This 1940s wartime era photo prompts a nostalgic moment for me, even if I wasn’t around back then and my soggy sentiments have nothing to do with the picture itself. This is the old Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the marquee features coming sporting attractions, including basketball games featuring Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater) and New York University (my law school alma mater).
Valparaiso posted the pic to its Facebook page in connection with the appearance of the current men’s basketball team in the semifinal round of the National Invitation Tournament, which will be played in the modern Madison Square Garden next week. This year’s squad has set a school record for wins, including three in the NIT. A victory against Brigham Young University on Tuesday will put them in the tourney championship game, to be played later in the week.
The vintage photo shows VU players arriving for their game at the Garden. VU’s war-era team was one of the nation’s best, thanks to its successful recruiting of talented players who were too tall to enter military service. The team traveled all the way from the Hoosier State to play Long Island University, no small journey in the days before jet airliners.
The second marquee game featured NYU hosting Colgate University. NYU was a major college sports presence during the first half of the last century, and its basketball team played in many of the prominent arenas along the east coast. Today NYU is a non-scholarship Division 3 school, with men’s and women’s basketball teams playing very competitively at that level.
We all have our personal narratives, and part of mine involves growing up and going to college in northwest Indiana, discovering something of the world during a final collegiate semester abroad, and then heading off to law school in New York City. To see both Valparaiso and NYU on that marquee, located on the wondrous island of Manhattan, symbolically brings together two educational institutions that have played important roles in my life.
As for Madison Square Garden, when I lived in New York I watched my share of basketball there, mostly Knicks NBA games. It was still possible back then to get cheap tickets (four dollars, then eight dollars) to sit up in the nosebleed seats. But when the Knicks were on top of their game and the Garden was rocking, well, it didn’t matter where you sat, it was quite an event.
After VU’s home court victory over St. Mary’s of California that punched the team’s ticket for the trip east, the public address system played Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” That was my song, too. I hope their Manhattan sojourn turns out as well for them as it did for me.
Thirty-five years ago, I joined a group of fellow Valparaiso University students at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where we would board a TWA flight to London. We were to be the 27th group of VU students to spend a semester at the University’s overseas study centre in Cambridge, England, and the long flight was the first big step of our journey.
We landed in London the next morning and boarded a coach for Cambridge. Later that evening, bleary-eyed but hungry, we would gather for the first of many group dinners, this one featuring American-style pizza at a place called Sweeney Todd’s.
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
As I have written here before, despite my penchant for nostalgia, there aren’t many times of my life that I’d actually like to relive. But if I could enter a time machine to relive this one, I’d jump in right away and fasten my seatbelt.
Among study abroad offerings, a semester in England spent largely in the company of fellow American students ranks with the gentlest invitations to get beyond one’s comfort zone. Nevertheless, for a young man born and raised in northwest Indiana and not particularly adventurous by nature, those five months away were life changing and world expanding.
Our academic fare was pretty basic, a cluster of survey-type courses in British history, British drama, European geography, and art appreciation designed largely to introduce us to our new surroundings. Group trips, extended weekends, spring break, and the weeks following the end of the semester allowed for travel and exploration. I did a spring break trip through Scotland and Ireland, as well as a brisk three-week, post-semester jaunt through Western Europe (France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany), traveling alternately with fellow VU students and on my own.
However, I was not a frequent weekend sojourner; I enjoyed the old university city of Cambridge and tended to stay there. When I did travel, London was by far my favorite destination. I felt very much in my element in those two places.
I loved going to movies, plays, bookstores, and lectures in Cambridge. I joined the Cambridge Union Society, a famous debating and cultural activities club run by ambitious University undergraduates, some of whom already had set their sights on election to Parliament! The day I joined, I attended a formal debate on British economic policy. Among the speakers was economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who would become one of my intellectual heroes.
During visits to London, museums and plays were my main focus. Our theatre course required that we write a series of play reviews. It is only fitting, given my parochial outlook, that my first review was of a West End production of “Oklahoma!,” the classic American musical.
