I’ve attended several Princeton reunions over the years. Generally, I’ve gone back for one at least every decade and made a special effort to attend the 25th, which, of course, is viewed as a real milestone.
Each of these reunions occurred at very different times in my life and the lives of my classmates. And as a result, each reunion had its own unique character. Our perspectives toward life and careers, which likely were shaped by the fact that our Class of 1964 was all male, changed dramatically over the years.
As a student, I vividly remember working at the 30th reunion. Traditionally, the 30th employed members of the varsity hockey team. It was a great opportunity to make really good money over a very few days of hard work and long hours – setting up the tents, bartending until all hours of the night, assisting in catering the meals, and generally cleaning up the Reunions grounds.
But what I remember most distinctly is how old those 30th-reunion guys looked. I remember remarking to a fellow teammate and reunion worker that I couldn’t imagine getting that old.
Well, it happened. We just marked our 45th reunion, and now are hell-bent for our landmark 50th. This is a stunning reality that is really hard to fathom. Where did the time go? How did we get so damn old ... so fast? Just imagine what those students are thinking as they work the reunion tent where these old geezers are gathered to renew old friendships and tell lies about the good old days. They must view our tent as an extension of the natural history museum with its fossils and artifacts from another era.
Through the years the reunions take on a distinctively different character, from the younger classes – fifth, 10th, and so on – all the way up to the 40th and 50th. Keeping in mind that we were an all-male and not very diverse class racially, here’s a profile of how those different reunions look to the casual outsider:
This is the “Horatio Alger Pursuit of the American Dream Reunion.”
These alumni are newly embarked on their careers. The newly minted MBAs have cashed in on their investment in a graduate education and are laboring long hours in the investment banking firms like Goldman Sachs or slaving away in management-consulting firms like Booz Allen or McKinsey.
The fresh young law school graduates are now entering the crucial fifth year or so of practice at huge Wall Street law firms or other law shops in the financial district. They are sprinting full speed to log as many billable hours as possible to impress the partners that they should be promoted to the partnership in a few years. They are exhausted and look like hell warmed over from the stress and ordeal of a corporate law practice. Those who headed off on the Ph.D. track toward careers in teaching had labored to complete their doctoral theses and defend them before a panel of scholars; they now were junior faculty members publishing like crazy lest they perish on their track toward full professorship and the holy grail of academe, tenure.
Those who were premed as undergraduates and slugged their way through four years of medical school to receive their M.D. degrees, then labored through a one-year internship followed by a residency. By the 10th reunion, those docs who headed toward surgery were still in training – and would be until close to the 15th before they could take on the “attending physician” title.
The final step for these hard-working docs would be board certification, the pinnacle of the medical profession. Being board certified in neurosurgery has all the cache the medical profession can offer and definitely is a label I’d insist on if I were in the market for brain surgery.
All these 10th reunion classmates look tired; few are married or lead “normal lives.” They work hard and party very hard. No doubt many have been burning the midnight oil and their candles at both ends to bank enough credits to be able to take this weekend off to attend their reunion. Most will be wedded to their BlackBerrys and their laptops through the weekend to log some extra hours covering bases and currying favor. There aren’t many children in attendance at this reunion, for the simple reason that the classmates haven’t had the time or inclination to procreate. They are focused on their careers to the exclusion of all else, trying to make their mark, get ahead, nail that promotion, and make a ton of money in the process.
This is the “I'm Finally Making It ... I’m Reaching for the Golden Ring Reunion.” Career is the be all and end all for these classmates. They have hit their stride in their professions and are working their way up the corporate ladder with promotions. A large percentage of these classmates now are married, and their spouses join in the reunion activities. There are more children attending this reunion than any other (aside from the classmates themselves, whose childish sense of fun continues into their 40s).
These classmates still reminisce fondly about their college days, but the conversation gravitates toward their business or professional pursuits. Subtle and not-so-subtle bragging about career successes and family life pervade this reunion. There is buzzing about the occasional divorce and remarriage, but these are in the distinct minority. Name tags are becoming more important for these classmates, many of whom haven’t seen one another for the full 20 years. Even those who don’t have the slightest clue whom they are talking to will cheerfully greet their classmate with something akin to, “Hi, John. Great to see you again. Everything good with you and your family?” When John responds that he just lost his job, his parents are both very ill, and he got divorced the year before, the jolly conversation comes to a screeching halt.
This is the “I Want It All, I Want It All, And I Want It Now Reunion.”
Success has reached quite a number of these classmates in their mid-40s. There are executive VPs of Fortune 100 companies, a sprinkling of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and partners of major corporate law firms, distinguished professors of major universities, and world-class medical experts and researchers chasing the ever-elusive cure for cancer.
