Downtown Mount Vernon as captured in watercolor by Mount Vernon native Mark Benesh.
The drive to Mount Vernon was intentionally nostalgic: I played my “Stagedoor Canteen” tapes from the ’40s to get in the mood: “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and all the songs of parting and separation. As I rolled along, I tried to remember all the times in college I had hitchhiked back and forth to Chicago, crossing the Mississippi either at Savanna, Clinton, or Davenport, as the chance happened. Then, as now, I had little idea where my life would take me, yet it had come time for my “Golden Reunion.” Invited were all Cornell College graduates who had already celebrated their 50th anniversary.
I checked into the new Sleep Inn, a big box near the intersection of U.S. 30 (no longer running through town and now located on the south edge of Mount Vernon) and Iowa Highway 1 (still in the same place). I was delighted to learn from the motel clerk that one of my favorite classmates had already arrived. The two of us wasted no time hopping into the car to take a look at campus.
The Cornell campus, situated high on a hilltop overlooking the rolling farmlands of eastern Iowa, looks more like an oil painting of some fictional 19th-century college, complete with spired Gothic church, than a venue for 21st-century higher education. But add the early spring verdure, birdsong, and strolling students, and the scene comes alive.
The campus now contains many more buildings (and students) than when I was in residence. But thanks to meticulous landscaping, discreet siting, and architectural finesse, there is no sense of crowding or discord. When I entered a few of the newer and renovated buildings, I discovered that although the exteriors neatly match, the interiors are widely disparate, according to their functions. For instance, the old gymnasium is now home to the art department, complete with painting and ceramics studios, photo labs, and exhibit areas in place of the old basketball court and workout areas.
My classmate and I drove downtown for dinner and were surprised to see that Main Street (old U.S. 30) appeared about the same as it had 50 years earlier, thanks again, I suppose, to trompe l’oeil renovation techniques. A closer look, though, revealed that the old picture show, the Maid Rite, and the pool hall—all venues dear to my undergraduate heart—were gone. But their buildings remained and now housed bars, restaurants, pizza parlors, and little shops. The exterior/interior schizophrenia was evident on Main Street just as on campus.
The college alumni staff, headed by Ruth Keefe Miller ’66 and Steve Miller ’65, took great care of us, fashioning an entertaining and informative couple of days. Dee Ann Rexroat ’82, director of communications, took us on an insightful and witty tour of campus. Biology Professor Craig Tepper provided a very cogent exposition, with slides, of a class he conducts to study algae die-off. This 3 1/2-week block, as the college lingo has it, is conducted in the Bahamas in February and is always oversubscribed, he wryly informed us. I dropped into the “new” library to see if anything had changed in that department. Indeed, things had: the card catalog is long gone, students take notes on computers and zap them back to their dorm laptops, and information from thousands of libraries and depositories around the world is available almost instantly.
Being received by Les and Katrina Garner at the President’s House is always a pleasure. I spotted an oil portrait of Katrina, which must have been done by someone who knew her well because I felt I knew her a little better, too, after viewing it. She is still something of an enigma to me, perhaps because of her millinery cover, although this day she was hatless, at least until dinner. Bless him, in his afterdinner remarks Les never once mentioned money. Cornell’s Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Singers, which were to set out in a few days for a tour of Italy (Cornell students are much more peripatetic than they used to be), entertained us after dinner.
All in all, the weekend was everything a reunion should be, with the added pleasure of feeling special and being treated that way. We had converged at the place that gave us a “liberating” education, one that frees you, primarily from ignorance but, as a byproduct, also from intolerance, superstition, brutality, egomania, and other negative and destructive states. Cornell College played a large role in my personal liberation, and for that I shall be forever grateful.
An intimate atmosphere prevailed at the Golden Reunion, so I had a chance to talk with a number of people. My tête-à-têtes raised many questions for which I had no answers. Do you suppose the current crop of Cornellians will come any closer to solving them?
• A number of “Goldens” arrived with partners rather than spouses, not unusual for seniors even 50 years ago. But living together—at any age—without benefit of matrimony was scandalous in 1950; now—at any age—it is commonplace. Were the rules for relationships too rigid then or too lax now? Do some older people outlive the usefulness or need of marriage? At least nowadays at Cornell such tangled areas are no longer further obfuscated by doctrinaire moralists.
• Are our eyes still clouded by illusions of how things ought to be, or have we reconciled at last with how things are?
• Are we any wiser, or simply more knowledgeable in the ways of the world?
• Are we more compassionate, now that we are older, less threatened in our own identity, and more able to empathize with the feelings of others?
• Have we accomplished our goals, or settled for what life had to offer?
• Did everyone find True Love, or did some make do with an acceptable (or onceacceptable) companion?
• Is the bigotry and destruction perpetrated in the name of religion offset by the good that it does and personal comfort it brings?
• Did we find satisfaction in material success, or discover that money and power (not that many of us achieved either) do not equate with happiness?
• Do we still see singular perfection in our children and grandchildren, or have we perceived that they, too, are encumbered by the faults and limitations that humans are heir to?
• Have we come to grips with our own mortality, or do we still secretly think we will live forever, as we imagined when we were twenty?
• Who has the answers, and after all, are answers even expected when you’re “Golden”?