Given the personal significance of this experience, one might guess that I had planned to participate in a study abroad program from the time I first stepped on campus. Not so! I signed up mainly because good friends with whom I worked on the campus newspaper were going, and I wanted a change of scenery.
During my interview for admission to the Cambridge semester program, I managed to sling some mildly articulate fertilizer about expanding my intellectual horizons, but truthfully I had no idea what I was talking about. This thin level of cultural depth, matched by a healthy dose of post-adolescent callowness, followed me overseas, where I made most of my plans at the last minute and often tagged along with others who were more informed about what to see and do….
…As in tagged along, went along, or sometimes practically dragged along! On group tours to places like Warwick Castle, York, and Stonehenge, I went because they were on the schedule. During spring break stops in Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, and other parts of Scotland, I went because five of us rented a car and drove north. (My own choices led to questionable decisions, such as heading over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, during a tumultuous and violent time there.)
I was hardly more intentional during my post-semester trip to the European continent. I explored the Left Bank of Paris, hiked in the Swiss Alps, and went on “The Sound of Music” guided bus tour in Salzburg mostly because that’s what my friends wanted to do. (I did take a memorable solo trip to Berlin, with the Wall still intact.)
But it all stuck and left deep impressions. I will give my young self credit for understanding this as the semester went on. I knew that I was very, very fortunate to be having that experience.
Of course, I realize that in waxing nostalgic about my semester abroad, I am something of a cliché. The world is full of American collegians who hopped on a plane bound for Europe and returned with a boatload of breathless stories about visits to “amazing,” “incredible,” and “fascinating” sites that, umm, countless millions of others have seen as well.
But I can’t help it. That semester had a fundamental impact on me, and I cannot imagine what my life would be like had the opportunity passed me by. I know that others in our cohort feel the same way, though perhaps with a bit less intensity.
Which leads me to a final, very important point: I had no idea that I would stay in touch with so many people from this group, yet lifetime friendships emerged from our semester together. In fact, every five years we gather for a group reunion, which typically includes sharing many of the same old stories, accompanied by lots of laughter. We’re now planning our next reunion for this summer.
And so, I plead guilty to being among those who look back at such times with great fondness and gratitude. Amazing, incredible, and fascinating, indeed.
Those who ask me about the potential value of extracurricular activities for college students risk being on the receiving end of a verbal serenade about The Torch. Allow me to explain….
My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in Indiana, recently announced the creation of an online archive of past issues of The Torch, the school’s long-running weekly student newspaper. As a former Torch department editor and reporter (1979-81), the notice catapulted me into a nostalgic state. I even dug out the bound volume from my first year on the paper, photos of which you may peruse here.
I quickly lapse into soggy memories over The Torch because it was the most important extracurricular activity of my college career. The experience of writing and editing articles for publication has paid professional dividends throughout my career, and many of the friendships formed with fellow staffers have endured to this day.
I joined The Torch in my junior year, and I pored myself into working for it. I wrote dozens of articles and columns, mostly on academic affairs topics within the university. I also assigned stories to reporters in my department and edited their work.
It was a heady experience to write pieces for publication with a byline appended. Many members of the VU community read the paper, as our lively letters-to-the-editor section often reflected. (I learned that if you’re going to put your words out there for public consumption, you’d better have or grow a thick skin.)
Some articles demanded special attention to detail, thoroughness, and accuracy. For example, I wrote an investigative piece in which I was able to elicit admissions from campus administrators that a popular political science professor had been denied tenure on grounds beyond the official criteria for tenure evaluation. This meant many hours interviewing university faculty members and deans; our reporting had to be airtight on such an important matter.
I also did a series of articles covering the aftermath of a tragic student-on-student slaying that had racial overtones. Those pieces thrust me well beyond the comfort zone of reporting everyday campus events and activities. For several weeks I was regularly on the phone with sources from police departments, the county prosecutor’s office, and the local hospital, among others.
