ESSAY

Departed Classmates

By Alan D. Strasser

I volunteered to work on the In Memoriam section of our classbook because, in its September 2020 issue, the Yale Alumni Magazine reported that I had died on April 10, 2020.

I didn’t know about the report, as I had not received that issue of YAM. But several sharp-eyed friends — some classmates, some not — alerted me to the erroneous report. At least two of them quoted the remark, misattributed to Mark Twain, that they hoped the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated. As the country was almost exactly six months into widespread shutdowns from the pandemic, I could assuage them only virtually.

Once I inquired, I received a gracious email from Mark Branch at YAM apologizing for the false report of my death. He tried to explain  that such information usually comes from Alumni Records within the Yale Development Office, but could not say how exactly this happened. (I suspect the mistake was related to the death of my mother on the date they cited for mine, April 10, 2020.) After confirming by email that the report was erroneous, our ever-vigilant Class Secretary published a correction in the November 2020 Class Notes.

Other Yale friends soon followed up. One wag sent me a YouTube clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Bring out your dead”).  One classmate asked if I knew how premature the notice was, and another classmate asked if the notice identified a cause of death, even if the reported date was wrong. My law partner, also a classmate, suggested the Development Office was sending a message about my prior contributions (“You’re dead to me”).

So when the time came to prepare for our 50th Reunion, I saw an email asking for help from Stu Rohrer, with whom I’d worked on The New Journal, and I joined up. The goal: To write a tribute to the life of each of our departed classmates. Last November I looked at the list that Yale provided and  was shocked to see that 120 of our classmates — 10% of our class — had already passed away. Others on the Reunion Committee expressed disbelief that the number was so large.

As of May 22, 2024 we know of 153 deceased classmates — 26 women and 127 men — out of a total class of 1,307 (1,253 who enrolled in the fall of 1970, plus 54 transfers.) The death counts vary by college: Saybrook had the most (20) and JE the least (6).

With assistance from my wife, an epidemiologist, I determined that the “survival rate” for the Class of 1974 actually is substantially better than for the United States population as a whole. The survival rate for our class through May 2024 is about 88%. The expected survival rate, given its gender composition, would be about 69%.

Put differently, if our class closely resembled  the country as a whole, we should have expected an additional 250 deaths.  There is some meager consolation here, I suppose. (I apologize in advance to statisticians, epidemiologists, and other data scientists in the class for glossing over some technical issues. If you want to hear a really shallow explanation of those details, find me at the Reunion.)

Why is our class survival rate so much better than the rest of the country?  I  assume it reflects the advantages of the social and economic classes from which we were drawn and into which we entered after graduation. I leave it to others with greater analytic skills and access to more refined data to draw more precise lessons.

As you read through  the 153 tributes we have written, there is no mistaking the devastation that AIDS wreaked on our class. At least 15  classmates died from AIDS, possibly more given the ambiguity in some of the tributes about cause of death. Almost all died before our 20th reunion — promising lives cut tragically short. Our class had the cruel misfortune of coming of age during a time of exposure to the deadly infection but before the development of effective therapy. Our class suffered the fatal consequences of exposure to a disease that was unknown to Yale classes twenty years before and was no longer fatal to Yale classes twenty years later.

The gathering of tributes has been, as one classmate surmised, almost a full-time job this year, but it has been rewarding in ways I did not anticipate. I have emailed or spoken by phone with dozens of classmates and half-a-dozen spouses of classmates, all of whom have been generous with their time and prolific in their memories about themselves, our classmates, and our time at Yale.

These tributes represent the work of more than 100 classmates. They contain personal recollections, links to obituaries, photographs, and often revealing  anecdotes. Our research has benefitted from the expanded access to information that the internet provides — but, like everything else about the internet, there are still gaps.

This 50th Reunion is a time when many of us are looking back, aware that we have more time behind us than in front of us. We ask how we came to be who and where we are today. We think about the people we met along the way and I, for one, wonder what happened to them (one reason I come to Reunions). These tributes provide another way to learn about our classmates.

I have had the pleasure of reading every one of these tributes.

All of them provide valuable history. Many of them are wonderfully written. And while each one says something about a deceased classmate, they often reveal just as much about the writers. For some, this is an opportunity to renew expressions of public gratitude to classmates; for others, a chance to  atone for failure to express gratitude aloud before now and  a public occasion to mourn loss of contact with long-time friends. Some writers express their appreciation to  departed classmates for events that turn out, in hindsight, to have been important inflection points in our lives. Some retell hilarious or poignant moments from 50 years ago.

This is a portrait gallery of our peers. Each tribute illustrates how, from  a common starting point, our lives diverged on a wide variety of paths, to different places, in pursuit of different goals, and with different companions along the way.  All of them honor the classmates with whom we shared the formative experience of attending Yale in the 1970s.

We sharpen our understanding of ourselves by honoring those who were once part of our shared history. The tributes keep their memories alive.

I urge you to read as many of the tributes as you can. Go to this link to get started.


Alan StrasserAlan Strasser [BK], father of two Yalies, Julia ’05 and Samuel ’08, practiced law as a litigator and counselor in Washington, D.C. for 46 years, both in the government and private practice. For 11 years he was an Assistant United States Attorney, including three years as chief of the division handling all street crime felonies in our Nation’s Capital. Now mostly retired, he teaches legal ethics at Georgetown law school and lives with his wife Patricia Hartge in the DC suburbs. He is grandfather to three granddaughters.

Classmate Memorial Tributes