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.

Architecture and the Power of Place

Jewett is a legacy memory for me. The housing letter that arrived in the summer of 1973 said I would have a single there. They might as well have anointed a King. Jewett felt like the Ritz. Tall ceilings, hallways so wide they doubled as party spaces, a parlor with a baby grand, and my large, corner single with windows on both walls.

Mine was the first room on the ground floor of the north wing at the end of the hallway from the main entrance. I looked out towards Josselyn, the tennis courts, and the open field. Sliding double doors were all that separated our wing from the rest of Jewett. The hallway was lined with dorm rooms and it led to an outside door. This was our shortcut to and from the quad. It made our floor feel like a dorm within a dorm.

Another advantage to my room is that it overlooked one of the main paths to Pizza Town, which was our watering hole. Because nearly everyone, or so it seemed, walked by my windows to get there, I felt like I had a pulse on the party scene.

The best part about Jewett, though, is that I now share alum status in it with my daughter, Natania, Class of 2009. Who would have thought that 33 years later, in 2006, my daughter would be living in the same dorm.

Another memory, one that helped shape my future, is work/study. I was offered a student job with Clyde Griffen [Professor Emeritus of History] for my junior and senior years at Vassar. I recall doing research on Poughkeepsie for his book, published soon after I graduated. The position came with a closed-door office the size of a closet in the basement of the library. These tiny enclosures were prized back then, not so much because they were a privilege reserved for scholarly endeavors, but because the lucky few who had them had a private place on campus, other than your housing, in which to retreat or leave stuff.

Clyde and his family lived in a wonderful, old, two-story house on campus alongside the golf course. I would often meet with him at his home to discuss the work that I did for him. I got to know his family and would occasionally look after the house when they went away.

He was also my history professor. The fact that I worked for him was added incentive to do well in his class. The thrill of acing his class was all the more sweetened by the relationship that I had with him as my mentor and as an extended member of his family.

It was the research that I did for him, though, that has had a pervasive influence on my life and career. What I remember most is looking through old Poughkeepsie newspapers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, perhaps all of them from that time. The past was very much a part of my present, especially the buildings. With so many examples of the architecture from that time still around, it was easy to see and appreciate for myself the craftsmanship and detail of old buildings and imagine life in them back then. The past and present merged in a very tangible way when my classmates Carl and Lenny and I chose to live off campus on Vassar Street in Downtown Poughkeepsie, in a turn-of-the-century home.

My major in Urban Studies (science, technology, and society) evolved into a Masters in Architecture and Urban Planning, an MBA, and a career in real estate development. A significant part of my career has involved the renovation and adaptive re-use of historic buildings and an appreciation for the power of place. A tribute, indeed, to Clyde and to Vassar.

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