Maiden Voyage

By The Editors / July / August 2003
June 22nd, 2007

“A bad-hair weekend,” George Murnaghan pronounced it. He was attempting to wipe the rain from his forehead while banging his class of ’78 reunion tambourine and cheering on the seniors in the Commencement March. Descending College Hill, the class of ’03 had the advantage of youth, but we alumni had better rain gear: the graduates shivered in skimpy academic robes (“not intended . . . to be worn in inclement weather,” the manufacturer warned). Coltish young women in strappy spiked heels teetered dangerously downhill; by parade’s end their feet were numb and their mortarboards sagged. The ink on our tambourines had run, but they still made noise.

Commencement 2003 was the wettest in recent memory. Reunions began Friday with a fine, insistent drizzle, and those of us who came back for our twenty-fifth huddled in a tent on the front campus—for heat, drinks, and dinner, in that order. Two-hundred-sixty-four of us returned and we raised a record $1.165 million, but recognizing faces in the middle-aged throng proved trickier. We’re better dressed now. (“I have a good tailor,” said Mitch Rosenberg in response to a compliment. Carol Osborne, who travels to Asia for international health projects, brought a duffel bag of designer knockoffs made by a tailor in Bombay: “Four bucks,” she said, modeling a silk number.) The men among us were harder to ID than the women (baldness is a very good disguise). Some of us ventured onto the dance floor, where we danced with graduates young enough to be our kids, to covers of songs that we’d loved at twenty-two and that now had come round once more.

At a forum the next morning, Lisa Birnbach ’78 spoke for many: “I’ve been on campus sixteen hours and already I’ve had too much to drink and too little sleep.” Having achieved early fame with her best-selling The Official Preppy Handbook, Birnbach hails from the Upper East Side Manhattan milieu where chauffeur-driven Land Rovers idle while tiny charges attend nursery school. Her fellow speaker, children’s book author and illustrator Ted Dewan ’83, comes from more downscale British environs. Together they gave the Burberry-clad crowd advice on how not to spoil their kids: “Don’t throw their junk away,” advised Dewan. “It encourages creativity.” (Does he know how many egg cartons and Styrofoam peanuts my five-year-old brings home from school each day?)

At a class picnic that afternoon, classmates boasted about their kids’ college plans, while others struggled to head off toddler meltdowns. The result was at times surreal: Asked about a former roommate, one man reported: “He married a brunette. They couldn’t have kids.” Then he elaborated: “He doesn’t have time.” A radiologist complained about the U.S. health-care system. “I’ve been too busy to get married,” a woman announced. “I’m a doctor.” Listening, a father grinned as he gathered a pack-mule’s load of slickers and kids’ backpacks. We seemed to be the same people we were at twenty-two—just more so.

A deluge forced the pops concert indoors that night. The weekend’s brief moment of wan sunlight came Sunday, as thousands of parents and alumni gathered on the Green to watch the Jumbotron telecast of Chinese dissident Xu Wenli delivering the baccalaureate address. Freed last December after sixteen years in prison for advocating democracy, Xu spent the spring semester as a fellow at the Watson Institute and received an honorary degree at Commencement. Even the rebroadcast of his speech drew a standing ovation.

That evening our class packed up for Newport, where new trustee Sam Mencoff ’78 and his wife hosted a clambake on the luminous green expanse of their Cliff Walk lawn. In this Gatsby setting we gorged on lobster, corn, mussels, and clams before heading to Providence to meander along the rivers and to breathe in the hardwood smoke of WaterFire.

Unappeased, the rains returned in force Monday morning, becoming fierce as we stood in the procession and swamping the ceremonies on the Green. Graduates shivered on the sidewalks, their flip-flops covered in mud; parents camped out in the steam bath that was Faunce House. Thousands of white plastic chairs stood empty, their seats filled with puddles, as President Ruth Simmons finally asked the tiny crowd of diehards (only five rows of chairs were filled) to join her in singing the alma mater. After an awkward silence, she said, “I think the band has left.” Unfazed, she began to sing, a cappella.

