ESSAY

As Freshmen First We Came to Yale …

By Alec Haverstick ·

To put myself in the right frame of mind to recall my version of the history of our class, I pulled out the only pure history paper I remember writing in college. It was for Edmund Morgan’s “The Founding of the American Colonies,” and I based it on three names I found in the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s meetings in the 17th century. These were hidden deep in the stacks of Sterling so, for many reasons, Googling was not an option. Each was the name of a character expelled by the colony. They knew each other, I discovered, and they were all in the employ of a certain sinister figure who had it in for the Puritans and was plotting to take over the colony.

Luckily for them, the Puritans discovered the plot, got rid of the miscreants and were able to live out their censorious lives in relative peace “down by the banks of the River Charles.” They also managed to found Harvard, thereby creating the first “safety school” for those denied admission to Yale. That later safety schools included both Princeton and Trinity is common knowledge.

So, you ask: What does this have to do with our class history, Alec? I submit two points:

  1. I pen this introduction not to illustrate that all written history is a leap of faith but to warn you of my innate talent to weave together whole yarns out of very few facts. It may not have been my first success as an ace bullshitter (I got into Yale, didn’t I), but it is emblematic of my entire journey through life — using stories to survive — even to prosper — and I have Yale to thank for that.
  2. I wish to confess to all of you that I have absolutely no idea of how each of you experienced Yale. I only know how I experienced it from my admission into this “community of scholars” until being discharged from the same in May 1974. So, permit me to concentrate on that and, to the extent any of it resonates with some or all of you, I will be grateful.

Author’s note: You will recognize my repeated references to lyrics from the traditional “Eli Yale” of the Yale songbook, which you can listen to here.

Prelude

On April 18, 1970, the Yale admissions office under Inky Clark mailed our acceptance letters to welcome us to the “community of scholars.”  I imagine that was a pretty damn important day to each of us.

However, the months between when I got my letter of acceptance and when I arrived at Yale were almost surreal. Bad things happened — I mean the Beatles broke up for Christ’s sake — and I was devastated by leaving the boarding school I’d called home for almost six years. I honestly didn’t want to graduate and be forced to say “goodbye” to the people and place that had been my community — however closed and insipid—since I was 12.

So, upset by all of this, I hardly noticed when Nixon bombed Cambodia, four students were shot dead in Ohio, protests swept the campus on which I would soon be living and Kingman Brewster — that graduate of Belmont Hill, Yale, Harvard Law and Bones — became the hero of disenfranchised black Americans who could not get a fair trial. What mattered to me was that I was being forced out of my cocoon. I’d spent the better part of five years in an environment that expected you to go to Yale, Harvard or Princeton. I had done what they had asked me to do. How could the world make me leave? While many of you were excitedly planning your post high school lives, I was repeating the chorus of “Please, Mr. Custer, I don’t want to go!”

I spent much of the time between graduation from St. Paul’s School and my arrival at Yale feeling not excited but doomed. I simply wasn’t ready for the next chapter. (It wasn’t helped by my mother’s parting words as I headed off to Yale: “I still can’t believe you’re not going to Harvard!”) So to all of you who were excited, who ordered your Yale 1974 T-shirts and similar paraphernalia and spent the summer preparing for the next big chapter of life, I enviously tip my hat. You were far better adjusted than I.

One summer vignette did actually foreshadow what would prove to be important to me at Yale, so I will share it: I attended a 28-day course at Hurricane Island Outward Bound that summer of 1970, because it seemed like a good idea at the time.  A girl who had just completed her first year at Yale was working on the island, and, when she found out I was going there as well, sought me out to learn why.  “Because they finally admitted women,” I responded. Then she got me, “It’s no picnic for women at Yale and don’t fool yourself for a moment that it is.” That women at Yale were not necessarily happy to be there, or made to feel welcome, gobsmacked me. How could that be? Within a month of arriving on campus, I would find out.

“As Freshmen First We Came to Yale”

Photo by Eric Yopes ’74

And then, in September, we all arrived at Yale.

Some were secluded in TD to form bonds and connections we know not of; some were in Silliman and others in the Calhoun Annex. But most of us were on the Old Campus spread among the dorms affiliated with our colleges. A small group of us was holed up in Vanderbilt. These were “the women,” except for those assigned to TD. Why were they all in one guarded fortress? Were they strange visitors from another planet? How were we and they supposed to interpret their apparent segregation? My thoughts went back to my Outward Bound acquaintance. Maybe Vanderbilt Hall was physical proof that Yale wasn’t really ready for women.