These classmates have been relentlessly pursuing the golden ring for their entire careers, and some have grabbed it. A few have fallen by the wayside, victims of corporate or university politics or cataclysmic change in the economy.
The 25th is celebrated as a rite of passage for alums, the passage to midlife and mid-career. Attendance at this reunion surpasses that of any other major reunion.
“Giving back” becomes the relentless mantra of fundraising professionals and legions of volunteers from the reunion class. Collectively they “put the squeeze” on reluctant classmates who protest that they have enormous demands on their charitable dollars and that the University’s endowment is already overflowing with riches. Class leaders eagerly put the arm on their fellow classmates to make “stretch gifts” to ensure that they set the all-time record for 25th-reunion gifts to the University.
This is the “Approaching Career Zenith Reunion.”
For many classmates, this reunion might conflict with their children’s own college graduations. For some, that means a new Porsche may be in the future as the tuition(s) burden is lifted for the first time in many years. That new freedom from the tuition poorhouse makes these classmates giddy with the joy of seemingly windfall riches. Careers are nearing the peak of success, but classmates are less vocal about their careers and more focused on their families. Some will show off photos of the newest grandchild/grandchildren. Others will voice quiet complaints about medical issues: arthritis, cholesterol, hypertension. Some will talk quietly of this classmate or that who has been “battling cancer.” There are far too many of these stories at every reunion. Thirty years out, many families have become much larger, some because of divorce, remarriage, and the addition of stepchildren, but they are still loyal Tigers one and all. And, for most, career has taken a back seat to family and friends.
This is the “Winding Down, Chilling Out, and Smelling the Roses Reunion.”
Many classmates now have retired, or at least have moved on from their careers to “do something else.” Some have transitioned from “jobs” to “hobbies that have become full-time avocations.” Those who have labored in the executive suites of American Industry have found solace and great satisfaction in teaching in business or law school, mentoring those who will be the next business leaders in our country.
Many have turned their full attention to charitable ventures: doctors traveling to developing countries around the world to give free medical/surgical attention to the poorest of the poor; lawyers offering pro bono legal services to detainees at Guantánamo, federal and state prisoners wrongfully convicted and now seeking release based on DNA evidence, or taking appointments at neighborhood legal aid clinics to assist poor, underserved clients with orders of protection, landlord-tenant matters, and protection from fraudulent loans and contractor rip-offs.
Others have retired to the golf course or the tennis courts. For them, the fruits of a long career of hard work are a period of “golden years” filled with country-club living ... in the North in the summer months and in Florida or Arizona in the winter. Entertaining club friends and playing bridge fill out the rest of their hours of R&R.
Still others commit almost full time to traveling the world. The African safari, which has become almost cliché to retirees, is number one on most retiree travelogues, followed by an Italian adventure in Venice, Tuscany, and surrounding countryside, and then the obligatory itinerary through Provence with side trips to Nice and the French Riviera and returning through Paris with a fortnight stay.
Class memorials have become more important and more meaningful than ever before. Mortality among this generation for 60-something-year-olds has taken its toll on the class. The memorial ritual has become much more somber and personal as classmates reflect on their friends who died “prematurely” and brood over the ominous events of years to come.
At Reunions, the annual P-rade features the Old Guard (the oldest returning alums) leading the parade of classes by year. Some in their late 90s ride in golf carts, waving weakly at the assembled reunion classes. They are followed by a few using walkers or handsome carved wood canes with brass tiger-head handles, hobbling along the path through the other classes.
The P-rade is a celebration of life and aging. From the youthful class just graduated, to the middle-aged alums with their young families, to the older alums marching with their grandchildren, to the true “Old Guard,” that distant bookend of the student/alum experience.
God willing, our classmates will be gathering as the Old Guard for years to come. The aches and pains and assorted medical issues will become more and more prevalent in our lives as we creep along toward that revered status.
We have our 50th dead ahead, and then the 60th before we become eligible for the Old Guard. I’m in no particular hurry to make it to that stage in life, and I suspect I’m hardly alone in that sentiment. I just earnestly hope that when we line up to march as the Old Guard, it won’t be a sparse gathering of a few wizened survivors. Rather, make it a robust corps of stalwart classmates, proudly setting a University record for longevity.
Gerald D. Skoning ’64, a semi-retired senior partner in the Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP, is a lawyer who has practiced for more than 43 years, specializing in representing companies in labor and employment law matters. He served as a lieutenant and legal officer on the aircraft carrier USS Independence during the Vietnam era. On his return from military service, the former Princeton hockey captain played semi-pro hockey with the Chicago Cardinals in the Continental Hockey League for 12 years.