2016 marks 20 years since I graduated from college. How 20 years could have passed so quickly, and how I can still feel like it has been, maybe, 10 years, are questions I continue to contemplate. Nonetheless, the math checks out.
Being the advance planner that I am, much earlier in the year I inquired among my friends to see if anyone was even considering heading back to the IWU campus for the 20th reunion. It wasn’t that I expected anyone was making firm plans, but I was trying to gauge if I should allow vacation time for the trip. After all, some of us would have to fly across the country! Well, months ago, I heard crickets.
I had gone back for the 10-year reunion and was very lonely that weekend. Given that experience, I brushed aside any thought of flying to Illinois in October and went on with my life.
Fast forward to two weeks before the reunion, and I received an email from the School of Theatre Arts telling me to join them at a 20th anniversary reading of a play one of our illustrious professors had written, and it would feature the original cast from the 1996 production! Wait a minute now, I recall that play being cast with a number of my classmates! I was the assistant director! This email rather firmly implied that I was going to know some people at this year’s reunion!
So, again, I put out the call and this time heard from a fair number of my fellow theatre major friends that they would, indeed, be on campus. Most of my other primary group of friends was still not going, but even one or two of them would be there, too, and suddenly I was full of vim and vigor not usually seen in a person of my advanced years!
I quickly perused options for relatively inexpensive travel and lodging, got clearance to take a couple of vacation days from work, and booked my trip!
I arrived at Midway airport around 2:30 in the afternoon on Thursday before homecoming weekend, but didn’t make it down to Bloomington until around 8:00. Let’s just say traffic from the airport to Joliet was challenging. Once I got south of Joliet, though, the only trouble I ran into was wanting to stop and take photos of the beautiful sunset casting orange and pink light on the trees, cornfields, and random ponds and lakes that litter the landscape of northern and central Illinois. Anyone who thinks Illinois isn’t beautiful can go to hell! : )
Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the way of plans on Friday, so I slept in a bit before heading over to campus. The campus has grown rather a lot in the last 10 years since I’d been there, let alone the last 20. Although it still retains its smallish feel, it has expanded outward by a block or two in a couple of directions. It was a little hard to get my bearings once I left the main quad area. Where the heck was the Acacia Annex? I think it might have been bulldozed to make way for a campus expansion.
I made a quick visit to the new bookstore and walked around the campus trying not to be too overcome with melancholy. No one else that I knew had gotten into town yet, so I made a trek to downtown Bloomington, a place that I think I visited maybe twice in my four years at college. It’s actually a nice area with quite a few cute little shops. I’m fairly sure the shops are different than they were 20 years ago. Steve jokingly asked how I could possibly know, given that I’d barely gone there in the past, but I assured him that I thought the fair trade shop (Crossroads Handcrafts of the World) hadn’t been there before. I was also thrilled to find fresh cheese curds at Common Ground Grocery, and snacked on them as I strolled the street.
The highlight was, of course, Red Raccoon Games, not because it was a game shop, but because of the prominent raccoon logo everywhere! The store was closed when I was there in the afternoon, but I swung back by later in the day to procure a couple of t-shirts. Unfortunately, the “large” size I got for Steve is not exactly a normal large – he ends up looking, perhaps appropriately, a bit like Comic Book Guy in it.
In the late afternoon, I headed over to the English House for a reception. Unfortunately, one of my favorite professors had left earlier in the day, but I did see another professor who definitely remembered me and my crew, even re-telling the story of the first time we met him. In the summer of 1995, my friends and I drove to NYC in order to attend the “Writings of Jack Kerouac” conference at New York University. I think it was one of Allen Ginsberg’s last public speaking events.
We were all sitting on the steps outside the university during a break and we saw Professor Terkla, whom we recognized from a photo. We were all trying to get into his fall class on the Beats, but it was full. Jose went up and introduced himself and the rest of us. Needless to say, Professor Terkla let all of us into his class that fall. He said it was still one of his favorite stories and that he told it often.
After dinner, I headed over to Mugsy’s Pub where a couple of early-arriving classmates were planning to meet up. One of the couples included a classmate who I didn’t know from 1996 and her husband. They were lovely people and we got along just fine. I was quite happy to also see another couple enter, the husband of which was definitely part of my formative circle of college friends back in the day. After a couple of pints, I headed back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.
Probably, I shouldn’t have felt the need to rest up, and I could have slept in later than I did, but I went to campus mid-morning to visit Gulick Hall, which was having a mini-reunion to celebrate it’s 60th anniversary. There wasn’t much to it, but I did walk up to the room that I had shared with Ann with no “E” in my junior year, and signed the building map at that room location.
After that, I just wandered about the quad a bit, looking at the trees, which seem to have grown significantly in the last 20 years, listening to the pep band, and marveling at how young the students look.
The afternoon presented a problem in that I had no interest in the football game, and all of the theatre friends I knew were back on campus were in rehearsal for that evening’s staged reading. I walked by the theatre and saw Dr. Ficca, who had me peak into the rehearsal space and invited me to come in, but I didn’t want to intrude, so I didn’t go in and interrupt. Perhaps I should have.
Instead, I walked to the other end of campus and over a few more blocks to the site of my off-campus senior housing. How this house, or more to the point, the neighboring house where “the boys” lived, is still standing, is a mystery to me.
Standing there, I was almost over-whelmed by the same feelings I had experienced when I drove away after graduation back in 1996. It’s not that college was the pinnacle of my life – the intervening years have been quite good, and I’m not even sure I’ve peaked yet – but those years were a fantastic experience with some great friends, adventures, experiences, and learning. I was sad to leave it then, and I was sad on this day to see it so far back in the rear-view mirror. I may still feel quite young day-to-day, but it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was never going to be that young again. A few weeks later, a friend referred to it as feeling “age sad”, which is a perfect description and one I imagine I’ll be using in the future.
Anyway, after a quick lurk in the area, I drove to neighboring downtown Normal (actually Uptown) to see what was there. It was a nice area, but I didn’t linger there as long as I had in Bloomington. I went back to the hotel and had a little nap, then drove over to Evergreen Cemetery. No, I wasn’t feeling especially morose. I was just looking for a nice walk where I might take a few photos, while waiting to hear from my theatre friends who might be getting out of rehearsal soon. Besides, it was the kind of thing I might do if Steve was there.
I didn’t hear from my theatre friends in advance of the reading, so I just hung around campus a bit more until the appointed time for the performance.
I was there early, so I had a good chance to visit with those friends before the reading began.
There was a reception after the reading, and the alumni were asked to say a few words to the current class of students about what they’ve been up to for the last 20 years. I was expecting it to just be the performers, but was pleasantly surprised when I was called up to say a few things, too. I do think it’s a nice thing for the non-performance majors to hear from one of their kindred. I wrote a note to one of the faculty afterward offering some feedback about inviting the non-performance majors who had served in production designer roles if they do more such tribute celebrations in the future.
Finally, it was back to Mugsy’s for another couple of pints and lots of reminiscing. It was a great night, and it broke me out of the funk I’d been in during the afternoon.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to join them for breakfast on Sunday morning since I had to leave for the airport by about 7am. On the plus side, driving back to Midway on Sunday morning was a completely different experience traffic-wise than the drive down had been, so I made very good time. Such good time that perhaps I should have stopped along the way to take more photos of Illinois in the soft-focus, misty early morning light.