When she declared the 2003 Commencement exercises over, eight sodden mortarboards flew into the air.

—Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78

Still Crazy after Fifty Years

As the check marks on the clipboard multiplied and the line of septuagenarians stalled on the dock, it became clear that the SwiftCat could not accommodate everyone. The eighty-seven-foot catamaran—on its maiden voyage from its Sandy Hook, New Jersey, home—had been hired by Dale Strand to ferry his fellow fiftieth-reunioners on a three-hour tour of Narragansett Bay. Despite the chilly temperature and gray skies, there were more seafarers than space.

“I’m getting off to let two people on,” class president Norman “Jesse” James said as he searched for his wife and sipped white wine from a plastic cup. “A hundred and fifty’s the max, and we have 158. So that’s it. I kinda knew this was going to happen.”

While James sorted out who would take his and his wife’s spots, his classmates aboard the SwiftCat descended on a pile of box lunches: rollups stuffed with turkey and chicken Caesar salad. At least one reunioner found them superior to the fifty-dollar-a-plate dinner at the Hope Club the night before.

All around the two-story SwiftCat classmates reminisced about their college days and the decades since. The men had gray hair—if they had hair at all—and a high percentage wore orthopedic shoes. Only two used canes, and a few more wore hearing aids. One thing, it seemed, hadn’t changed over the years: the age-old fixation with looks. Everyone looked pretty good for seventy somethings, but the consensus was that David Robinson had aged the best.

“Everyone thinks you’re in disguise,” Stephen Sultan told Robinson.

“I soak in formaldehyde for twenty minutes every night,” Robinson joked.

Sultan recalled his time as a DJ on WBRU. He’d interviewed Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong.

Robinson, meanwhile, remembered living in Wayland House on Wriston Quad during his senior year; he was staying there again this weekend, which now gave him the opening to look at his wife, Ritsuko, and smile: “It took me fifty years to get a woman into my dorm room.”

—Zachary Block ’99

Grad School

The University awarded 314 master’s degrees and 143 Ph.D.s during a soggy Lincoln Field ceremony. (Unlike the undergraduates, who were sheltered at the First Baptist Church, the grad students had to sit outside.) Under a sea of umbrellas their families watched from the sidelines, unwilling to commit to chairs covered in puddles of rain. The speaker was James Garvin ’78, ’84 Ph.D., NASA’s lead scientist for Mars exploration, whose goal on that planet, ironically enough, is to follow the water: “I think it’s come home here on this graduation day a little too literally.” Garvin remarked that the real space age has not yet arrived. “Will you leave a half-finished foundation?” he asked, or a “cathedral to the stars.”

—Emily Gold Boutilier


They entered as students and left as physicians. At Brown’s 235th Commencement—the medical school’s twenty-eighth—family and friends watched eighty-three new doctors receive their degrees in the First Unitarian Church. Three master’s degrees and one doctorate were also awarded. Addressing the graduates, Seth Berkley ’78, ’81 M.D., the founder and president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, urged them to be activist doctors striving to reform and improve health care: “Let’s make it an issue the politicians cannot avoid, the lobbyists cannot overturn, and let’s make sure that we provide the leadership such that the right things get done.”

—Zachary Block ‘99

The Pops

Harry Connick Jr. and his Big Band enchanted a crowd of alumni, graduates, and parents at the annual Saturday night pops concert, which, thanks to rain, was moved to the Providence Performing Arts Center this year. Connick began his one-and-a-half-hour set with “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” then joked that he had never been around so many smart people; the closest he’d come to earning a degree, he added, was the five weeks he’d attended college. The audience cheered wildly as Connick continued his vocal and piano performance with such standards as “I’m Walking” and with an energetic rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” At the end of the concert a mother seated not far from the stage turned to her graduating daughter and exclaimed, “He was great! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him.”

