My 50th college reunion is coming up this spring, and though it is doubtful I will attend — I’ve yet to attend any kind of reunion — I’ve been contributing stories to and monitoring the college’s online reunion site for the Class of 1969.
I’m left to wonder: Should I decide to go, would I make it?
Out of a class that arrived in the fall of 1965 with some 530 students, a sobering number — between 85 and 90 by best estimate — have died. That’s getting into the neighborhood of 20 percent of the class, or one out of five. Not yet that dismal figure, I know, but close enough to count.
We were the early boomers, most of us born in 1947. Post-war, Howdy Doody, Wonder Bread, Jonas Salk, Chuck Berry; big fins from Detroit and toxic stress from the Iron Curtain; fallout shelters and backseat drive-ins; middle-class mobility and letter-sweater nobility; PCBs and SATs.
When we started out, in Oberlin, Ohio, at a small-town college 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, in 1965, for dinner, the men wore ties and the women skirts. Four years later, the semester after we finished in 1969, the dorms were co-ed and on the cover of Life magazine. That June, in 1969, following graduation ceremonies addressed by Richard Hatcher, the first black mayor of Gary, Ind., the Cuyahoga River, around Cleveland and Lake Erie, polluted and slick with oil, caught fire, and not for the first time.
At 17, with an old-school Norwich Free Academy education, spotty study habits and unfortunate board scores, I was certainly privileged to be there and in over my head. But it was Ohio, the Western Reserve, as far from Norwich as I was able to venture, at a college (founded in 1833) that prided itself in its history of earliest integration, both race (1835) and gender (1837), its conservatory of music and its distinguished alumni.
I managed to graduate on time, mostly through the benign tutelage of a history professor named Robert Soucy, and am here today, writing this. A good many of those I befriended are no longer here, and I’m learning, sadly, as I mentioned, how many others as well.
Two of my roommates are gone — one from Cincinnati, who died at age 47 of a skin cancer, undetected on his scalp under his enviable head of hair, and the other, at 66, just a few years ago, after living for decades with a degenerative disease affecting the spinal cord, syringomyelia. He was from Philadelphia.
A fellow who started out with us, but left after a year, was a familiar name in this region. He, too, is gone. He was Peter Sacco. He came from New York, where as a violinist he had studied and performed at Juilliard, and left the Oberlin Conservatory for the University of Texas, following a favored teacher. He graduated from Texas and then the Yale School of Music in 1974, and, settling here, co-founded with his wife, Cynde Iverson, the annual Summer Music concert series at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. He also conducted several orchestras and taught at Connecticut College, Wesleyan University and the University of Connecticut.
He died from an aneurysm, at age 59 in 2006, just after completing the 100-mile bicycle ride known as “The Flattest Century in the East,” in Tiverton, R.I.
Those classmates still among us around here include Walt Galloway, of West Greenwich, R.I., who is heading up the reunion-organizing. He was a chemistry major and, after serving in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia and Eritrea, went to work, in 1974, for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, from which he retired in 2012. He has worked in environmental science in Rhode Island for nearly four decades. In retirement, he is a trustee of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and a member of the Rhode Island Rivers Council.
Another classmate, Charles Hauss, known as Chip, grew up in New London. After Oberlin, he earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan, and taught at Colby College, where he was tenured, and then George Mason University. He’s been resolutely dedicated to, and has written extensively about, conflict resolution, peace-building and global politics.
Impressive, indeed, as are the lot of these classmates: scholars, activists, musicians, artists, eccentrics, providers and researchers. But the number of deaths, in fact, is what engages me. Are we, the Class of 1969, merely par for the course in terms of loss? Social Security Online has a “cohort life expectancy” chart that shows those born in 1947 have a life expectancy of 78.7 years (female) and 73.0 (male). These are aggregate numbers, that is, no detailed breakdown for race, wealth, education and the like.
Still, by and large, most of us have made the cut, and I’m happy to ascribe that to extra credit, perhaps, no matter how each of us made the grade.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist He may be reached at email@example.com.