Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2011


On the cover: Writer/producer Lee Eisenberg '99 entertainS a packed evans hall in the first of a series of centennial "Conversations with alumni" in January. Photo by Bob Macdonnell

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A Century of Great Visitors

A Century of Great Visitors
Then-First Lady Hillary Clinton addressing a full house in Palmer in 1996. Photo by Tim Martin.

Countless notables have graced the College's hilltop campus over the past 100 years

By Susan Baldwin Kietzman '82

View a gallery of great visitors
to Connecticut College

In the last 100 years, many notable visitors have brought their wisdom, humor and talents to Connecticut College's hilltop campus. Among their ranks were Nobel Prize winners, writers, humanitarians, politicians and celebrities. They addressed gatherings small and large — often as Commencement speakers — giving advice and providing perspective and encouragement. Others, such as world-renowned dancers, let their art speak for them.

One of the first and most important visitors to campus may have been the philanthropist who ensured the future growth of the College. The son of railway magnate Henry B. Plant, financier Morton Freeman Plant was a man of few words. He gave a $1 million gift for the endowment of the newly chartered college for women as well as several other gifts for campus buildings, including Plant, Blackstone and Branford houses.

While the list of visitors is long, the documentation about some of them is unexpectedly brief. When Amelia Earhart came to campus in May 1931, the only notice of her talk on aviation was a brief paragraph in the College newspaper, overshadowed by a lengthy article about the junior prom. Then again Earhart's fame had not yet soared: her transatlantic flight took place a year later, in May 1932.

But students paid attention in 1942, when the United States was at war and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to call. She had just returned from a trip to England where she saw British youth contributing to the war effort. In a speech on Nov. 24, she told her all-women audience to get ready.

“There is going to be a tremendous job to do when the war comes to an end,” she said. “If you think your job is going to be easy when it is over, you had better face realities, because the job will be just beginning.” Roosevelt returned to the College on Oct. 20, 1958, after a trip to Russia, and gave a speech titled “U.S., the USSR, and the UN.”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian who taught at Harvard University, included a stern warning in his address at the 37th Commencement, in 1955. A decade after World War II, in a period of unprecedented prosperity, the United States was now in danger, Schlesinger said, of falling into the clutches of materialism:

“This year we will probably buy more automobiles, drink more liquor, eat more candy, spend more money for personal consumption, and turn out a larger national output than ever before in our history. … Yet, the fact remains, that, as a nation, the richer we grow, the more tense, insecure, and unhappy we seem to become. … The problem you will face in the years ahead — assuming always that the world manages to avoid the catastrophe of thermonuclear war — is how to live with abundance.”

Graduates in the 1950s did live with abundance. They also lived with structure and rules; most didn't question authority — at least not publicly. In the 1960s, much of what characterized the previous decade disintegrated and student activism was on the rise. On the cusp of this new decade, four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Frost came to Connecticut to read his poetry. Seemingly unfazed by events around him, Frost once said, “In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life. It goes on.”

A decade later, the country was back at war, this time on the other side of the world in an unfamiliar environment in a conflict many didn't understand. U.S. Rep. Ella T. Grasso (later the governor of Connecticut) wrote the 53rd Commencement address, but when she fell ill that day, Julie A. Sgarzi '71, a graduating senior, read the speech:

“You want a clean world. … You want a world of nations and individuals, each generous to all. Instead, when you look around you, you see a land of splendor and accomplishment — but also a place of restless dreams and broken sleep: a war we have not yet turned off — that dissipates our strengths and our passions; millions of poor and unemployed; battered cities, scarred land, soiled air and water. Have our problems always seemed so overwhelming?”

But Grasso was quick to point out that problems will always seem overwhelming — and she used a story about Frost to illustrate her point. “Shortly before his death,” Sgarzi read, “Robert Frost was interviewed on television. Reporters pressed the poet to say this is the most dangerous or difficult time man has ever lived through. In response, Mr. Frost, drawing on his experience of 88 years, remarked: 'Yes, yes, yes, it's a terribly difficult time for a man to try to save his soul — about as difficult as it always has been.'”

