High Times With The Hat Band

We’re driving back to Columbus and stopped for the night in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where we spent the night at the Vassar Alumnae House, a favorite lodging spot from the days Russell was a student here. It’s a classic venue that is steeped in Vassar lore and tradition. It also has a lot of marvelous old photographs—and I like looking at old photos.

The photo above, found next to the elevator on our floor, is of the annual Vassar College associate alumnae luncheon at the Hotel Commodore in New York City on November 5, 1921. It obviously was an enormous gathering. You immediately notice two things about the photo, upon careful scrutiny. First, every woman in the photo is wearing a hat. Second, no one seems to be having a very good time. That’s probably because the photo was taken during the early days of Prohibition (which started on January 17, 1920) and it was hot and uncomfortable wearing those elaborate hats in a hotel ballroom.

The 1921 alumnae luncheon may have been serious business, but the Vassar students we saw around campus during our visit last night seemed a lot more fun-loving. The end of Prohibition and the elimination of the hat requirement no doubt helped.

College Visits

One of my friends from work is on the road, doing some college visits with his daughters.  They’re on the upper eastern swing, looking at schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and probably a few extra places added in.

I never did any college visits when I was a kid.  I knew that Ohio State had a good journalism program and I was interested in journalism, I knew it wasn’t expensive, I knew I could get in, and I was a fan of the football team.  It was an easy, if not particularly informed, decision.  And it worked out pretty well, because that’s where I met Kish and I got a pretty good, reasonably priced college education to boot.

vassar-libraryBut sometime between the early ’70s and, say, 2000, the world changed dramatically.  Perhaps because of the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the “best” colleges, or because there seems to be more information available now, or because high schools are far more focused on student placement — or because parents are much more competitive about their kids’ college destinations — the college decision has become a super big deal.  College visits are now an expected part of the selection ritual, and Kish and I accordingly went on our share of them with Richard and Russell.

My friend reports that he is enjoying his trip, and I enjoyed them, too.  I think parents inevitably do.  Why not?  You are visiting idyllic green quads filled with old trees and young students, touring beautiful old buildings and libraries, walking past pillars and under stone archways, and listening to student tour guides tell you about the campus traditions — all of which end up being pretty similar.  The visits fall into a kind of rhythm, with breakfast and a drive to campus in the morning, a guided tour followed by an information session, then lunch and a drive to the next nearby campus to do the whole thing again.  You get to spend lots of quality time with your kids, trying to talk about an important decision they will be making and sharing some funny incidents.  The student tour guide who had a clothing malfunction on Richard’s visit to Brown University, and the “Buddy incident” when Russell first visited Vassar, have become part of Webner family lore.

I don’t think it’s as much fun for most kids, though.  They’d probably rather be hanging out with their friends than their parents, and I’m sure the school choices seem overwhelming.  Kids fall back on first impressions and gut instinct — whether it’s sunny or raining, and whether students are friendly or distracted, seems to dictate a lot of the decision-making process — and often seem to just want to get the whole thing over with.

I think college visits are important, but I think parents have to guard against making them into high-pressure events.  It’s one area where the perfect definitely can be the enemy of the good.  The goal shouldn’t be to find the “perfect” school; instead, the visits are a good way to show that there are lots of good schools out there that offer the kinds of options that fit with the kid’s interests and that would be good places to spend four years.  I think that’s a healthier message than endlessly debating whether one school is marginally better than another in the quest for the transcendent college experience.


Getting The Sheepskin

Today we witnessed the Vassar Commencement.  This year is Vassar’s sesquicentennial (i.e., its 150th birthday) and it was a special day for everyone who attended.

At Vassar, the commencements are held outdoors in a beautiful setting.  The stage is set up in a natural amphitheater with the Vassar lake in the background and tall pines framing the stage, and the chairs for the graduates and guests are set up on a gently sloping hillside.  As a result, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house — unless you get stuck behind one of those annoying parents who won’t sit down.

The skies were threatening but the rain, thankfully, held off.  We got to see many Vassar traditions, such as the “Daisy Chain” carried in by Vassar undergrads in white dresses, which has been a commencement staple for decades, and we learned about a number of other traditions in a speech given by Vassar’s president.

In fact, all of the speakers at the commencement did a good job.  There wasn’t a real clinker in the bunch, which means that the Vassar commencement is different from every other commencement I can remember.  The main speaker — Chip Reid of CBS news, himself a Vassar grad and the first male alum to be a commencement speaker — was especially good, and struck exactly the right note with a speech that was encouraging, funny, interesting, and not overlong.  (Great job, Chip!)  And, of course, we got to see Russell cross the stage and get his diploma.

The new graduate and his proud Mom

Commencements are, of course, memorable for the graduates and their parents.  As a parent, I feel great pride and satisfaction about Russell’s accomplishment, and it was a real pleasure to meet his professors and fellow students.  But the emotions felt by parents, I think, pale in comparison to the confusing mix of emotions felt by the graduates.  There is relief at having stayed the course and happiness about your achievement, but also a certain wistfulness at realizing that your friends of the last four years will never again be so close and so close by — and, likely, trepidation about what will happen next.

Because commencements are so charged with emotion, I think the appreciation of the accomplishment may be get lost somewhat, only to be found in coming days when things have settled down.  That’s a good thing, in a way, because graduating from a fine school like Vassar College is an accomplishment to be savored.  Congratulations, Russell!

Russell’s Senior Art Show

Yesterday we went to Russell’s senior art show.  It was held in two floors of a large, empty, decrepit building in a somewhat run-down part of Poughkeepsie, where Russell’s work was displayed along with the work of many other seniors graduating with arts degrees from Vassar.