The Torch quickly became the social and intellectual hub that I didn’t previously have at Valparaiso. A former Torch colleague once wrote that it became our own college of sorts, where we wrote and edited our articles and debated issues related to academic and campus life. We spent a lot of time simply hanging out at The Torch offices, even when we didn’t have to be there. Looking back, I now realize that it was an exceptional extracurricular experience.
Our little newspaper was not free of sophomoric writings (some penned by yours truly), and at times we took ourselves too earnestly (ditto). But we produced some quality reporting and thoughtful commentary about collegiate life and academic institutions, as evidenced by multiple awards we earned from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association during those years.
The university’s Greek system was a regular focus for us, and we often took to task the behavioral excesses emerging from fraternity events. This was the age of Animal House, and along with toga parties inspired by the movie came some pretty egregious conduct. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were fully warranted in addressing these issues, many of which anticipated today’s concerns about student conduct at fraternity events.
However, we largely dismissed the positive social bonds facilitated by fraternities and sororities. Our office conversations were laced with regular putdowns of Greek organizations, to the dismay of Torch staffers who belonged to them. At a school with a largely conservative student body that embraced the Greek system, our newspaper was a liberal-ish, independent enclave, sometimes fueled by healthy doses of self-righteousness.
As a group of (mostly) liberal arts majors, we closely reported campus deliberations relating to the place of the social sciences, humanities, and general education in the university curriculum. These topics were frequently invoked in editorials and opinion columns as well. The more callow among us were guided by the work of three senior editors with strong intellectual orientations. Many of us were unaware that we were participating in an emerging national debate on the value of instruction in the liberal arts, but this troika was already marking academic trends by reading The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Only a handful of Torch staffers would build careers in journalism. One of them, Jim Hale (author of the “Insights gleaned” column pictured above), is currently a reporter for the Gettysburg Times in Pennsylvania. Previously Jim was a writer for the Gettysburg College communications office and a reporter for the Chesterton Tribune in Indiana.
As for me, I did some part-time reporting for a couple of local newspapers in northwest Indiana, and later I served as an editor of the law school newspaper at New York University. Though I did not pursue a journalism career, The Torch served as an ongoing tutorial on the importance of tight, clear, well organized writing. In terms of aspirations, at least, these qualities have manifested themselves in virtually everything I write: Scholarly articles, essays, reports, op-ed pieces, and, yes, blog posts.
In fact, I know that my affinity for the blogging medium traces back to my days at The Torch. Writing this blog is an engaging pastime for me, like being a newspaper columnist, albeit with a much smaller readership! Writing my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, requires more analytical smarts, but it, too, has roots in my collegiate newspaper experience.
The old chestnut about understanding your present by comprehending your past certainly applies here. I did not have an academic career in mind when I was a collegian. My intention was to go to law school and eventually to start a career in politics. (I also was active in student government and in political campaigns as a college student.) However, as I flipped through the pages of The Torch, I understood how reporting on the ups and downs of academe planted seeds that keep sprouting in my life today.
Equally important, I remain good friends with everyone whose byline appears in these photographs, as well as others who were part of the mix. Our paths cross regularly through periodic get-togethers, e-mails, phone calls, and social media. Many of these friendships have matured and deepened over the years. This only reinforces my belief that something good was happening at that campus newspaper office some 35 years ago.
Portions of this post were adapted from a previous piece on the importance of extracurricular activities, written for Minding the Workplace.
For many educators, mid-August brings a sort of foreboding: Uh oh, school is starting up again very soon. The endless summer is coming to an end.
Now, this may sound odd coming from someone who enjoys teaching and is grateful for the opportunity to make a living as a professor. But yes, I feel this way, too.
I trace this anxious rumble in my belly to memories of first-year orientations as a college and law student many years ago. I suppose they planted the seeds for how I regard the beginning of an academic year.
Let me go back to August 1977, first-year orientation at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Valpo, as it is colloquially known, was only a 45-minute drive from my parents’ home in Hammond, Indiana. But I was quite unworldly at that early juncture of my life, so that distance felt like a million miles away during those first few days (and the weeks to follow).
