Robert Whitcomb: 'Not a problem to be solved'

Here’s an edited version of the preface I wrote a few weeks ago for the 50th reunion book for my boarding-school class.

To the Class of 1966

‘’And they shall seem to us in that far day

Like unforeseen, fond meetings with old friends’’

-- From the school song (actually more like a hymn)

Now we are well into that ‘’far day’’.  It seems paradoxically predictable and startling.

As I sit here, occasionally looking out the window at the trees after a very pretty but inconvenient snow and ice storm, I’m struck again at how much time speeds up even as we wish to slow it for reflection in the autumn of our years. “Where are the snows of yesteryear?’’ and all that.

While the weeks often dragged on when we were at school and February and March particularly seemed to stretch to afar gray horizon, now we know that the lushness of Connecticut in May, and our reunion, will be here in a flash.

Between now and then seems a good space to consider where we’ve been, if not where we’re going.  As Orwell wrote: “{I}t can also happen that one’s memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others.’’

We have been privileged to have had a fine education and to have lived in a very dynamic period in modern history,  as social change (some good, some not), technology and globalization have brought us daily lives quite different from ours in a school in the early and mid ‘60s.

When we were there, daily school life there, I suspect, wasn’t all that different from what it had been in the ‘30s and ’40s. Yes, television had become pervasive in American life, but with few exceptions,  we weren’t allowed to watch it. A memorable and moving exception were the hours after the John F. Kennedy assassination. I can still hear the Navy Hymn on the TV in the common room. And the Sexual Revolution had begun, but we isolated boys weren’t yet in it.

We had the daily rhythms of classes, sports and vespers (with those stirring old Protestant hymns), we wore coats and ties and were at least in public very respectful of the teachers. Little emphasis was placed on food, and “mystery meat,’’ with its greenish tint, was frequent fare. Now there’s fine dining (explaining some of the astronomical tuition?), no vespers and, to say the least, informal clothing rules among the boys and girls in our Gothic revival school. But no smoking for seniors. \

Those of us there for the full four years were ruled in our first year by a kindly but firm, dignified and gray-suited headmaster who had run the show since 1936! That style would soon change with his immediate successor, who felt that he had to get the school more in tempo with the (sometimes chaotic) times.

Of course, we weren’t all friends. And most of us wore a protective adolescent carapace of superficial cynicism.  Open displays of sensitivity weren’t encouraged, and weakness was to be hidden.  Still, some of us became lifelong friends, with, in some cases the real friendships starting years after we graduated.  And certainly the Internet has made reconnecting and maintaining old relationships easier.

Soon, pushed by intensifying awareness of our mortality, many of us will meet again at the school and celebrate both our differences and what we have had in common in the stretch of history we have shared. For many, perhaps most of us, it will be our last meeting.

 I suspect that we’ll be surprised again by the solidity of our core personalities.  I still remember what my father told me when I asked him after he got back from his 25th college reunion if his classmates had changed. He said: “I was surprised at how much they hadn’t, except for a guy who had been in a Japanese prison camp during the war {World War II}. Before the war he was jokey and relaxed. Now{1964} he is quiet and twitchy.’’

At the reunion, we’ll get more lessons in how our ratio of nature – our fundamental personalities and hard wiring – and nurture/experience has played out over the half century since we left our school.

Thanks to all who have sent biographical sketches. In them, classmates show an impressive range of skills,  achievements, successes, failures, triumphs and tragedies in their public and private lives. In other words,  we’re roughly like our age cohort in general but I think (as an elderly journalist) with more variety and color than most elderly Baby Boomers.

That’s admittedly in part because the majority of us came from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds than most Americans: Most of us have had more options than most men of our era. As these bios suggest, most in the Class of ’66 didn’t waste those options, and those who did generally had good medical, psychological and/or social reasons. We see a panorama in this book of vastly different jobs, places lived and passions pursued.

 Of course, classmates who are either deceased or declined to send in sketches also had engaging stories. We hope to hear about some of them at the reunion and after. Who knows? Perhaps some of them can be put into a book, too.

Kierkegaard famously wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’’ Well, “understanding’’ the past may be as beyond us as is answering such questions as “why is there something instead of nothing?’’

But one thing is clear: Long friendships are central to emotionally and mentally rich lives. We’ll celebrate those friendships at the reunion and some of us may even make some new ones before it’s too late. And for those who can’t make it, please get in touch.

Kierkegaard also said: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be


Robert Whitcomb is overseer of New England Diary.