Bright College Days

Someone once observed ‘that you don’t live happiness you remember it’.  The University of Hartford in the 1960’s was a remarkable place in a way that was perhaps unique both to itself and to the educational choices of it’s era. The movement to its present campus had only recently begun with the art school, the music school and numerous other facets of the University spread all over Hartford with a main building downtown on Hudson Street between Pulaski Circle and Hartford Hospital.

Between 1961 and 1965, the years when I was there, things happened that in hindsight loom so much larger than they appeared at the time but such is the power of history to sort events with greater acuity.  When Malcolm X came to campus to speak I had a casual conversation with him about civil rights and his perception of race in America.  How we managed to ‘hook up’ that day is a mystery to me although he did want to speak with students and I guess I was just pushy enough to get and for a time  keep his attention.  When Henry Kissinger came to debate Zbigniew Brzezinski it was an interesting hour or so but who would have thought that two of the most influential men of the 20th century were sharing a world view with us that would come to affect so much of our lives in the years to come.

What in hindsight is so amusing to me is remembering meeting a new reporter at Chanel 3 when I had a career in Hartford named  Mika Brzezinski.  We used to run into each other at Max Downtown and enjoyed a friendship of sorts but never once did it occur to me who her father was until years later when her career had brought her to Morning Joe and I was a distant memory if a memory at all.

It was a campus filled with the most diverse student body one could imagine.  I remember that there were students there who actually were taking advantage of the G I Bill’s access to educational opportunities many years after their military service was over. There were women who has left 7 sister schools bringing them nearer to their future husbands, there were drop-outs from some of the best schools in the country there too.

One of my professors was a giant of a man literally and figuratively named T. T.  Li, who I remember so well and whose list of claims to fame was led by his having made a perfect score on the Chinese Civil Service Exam, an achievement unheard of at the time. We seemed to share a special relationship and spoke often of China and it’s future role in the world and with the benefit of hindsight, how wrong we were. His had been an amazing series of achievements  and of his many postings he was the Nationalist Chinese Ambassador to Thailand during WW II. I well remember how he shocked us all when he left his family here and went back to China to teach and the University of Beijing.  I wrote to him but he never answered and I still wonder what became of him.

Professor Feshback (Sp?) once  said of me that “he doesn’t take courses he takes professors” and not in the common parlance of being a pool shark…but it was true, although not knowing the reason was that having an undiagnosed and untreated case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, if I was not engrossed in the subject of the moment, my mind would wander to places far from the halls of campus to whatever came to mind prompted by a phrase heard or a great date experienced or expected.  What I never realized until many years later was that the Dexedrine that I took to keep me up for those ‘all nighters’ before finals and which enabled me to learn a course in a night or two was the medication needed by people like me… amphetamines ,whose effects were just the opposite for ADHD sufferers whose diagnosis in those days was  having ‘ants in their pants’.

It was not just a time of national innocence, at least until the first Kennedy assassination; it was a time when the bonds between the government and the governed were not yet eroded by the Vietnam war, the Pentagon Papers, a Vice President that was a crook and a President driven from office. I was a Junior that November day in 1963 that changed the course of American History, and like most Americans I was in physical pain over an event that I was to relive with even greater intensity a mere five years later.

I feel like Forrest Gump without the chocolates, when I recall the people I have met over the course of a truly wonderful and eventful life. When I was a boy my father liked to take me to his college reunions at Harvard where on one occasion he introduced me to a tall Marshall of the Reunion whose name was John Kennedy and who my father said would be president of the United States some day. Years later when I was finishing up at Vanderbilt Law school, Robert Kennedy came to speak and I met him too….5 weeks before he too was assassinated and whose death was not simply another death in a decade drenched in blood. His was the death that finally banked if not quenched the fires of idealism of a generation…. but I digress.

Life at the University of Hartford during my time there was the most intellectually charged environment I have ever experienced and to this day I have no idea why at least then, such an insignificant little school was so intellectually alive. I was both proud and excited at the thought of attending Vanderbilt Law School and expected that there the great issues of the day would be commonplace conversation, only to find them totally eclipsed by basketball or football or just the chance to ball; it was the 60’s after all.

Lunch at the U. of H. in those days was in a little cafeteria in Auerbach Hall, and inevitably luncheon conversation was about some subject of national, international or intellectual significance.  I remember that during the days of the Cuban Missile crises, if we were not discussing the likelihood of impending nuclear war, it was speculating on what our new President was going to do to get us out of this legacy of the cold war whose fuse to Armageddon seemed to be burning brightly with only seconds remaining before fulfilling the prophesy of the nuclear war drills of our childhood when the best they had to offer was to get under your desk.

I can’t leave these musings without one of the most memorable personal events of my years there. One day I was having lunch with Betsy Rockwell and Michele Poirier and it was one of those rare occasions when T-bone steaks were on the menu. After almost finishing mine to the bone, I decided it was tough so I went to the ladies behind the serving line and returned to the table with a fresh steak. I am not sure who said it but one of my friends, seeing the fresh steak on my plate commented (withoug any degree of sincerity I suspect) “Dwight….you ARE god.”  I am not sure to this day whether it was a put down or not, but at the time it was one of the most memorable lunches I ever had there…Such is a snip of life at the U of H in those days, days when Ralph Nader had taught there and out of which, like from so many other universities and colleges, idealists were being formed and nurtured, soon to venture forth into a world, set on making it a better place only to die in their thousands in a proxy war whose legacy  redefined not simply our notions of patriotism but our faith in the ideals of our political system for generations to come.


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