I don’t remember when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, but I believe that seed was well planted before I even spent one day in college. The whole school deal was something I did pretty well, at least when it came to test-taking; I imagine that as early as age 16 I wasn’t ready to concede it might end one day. If you’d asked me when I started at Transy what I’d be studying in four years, the answer would have been computer science. By the end of my sophomore year, though, the needle was pointing much more in the direction of mathematics. The experience I had programming at IBM during the summer of 1985 didn’t do anything to sway me back toward CS, and early in my senior year my math professor mentor loaned/gave me a journal with rankings of math grad programs, assistantship information, etc. I began considering in earnest about where I might find myself in twelve months. Right or wrong, one thing I decided fairly early on: I’d be looking out of state–the University of Kentucky didn’t hold sufficient appeal. I zeroed in particularly on Big 10 schools.
My good friend Mark H, another math/CS double major, was also thinking about grad school (though in computer science), and by October we began planning a road trip. We settled on visiting the flagship universities of Wisconsin and Illinois, though my recollection is we didn’t set up any appointments. On Saturday, November 2, Mark and I headed north and a little west in my 1981 navy Chevy Citation. I had contacted Maria—the sister of one of my best friends from HS, a pen pal, and a sophomore at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb—who graciously made arrangements for Mark and me to crash in her dorm on our way to America’s Dairyland. We stayed long enough into Sunday to watch the start of the Bears-Packers game, then wended our way to a motel on the outskirts of Madison in time to see Walter Payton’s TD run keep da Bears undefeated (William “The Refrigerator” Perry had his one career TD catch in the first half).
Thirty-six years fuzzes a lot of memories, you know? On Monday the 4th I visited Van Vleck Hall, where UW-Madison’s math department is housed; the following day included the first of the hundreds of times I was in Altgeld Hall in Urbana-Champaign. I chatted a little with the Director of Graduate Studies for math at both schools, while Mark made his visits to the respective CS buildings. I guess we each got our own sets of vibes about the places. Looking back, it feels a bit odd to have been focusing on the future in this way when I had months of college still to enjoy. I don’t know that anything was ultimately accomplished by going, other than getting a few days’ break on the road with a good friend. I do think the trip was when it began to hit me and some of my Transy friends that our time together had an end in sight.
It should surprise no one who knows me that music I heard over those days stuck in my memory more than some of the events. The two biggest hits at the time, “Part Time Lover” and “Miami Vice Theme,” came over the car radio early and often. I heard “Talk to Me” from Stevie Nicks for the first time, on the road between Madison and Bloomington, IL on Monday night. And James Taylor’s remake of “Everyday” cropped up a few times, too (Mark favored AC/soft rock more than I did, so tuning in to AOR stations was kept to a minimum).
Also among the strongest musical associations I have with the trip is the sax solo that opens the album version of Glenn Frey’s second contribution to the Miami Vice Soundtrack, “You Belong to the City” (#6 on this show, heading to #2). In my mind’s eye, Mark and I were heading out to grab dinner after watching some more football in that Madison motel. I wasn’t remotely connecting the song to the quest about which Midwestern city I might soon ‘belong to,’ as pat a story that might make—I was just a 21-year-old who paid far too much attention to music playing in the background, and who was hoping to make progress toward the next step.
I wound up applying to Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and two schools in the northeast. I went 3-for-5 on acceptances/assistantship offers, and y’all know which way I went in the end. Mark elected to pursue a master’s at Washington University in his hometown of St. Louis; we got together 3-ish times a year throughout my time at Illinois. Maria and I saw each other a few times over that period, too, and we’ve reestablished an email connection in the last couple of years.
Note: I’ve started recording my Thursday afternoon radio shows and uploading them to Mixcloud. You can click here, but I’ve also added a link in the Blogroll. The October 21 show featured many other songs from the fall of 1985.