Capturing memories, then and now

By Anne Diffily / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007

On Commencement morning, May 25, the class of 1973 was ready - really ready - to march through the Van Wickle Gates. "Finally!" said Channing Redford '73 as she, Joan Ryder '73, and other classmates began moving down the front-campus walkway toward College Street. Her happiness was hard-won: 1973 was the only year in the past quarter-century in which Commencement was rained out.

The memory was still fresh for Redford and her fellow marchers. It scarcely seemed possible that twenty-five years had passed since they'd awakened on graduation day to the dispiriting sound of rain. Outside, the seniors had been buffeted by a downpour that turned the crosswalks of College Hill into roiling cataracts. Gusts of wind had driven the rain sideways as they'd staggered in black graduation robes into Meehan Auditorium to perch on folding chairs like bedraggled starlings. The ensuing bare-bones ceremony embodied little of the pageantry and beauty that traditionally characterize a Brown commencement on the Green.

This year, however, was a different story. From Friday through Sunday, the class of '73 and other alumni enjoyed bright sun and vivid blue skies. Some - such as Dana Cook Grossman '73 and her husband, Dan '72, parents of Emily '98 - had come to watch a child graduate, too. Others had returned to Brown with much younger offspring - like Nina Tiglio Ruckes '73, who proudly showed off her firstborn, a five-month-old daughter.

The sun reigned Saturday morning as several thousand Brunonians flocked to the Green to watch E. Gordon Gee's formal installation as Brown's seventeenth president and to hear his inaugural address (see page 28). Commencement forums drew attentive audiences all day, and the younger classes brought their families to Field Day at Aldrich-Dexter Field, where rugby's grand old man, Dave Zucconi '55, puffed through a shift at wing in the annual alumni-seniors rugby contest.

Those returning from out of town marveled at the rebirth of downtown Providence and lined up Sunday afternoon at Waterplace Park for gondola rides, trolley tours, and kayak and paddleboat rentals. All weekend, from the lantern-lit shadows of Campus Dance to the bright sun at Waterplace, alumni squinted to read the lettering on each other's name tags. The faces seemed so familiar, but could that really be...Yes! It was, paunch and all! And the minute an old friend opened his or her mouth, away went the years everyone was twenty again.

Steven Spielberg, whose stepdaughter, Jessica Capshaw, received a bachelor of arts degree, does a little campus filmmaking of his own.


The reunion scene is funny that way, full of small, awkward encounters and big, surprising emotions. Twenty-five and more years out, classmates tend either to look exactly the same as they did in college or to have turned utterly unrecognizable; either way, the effect was unsettling. One attendee confessed to being exhausted by it all. "I couldn't really understand at first why I was so tired," said Tom Mallon '73. "Later, I figured out it was because I spent all three days of reunion in a state of hyperalertness and emotional susceptibility."

He may have been experiencing what author Barbara Kingsolver has described as "the strange disjuncture that comes from reconnecting with your past. There's such a gulf between yourself and who you were then, but people speak to that other person and it answers." One '73 alumna's twelve-year-old son was embarrassed by this time-machine effect on his mother's personality: "Why," he asked his father grumpily, "does Mom have to laugh so much?"

At a reunion, not only do folks in their mid-forties find themselves thrust dizzyingly back into postadolescent personas, they simultaneously confront their future at every turn. "Every time I saw someone with a '48 name tag," Mallon said, "I realized they'd probably been walking around campus during our graduation for their twenty-fifth. And now, here they are again, and they're...old."

By Commencement morning there was no time for dwelling on the somber march of time; a more joyous march was imminent. The day began with pale-gray skies as thousands assembled on the Green. There was nary a raindrop in sight, and just enough cloud cover to keep the advanced-degree candidates and the beefeater-topped trustees from roasting in their heavy robes. Seniors hollered and hugged, many clutching roses or sporting decorated mortarboards. Bagpipes skirled for the medical-school contingent; the Lusitana Band of Cumberland, Rhode Island, and the Brown Band pounded out the beat for everyone else.

A determined '73 remnant jostled forward and began, at last, their trip around the Green and down the Hill. Commencement marshals Len and Phyllis Fineman Schlesinger '73 - ever the class sweethearts - brandished batons and smiled. Down the walk, through the Van Wickle Gates, and "You guys look young!" yelled a twenty-something spectator. Members of the class of '73 did have that youthful bloom, eyes alight and grins full-bore - and why not? It was their Commencement all over again, this time with pomp and pageantry. - Anne Diffily

Ray Charles plays the Pops. . . a scholarship for RUE. . . a bumper crop of Ph.D.'s and M.D.'s. . . John Hawkes 1925-1998. . . the new provost. . .A South African vision. . . medical malapropisms. . . the future of bioengineering. . . dance theater. . .honorary degree recipients. . . and Commencement miscellany.

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July / August 1998