“Few roads taken early are irreversible.”
By Nick Lyons | My old Penn roommate, Mort Seaman W’53, calls me now and then, or I call him. Without saying so, most of the time we’re happy as clams. No one from our class has died this week; we face no new threats to heart or colon, liver or lungs. We’re here.
We both keep out of mischief. We have big, busy, interesting families, and work that we started many years ago and still love, even in our eighties.
Now and again we talk of Penn, perhaps of our freshman year. Through the miasma of nearly 65 years we remember that we wrote a class song that won our dorm, Warwick, the honor to wear white rather than blue dinks. To show I remember it, I am prepared to sing, “When Penn begins to roll…”—but I can’t get the corny words out and think it best to honor the song in silence. We may talk of fishing, about which we have both been certifiably nuts at one time or another: Mort holds a record for Atlantic salmon; I’ve written a few too many books about fly fishing. We both still fish a little, but the old passion—along with a lot of fish in places we loved—is gone. I played some basketball, he played lacrosse. Anecdotes play well with us: of sports, of fishing, of classmates seen or heard from or gone. Now and again a story slips in about how our friend Harry’s hands shake, how Billy’s pacemaker needs subtler tinkering, how age, no matter how much we resist it, has happened to too many old pals.
Mort was restless at Penn but thrived thereafter. He has children and grandchildren who have thrived at Penn. I was restless in spades. Today, when some new acquaintance learns that I’m a Wharton graduate, he automatically thinks me wise enough to answer his questions about the course of the Dow, the GDP, the dropping price of oil. He’s got the wrong Wharton graduate. I remember learning the principle of caveat emptor, buyer beware, when a business-law professor used an example centered on whether or not the buyer had first asked, “Hey, Joe, are dose tomats froze?” And I remember old Sol Huebner, the “Father of Life Insurance,” telling us how he had gone to Congress and in a growl insisted, “You have got to put a dollar value on a human life.”
I tried hard after I left Wharton to put other values on it, but it was always the visual, the dramatic, and the earthy that stuck. The closest I came to prominence in the world of economics was to write a playful article about finding scrap fur in the Garment District and proclaiming that with it that I could surely corner the fly-tying-materials market and grow fabulously rich—only to learn that my ten pounds of Polish nutria and two big bags of choice Australian opossum would glut the fly-tying market for the next 60 years. I was asked to write an article for The New York Times soon after this, one that required I interview Paul Volcker. By chance he had read my brilliant sojourn into high-level economics, and surely deep called unto deep: the wise central banker and I became friends, and over the years have fished together a good many times.
Mort became a brilliant captain of his industry and I enrolled at a small liberal arts college as a freshman after I had finished my B.S. in Economics at Wharton and had spent two years in the Army. A reluctant reader for most of my life, I fell madly in love with books, earned a doctorate in English, taught college, wrote books, became a small book publisher. I thought I might have traveled quarter-circle back to economics and business by founding a publishing house and keeping it afloat for a dozen years; but it wasn’t until my youngest son, born with a knack for business, joined me that my little enterprise flourished.
Wharton was never a school in the wrong. Wharton was the fountainhead for successful lives in business, law, and high finance for a dozen friends and thousands of others. I was the wrong student for the school. So, perhaps, was my classmate Bob Dembar W’53, who changed his name to Jackson Dembar and for many years has been a superb abstract painter. You rarely know the proper path at 16 or 17, but few roads taken early are irreversible.
I have a few pals from Wharton left standing today, though for an increasing number, the arc of their lives or of our friendship has ended. None of those I speak with can stand being called a member of the Old Guard. Our paths have roughly taken us where we hoped they would, or where they had to go, always tempered by choices and skills. Wharton was a part of the road. I still feel connected to the school and grateful for my years there. With the road nearly traveled, the stories of our lives—often welded to the business we’ve done along the way—always fascinate me. And I positively love to talk “business” with almost anyone, anywhere. It allows me to slip in one or two of my half-dozen Wharton anecdotes, as if I knew something wise in that line of thinking.