Not all visitors brought such a serious perspective. Kurt Vonnegut, author of more than a dozen books including “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat's Cradle,” visited campus on Oct. 1, 1976, for the dedication of the new library. The famously eccentric writer delivered a rambling speech called “The Noodle Factory,” his suggested name for the building, which was yet to be named in honor of President Emeritus Charles Shain.

“… One student might say to another, 'You want to go out and drink some beer?' The other might reply, 'No, I'm about to flunk out, they tell me. In view of the heartbreaking sacrifices my parents have made to send me here, I guess I'd better go spend some time at the Noodle Factory instead.'”

Connecticut College Professor William Meredith, who would win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry 12 years later, introduced his friend Vonnegut on that autumn day. Meredith, revered by his students and colleagues, had a sense of humor and an extraordinary ear for language.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patricia McGowan Wald '48 told graduates in her 1981 Commencement address to speak up for themselves and choose words wisely:

“If you carry one lesson from college to life, let it be the knowledge that what you say is the expression of what you mean, what you intend to provoke in others, what you want to realize. … Select carefully your own words — they tell the world who you are, what you are, what you know, whether you are swift or slow, knowledgeable or uninformed, careful or loose, credible or flaky, trustworthy or threatening.”

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel shared his knowledge in September 1990, in recognition of the new Elie Wiesel Chair of Judaic Studies, established with a $1.4 million gift from Jo Ann Hess Myers '67. The Auschwitz survivor and author spoke about “The Urgency of Learning.” “No adventure,” he said, “can be as inspiring as that which occurs between a teacher and his student.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Russell Baker, who delivered the Commencement address in 1995, joked about the urgency of getting on with his speech.

“The authorities of Connecticut College have suggested that for me to speak longer than 20 minutes would be regarded as cruel and unusual punishment … but if I can finish in 15 minutes … they will let me stay for a free lunch. … All right, let's plunge right ahead into the dull part. … The best advice I can give anybody about going out into the world is this: Don't do it. I have been out there. It is a mess.”

Some years seemed to bring more notables to campus than others, and 1996 was such a year. First lady Hillary Clinton spoke in Palmer Auditorium on Sept. 24, about the new Family and Medical Leave Act. “The beauty of being an American,” she said, “is our optimism in what we can change.” Clinton had recently told the press that she sometimes invoked the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt for guidance on sleepless nights wandering through the White House. Having learned that Roosevelt had visited campus, Clinton joked, “When I see her next, I'll tell her what a wonderful reception I received!”

Vonnegut returned to the College on Oct. 4 to honor Meredith at the event announcing the William Meredith Endowed Professorship. A few days later, on Oct. 7, Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison stood on the same stage. “You know what your vocation is when you don't have to be forced to do it. It's where you live,” she told students.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Argentina, spoke on Nov. 4 about “Democracy and Rights in Latin America: The Community as an Agent of Change.” Ten days later, Adam Michnik, the leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, stood at a Connecticut College podium. “It's a long search for compromise,” he said of democracy. “It's a market for passions and emotions, hatred and hope. Democracy is a constant imperfection — a mixture of sin and virtue.”

Society has changed in the 100 years since the College was founded, but some sentiments remain constant. One in particular — a parent's pride on graduation day — was captured in a Commencement address by “M*A*S*H” star and all-around funnyman Alan Alda on May 25, 1980. His daughter, Eve, was among the graduates.

“As I stand here, I'm probably experiencing what most parents feel today — a desire, a little inner tug, to say something that will count in a special way. Deep in our hearts we know that the best things said come last. People will talk for hours saying nothing much and then linger at the door with the words that come with a rush from the heart. Doorways, it seems, are where the truth is told.”

Alda then gave Eve and her fellow graduates some fatherly advice — about life, the world and the need for a little chutzpah. In closing, he said: “There will be other partings and other last words in our lives, so if today's lingering at the threshold didn't quite speak the unspeakable, maybe the next one will. I'll let you go now. So long, be happy — and oh, by the way, I love you.”

Connecticut College Magazine

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