Many of you have probably participated in a high school or college reunion. I admit I am not a big fan of such gatherings. At my 25th high school class reunion, many of those who came were not the people I remembered. Unfortunately, life had not been kind to some of them.
Last weekend, however, I found myself at a reunion that in spite of my feelings, I just had to attend. So there I was at the 120th commencement ceremony of Delaware State University, where my class came together to observe our 50th year since graduating. What fun we all had recalling our college experiences. For anyone out of college for 50 years, just setting foot on the campus will provide clear evidence of how much things have changed. A conversation with a classmate focused on what we encountered when we arrived in 1958 at what was then Delaware State College: cornfields; very few classroom buildings; few students; awful cafeteria food; one dormitory for girls and one for boys; mandatory weekly chapel service; highly structured social activities; and few commercial businesses near our campus. Like my classmate, I was ready to go home. But like her, I adjusted, persevered and remained for the entire four years, a decision that paid huge dividends in my professional and personal life. What I shall share with you occurred on my college’s campus, but it could easily have taken place on yours during a reunion celebration. This class reunion last weekend resurrected some of my fondest college memories from back in the day.
Over past decades, I have been on a number of college campuses. What I saw last weekend represented one of the most appealing campuses I have seen. The Delaware State University campus is truly outstanding; it is a walking campus; with modern brick buildings everywhere. The landscape looks as if it is maintained by people who cut the grass with scissors and pull weeds by hand. There were flower beds and shrubbery everywhere; the cornfields disappeared long ago. In this impressive environment, 15 members of my class donned robes and lined up on the athletic field to participate in the university’s 120th commencement ceremony; in which our class was given special recognition because of the 50 years since our graduation. A track star from our class asked if I had noticed what was under our feet. He was referring to the all-weather track and the artificial turf playing field. We agreed that they were a far cry from the cinder track and the patchy grass field on which athletes participated during our college years. Observations regarding the campus and life there went much further and made us all feel very proud in light of where we had been as freshmen and are today as senior citizens. Some members of the class commented on the cafeteria, where students can select from a wide variety of foods. Others pointed out that students can go to the Village Café to eat. In addition, they have access to Dover Downs with its restaurants, as well as numerous restaurants near the campus. Students today are not limited, as we were, to buying food from the bus station in Dover when our cafeteria was closed.
The commencement ceremony booklet provided clear evidence of how the university had grown in terms of students, academics and research programs. The 2012 graduating class was larger than the total enrollment when we were students. Students enrolled at the university represent 27 countries today. The disciplines in which degrees were conferred, including doctoral degrees, reflected the growth in academic programs. While our sports teams produced several professional athletes, the thought of an equestrian team, which exists at the school today, was not in our wildest dreams. The sign on one building said, “Campus Police Department.” In our day, we had one older man, dressed in a Boy Scout-type uniform, whom we called “Will Shoot.” He was our only security on campus.
A few evenings before the commencement ceremony, several of us gathered at the home of a classmate who lives in the Dover area. Some of us had not seen one another for years. As each person entered the kitchen where most of us had gathered, you could see occasional perplexed looks, as the years had changed the appearance of some. Others had not changed at all. A few played a cat-and-mouse game by giving clues to suggest who they were. In some cases, a back-in-the-day nickname helped us identify the classmate. In other cases, it was the name of one’s campus sweetheart; their hometown; the name of a roommate; an idiosyncrasy; a prank that will be forever identified with a name. Our host had something in his basement that most of us consumed in the past, but no one would dare touch on this evening. It was the answer to this 1960s question: “What’s the word?” We all knew the answer was “Thunderbird.” We knew not to touch it, as this drink mixed with orange juice would surely take most of us on a headache-filled kind of trip we remember from back in the day.
After enjoying our food, we got to know one another all over again. We shared some of our favorite stories of campus life. These discussions continued during our luncheon reception the following day. Many of our memorable experiences were associated with dormitory life. We talked about things that occurred in our dorms that would appear to be possible only in a television sitcom.
We recalled our “housemother,” who visited our rooms on a regular basis to make certain they were clean and neat. Housemothers often had a reputation for giving some students a difficult time. We talked about a classmate who planned well in advance to come out of the shower and stand in the middle of the room without even a towel around him, at the very moment the housemother entered the room. This was his way of trying to dissuade her from inspecting his room in the future. As events are rated, this one will be at the top of my list of memorable dormitory events of the class of 1962.
Like most college campuses, ours had its “roller,” the person who made fun or “cracked” on others. While he did not attend our reunion, he may have received more individual attention than any other classmate. We missed him, as he always displayed a keen recollection of funny events from back in the day. He was also the person who gave most students nicknames during freshman orientation. In my class were guys with names such as: “Sweet Lou,” as he was super cool; “Old Folk,” because he looked old enough to be in school under the G.I. Bill; “Junkie,” who had the characteristics of someone using illegal substances; “Block”, because he had a big head; “Long-John,” as he was very tall; “Philly Joe” because he was constantly using pencils to portray a drummer, bringing to mind the jazz musician Philly Joe Jones; and “The Captivator,” who thought all the young ladies on campus were interested in him. While the nicknames have remained with us over the years, in many cases we had great difficulty recalling the person’s real name.
Memories of schoolwork and campus life did not go unnoticed during this gathering. Whatever happened to those who were very smart was a big question. Those who struggled to complete college and had gone on to become medical doctors, college professors and company presidents probably generated the most discussion. We resurrected stories about the difficulty we had in obtaining passing grades in classes of certain professors, in particular, our history professor whose class most of us struggled to pass.
Dances and party life were also a big part of the conversation. We recalled that it seemed that no matter the characteristics of the person in one’s company, he or she started to look good after consuming more than one’s share of “idiot juice.” We also recalled that some marriages were the result of walks with girlfriends after dinner, from the dining hall to the girl’s dormitory. Several married couples were present who took these walks back in the day.
At a reception, joined by other alumni and university officials, our class made a sizeable donation for scholarships. We talked privately about some fun things concerning those that were not present. As indicated earlier, 15 members of my class marched in last Sunday’s commencement ceremony. Sixteen of our class members had passed over the past 50 years. We lifted their names and spirits in prayer, lit candles in their memory and shared personal memories of them.
This experience centered on my class of 1962. I suspect that those of you who participated in your 50th college graduation ceremony had much the same experience. To those who have yet to reach your 50th commencement ceremony, I encourage you to make every effort to participate in it. Believe me, it will inspire you and cause you to be more thankful, appreciative and full of pride because of the four years you spent on your college or university campus. Your 50th commencement ceremony, it will have significant meaning because of your classroom and campus life, back in the day,
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at email@example.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia PA 19146.