Remarks at the Colgate Class of 1973 50th Reunion Dinner

June 3, 2023
Roger Ferlo

My first word of thanks is to Margie Palladino. I got to meet her in person this weekend for the very first time, after fifteen months on Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime. What a relief to know that she is not some kind of AI avatar. I also want to pay tribute to my two co-editors—Eleanor McNees and Steve Worthy. They have no idea what I am going to say about them tonight, so apologies in advance. For the record, Margie, Eleanor and Steve are the best in the business—if this volunteer gig can be called a business. Margie, however got paid—and given what she had to put up with from us, she was likely not paid nearly enough.

We launched this project about fifteen months ago once Margie had issued her deadlines and marching orders. Functioning in three time zones, and stuck on Zoom, it took a while for Steve, Eleanor and me to get our act together. But in time the three of us managed to synchronize our lives to meet up in Hamilton last June. We descended on the Colgate archive offices like the nerdy vultures we were, only to discover that our class’s Chief Nerd, Pete Stassa, had been there ahead of us. Pete’s fingerprints were everywhere. They left us a useful trail. Knowing what I know that he knows, I guarantee that Pete’s video tonight will be spectacular.

I have to admit that once we were let loose in the archives, Eleanor’s, Steve’s and my different personalities rapidly became apparent. Once I got my hands on some dusty files, I confess I shamelessly scoured them looking for any mention of my name. Eleanor, for her part, is a professional when it comes to archives, which meant that she fell into more rabbit holes than any of us. It took a while to persuade her that a seductive letter from the poet Anne Sexton addressed to Professor Bruce Berlind, once chair of the English department, was not quite the kind of thing we were looking for.

In the end Eleanor and I decided to divide our labors.  She would look for pertinent stuff about our class in the Colgate News, and I would do the same for the Maroon. My technique was minimalist, which is a euphemism for lazy. I quickly scoured the Maroon headlines, reading only the occasional article or two, pausing only when it was headed with my byline. Eleanor being Eleanor, she read every word of every article that appeared in the entire four year run of the Colgate News—four years’ worth of conservative moaning about the state of the campus and the decline of the West.  As a former Maroon editor, my liberal soul was cut to the quick. I plunged back into the Maroon files, determined to supply some left-wing counter-balance to such right-wing nonsense. Stepping back, the irony is that fifty years later, considering the state of journalism today, the bitter rivalry between the Maroon and the News between 1969 and 1973 seems downright professional. No wonder the two papers merged about ten years later.

In the meantime, as Eleanor and I were doing our thing, Steve Worthy was doing his. It was great to have Steve on board with us. At a tender age, in his sophomore year, Steve had been the youngest editor on record of the Colgate Salmagundi. You should look for it online. It’s really spectacular, as Steve often reminded us.  While Eleanor and I were jockeying for position in the Maroon/News competition, Steve was happily burrowing through folder after folder of long-neglected photographs and negatives. He must have marked hundreds of them for reproduction. He was twenty years old again. His excitement was a delight to witness. But If we’d used all the photos he selected, the weight of the yearbook would have challenged the structural integrity of your coffee tables even more than it already does.

Fast forward almost an entire year. Thanks in large part to my two wonderful colleagues and the infinitely patient Margie Pellegrino, the printed yearbook arrived in your mailbox.  Ron Joyce asked me to talk a bit about what surprised us most as we put this book together. You can check with Eleanor and Steve over dessert, but what amazes me most was that so much of what was happening in the world during our years on campus feels like it is happening all over again, but in a darker key. Especially when it comes to politics and sex.

As many of you testified in your own written reflections, in our freshman and sophomore years political angst ran deep. For not a few of us that angst remains unresolved to this day. One of our classmates wrote that 1969-1973 were the worst possible years to be in college.  And yet in retrospect he expressed no regrets, only gratitude. I suspect that’s true for all of us here.   We learned a lot in those years, more than we bargained for. I think the same will be the case for our grandchildren, many of whose college years were shaped by the isolation of the pandemic, the political aftermath of the 2016 election and the murder of George Floyd. 2020 was their 1970.

Politics and sex. It all came back to me, especially as Eleanor and I were reconstructing the timelines, and afterwards reading your reflections. For many of us who grew up in the 1950s, when we saluted the flag at the start of every school day, the cognitive dissonance of those Nixon years, when the American flag had become a symbol of division, was profound. So many of you commented on these events in your reflections: the murders in Kent State and Jackson State, the bombing of Cambodia, the draft lottery, the suspension of classes, the teach-ins and the bus trips to DC.   It was sobering to find the timelines for the years 1969, 1970, and 1971 so top-heavy with political events, both on campus and in what we oddly called “the real world.” Robert Welch, the John Bircher; Muhammed Ali, world champion and eloquent draft resister; yippie Abbie Hoffman of the Chicago 7, appearing with his knife-wielding bodyguard and blocked at the chapel door by the editor of the Colgate News—all speaking on campus in our freshman year within months of each other. Our on-campus world was all too real. That was true both for the hundreds of us who made the bus trip down to Washington in the spring of 1971, and the fewer of us—people like me—who for whatever reason opted out of protest, more from timidity than conviction. We were all so young. And of course, we men on campus were sheltered by our student deferments, unlike so many of our high school contemporaries who didn’t have the advantages we did, and who, as Fausto Miraglia so eloquently reminds us in his yearbook reflection, came home from the war to face disrespect and contempt.

