Some pundits these days decry the lack of activism of the college generation. They obviously haven’t been on Haverford’s campuses–or many others–lately. Students are more active working for important causes and goals than at any time in the 30-plus years I’ve been around Haverford (and that’s saying a lot). The methods might be different. Just in the last couple of years, Haverford students started organizing lots of conferences on crucial topics–disabilities, the environment, public health, Iraq and many more. These conferences produce serious inquiry and lots of subsequent student involvement.
That thought and the interesting tendency of Haverfordians, who are nothing if not individualistic at times, to form groups were on my mind Friday evening when I attended the opening ceremony in Alumni Field House for the presentation of a portion of the AIDS quilt, memorializing individuals who have died from this scourge.
I’ve commented a few times this year that Haverford students remind me of the joke told by members of the ethnic group to which I belong (apologies if politically incorrect). The old chestnut asked how many houses of worship two of us would found if we were stranded on a desert island. The answer of course is three, one for me, one for you, and one more neither of us would be caught there!
So how many organizations would two Haverford students found on that island? I stopped counting at seven: one for me, one for you, one for those left out, one to hold a conference, one to prepare an exhibit, one to get a grant for travel, one to hold a reunion of former participants…and believe me, this list could go on.
The AIDS quilt presentation was a sad but moving ceremony, and (now with all seriousness) reminded me of how Haverfordians can organize for a noble purpose. More than 30 students, faculty, administrators and staff carefully unfurled the folded quilts. President Steve Emerson ’74 and Bryn Mawr Professor Judy Porter provided context in brief speeches, International Student Coordinator Denise Allison joined the choir which provided background music as Director of Academic Scheduling Judy Young and students softly read the names of individuals who had perished from AIDS. Emma Lo and Sreela Namboodiri, both ’08, oversaw the whole operation which they had carefully worked on for months. Members of athletic teams had spent part of the morning arranging and folding the quilts throughout the cavernous Field House.
And of course omnipresent throughout the ceremony and the long hours of the continuing display throughout the weekend was Marilou Allen, Director of the Eighth Dimension Program, the Women’s Center and so much more In the UK, they call the oldest member of the House of Commons the “Father of the House.” (No women have reached that status yet; we’ll see what happens then.) Now, please understand I am not saying Marilou is the oldest staff member at Haverford. She’s not, and I have to go to a meeting with her tomorrow and wish to survive! However, if anyone deserves the title of “Mother of the College,” it’s Marilou, and her continued devotion to the cause of the AIDS quilt and eradicating the disease is just one of many ways she proves that.
Friday was a busy day for me, and I thought I would stop in for 15-30 minutes with my wife Elissa and catch the ceremony. But those plans went astray, and I am glad they did. Gili Friedman ’09 needed another volunteer for the unfolding and no one would say no to Gili. It seemed a simple task, and I confess I was still checking my watch, thinking of my next appointment, and worrying that the holes in my socks (we had to remove our shoes) didn’t look too good for someone pretending to be a dean these days.
After our eight-person team unfolded the multi-panel quilt on the Field House floor, we were to lift it over our heads. I wondered how we would ever get it up smoothly and keep it level since there were such differences in our respective heights. But something unexpected happened. Each time we lifted a quilt a foot or two, an air current came in under the quilt and quickly propelled it smoothly and evenly over our heads.
I imagine some physical principle was involved, but despite the best efforts of the Haverford faculty way back when, I didn’t get very far in physics. The only thing I could think of was that our eight people and all those other unfolding teams around the building, and all those other people involved in bringing the quilt to Haverford and displaying it here had accomplished something very special together. And I leave it to others to decide whether those folks whose names and histories appeared on the quilt were also present that night somehow helping.
After that happened once, I stopped looking at my watch and finally became a part of the occasion as the others already were. At the end, Elissa said she was proud of me, and I resolved to throw away the socks. I was thankful that Marilou and her devoted crew had allowed me to be involved, and, as I do every day, I thought what amazing things Haverford students accomplish, individually and together, and hope that they realize what a difference they make.
-Greg Kannerstein ’63