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Learning from the Achievers
Written June 3, 2008


The Cluster Reunion isn't a bad idea in theory.  Not a bad idea in practice, either, really.

Decades ago, my alma mater Oberlin College noticed a problem with its reunions:  from each graduating year, only a few dozen alumni returned to campus.  A good get-together requires more people, to facilitate conversing and gossiping and reminiscing.  Therefore, it was decreed that my Class of 1969 would hold its reunions in a cluster with the Classes of 1968 and 1967.

In conjunction with Oberlin's annual Commencement ceremony in 2008, our cluster held its 40th reunion, and I attended — only 39 years after I actually graduated.

Our headquarters was Burton Hall, which had been my dormitory as a freshman in 1965-66.

However, unlike most of my clustermates, I didn't take advantage of the proffered accommodations at Burton for $35 per bed per night.  I had tried to go back to dormitory living once before, at an earlier reunion.  I really didn't like it.  I've become too old for noisy, Spartan, non-air-conditioned cells with communal bathrooms.  So, for $72 a night, I reserved a proper motel room at a Comfort Inn 12 miles away.

On Friday through Sunday, May 23 through 25, we had beautiful weather, which is somewhat unusual for Oberlin, Ohio.

The alumni office reported that "a larger number of Obies participated this year than in any previous year."  According to the posted list of those attending, my Class of 1969 was represented by 63 alumni plus their family members.  Adding the other two years brought the total for the cluster to 151.

Many of the alumni, as well as the families of graduating seniors, gathered for casual conversations in places like the campus's central Tappan Square.

My problem is that I never knew many members of my Class of 1969, at least not very well.  Most of my friendships were at the campus radio station, WOBC.  Those friends were my broadcasting colleagues.  Most are younger than I, because it was not until my senior year that the more experienced students graduated and left to me the position of station director.  I would have been among more friends if the cluster included the classes of 1969, 1970, and 1971.

But it didn't, and I was clustering instead with people who are older than I.  They had been upperclassmen when I was a mere sophomore.  I have always been intimidated by these people and their accomplishments.  I call them the Achievers, and I'm still a little in awe of them after all these years.  On campus, they led ultimately successful fights to enfranchise blacks, and liberate women, and stop a war.  Then most of them went on to selfless careers saving the world (at least, that's the impression one gets from reading the Alumni Notes).  I, on the other hand, happily went off to play in the toy department, choosing a career in sports television.

I scanned the list of 151 names.  A few had been on WOBC, such as Tom Witheridge and John Field and Gideon Schein; but by the time I was part of station management, they had moved on.  I slightly remembered several other clusterers.  For example, I recall Biz Glenn from the dining hall at Dascomb, and Christie Seltzer was once the student waitress when I dined at the Oberlin Inn.

I also remembered Art Westneat, who once resided in my freshman dormitory section.  He managed to secure his old room, Burton 301, for this reunion.

I ran into Art on Saturday evening at the ice-skating rink.  We were there for a picnic for returning alumni from ten classes plus Shansi, an organization that's celebrating its centennial this year.

(Shansi, according to its Oberlin web page, is "one of the oldest educational exchange institutions in the United States" and "promotes understanding and communication between Asians and Americans through individual and group educational programs and community projects.")

Nonetheless, practically speaking, most of the folks on campus that weekend were merely friendly strangers.  So I decided to convert the occasion from a social event to an opportunity for additional learning.  After all, Learning and Labor is the college motto.  I got out a camera and a pencil and prepared to take notes.

I learned the history behind Oberlin's pipe organs.  Click here for that article.  And I heard from the new president and learned about several improvements to the campus.  Click here for that article.

But mostly I wanted to learn about those Achievers.  What made them tick?  Several panel discussions and presentations would help me find out.



I snapped the large color pictures for this article.  However, the small thumbnails in this margin are links to professional photos.  Click them for larger versions in a photostream from the Commencement and Reunion Weekend.


For example, there's Julian Smith.  Actually, there were two people by that name on campus in the Sixties.  The one I knew was the head basketball coach.  The other was a Phi Beta Kappa member of my Class of 1969.

In 1987, the latter Smith designed a bandstand, seen in the thumbnail picture on the left, for Oberlin's Tappan Square.  It resembles the carts that he had observed in street parades during festivals in Madurai, in Tamil-speaking South India.  That's where Smith was a Shansi representative from 1969 to 1971.

He's now an architect in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.  He returned to Madurai to help design the new campus for its American College.

On Sunday, he gave a talk in the lecture hall known as Room 106 of the King Building.

The typically academic title:  "Cultural Landscapes and Cultural Identity: Architecture Before and After Modernism."

Modernism, he told us, was obsessed with the artifact, the object.  Its buildings tend to be sculptures.  For example, there are the striking forms of Le Corbusier, or of Frank Gehry, whose contribution to Chicago's Millennium Park is shown below.  But modern buildings stand alone.  They almost never nestle against adjacent architecture.

