As life marches on, Rutgers reunions are a constant

Victor Friedman took his "dink" (freshman cap) to his 60th reunion. The banner hung in his freshman dorm room.
Victor Friedman took his "dink" (freshman cap) to his 60th reunion. The banner hung in his freshman dorm room.
Posted: May 29, 2014

On a spring day in 1964, my husband, Victor, and I hopped into our slightly disreputable Chevy convertible, top down, of course, and drove north on the New Jersey Turnpike to his 10th college reunion at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

We'd splurged on a babysitter - $1 an hour - for our daughters, then 2 years old and 3 months old.

On that ride, he taught me the words to the Rutgers alma mater.

Earlier this month, we again drove up the turnpike, this time in our sensible sedan, equipped with sunscreen and ultra-strong sunglasses. And this time, it was for my husband's 60th Rutgers reunion.

That first year, I had worn a demure dress and pumps because life was a bit more formal. This time, it was comfortable slacks and walking shoes for me. Vic's old freshman cap - his beloved "dink" - was on the seat next to him.

Through all the intervening years, we were faithful reunion-goers. But I still recall my first one, that 10th, when these young men reminisced about their days on the banks of the old Raritan River, throwing out affectionate names like "Esh" and "Gersh" and "Fuffy." We wives talked of babies and books and the latest movies.

By the 20th reunion, Rutgers was starting to feel like community property. I had come to know and love its campus, with its open expanse of green and its old classroom buildings. Vic would venture into the ones that were open, remembering his undergraduate encounters with German and economics and biology. He always marveled at how long ago it all seemed.

Little did he know what "long ago" would come to mean.

As more reunions cascaded through our lives, the Eisenhower "Silent Generation" of Vic's college years had yielded to a new universe of Vietnam, hippies, yippies, and yuppies. All had unalterably altered the world, and our perspective.

By the 40th Rutgers reunion, our kids were long grown and gone, and we were new grandparents. I was immersed in the frenetic life of freelance writing, and my husband was in the twilight years of his long and rewarding legal and judicial career.

By then, so many faces were already missing from our reunions. Mortality was the long shadow in our midst. Yet there was still something oddly constant and reassuring about that campus, and our returns to it. Rutgers, by now, was ours.

And suddenly, it was the 50th Rutgers reunion - the monumental year when my husband and his cohorts joined the ranks of what is considered Rutgers' "Old Guard."

We were all awash in new realities: our parents gone, friends facing disabling illnesses, and a more pressing search for meaning and connection in our lives.

That year, the younger classes were gathered, as always, on the lawn of Old Queens, the beloved heart of the campus. And they immediately made way for these men, looking kindly, almost reverently, at them.

There was my husband, silver head held high, marching with his classmates down College Avenue. I know he was wondering how in the world it had come to this. And so was I.

The streets were lined with those younger alumni who cheered like mad when the new initiates to the Old Guard walked past. There was almost an Auld Lang Syne feeling of a New Year's Eve - cheers and a few tears.

And this recent 60th reunion?

Joyful. Wistful. Precious. And sobering, too.

Of the original 500 "boys" of the Class of '54 (Rutgers College was all male until 1970), only about 35 had returned. Health and distance were obstacles. The list of the deceased was long.

Yes, the laughter resonated as the nostalgia flowed. But I noticed that the conversations were, at times, unabashedly emotional. In some ways, older age can be freeing for men.

At the traditional class dinner, there was a new sense of urgency about catching up on one another's lives - and remembering.

The evening ended, as always, with the singing of the Rutgers alma mater. Those who could, instantly rose to their feet. A few had to be helped.

And there we were, singing those words that we had sung so many times before - and wondering, of course, whether we would ever sing them together again.

On the banks of the old Raritan, my boys,

Where old Rutgers ever more shall stand.

For has she not stood since the time of the flood,

On the banks of the old Raritan.

And nobody seemed embarrassed that on a spring night, among 80-year-old men, the tears were flowing.

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