Address before NYU Alumni after receiving award as Alumni of the Year for 2009 on October 3, 2009.
Dean Santirocco, fellow alumni, students, family and friends:
It is with great humility and some measure of astonishment for me to accept this wonderful honor 62 years after earning my degree at NYU. I guess Woody Allen was right when he said you earn your success by just keep showing up.
Nor am I the only alumnus in my family. Sunny, my lovely wife of more than half a century is a graduate of the School of Commerce and my son David, then a tiny embryo was present at her graduation ceremony.
I can remember vividly my college days at University Heights, that stunningly beautiful campus in the Bronx that was regrettably sold by NYU in 1973 .
I entered the Heights in February 1945, the only graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School registered. I knew nobody in my class. I was 17 years old and my prospects were dim since I expected to be drafted soon after my 18th birthday. World War 2 was still raging.
When I first visited the Heights, I was overwhelmed by the sight of those architectural jewels of that campus, Stanford White’s peerless Gould Library, its attached Hall of Fame of Great Americans and the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. For an urban boy raised in the neighborhood ghettos of Brooklyn at the height of the depression, I really felt that I was entering the kind of sublime college life depicted in the movies of the thirties to which I was, like all the kids at that time, totally addicted.
My parents somehow begged and borrowed the three hundred dollars a semester for tuition, 12 dollars a point, and I worked odd jobs at 50 cents an hour after classes. Be aware, the value of money was different. A subway ride was a nickel, a Broadway show was 55 cents. Textbooks were a little over a buck. And I was more than sixty years younger.
I’m beginning to sound like an object to be evaluated for the Antiques Roadshow.
I would leave the family apartment in Brooklyn armed with the lunch my mother made me each morning, two egg salad sandwiches and an apple. I suppose, from a loving son’s now politically incorrect perspective a stay at home mother was a most treasured gift. Armed with my sustenance I would walk the six blocks to the subway, spend the hour and a half on the journey to Burnside Avenue in the Bronx, walk another ten blocks to this little campus oasis plunked square in the middle of a very urban environment.
It was hardly a hardship since I used the subway time for reading and homework. Marching soldiers in uniform in the army’s officer training program attended classes and were housed in the dormitory. I was automatically registered in the ROTC program and we drilled daily on the campus.
I truly felt that I was going to what my parents would describe as an out of town college. My mother believed that there were only two places in the world New York and out of town. Having lived out of town for forty years wandering like Moses in the desert, I can honestly say she was right.
In fact, I was so inspired by the Heights campus that I ran for President of the Freshman class on the platform of bringing back the old customs of college life that I had learned from those Hollywood versions. I actually remember a reference from that strange campaign speech, something about the romance of gold fish swallowing and wearing pork pie hats. I must have touched a weird nerve and was miraculously elected.
My father carried the clipping of my victory from the Heights newspaper in his wallet until the day he died, as if I had been elected President of the United States.
My freshman year was rather eventful to say the least. I entered in February. The Germans surrendered in May, the atomic bombs were dropped in August and soon after the Japanese surrendered freeing me from the immediate prospect of military service. I’ve spent the last six decades searching those Times Square victory celebration pictures hoping to find that skinny NYU student. I was there, both times, mostly shouting with joy and kissing strange girls.
Ironically, four years after graduation I was drafted serving two years during the Korean War. It was, after all, the only war we had at the time.
I was in an accelerated program and spent summers attending classes in Washington Square and because of the time frame never attended graduation ceremonies but picked up my degree in one of our campus buildings.
So what did I get from my college years at NYU? Treasure beyond words. For it was here in this institution that I discovered my calling.
My freshman English teacher Professor Don Wolfe set the course for my future, as if he had lashed the tiller of my life’s sailboat in a fixed position. I’m sure he never knew it, but it was his little complimentary scribbling comments in red ink written on my compositions and the way he had taught us the power of the written word and introduced us to that vast mysterious world of the creative imagination that set the course my life would take.
Believe me, that is a gift beyond rational comprehension. Like love, you only know it when it happens.
No, I was not singled out as being anything extraordinary, but somehow the light of providence found me and embraced me ever since. Thanks to this inspired teacher, I knew almost at once who I was and I knew what I absolutely needed to become. That moment alone is enough to endear me to my alma mater forever. I’m sure I am not alone. To have the astounding luck to find a sainted Professor who impacts powerfully on one’s life is, I truly hope, not as rare an experience as I describe.
Instantly, I became an English major and reveled in those wonderful classes taught by Professor Ranney who introduced me to the European novels which I still read again and again to re-charge my literary batteries and the course in the Bible as History taught by Dean Baer. To this day I am an avid student of literature and the bible, in my view one of the greatest novels ever written whose narrative drive continues to engage my interest.
Perhaps I am still trying to figure out how a book written nearly three thousand years ago continues to be a best seller.
Yes, I am gratified to receive this honor, but somehow I believe the award should be in reverse. The real honor should go to NYU, the college that provided the environment and those inspiring teachers who gave me purpose and stubborn unfailing and enduring aspiration, however modest my achievements.
In fact, I stand here as a living symbol for those who choose the teaching profession here in this great school and why it is a truly worthy undertaking. Indeed, the folks who chose violet as our school’s colors were prescient.
Violet, after all, is the most vivid color in the rainbow. It has been called the color of creativity, strength and spirituality. It was a great choice for a great school.
Esteemed faculty and administrators of this institution– this isn’t my award alone, it’s yours as well.