I’m sure Freshman year was eventful for each of us in our own way and we each began to navigate our own path. Like each of you, I tried to find my way. But I admit to being far from happy. I was bored by large lectures in subjects in which I had no interest (what the hell is a Y tube); my smaller classes were perfumed with Gauloise-smoking TAs and Spenserian English; but I did kind of like Religious Studies and learning about the Taoism and the power of passive resistance.

Socially, I’d spent 12 years in all boys schools (the last five in an all-boys boarding school) and I wasn’t looking for male friends or to be nice to Albertus Magnus girls; finding a table at Commons was effing scary and I didn’t know what to do with myself in afternoons without the structure of organized sports. So I started to go to the gym. Taking up running saved me, although the track above the pool with its ten laps to a mile could dispirit anybody. Still, it got me out of the house — er, room — even if not out of myself.

One day, I ran into the girl from Outward Bound. We had some friends in common from her high school and she mentioned she was having dinner with them in Commons that night. I was invited to come along. I sat down at a table with three freshmen girls I had already met, a couple of friends from, yes, prep school and three sophomore women of which one was my acquaintance from Hurricane Island. By the end of a dinner to which I’d been happy to be invited, I was looking for tools of self-immolation. These three sophomore women were miserable, and wanted to make sure their younger female friends knew it. My vision of Yale as a community of scholars was momentarily overshadowed by their description of a community for all intents and purposes closed off to women.  Saddened, I returned to my room and to another evening at Yale. Thank God for roommates.

If days were lonely, evenings were worse.  After trudging back from Commons, I tried the libraries to avoid isolation. L&B was comfortable but too quiet; same with the Saybrook one. I tried the study in Connecticut Hall but it was too noisy and right next to Vanderbilt — which led to tons of foot traffic where I feared to tread. So, to survive the crushing loneliness of those early days, I did the only thing I knew to do: I plotted my escape. On the Saturday of Bladderball, I sat in my room and completed my transfer application to Middlebury, which had the best male/female ratio of any small New England college. It was a place where I might make a team, sit in small classes, win on class participation and MEET GIRLS.  And maybe those girls were happy to be there.

It was only October. And I was outta here …

And then I met a girl. And the sun started to emerge from behind the gray New Haven skies. She was smart; she was classy; she was from my hometown — if NYC can be a home town — and we had a lot in common. What we didn’t have in common is that she’d never dated anybody her own age (I was two weeks younger), so I was something of a step down. But no matter, it meant I could and would stay at Yale, and it was because of her. We became inseparable for three years and spent the fourth slowly breaking up. But I will always be grateful to her for keeping me at a place where I would ultimately thrive.

(I should note that being rescued by a woman did not confine itself to a single incident. Four years later, as I was hating law school — everybody had said I would — history repeated itself. I was introduced to a wonderful person who sat in the front row while I sat in the back. I had better luck this time. We’ve been married for 48 years. We have four kids and 14 grandchildren, and I have the family that anyone who knew me knew was the only thing that really mattered to me.)

The balance of freshman year is sort of a blur. I was kicked off the ice by the coach the first day of freshman hockey tryouts.  I went out for baseball and sucked. But by then there were more gathering spaces at Yale at which to feel a part of things. I discovered the Cross Campus Library. It was an underground non-Gothic oasis with all sorts of amenities but especially people who wanted to socialize while pretending to study. I’d found a place to be. Spring had sprung!

And then Local 35 went on strike. The Yale dining hall workers told the administration to take their jobs and shove them, and Yale responded by closing the dining halls. Three dollars and 35 cents didn’t buy a lot of groceries but, if you pooled your daily stipend with your roommates and others, you could eat something more than peanut butter sandwiches. Although one day we thought our designated lunch preparer had opened a can of tuna, but she had opened the cat’s food instead. It was awful. From then on I confined myself to pigs in a blanket from the Doodle and Broadway pizza (cold for breakfast) and was only too happy when the year finally ended and I could head back to a New York City apartment devoid of a single parent who was going to be away most of the summer. I could go to work and cook my own meals. It even had a color TV.

I actually looked forward to returning to Yale in the fall. I even began to remember there was a world out there that probably deserved some attention. And, oh, a lyric from my favorite freshman year song may be apposite here, because not only are the first days the hardest days but when life looks like Easy Street there is danger at your door. Where is Easy Street anyway?

