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Homecoming 40 years later: College reunion evokes memories, music, tears — but no twerking

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Jane Howze Homecoming October 2013 arch at Southwestern University Memphis
Returning to campus for a 40th college reuion evokes many memories. Photo by Jane Howze
Jane Howze 1970 and 2013
The author, as a college student in the '70s (shown in inset) and now. Courtesy photo/Photo by Ed Uthman
Jane Howze Homecoming October 2013 Southwestern at Memphis campus university campus
The Rhodes College gothic campus had changed but remains the same. Photo by Ed Uthman/Flickr
Jane Howze Homecoming October 2013 Clifford Pugh holding Southwestern at Memphis T-shirt
Clifford Pugh holds up a sweatshirt with the college's former name. Photo by Jane Howze
Jane Howze Homecoming October 2013 arch at Southwestern University Memphis
Jane Howze 1970 and 2013
Jane Howze Homecoming October 2013 Southwestern at Memphis campus university campus
Jane Howze Homecoming October 2013 Clifford Pugh holding Southwestern at Memphis T-shirt
News_Jane Howze_The Hacker_head shot2

I’ve been home, now, for 48 hours since attending my 40th college reunion, and feel like I am slowly waking up from time travel or a dream. I had gone to Rhodes College’s 2012 Homecoming and I wrote about the emotions it brought up. What else could I possibly write about returning but a year later?

Homecoming 39 years later (which wasn’t really a reunion) focused on the three people I was close to in school, but this year’s reunion was more intense and diffuse. Nearly 60 people from a class of almost 200 made the trip to Memphis and Rhodes College, one of the most beautiful colleges imaginable. If central casting called for a liberal arts college set among acres of trees, gothic architecture, and wide open spaces, Rhodes would fill the bill.

 “But, what will we talk about?” he implored. Not to worry. We found plenty. 

Part of the anticipation of my 40 year reunion was coercing my best friend, Clifford Pugh, into accompanying me. Clifford and I met in our sophomore year, took economics and piano classes together (well, what do you expect from a liberal arts college?), danced, drove to Birmingham for an hour breakfast, and did the frivolous things college buds do. I really hit the jackpot because my best pal, after getting a masters in journalism and enduring the prison beat as a writer for the Walla Walla (Washington) Union Bulletin, ended up as a local celebrity in Houston as editor-in-chief of CultureMap. And oh the places he and our friendship have taken me: front row of the Democratic Convention that nominated Bill Clinton, an Amazon River trip, New York Fashion Week, Sundance Film Festival . . . well, I digress. I could hardly wait to relive our college days together.

“But, what will we talk about?” he implored. Not to worry. We found plenty.

Coming Home

Rhodes College has changed a lot in 40 years. It now has 1,900 students versus 1,000 students in 1973. When we wanted to take a swim, we packed our gear and drove to the nearest Holiday Inn and pretended like we were guests. Now there is an Olympic size pool on campus and a Starbucks in the library. The college has grown up – but then so have we.  While the gothic architecture building theme prevailed, some parts of the campus felt a little imposing and unfamiliar.  But the minute I walked into the oldest building on campus or my old sorority house (which sadly has not changed a bit), I felt that familiar wash of memories and familiarity — yes, a sense of coming home.

Our first event was a lunch meeting in the dining hall (formerly known as the Refectory) which is now four times its former size. “I don’t see our class,” Clifford commented as we walked into the now vast cafeteria. “All I see is a group of middle aged people in the corner.” Yep, after realizing we both had bad vision and lacked self-awareness, we happily joined our classmates for lunch.

Even with people I was not close to in college, I quickly fell into a time warp where I was 18 years old and launching myself in the big time world of college. 

And what do you talk about with people with whom you shared your growing up years? Everything and nothing. And so the conversation started on Friday, and with only short sleep breaks, continued until Sunday morning.

What was so impactful was that even with people I was not close to in college, I quickly fell into a time warp where I was 18 years old and launching myself in the big time world of college. I knew and felt known. To summarize 48 hours into four paragraphs . . .

The Stories

By the time people reach their 60s, we have had relationships, possibly children, a career and lots of highs and lows. When we see people with whom we have shared a bond at a seminal time in our lives, it is easy to share stories.  Some of them were wonderfully exciting—the friend who had just got married for the second time to his high school sweetheart; the friend who had found his birth father through Facebook; the alum who lives part time in Shanghai working on one of the world’s most ambitious projects; and, of course, the satisfaction that comes with seeing our children succeed in life along with the joy a grandchild can bring.

