By Gayle Rosenwald Smith
I HAD LOOKED FORWARD to my 25th reunion in May 1997 with mixed emotions. At past gatherings, there never seemed to be enough time to get past the “How have you been?/Everything is great” stage, but this time the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know if it was the year — could it be that a quarter century had really gone by since graduation? — or the reminder from our class president, Alan Cotler, W’72, WG’74, that some class members were no longer alive, but something brought home the reality that we can no longer take life for granted.
Rather than a pat “Life is wonderful,” the question “So, how are you?” prompted something remarkable — wonderful stories of the present and incredible sharings from the past. At one point, as a number of us were sitting in Smokey Joe’s, having begun by talking about our children and moved on to dissect life at Penn, one guy said, “I hate to admit it, but I’m having a better time than I can ever remember at school.” A slight exaggeration, but that weekend I began thinking about what my Penn education meant to me — an update of sorts on why I want to go to Penn!
I continued to think about my undergraduate days when my daughter Rachel started at Penn the fall after my 25th reunion. We live in Philadelphia, and before she’d agreed to go to the University I’d had to promise her I wouldn’t set foot on campus while classes were in session. I did help her move into the Quad — co-ed dorms and every room hard-wired. A far cry from my freshmen year at Hill Hall (now House), when we still had parietals and the “computer revolution” was unimaginable, though other revolutions — in music, politics, and more — were being born all around us.
Ironically, one of my daughter’s freshman seminars was The History of the Sixties, taught by former Penn president, Dr. Sheldon Hackney — which, as it turned out, prompted more delving into my college experience. I had to break my promise about never coming to campus when Rachel required surgery to remove her gall bladder. Afterward, sick enough to stay home rather than return to her dorm, she was still determined to attend the seminar. I broached the subject of going with her — just this once. That way, I told her, if she passed out I could pick her up and she could avoid being stepped on!
It was strange to be sitting on campus in a classroom that hadn’t even existed when I was a student, listening to young adults pontificate upon the times I had experienced. Some of the discussion saddened me: One student felt that the breakdown of the family was a casualty of the era. In a discussion about the meaning of the word underprivileged, one student defined underprivileged children as those whose parents were divorced: These children were deprived and needed extra help growing up today. These criticisms stung. As a family lawyer and writer in the field, I know too well the pain of divorce, and I wasn’t willing to accept that my generation had caused the breakdown of the family. One student felt that the way to solve “the problem” of poverty was to put poor children in private boarding schools away from their families. He saw no real use for Head Start or similar social programs. I felt as if I were in a time warp — refighting old battles. Some students spoke about the women’s movement, but complained about what it hasn’t done — it didn’t really lead to equal pay for equal work. They had no clue as to what had been accomplished, how far we’ve come.
While many of the students’ comments disturbed me, I did enjoy listening to Sheldon Hackney’s wonderful prodding and questioning, designed to gently force the students into thinking. Maybe that’s what it’s all about — learning how to think. Penn is the place where we first took quantum leaps into the world of thought (and other worlds, too). And what a great time it was to begin that journey.
As Rachel’s medical problems continued — ultimately diagnosed as the result of retained gall stones in her bile duct — I spent much more time in the Quad than I would have been allowed to otherwise. Sitting in the dorms and other campus haunts, I began to realize that much of who I am today had its genesis at Penn. I always valued my education — how the courses I took and the independent studies I pursued helped to mold me — but only recently have I really come to appreciate the impact of my personal experiences and friendships.
What began at the University became a support that helped me through what has turned out to be an extremely bittersweet year. My daughter was at Penn, my first book — What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody — had been accepted for publication. What could be bad? Yet, also during this year, my father became quite fragile, took ill, and died. The process of his dying was excrutiatingly painful for me. I had had to go to law school 1,200 miles away from home before I was able to see my relationship with my family clearly. I feel blessed that my father was alive for almost 88 years, and that I was able to understand, through time, how much he positively influenced my life and my children’s lives. His love never faltered. I forgave his overprotectiveness when I became a parent myself.
Words were his life, but at the end he was a prisoner in his own body, unable to speak or move much — yet completely alert, so that he was forced to witness the devastation. I spent time reminiscing with him about Penn. He was a Wharton and Penn Law school grad, and later a lawyer and judge in Philadelphia. When he introduced me to people he would always mention it if the person went to Wharton or Penn Law with him. In his judicial chambers, he kept a picture of his freshman football team. Every time we passed Bennett Hall, he would remark, “I had English class there,” and now whenever I see the building I feel a link with my past. A great lover of literature, he introduced me to Dickens, Thackeray, and other authors — yet, wanting to break away and be my own person, as an adolescent (and beyond) I too often cut short his reminiscences and reading suggestions. Now I was the one talking.
This is a story I told at his funeral: After the Kent State killings in May 1970, when everyone gathered in front of Van Pelt Library and marched into Center City behind a black-draped coffin to protest, I saw my father across the street speaking to another man. “Daddy!” I yelled and, wearing a short jacket that barely covered my skirt, ran over to meet him. “This is my daughter,” he told the other man, who, I later learned, was Frank Rizzo, then chief of police — to whom my father had just commented, “I have a daughter at Penn, but she would never take part in a demonstration like this.”
My father died on a Sunday, so, in accordance with Jewish law, he was buried Monday. What astonished me and gave me the greatest comfort in this most painful of times was that without asking, without notice, my friends — many from Penn — gathered around, changing busy schedules to drop by, bring over food, or attend services at the house.
The shared history that started 29 years ago when I was a freshman has continued to this day. Life at Penn did mean more than all of the wonderful courses and all the fine literaure I devoured. I built an extended family, too. Shared familial history builds on itself. The learning, social experiences, and traditions my father received have been passed down to me. If I don’t want to become Jefferson Airplane’s “fossil of our time,” I must resist being judgmental and remember that a new generation — my daughter’s generation — is embarking on its own journey, trying to figure out just what they want and where to go. They, too, will grow up with shared history.
And the link continues.
Gayle Rosenwald Smith, CW’72, (gaylersmith @msn.com) is a lawyer and writer in Philadelphia. Her book, What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody, will be published in November.