Not unrelated to politics, there was sex. 1969 was likely the dying year of weekend road trips to Skidmore and Cazenovia in search of female company.  I am in awe of the forty or so women in our graduating class who had the courage, the temerity, the sheer chutzpah to transfer into this bastion of male supremacy in 1969. I love Sherry Swirsky’s description of one small victory early on in her time here.  After many weeks of requests, she was able to persuade an esteemed professor to stop greeting her class with “Good afternoon, gentlemen.” From then on, she writes, it was “Good afternoon, gentlemen and Sherry.” Sherry was our salutatorian and went on to a distinguished legal career. After that Colgate experience, she tells us that “almost nothing I encountered from judges and other lawyers as the only woman on a case phased me.”

I suspect that I am not alone in my dismay that Roe v. Wade was overturned exactly fifty years after the Burger Court ended the state’s attempt to police women’s bodies. That was in the year we graduated. Was it really possible, as we discovered reading in the Maroon, that as early as March 1971 the university physician announced in regard to funds for abortion that, to quote, “Anyone who asks for money, and has a definite need, I will try to help”? Or that a campus birth control center opened its doors in February 1972, or that women’s rights supporters would clash with Hunt Terrell, of all people, on the ethical implications of abortion in a campus debate? Who would have guessed then where we are now, fifty years later?

Of course, thank God, our years here were not all about politics. And as to sex of the non-political kind, those were for some of us very good years, the details of which did not necessarily get into print, as our yearbook was intended as a family publication. So I turn from sex to a topic less provocative, but happily not unrelated. Our music.

Music turned out to a leading topic of this yearbook, not to mention the planning of this entire 50th reunion. I learned that people know us by the music we played, and that our college years had a great soundtrack.  We are so grateful to Keith Sinusas for his amazing music podcasts, brought to us by Bill Barnaskas, our tireless webmaster, and for that equally amazing list Keith compiled of bands that played at Colgate when we were young. Canned Heat, Blood, Sweat and Tears, ShaNaNa, Stevie Wonder and—bless their hearts—the Stomping Suede Greasers.  We editors are grateful to the several other aging music freaks and WRCU groupies in our class who helped Margie Pellegrino compile those fabulous songlists  –songs that continue to take up valuable sonic real estate in our seventy-something-year-old brains.  Thanks to Keith and Marc Gettis we have a list of Protest Songs—who knew in 1969 that Bob Dylan would land a Nobel Prize? In a genre not unrelated, Frank Meyer joined Keith to assemble an evocative list of Folk Music. There’s Bob Dylan again of course, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez. But be honest, when was the last time you listened to Buffy St. Marie? Keith and Frank will help get you reacquainted. Then there’s R&B and soul. Mike Barnes and Patrick White remind us that although in the 1970s R&B and Soul were for everyone to enjoy, their impact was greatest for students of color, especially those whose time at Colgate, as Goose described it so poignantly, included a lot of bittersweet. What an array of names they pulled together: male artists like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder;  women artists like Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone. Speaking of women, Andrea Brown, Susan Mahoney, and Eleanor McNees provided us with an impressive list of music by women or sung by women performers, including Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” Tina Turner–may her soul rest in peace and her music continue to rise in glory. 

The thought of souls resting in peace brings me to my final observation. So many of your reflections named memorable professors who had shaped our time here, and in fact had shaped our lives.  In last summer’s visit to Hamilton, all three of us made a pilgrimage to the college cemetery across from chapel house. It was amazing how many of our professors from our years lived out their entire lives in this village and are buried in that peaceful place. Go up there if you can. They are all there: Weyter, Hudson and Farnsworth; Beyer, Reading and Blackmore; Kistler, Rexine and Albrecht; Briton, Terrell and Morris; Oostenink, Ramshaw and Balmuth; Linsley and Hartshorne.  As we ourselves enter late middle age (can I call it that?), I think of these men as our tutelary spirits.  It was that visit to the cemetery, in addition to the tributes that poured into Margie’s mailbox, that convinced us to include some remembrances of of these great mentors in the pages of our yearbook. Writing some of those entries was for me the greatest joy of this work.

I know I speak for Eleanor and Steve that it was an honor to be asked to help edit this yearbook. And it’s a joy and a relief to know that it’s now in all your hands.