Conversely, some of the stories were sad—the friend who lost a spouse to a misdiagnosis of cancer; the friend who is battling a brain tumor; those who have lost children over the years; and, of course; those who are struggling to find meaningful employment, take care of aging parents. In a word, the stories were about life.

One of my most interesting conversations was with a classmate who was a veterinarian. I asked her how she got used to euthanizing animals on a weekly if not daily basis, and her answer was you don’t. She had stopped treating horses in part because of the sadness of putting them down and commented that the sadness is often more complex than simply losing the animal. We talked about the symbolism attached to our pets.  “That was my father’s dog.” “That was my child’s first cat.” We mourn the loss of the animal, but that mourning is layered with other sadness—those that come from fond memories aroused through the process of letting go.

Traditions that bind the past and present

Saturday morning’s convocation was something I might have skipped, but one of my classmates was receiving an award as the Black Student Association Distinguished Alumni. I was one of the many people who nominated her, and I wanted to see this talented poet receive such well earned recognition. As she spoke about coming to Rhodes only a year after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, my classmates and I felt a large lump in our throats. And how did we not know she was the first African American woman to live in the dorms? 

Rather than take credit for her own accomplishments, our classmate recognized the Black Student Association and the class of ’73 who helped usher in a different era.  Patricia Jones received a standing ovation, and the sustained applause could be heard throughout the campus.

 Some of  us don't remember where our car keys are, but we had no trouble remembering every word of “Celebrate,” “Does Anyone Know What Time It Is” and “Shout." 

Later that afternoon, Rhodes played its homecoming football game against Centre College. Although Rhodes (formerly known as Southwestern at Memphis) with its small student body, is hardly a Southeastern Conference powerhouse, sports and sportsmanship were and are key parts of the college experience.  Sometimes our band had only 10 musicians, which limited their formations to “Halliburton Tower” (a vertical line) or the “Moore Infirmary” (a horizontal line) but they could play the fight song with gusto: “Roll, Roll, Roll, Roll, Lynx Cats Roll On.”

During halftime, the football team of 1970 was named to the Rhodes Athletic Hall of Fame. It was an emotional moment watching them walk out on the field together, arms around each other’s shoulders—helping the team member who was on a walker—a team in 1970 and a team in 2013.  After the game was over (Rhodes won), the current team approached the stands where the honorees were sitting and sang the Rhodes fight song to them, nostalgically substituting “Southwestern,”  for “Rhodes,” — a nod to the athletes of 1970. The school bells tolled in the background as the sun set.  I wept for the past and I wept for the poignancy of the moment. A priceless moment in time.

Time for fun

Saturday night we gathered at a classmate’s house for dinner and dancing. It was a beautiful home not too far from the campus with a patio lit with candles and enough space for our class to show we could still cut a rug. Some of  us don't remember where our car keys are, but we had no trouble remembering every word of “Celebrate,” “Does Anyone Know What Time It Is” and “Shout."We sang at the top of our lungs, jumped, shimmied and grinded— but we didn’t twerk.

A new perspective

After a final breakfast—yep, we were still talking—it was time to say goodbye, albeit with a tinge of sadness. I arrived home at 1 p.m. and fell into a deep slumber. I awoke six hours later and wondered what happened. Was it all a dream?

My body was sore from dancing, my voice was gone from talking and singing, but my heart was full and my eyes filled with tears when I thought about my past and present Rhodes College experience. I was not alone. Our class exchanged hundreds of emails expressing the same high and emotional response to the weekend.

Why such an intense response that carried into the first part of the week? A friend observed, “the first couple of reunions were about reliving old times. Those later ones were because of loyalty to Rhodes and our class. But this one was different. We are approaching old age; a time in our lives when we can no longer ignore the mortal knell and must accept the possibility that this is the last time we will see of some of our classmates.”

Another friend commented, “this reunion may have been, at least in part, a way to tangibly show one another that we are in it together, for the long run. We are reassured there is another family to which we belong that was coincidentally created from some bond formed long ago just because we all made that same leap and became members of the Class of '73. We have reveled in each other's successes and shared the lessons of our failures, and we all have been reminded that some of our classmates are already gone. But they and Rhodes will live on in our heart."

And yes, there is buzz about a 45th reunion. Not to soon to start working on my friend to accompany me again.  

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