Although the conditions were not what you might find in a museum, the venue worked because the empty building had plenty of space that allowed each student to place their pieces on bare walls in one or more rooms.  The shabby surroundings — with exposed wires, damaged floors, and cracked windows — gave the place an eclectic feel that was well-suited to the eclectic mix of artwork being shown.  And what a mix it was!  There were paintings, and ink drawings, and pieces made of wax, and pieces made with lights, and toasters, and strings and mirrors, and flimsy chairs chained to the floor.

Russell’s pieces primarily occupied two rooms, although a few of his works were scattered at other locations in the building.  As always, we enjoyed seeing Russell’s works.  One of Russell’s friends mentioned that Russell is good at creating space in his pieces, and I thought that was a really interesting observation.  It also looks, to my uneducated eye, like Russell is experimenting with shapes and working with different kinds of objects that get away from reliance on the standard, rectangular canvas.  One of my favorite pieces, shown above at the top of this post, was totally outside normal canvas-oriented artwork, and the unusual shape really added to the feel the piece created.

There was a good crowd at the event, and we got to meet some of Russell’s professors and friends.  From looking at the show, it seems obvious that the collective Vassar arts community has had a real impact on Russell’s art — and my guess is that the reverse is true, too.

A Final Stay At The Alumnae House

This weekend, as we attend Russell’s graduation, we also will enjoy our final stay (we think) at the Alumnae House at Vassar College.  For the last four years, it has become a home-away-from-home for us whenever we visit the campus.  Kish and I will miss coming here.

The Alumnae House has been around for more than 80 years, and it is one of those interesting, quirky places that you are happy to find and explore. It isn’t so much a hotel as a combination of diverse elements variously found in dormitories, hostels, and homes.  The ground floor features large common rooms, including a kind of living room, a library, and a dining room.  The upper floors include many different types of sleeping rooms that range from larger rooms with double beds to small rooms equipped with a simple single bed, a dresser, and a chair.  You share bathrooms and shower rooms with your fellow guests, and as a result the whole place has a kind of gentle, friendly, communal feel to it.   It’s hard to walk down the stairs of the Alumnae House in the morning without having a smile on your face.

The Alumnae House is an old building and is filled with the kinds of distinct touches that you would expect to find in an old building, like dark hardwood paneling and dark hardwood floors in the library, oil paintings, large fireplaces in the common rooms, tall windows and old-fashioned furnishings.  In the upper floors the hallways to the sleeping quarters are lined with black-and-white photos of stern-faced women and female Vassar students of days gone by playing sports in improbable outfits that had to hinder athletic performance.  The sleeping room areas include push-button light switches, wall sconce lamps, and glass doorknobs.  It all reminds me of my grandmother’s old house in Akron, Ohio.

For a parent, the visits to campus become a big part of your view of your child’s college experience.  The Alumnae House has always made our visits to Vassar more memorable.

Vassar Reflections

On Sunday, Russell will receive his diploma from Vassar College.  I’m sure every parent of a graduating college student says this — but it is hard to believe that it has been four years since we first drove to the Vassar campus and, on an excruciatingly hot day, moved Russell and all of his stuff into a cramped room on one of the upper floors of Main, the oldest building on campus.

Whenever a child picks a college and then starts school, the parent holds his breath.  Will it be what he expected?  Will he make friends?  Will he get a good education?  Most importantly, will he be happy?  Or, will you get the dreaded middle-of-the-night phone call from the weeping child who says they hate the school and just want to come home?

By all of these standards, I think Vassar has been a good choice for our son.  Russell has been happy there.  He seems to have received a solid liberal arts education that has challenged him intellectually.  He has enjoyed the arts curriculum at Vassar.  His range and, I think, his confidence as an artist has grown.  He has made many good friends who hail from every corner of the country.  He learned how to play rugby and traveled with the team to Ireland.  He received an award that allowed him to spend a memorable, sweaty summer traveling throughout Vietnam and creating art in the midst of the Vietnamese people.  He participated in a number of art shows and got to organize the Vassar contribution to the Masters on Main Street exhibit.

And, when he receives his sheepskin on Sunday, he will have completed his schooling in four years and be ready to move out into the world.  It is hard to believe that that day has come so soon — but it will be an occasion worth celebrating.

Russell And The Masters On Main Street (Cont.)

It is very hard to believe that Russell will be graduating from Vassar College in less than two weeks.  Lately, he has been working hard on his senior art show, which is part of the graduation process for a Vassar studio arts major.  Russell’s senior art show will be displayed at a gallery in Poughkeepsie.

In the meantime, the Masters on Main Street exhibition in Catskill, New York, where some of Russell’s artwork is featured along with that of other Vassar students, will be continuing until the end of May.  Kish and I are looking forward to seeing that exhibition, as well as Russell’s senior art show, when we visit for graduation festivities.

Recently the Greene County Council On The Arts website posted some audio interviews with various artists who have pieces on display in the Masters on Main Street exhibition.  One of the artists is Russell, whose brief interview — complete with background hammering and a trademark Russell chuckle — appears about halfway through the audio file.  Unfortunately, we don’t know precisely which piece Russell is discussing, but we do know the interviewer liked it.

Russell And The Masters On Main Street

Russell And The Masters On Main Street (Cont.)

Russell And The Masters On Main Street (Cont.)

Russell And The Masters On Main Street (Cont.)

Russell And The Masters On Main Street (Cont.)

A web album of photos of the pieces of Vassar students who are participating in the Masters on Main Street exhibition in Catskill, New York is now available on-line.  It is a diverse mix of paintings, photography, sculpture and drawings and can be seen here.  The web album includes five pieces by Russell from the show, including the one pictured above.

Fortunately, the Masters on Main Street exhibition runs until the end of May, so Kish and I will be able to see all of the pieces when we go to Vassar for Russell’s graduation.