By Don Morrison, C’68
When I was 18, my daddy put me on a Greyhound bus with a small cardboard suitcase and $200 and sent me off to a strange city a thousand miles away. I was finally on my own, turnpike-bound for glory.
That elation evaporated a day and a half later when, amid tropical heat and humidity, I arrived to learn that the trunk full of clothes and bedsheets that I’d shipped in advance to the Philadelphia bus depot had gone missing.
So I headed from Center City to my new home, a much longer walk than was apparent from the map, especially with a suitcase full of books. The clothes I had slept in were soaked through by the time I got there and found my dorm. Minutes later, my charming, confident, New England prep-school-formed roommate rolled in with his equally presentable parents, who suggested we all go to Bookbinders for dinner. Did I by any chance have clean clothes and, um, a jacket and tie? No problem, I said. I’ll meet you there in a jiffy.
Why such bravado? Because, while I may have been lacking in clothing, I did have friends in this unfamiliar place, and at least one of them was about my size. True, I had come from a two-bit town with a small, undistinguished high school whose graduates rarely left the county, let alone the state. And yet that wide spot in the road had sent Greyhound-loads of kids to Penn in recent years. There was a half-dozen in my entering class alone. As I stepped out of the shower, my borrowed suit arrived courtesy of a guy I’d grown up with. I strode off to meet my roommate, his parents and my first-ever lobster.
What were so many of my fellow hometown hayseeds doing at a university that even back then was dauntingly difficult to enter? It had less to do with our uncommon brilliance, I think than with the rather tenacious hold this particular school has on the imaginations of those it shapes.
The detailed explanation begins about three decades earlier when a shy young man named Dudley Giberson became probably the first son of our hamlet to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He lasted one semester.
Oh, he did fine, academically and socially. But his father died unexpectedly, and he hastened home to save the family’s commercial insurance business from the Depression. Dudley saved it brilliantly, never resuming his college career but forever crediting it with giving him the stuff to do the job. During my high school years, his affection for the place burst forth: He became a one-man recruiting department.
Early in my senior year, Dudley held a dinner at the only real hotel in town, invited about 20 of my brighter classmates and even persuaded somebody from the Office of Admissions in distant Philadelphia to come give a presentation. I was hooked. So were five other diners, which wasn’t a bad yield at all.
We fortunate few became a loose mutual aid society, sharing friends, funds, and rides back to the prairie. The guy with the suit was my entrée to a genial fraternity. The brothers there nudged me toward the Daily Pennsylvanian, where I gained the skills that would determine my career and where I met the friend who set up a fateful encounter with my future wife (long story) and served as an usher at our wedding along with a guy from both the fraternity and the DP who later worked with me at Time magazine and met his wife at the aforementioned wedding, to which she had come as the girlfriend of a guy I’d met through the second individual mentioned in this paragraph. Got that?
Even in those days I wasn’t a particularly gregarious character, but my varied campus networks kept expanding and merging with others – publications, honor societies, religious and intellectual groups, political protest cabals, classroom seatmates, people who hung out at certain bars. That process continues to this day. I recently had dinner with a new neighbor who happens to be a classmate I hadn’t seen in decades who introduced me to a neighbor of hers who, it turns out, lived next door to me for years in Hong Kong, though we didn’t know it at the time.
Lest my stay in West Philadelphia sounds like one perpetual networking party, I must note that our years there embraced one of the most tumultuous periods in recent American history. An unpopular president was presiding over an unpopular war — also an alarming military draft — and the fight for racial and economic justice was raging. Oh, and the university itself wasn’t making many friends in my generation with its research ties to the military (these were wound down after much agitation) and its plans for an undistinguished arts building in one of the few green plots left in the center of campus (it got built despite bitter opposition). We spent many of our undergraduate hours in protests, counter-protests and trying to make it to class around them.
Despite all that turmoil, however, I struggle to recall any deeply unpleasant conversations or permanently ruptured friendships. Perhaps because our campus was then relatively confined, we ran into each other constantly. And we had developed webs of overlapping connections too thick to be severed by mere ideological disagreement. Families are like that.
I eventually left this particular family. I had moved on. Indeed, I had moved to the ends of the earth. I had retired from Time and was teaching at a university in China, living in a polluted corner of Beijing so distant from the city center that I went there infrequently – and few people came to see me. Then one day I received an e-mail from a gentleman in the Development (now Gift Planning) Office, 7,000 miles away. Against all odds, he had tracked me down in my hideaway to say he was going to be in Beijing and wanted to get together. I was so astonished that I invited him to lunch at our proletarian faculty club, and we passed a jolly afternoon.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Or, to steal another literary reference: The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. I learned both those lines, and embarrassingly little else, during my college years, and I have come to treasure them.
Which brings us to the case of the errant trunk. (Remember that?) I revisited the bus station several times that hectic first semester, but the cursed thing never turned up. I made do for a while through energetic borrowing and eventually acquired new items. As for the trunk, I found another, more durable one. I filled it with friends and memories, which, I’ve come to realize, never really go missing.