Op-Ed: Upsala College - Commencement 1995

Susan Phillips Plese Upsala 1968
Copyright© The Hartford Courant

It's hard to die in the spring. It's hard to die when winter-scarred trees erupt with blooms of pink and white, when tulips nod heads colored yellow and scarlet, when the four-petaled dogwood cascades over sweeping green lawns.

It's hard to die with life rebounding all around, nature oblivious to the end time. It's hard for a school to die at a commencement ceremony, a beginning.

It was on such a dogwood, pink-bloomed day that my undergraduate school, Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., celebrated both the graduation of its last class and the death of its life as a small liberal arts college founded by Swedish immigrants. It was 102 years old. Trustees, faced with mounting debt and lack of accreditation, voted March 1 to close.

Only a few mourners, 150 at best, marked Upsala's passing. I saw no one from my class of 1968. I met a woman, class of 1959, and a man, class of 1974. Until April, we hadn't realized we lived in the same Connecticut town. Until May 14, 1995, we had never met. Strangers, we cried together on Mother's Day over the death of our alma mater.

Three generations of college students: Elsa, 1959; Susan, 1968; Mark, 1974, met for the first time in the chapel of Upsala College for the memorial service. Except for two beloved professors, I saw few other familiar faces.

I don't cry in public. Never at sad movies. I've steeled myself for funerals and leave-taking. I cry in my bed over the death of a loved one; I cry in the car on the way home after we've dropped off a child for freshman year in college.

But I cried in the chapel at Upsala College Sunday, and I cried as my husband and I walked the paths that were so familiar in my memory. My freshman dorm, a beautiful Victorian-era mansion, was locked. I peered through the windows and cried. I cried in the deserted quadrangle, center of campus dorm life.

The upperclassman dorms at the back of the quad were unlocked. We walked in. They were deserted, creepy, the lobby stripped of furniture. On the first-floor stained carpet I saw tinsel. Left over from Christmas, or celebratory graduation glitter? I saw an empty bottle of champagne, several plastic garbage bags full of cast-offs, cookie tins, old papers, junk-food wrappers.

A few rooms were open, stripped of people and possessions, plastic-covered mattresses on frames, pastel cinderblock walls, familiar desks and mirrored cabinets facing the single large window in each room. There were no people. I didn't walk the three flights to my old room, where I lived for three years with my best friend Vivian Springer from Brooklyn. We were the maids of honor in each other's weddings. The dorm we lived in was empty, dirty, alien.

I cried and took pictures. A camera crew from ABC was there after most people had left. A lone reporter stood with his microphone in front of the Upsala College sign and talked about the end in funereal tones. I stopped to listen.

He made me angry, all dressed up, all 20-something-years of him, broadcast voice, and he hadn't even bothered to talk to anyone. He just stood there, with his microphone, his script, his camera man set up in front of a sign.

What does he know about the death of a college of 102 years? Why didn't he ask? Why didn't he look for the people behind the story? They were certainly there, wandering alone or in small groups, many weeping.

Six days after my college died my family will be at the University of New Hampshire, celebrating the graduation of our middle child, an English major, just like his mother was when she graduated in June of 1968 from Upsala College. I was prepared for nothing, ready for everything. My son, class of '95, is prepared for nothing, ready for everything.

My husband, teacher at Upsala College, 1965 to 1968, raises funds now at a community college in Connecticut to ensure that bright students who can't afford tuition will be able to go to school.

And I, a teacher at that same college, work to ensure that my students are properly taught and nourished. I have a bond with them: discipline and compassion.

I attended Upsala's funeral on May 14. But somehow, she will not die. She lives in the underlife we don't usually talk about. She lives in my memories and in my dreams.

She lives in my style, the way I relate to my own students. I insist on excellence, as did my professors. My students adhere to my standards, or they leave. I make no apologies. The best students I have are the best that can possibly be.

I hope that other graduates of small liberal arts colleges all over the country do not have to undergo the sorrow that I have at the death of a beloved institution. But I hope, equally, that all those affected will come to terms with what they have learned, and what they have yet to give.

Yes, dollars are important. But soul is more so. A college may die for lack of money, but the gifts bestowed by its professors are not so easily eliminated. For the graduates of Upsala, I ask one thing: Take what you have been given, and pass it on. That is the ultimate gift.

Pass it on.

Susan Phillips Plese, a 1968 graduate of Upsala College, is a weekly columnist at The Hartford Courant and a retired Professor of Journalism at Manchester Community College.

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