—Emily Gold Boutilier



It was a capacity crowd that turned out to hear Watergate felon, prison activist, and evangelical Christian leader Charles Colson ’53 deliver a talk in the Salomon Center about teaching ethics in the Ivy League. Gesturing as he paced across the stage, Colson made an impassioned plea to reject the fashionable idea that absolute truth doesn’t exist. “At places like Brown University,” he said, “we need to teach a strengthening of conscience.” Knowledge alone isn’t enough: “When I went to the White House, I had studied ethics at Brown. My father had told me never to lie; I grew up in a good, strict, Puritan household. Nobody was going to make me do the wrong thing.” He paused for effect. “I ended up in jail.” Colson’s harshest words were directed at moral relativism. “When we say there is no truth,” he argued, “we lose some of our freedom. It’s imperative that Brown and other elite institutions study whether moral truth is knowable, and do it in an atmosphere of real tolerance.”

—Norman Boucher

Hollywood director Doug Liman ’88 bounded to the stage dressed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt, his unruly hair coiling out from all sides of a backward Brown baseball hat. His right leg bounced up and down. He gripped the lectern with both hands. He looked like he needed a hug.

“A year ago, I was completely unhireable,” Liman confessed as he opened his Commencement forum, “The Business of Show Business, Redux.” Liman said his troubles stemmed from comments he’d made about problems he encountered while filming his last movie, The Bourne Identity, which starred Matt Damon.

“I figured, why not air our dirty laundry a bit,” Liman said. “Universal Pictures did not agree with that philosophy.”

It was his public confession, he said, that led Universal studio chief and all-world powerbroker Stacey Snider to declare, “I’m going to make sure Doug Liman never works again.”

Snider’s threats aside, Liman is doing fine. His television series, The O.C., is scheduled to premiere on Fox in August. And he’s due to begin filming his next movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, featuring Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman as husband-and-wife assassins, in September.

“I think the film business,” Liman said, “like a lot of life, is about what you do when the chips are down. Because it’s a brutal, brutal business.”

—Zachary Block ’99

Fernando Henrique Cardoso lived in exile from 1964 to 1968 for opposing the military dictators then ruling his native Brazil, then went on to help establish the nation’s Social Democratic Party and serve two terms as president. Now a Brown professor-at-large, Cardoso delivered a Stephen A. Ogden Jr. Memorial Lecture on the Saturday of Commencement weekend, “Toward a New World Order: The Influence of Globalization on Democratic Theory.”

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd under a tent behind the Watson Institute, Cardoso said democracy is the key to social peace and stability. “Democracy has never enjoyed so many followers, so much prestige, as it does today,” he said. “The shift in attitude has been dramatic,” he added, especially for Brazilians and others in the region “who suffered so recently from totalitarian regimes.” He gave credit to new technology for helping to disseminate democratic values and practices across borders. “One might speak of globalization driving democratic synergy among nations,” he said. Cardoso, who is also a sociologist, ended his second term as president in January, after losing his reelection campaign.

—Emily Gold Boutilier

For decades after its 1968 founding, the Studio Museum in Harlem had no competition for the work of artists of African descent. According to its executive director, Lowery Stokes Sims (one of this year’s honorary degree recipients), giants like the Metropolitan Museum of Art had little interest in collecting such works. Not so anymore, Sims said at a forum held in Sayles Hall. The good news is that all major museums are now eager to exhibit such art; the bad news is that their interest is threatening to put smaller, community-based niche museums like hers out of business—or are at least forcing them to redefine their missions. “We are now competing,” she said, “for the allegiance of African American artists who may perceive they don’t need us to advance through the art world.”

—Norman Boucher

In Sayles Hall, New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin ’78 outlined the difficulties of getting science stories into a daily newspaper: “You’re never going to see a headline saying ‘Global Warming Happened Today.’ Climate change is the antithesis of news. The loss of biological diversity is the antithesis of news. An oil tanker hitting rocks and spilling oil is news.”

—Norman Boucher

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July / August 2003