Before modernism, architecture was concerned — and after modernism, it is once again concerned — with designing not mere artifacts but Cultural Landscapes, including rituals as well as artifacts.  Architecture creates components of an urban landscape.

Smith described a street in a pre-modern village, much like Franklin Street in this century-old postcard view of my hometown, Richwood, Ohio.  Italianate buildings line both sides of the street, with retail at ground level.  Though built at different times, they closely connect with each other.  Each building is topped by a heavy cornice.  Taken together, they almost suggest a ceiling over the street, like a living room.

A landscape is a physical place, Smith told us, but a Cultural Landscape is a place that exists in the imagination.

His example:  When asked to sketch a map of a temple complex, citizens of Madurai locate the most important shrine in the center of the square.  That's where it is in their Cultural Landscape.  A dispassionate surveyor, however, would note that the most important shrine is actually off to one side, and a lesser shrine really occupies the center.

My example:  When I drive home from a baseball game I go straight northeast on Route 28 for about twenty miles, then make a right and a left and a right, and I'm home.  It's simple, and my Cultural Landscape resembles the drawing on the left below.

In reality, as depicted by the drawing on the right, Route 28 constitutes a larger proportion of the trip, and it's not straight.



By the way, inside the red rectangle above is an image of me in my fourth-row seat.


Another event of the 2008 reunion was held in the West Lecture Hall of the new Science Center.  This panel's title (and there has to be a colon in every title) was "The Changing Nature of Activism: Oberlin Then, Oberlin Now."

When I was on campus, the most visible Achievers were the activists who were constantly agitating for social change and the end of the war.  I was not one of them.  I wondered what was different between us.  Had something about Oberlin suddenly turned them into radicals?

Perhaps they already had been radicalized before they arrived.  I knew that I had not been.  The conservative farming town where I grew up was hardly a hotbed of dissent, although I do recall that a couple of girls in my high school class took the unusual step of editorializing against the Vietnam War in early 1965.

At the podium below is Terry Winston Pickett, president of the Oberlin Class of 1969.  She was the moderator of the panel, which included activists from my generation and from the current one.  We began with my generation.

The first speaker had not wanted to be like her Eastern establishment peers, enrolling in one of the elite Seven Sisters colleges.  Instead she chose Oberlin, where there is an activist tradition and a ban on social sororities and fraternities.  Nowadays, her activism is hospice work.

Martha Honey Westover of the Class of '67 had also been attracted by the absence of sororities.  As a teenager, she refused to be presented to society at a Connecticut cotillion.  She came to Oberlin, only to be shocked by the Byzantine social rules.  Her real learning came from the visiting speakers from the real world.  After college she spent 10 years in Tanzania ("Africa has no history, no ecology"), then 10 years in Central America.

Dick Klausner '68 learned about Oberlin when he read about its Oberlin Action for Civil Rights organization.  He knew blacks, but not their community.  Later in the Sixties, the focus of his activism switched to the Vietnam War, which had taken center stage.  A few months ago, he shared the amazement of a farmer friend coming out of an Iowa caucus that "we just nominated a black man for President!"

Matthew Rinaldi '69 was one of a group, many from New York City, who had become "political" before entering college.  Matt was already a socialist.  He still is, though he fears that concept may have become passé.

Oberlin came to his attention when its Carpenters for Christmas rebuilt a burned Mississippi church.  That project was mainly driven by white students for the benefit of blacks.

In the same way, while he was on campus the modernization of Oberlin's social rules was mainly driven by male students for the benefit of women, who had been confined at night to their dorms, practically maximum-security prisons.  But the college remained patriarchal.  The opening up of those women's dorms to male visitors was a result not of women's liberation but of the sexual revolution.

Eventually the patriarchal doctrine of  in loco parentis went away, added Paula Finke Gordon '68, but not because "they" wanted it to.  Nowadays the government wants people stupid so they can be ruled.

Gordon, who grew up beside a cattail marsh in Wisconsin, also became "active" in high school.  Since college, she's reported for public television and NBC.  More here.

"I am not an optimist.  I am not a pessimist.  I am an activist!" she said, quoting Jeremy Rifkin.  She urged, "Love life, and love each other.  What a precious concept!"

Among the current students and recent graduates — and I hope I wrote down all their names correctly — were the following.

• Dean Gillespie '07 came from Bucks County to Oberlin already politicized.  He works with poor people.

• Janine Martin '10 also became politicized in high school.  Although her town was predominately white, she was a member of several other communities as a transgender Asian adoptee.

• Anna Duncan '07 came from a politically active family in the nation's capital.  At Oberlin, she found that the Politics faculty is more left-leaning than most of its students.

