It’s been thirty years since I’d been to a Colgate Reunion. Thirty-five since I graduated in 1984.
I have vague recollections of my 5th, thirty years ago – a warm day, a white tent, a plastic cup of yellow beer, a familiar brief exchange of “Hey, how ya doin’?”…”Good”….”Good” with some guys in my dorm – all we had ever managed to say to each other. A feeling of uncertainty, a twinge of fear, a shell of self-consciousness.
I tossed out the invitation to the 200th Anniversary Celebration, having no intention of attending. But the one Colgate friend who I hadn’t lost touch with called and said, “You should come,” and for some reason despite all my endless considerations and good reasons not to, I signed up to go. Perhaps curious, perhaps “200 years” some weight of importance not to be missed, perhaps something there that I needed to discover.
I drove. 3284.8 miles from Seattle to Hamilton. Nine days into a landscape that stretched back into an ever widening sky. Stepped out in downtown Hamilton on a warm evening by the Colgate Inn that looked a bit tireder and smaller than I’d remembered but still carried something of the grace and grandeur I’d recalled; memories of some incredibly good brunches when parents came to visit. Changes too. An Indian restaurant across the street and a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner.
“It’s so WEIRD being here,” I texted my friend.
In the past months I’d wondered if being back for reunion would be a confusing spin of discordant snippets of random memories, a descent into despair at still trying to make sense of my experience here, a shadow of faces and names I no longer recognized. Feared I’d return to the stifling self-doubt of my 18-year-old self trying to break out into someone I didn’t know how to be.
I googled “Student Union” unsure if it was still where it used to be. It was. I headed off to registration, picked up a maroon cap with a gold “C” and off to bed.
Early the next morning, Alumni Hall, rows of white chairs with shiny metal legs, curved side arm desks. I looked up as members of my 1984 class crowded into the back rows a few minutes late. I was surprised how moved I was that they had taken the time to be here – and yes, at 9am on a Friday morning.
I’d volunteered to lead a presentation on “Navigating Change,” a key issue in my life, as in many 50-something-year-olds, that has known, of late, a lot of change and transition.
I leaned back against the small desk at the front of the room, opened my tattered copy of a gray book held together with duct tape as Religion Professor R.V. Smith had done 39 years ago the fall of my freshman year in the room next door to this one. He read to us, as I read to the alumni gathered here today, a few words from H. Richard Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture about the “one thing in life with which we all must reckon”, the “void” which is the “source of all and the end of all….from which there is no escape.” (P. 122)
As an 18-year-old I knew enough of loss to be riveted by Niebuhr’s words and his call to “trust” in this void. Now, at 57, I knew a lot more about what the “void” meant. We all did. It was a gift to share experiences with each other about how we all were “navigating” the planned and unplanned changes in our lives.
After my talk, I stood in line for lunch under a white tent on Whitnall Field wondering where to sit when I spotted a round table with two white haired couples.
Angelo extended a warm greeting and a hand, and told me that at my age he too had stepped out from a job of many years, took a plunge into the “void” of not-knowing and discovered a new passion and life. Thanks to the encouragement of his wife, he’d become an oil painter. He’d organized an alumni art show and invited me to attend the reception later that afternoon.
I recall the scenes of the following days like Angelo’s oil paintings or Tommy Brown’s photographs of Madison County, little still-life’s, stories in time.
I’m sitting in front of Olin Hall, on a green rise of grass at the edge of the quad. I introduce myself to Tiffany, a 2009 graduate from Jamaica. She tells me about her interest in immunology and her work with the people in her community living with HIV. I tell her about my own work running an AIDS organization in the late 1980’s in Chicago. She tells me her stories of struggling to find a sense of grounding here at Colgate, so far from home. We both share how, a generation apart, we had found that grounding at University Church.
We go over to join the “Alumni of Color Bicentennial Tree Dedication.” Dean of the Faculty, Tracey Hucks, waters the tree, blessing it to grow deep roots, as a symbol, a reminder, that we must never forget the powerful legacy of students of color in this place that has struggled with accepting and celebrating their gifts over the past centuries.
Afterwards, we walk over to the ALANA Cultural Center 30th Anniversary Celebration. We are reminded that the great embracing glass ark of this beautiful center is a far cry from where it began as a small brown building on the edge of campus that used to be a storage closet. I wanted to be here for the celebration because when I was at Colgate my world was too small. I didn’t reach out, din’t make connections, deep friendships with my classmates of color. My own racism, my own prejudice had kept my world small.
I am committed now to living a more rich and full life, to hearing and learning the stories I had never taken time to hear. Stories like Diane Ciccone tells in her book, Into the Light: The Early African-American Men of Colgate University Who Transformed a Nation, 1840-1930. As I listen to her talk, I wonder on all that has kept us from learning the names and celebrating the legacy of these free men and former slaves who went on to become leaders in colleges, churches and government. How didn’t we all learn as students how in the mid-19th century our college expelled students for taking part in anti-slavery organizations, and under President Cutten banned African-Americans outright from attending Colgate. I realize that learning this history, hearing these stories is part of an integration, a healing, that has drawn me back for reunion.
