When the Transylania University Class of ’86 had showed up on Labor Day weekend, they were greeted by a (very) newly-hired president, Dr. David Brown. He came from Miami University in Ohio, where he’d been Provost. While I’m sure he was tackling his official duties with gusto, he also took time in those first weeks of the semester to challenge the new students to a contest: a “naming bee,” wherein Dr. Brown and any freshman challengers would take turns identifying pictures selected from the “facebook” (officially called the Directory of New Students) distributed to all of us at move-in. I and a few others signed up for the event, which took place in the cafeteria on the Saturday of Parents’ Weekend.
The pix in the directory were generally high school senior photos and thus about a year old—they didn’t necessarily resemble the people with whom we’d been sharing meals and classes! I have/had a pretty good visual memory, though, so a few times leafing through the book left me feeling reasonably prepared to do battle. The bee had the standard single elimination format until it was down to the final two contestants. Before long, there were only three left: me, my good friend Pat, and Dr. Brown. I don’t remember now exactly how the endgame played out, except that I was the last one standing. I was given a choice of taking a $50 prize or having me and a guest join the President and his wife Lin for dinner at an upscale restaurant in Lexington. I opted for the latter.
That dinner took place 35 years ago today. I assume I didn’t make any etiquette faux pas, but who really knows? There was live, jazzy music, and my girlfriend and I made a game effort at one point at faking our way through a dance. It was an altogether pleasant time—our hosts were gracious and more than kind, and as I recall, the conversation flowed reasonably easily. The evening was briefly written up in the Lexington paper soon afterward (it was a follow-up article, as a note about Dr. Brown’s initial challenge had been published earlier).
The school year proceeded apace. I interacted occasionally with Dr. Brown; I found him to be gregarious in just the proper amount. Then summer came. I was on campus at the end of June 83, working as staff for a camp, when one day I was pulled off my duties and asked to drive to a nearby town and bring a faculty member back to campus. The next day I learned that Dr. Brown had been relieved of his post; for reasons not clear to me, the professor I had retrieved had been involved in the matter. They elevated Dr. Charles Shearer, the VP for Finance, to the presidency. Dr. Shearer certainly was a smashing success in that role, serving twenty-seven years and overseeing great growth in enrollment and endowment.
But I had liked Dr. Brown quite a bit. I learned that he was still in town, and early that fall I went to visit him and his wife. Obviously, nothing about the unpleasantness of the past few months was discussed, but it was good to see them one more time before he moved on to his next position.
A number of years after I settled in at Georgetown, Dr. Brown somehow found me. I was surprised to receive a warm letter from him in the mail. By this time, he was Provost at Wake Forest. We didn’t maintain correspondence, but I did think about him over the years. I last saw him in late April 2011, back at Transy. The occasion was the inauguration of Dr. Shearer’s successor. We talked for a reasonable amount of time; it felt like I was still among the fond memories of his year there.
So, I suppose it’s time to pivot over to the music.
Okay, there’s only the tiniest sliver of a link between my tale and Peter Gabriel’s first AT40 hit, which is debuting at #39 and on its way to #29, but I’m going to run with it. Just a day or two before the dinner with the Browns, I’d moved next door in the dorm to start rooming with James. His Christmas gift to me less than two weeks later was a 45 of “Shock the Monkey.” Over the break, I wrote him a thank you note and must have indicated some level of appreciation. He responded, “You weren’t supposed to like it! It was a gag gift!” The song, which is plenty unusual, had come up in conversation in those final weeks of the semester—he’d heard it, while I hadn’t. I’m certain we both like it a lot now.