volunteer for a peace candidate in Pennsylvania.) My extracurricular activities were as a band member and eventually treasurer, and then I was treasurer of our house cafe. I only got drunk once after a Brown game celebration…drinking a lethal band-concocted brown punch. I weaved my way back to my room vowing never again.
So I was not expecting to do much bro hugging with long lost comrades. But I was hoping to the panel discussions among the Class of 72 graduates would be enlightening. And I might see a roommate or two. One lives in Seattle and my wife could feel comfortable with his running commentary and acerbic wit. Arriving for registration, I soon realized that, unlike the 25th Reunion when Harvard wooed graduates with swag and special events, this was a bare bones program. We would have to buy swag at the Harvard Coop if we wanted memorabilia. Given our rebellious reputation, our class never broke any ceiling in contributions, I guess Harvard had written us off as big spenders…so why offer perks. (Members of our class, including two of my cousins, occupied the Administration building during the Spring of 69 until the police dragged them out.)
Our choice for accommodations was a college room rather than a nearby hotel. How often does one get a chance to stay in a Harvard House? Of course this would mean sharing a bathroom, but we were game. We were assigned the newly renovated Winthrop House and lucked out with a suite facing the Charles River. No fine Egyptian cotton bedding with high denier, the sheets on the bunks had only a thin plastic thread count and the blankets were a diaphanous cotton tissue. Decor was minimalist with basic sturdy furniture. The fireplace was gone! Quaint was out, efficiency definitely in. At least the bathroom had private stalls for the toilets and showers. Michele only ran into one aging graduate in underpants and he never returned without long pants on.
Given the rise of Covid in Boston, we masked up in all public gatherings but we were in the small minority taking precautions. Doctors to the left, Doctors to the right, and not a mask in sight. OK, I exaggerate, they were probable a few lawyers, professors and CEOs around but we kept bumping through the medical field. Even the Class of 1957 was tempting fate as they shuffled to their destiny or rather destinations.
Institutional breakfasts were served in Memorial hall, a place of dread for me. Exams were held there and I often felt gut wrenching panic as I stared down at blank blue books. So Michele and I found safe spaces elsewhere for consuming the scrambled eggs and bacon. My gastrointestinal track appreciated the safe space. Hundreds of Class of 1972 grads plus partners were not so careful and gathered together for pre-set topics of conversation or just to chat. Way too close for us. What we would miss out on in comraderie, we would gain with peace of mind.
Our first gathering included a Class 72 survey review. I had answered but it was tedious. Who cares what flowers we like? Yet one question stood out. The request to answer what was the present distribution of wealth in America by population quintiles and what was the ideal, and this would be compared with the actual numbers when we gathered. Our class guessed somewhere around 45% of wealth was accumulated in the highest quintile. Wrong, oh so wrong. It sits at 80+%. How could a group of educated professionals misunderstand the realities of the world and the huge wealth gap? Perhaps they don’t want to face up to the accumulation of wealth in their lives, or the American Dream (read Myth perpetuated by major corporations and institutions) of equal opportunity blinds us all to the facts.
We needed refresher courses in radical politics. The panel discussion about protests and organizing helped ground us. Panelists included the Mayor of Cambridge, the Executive Director of the ACLU, a lawyer who briefly worked in the Trump White House and a woman who worked for a couple of Democratic administrations. The right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois back in the 80’s was defended by the ACLU, so Nadine Strassbourg (ACLU ED) defended that position and reiterated the necessity of protecting all forms of speech, while others considered that some limitations are needed to control the level of hate speech that causes irreparable harm, sometimes physical harm, as in the North Carolina march where people died in the march altercation.
Between events we did have time to check out a couple of museums on campus, and the FOGG, Harvard Museum of Art was top of the list. Wandering through the examples of early Egyptian and Indian art, I wondered, not when they were acquired, but when they were basically lifted off ancient walls by some historic ”Expedition” for the enlightenment of the privileged.
To be fair , one piece, a Benin bronze head, was in the early stages of a reparation process.
One painting I flagged due to subject matter and its meta perspective. In the painting on the left, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is depicting Raphael with his lover, Fornarina, on his lap as he gazes, not at his love, but the image of her. That original painting we had seen in Rome a couple of years ago. Raphael painted in his name on model’s arm band. Odd attachment for sure.
Then, just by happenstance as I walked past a piece by Louise Nevelson, a study in Black and White appeared in juxtaposition. The bodies aligned.
Alumni Day arrived with some pomp and circumstance. My classmate saw the Class of 57 members shuffling by and said out loud to one guy, “Wow, You are Old!” To which he replied, ”Fuck You!” Charlie loved the retort. We joined the procession behind our Class banner and ended up close to the stage…but far enough back that Michele and I could exit if this all was tooo much pomp. Among the distinguished guests attending was our most recent Supreme Court Justice , Ketanji Brown Jackson received a standing ovation. A beacon of hope in the darkness of the times.
(A lot of grey beards and grey in them thar heads.)
The Harvard Band played “10,000 Men of Harvard” and the aging crowd sang or mumbled their way through with great vigor. I did not join the band members, though band alums are very welcome to play (provided they can remember the notes and still stay in tune.) Chatting later with some Band Alums who were carrying their instruments, I teased them about the mellowing of the band spirit since the days when my brother was President and later when I was Treasurer. They were of the opinion that following those radical years, Harvard Admissions had screened applicants, taming the beasts within us.