“As Sophomores We Have a Task …”

Photo by Erik Yopes ’74

We (not just I, as I was part of the community now) returned for our sophomore years in Fall of 1971 after an eventful summer:  The Pentagon Papers were published, the voting age was lowered to 18, and the chances of dying in a rice paddy were elevated dramatically by a draft lottery and the phasing out of student deferments. I was #46. Perhaps it was time to learn to say “aboot” instead of “about.”

We also, except for TD people and Silliman males, moved into our residential colleges. I don’t know about all of you, but, as with any change, at first I didn’t like it. I’d spent a year acclimating myself to the Old Campus, the hubbub of Commons and meeting people all across the quad. Suddenly, we were in separate quarters and no longer bumped into each other. At least, I didn’t. My girlfriend was in Davenport; my closest male friends in Branford and Berkeley; my remaining high school friends in Morse and Stiles, and I realized I really didn’t know anybody in Saybrook. It was like starting all over.

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the useless Paris Peace talks dragged on demonstrating the dangers of having one’s foreign policy managed by WASPs who graduated from Yale and Harvard before World War II. And who was this guy named Kissinger?

By October, I think the number one song was “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar although I much preferred “Layla.” Yale wasn’t kicking ass in any fall sports although the debate between option and drop back quarterbacks was in its annual reenactment, but the dining halls were open and it wasn’t raining every day. I was still fulfilling distribution requirements but had qualified for a creative writing seminar in Saybrook where drug induced poetry was not encouraged and where I actually thought I might learn something.

As always, what I thought I would learn and what I actually did learn bore little relationship to each other.

Perhaps, because I lived in Saybrook directly across from the “Black Entryway,” its presence is what I remember most from sophomore year. What I was most aware of was the hostility of the denizens of the entryway not towards me but towards any black person who didn’t live there.  They couldn’t walk across the courtyard without being yelled at.

Similar epithets were also hurled in my creative writing seminar where the nice woman who must have been a decent writer in the 1940s became completely nonplussed by exchanges she could never have imagined. Nor could I have. But they made a lasting impression and to this day I have been intolerant of intolerance of any sort, including my own.

Most of the people doing the yelling in Saybrook were not Yale students; they were recruits from the streets. I know. My roommates and I met them when we went to the entryway to ask for our stuff back. Our room had been robbed and there was all the stuff we owned that could be carted away by hand sitting  on the second and third floor landings. We asked for it back and it was returned. But the next day the Dean of Saybrook, one Jacqueline Mintz, asked us if we were trying to instigate a racial incident. Nope, we said, just trying to get our shit back. I knew she wasn’t mollified by our lack of suitable white guilt.

I just reread the line of the “Eli Yale” song, and yes, during sophomore year I had a task. I was asked, along with classmate Carolyn Grillo, to serve on what was then the Yale Committee on The Education of Women and which became The Yale Committee on Coeducation. Our stated goal was to make Yale more sensitive to the needs of women undergraduates, i.e. to make Yale less male. A small group within that committee saw there was only one way to do that: admit more women and do it as soon as practicable. So with the words of that young woman at Outward Bound, reinforced by numerous conversations with her and others, implanted in my brain (they still remain), we got Yale to do exactly that. By the time my youngest daughter entered the class of 2011, Yale’s undergraduate body was more than 50% women. And to think I almost left for Middlebury …

Sophomore year also saw some pretty big things going on outside Yale as well. China was admitted to the UN (and Taiwan banished) ; Nixon went to China, Edmund muskie cried in New Hampshire; Bloody Sunday happened in Northern Ireland and just after we finished exams a bunch of keystone cops broke into the Democratic National Headquarters in The Watergate. What might have been a blip in our history became an event that lives on even today,  more relevant than ever. But that’s more a part of Junior Year.

(Attentive readers of this article will note that I have not included the William Westmoreland and William Rogers “incidents” of the spring of 1972. Nor, later, will I attempt to speak to the Shockley “incident” of 1974. Each of those issues is reviewed both in their entirety and respective complexities in the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale,” which was issued on December 23, 1974. The report is available online and can be accessed by any one of us.  Nor will I comment on the degree to which the recommendations in the body of this report are honored more in the observance or the breach at Yale today. What I will say is that we have attempted to incorporate consideration of this question into the 50th Reunion weekend panels.)

“As Juniors We Take Our Ease …”

Yale/Jack Devlin photo

Well, that verse of the song may have rung true in 1910 but it was hardly true in the fall of 1972. The world was too much with us in the horror of the Munich Olympics, the re-election of Richard Nixon and this emerging thing called Watergate.  We had more immediate concerns: We were halfway through Yale. That meant we had to declare a major (if we hadn’t already) and begin to think ahead to life after Yale. For some reason, I was obsessed with the number 46 but I’ll let that slide. Be that as it may, for me junior year marked the beginning of my best and most productive year at Yale.

