REUNION by Ellyn Wolfe
Veritas. This inspiring motto, truth, is emblazoned across huge crimson flags flying from every building and tree in Harvard Yard. Five thousand folding chairs wait to be filled with graduates finally released from the intensity of the past four years of study. They are about to move on into the world of work, a door-opening degree in every hand. But today, the classes of 1969 and 1994 are here to celebrate their fifty- and twenty-five-year reunions. I belong to both.
My late ex-husband Ric was ’69. I was ’94. Not that he was twenty-five years older—I was simply a late bloomer who returned to college in my forties. Members of my own graduating class meant little to me. I lived at home and worked which left no time for socializing. My real affiliation was with friends from my husband’s class, and since he was no longer with us, our daughter Shannon thought it would be a good idea for us to represent him at his reunion. I agreed. Besides I was eager to reconnect with friends I had not seen in fifty years.
I walked into a mob scene in the registration room, found my badge and goodie-bag, bought a Veritas logo jacket, and set out to find those I hoped hadn’t changed beyond recognition. Graying alumni meandered through the crowd, stopped a respectable distance from a potential classmate, did a quick face scan, squinted at the mid-chest name tag, then looked back at the face.
Thomas Kennedy, I read, then looked at his face, which was squinting at my name tag.
“Ellyn! You’re here!”
“You look wonderful!” He said.
“You haven’t changed a bit!” I responded.
Big hugs and white lies ran rampant throughout the room.
“Have you seen Buzz, Jerry, or Bob?” We both asked at the same time.
Our gang agreed by text to meet the following day at the Memorial Service for those class members who had passed away. This was an opportunity for my daughter to celebrate her dad’s life and do it with friends she had only heard about in stories. And for me, it was the beginning of a week of looking back and remembering.
The service was held in Memorial Church on Memorial Day in Harvard Yard where Ric and I were married fifty-one years ago. How strange to mark both a beginning and an ending in the same place and with the same people. I appreciated the minister’s respectful use of “those whose voices have been hushed” instead of the traditional “passed away” or “died.” I loved the message in the poem Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye—“Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in an instant … ”
The minister referred to those Harvard men and women whose lives were taken in war, their names carved in stone tablets on the walls. As Ric’s name was read from the list of forty-seven hushed classmates, I slid my arm around my daughter’s shoulders. A profound respect for each name, no longer just a name carved in stone, brought tears and feelings of closure.
1969 was a year of national turmoil, political assassinations, student strikes, and Vietnam protests. Harvard did not escape the chaos. Students took over the administration building, ousted eight deans, and were soundly knocked over the head by police with billy clubs, my husband included.
It was no surprise that “The Vietnam Experience” was one of the reunion’s afternoon activities. A panel of eight, introduced by a Nobel Laureate, relived the passions they felt and acted on half a century ago. Stories from women who volunteered in the camps as nurses, from those who went to war, and from those who went to Canada stirred empathetic reactions in the audience.
Most poignant for me were two college roommates, our friends Jerry and Bob, who spoke. They were polar opposites politically and socially – Bob, a gay pacifist war protester, Jerry a ROTC scholarship student who would willingly go into the Navy upon graduation. “I didn’t have to sweat it out like the rest of you. I knew I was going,” Jerry said. The audience murmured, remembering how those with low draft numbers lived in daily panic. “Bob and I had dramatically different outlooks, but we came together at the end of the day, had dinner, and talked. We listened to each other. We wanted to understand each other’s point of view.”
What an opportunity for my daughter to experience a living history lesson and to hear how opposing views can be managed in a civil manner with curiosity and respect.
At dinner that night I asked the table, “What do you remember best about Ric?” hoping his college years would come alive for Shannon from those who had lived with him.
“Winnie the Pooh!” TK said. “He always read Winnie the Pooh to us. Of course, we nicknamed him Wol, after the wise old owl in the story. He was so damn smart. Remember that A+ exam paper he wrote? He dropped in poignant quotes from every historian as if he were writing the alphabet.”
“The Wol,” Buzz grinned. “How about his getting accepted into Harvard as a sophomore right out of high school. Smart doesn’t cut it. He was brilliant!” The stories poured forth and only concluded when it was time to leave for a Crimson Jeopardy parody at Mem Hall. But before we left dinner, Buzz bestowed a new moniker on Shannon, “The Wolette.”
The events rolled on over the next four days, a mix of personal and planned activities—a visit to the depths of Widner Library, where Shannon and I sat on the floor paging through books we had found on an historical figure I was researching, pauses in classrooms where new ideas had challenged my old beliefs, a visit to the Ed School, where I got my master’s the following year, and how I cried through my graduation ceremony in part because I was exhausted, and in part because I couldn’t believe I had made it through.
Our old clique traveled as a unit to meals, to a musical where we all belted out Beatles songs, to more panels, to Al Gore’s (also class of ’69) Climate Change talk, to crazy funny parodies, and to a movie of the year’s highlights.
We all remembered sitting at the famous Harvard/Yale football game of 1968. Both teams were tied at season’s end, each with 6-0 records. Yale took the lead immediately, 29 to 13, and held it until the last two minutes of the game, when Harvard miraculously scored sixteen points to tie and end the game. The stadium erupted! The Harvard Crimson newspaper published the now famous headline, “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”
1969 was a year of idealism, enthusiasm, fun, and Veritas. As I stepped back into that time via reunion, sobering questions interrupted my serenity. What have I done with that idealism over the past fifty years? Did I accomplish what I set out to do? Am I satisfied? What part of me is the same? What part is different? And why?
I’ve been thinking about the answers since I returned home. They are complicated like life and because of life. But most important, revisiting the past has brought more focus to my present. My questions today are: Where am I now? How will I continue to seek Veritas?