Unless a college

Have you ever wanted to use a clever statement or phrase that you heard or read and realized that you couldn’t remember its origin? That can be a real problem when working on an academic assignment. Prefacing the phrase with “a famous person once said” or “I think it was my grandfather who told me that” often gets us by in casual conversation, but most of us would still prefer to remember the context, the speaker, and the exact wording when we use a timely quote.

I spent last weekend trying to remember the origin of an old bit of advice regarding the joining of clubs.  I vaguely remembered reading or hearing something like: “Don’t join many clubs, few if any. Join the church and join the family but not much in between, except perhaps a college.”

My first thought was that this must be something I read in 1973 as part of a course on famous American orators. Daniel Webster was my best guess as the speaker to first utter something similar to this phrase. But, a check of famous quotations from this legendary orator did not turn up what I was looking for. Perhaps my memory was fooled by Webster’s memorable line in arguing a case for Dartmouth College in front of the Supreme Court in which he proclaimed, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those of us who love it!”

I typed my remembered quotation into a search engine and found no match. Not only had I misremembered the speaker, but clearly I didn’t have the wording quite right. So, I turned to Jeff, who edits much of what I write and asked if he could track down the correct wording and the speaker. His search came up blank, but he suggested that maybe I had the wrong Webster; perhaps it was Noah instead of Daniel. Certainly Jeff’s was a solid suggestion—Noah Webster had many positive things to say about colleges and churches and was probably a proponent of families. But, no match came up among the famous statements of Noah Webster.

When all else fails, turn to a librarian. I sent Rick the request, “find me the source of a quotation that I can’t remember.” After a quick try with search engines, he went to the shelves and pulled out the hard copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1980), checked the index under “join” and found both the source and the wording that I was searching.  There it was:

Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family-
But not much in between unless a college.

It wasn’t from a 19th-century orator. No, it was from Robert Frost’s 1932 poem Build Soil. No wonder it took a while to find: I was in the wrong century and the wrong genre.  And, somewhere in the 40 years since first seeing this work, I had replaced “gangs” with “clubs” and “the United States” with “the church.”

Far be it from me to ever suggest that I might turn a phrase better than Robert Frost, but in this case I like my garbled version better than the original. Of course, when he used the word gang it did not likely imply all we mean by it today and almost certainly had a more positive connotation.  And, for my purposes last weekend, it made as much sense to suggest that one join a church as to join the United States. When the phrase came to mind, I was in a church, winding my way through the visitation line for a Monmouth College student named Tommy, who had died in a tragic accident. In fact, it was the longest visitation line I had ever experienced. How could someone so young, I wondered, have touched so many people? As I looked around, the answer was apparent. He had been associated with a caring church, a close-knit college community, and a large, loving family. With apologies to Robert Frost, the situation shouted out the message:  Join a church, join a family and join a college, and you can find great joy in life.

Since my career has been spent in relatively small colleges, I haven’t attended a lot of funerals for students, but even one every year or so is too many. Each time it seems that the student was one of the most active on campus.  Maybe all college students lead exciting, busy, full lives, yet we don’t think about how special they are until a tragedy occurs.

It is particularly sad when a young person with so many adventures on the horizon is killed. When that occurs close to graduation our first thought is to think that the years in college preparing for a career and a busy life were wasted.  But, of course, those years weren’t wasted. College isn’t simply a preparation for what lies ahead. It is in a very real sense what life is all about. Being a friend, inspiring others, enjoying ideas, growing intellectually and spiritually, enriching a community—these are the riches of life and not just the preparation for some future life.

Robert Frost’s admonition wasn’t “attend college” or “go to class” or “study hard” or “prepare for a job.”  Instead he called on us to join a college in the same way one should join a family or join a country.  Joining a college is far more than taking advantage of a degree, just as joining a family is far more than taking advantage of parents and siblings. Given the exalted status of colleges, on par with family and country (and not much else), Frost certainly imagined that each of us would immerse ourselves in the full range of activities and take on both responsibilities and joys of membership in a special college community.

It was clear, as I looked at those in the visitation line, that Tommy had fully immersed himself in the gang that is Monmouth College. His professors spoke of the joy of having him in class. His football teammates carried themselves with class, seemingly trying to elevate their friend by mustering every bit of stoic dignity possible. A tearful group of volleyball players reminded us that college students don’t live in silos. Countless classmates affirmed that they had been enriched by conversations with Tommy.

College was more than a holding pattern for Tommy. It had been about much more than earning a credential. It wasn’t just preparation for life; it was life itself. And regardless of how long he or any of his classmates live, it will have included some of the best parts of life.  Indeed, a college should be joined, not just attended.

Frost was wise when he compared a college with one’s country and family. With each of these three institutions it is possible to go through life taking more than giving. Some people have no qualms avoiding taxes and dodging drafts while enjoying liberties and services. Others enjoy the family Thanksgiving dinner without offering to bring a dish or wash the dishes. Still others go to college to acquire a credential, but don’t contribute to the rich community life that does so much to change so many lives. While all of these individuals may think they are clever, in the end they miss the incredible joy of belonging to a country, a family, and a college. Belonging does require effort and sacrifice, but those who have made the sacrifice know that it is an experience like no other.

Frost’s line about gangs (or in my mind, Webster’s line about clubs) came to me while encountering members of Tommy’s “gangs.”  Clearly, Tommy had taken the effort and made the sacrifices necessary to find the rewards of full immersion within his communities. I was saddened by the death of this much-loved student. But I was happy that he spent his last three years as a member of our gang. There is no better place to live the best years of one’s life.

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