The Meaning Is Clear
Eugene Lang '38
Truth is stranger than fiction-so my 69-year relationship with Swarthmore affirms. Before August 1933, the name Swarthmore twice touched my awareness. First, a day in the late 1920s, when a newspaper comic strip, "Tillie the Toiler," presented a ballooned introduction of the featured working girl to an elegantly turned-out young man: "Tillie, this is Dick Van Horn of Swarthmore." I recall that, in its context, the introduction inspired the fantasy of an uppity college populated with high-society playboys. Second, some time later, when the banner headline of an article on the front page of the Sunday Times sports section proclaimed Swarthmore's 20-0 football victory over Army.
Neither Swarthmore reference impressed me. I had no interest in the ups and downs of a paper doll, and football was not an accredited sport on 103rd Street in East Harlem. Now, however, I wonder: Of the unending irrelevancies that stream past the senses of a young man every day, what whim of Providence preserved the two Swarthmore references in my memory bank? They did not come to mind when, by the most improbable circumstances, I met George Jackson, a sedate, unassuming gentleman who dined regularly in a small Third Avenue restaurant where I had an after-school job as dishwasher. As it turned out, Mr. Jackson was my first exposure to a Swarthmore graduate and, auspiciously, one whose family was associated with the College back to its beginnings.
The story of that chance encounter has been told, retold, and, indeed, embellished by time. However, space allotted to this essay allows only for its conclusion. Dear Mr. Jackson, gently encouraging my interest, created a college opportunity that I considered unreal and had no intention of accepting. In January 1934, I became a 14-year-old graduate of New York's Townsend Harris High School. My credentials: advertising manager of the THH yearbook and member of its chess team. But that September, thanks to Mr. Jackson and a generous scholarship, I visited Swarthmore for the first time-as a freshman resident of Wharton's D Section. What a satisfaction it was, years later, while he was still alive, to endow the George Jackson Scholarship at Swarthmore!
A new world began to unfold. Three years too young, and away from home for the first time, I was challenged to prove myself in a very different and formidable environment. Stickball, the 79th Street library, and camaraderie in the iceman's cellar at the First Avenue corner were out, replaced by dormitory bull sessions, the "libe" (old Tarble), and "Collection" (later called "Commons") upstairs in Parrish after dinner. However, with my first 8 a.m. class in American literature with Everett Hunt, the meaning of Swarthmore began to take root. I still have my freshman-year notes that, among other pedagogical exposures, record my disputes with Emerson and Thoreau-and with Everett Hunt. Everett became a lifelong friend-I was privileged to convey my affection and respect at his 90th-birthday party in 1981 and with a eulogy at his memorial service in 1984. The Everett Hunt Room is now an important facility of the Lang Performing Arts Center.
Starting with that first 8 a.m. class, every course and seminar of my Swarthmore education opened up an opportunity to learn, to question insistently, and to challenge responses. These opportunities were immeasurably enriched by ready access to my teachers for comfort and guidance. Joining Everett Hunt in my Swarthmore pantheon are Roland Pennock, whose brilliance as a political theorist was associated with kindness and understanding that helped me cope with the profundities of his topical analyses; Brand Blanshard, whose stimulating introduction to philosophy excited active discourse of philosophic options but left my identity as a pragmatic idealist-or idealistic pragmatist-unresolved; Freddy Manning, whose eloquent expositions and special insights into American history and Constitutional issues still resonate with my perceptions of current social concerns; Mary Albertson, who made medieval history come alive and unintentionally misdirected my focus from England to the Ottoman empire; Clair Wilcox, whose social economics seminars and informal discussions, stimulated by his provocative commentaries and high-voltage student participation, were central to my major in economics; and "Uncle" George Bordelais, who generously indulged my extracurricular interest in working with the equipment in the College's engineering facilities. One of my "workings": a custom-built stepladder to facilitate postings to the baseball field's scoreboard. Over the years, this personal pantheon of faculty has become an increasingly significant and, indeed, irreplaceable, part of Swarthmore's meaning to me.
Two meaningful memories also relate to President Frank Aydelotte. First, in the second semester of my freshman year, a prominent Spanish political scientist and leader, Dr. Salvador Madariaga, was invited to give a lecture at Swarthmore. The lecture was stimulating, but there was no opportunity to ask questions. The next morning, with misgivings, I went to the President's Office and was very graciously admitted. I stated my interest in Dr. Madariaga's lecture and regretted that there had been no time for him to interact with students. With no further discussion, Dr. Aydelotte stepped out of his office for some words with his secretary. He returned and asked me, "How about tea with Dr. Madariaga at my home this afternoon at five?" I quickly agreed. He added, "If you like, you can also invite 10 other students." That blew my mind-me, a freshman, suddenly vested with such extraordinary power of patronage. Cloaking power with modesty, I invited a few of my classmates, but mostly some prominent seniors, to what became a very spirited tea. Dr. Aydelotte was that kind of president.
Four years later, on my graduation day, I was sitting on the Parrish front porch, suited up with cap and gown, waiting to assemble for the big ceremony, then held in Clothier. As I sat there, President Aydelotte came strolling by, arm in arm with the guest speaker, Professor Albert Einstein. A student, Molly Whitford, happened by with a camera and asked them to stop for a picture. They did, backing up against the side of the porch so that, coincidentally, I was framed in, to make an apparent trio. Some 30-plus years later, Molly, browsing through her files of memorabilia, found the photo, recognized me, and sent the negative. Ever since, the photo has provided a meaningful Swarthmore identity in my office, with copies on permanent display in my home and the homes of my children.
Added to this are wonderful relationships with my 1938 classmates, whose living presences and memories make them a very special and a cherished part of Swarthmore's meaning. The lengthened shadows of those classmates and, indeed, of all alumni, continue to contribute to that meaning. With them, and for seven years as chairman of the Board of Managers, I have seen the College grow in the face of wrenching challenges, ranging from curriculum, to technology, to diversity, to the Blue Route, to divestment, to football, to equal opportunity. It has been an enormous satisfaction to join with Swarthmore colleagues and participate personally, creatively, and financially in helping the College meet these challenges. We can properly take satisfaction from the widespread recognition that, in liberal arts education, Swarthmore rates at the top. However, it is significant to the meaning of Swarthmore that we remain actively aware that our college must prepare to assume new responsibilities as an academic leader in a changing world and to educate its students more effectively for socially responsible citizenship. Of colleges that have much, much is expected. The meaning of Swarthmore requires that we continue to support that expectation.
When I arrived at Swarthmore 69 years ago, I could not have imagined how meaningful the College would become in my life. I have lived to see two of my children and two of my grandchildren graduate. I dare to expect that more will have that privilege-not to mention the possibility that I may bear witness to the admission of at least two great-grandchildren. When I walk across its campus and see students immersed in themselves and each other, books under their arms, Swarthmore becomes a living spirit. Looking down Magill from the vantage of Parrish, I think of President Kennedy at the Berlin Wall, announcing, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Yes, I am a Swarthmorean-and the meaning is clear.
Eugene Lang is a philanthropist, chairman emeritus of REFAC Technology and Development Corp., and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.