I returned to Sweet Briar College a couple of weeks ago for what I feared was to be the last time. I had not been there since 1981.
My last visit there, 34 years ago, was populated by ghosts and anxiety. I was part of the Class of 1981 at Washington and Lee University. Most of my friends were from the class of 1980. When I went to that weekend there in 1981, we were already beginning to feel the past.
I was there with one of my best friends who had lost his Sweet Briar girl to another man during her Junior Year Abroad. Thus it was a poignant visit to begin with. But on a larger scale, the Class of 1980 was gone. Those had been our friends and our first link to Sweet Briar. The Sweet Briar Girls we came to see that weekend felt the loss just as we did…Our friends who had made our college years so special had graduated. It was not the same…..
After that weekend, I never thought I would be at Sweet Briar again. I thought it was time to move on and put it all in the past.
As a History major, I should have known better. Our past, collectively and individually, is a part of us and only time can show us how much a part of us it really is….
Over the following yeas, I never went to my reunions at Washington and Lee. I was simply not interested. Too many people would be missing. Mainly, the Sweet Briar girls would be missing. I was very aware we would not have been the W&L men we became without them…..
This year was the year of the 35th reunion for most of my friends. The 34th for me… and we had our reunion together at Sweet Briar. A lot of our W&L friends did not understand how we could choose not go to W&L reunions, but decided to go to Sweet Briar that weekend…..
In modern terminology, I think it was for closure. Sweet Briar was supposed to close and this was out last chance to be there together again. It was the “last” reunion weekend at Sweet Briar College and our Sweet Briar friends had invited us to crash.
Most of we old W&L boys did not think twice. It was a chance to go back and to be together again as we once were….To go to the Boat House where we had gone to so many parties in our youth. To revisit the sites of so many great college weekends. To spend time with some phenomenal women who never really left our lives, but who we did not see nearly enough today….
My Mother once told me “I never went to College, but I hear it changes you and it is where you meet your friends for life. Choose them carefully.” I’m glad I did…
And Sweet Briar, in many ways, was as much of my college experience as my alma mater Washington and Lee.
I’ll never forget meeting my friend Ralph. It was the end of Freshman year at W&L and everyone was packing to leave. He asked me if I had a cigarette. We all smoked back then….It was one of the last days of the year and I was one of the last to leave. He came back to my Dorm Room at Graham-Lees, we smoked and chatted a bit and then said good-bye.
I was still finding my way at W&L and to me, Ralph was a total BMOC-Big Man on Campus- to me. You saw him everywhere. I was honored he recognized me. Knowing Ralph, as I later did, he would have talked to anyone who would have given him a Vantage Regular.
But maybe I was wrong. I met him again at the start of my sophomore year and he basically took me under his wing. I’ll never know why and we will never talk about this in person, but he did. He went with me to see my Sophomore apartment, that I was sharing with 3 other guys and a Labrador retriever. Where I was miserable…. and he said: “We have an apartment available in my building- the Corner Arms. You should move there.” And I did…
The Corner Arms was an apartment building in Lexington that mainly rented to members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. Ralph brought me in, helped me paint my apartment and, over time, and became along with my friend Bob, like a brother to me during our W&L years. Ralph introduced me to Doug, Bruce, and other guys who also became my close friends. Then Shakey and a couple of others. All at the Corner Arms…
It moved on from there…Ralph encouraged me to “rush” Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity- the fraternity I was told to Rush by all my friends back home. He was Rush Chairman- again total BMOC to me. I was offered membership, because of him and Bob, and pledged. He got me through all the pledge activity that I found so silly. He taught me the short cuts and he championed me…..
And he introduced me to Sweet Briar.
And, to me, Sweet Briar will always be synonymous with Carolyn. She was his girlfriend then….
She was cute, preppy-as we all were- but she was somehow different. From the very beginning, we could look at each other across the room and almost read each others minds. A raised eyebrow between us told the whole story to each of us.
She became my first fashion advisor. I had a corduroy coat with a hood she called “the cub coat.” She quickly told me that had to go. She was with me when we went to the College Town Shop and I purchased my first down jacket- that I would wear for the next 10 years- with her total approval.
And she was our entrée to Sweet Briar. Carolyn was our Social Chairman. For every big college weekend at W&L and at Sweet Briar, she would be sure we all had “appropriate” dates. Translated: Sweet Briar Girls.
Carolyn was- and is- a very down to earth woman. She was also the Matchmaker supreme. She may not have thought long-term, but she made sure we all had fun dates for all the big weekends. I always said-and she agreed- we must not let our pursuit of an education stand in the way of our social life. And we had a grand social life.
And she was protective. It was her friends that mattered….she wanted us to all mix, be together and have fun. We didn’t think much of the future….it was all about who would have fun that particular weekend. The moment mattered.
And, I think, even then, she knew I was a bit of an outsider. I was always watching everyone from the sidelines. Years later we would talk and she would tell me, even then, she knew I was Gay.
