Memories

As we celebrate 150 years of Vassar's existence, we want to compile the stories, photos, and videos that, together, define what we mean by world changing. "World Changing" is not simply a catch phrase; it is a summation of the philosophy, goals, and achievements that have made Vassar remarkable from the college's earliest days. Please share with us how Vassar changed you.

Faculty Members

My most vivid and treasured memories of Vassar all revolve around faculty members:

1. Christine Havelock taking the stage for the first session of Art 105:  the only word to describe her bearing is regal, with her perfect posture and her professorial hairdo (swept up in a bun). And then the lights went down and the magic began. I came to Vassar intending to major in English, and I took Art 105/106 because everyone I spoke to told me that I shouldn’t graduate from Vassar without taking it. So I registered for it as a freshman, and by the end of the year I had decided to major in Art History. Mrs. Havelock (we called all the professors “Mr. ” and “Mrs./Miss” in those days—when did that practice end? My daughter, class of 2012, calls them all “Professor”), followed by Mr. Huenik, Mr. Carroll, Miss Askew, Mr. Palmer, Ms. Nochlin—the lectures were mesmerizing, and brilliant, the images (some of which were on glass slides!!) were a revelation, and I was hooked.

2. Benjamin Kohl, who made Renaissance and medieval history come alive, who told us that his children played “Guelphs and Ghibellines” instead of “cowboys and indians”, and who responded to spontaneous applause after one of his lectures with the most acute embarrassment. Speaking of which, I remember many times when such applause erupted in a classroom after a lecture, particularly in Art 105/106. I wonder how often that happens at other colleges and universities—my guess is rarely.

3.  John Glasse in the Religion Department—a class with a total enrollment of four students, meeting in his office in Blodgett, discussing St. Augustine as the sunlight streamed through the leaded glass windows and warmed the room—a quintessential Vassar experience.

What a life-changing, mind-opening privilege it was to spend four years exploring questions large and small in such a vibrant and warm intellectual community.

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This Too Shall Pass (In Memory of Curt Beck)

Today I’ve decided to write about something a little different; it’s about the act of mentoring. This blog is devoted to a mentor and teacher of mine, Curt Beck, who made a difference in my life some thirty odd years ago. And I still remember.

Vassar College is a liberal arts school in upstate New York. It was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Matthew Vassar, a brewer who wanted to give women the opportunity to have a first class education. At the time, only men were accepted into the premier colleges like Dartmouth or Yale, and Matthew Vassar did something about it. Luckily, when it was time for me to go to college, Vassar had opened its doors to men as well.

One of the most memorable people I met at Vassar was my organic chemistry professor, Curt Beck.

Curt Beck left Germany as a young man. Although he had that Germanic devotion to completeness, Curt Beck was a Renaissance man. He was well versed in the classics as well as in history, literature and, of course, science. Mr. Beck (Mr. or Ms. is preferred at Vassar over Doctor or Professor) was one of the founders of archeological chemistry. He worked with archeologists around the world, identifying what substances were contained in ancient clay jars, so they could figure out trade routes from the distant past. He was best known for his original amber research. Amber is a substance derived from ancient sap. It can be found in many places around the world, and has been prized by royalty and evolutionary biologists alike.

To be honest, all this was unimportant to me at twenty years of age. As a pre-med student all I cared about was doing well in organic chemistry. From my point of view, Mr. Beck stood between me and medical school.

It was thirty years ago, although it feels like yesterday, and I was preparing for my finals. Unfortunately, I was also embroiled in a rocky love affair. My girlfriend and I kept dating and breaking up many times. This meant late nights dealing with the excitement and hurt of immature love. Since every grade counted, and I wanted to get into medical school, I had to stop the roller coaster. I simply couldn’t concentrate on my finals and the relationship at the same time. After talking about it, we both agreed to put the relationship “on hold” until the end of finals.

When the exams were over, I searched the campus for my girlfriend only to find that she had already left for the summer. Disappointed and distraught, I then arrived at Mr. Beck’s office to pick up my organic chemistry final exam. I walked in, looked briefly at the test, and then put it away among some papers.

We were alone.

Mr. Beck was the quintessential college professor, with his casual formality, his intelligent blue eyes, wavy grey hair, and a curious hint of impishness. He spoke in fluent English, modified by a mild German accent.

He noticed that something was wrong.

Mr. Beck asked, “Is something troubling you?”

And I told him the truth.

After he heard my story, Mr. Beck suggested right then and there that we go for a walk. We found our way to Sunset Lake, a small pastoral lake on the Vassar College campus. It was a beautiful day in mid May, and the daffodils were in full bloom. As we sat down on a hill overlooking the lake, Mr. Beck told me about his life, that he had wounds too, and how the vast majority of men (and women) have stories like mine.

Then he said something that I still remember:

“You know, sometimes life seems like a ride in a small rowboat. The waves are so big that you think you are going to tip over. So you hold onto the sides as hard as you can. You are thrown by the wind and the waves; and then one day, the sea just calms down. And everything’s okay.”

“It’s going to be okay for you, too.”

These words still resonate with me, and I want to offer them to all of you out there, who feel that you are on a small rowboat being rocked by huge waves. Most of the time, things do calm down eventually.

Mr. Beck was an unusual man, with a vast intelligence and a huge heart.