In terms of events, I hazily remember a bunch of meetings big and small, a large-group assembly or two, and some type of cookout. VU’s orientation program neither eased nor stirred my anxieties. However, the status quo was about as much as I could’ve asked of it, given my constricted comfort zone. It would take another two years for me to find my social and extracurricular groove at Valparaiso, mainly via my joining the staff of the campus newspaper and eventually spending my final semester in England. A good number of lifetime friendships were forged during those years.
Now let’s quickly jump to August 1982 and law school orientation at New York University. Outwardly I tried to maintain a friendly and upbeat demeanor, but privately I wondered if I was in over my head. I had moved from Indiana to the heart of Manhattan. Lots of my new classmates had gone to elite colleges. Many had done fancy internships. When a fellow 1L mentioned that he had spent the previous year working as an assistant at the U.S. Supreme Court, I decided not to offer that during the same time I was working as a stock clerk at a retail drugstore.
NYU’s law school orientation was the usual mix of welcoming speeches, panel discussions, intro classes, and receptions, but the content and people were such that I came out of it mildly reassured that I would (1) survive law school; and (2) have some good job opportunities at the finish. I was also pleasantly surprised that so many of my super-talented classmates were genuinely nice people, and I started making friends very easily. Overall I had the strong vibe that this was the right place for me, which turned out to be true.
Academic orientation programs are organized with the very best of intentions, and often they convey important information that can set the stage for the remainder of a student’s degree program. As to whether they soothe or stoke individual anxieties, well, that’s a crapshoot. I think it depends more on the specific student than on the content of the program!
Someday, when I’m in an even more nostalgic mode than is my usual state, I’ll have to sift through the memory bank to recall other orientation-type programs during different chapters of my academic and professional lives. Maybe I’ll find some similarities and connections between my reactions to them.
I made an extended weekend trip to northwest Indiana for a long overdue visit with friends and family, one filled with both nostalgia for the past and appreciation for enduring friendships renewed.
Concededly, I am positively masochistic when it comes to self-inflicted nostalgia. During much of this trip, I had my rental car radio tuned to an oldies station that played songs mostly from the late 70s through early 80s. Like many, I associate old Top 40 songs with memories of earlier days, so I basically had a series of mental videos going through my head, prompted by whatever was on the air.
I put the nostalgia machine on overdrive when I had some time to kill before heading off to O’Hare Airport. I decided to spend a few hours driving around to old haunts.
It started with a visit to our early boyhood home in small-town Griffith, Indiana, where my brother Jeff and I spent our early years with our parents. I had not been there in many decades. I was stunned to see a cozy little block with a narrow street. In my memories of being five years old, it is a big, humongous block with a wide street!
I also stopped at the Hammond, Indiana house that was home for most of my childhood through teen years. No real surprises there…it and the surrounding homes were much more as I had remembered them.
For some odd reason I wanted to revisit the sites of jobs I had worked before moving to New York for law school in 1982. During several college summers and holiday periods, as well as an interim year between finishing college and leaving for law school, I worked for Ribordy Drugs, a local drugstore chain that once had a couple of dozen stores dotting northwest Indiana.
It was standard low-paid retail store work, unloading delivery trucks, tagging merchandise, and stocking shelves. Although I grumbled about it at times, I now look back and realize that those experiences helped me to develop a work ethic.
When I graduated from Valparaiso in 1981, I intended to take an interim year before moving on to law school. Alas, so-called “professional” jobs were not in large supply for new graduates in recession-burdened Northwest Indiana. So I ended up returning to Ribordy Drugs, this time working at its new warehouse-style store, a local precursor of the big box chain stores that now dominate the retail outlets in the area. I worked there more-or-less full-time, while also doing some part-time reporting for a local community newspaper.
It was not the most exciting year of my life, but because I was filing my law school applications, it was filled with anticipation. My original plan was to head to the west coast, but when an acceptance letter from New York University arrived in the mail, I knew that I wanted to go there. In August 1982, I would leave for NYU and the Big Apple.
