Friday, June 13, 2014

"Reunion: Fifty-five Years and Counting"

Sydney M. Williams
A Note from Old Lyme
Reunion: Fifty-five Years and Counting”
June 13, 2014

“Every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of the Resurrection.”
                                                                                                                Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

On the 16th of June, Caroline and I drove to Easthampton, Massachusetts for the 55th Anniversary of my high school graduation. Five days later she looked at an e-mailed photograph of the eleven of us who attended. “Oh my God,” she blurted out; “they’re so old!” It’s true. We are. It wasn’t staged – that is Caroline’s comment was not staged. The photograph was obviously staged, with, for example, my photo dropped in by master photo-shopper, Andy Solomon, our class agent and an extraordinary photographer. Caroline’s was simply the reaction of someone looking at eleven faces frozen in time; faces that could well have been framed and deposited in the attic of Dorian Grey’s home. Or even faces of escapees from some nursing home for aged schoolboys, forlornly trying to recapture their youth.

Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day, as we drove the roughly hour and a half from Old Lyme, Connecticut to Williston Academy. It’s easy: just follow the Connecticut River upstream until you reach Holyoke, then head west across Mount Tom and into East Hampton. The town itself is an old mill town, of which New England has hundreds. It is located about four miles south of Northampton, home of Smith College and former home of Calvin Coolidge, one of America’s best and under-appreciated Presidents.

We arrived shortly before lunch and while we were waiting for some of my classmates to show, we struck up a conversation with a man who seemed about my age, except he was wearing (as we all were) a name-tag with his senior-year photograph, with the class year ‘44, whereas mine said ‘59. His name was Bill Armstrong and, though he now lives reasonably close, had not been back for several years. He was only one of his class to make it back for his 70th; so we asked if he would like to become an honorary member of our class – at least for lunch. He quickly agreed. Given his year of graduation, I asked him about the War. It turned out that in December of his senior year he joined the Army-Air Force, and was the only one in his class to graduate in uniform.

Bill was a spring chicken compared to John Williams, a cousin of my classmate Charlie DeRose, and a member of the class of ‘39. He was the only one of his class for their 75th. Besides being interesting, both men were delightful lunch companions. More importantly, they served to make us feel young and take the edge off of what Caroline had later so despairingly (but accurately) described.

Others from my class who attended, besides Andy, Charlie and me were Fred Allardyce (now chairman of the board of trustees), John Curtis, Phil Fisher, John Harper (a former roommate), Dave Raymond, Brewster Staples, Bob Stilson and Roy Weiner. I missed Fred and Brewster, as they were only there for dinner the night before.

It is fascinating how one’s character changes – becomes more juvenile is the way my bride would describe it – as one retraces the steps and haunts of one’s youth. Many of the buildings are new, and some of those that have lasted this last half century have been remodeled almost beyond recognition. Remembrances of what had been rushed through my memory – a cemetery where I smoked cigarettes illegally, fields on which we once played, and a wood-paneled room in the field house where teas were held following sporting events. I remember once, after a junior varsity football game, a question being asked me by a member of the opposing team – St. Paul’s School: What is Williston?  I told him it was a reform school, but not one for those who had committed capital crimes. He looked a little rattled, then walked away, one hand on his watch and the other, clutching his wallet.

I knew, of course, about St. Paul’s through friends and cousins. My grandparents, my father’s parents, had entered me in the Groton School when I was born. It was expected that I would enter the 1st form (7th grade) in the fall of 1952. But when the time came, my parents demurred. The world had changed since their youth. Ten years of depression and five of war had greatly altered the world in which they had been brought up. For one thing, it had become more egalitarian. For another, my parents had brought us up by themselves, whereas they had been raised with nurses. They didn’t want me out of the nest so young and so soon. So I stayed home and any scholarly discipline I might have had went into hibernation, not to re-emerge until two and a half years after graduation from Williston when I met the woman who became my wife.

By the time I entered high school, my parents must have been wondering if they had made a mistake in rejecting Groton. A great-grandfather, my mother’s grandfather, attended Williston in the 1850s, but their family had lost all connection. In desperation for a school, they turned to an old friend of my mother’s family, Judge Thomas Swan of New Haven, who had been a Williston student in the 1890s and later served as Chairman of their Board of Trustees. In a decision that he must have long regretted, he saw to it that I entered in the fall of 1956. The truth is I was immature and too much of smart aleck, and, with a minimal of exceptions, never took advantage of what the school offered.

It wasn’t, as I wrote earlier, until I met Caroline and my whole attitude changed that I began to realize what I had missed. About six months after we met, in the late spring of 1962 and shortly before I headed for Fort Dix as an army recruit, Caroline and I drove from Boston to East Hampton to have dinner with headmaster Phillip Stevens and his lovely wife Sarah who today, at age 95, lives in our part of Connecticut. It was good for me to see the school in that context, having grown more serious as my love for Caroline deepened.

Now, fifty-two after that dinner in the Homestead, we returned to the same building to register for the reunion. It was good fun to see some of those with whom I had spent so many impressionable years: to remember who we had been, but also to see who we had become. The visible passage of time, so obvious in a reunion of this sort, makes one realize how short is our time on this earth and how important it is to savor each moment. In life, as the philosopher said, it is the trip that is important, not the destination.


As we wandered around the campus before and after lunch, and as we visited with old friends, some of these thoughts came to mind – thoughts of what had been, of what might have been, but, most important what was and what is. While neither my experience at Williston as a student, nor Caroline’s years at Westover, had been the best, they taught us to make sure we would do whatever it took to ensure our children had positive school experiences. We did, and they did.

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