Predestinate Grooves

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It was. The war, and then the return of brigades of veterans to pick up their interrupted (or never started) college careers, crowded the campus. Quonset-hut colonies housed married veterans, like George H. W. Bush, Yale 1948. Our old rooms to this day now accommodate four instead of two. The closets no longer hold the suits and the tweed jackets with leather-patched elbows, t he saddle shoes and rows of neckties of my day, but piles of denim and ragged shirts.

While you can be anything you want, or anything you can manage, as an undergraduate at Yale—scholar, athlete, Glee Club songster, Dramatic Club actor, newspaperman, clubman, politician, recluse—you wind up back in a single groove: alumnus, or, nowadays, alumna. And Yale’s economics depend on you. The first salvos from the Alumni Fund land before you have rolled up the diploma, and they follow you to the grave. The average giving has been extraordinary for years, and the superextraordinary givers have built the campus.

The giant gymnasium, where I sweated away in the crew’s practice tanks (you are motionless and water moves by you) was the gift of the Whitneys; the Beineckes built the spectacular Rare Book Library, with its translucent marble walls; Paul Mellon most recently gave Yale his matchless collection of British art and a building to house it.

There is no end to it; it makes a visit to New Haven well worth the time. I will finish with one little story about Edward Stephen Harkness, the Standard Oil heir of the Class of 1897 who gave his alma mater the College Plan after having bestowed a similar enormous benefaction on Harvard. George W. Pierson, who was one of my history professors in college and is Yale’s eminent biographer, relates in one of his books how Harkness, as an undergraduate, had been shy and lonely for his first several years. He lived alone in a rooming house, as many then had to, and ate in dreary restaurants; he was floundering in the then-compulsory Greek and Latin. The dean finally noticed and sent help, as is a dean’s job, but although his last year or two were much happier, Harkness worried thereafter about the fate of quiet or “average” men in the huge mass of Yale. And that is what he set out to cure with all those millions of hard Hoover dollars, with spectacular success. He lived until 1940, shy as ever, heavily laden with honorary degrees.

I didn’t know him, but I wish I had written him a thank-you letter to say how fine it was.