• Barrie Newberger '07 came from rural West Virginia, where she was raised by public-interest attorneys.  Her activism is related to gaining new knowledge, and she's now educating West Virginians "whether they want it or not."

So to sum up:  Oberlin did not convert these people into activists.  They were activists already, and they came to Oberlin to join others with the same mindset.

For my part, I was a non-activist already.  I chose Oberlin because it was a top-quality school, not too large, in a small town not too close to my hometown but not too far.  And it included a music conservatory as a bonus.

Both the activists and I were serious-minded young people who appreciated Oberlin's prohibition of fraternities and sororities and its restrictions on alcohol.

From the audience, Mike Lubas '69 noted that in the Sixties, many Oberlinians came from relative privilege to help the underdog.  Affluent whites agitated for black civil rights.  Today, that's not so much the case, so the current generation doesn't understand "activism" in the same way.  Also, back then we talked about the solution to a problem.  Today's generation looks for multiple approaches.

When I was at Oberlin, national issues sparked massive student demonstrations on and off campus.  There was another in 2003 to protest the invasion of Iraq.  But there haven't been any big anti-war demonstrations since.  Perhaps it's because Oberlin students are no longer under the threat of being drafted and involuntarily finding themselves "in harm's way."  (It has been claimed that President Nixon ended the draft in order to end the demonstrations.  As Philip Rose puts it, “if rich white kids aren’t threatened with being forced to join the service and go to Vietnam, then rich white kids and their parents won’t care, and they’ll stop protesting the war.”)  Perhaps it's because military recruiters have given up on visiting the campus, so the students find no local occasions to protest.  "Everyone just agrees we don't like the war," said one panelist.

However, nerves can still be touched when the community's liberal consensus is challenged by a visiting outsider, such as a Bush administration cabinet secretary.  A threatened visit from Fred Phelps and his homophobic Westboro Baptist Church brought out the campus and the town for "a huge pride party" in Tappan Square.  Don't despair, said Gordon; eventually, all these nerves are going to be touched, and action will result.

Most activism these days is not focused not on overarching issues, like civil rights or the war.  It expresses itself in fragmented interest groups of 10 to 15 people who are personally committed to ecology, or promoting the interests of their particular "community," or improving college accessibility for financially-challenged students, or serving off-campus residents by teaching them reading or Spanish.  Many of these smaller issues don't come to the interest of the average student because there's not a good communication system to reach everybody.  E-mail and Facebook aren't sufficient.

What's the next big issue?  The panelists mentioned affordable housing, driven by Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage crisis.  They also mentioned the environment, driven by global warming.



And that brings us to the cluster dinner on Sunday evening, held in the Biggs Dining Room of Stevenson Hall.  Our after-dinner speaker was faculty member David Orr, originally from the Pittsburgh area, now Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics.

Oberlin considers itself a leader in the environmental movement, on many fronts.

• The Commencement/Reunion was billed as reduced waste, carbon neutral, and climate neutral.

• The Lewis Center for Environmental Studies is "the most advanced example of ecological architecture in America."

• One of my classmates, Robert Krulwich, recently won a Webby award for his video series explaining carbon's role in global warming.

David Orr is part of the Presidential Climate Action Project.  On the premise that America must start moving on global warming as soon as possible, they're not waiting for the result of the November elections.  They've drawn up a non-partisan set of initiatives for the first 100 days of the next president — whoever that may be — and they've been conferring with all the candidates' transition teams about making this a reality.  Clicking on the logo takes you to the PCAP website.

Some snippets from Orr's talk:

If the Reagan administration represented "morning in America," this decade is late evening in America.  It's too late to avoid the trauma.  Jesus may forgive our sins, but nature won't.

Some Americans deny that there's a real problem that will affect us.  We can't handle the truth!  We're better at rationalizing than rational thinking.

But although there's no easy way out, it's not too late to prevent the worst.  People are ready to take the necessary steps if someone just asks them to.

We can put less carbon into the air by increasing efficiency and by using renewable resources like wind and solar power.  Tax policy can help; moving away from penalizing income, we should tax waste, not work.  Ultimately, energy policy affects many other major issues facing the nation:  not only the environment but also the economy, health, and security.

Many of the conservation measures for the Green Commencement were small symbolic steps.  Replacing 1,300 plastic bottles of water with pitchers and glasses will not, in itself, have much effect on the planet.  But the young people graduating from Oberlin will be environmentally aware as they go on to lead the next generation.  Nearly half of them signed a statement that reads:  "I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work."

Paula Gordon summed it up in that earlier panel:  At Oberlin, we're trying.  We really want to change the world.  "The time is now, is always now.  Who better than us?"


Here are three other articles from the 2008 reunion and commencement weekend:

The Organ Tour
What's New with Obie
Gathering on Tappan Square


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