But let me get back to people. The photo above is from a mini-reunion last Friday of college friends from Valparaiso University and assorted family members. The company of Hilda, Mark, Brad, Don, Maggie, Dave, Dorothy, Jim, Elena, Abby, and Matt made for a most enjoyable evening. The many smiling faces in the photo were more than snapshot poses. We were laughing a lot, unearthing stories from back in the day and sharing news of the latest goings-on in our lives.
At my motel, I also bumped into another group of VU alums holding their own little reunion, including friends Sheralynn (and a most articulate contributor to a running e-mail exchange about the suspense series 24 when it aired) and Rachelle (fellow study abroad participant). Their sorority was doing a kind of Chicagoland summer reunion caravan that concluded with a visit to their alma mater. Getting to see them was an unexpected treat.
The next day, I drove to Hammond, where I joined with my brother Jeff and old friends Mark and Karen for a meal at the House of Pizza, a restaurant than enjoys legendary status for its uniquely excellent thin crust pizza. Mark and I have been friends going waaaay back to the 3rd grade. And all four of us have been going to House of Pizza since we were kids. Sharing a meal at one of Chicagoland’s many superb pizza places has become a sort of tradition during visits there.
I then met up for a visit with my long-time friend Katherine (going back to high school), who first took me to the local Community Veteran’s Memorial, featuring some very well done historical exhibits and timelines. We then went to one of the local casinos (none of which were around when I grew up there), where we enjoyed a first-rate meal and won $10 playing the nickel slots. (I cannot recall the last time I was in a casino. What a surreal world onto itself.)
So here’s the lesson, especially for us nostalgia freaks: Old haunts are what they are, places of days gone by. It may be meaningful to revisit them, but they are of the past. When it comes to people, however, it’s about the present. The relationships built over the years may have their roots in long ago, but when they remain vibrant, and thankfully stripped of
our my early immaturities (er, at least some of them), that is a pretty cool thing.
On Thursday evening, I’ll be hopping on a plane for Vienna, Austria, for the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, a week-long event that draws some 1,000 people from around the world. I’ll be presenting a paper on continuing legal education, attending plenty of panels, and enjoying the company of friends and colleagues who are immersed in research and practice related to law and psychology.
Traveling to Vienna pushes my nostalgia buttons. In May 1981, it was a stop on a brisk trip through parts of western Europe, following completion of a semester abroad in England via my college, Valparaiso University. The grainy photo above was taken from the famous Prater Wheel, a giant Ferris wheel built in 1897. If I recall correctly, I spent three days in Vienna with one of my traveling pals from the VU group.
That European jaunt was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Traveling alternately on my own and with members of our group, I visited Paris; several towns in Switzerland; Innsbruck, Salzberg, and Vienna; and finally Munich and Berlin.
The semester abroad also happened to be the final term of my senior year, and I was full of excitement and uncertainty as to what would come next. But even with all of my heady aspirations for the road ahead, I had the good sense to drink in a lot of this overseas opportunity. Although my cultural immaturity caused me to pass on some pretty significant sights during this sojourn abroad, those five months made a lifelong imprint on me.
Back to today: As usual, I find myself packing and planning at the last minute. However, I know that I’ll get a lot out of this trip. I’ll do so as a much more grounded person than the anxious young man who first saw Vienna several decades ago. The march of time brings its blessings.
As a little sidebar to this post, click and enjoy Billy Joel’s “Vienna” (1977). And to learn how the famous singer/songwriter did his homework about Vienna in writing this number, check out this interesting Wikipedia entry.
The brutal winter that we experienced here in Boston has finally given way to more civilized weather, even if piles of snow collected during January and February and deposited in designated snow removal areas have not fully melted.
Summer beckons, even though the temperature here remains very cool and spring-like. I’m not complaining — I can live with spring and fall weather very happily, thank you. But especially now that my classes are done and I’m finished grading exams and papers, I sort of expect it to be warmer.
Nevertheless, the cool, nice weather has made it comfortable to walk around a bit and take a few snapshots, which I’m happy to share with you.
