Neal Burdick â72

First Class

Neal Burdick ’72

They say one’s 50th college reunion is a major milestone in life. Mine is four years away, but as this fall approached, I quietly observed a different rest stop, the 50th anniversary of my first college class. A little before 9 a.m. on “opening day” 2018, I walked from Sykes Residence to Richardson Hall, just as I had on September 18, 1968, for English 101, Composition and Reading. This was essentially a course in how to take a college course and was, quoth the 1968–69 Catalog, “Required of freshmen” (not “first-years”—that came later). I could not possibly imagine then that I would eventually come back to St. Lawrence to sustain my career as an editor, ending it by teaching writing to seniors in the very room in which I’d sat for my first college English class half a century earlier.

I remember being scared green on my way to that first class, perhaps treading the same bricks I trod 50 years later. Was I cut out for college work? Could I, a scrawny, mildly homesick kid from a small North Country public school, who had never before been away from home for any extended period, compete against sophisticated, worldly young men and women from the best prep schools in the East? Could I keep up with the reading, along with four other courses, among them the dreaded humanities, tremblingly known throughout the student body as “Hums,” another requirement that packed several thousand years of Western—but not Eastern—thought into one semester? Could I learn to write at the college level? Would the professor be relaxed and forgiving toward two dozen fumbling freshmen or be an aloof old-school taskmaster in a grim gray suit?

That year belongs to a watershed decade in American history. Consider: My older brother completed ROTC at Middlebury, graduating in 1963; five years later, one of the first “engagement” steps I took at St. Lawrence was to join a march to the ROTC building to protest the bogged-down Vietnam War, which had already killed one high school classmate. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in April, and Bobby Kennedy in June. And yet many of us clung to the quixotic notion that we could change the world. I hope today’s 18-year-olds still feel that way, because whether they succeed or not, the lasting achievement is as much in the dreaming as in the doing.

Frank Zappa, Otis Redding, Iron Butterfly. The Poor People’s March on Washington, Apollo 5, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Bell-bottoms, tie-dye, beads and headbands. Mrs. Robinson, Andy Warhol, the Pentagon Papers, “Yellow Submarine,” sex/drugs/and rock‘n’roll —the mind whirled. But I thought of none of this that day as I made my way toward Richardson, praying that my breakfast would stay down. 

Today, 50 years later, the newbies of the Class of 2022 seem more diverse, less bewildered, more confident as they parade toward their first classes, toward the start of the real substance of their college adventure. But they don’t say hello; their faces are buried in their smartphones.
I pass Hepburn Hall on my left, virtually unchanged, and Carnegie to my right, the same but for a big bay window. The library, across the academic quad, has its Torrey Wing that was 12 years in the future in 1968, but it is still the thumping heart of academic vigor. Oaks and maples and evergreens may or may not be the same ones, but they still grace the open spaces. The chapel stands as firmly as it did then, its new spire still not oxidized green, a reminder of the fire of 2013, the carillon still ringing out the ending of each day. (In the fall of 1968, the carillonneurs rang every single day out with “Hey Jude,” and by November, I was thoroughly sick of it.) I have changed, the youthful feet on the brick walk to Richardson are different—even the bricks may be different—but the spirit of the place does not change.

Neal Burdick retired initially from St. Lawrence in May 2016 after 39 years as editor of this magazine, and again in December 2017 as adjunct assistant professor of English. He continues to live in Canton, where he is a freelance writer and editor and walks his dog on campus several times a week.