Since I started going to my college reunion at my 20th—lured by the promise of seeing Mary Wilson of the Supremes—I’ve always had a fantastic time. Gathered on the University of Virginia’s lovely Grounds (no, it’s not a campus) with other Wahoos, it’s a weekend of telling your friends that they haven’t changed a bit, rehashing old stories, enjoying plentiful food and drink, and attending a seminar or two. If that’s not enough, there are tours, music, dancing, and yes, sometimes hangovers.
This year, my coworkers were concerned that in my eagerness to relive my college days, history might repeat itself. That’s right…. that I might participate in, and then report on, reunion-related canoodling. While I was, in theory at least, open to the idea of a canoodle, their delicate sensibilities were safe: I have no canoodling to report on.
Virginia Farm Market in Winchester on they way. I'd show you a photo of their fantastic apple cider donuts, but I ate all of them before starting this blog.
The moment I walked into Alumni Hall I had one of those “Toto I don’t think that we’re in Kansas anymore” moments. There was LOTS of blue and orange. And I do mean lots. Men and women were nattily dressed in blue blazers and orange neckties, blue and orange striped polo shirts, and anything else that might come in blue and orange.
After getting the lay of the land from the earnest young Wahoo at the check in table, he pointed me in the direction of another desk where someone would print my alumni association membership card entitling me to a 15% discount at the UVa bookstore. The merch didn’t even have to be blue and orange.
I told the man at the counter that my name was Rick Bryant.
The Rick Bryant…. from The Declaration?
Uh no, I said.
The Declaration (as in of Independence…clever, no?) was a weekly student tabloid. My doppelgänger was a BMOG law student. He played racquetball. People would call me about scheduling games with him.
His given name is Frederick, I said, defending the good name of Richards everywhere.
With that conversational gambit shot down like a clay bird in a skeet shoot, the man behind the counter went to Plan B.
“So where are you from?”
“State College, Pennsylvania. As in Penn State.”
“Oh, do you know Tina Hay?”
“Why yes, I do. She's great.”
The man handing out the membership cards turned out to be the editor of the UVa alumni mag. He'd met Tina after hearing her talk about crisis communications. Small world.
While I usually stay in on-Grounds housing (as in a dorm), I opted for the considerably less spartan Courtyard by Marriott near the UVa Medical Center. I thought it would be a better option if I were to have a canoodling-related heart attack or worse, a you-know-what lasting more than four hours.
That evening, Di and I and another friend walked down the street for dinner at Maya, a trendy Yelp-endorsed restaurant. I read later that the neighborhood is called Midtown. Back in the day it would have been called “Yeah, do you don’t wanna go there…”
But that was a long time ago.
Maya is a trendy spot, welcoming both inked skinny-jeans-wearing regional cuisine aficionados and doofus hipster-wannabes. The Yelp-ers are on to something: not only was the food good, but the historic cocktail of the month hit the spot too. However, our zaftig crimson-lipsticked waitress never really warmed to us. My guess is that she wouldn’t be caught dead in blue and orange.
The Virginian, a sort of diner/bar where you can get not only Maker’s Mark but tits too. My friend Margaret once found a cockroach in a farmer’s omelet there. Presumably in the intervening years the exterminator has come. I didn’t stay out late: my reunion-ing schedule started early the next day. Yeah, I’m old.
There were plenty of things on offer. There were uplifting seminars covering a wide variety of topics from UVa sports to retirement to nuclear energy to Walt Whitman. If you wanted to hang out with friends from the Honor Committee or the Veterans of the Old Dorms Panty Raids you could do that. If you care to go farther afield, there were tours of new buildings on Grounds and local hot spots, like wineries and Monticello. And if Bill was your friend, there were twelve step meetings.
I typically stick to the historic stuff and do a few tours of new and different parts of the Grounds. I wasn’t much of a joiner, wasn’t in student government, and even let my membership in the Old Dorm Panty Raid Association lapse a few years back.
My first seminar was called 1968: A Year Drenched in Blood, a perfect choice to shock the brain cells into something approaching thinking. The prof, Brian Balogh, whose podcast, Backstory, is a personal fave, used lot of video clips to talk about the fracturing America of 1968. He illustrated his points with everything from an ad from the Nixon presidential campaign to clips of the Chicago police beating the crap out of anti-war protesters at the Democratic convention.
During the Q&A, one member of the audience, from the class of ’64 or ‘69, talked about his experience returning from Viet Nam, when the manager of a swank hotel in San Francisco comped his room as a way of welcoming him back from the war.