This time of year triggers bouts of nostalgia for me. Thirty years ago, I graduated from NYU School of Law and began studying for the New York bar exam, a fun little ordeal I wrote about last year.
I had already accepted a position with New York City Legal Aid Society, fulfilling my wish to work as a public interest lawyer. First, however, I had to get through the summer bar study. I managed do to so, but not without feeling sorry for myself an awful lot of that time. In particular, as I wrestled with studying for the exam itself, I badly missed many of my best friends from law school, who took their talents across the country to start their legal careers.
My previous law school summers were memorable. I spent the summer after my second year working as a summer associate at a large corporate law firm in Chicago, an experience I wrote about in a post last year. It taught me a lesson that I share with many of my students: Sometimes experiences that help you eliminate options are as valuable as those that help you to create choices.
I spent the summer after my first year working at the New Jersey Public Defender’s office, while living in one of the NYU law dorms. Heh, one of the things I remember most about that summer was the opening of Steve’s Ice Cream in the Village. Steve’s was a Boston ice cream brand that popularized the practice of toppings hand mixed into your chosen flavor of ice cream. I was making the princely minimum wage that summer, and a chunk of those meager earnings went to Steve’s.
Thirty-five years ago, I had finished my junior year at Valparaiso University. I spent a lot of time serving in a key Indiana volunteer role for the independent Presidential campaign of John B. Anderson, which I wrote about here last June. I also studied hard for the Law School Admissions Test, which I took that summer.
A few weeks after taking the LSAT, I would learn that I did well enough to have some attractive options for law school. Originally I had every intention of attending law school on the west coast, but NYU was too appealing to turn down.
Since becoming a professor, most summers have been devoted in large part to various research and writing projects typically leading to the publication of articles in scholarly law journals. During the summer of 1998, for example, I did a lot of the spadework on my first article examining the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying, eventually published in 2000. It would prove to be a groundbreaking piece that helped to plant the seeds for a movement to enact workplace anti-bullying laws.
This summer I’ve been finishing up a piece on legal scholarship and “intellectual activism,” the latter being a term that I use to describe the process of engaging in research and analysis of a significant legal problem, designing proposed law reform and public policy responses, and then going into a more public mode with those proposals. It harnesses many of the experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned over the past twenty or so years.
Of course, I also am grateful for the flexibility my job affords me to spend the summer working on a largely self-defined schedule. That very flexibility allows me the time to step out the door and take a few photos of this walkable city.
If this headline and photo are to be believed, collegiate munchies have definitely stepped up a notch or two since my student days. Those burgers look pretty darn good, don’t they?
During this month of May, I’ll be reminiscing even more about collegiate and law school experiences, and this particular entry is appropriately about food. After all, especially around finals time, late night eateries near campuses do a landmark business. Back in the day, I contributed mightily to this sales uptick.
At Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana during the late 70s and early 80s, late night chow options were somewhat limited, at least within reasonable walking distance. In fact, this post was triggered by a Facebook conversation the other day posted by a fellow dorm dweller (hat tip to Dr. Mark Kegel here), during which we reminisced about local eateries. A place called Greek’s Pizza deservedly enjoyed semi-legendary status, and the VU student union did a decent job on pizza as well, but beyond that the pickings were uneven.
I recall an independent donut shop that apparently had escaped regular health code inspections; I considered it a destination of desperation. There was a food truck selling pretty good stromboli sandwiches that would drive around campus. I also ate more microwaved sandwiches from the local 7-Eleven than my large intestine cares to remember. Toss in a Dairy Queen and a few other fast food places, and that was basically it.
When I got to law school at NYU a few years later, the midnight munchies situation got much better. This was, of course, Greenwich Village of the early 80s, and affordable eateries abounded. Thanks to my more gastronomically adventurous law school pals, my appetite would diversify considerably, especially when it came to ethnic foods.
Late night food options, however, reverted back to basics, with the 24-hour diners at the top of the heap. The Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street was the site of numerous 2 a.m. bacon cheeseburger runs and breakfast platters, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway at Astor Place served up many a burger and cups of their awesome split pea soup. Empire Szechuan delivered tasty Chinese food into the wee hours. And after a late night of studying in the library, a pitstop at Ben’s Pizzeria for a serviceable quick slice was sometimes in order. (All of these places are still in business, by the way!)
