I am typing e-mails to the writers of the columns, to the bimonthly compilers of history, the longtime journalists who cover their classmates’ lives. The e-mails are long and short, and are fast and slow in coming. The e-mails are funny, dry, bored. Some writers are shocked that I am interested in them.
“I can’t imagine why you’re writing this article,” one says. “Are people really interested?”
Others are so eager to contribute that they send me multiple e-mails, the last one almost flirtatiously soliciting a phone call.
You must be careful not to miss the listings. They are tucked at the end of the Yale Alumni Magazine, inscribed in tiny type, following one another like ants in a line. They are squeezed between potentially juicier pieces — the “last look,” which offers a glossy photograph and snappy caption, and the Yale Classifieds, which advertise commodities like Australian Aboriginal Art. To the uninitiated reader, the Yale Alumni Magazine’s “Alumni Notes” are just one of a magazine’s many parts.
But not to the writers. Not to Erik Kulleseid. Not to Dick Mooney. And not to Margaret Desjardins, who describes the “Alumni Notes” segment as an opportunity “to redeem myself.”
Richard Mooney ’47 wears beige suspenders that match his beige pants. Deep blue eyes peer intelligently from behind horn-rimmed glasses. “You sit there,” he tells me. “I’ll take the pretty couch.” He plops on a floral sofa.
Mooney’s apartment is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on a street lined by old brownstones and trees and the kinds of stores that sell haute couture baby clothes. No lights are on, and none are needed; cold morning sun fills the spacious living room, and the red rug glows. Where most people have tables, Dick Mooney has a book rack the likes of which I’ve only seen at used bookstores. I ask him what he does, or did. “For four decades I worked at the New York Times,” he says.
Dick Mooney, who served as associate editor of the News, didn’t get his job at the Times through internships and solicitous e-mails. Someone from the Times happened to be sitting at the back of a room where Mooney was lecturing at Harvard as a fellow in journalism. Following the recommendation of this man — his “good angel” — Mooney went to the Times, and stayed there for most of 40 years.
He brings a telltale journalistic flair to his alumni notes column. “Certain items interest me as news pieces,” he says. One such item is a fellow alumnus’ invention of “a bicycle with wings,” which enabled the first human-powered flight across the Atlantic. The journalistic instinct can pay off: Mooney recalls that one of his best stories came from a classmate who told him, “You’re not going to want to write this.”
His ears perking up, Mooney replied, “I sure am.”
“And that’s how I got the story that one of my classmates had beaten his companion to death and wrapped her in a rug,” he says cheerfully.
While news of fame and infamy fill his inbox every month, some classmates never write, and Mooney is concerned about his vanished fellow Yalies, graduates who surely receive and read the alumni magazine but don’t care to report on their own lives.
I leave Mooney’s apartment with my head spinning. What a gentlemanly example of Old Blue, I think. Even his eyes are blue.
After about five minutes it occurs to me that I’ve just interviewed a man who’s spent four decades interviewing people for the New York Times.
If I’m learning anything from the e-mails that are flooding my inbox, it’s that the writers of “Alumni Notes” are full of surprises. I’ve learned that many had no idea what they were getting themselves into, becoming class secretary and then discovering that writing “Alumni Notes” is officially part of the job. I’ve learned that some, like Charlie Lord ’56, were smooth-talked into it. Lord recalls a mellow evening of old friends and good beer. Suddenly “two guys blind-sided me. I hesitate to call it date rape, that’s not PC, but they caught me off-guard and in a mellow mood, so I succumbed to their smooth talking song, and accepted the class secretary position.” Despite the shady conditions of his hiring, he says, he doesn’t regret a thing.
I’ve learned that not all writers of class notes loved Yale. “Yale was, for me, a critical period of life and about the highs and lows of leaving teens and entering young adulthood with a close group of friends,” Erik Kulleseid ’85 says. “It had its intense ecstatic moments, but I’ve also never been as depressed as I was there.”
I’ve learned that a writerly profession is decidedly not a qualification for the task of writing class notes. Many of the compilers are journalists, but one is a buyer for Williams Sonoma and another works for Abercrombie and Fitch. They are bankers, lawyers, teachers and students; but they share the compulsion to gather tales of their classmates. One says that he “never aspired to be a columnist, nor a collector of old Yale tales,” yet he begins our conversation, “Are you by any chance a descendant of John Deutsch, a classmate of mine in the Class of 1945?”
Kristina Yee ’89 says that discovering and writing about her classmates’ lives “enforces the idea that ‘success’ comes in many different forms — that it’s really about personal happiness and fulfillment, [whether] your life is meaningful to you in and of itself.” The notes are not simply laundry lists of achievements — although, as Katie Cole ’03 points out, “From banking to acupuncture school to photo-documenting the AIDS crisis in South Africa, Yalies do some badass stuff.” The notes announce births and deaths, weddings and divorces.
In the November/December issue, one alumnus wrote a sonnet to his wife, who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. In his poem, he suggested that “courage beauty’s definition be.” These inclusions, and others, transform the columns from intimidating to introspective, and help illustrate a lesson that many writers emphasize. Elizabeth Alling Sewall ’86 prefers notes that focus on meaning, that “include reflection on life’s opportunities and circumstances — reflection that goes beyond recitation of accomplishments.”