Later that afternoon, I’m struck that I’m no longer apprehensive or self-conscious about going to the “LGBTQ and Allies Reception.” 39 years ago, a gathering like this would have been held in an “anonymous site” accessed by a phone number on posters that were too often defaced or torn down. Today, the reception is hosted by the Vice President and Dean of the College and his husband at their home on Broad Street.
That evening I’m sitting in the back pew at Memorial Chapel for the 45th Anniversary Concert of the Swinging ‘Gates. Hear stories from the members of this first recognized women’s group at Colgate and from women throughout the weekend of all they had to endure, all they had to do to find their place, make their place, here at Colgate.
It was not an easy time at Colgate 1980-1984, perhaps no era is when you are 18-22. It was a community torn as it struggled to make real the welcome it proclaimed for students of color and women. Not a safe place for a young man like me who was questioning his sexuality not knowing what to do with flush of excitement I felt staring at the upper classman sitting down the table from me gazing out the window, wondering what it was about him that made him so beautiful.
Rows of tall backed wood chairs on the gray stone floor in Chapel House. I introduce myself to Ed, an alum who I’m delighted to learn is also from Seattle. Stephen Kepnes sparks a spirited conversation on “Why God Today?,” the conversation broader, more inclusive of other perspectives and religious plurality than it had been decades before. Yet there’s a similar resonance that runs through the conversation, an appreciation that contemplation and reflection are values still to be celebrated and needed more than ever before. After the conversation, I find myself talking about God with one of the guys who decades before I’d never said anything beyond “Hey, how ya doin’?” Life’s changed.
“I kind of vaguely remember you,” a classmate tells me at the white tents on Whitnall Field that night, “You were kind of introverted, quiet..and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way…but what happened?!” I laugh.
I’ve grown; we all have. Grown through my own stumbling and successes, regrets and recoveries, broken promises and beautiful discoveries. All that leads me laughing here on the lawn. Indeed, what’s happened to all of us?
Tonight, instead of making myself hoarse yelling over the loud music in the tent and waiting for beer to be sloshed over me again, I step outside. I’ve learned after all these years, I have a choice. And yes, before too long, head off to bed. This too has changed.
The next morning, I’m up early, and gathered with the small crowd half-way up Trainer Hill for the start of the “Reunion Fun Run.” The long green field above campus was always one of my favorite places to get away and watch the clouds drifting slowly down the valley.
Amber Williams, Director of Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Track and Field jokes that she brought her stop watch so “You could set your PR if you want to.” I decide I might as well. It took me 39 years for my first and only athletic achievement at Colgate – I won the race. When the photographer asked me for the spelling of my name I said, “You’ve got to be kidding. No one has ever asked me this after a race!”
It’s Sunday noon, time for a few laps this afternoon before taking off. I sit on the edge of the pool looking down at the water below me. Remember the swim test we had to pass before graduation. How many laps did we have to swim? It feels like a long time ago.
The swimmer in the lane next to mine, pauses at the wall, looks up.
“How do you get in?” I ask, peering down at the water several feet below me, no ladder in sight, no edge of the pool to step onto.
“I just plop in”, she laughs, before taking off down the lane.
“Oh yeah,” I think, “I guess I could do that.” I brace myself for the cold plunge, plop in. It’s not as bad as I thought. Push off.
I may never “figure out”, “make sense of” all that was my Colgate experience as I will never figure out my ever elusive 18-year-old-self. But perhaps that was never the point. Instead, to take in the wonder of this present time – to witness how I’ve grown and changed, and Colgate as well.
Reunited this weekend with a school, a history, that is a work in process but one worth working at and moving towards – a wider inclusion, a deeper justice for the sake of the future generations that will be shaped here by the questions and conversations as I have been.
I’ll be back.
Peter Ilgenfritz ‘84
It was my freshman year at Colgate that late for gym class and changing my shoes in the empty locker room, I felt a rush of Love, of being Loved like I had never felt Love before. Although I had no idea what it meant, I took it to be of God and heard in it a call to be a minister. I didn’t share that experience with anyone until the end of my Junior year when I wrote of it in a paper for a class taught by the University Chaplain, Coleman Brown. He wrote two words next to my story, “A Gift.”
I didn’t know, and still don’t know how to make “sense” of that experience, but I do know what to do with a gift. After graduation from Colgate I took off for divinity school and I’ve been a pastor in the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination, these past 32 years. This past December I left my most recent pastorate of 25 years at University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle, and have set out on an intentional sabbatical time of exploration to discern my next call and ministry. My first stop on what will be a four month road-trip was here for reunion at Colgate. I couldn’t imagine a better place to begin.