For the first time at Yale I was academically totally engaged. My roommate, Rich Feinstein, had noted my ambivalence towards my declared history major and introduced me to American Studies. I took to it like Jerry Garcia to marijuana (Exhibit A: See the movie Woodstock).  I reveled in Faulkner with Cleanth Brooks; “Religious History of the American People” with Sydney Ahlstrom; Edmund Morgan’s course on the Colonies, which turned into not so much a course on the Puritans but on the roots of American slavery; and Shakespeare with Alvin Kernan. I also totally grokked the junior seminar in American Studies which was just plain fun even if our instructor did smoke Gauloises and have bad body odor. She was wicked smart. And she did let me tell “the brick story” after copious amounts of Exhibit A during one evening class.

God … if I could do it all over again. Academics, Saybrook soccer, the dining hall, the CCL from 8 to 11 and the obligatory down time in room 943 from 11 to one. And so much reading and writing. My whole intellectual life was caught up in defining what it meant to be an American, whether I was reading Absalom, Absalom, The Tempest or about the burned over district, that area of Western New York State which gave rise to numerous religious revivals, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith and, yes, John D. Rockefeller. I didn’t need to write drug poems; my life was an intellectual psychedelic experience.

And our football team was wonderful! At one point we made the top 20 in the AP poll as Dick Jauron hit full speed in two strides; Jim Nottingham ran 45 yards on a not-called fake punt against Dartmouth and the much maligned Roly Purrington, a drop back passer, saw the ball drop out of his hands and bounce right back in as we went on to beat Harvard 28–17.  Even BD would have applauded. By the way, Harvard has a way of bringing out the best in Yale’s passing game; wait until 1973.

Not all was right with the world, however. The American voter gave Nixon a landslide victory. Flush with victory, RMN ordered the bombing of Hanoi and mining of Haiphong Harbor. It looked like the war was escalating again. Number 46 was getting itchy.

At Yale and in Connecticut, good things were happening, especially for women. No, it wasn’t because Mory’s had to admit them. The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade and the Yale Corporation voted to implement a modified sex blind admissions policy guaranteeing that neither sex, as then defined, could comprise more than 60% of an incoming class.

Elsewhere, maybe not so much. Hearts were buried at Wounded Knee in February.. US troops did begin to leave Vietnam and two obscenely tall structures opened in NYC and Chicago respectively. But May also saw a flowering of political theater as we were introduced to that Washington power couple, John and Mo Dean, an odd mélange of sweet and savory. Who knew Watergate would occupy our imaginations for more than a year?

And by the way, four square was bigger than pickleball!

In Senior Year We Act Our Parts …

Yale Daily News

Those of you who may have just listened to “Eli Yale” (or Googled the full lyrics) will note that the next line reads “… in making love and winning hearts.” (One of many proofs from the Yale Songbook that Yale’s culture, prior to the admission of women, was as male as it gets — though perhaps in a gentlemanly rather than toxic way.) For most of us arriving back on campus for senior year in Fall of 1973, the words simply don’t apply.

Perhaps we were caught up in the “grim professionalism” that so troubled Kingman Brewster. I prefer to think that we were each caught up in the last phase of our Yale careers and moving towards the closure we needed to commence our lives in the world beyond. In my case, I was busy trying hard not to have my heart broken and to “graduate strong” whatever the hell that meant. At my family’s insistence, I was also applying to law school which both meant taking the LSATs and finding a law school that would actually accept me even though I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to go. But what else was an American Studies major supposed to do?  I didn’t want to spend my life as an academic, having already been pummeled by the Yale bureaucracy. I didn’t know what a business school was unless it was something you went to when you didn’t get into law school and I really had no clue what other options might be available to me.

I also feared reverting to some of the loneliness of my early days at Yale. I had not been tapped for a senior society though I knew I had been proposed for at least two (in some sense that made it worse especially since my uncle made a public announcement at a family gathering — his daughter’s wedding no less — about how he had made sure I didn’t get into his). So I knew going into the year that many of my friends would disappear on Sunday and Thursday evenings. Hence, I bought a TV just for the noise and kept it on as I pursued my path to graduation. About a week after school started, I also turned 21. Wasn’t that supposed to be important?