She also, perhaps unwittingly, fed my F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasies of college. She introduced us to elegant Southern debutantes, witty northern Jewish girls and nice, regular middle class girls who were each none the less special. But we also met the girls who became our “Jordan Bakers” and “Daisy Buchanans” through her. More later….
I loved those days….
Then I didn’t….
For many years after I left the world of W&L and Sweet Briar, I only remembered the bad. How in my senior year, after most of my friends left, things went incredibly bad. But I did manage to graduate from W&L-eventually. And then, I put all the memories in a box and put it in the back of the closet of my mind….
I moved on to being an out Gay man, with a partner and a very different life from those W&L and Sweet Briar Days…I traveled the world and did the corporate thing. I learned to live in my modern, liberal bubble.
I closed the door to these times and these people and didn’t see most of them for more than 20 years….
Then, about 10 years ago, Ralph gave Carolyn my e-mail address….
She e-mailed me…
And she gave me back the love I had lost for those college years…
She reminded me of the good times and I put the bad times in that old box instead and put it away as soon as I was back in touch with her…..
I finally moved on…
I came full circle to understand and embrace my past…
It took a Sweet Briar girl to put me back in touch with my W&L days and my W&L friends…..
My partner and I met Carolyn and her Sweet Briar roommate Tish in Paris in 2007. It was probably appropriate that we began our reunion on foreign soil, neutral ground. We met for the first leg of that trip in the Atlanta airport and saw each other for the first time since 1980. We both cried and my heart and mind opened up to the past for the first time in years. I was ready to finally embrace and explore the role the past had had in my present. To seek out and let those people back in….
Flash forward to June 2015. The “last” reunion weekend before Sweet Briar closed for good. I don’t recall how it all started, but right away the “boys” decided we had to be there.
Part of me was afraid we were interloping on something private for the women of Sweet Briar. But that was not the case. We gave them space for their reunions and we cautiously and tentatively had ours. And, because of this Sweet Briar Weekend, I realized how much I had missed my W&L friends. We realized were all a part of Sweet Briar and they were all a part of our W&L years. It was bigger than just one weekend for a supposedly dying school.
And it was immediately clear, it was not a dying school. I am so proud of these women who fought tooth and nail to keep their school alive. And I realized how important to us it was that they succeed. It was more than just Sweet Briar they were fighting for, it was for our collective pasts. We were all part of Sweet Briar because these fierce women were a part of our past, present and future. They had influenced us in ways we might not have realized 35 years ago, but they had.
If we lost Sweet Briar, we lost part of who we were. We all had an interest in Saving Sweet Briar because Sweet Briar such a part of our W&L experience.
We all came together at Sweet Briar. Older, fatter, balder on the W&L side. Amazingly, the Sweet Briar girls looked better than they had 35 years ago. I think it was the Sweet Briar Dairy food in the 1980’s. The Campus certainly did not look like a dying city. There was nothing funeral about the atmosphere. It was more like anger and determination to save the school from a errant Board. It was a very well-dressed rebellion…
Our first night of the Sweet Briar Reunion Weekend, we had cocktails in my room at the Best Western Hotel. We boys couldn’t get a good hotel because we only decided to stay 2 nights at the last minute. Every hotel in Lynchburg was booked solid. Of course, the Sweet Briar girls had planned better and thus had better accommodations. But it was like our last Hotel Party the Natural Bridge Hotel at W&L, the night of Crescent Queen Ball in 1979. The year before Carolyn was crowned Crescent Queen- translated Fraternity Sweet Heart- for Lambda Chi.
The next day, we went to a party at nearby Vineyard. My urban partner always asks why it is my friends always feel the need to park in a field for a party. We always have…from Zolmans’s Pavillion Grain parties in college on…..I think it makes us feel down more to earth or something. Anyway, it’s a Virginia thing….
And the amazing thing was we didn’t have to try at this party. We all- W&L boys and Sweet Briar Girls of the 1980’s- picked right up where we left off. We sat right down on the ground and ate our sandwiches and drank our wine. And it was amazing to roam around and to see the Sweet Briar Alumnae from so many years and how they had changed.
It was no longer the “virgin vault” as it was once referred to in our day. It was a very diverse, smart, down to earth, group of Alumane women all inter-acting with a shared goal- to Save Sweet Briar.
As for our group, we were older, we had all been through changes. Bad and good marriages, bad relationships, troubled children, divorces, breakups, careers built and crashed, saying goodbye to dying parents….but we were fundamentally the same. We clicked right back in to who we were in 1980 and easily merged that personality with who we are now. Tentatively, perhaps at times, be we really had not changed that much….
There were a few uncomfortable moments, for me, realizing our politics had diverged….but ultimately it didn’t really matter. Liberal or Conservative, gay or straight, we all shared a collective time and place and that was what mattered. We had the bond of friendship that was forged at all those W&L and Sweet Briar weekends in the past.
That weekend finally and completely gave me back the love I had lost for those years….
And made me realize how much I loved these people who were part of my past- and hopefully my future.
And it all happened at Sweet Briar…