Reflection can be its own kind of accomplishment. Kulleseid says he was “honored” when “One classmate came clear in a submission about her divorce and subsequent pain and healing.” The passing years, plus the task of compiling notes, have taught these writers what they may not have originally known: success is not limited to grades, jobs and salaries. It is a matter of hardship and love, of trial and recovery.
For Desjardins, the notes serve a special purpose. At Yale “I was tragically immature, and one of the things I like about writing the class notes is that it gives me a chance to redeem myself,” Desjardins says. Desjardins’ comment suggests one function of the notes: like the classrooms and walkways of Yale, the notes provide a space for Yalies to develop, even after commencement. Not just individuals, but classes as a whole can keep developing within the fifty lines of tiny text.
For classes split by war, this function is particularly meaningful. William P. Sutter ’45 colorfully describes his experience at Yale before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “My roommate and I had a two-bedroom suite and maid service; this was the norm even for freshmen,” he says. “We ate in Commons, and there was popularly believed to be an endowment for strawberry shortcake, which was very prevalent in season. The war, of course, began in December, and things were never again the same.” Many of Sutter’s classmates left campus to enlist; others enrolled in ROTC programs at Yale and then fought overseas. His classmates freshman year were not necessarily his classmates senior year; some graduated in 1944, and some as late as 1948. “Thus, the Class lacked the cohesiveness which would be the norm in other years.” Even if his freshman friends assembled for commencement in different years, they now assemble every two months on the same page of the Yale Alumni Magazine.
Jack Thompson ’85 works on Wall Street, his towering office building on the opposite end of Manhattan from Mooney’s placid apartment. He takes me a few steps down the narrow street from the Deutsche Bank’s granite lobby to a buzzing Starbucks. I am eager to hear how many years he’s worked for Deutsche Bank and what he hopes to do there, but I’m surprised to learn that he’s worked at a few different places in finance already — and that his plans are less than certain.
“You think life gets on track,” he says. “You think the first thing you’re gonna do will drive everything.” He looks around the Starbucks. At a nearby table, three men with graying hair exchange grins.
“I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.” Twenty years after their graduation, Thomspon says, his classmates are “trying a bunch of things and getting a stronger sense of themselves.”
Doesn’t that sound like what Yalies try to do at Yale — not in the decades following?
A few days later, I receive an e-mail from the address of John Finney ’45W. I open it excitedly; to my disappointment, it is just as short as an earlier autoreply I received saying he was away from his mail. It is Finney’s wife, Theresa. She writes that her husband died in October. “He would have enjoyed answering your questions,” she adds.
The alumni magazine formally recognizes dwindling class sizes by imposing word limits based on the number of living members of a class. “My limit is 800 words based on a diminishing body count of about 420,” James L. Buckley ’44 says. Walter I. Rodgers ’42 notes that writing class notes has made him “increasingly aware of how mortal we are.” His class originally included 850 and now is composed of about 300 members. “Sadly, but predictably, the subjects of notes have evolved during my three-year tenure,” says Rodgers, who began collecting notes in 2002. “I am now receiving more news about departed than from living classmates.” Two-thirds of his next column will eulogize seven deceased classmates, he says. “I don’t want the column to deteriorate into one of total sadness but, at the same time, I like to give our departed classmates a proper send-off in recognition of their life’s achievements.”
Joseph Budnitz ’61 is, by personal choice, the corresponding secretary for the class of 1931. He writes the notes regularly, motivated by a sense of duty. Budnitz took over about a year ago, a year after the death of his father and not long after the death of Franklin Farrell ’31, his father’s friend, at the age of 92. Farrell had served as the sole scribe for the class of 1931 since graduation — a tenure of over 70 years. “I inquired when Farrell died as to what happens when the very old class secretary dies, and learned that the column almost always just terminates. So I wrote to the YAM and asked if I could step in, writing the column for my father’s class as a memorial both to my father and to Franklin Farrell. They told me that this was unprecedented, and then agreed that I could do it,” Budnitz said. “It consists, as you might guess, almost entirely of obituaries, although as soon as my first column appeared I got letters from two of the old guys in 1931, who offered news that I duly reported. But every survivor in that class is now 95 or so, so I expect very little except obituaries until they are all gone.”
Budnitz’s father graduated, worked, married, had children, and eventually passed away; but he has not passed from the pages of the alumni magazine. His name remains in the column for 1931, where it has appeared, on and off, for over 70 years. Like Yale itself, the “Alumni Notes” are a tradition, a place where generations are honored, a place where futures can seem limitless.
The Class of 1929 is among the earliest still contributing to the Alumni Magazine. The March/April column begins, “This column contains no obituaries, something quite remarkable for the class of 1929 in this year 2005.” The writer continues with news about class members, quoting one of them and adding a thought of his own. “He finished his note with the enthusiastic message to ‘keep thriving!’ (Oh, that this could be…).”