We later became friends. I visited his home, and like the good chemist that he was, he taught me how to make apple brandy from freshly picked apples. Last week Vassar had a memorial gathering for professor Curt Beck, the distinguished researcher. Colleagues from all over the country attended, including one of the curators of the Smithsonian who paid homage to Mr. Beck’s contributions to amber research and the study of evolution.

But I remembered a man of great humanity, who took time away from his important work to offer solace and companionship to a young student. I remember a man who saw what was important, and I will never forget it.

This story originally appeared on the Psychology Today website, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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The Pioneer Years: Uniquely Challenging

As part of the second class of freshman men, entering Vassar in 1971, I had no idea what I was getting into or what lay ahead. Growing up with three other brothers in an all-boy family with a mother who related better to men than to most women, I was used to a male’s way of thinking, doing, and behaving in school and society back then.

Since my two older brothers attended Amherst and Johns Hopkins before I chose Vassar over Lafayette, I was the first son not to attend an all-male college. What I knew of college life from my brothers did not exist at Vassar, so my initial experiences of my freshman year were full of dissonance in light of my thinking, values, and my comfort zone.

As newly minted freshmen men on campus we were in a highly visible, cautiously regarded (sometimes resented) minority, and I often thought I didn’t belong at Vassar, that I didn’t fit in. The feelings of disconnect were so strong that by mid-October of ’71 I was ready to transfer out to a more male-centric college like my brothers had attended.

Only the sage advice from my parents (“Don’t try to fit Vassar, just make Vassar fit you”) kept me from abandoning the community I had just joined and provided me a mantra that got me through freshman year with more pleasant memories and experiences.

Among the freshmen men of ‘the pioneer classes’ of the early 70’s I’m sure I wasn’t alone in the struggle to make a place for myself at Vassar, a place where there were few male student role models and the struggle we faced was to create them, to help Vassar start down the road of achieving maturity as a coeducational institution. Only those classmates, male and female both, who attended Vassar during those years prior to 1976-77 share that bond of living through the challenges of those pioneer years. Having been a part of that period of the college’s history makes my memories of Vassar uniquely special. It wasn’t always comfortable or pretty, but it was a one-of-a-kind college education for me.

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A School with a View

First week of freshman year. I’m running late. But I’m also lost, so my hurried pace has stalled, and I stand near New England Building shifting my body weight north and south, trying to commit to a direction. Another student approaches, and she’s everything I’m not: stylish, assured, oriented. Definitely not a freshman. I don’t want to bother her, but she’s clearly seen my kind before. She smiles and asks if I need help.

Trying not to sound like I think she’s the Second Coming, I tell her that yes, I’m… looking for Skinner Hall?

She leads me over to Olmsted Hall. When we reach the top of the stairs, we stop simultaneously. Beyond and below us lie the Shakespeare Garden, the creek, and the castle that is Skinner. I want more than anything to not seem like the bumbling small-town girl that I am, but I’m awestruck. I stare. My mouth opens. Movie-score music swells in my ears. The girl, this epitome of collegiate sophistication, waits a beat. Then she gives a little laugh and gestures towards the expanse. “And that,” she says, “is basically why I came to Vassar.”

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Moratorium Against the War (1970)

My fiancé was a Navy SEAL officer who served two six-month tours in Vietnam, one of them coinciding with my last semester at Vassar. While he was leading twelve men safely through the military and moral morass of Southeast Asia, I was marooned at Vassar—where I couldn’t find a single person who even knew anyone serving in Vietnam. My sense of isolation was reflected in my senior thesis for the drama department, a reading called “Women in Wartime,” constructed from primary sources dating from World War I and earlier.

Although strongly anti-war personally, I resented the stated purpose of the Vassar Moratorium: to raise consciousness about the war. With the man I loved getting shot at on a daily basis in the Delta, I felt that my consciousness was plenty raised already.

On the last night of the Moratorium, I had an overwhelming urge to go up to the roof of Raymond and express my frustration by setting off my illumination flare. I can’t remember exactly which SEAL had given it to me after I’d mentioned that I thought it was cool. The flare was a fat, foot-long tube. You took off its lid, fastened it to its bottom, and punched upwards. Supposedly, there would then be great noise and light. (These days I shudder at the thought that I brought it home with me on a commercial airliner.)

I had no faith that my arm would be strong enough, so I persuaded one of Vassar’s brand-new crop of senior men to accompany me to the roof. I assembled the tube, gave him verbal instructions, and held my breath.

Chris slammed his fist against the bottom of the tube. There was a pop and huge whoosh, and the dark quad lit up like noon for several minutes as the flare exploded and then floated gently on its little parachute. It was satisfying and beautiful—reminiscent of stories I’d been told about my father, a World War II demolitions expert, whose hatred of Nazi aristocrats had prompted him to blow up their grand pianos because “it made the most beautiful sound.” Hidden on the roof and deeply at peace, I watched the brilliant light flicker and die.

Then we came downstairs to find the quad full of furious students, terrified by this unexpected demonstration of firepower. The recent killings at Kent State had made everyone edgy, and they had feared that Dutchess County sheriff Lawrence Quinlan had decided to unleash WMDs against Vassar’s radicalized student body. Chris and I melted into the indignant mob—and never told anybody.

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