In both college and law school, these intakes didn’t exactly make for the healthiest of diets. I have a feeling that many of today’s students are doing a little better on that count. Chipotle’s might not count as fast food, but it’s healthier and fresher than a visit to the Golden Arches. Then again, for a pure late night food experience, a good bacon cheeseburger in the wee hours of the morning beats a burrito bowl any day.
Although I’m a moderately serious sports fan, and I’ve been associated with a good number of colleges and universities over the years, I’ve never attended a school with a big-time sports program. On the pro side, I’ve maintained my strong affinity for Chicago teams (Cubs, Bears, and Bulls, oh my!), and been a fair-weather fan of the New York Mets (mid-80s), New York Knicks (80s-early 90s), and New England Patriots (Brady-Belichick era). However, when it comes to college basketball and football, I’ve been something of a waif.
I’ve been writing a lot about my college and law school experiences lately, so let’s take them from a sporting angle.
Starstruck and Bobcats
I received a very good classroom education at Valparaiso University, but its intercollegiate sports teams during the late 70s and early 80s were lackluster and not a big focus of campus life. VU had just made the jump to Division 1 basketball, and those early teams struggled for respectability. I went to only one game, against then-No. 1 ranked DePaul University, led by All American forward (and future NBA All Star) Mark Aguirre. When DePaul walked onto the court for warm-ups, the VU fans stood up — not to applaud or to jeer, but rather because we were starstruck that a top-ranked team was in our midst. The game itself played out as one might expect.
My next educational port of call was New York University for law school. During the early to mid 20th century, NYU enjoyed national success in both basketball and football circles, but by the time I arrived in 1982, intercollegiate sports had been de-emphasized to the point of irrelevance. It would relaunch its men’s basketball program at the Division 3 level during the mid-80s. They quickly assembled some good teams, even reaching the national championship game in the early 90s, and have remained competitive since then.
Each year I lived in New York, I would go to a few NYU hoops games, usually alone. D3 hoops games aren’t a big draw with the rest of Manhattan at your fingertips. Or maybe it was hard to get excited about a college team whose mascot is named after the library’s card catalog (Bobst Library Card Catalog, or Bobcat for short).
As for NYU’s football team, it remained undefeated throughout my years in the city, holding steady at 0-0. (Ba dum.)
Over the years, I’ve kept my affinity for Notre Dame football — a product of having grown up in Northwest Indiana. Fandom can be irrational; I’m neither Catholic nor a Notre Dame alum!
Because a dear friend is an Annapolis graduate (Class of 1953), I root for the Navy Midshipmen as well. Had some weird twist of fate ever led me to the Academy, I would’ve lasted about a week before getting booted out for continually questioning orders, so go figure.
During the 2000s, the University of Hawaii had a string of successful, fun-to-watch, pass happy teams, and I enjoyed pulling for them. The highlight of that run was an undefeated regular season in 2007, culminating in a Sugar Bowl appearance.
For reasons I can’t explain, I also follow from afar (usually by checking the box scores) the powerhouse Division 3 football team at the University of Mount Union in Ohio. Although they’ve been stymied in the national championship game in recent years by nemesis Wisconsin-Whitewater, they have compiled some of the most remarkably dominant seasons in the history of collegiate football.
Back to Valpo
As for college basketball, well, I’m now rooting for Valparaiso(!), which has become a very competitive mid-major D1 team since my days there. The foundation was set seventeen years ago, when the Crusaders enjoyed a storybook season, topped off by a trip to the 1998 NCAA tournament and a Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen. Its star player was guard Bryce Drew, the coach’s son, who hit a legendary, buzzer beating 3-point shot to upset powerhouse Ole Miss in the first round:
Drew followed his collegiate glory with a solid stint in the NBA. He is now the Valparaiso head coach, and when VU makes an appearance on one of the ESPN stations, I’ll often watch or record the game. They made the NCAA tournament this year, losing in the opening round to Maryland in a close game.
