Back To School
The end of the year is obviously and understandingly a time for reflection on a calendar year that is rapidly dissolving to memory. We all endure our own ups and downs, highs and lows that are inherently more dramatic to the individual. Personal triumphs and/or defeats are just that: personal. Yet some deserve to be shared. Such as returning to the spot where so many of your youthful wins and losses were recorded.
Which brings me to Alumni Weekend.
I had not been to my alma mater, Niagara University, in over twenty-five years. I suppose that was as a result of both distance and finance, it certainly wasn’t anything personal because I absolutely loved my time on the Monteagle Ridge. So much so, that I hung around a little longer than the traditional four years in order to grab that sheepskin with the BA in English verified.
My time at Niagara was mind-expanding in countless ways. I was the second member of my entire family to attend college, my dad having been the first. I arrived there as wet behind the years as any kid from a suburban Massachusetts community could be. Suddenly my trips to Boston and Providence to rock my fake ID and sneak into rock shows were paled by children of Westchester and Long Island who grew up zipping in and out of New York City. The “Big Attle” didn’t hold much of a chance against the Big Apple.
But, I made friends - including one from Westchester and one from Long Island who are still on my personal list of very important people - and a bunch from all over the rest of New York and the surrounding states. Eventually, I lived with a memorable group of guys who were a year or two older than me and from all over the northeast. We were thick as thieves, fraternal without rules or rituals, loyal and supportive. We were a gang in Levi’s, Polo and L.L. Bean. During the second half of the 1980’s students at Niagara were comfortably nestled into a bucolic vacuum.
Then, with graduation, it was over,
In those days before the world wide web it was not quite as easy to keep in touch. People moved, phone numbers (landlines only, kids) were lost, addresses changed. The memories faded a bit and people did what seemed impossible at the time of St. Patrick’s Day beer fights at McQ’s during our undergrad years: they grew up. For an action to be simultaneously “impossible” and “inevitable” defies logic to a 19 or 20-year-old kid, yet “growing up” fits that bill.
So, it was with a pleasant surprise that the technology that had evolved in the intervening years eventually resulted in people from my past finding and reaching out to me. Truth be told, not every face from any aspect of my past was met with a smile at my computer screen. I know I am not alone in the, “You’re fucking kidding me. This guy?” reaction to a social media contact. It happens to everyone, but luckily in most cases I have been glad for the opportunity to renew contact with folks from my past.
Never more so than when those brothers in arms from Niagara began appearing. It turned out that my former compatriots were approaching their class’s 25th anniversary at Niagara. The word was put out that on a more personal level plans were being made for a reunion among us, as well. Once again, distance and finance were the hurdle to me returning to Western New York but my remarkably generous and caring pals put that worry to rest and I was soon confirmed for a scholarship. In seemingly no time I was jetting to Buffalo/Niagara International Airport.
If you know me you’d have predicted that I wouldn’t have made it from the airport to campus without some sort of self-induced obstacle course style distraction and anyone putting their money on that call would have cleaned up. When I finally did connect with my people - after getting in a cab next to the downtown Buffalo Greyhound station - the roommate I’d be in touch with told me he felt like he was in an action film, shouting repeatedly into his phone, “Get off the bus! You have to get off the bus!”
But there I was. Back in my collegiate hometown, surrounded by my collegiate buddies. It was a blur, a bit disconcerting and admittedly confusing. I was a late arrival and it seemed many folks had already reestablished acquaintances, these semi-familiar faces had my mind stumbling through the dusty back halls of my mental archives searching frantically for names. In more than one case I surprised myself, in countless others I fell back on, “Hey, dude,” or “How are you, sweetie?” The rest of the weekend was easier with the assistance of name tags. It was only when I did a pocket sweep on Sunday morning that I realized I hadn’t put my own name tag on the entire time that I was there.
This was obviously inconsequential with my boys. After acclimating to my surroundings, a frenetic hotel bar housing alums dating back to the Class of ’43 (more on them later) I locked in with the three guys I’d once shared my life with, grown men who I’d met when we were all teenaged boys. There was a significant gap in the stories of our lives now, one that spanned twenty-five years, yet as trite as it always has sounded to me it was unfailingly true: in twenty-five minutes we were locked back in. We were once again, “The Kings of Pain,” the undefeated, un-scored upon intramural football team we’d titled after a song by the Police and held such silly pride in as schoolboys.
We then went to campus for an enormous “Welcome Back” themed reception and that was remarkable too. While time may have stood still in my reminisces of ole N.U the school itself had marched on. The Gallagher Center, the hub of campus life during my tenure, had been transformed into a proud jewel of a centerpiece for the Niagara community. On this evening it seemed occupied by those faithful alums who’d traveled back with some frequency and had witnessed the changes mixed with those like me who were astounded by the leaps and bounds it had taken in our absence.
The next morning I awoke only slightly worse for wear but feeling that a dip in the pool might provide a bit of psychic resurgence as well as a hose to blast away any lingering cobwebs that had accumulated in the wee hours. The plunge did the trick and as I relaxed in a chaise lounge I got the first indication that this was bigger, much bigger, than just my friends and I.
“Excuse me,” asked an older gentleman as he walked toward, prompting me to look up from my magazine.
“Yes?” I responded before noticing his Niagara tee-shirt. He was, apparently, “one of us.”
He asked if I had been wearing a Niagara Lacrosse jacket the night before, which I had. The eternal pack rat, I’d been able to locate this absolutely 80’s purple satin pullover replete with my name and number and figured that over a purple oxford with a purple rep tie it cut just the debonair retro image appropriate for such an event. Plus, I knew it would crack my roommates up. I laughed and owned up and he smiled and sat down next to me.
