2016-08-31 / Columns

An alumnus and his lady walking hand-in-hand into the future

SALLY’S WORLD
SALLY FRIEDMAN

I came across the photo in an old album—remember pictures in albums not on iPhones?

In it, two people are smiling at a camera at what was my husband’s 50th Rutgers reunion. Those people had become grandparents, had lived through an event forever after to be known as 9/11, and had surely changed since the 25th reunion.

Reunions, as we all know, are encounters with the past that can be glorious or painful or something in between. This one fell into the “glorious” category.

The Rutgers men of the Class of 1954 didn’t look as they had in the yearbook. They were men with silver in what was left of their hair and a certain stiffness in their joints. But they could still, without a moment’s hesitation, recall events from more than 50 years ago.

The reminiscences started at the registration table, and never stopped. So did the delighted flashes of recognition. Rutgers, it should be noted, was all male back in 1954. We spouses and significant others were there merely to bear witness to these great, joyful bursts of reuniting.

Our men had come to this land grant college/state university when Harry Truman was in the White House. It was mid-century in a robust America that had so recently celebrated peace after The Big War, but soon was facing down a new challenge called the Korean Conflict, and a demagogue named Joseph McCarthy.

Still, those young men who came to Rutgers to join the Class of ’54 carried not protest banners, but their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists or captains of industry back in the days when those were cherished American goals. The technology revolution was yet to come.

My husband had arrived in New Brunswick fresh from his family’s small, struggling farm in Monmouth County. His parents, Eastern European immigrants for whom college was a mysterious other world, had still seen to it that this third and last child would get the education that they had also provided for his brother and sister. So the send-off to Rutgers on a September day in 1950 had been both triumphant and emotional.

There were so many others like my husband back then, poor Jewish boys who felt privileged just to be going to college. Sure, they did what college kids tend to do: They drank too much beer, stayed up too late, and invented ingenious ways to meet the girls at New Jersey College for Women across town.

But they studied hard because nobody was handing them life on a silver platter. Their “spring break” was often double time at the jobs they needed to help pay their way through college. And summer meant the push to earn next year’s tuition—about $400 a year.

It all came flooding back decades later as my husband and his classmates talked and remembered and laughed and got misty as they sang old college songs at the Old Guard dinner. They were the newest members of that Guard, the designation earned and cherished by alumni of at least 50 years standing.

I watched my husband through those two reunion days, and snapped dozens of pictures of him. I wanted to freeze this singular weekend in his life, especially when he marched in the parade up College Avenue on that morning, wearing the straw hats assigned to the Class of ’54.

I got shots of them all—Ron, a thoracic surgeon; Will, a retired research scientist; and Bob, an ad guy. I aimed my camera at “the guys” as they stood tall and proud and sang the Rutgers Alma Mater.

That song occupies a place of honor in my husband’s life because the college it celebrates gave a poor farm kid from Perrineville, New Jersey a chance to go on with his seemingly impossible dream to become a lawyer.

And because of that passionate connection, Rutgers had become more than just my husband’s place over the years. It was mine, too.

So it seemed perfectly right that after we’d finished all the scheduled activities of reunion weekend, we would treat ourselves to one leisurely walk on a deserted quad, holding hands like kids.

We were an alumnus and his lady, saturated with the past and its pleasures.

And walking together handin hand from that past into the future, and whatever it holds.

pinegander@aol.com

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