Still, as we all calculated our path to May, stuff was happening in that world, as it always does. Bobby Riggs got stuffed by Billie Jean King in September in the “Battle of the Sexes,” as did any attempts at non-authoritarian rule in Chile. The IRS stuffed Spiro T. Agnew in October and OPEC stuffed us all with its oil embargo. The Yom Kippur war broke out in October 1973 and the roots of that conflict continue to fester in horrific ways. I was again saved from myself by my major and by this absolutely fascinating seminar titled “The Mind of the South.”

I emerged from my academic engagement in time for both Kingman Brewster’s Halloween Party (nobody was fired or exiled for dressing up)  and for the best Thanksgiving Saturday I had ever spent. I had brought three friends home for Thanksgiving not fully aware that we would be inundated by Yale grads at Thanksgiving parties for several days. The upshot of this was that the four of us were required to sing for our suppers or our drinks at each event by singing “Bright College Years.” We must have done it ten times by the time we could escape to THE GAME. And what a game it was! Harvard was supposed to have this highly touted split end and punter named McInally who was going to run by us like shit through a goose. But we had a secret weapon who was such a secret he didn’t even know it. And that November day we were treated to the specter of Kevin Rogan, Chaminade’s finest, leading us to a 35-0 victory over that pseudo intellectual group from Cambridge. Yes, McInally went on to the Bengals and Kevin went to law school, but, which, at age 71 has better knees? (Don’t answer that, Kevin, It’s rhetorical!) “Bright College Years” had never sounded so good and I could tell all my friends that Kevin was the guy who beat me out for a starting  position on the freshman baseball team. Talk about reflected glory!!!

That the first of our last two semesters ended with us being required to drive home at 55 mph to conserve gas didn’t really compute because nobody did it. The fall of 1973 was over and 1974 awaited our return.

January was cold. I had returned to school early and watched the Dolphins go undefeated from 925 SY. The game was good but my favorite part was when the announcer was interviewing Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka after the game and got one confused with the other. “I’m Jim; he’s Larry” still resonates right up there with Cleavon Little’s taboo smashing declaration in Blazing Saddles. You really can’t make this stuff up! Patty Hearst was kidnapped in February and all of us became familiar with terms like the “SLA” and “Swedish hostage syndrome” which I think of as “boiled frog syndrome” that just happens much more quickly.

We submitted our applications to professional school, graduate schools and to jobs. I was turned down at Harvard Law the week after I submitted my application. I couldn’t believe it ! I’d never been turned anywhere academic — social is another matter — and I called my now on again off again girlfriend and burst into tears. I was consoled with the reply, “Don’t you know you’re the kind of guy who never gets into Harvard?” Was that supposed to make me feel better? Well, looking back now, it actually does. I’m not the kind of guy who gets into Harvard Law. In fact, I’m not the kind of guy who goes to law school. To quote Mike the Man Doonesbury, “The crushed ice should have tipped me off” but I pursued getting into law school with grim determination, finally getting off the Columbia wait list in early July. And, honestly, I didn’t enjoy a day of it, except when Brian Kelly, I and three other backrow guys would play GE College Bowl during class. As “Wrong Princeton, can you take it Dartmouth” would ring from the back of the lecture hall, all our fellow classmates would sink farther into their seats under the withering glance of whatever martinet felt obligated to humiliate us all. (There was one, however, sitting in the front row who would turn around and smile. I think that may be why I married her. )

But back to the spring of 1974. The Saybrook stone courtyard became the situs of college-wide volleyball games. Couples who weren’t going to get married or live together broke up. At our graduation, where somebody spoke about something and Mark Cramolini was named the smartest person in the class,  Mister Rogers received an honorary degree. Oh, and I fooled everybody in Saybrook by graduating with academic honors. Even my family applauded. Take that Harvard!

And then … it was over. And I finally understood the last scene of The Graduate. We packed up and left New Haven. Did any of us know where we were going? I didn’t. Little did I know that I would not set foot again in Saybrook or join with my classmates for another 40 years, That was a long time, and it was only when I realized I wasn’t returning to something old but going to try something new, that I found my way to our 40th reunion … and then our 45th and now our 50th. I look forward to seeing all my once and future friends.

Listen to “Eli Yale” performed by the (fully coeducated) Glee Club in 2012


Alec Haverstick

Alec Haverstick [SY], co-secretary of the Class of 1974, is a private wealth advisor with Bessemer Trust. When he isn’t chasing new business or his 12 grandchildren, he continues to develop his understanding of American culture, which has been his primary intellectual pursuit since junior year at Yale.