This month, SB Nation ran an excellent long form piece by Justin Pahl, son of a former VU faculty member, who wrote about growing up with the emerging, underdog VU basketball program during the 1990s. It’s a very good story about life and sports in a small, Midwestern university town. I took a screen shot and pasted it in above.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is getting a lot of attention for his new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015), which urges young people and their families not to buy into the huge anxieties and nuttiness that surround the college application process. In essence, he’s saying that the people and communities that we bring into our lives have much greater bearing on life satisfaction than getting into a prestigious school.
I think the overall message is a sound one, but the topic is more complicated than first meets the eye.
A good number of friends around my age have gone through this process with their children. Especially for high school students aspiring to attend a highly-ranked school, the college admissions game has become a significant, part-time job for them and their parents, one wrought with adolescent emotions, adult anxieties, and difficult cost-benefit assessments.
Sadly, I don’t think this will change, especially in an America where families in the middle and upper-middle classes are fearful of their ability to maintain their stations in life, college costs have gone through the roof, and the promise that the kids will do better than their parents is looking more and more precarious.
As a non-parent, it’s easy for me to claim from my detached perch that I wouldn’t buy wholeheartedly into that mania, but in truth it’s very, very hard to ignore this dynamic. And the peer pressure and social expectations for young students and parents alike are significant in high school settings that are turbo-charged about college placement.
Nevertheless, as a nostalgic creature by nature, does this make me a little wistful for the days when the college application process wasn’t so riddled with anxiety?
As a high school senior, I assumed I’d go to college, but I took the process rather casually. I visited a few schools in my home state of Indiana, and I ended up applying to only one, Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. It was a smaller school, emphasizing the liberal arts, and it seemed comfortable and close enough to home. I figured it would be good enough, and it appeared that my chances of admission were strong.
I was accepted, and that was the extent of my college “search.” Easy peasy, right?! Isn’t this a perfect example of how low key the college application process was back in the day?
But herein lies the truth behind much nostalgia: It becomes a little, well,
rose-colored fictitious. Even before the U.S. News rankings of colleges became ubiquitous and top 10/50/100 lists of schools started popping up everywhere, there was a rough sense of which schools were considered among the elite. And my story of applying to only one school and basically assuming I’d get admitted is exactly that, only mine. In the meantime, thousands of others who had more focused aspirations and their sights set on certain schools were sweating out the process.
In fact, five years later, I would ramp up my own anxieties when I applied to law schools. I was considerably more invested in the process, and I took active responsibility for researching law schools and identifying which ones might be good for me. Now, that’s the generic description. In truth, I became obsessed with the whole deal, and full of the kind of self-absorption that can inflict an ambitious young person during such life chapters. The moment I received New York University’s letter of acceptance, I pretty much knew I would go there, as I had many reasons to believe it would be a very good match for me.
So how do these schools look in the rear-view mirror some 30 years later? I’ve written on this blog many times about my experiences at Valparaiso (here, for example). My relationship with it has changed much for the better over the years, in large part because I have a greater appreciation for the quality education it gave me, and I have treasured friendships from those years that I know will be lifelong. As for NYU Law School, I am deeply grateful for the experiences, friendships, and opportunities it provided. In many ways, it was the right place at the right time for me. (You can read a bit more about that, here.)
As I reflect on all this, maybe Frank Bruni’s title — Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be — is overstating it, even if we welcome its underlying message. Many of us have been shaped profoundly by the schools we attended, though not necessarily because they were/weren’t considered “prestigious” in the eyes of others. The deeper questions associated with the college application process are more vital and complicated ones, fostering considerations about how much we should allow markers of prestige to shape our beliefs, decisions, and experiences.
In sum, for anyone who believes that upward mobility and “success” are, generally speaking, worthwhile aspirations, but that a good life embodies much more than collecting trophy lines on resumes, this conversation may be rife with honest and very human contradictions and inconsistencies. Easy peasy it ain’t.