The chalk squeaks and breaks as Steve Lake writes across a blackboard inside Room 117 of William L. Harkness Hall. The classroom is empty and the white letters on the board will be gone by the start of the next day’s sections, but the small, 57-year old man with silver hair and square glasses concentrates on the slow, deliberate strokes forming words over ghostly clouds of erased sociology notes:

“Steve Lake, Las Vegas, NV. Visiting his 409th university 9/19/07, 4:52 p.m.”

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A Quest for 500

Lake has been visiting colleges and universities since 1984, with the goal of eventually totaling 500. As he tells it, he “declared his major” at Harvard University while honeymooning in the Boston area after his marriage to his wife Caroline.

Since that time, when not working his job in the pit at Caesar’s Palace Casino in Las Vegas or representing clients with his public relations firm, he has been visiting four-year colleges and universities nationwide. Lake has always been a collector of sorts — stamps when he was younger, Major League ballparks and state capitals later in life, and now universities.

His rules as to what constitutes a “visit,” though, are by no means hard nor fast.

“We were at Southern Connecticut State earlier today and we just took a picture, walked around the nursing building, and that was that,” Lake said.

But usually Lake takes a tour of the school, snaps a few pictures, and scrawls his name across the chalkboard of a vacant classroom. On more than one occasion he has attended a lecture, sitting among rows of undergraduates who take one look at his small breast-pocketed notebook and assume he is a member of the faculty.

“People I work with on the [casino] floor say, ‘You don’t look like a pit boss, you look like a college professor,’” Lake said.

For a trip to a school like Yale, however, Lake will carve out an entire afternoon from a schedule that might otherwise include seven, eight or nine visits to different colleges in a single day. On this three-week sojourn to New England, Lake will spend time on the campuses of no less than 45 colleges.

Once home in Las Vegas, Lake will check off the colleges he has visited in a college guidebook. He sometimes writes notes in the margins about what he has seen, but he has no plans to publish his musings in any formal way, he said.

A Second Chance

“College was not a wonderful experience for me,” Lake recounted as he stopped to snap a picture of Caroline standing by the Women’s Table. “My first year, I was too interested in playing cards and I basically failed. I was so mad, so angry.”

Lake, who went to Concordia University in Montreal, said he got a second wind after that first year and graduated after four more. He finds college visiting to be a rejuvinating experience, he said.

“When I walk on a campus, I don’t feel as old as I am,” Lake said, drawing laughs from Caroline. “I feel like I fit in.”

In 1970, the year Lake graduated, Concordia occupied a 12-story office building in downtown Montreal without a quad, dorm, or barrier between the school and the city. So it is no surprise that Lake steps off the bluestone path in Silliman College and stands in the courtyard grass as he listens to the narration of tour guide Genevieve Staudt ’08.

“When I visited Harvard I thought, ‘Wow, this is a fabulous school,’” Lake said, recounting the first stop on his quest over 20 years ago. “I really missed out on something here.”

A Companion

Caroline is a freelance travel writer, and sometimes accompanies Lake on his college visits in order to see the cities and towns in a given region. She said she enjoys coming to places like Yale, and tolerates the seemingly-endless stream of academies, colleges, and universities Lake checks off his list nightly.

“I was very impressed with Caroline — that she has the patience and the tolerance to accompany him,” Staudt said. “I don’t know that I would have the patience for that. It’s quite a hobby.”

Lake said he uses his public relations experience to get his wife’s work published in newspapers around the country, although this trip will be the first on which she writes about schools.

“He gets a real kick out of seeing [my columns] in print,” she said. “If you asked me what papers I was in, I wouldn’t know. I just enjoy the writing.”

The two knew each other for years before Lake finally worked up the courage to ask her out. At the time, they were both working at the Dunes Hotel & Casino — then a hot spot on the strip and now only notable for once occupying the same plot of land on which the Bellagio now stands.

The two have been married 23 years now, having just celebrated their anniversary on the 16th.

“The time went by really fast,” Lake said. “We’re still not tired of each other.”

That said, Lake understands that Caroline does not completely share his passion for academic institutions.

“We’re taking it easy in Rhode Island — only seven or eight schools,” he said. “Then we’re going over to Block Island for a few days. I’ve assured my wife that there are no universities on Block Island.”