Op-Ed: Upsala College - Obituary

Susan Phillips Plese Upsala 1968
Copyright© The Hartford Courant

George Jones sent me a newspaper obituary last week. It had appeared in March in the Newark Star Ledger. George was one of my students at Manchester Community-Technical College in Connecticut several years ago: he's kept in touch, and thought I would be interested in the death of an old friend. Not his, but mine.

I don't remember telling George about her. Teachers toss out a lot of incidental information in classes - anecdotes, memories, examples, illustrations, life experiences that have some connection to the subject matter.

George hadn't written in a year or more. But he obviously remembered something when he read the obituary, a connection with a teacher he'd had for a short period of time in Manchester, Conn.

George sent me the newspaper account of the death of my undergraduate school in East Orange, N.J. In financial trouble for several years, and faced with removal of accreditation, the school folded. Trustees voted in March to close Upsala College, age 102 years.

Banks fold. Schools fold. Newspapers fold. Businesses fold.

But how could Upsala, the vessel of all my college memories, just fold? It was, in truth, my alma mater. Other mother.

The last time I was there was two years ago, to celebrate the centennial. Upsala was 100 years old, struggling but strong, under leadership of a president determined to see hard times through. It was also the 25th reunion for my college class, 1968.

We gathered in the gymnasium, site of final exams, college banquets and basketball games a quarter century ago. I talked with former professors, most stooped and gray-haired now.

I re-connected with Lois, a woman I hadn't seen in those 25 years. We found we had children the same age attending the same college, the University of New Hampshire. Lois is a psychiatrist; she had been a science major in college. Her daughter is studying science.

I am a writer and teacher. I had been an English major in college. My son is studying English.

I married a man I met at Upsala. He came from Michigan; I came from Pennsylvania. We met at a small liberal arts school in New Jersey, a twist of fate.

The twist spawned a marriage and three children who never would have been without the small liberal arts college in New Jersey that attracted a blonde woman who loved words and a dark-haired man who loved the theatre.

The death of an institution is not as dramatic as the death of a person. Cinderblocks, brick, plaster and lath cannot be compared to skins and bones and heart.

But the death of an institution is the death of a past. What will become of Kenbrook Hall, that beautiful mansion with wide staircase and sweeping side yard I lived in my freshman year? The fire escape we crawled down to sun-bathe on the second-floor roof? The ginko tree on the lawn we sat under to study?

What will become of the intimate little theatre with the marvelous thrust stage we worked on when we were too inexperienced to really understand the playwrights whose words we spoke with such youthful intensity: Pirandello, Lorca, Shaw, Shakespeare, Brecht, Albee.

And what of the dorms, the student union, the notorious back parking lot and the quadrangle with its neat paths, and the stately brick library with the tower?

There is now no living place to go to revisit my memories. They are still incredibly vivid. Sometimes I dream about Upsala and my life there. Sometimes I am there, still, in my sleep.

My time there is like an island in my mind, separated from my youth at home and my life as an adult. Perhaps that is why it remains in limbo, located somewhere between reality and illusion.

At Upsala in 1964 we lived in dorms segregated by gender and we had 9:30 p.m. curfews. A house mother stood guard at the door to check us in.

When we dressed up we wore high heels and hose. We weren't permitted to come to the cafeteria for Sunday dinner without our dress-up costume. Men were required to wear jackets.

Our version of disobedience was making out in the back parking lot, climbing out a window after curfew or letting a boyfriend up the back stairs. We made lavish floats from chicken wire and tissue paper for our annual homecoming parade. The men staged panty raids. We "pulled all-nighters" to study for finals.

It was truly an island of time.

And what will become of the legacy, the books, the professors? My education there, at Upsala from 1964 to 1968, was the finest I could have imagined. Required of all students were lab sciences, math, humanities, foreign language, philosophy. Required was what we call liberal arts. Required was excellence.

Invited was involvement in a community of scholars. I had dinner at the homes of my professors. We discussed literature. Herta Pauly, my philosophy professor, conducted seminars in her old-world apartment at the edge of the campus, and she served us strong coffee and tiny pastries as well as the philosophy of aesthetics. She was brilliant and compassionate. She loved her students. She is the teacher I've tried to become.

I earned a graduate degree from the University of Connecticut in 1979. But I never formed a bond there. UConn was the university of my maturity. I took knowledge, not soul.

Some professors at UConn were exceptional. Some were not. But the magic was over. Education was no longer all-encompassing. Education became the means to an end. Upsala was the first time I experienced education, books, thinking, as ends in themselves.

In its death, Upsala has left me with incredible sadness and deep gratitude. George Jones, a student I barely taught, reminded me of that. Perhaps the legacy of teaching, of excellence, of soul, will live here, in my space and my time.

George remembers me. Perhaps I can offer my students strong coffee and and tiny pastries, intelligence tempered with compassion, and teach them the aesthetics of life.

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.

Op-Ed: Commencement 1995
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