Part II: Dad starts telling his college story. (Since you asked…)

how did your college experience – your classes, your roommates, your friends, your relationships, your jobs, your surroundings, and your causes – help shape you?

Now I know how you feel — wrestling with a very big question that’s easy to ask and not so easy to answer!

I don’t know how to do this without a whole bunch of autobiography. Writing this has brought back a lot of memories. It’s going to take several posts to do it. (And, as Blaise Pascal first said, and many others memorably followed, If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter.)

You’ve also reminded me that I was actually asked in 2007 to look back at Stony Brook for the newspaper where I used to work. Even though that piece was commissioned to be about the campus, it’s really about me, too. If you’re interested, you might like it. I said a few things there that I’ll probably eventually talk about here.

Anyhow, here goes.

I went off to Stony Brook at age 17½. It was Fall, 1973. Why Stony Brook? I’d been all ready to go to the local commuter school, Queens College, and just live at home. I’d even visited the campus, poked around the student union, stopped in at the college newspaper and introduced myself.

That was the plan. It was MY plan. I was just fine with it. But my high school flame, so to speak, broke up with me. Suddenly, it seemed like a GREAT idea to get out of town and start fresh.

(Lest you somehow imagine that girlfriends were something that came natural or easy to me…. No.)

Anyhow, my Mom had suggested earlier that I also apply to Stony Brook, which was still practically new, but had quickly developed a very strong academic reputation. (It was nicknamed the “Berkeley of the East” both for its high academic aspirations and probably more so for all the hippies and radicals who’d shown up there in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Oh, and for its really great rock concerts — Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, The Doors, etc. The place was a legend in the Northeast.)

By Fall 1973, however, the sixties were emphatically over (though some of us did not want to admit it). We were in the middle of Watergate, with Nixon and Vietnam soon to fall. And Stony Brook’s academic standards were slipping a bit, too — hence my admission with a not-quite-stellar high school transcript.

So there I was. Shy as hell. Terrified to death of rejection. Never lived on my own before, ridiculously young and inexperienced, looking desperately for a place to make my own. And suddenly I’m on this huge, out-of-control campus full of out-of-control people. (A perfect moment to grow a beard <grin>.)

In just a decade, Stony Brook had metastasized from a small teachers’ college to a gigantic university center, much to the horror of the genteel Mayflower descendants in the surrounding community. There was mud and construction and chaos everywhere. A few months before I arrived, a freshman had fallen into an open steam vent and been scalded to a horrifying death.

When I close my eyes and think back now, what I remember is warm, sunny days, wide open dorm windows, huge speakers turned outward to blast rock music onto the quads. Sometimes you’d walk across campus and one deafening set of speakers would fade out, another fade in.

I think those folks figured they were doing a public service. They could be pretty sure most people would groove on what they were playing. It wasn’t like now: everyone with their own private tastes and headphones.

The place was nothing if not free. And while I was way too shy and fearful to abuse all the freedom that had just been handed to me, it was still a pretty heady experience. Remember that only a decade before, most universities viewed themselves as acting “in loco parentis” (in the place of parents), and enforced “parietal” dorm rules (I share the definition since that is a word your generation may not have come across <grin>.

Undergraduate student life was not exactly a priority of Stony Brook’s administration, which was utterly focused on getting its new buildings built, hiring elite research professors, developing great graduate programs in what is nowadays called “STEM.” Whether the heat worked in the dorms in February? Not so much. But (if you didn’t freeze) you could do whatever you f*ing wanted.

Anyhow, I was a pretty good student my freshman year as I navigated my way around the bodies and steam vents and assorted wreckage. This would be me (if you can locate me against the background of my artfully decorated half of my freshman dorm room.)

bill freshman in dorm

I actually ran tours for parents and families a few weeks after I arrived. (Yes, I walked backwards, but we didn’t have North Face jackets then. I do still have the hat they gave me, though:)

1973 freshman tour hat

I even ran a little business. I sold Stony Brook monopoly games I’d created (back before such things were officially licensed). My games actually got really popular, to the point that I couldn’t even meet demand (since they had to be manually assembled and required dice that — believe it or not — could then only be bought from a licensed dealer of gambling supplies. (It really is remarkable how much changes in 40 years — big things and little things you never think about. When it came to gambling, the laws were still more “Guys & Dolls” than “Caesar’s Atlantic City.”)

And building on the politics I’d done in high school, I arranged to be the on-campus coordinator for the Ramsey Clark for U.S. Senate campaign, on the left edge of the Democratic Party — which in 1974 was pretty far left.

This is not to say I was a particularly effective organizer. (Even though I had been elected to the Queens County Democratic Committee back home in ’74, the lowest publicly elected office in existence. Yup, in my first year eligible to vote, I got to vote for myself.)

People who knew me will recall my Ramsey Clark T-shirts, since the campaign provided me way more than I could sell for fundraising or give away. And I did start meeting people who would play big roles in my life in the ensuing years.

For example, the history professor who noticed me out of work and hungry a few years later. He suggested that I take my typing skills over to the local newspaper — where I got a job as a typesetter, became a reporter and editor, learned about computers, and eventually started writing about technology. (Which led me to get a job in the city and meet a writer who would eventually hire me for a job in New Jersey so I moved here and met Mom…)

There’s one very practical way my experience at Stony Brook shaped me! And it leads to a whole other set of reflections on serendipity, being open to where new people and opportunities take you, being open to learning about stuff you never imagined you’d care about…

Of course, it also leads to a few thoughts about trying to steer your own ship a bit, instead of just drifting where those random breezes and waves take you. The breezes and waves that carried me towards writing about computers also carried me away from some of the other things I probably ought to have been writing about. (As you get older, it becomes more obvious that the choices of what you DO also become choices about what you DON’T do.)

But! Look at all the wonderful stuff that happened to me because I was trying unsuccessfully to politically-organize my way out of a paper bag, and in so doing, I met that history professor in 1974.

I didn’t know it in November 1974, but a lot of things in my life at Stony Brook were about to change…

 

 

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