It turned out he was a Long Islander, Massapequa to be precise, there with classmates from the 1958 edition of Purple Eagles. We chatted a bit about the Niagara of our day. Alumni Weekend at Niagara welcomes the members of any class celebrating an anniversary that ends with a “5” or “0” and as such my guys from “88” were joined by fellow alums ranging from as far back as 1943 to as recent as 2013. I imagined I’d be the solitary member of the Class of ’90 but that turned out to be a false assumption. There was one other alum from my class, a guy that I did not know outside of the legend surrounding his family. During my time there his older brother - with the assistance of their mother and some other students encouraging his dreams of fame and fortune as a Hollywood stuntman - had snuck a “barrel” over the border in an eventually aborted attempt to go over Niagara Falls. Unbelievable, right?
“Kid Niagara.” Yup, I went to school with this guy and apparently he is still accessible via My Space. I digress, though in the interest of full disclosure I must admit we had quite a few laughs recounting this incident over the weekend.
And recounting incidents such as this is obviously a major component of any reunion. Recalling memories with the people that you created them with, in the environment in which they occurred is a very heady experience. On Friday night, after leaving the Gallagher Center on campus we’d made a quick detour to our former residence. The DeVeaux apartments, a former public housing project that became a student ghetto in the ’80s. Looking around the complex, divided by a circular drive, I instantly recalled the units that other students called home while matriculating at Niagara. I had intense recall of so many particulars on this very patch of ground both good and bad, some overwhelmingly joyous, others best left forgotten. Here I was with three guys who’d played a large role in a lot of those moments. It felt like a once in a lifetime moment and it felt like a renewed bond.
On Saturday after my swim, I returned to campus and reconnected with my gang. We were given an insider’s tour of the gleaming new Dwyer Arena, an on-campus ice rink that is state of the art. We were guided by the Athletic Director and introduced to the hockey team’s Head Coach before watching the squad scrimmage. It was a modernized side of my alma mater I could never have imagined as a kid going to school there.
I also probably could not imagine as an adult just what cramped quarters my freshman roommate and I had cohabitated during our first year. But then there it was, Lynch Hall, the first place I’d ever lived away from my family. The place where we'd all met. It too had grown up. What had during my tenure been a dank basement with stained carpet, worn furniture recycled from other campus locations and a 13 channel television was now a state-of-the-art lounge. Gone were the countless discarded styrofoam containers of Buffalo chicken bones, replaced by vending machines stocked with healthy choices. The soda and beer cans that never had a home during my day now had the option of a recycling bin. There was even a Foosball table!
Walking down the first-floor hall was a true trip down Memory Lane and then there I was, face to face with #120, my freshman home. Alumni Weekend at Niagara is traditionally scheduled for Columbus Day, a three-day opportunity for on-campus students to either go home or go visit friends, so I was not surprised by there being no answer to my knock on the door. I was, however, surprised when perhaps emboldened by my surroundings I tried the door… and it was open.
I was shocked. I have watched enough episodes of “Lockup” to now realize as an adult that my roommate and I were coexisting in a space that virtually no penal system in the nation would approve of for double occupancy. It was tiny! The fact that it was now a single room spoke to that but it also made me smile. We’d never had one problem there. I shook my head at the absurdity of two adult men living in this shoebox but then laughed. I still speak with the person I shared this room with on a regular basis, I texted him a photo of our “cell.” In retrospect, I consider it one of the many gifts I received at Niagara. A life-long friend.
Perhaps being reminded all these years later of the indelible Niagara bond is the latest gift that the school gave to me. On Saturday evening, when the majority of attendees across all classes gathered for dinner - at which one of my dear and humble pals was honored with a prestigious alumni honor - I was shown first hand that this bond extends to all Niagara Purple Eagles, in every class represented.
Which, brings me back to the Class of 1943.
The class of ’43 was represented by just two members, both clocking in at a spry 97 years-old, celebrating their 75th class anniversary and, get this, they were roommates! One, accompanied by his daughter, had actually done some of the driving from St. Louis! Nearly 80 years after meeting as 18 year-olds in Niagara Falls they were still the closest of friends.
I witnessed this kind of everlasting friendship across so many of the people who had made this pilgrimage back to a beloved touchstone of their youth. I spoke with members of the Class of ’63 about the Kennedy assassination, with ROTC grads from 1968 about Viet Nam. I think I might now be an honorary member of the Class of ’78 after cutting the rug to the disco they were spinning on the back patio of the hotel and talking punk rock with a couple of Manhattanites from that era. Folks from the class of ’58 gave me a perspective on what this sleepy little school was like nearly a decade before I was born. They were all friendly and witty and welcoming and overwhelmingly overjoyed to share their remembrances of a place that we all hold so close to our hearts.
Through the entire experience, I kept drawing back to my pals there. Embracing how lucky I was to not only have ended up there but to have found these friends. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure at first that it was for me. After my freshman year, I left and headed back home for a try at UMass Amherst. I quickly realized that was VERY much not for me and in January I was back in Western New York. Anyone who has been to Western New York in January will confirm that you have to have a pretty good reason to willingly go to that climate at that time of year. That’s just how warm Niagara University’s draw was for me.
As Christmas approaches I can say with zero hesitation that I have already received the best gift I wouldn’t even have known to wish for this year. After that long period of having lost touch with my collegiate cronies, we are all locked back in, communicating frequently. Their friendship was a gift then, just as it is now. And through that, I was given another gift that I was not expecting; a renewed appreciation, enthusiasm and passion for my school.
Thank you, fellow Purple Eagles. Thank you, friends.
Thank you, Niagara University.