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Back by Invitation

A member of the Class of 1957 reflects on Dartmouth, 50 years out
Christopher Wren '57
Christopher Wren '57 (Photo by Sarah Memmi)

As my Class of 1957 escorts the Class of 2007 at their graduation, we've conspired to show up artfully disguised as a bunch of geezers. Don't be fooled by our bifocals, bionic knees and ankles, generous waistlines and arthritic gait. This is what 50 years out of Dartmouth looks like, and we stand prouder and tougher for it.

"In the Dartmouth fellowship, there is no parting," President John Sloan Dickey promised at our graduation a half century ago. So we're back by invitation, because while you leave Dartmouth, it never leaves you.

Inside each returning alumnus is a pea-green freshman wondering what the heck happened. Well, life happened since 700 of us first converged on Hanover's plain, dealing out triumphs and blunders, blessings and disappointments and bone-numbing tragedies but also gratitude, not least for our alma mater.

Every class at Dartmouth calls itself great, so let's not pretend otherwise. We produced enough doctors to staff a first-rate hospital, as well as businessmen, teachers, lawyers, and a couple of federal judges, a leavening of clergy and journalists, a few wicked good artists, and the world-acclaimed conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, Erich Kunzel, whose brilliance at the baton Dartmouth is recognizing with an honorary degree. "Thank you, Dartmouth, for starting me on the road to such a rewarding career," Erich wrote in our reunion book.

And consider how we did it, navigating through Dartmouth without Internet access, satellite uplinks, laptops, cell phones, color TVs, VCRs, CDs, iPods, credit cards, and—the sorest deprivation—women on campus. Google wasn't born, so we burrowed into the stacks at Baker Library for our research. Internships weren't invented, so we calloused our hands with summer jobs. Ignorant of e-mail or text messaging, we penned real letters to our parents and girlfriends.

Dozens, including my roommate Wally Ackley and I, became the first in our families to graduate from college.

Cartoon in the 1957 issue of the Dartmouth
This cartoon appeared in the 1957 Commencement issue of The Dartmouth.

The Class of 1957 left our mark in our freshman year, when our votes carried a student-wide referendum requiring fraternities to drop any covenants discriminating against racial minorities and Jews or be closed down. "I felt proud to be affiliated with an institution that took such a stand on equality and fair play," Garvey Clarke recalled in our reunion book.

Terrorism to us was the looming prospect of nuclear war with a mad-dog Soviet Union and Red China. Collared by the draft, many of us served a few years in the armed forces with patriotic pride and not a little surprised at how well Dartmouth prepared us to lead. (A timid English major who nearly flunked ROTC, I wound up as a Special Forces paratrooper.)

We courted the prettiest girls we knew and still wake up next to some of them. Of 159 married classmates sampled, 99 have had the same spouse for 40 years and more.

I hesitate to speak for my classmates, an exuberantly opinionated lot. But according to a snapshot of 172 who responded to a questionnaire, we support coeducation and diversity at Dartmouth, but don't want the fraternity system dismantled. Fully half of us consider Dartmouth better today than when we were on campus. The same sample reported that slightly over half of us self-identify as Republican, while the rest split between Democrats and independents, with a lone Socialist. Three out of five polled consider Franklin D. Roosevelt the best president in our lifetime, followed by Ronald Reagan.

According to our class questionnaire, most respondents believe that women have the right to choose, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, white-collar criminals belong in jail, and medicinal marijuana should be legal.

We lament the demise of the Great Issues course, mandatory when we were seniors, because it opened our eyes to the world beyond Hanover (and inspired me to become a foreign correspondent). For our 50-year gift to Dartmouth, we've endowed a new library in the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. And we've adopted its director, Ken Yalowitz, into our class.

In retirement, many of us now volunteer to help others. "The quality of your caring is what Dartmouth is all about," President Dickey told us at our graduation. "Remembering this you will fail neither her nor yourself, and you will grow in grace."

So grant us this 50th reunion for nostalgia and reflection, in communion with 125 classmates who have died. "Although we are now coming face to face with our mortality, it is not yet time to turn in our badges," our Class President Randy Aires said. "There will be more reunions and soft September mornings to come on the Hanover Plain."

Old men ought to be explorers, according to the poet T.S. Eliot. I can't imagine better travel companions for our journey, which will take us onto unpaved roads. "Getting old is not for sissies," mused Monk Bancroft, who still ski-patrols at Mad River Glen, "so let's make the most of what we have left, and go down fighting every inch of the way."

Chris Wren spent nearly three decades at The New York Times as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor including 17 years as bureau chief in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa, and Johannesburg. He is now teaching at Dartmouth in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.

By CHRISTOPHER S. WREN '57

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Last Updated: 5/30/08