Yale looks different these days. There’s no midday rush through Cross Campus as students head to their afternoon seminars. Hospital beds now line the floor of the Payne Whitney Gym to prepare for COVID-19 patients not directed to Yale Health. The cherry blossom trees which ring Branford’s courtyards are blooming without the accompaniment of the Harkness Tower bells.
Kem Edwards ’49 is bearing these changes gracefully. After all, he has seen Yale through many more. Edwards, who was born in New Haven in 1928, recalls driving down Chapel Street as two new colleges — Timothy Dwight and Silliman — were being built. When he came to Yale in 1945, some of his classmates had been flying Aces in the Second World War. Others were already married, and all were men. By the time he moved back to New Haven in 2009 after a long career in insurance and computer systems, architectural models were being rolled out for Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges, World War II was standard fare in history courses and the college had been accepting women for 40 years.
Over the phone, his voice is steady and splashed with warmth. Edwards is determined to see the COVID-19 pandemic through. He looks forward to returning to his regular routine, which includes a daily visit to the Payne Whitney sauna, and expects to be “around for another dozen years or so.” At the age of 92, though, he recognizes that he is more vulnerable to the virus than most, so he has been careful about washing his hands, not touching his face and taking extra precautions when he goes outside.
He and his wife Phoebe leave their apartment in Crown Towers once a day to take a walk and once a week to pick up groceries from the Stop & Shop on Whalley Avenue. There, he says, most of the shelves are still full, although aisles are labeled with walking directions to keep people from bumping into one another.
At home, the couple has been trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. Their line is constantly ringing with calls from their four daughters and 11 grandchildren, who are mostly scattered up and down the East Coast. Recently, Edwards’ quartet of former Whiffenpoofs tried to sing together over Zoom — though it was a challenge to work out the new technology, Edwards admits.
“Gee, this last week, we did something on Thursday, and Saturday, and Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday, with various people,” he said. “It’s a whole different thing but it hasn’t stopped us.”
Even in retirement, Edwards has rarely caught a break. As class secretary, JE fellow and first-year advisor, he has gotten to know Yalies from younger generations. He’s even been classmates with many of them. Some students and recent graduates have approached him with a glimmer of recognition, remembering a white-haired man sitting in the front row of the lecture hall, listening raptly to the professor. Edwards estimates that he has audited around 150 Yale courses over the past two decades.
Besides singing for the Spizzwinks and Whiffenpoofs, Edwards walked onto the varsity swim team his senior year, when then-coach Robert Kiphuth spotted him practicing for intramurals, walked him over to the exhibition pool and asked him to report for practice the next day. But Edwards recalls his own achievements — which include a second-place finish in that year’s Harvard meet — demurely.
“Things were very fluid and flexible and all sorts of people were going around doing new things,” he said.
This steely resolve carried him past his college years, too. Six months after graduation, Edwards was faced with his own health scare. After coming down with a persistent cold, doctors found active tuberculosis in his lungs. Edwards was shuttled to a health sanitarium in Wallingford, Connecticut, where he stayed for a year and a half. The books that had earned him a degree in English became his trusty companions, and he spent many hours outdoors, prescribed the apparently curative fresh air.
Yet Edwards finds it difficult to draw an exact parallel between this current moment and memories of other crises he has lived through. Even when he was ill with tuberculosis, he wasn’t kept in isolation. His family and friends came to visit, and the 1950 class of Whiffenpoofs drove up once to serenade him.
“I’m going through this as you are,” he said. “I’m still looking forward to when things get back to normal, when you guys can get back to school, and take up your lives again.”
He speculates about what life will look like when the world moves past the pandemic. People will have a different idea of what’s important, he thinks.
“[This pandemic] puts you in touch with your mortality, and I think that’s important. You’re not going to live forever, and there are dangers along the way. This may be something that will stay with you for longer.”
Emily Tian | firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.