Monday, October 26, 2009

A trip back in time -- Homecoming in a small Missouri town

It's hard to believe that this week is the last one in October, and that our trip to little Fayette was nearly a month ago already.

As I'd mentioned before, we traveled back to this little central Missouri town, home of Central Methodist University, to attend my 40th year class reunion. Tony had never been there although he's met some of the folks from the college, and has read the Fayette newspapers for years, which my ex owns and edits.

So it was a long trip -- two hours by car to Sacramento, two hours by air to Denver and another two to St. Louis where we rented a car and drove another couple plus to Fayette. And then did it again two days later.

It was interesting to walk the campus and see how things have changed. For one, the old Eyrie (Eagle's Nest) student center that was once a WWII barracks has been demolished and an incredible four-story student center stands in its place, with the cafeteria, study rooms, pool tables, television, and much more. Another big change was in the athletic facility. Not only do they now have the EE Rich Memorial Swimming Pool (for some years now) that prospective students (including me) were promised for years before it was finally built, they officially opened a new athletic training center adjacent to the field house. It has state-of-the-art equipment and is a real boon for the campus.

The trees in Stedman Gulch -- a wide ravine in front of the science building which was almost new when I went there 40 years ago and had had little trees planted then -- have grown up, and the campus is the forest-y, shady, lovely traditional college campus that I remembered. Established in 1856 or so, there are many historic buildings, old traditional stone and turreted classroom buildings that have been renovated, and the improvements continue -- the old Classic Hall where I spent many hours in English, language and speech/drama classes but which has not been in use for some years is undergoing a capital campaign to renovate it into a music center.

The college has long been known for its music program and has turned out some of the finest band directors in Missouri. When you walk on campus in the afternoon, you usually can hear both instrumental and vocal students practicing, their voices and instrument tones floating on the Missouri breezes. Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia pledges still sing "Hail Sinfonia" as they pass under the old clock tower which dominates the main campus.

So I saw people I hadn't seen in 40 years, most of them gray and with faces full of character (nicer way of saying wrinkles). One woman asked why I'd come all the way from California to attend, and I told her it was important to honor what I was and had become on that campus, and the memory of the excellent teachers (not a lot, but a truly great handful) who taught me. It was such an historic time in our history -- 1965-69! And while our campus, numbering around 1,000 students in my last year there, was fairly isolated from the race riots, the demonstrations and the summer of love mentality (much of that hit in the next several years, after I had graduated), it was still an important factor in shaping who I am.

For one thing, it is a liberal arts college. That means, basically, that I know a little about a lot of things. I had a good grounding in the arts especially, and opportunities that a larger campus would not have given me, although I might have had some coursework that would have helped me more in a larger university. I was involved with the college radio station and learned news writing there -- a skill that I have used throughout my working life. I had the opportunity to know many people from many disciplines rather than only those in my major field.

I also got to see some folks who graduated after I did, but who I knew because my husband and I had moved back there just a year after I graduated (he is five years older than me, also an alumnus) and he began working for the college in public relations. I also worked there eventually and started the seeds for a career development center which now has a featured place in the new student center and lots of programs to help kids decide how to choose a career and how to figure out what they might be happiest doing. But I knew a lot of students in later classes because of that, and also a lot of faculty and staff members, a few of whom I also got to see again this trip.

It stirred up emotions I hadn't been prepared for. I remembered my 17-year-old self as a freshman, the 21-year-old graduate. I remembered some heartbreaking moments as well as some warm fuzzy ones. I missed some of the women, especially, who I knew so well -- at that point, we all lived in the dorm for all four years, although only a few years later, women were allowed to move off campus. I remembered sitting in the library -- a wonderful stone building that has a big four-story addition now in back of it -- when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I remembered watching streakers at some of the pep rallies!

At a couple of different receptions and parties, I got to watch professors I knew or had in class talk about the old times, listen to them discuss current books or plays, hear some sad stories about others who have died. I hugged a close friend from 40 years ago and exchanged e-mail addresses with her, although neither of us have written at this point. I listened to the huge pipe organ in the church fill the traditional gothic sanctuary with power and awe as an alumnus practiced for Sunday's church service (which I didn't attend as we were on our way back to the airport -- not that I probably would have anyway).

We enjoyed a hint of fall color as we drove around town, which reminded Tony of the little Tennessee town he grew up in. The traditional courthouse sits in a traditional square, which sadly has many empty storefronts now, but also has a really good restaurant -- Emmet's Kitchen -- along with the Dollar Store and various antique and craft stores, and the old Peacock Beauty Salon where I used to get my hair cut. Sadly, almost none of the long-time stores have survived: the town, like so many, is losing population to larger areas like nearby Columbia or Boonville.

I'll likely not go back until my 50th. The 50th reunion class of 1959 showed up en masse this year, but they were a close-knit group from the beginning. Ours is not that way, but it was still good to see people with whom I shared such a formative time, to honor that time and who we were then, to remember.

The best times of my life were not then. The best time is now. But I'm glad to have had those years there, to be influenced and challenged and encouraged by so many good people and teachers and counselors and peers. It was good to be there.

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