When I graduated Yale in 1969, I stayed in New Haven for a summer job, waiting to go into Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS) in the fall. I signed up to be a reunion clerk — it was very good money ($100/day!) and a lot of fun.
I was assigned to the Class of 1909, which was celebrating its 60th reunion in Jonathan Edwards College. While I was bartending, under the tent, an old man came up to me and asked, “So, you’re a student, just graduated, right?”
“Right,” I answered.
“Well, what’s on your mind? What are you concerned about? What’s the big challenge? Don’t sugar coat it. I read about your generation, and I want to hear it straight.”
“OK,” I said. “Here you go: First, this illegal, immoral war! It’s killing lots of American boys and maybe millions of Vietnamese. We’ve been lied to, it’s unnecessary and it seems intractable.
“Worse, the American public is fighting mad; people are at each other’s throats. My father, who served in World War II, does not understand my antipathy towards the war in Vietnam. The ‘silent majority’ really hates liberals. The generation gap is very wide. The war, the riots, the violence, assassinations, the polarized politics… we feel that the country could crack up at any time.”
He looked down, reflecting on what I said. “You know, it’s very interesting,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “You see, when I graduated from Yale in 1909, I, too, served as a reunion clerk. We were on Old Campus for reunions back then — these residential colleges didn’t come until much later. I, too, was assigned to one of the old classes — not the 60th reunion like you, but the 50th reunion of the Class of 1859.”
He continued. “At one of the wine events, I asked one of the men from that class the same questions I just asked you… what concerned him when he graduated, what was on his mind. You know what he said?”
“He said, ‘We were worried about the terrible plight of the slaves. Many of us were studying for the ministry, and most of us were abolitionists. We didn’t know what we were going to do, but we knew we had to do something. The country was coming unglued, not just North and South, but city and country. And we turned out to be right, of course; the Civil War started just two years after we were graduated, and some in our class were killed.'”
The old man from 1909 continued, “I’ll make note that there was also an illegal war during his time as a student — the Mexican-American War.
“Isn’t it interesting that you are talking to a man, who talked to a man who was exactly your age, only 110 years ago? And that distant man faced and feared exactly the same challenges you face and fear: racism, injustice, violence, revolt and a country that was tearing itself apart, brother against brother in some cases.”
I was stunned. What he said was true, but the Yale connection made it all too real and very immediate.
And so we come to 2019. I plan to ask some of today’s reunion clerks about what’s on their minds. What are they concerned about? What are the big challenges they face? Are they concerned about black lives in America? Will they worry that the country is increasingly acrimonious and in danger of tearing itself apart?
Alfred Korzybski, in Science and Sanity, observed that humans are unique in their use of language and the cultural institutions surrounding them. While plants are “chemical binders” (photosynthesis) and animals are “space binders” (moving around, defining territory), humans are “time-binders,” passing on accumulated wisdom embedded in language and history and transmitted through institutions like Yale.
That’s what binds me to today’s reunion clerks, to my 1909 interlocutor and all of us to the pre-Civil-War Yalie. That only leaves the question about whether given the light and truth Yale has imparted on us, we do anything to ensure the next reunion clerk won’t have the same story to tell.
Wayne Willis is a member of the class of 1969, and the Webmaster of Yale1969.org. Contact him at email@example.com.