Fifty years later, the kindness of a stranger.
By Howard Jaffe | Something kind of charming happened to me during Alumni Weekend this year. It was shortly after the Parade of Classes along a Locust Walk that was barely recognizable to those of us who had returned to Penn for our 50th Reunion.
As we walked, we marveled at how much the campus has changed—and how much some of us haven’t. The night before, at dinner with 13 returning fraternity brothers, I’d been pleased to see that we’d stood the test of time quite well. Now we had come back to strut our stuff behind the marchers known (affectionately? respectfully? ironically?) as the Old Guard.
“That’s us, next time,” someone pointed out.
“You should be so lucky,” someone else replied.
The parade progressed in a more or less orderly manner but it was far from a model of military precision. As old friends and acquaintances recognized each other, new clusters formed and others broke apart.
In many cases it was just a handshake, a tentative hug, a great to see you before pivoting toward another familiar face. Or else we’d fall into stride and chat a little, summarizing the past half-decade of our lives in two or three minutes.
The same pattern of catching up and moving on continued after the parade, when the Class of ’63 assembled for our Alumni Day Picnic in the largest tent I’ve ever seen, located on Wynn Commons (named for Steve, one of our more prominent classmates).
There, too, I found myself engaged in a series of brief encounters that could be perceived as gratuitous or superficial. But for me they added up to an experience that was far more pleasant than I ever anticipated.
The truth is that when reunion notices first started arriving from Penn, I felt ambivalent about the whole idea—and a little self-conscious.
For one thing, as a classmate reminded me at a previous reunion, I have been far from an active or generous alumnus. My financial contributions to Penn over the years would not have purchased a doorknob in the Wharton School’s Aresty Institute (courtesy of another classmate’s family). Nor can I claim a relationship to the family behind the Jaffe History of Art Building.
What’s more, I failed to display enough school spirit to influence my children to extend our family’s Quaker lineage. I was delivered into this world by an uncle of my mother’s who obtained his medical degree from Penn. My mother, her two sisters, my father, older brother and sister, and various cousins all sang “Hurrah for the Red and the Blue.” My brother’s daughter was there this year for her 15th Reunion. But my own daughter? She turned down all three of the Ivies that accepted her. And my son lost interest in Penn by halftime of a football game we attended during his junior year of high school.
So what kind of alumnus am I? I still pay dues to the Mask and Wig Club, but stopped going to the annual productions years ago. I scan the sports pages, but do not go to games that I could easily attend. (I live 10 minutes from Columbia’s Baker Field.) And while I keep in touch with a few Penn friends, I did not believe I needed reunions to see them.
Then a couple of us started communicating and agreed that the big 50th would be a good excuse to get together. Next, a few fraternity brothers joined the conversation and “volunteered” me to organize a Friday night dinner. Then, once that actually came to fruition, they kept telling me how great a time they had. And as my circle of reconnections expanded during the parade and picnic, any residual ambivalence and self-consciousness faded totally away.
At the most personal level I realized this reunion was about the simple pleasure of touching base, however briefly, with people who shaped and share the same 50-year-old memories. And I found that experience surprisingly satisfying.
Then there was the little bonus that caught me unawares. As I stood under the picnic tent talking with a friend, up walked a classmate whose name and face were not at all familiar. “I just want to tell you,” he said, “that even though we didn’t know each other very well, I thought you were one of the nicest people I met at Penn.”
Wow! I thought for a second it might be a set-up. My friends include a confirmed practical joker. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity, or long-term memory loss. Or perhaps, I allowed, I had actually done something or said something during my four years at Penn to make such a sweet and lasting impression.
Embracing the latter possibility, I thanked my kind classmate and was about to ask him how we knew each other. But he backed away as quickly as he appeared, having cast a whole new light on alumni giving, leaving me to march into the realm of the Old Guard with a spring in my step and a lump in my throat.