5/14/2019 Mark Sperber ’72

Returning to Our College

This magazine article is part of Spring 2019 / Issue 93

F&M is a far different place than it was a half century ago. America faces new challenges at home and abroad. But as Mark Sperber ’72 recently discovered, students of yesterday and today have much in common. 

  • Illustration Image Credit: Ryan Inzana

 

There was no anxiety, pressure or uncertainty when I visited Franklin & Marshall this time. Except maybe over the outcome of the game, and the weather. The F&M football team won when I visited campus this past fall, helping to make my return to the College after so many years a memorable one. Can there be a better way to spend an autumn Saturday in southeastern Pennsylvania?

My anticipation was far different 50 years ago, when members of F&M’s Class of 1972 arrived on campus for our freshman orientation. There was plenty of stress, anxiety and uncertainty.

It was a turbulent time in our nation’s history. Two assassinations, and a violent, chaotic Democratic Convention in Chicago, highlighted the tensions within the United States. In our class history, reference is made to the introduction in Charles Kaiser’s book, “1968.” He stated that “1968 was a pivotal year. It was a moment when all of the nation’s impulses towards violence, idealism, diversity and disorder peaked to produce the greatest possible hope and the worst imaginable despair.”

Today, America has its own turbulence—invoking many parallels to 1968—yet not close in its historical context. F&M’s Class of 2022 will have its own history to write, in a manner not dissimilar to the Class of 1968. And our classes have an important thing in common: a liberal arts college in Lancaster dedicated to giving them a top-flight education to understand the world that enveloped the students of the late 1960s and now confronts students, some the grandchildren of those protesters of the Vietnam War, who have their own reasons to rebel.

As still is the nature of Franklin & Marshall, the Class of 1972 came from a variety of places and for a plethora of reasons. Highly renowned as a school where the pre-med program was considered to be one of the best in the country, F&M adapted to the changing environment of the war, as it found more students opting to attend law school.

We represented the hope for the future—the boys of the Baby Boomers, as Franklin & Marshall was still an all-male institution. If there would be an accounting now, the Class of 1972 did quite well. From our ranks came a bevy of lawyers, doctors, health care professionals, college administrators, businessmen, market analysts, ranking military officers, geoscience professionals, educators and coaches, many of whom have achieved advanced degrees and leadership roles, and all of whom have made a difference.

But who among us could predict how well we could have done? We arrived as a class in flux, just as much as our country was. The racial discord which remained even after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act was palpable.

F&M addressed the subjects of the recent past in our reading assignments over the summer. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which concerned one of the most controversial men in the 1960s, along with “The Kerner Commission Report,” which focused on the causes of the 1967 riots in cities such as Newark, gave the incoming freshmen a taste of life far removed from their lives yet so pertinent to the times.

So when we rolled into Lancaster in the fall of 1968, we had already been awakened to the sociological and historical aspects of the present day. It would be up to our professors to make us even more aware of our place in this ever-changing world.

That trip to F&M was the beginning of a trade—breaking the bonds of home to meet new friends and to learn how to become a functioning adult four years later. No wonder so many of us nervously moved into our dorms, with our Macintosh linens and a roommate whom we had corresponded with, but in most cases, never met.

The venerable president of the College, Keith Spalding, addressed us during our first days on campus. Dr. Spalding’s deep voice spoke to warn us, to get us focused upon the difficult task at hand—the rigorous four years of academic study and the multitude of sanctioned and unsanctioned extracurricular activities that were present at F&M.

Our orientation also included a speech from the head of the African-American Society, challenging us to reject societal norms and to recognize how much further we had to go to properly address the plight of those who did not have the privilege to stand in our shoes. We also met the effervescent O.W. Lacy, the dean of students.

We received our class assignments when we were sent to the foyer of Mayser Center, F&M’s gymnasium. I was among the unlucky who were placed in an 8 a.m. class of English I—forcing me to awaken early and eat, then rush to class still half asleep. The lesson learned was never to take another early class.

There we were, prepped as best as the academicians could hope for, ready to enter the challenges that lay ahead. A bunch of predominantly 18-year-olds looking for guidance, while at the same time trying to become stronger individuals.

Thus my return to campus this fall was nostalgic as much as it was a view of the future. The tour of the quiet campus before noon evoked many memories.

 

Mark Sperber ’72 has written weekly for his blog, retiredlawyersportsop.blogspot.com, since retiring in 2014 as a staff attorney with the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. This is an adaptation of one of his pieces.

 

  • Illustration Image Credit: Ryan Inzana

The older dorms we freshmen inhabited are still there—Schnader and Marshall-Buchanan—updated architecturally and with the better creature comforts we did not have. The Quad was still the Quad, except that College Houses are now present with new spaces for learning, recreation and reflection.

Stager Hall, which contains Stahr Auditorium, is still in the center of the campus, flanked by the Keiper Liberal Arts building. The bookstore is back in Distler after having been in several corners of campus since our days. Old Main looks better preserved than ever. Goethean Hall is no longer a post office but an academic building. The “Protest Tree” has been removed. The library is named the Shadek-Fackenthal Library thanks to the generosity of the Shadek family. A new visual arts center is being constructed at the south end of campus. There are more statues and artwork adorning the lush greenery.

While Sponaugle-Williamson Field still is upright and the track continues to be used, football and lacrosse games are now played in the state-of-the art Shadek Stadium, thanks to the donations of so many, and spearheaded by the sizeable gift of our classmate, Larry, who I saw roaming the sidelines. Much development of the area along Harrisburg Pike has transformed the vicinity of the College. Gone are the factories, tobacco curators, and the blight that we saw as we entered the parking lot; they have been replaced by businesses and an eatery.

Hartman Hall, the old, decrepit Franklin & Marshall Academy, which was our “de facto” student center, has been removed. The nearby Steinman College Center is now a hub for much of what happens at F&M.

The biggest change of all is coeducation. We experienced that after our freshman year, but now it is clearly evident at Franklin & Marshall, where women excel academically, in the arts and in athletics.

Change is a central theme at Franklin & Marshall. Remaining in the forefront of small, liberal arts colleges requires much planning. Had the school remained stagnant in its physical appearance, much of the attractiveness and charm of the school would have been wasted or eviscerated.

In looking at the students I saw at the game and wandering on campus or those few who were sequestered in the library, I observed youngsters embedded in a crisis, as our class faced 50 years ago. They have the great fortune of personal computers, cell phones and the Internet. That alone is a major advantage.

Yet they face a present that is politically more unstable and divided than in 1968. They grew up with the memories of Sandy Hook Elementary and Parkland High School, rioting in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., along with issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment and drug use.

The Class of 2022 must navigate the swirling waters of rapid change, racial discord and an unpredictable future. The admonitions of the speakers at our freshman orientation, in the literature we read prior to our arrival, and in the preface to Mr. Kaiser’s book, still resonate today.

When I thought about revisiting F&M 50 years after my own freshman year, I knew this: Franklin & Marshall is a far different place than 50 years ago. That is what progress is about. And the progress has been good.

Still much remains the same for the students who arrived on campus last week as freshmen. As a member of the Class of 1972, I wish them as much success as we have attained.

 
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