At this, the older gentleman sitting by me became visibly distressed and tears started rolling down his cheeks. When I offered a tissue, his wife told me that he’d had the opposite experience returning from Viet Nam. He was called a baby killer, and that was just for starters.
Another audience member identified himself as one of the five African-American students of the 1200 men (as in no women) of the class of 1969. He talked about performing in the Glee Club’s spring concert when someone came into the auditorium and announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed. He said everyone in the hall turned and looked at him.
All three of these men were reminders that although there are lots of things we need to work on, America is a better place than it was in 1968.
Ante bellum UVa sounded like The Three Stooges Meet Jim Crow, only worse. In addition to the traditional “Oh, a wise guy, eh?” before some eye gouging and sucker punching, the fighting also included lots of nose biting. Yes, nose biting. It was a thing. It’s even documented in university records. Yikes.
And of course, there was wenching and whoring. Those boys wenched and whored out the ying yang. Faculty members did a lot of hand wringing about the wenching and whoring. There's plenty of documentation of that, too.
Fortunately, I could only fit in two depressing seminars before lunch back at The Virginian, where one of my friends told me that his nonagenarian father was getting married the next day. Impressive! I didn’t ask if the bride were knocked up.
After lunch it was time for a tour. The architecture school's gravel parking lot has become a parking garage, band building, and a studio art building. The area now has a fancy name, The John and Betsy Casteen Arts Grounds, which presumably has replaced its former name, "You have classes way out there?". While there were bright spots, the tour was a bit like listening to someone you don’t know brag about their grandchildren.
At about 5:00 p.m. a thunderstorm of biblical proportions descended on Charlottesville. The lights in the hotel went out briefly, and the phone system was knocked out for the remainder of the weekend. Fortunately the Alumni Association had announced earlier that evening activities would be at their inclement weather sites.
John Paul Jones Arena, was impressive even if it wasn't designed by Mr. Jefferson or Stanford White. The huge athletic complex was living proof that in the years since I was a student, UVa has embraced bigtime sports, to the detriment of time spent wenching, whoring, and nose-biting.
Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn, with its rows of columns leading from one focal point to another is the perfect spot for them.
Jim Ryan, arrived—easy to spot since he was the only man in a dark business suit.
We fell into a ragtag procession by class, behind the guy with the mace, the bagpiper, university President, and the cute banner folks from Alumni Hall. Classmate Katie Couric stepped out of the procession to capture the scene on her phone, our very own Abraham Zapruder. I hope I was smiling.
When the procession neared its end, we all clapped for those who’d graduated fifty years ago.
After the procession, there’s an assembly where people from the alumni association and the development office act as the de facto opening acts for the University president. They pass out awards to the classes that did the best with fundraising and attendance.
President Ryan was impressive; the university seems to be in good hands. As the Q&A from the audience wound down, in an amusing bit of theatre, the last questioner randomly chosen from the audience was Katie Couric. She asked about the college admissions scandal. President Ryan them answered her like the skilled politician a university president needs to be these days.
Saturday afternoon I took a friend to the airport, went to the university bookstore to see if my math skills could calculate a 15% discount.
Afterward, I took in an exhibit on Walt Whitman.
After Walt it was time to return to the hotel to shower, shave, and Aqua Velva before our big class finale in McIntire Amphitheater.
I could barely fit into my pink Ralph Lauren party trousers that I wore to the same event five years previously, but as long as I didn’t plan on inhaling, exhaling, eating, drinking, or moving, I figured I’d be ok.
It was a beautiful night for a party, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by historic white columned buildings that are part of the UVa brand. It was the like the best wedding ever except without annoying relatives, the possibility of children in attendance, and having to wait forever for the bride and groom to cut the cake so that you can leave.
The Perfect 10 band was the opening act for Skip Castro, the band that’s played at all of our reunions. Sure, they’re long in the tooth, but they’ve still got what it takes.
Soon enough, there were piles of clothes in front of us and they ran down Lawn together in the altogether. On the return trip, they ran right up the steps of the Rotunda. That was when I noticed that they knew that a Brazilian is not just a citizen of that really big country in South America.
The final thing on the schedule was the traditional Sunday morning going away breakfast at the aquatic center. It's headlined by the droll politics commentator Larry Sabato, the head of UVa's Center for Politics and a member of the class of '74. He spends an hour or so politically prognosticating while bleary-eyed alums munch on breakfast food.
Unfortunately the end of his talk signaled that another reunions weekend was coming to a close. As he finished talking, Frank and Heidi and Guy and Melinda and Pete and Laura and Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice and anyone else I might have laid eyes on said our goodbyes and promised that we wouldn’t wait 5 years to get together again.
This time we really mean it.