MIT Commencement 1986

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25 years ago today, I sat in MIT's Killian Court along with a thousand other students in a heavy academic gown made heavier by a steady rain. Officials thought the rain would hold off, but by the time it became apparent that it would not, it was too late to redirect graduates, diplomas, and well-wishers to the alternative indoor sites.

It was a fitting conclusion to the odd final act of my time at MIT. A couple of weeks into the spring semester of my junior year, chest aches and fever were diagnosed as acute pericarditis. The doctor sent me straight to the infirmary, and within a week I was watching as a surgeon stuck a needle into my chest to drain a half-liter of fluid as a crowd of residents looked on. (Mt. Auburn Hospital was a teaching hospital.)

After a week of recovery time, I tried to jump back into academic life, but the pericarditis came back, along with high fever and heart rate. A few more weeks later, I had been ordered to go home and recuperate. There were further recurrences, much less severe, a couple of times a year over the next nine years, treated with rest and indomethacin, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. (I'm pretty sure a couple of chest colds from years earlier were symptoms of the same problem.)

The missed semester threw the whole graduation plan off, thanks to courses offered only in the fall or spring. I came back full-time for the '84-'85 year, spent fall '85 working and taking one class, and then finished up in the spring of '86. The disruption to my plans inspired the essay I wrote for the yearbook -- I'll post that separately, later.

A significant recurrence struck at the beginning of my final month of school, and I had to give myself space to recover. With the department office, I determined I didn't need the Aeneid course at Harvard for graduation, so I punted it. I had an A in 6.045 (Computability, Complexity, and Automata); the professor said I could punt the final entirely and still get a C -- not pretty, one of a handful of non-As, and the only one in a class in my major, but I needed to cut way back on the pressure so I could rest and get healthy. I still had a final in Medieval and Church Latin at Harvard that the prof let me take at a later time. (Can't think of the other class I had that semester.)

Oh, about my major: I had planned to pursue computer science, although I was open to urban studies or political science. The first lecture of the initial urban studies class was so blatantly left-wing on matters incidental to urban policy that I dropped the class and the idea of majoring in Course XI. During the first semester of my sophomore year, I worked out a plan that would give me an education in computer science but would include a humanities component that was stronger than usual for MIT -- specifically, classics, which was not a major MIT has ever offered. I put together a classics component from Latin classes taken by cross-registration at Harvard and a couple of ancient Greek and Roman history classes offered at MIT. The dual major in humanities and engineering got me two-thirds of the standard program in each of computer science and classics but would still let me finish in four years. I wrote up a proposal and got the necessary approvals. (The rules were changed after the fact to require a majority of classes in each component of the dual major to be taken at MIT.)

My parents and sister were coming for commencement, and the night before we were going to have dinner at Uno's at Harvard and Comm Ave in Allston with a high school classmate who worked in Boston. Their arrival from my uncle's house in New Jersey kept getting pushed back. (The delay was because my little sister realized she left her boyfriend's photo at our uncle's house, so they had to retrace winding roads to fetch it. Thankfully, this was not the boyfriend she eventually married.) (Thinking back on this, it's hard to remember how we managed back then without cell phones.)

Back to graduation day, and it's raining steadily. One parent was heard to say, "After the soaking I've taken from this place for the past four years, what's a little rain?"

We sat through what may have been the dullest commencement speech ever. The speaker, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, had apparently never read the speech before stepping up to the podium to read it, ploddingly, to us. (I had to look it up, but the speaker was William Hewlett, who received a Master's from MIT in 1936.) You can read Hewlett's speech on page 5 of the June 24, 1986, issue of The Tech (PDF), but you'd be better off reading columnist Andrew Fish's summary on page 4:

Inside or out, the audience still had to be content with the address of William R. Hewlett SM '36. This was unfortunate. Hewlett's own title, "Random Thoughts on Creativity," was certainly appropiate. I had trouble following the speech, as it wandered aimlessly around, never reaching a firm conclusion....

The biggest complaint I have against the speech, though, was its stereotyping of the MIT community. Hewlett treated the entire class as if they were engineers going into industry. The speech was not a broad message to the entire graduating class, rather a lesson on how to be a better engineer....

I also urge the commencement committee to be more creative in their speaker selection. Graduates should be able to hear a speech with vision, and not another lecture, at the end of their long career.

'85 got Lee Iacocca and sunshine, for heaven's sake.

We then had to endure the lengthy remarks of our class president, who had a seat under the canopy and was evidently indifferent to her soggy classmates' plight. (I seem to recall many of us shouting "Finally!" until she skipped ahead to her conclusion.)

Finally, we lined up to march across the stage and receive our diplomas from President Paul Gray. (There was a joke: MIT's skies are gray, the walls are gray, the buildings are gray -- even the president is Gray!)

That's President Gray in the gray and cardinal robes shaking my hand and about to hand me my diploma. The rain doesn't show up on my black robe (although the robe's cheap dye showed up all over the dress shirt I was wearing), but you'll notice the mud and moisture on the cuffs of Gray's gray trousers. Behind his back, Dean of Undergraduate Education Margaret MacVicar is reading the names, and in the background next to my left shoulder is former President Julius Stratton.

After the ceremony I met up with my parents and sister, went to a reception for my department, then connected with some of my Campus Crusade friends. After that, we dropped by the fraternity house so I could show my folks around. A brother gave me a copy of the Wheel of Fortune home game as a gift -- watching Wheel was a nightly ritual in our apartment, a four-bedroom flat in a brownstone at 128 Fuller St. that the fraternity leased for overflow housing. (We even named our victorious "treasure hunt" (road rally) team the Wheels of Fortune.)

Beyond that the memories grow dim. Seems like I ought to be able to remember where my sister and parents stayed that night, where we ate dinner. I remember that they couldn't spend as much time in Boston as I had hoped; Dad, who had been laid off by Oxy (Cities Service) the previous September, had a new job in another city. It was just one more way that graduation fell short of my hopes.

I remember seeing them off at Logan with several boxes of my stuff to take along as checked luggage. A few days later, I packed my grandfather's old Sedan De Ville with all my belongings and headed back to Oklahoma, where I had a girlfriend (almost in Oklahoma -- in Fayetteville) but no job yet. I took my time going home the southern route, enjoying gas at less than 60 cents a gallon, seeing my uncle in northern New Jersey, friends in Charlottesville and Birmingham, and my girlfriend in Fayetteville before pulling into the driveway in Tulsa.

I bought a little portable stereo at Radio Shack so I could listen to cassettes and record my thoughts as I drove. I still have the stereo, and I'm sure the cassette is around here somewhere. It would be interesting to hear what was on my mind.

This is my first trip back to Boston in about 15 years. I'll be attending some of the reunion activities and going to a reception and dinner in honor of my fraternity chapter's centennial. It's an opportunity to remember where I've come from and think about where I'm headed for the next 25 years. A prayer for clarity and inspiration would not go amiss.

UPDATE 2013/05/30: Revisited this entry after responding to a Colin Quinn tweet imagining himself as MIT's commencement speaker, and I think I remember a couple of details that I had forgotten when I wrote this. My parents and sister stayed at the Travelodge at Beacon and St. Paul in Brookline which was under renovation. It's now a Holiday Inn. If I recall correctly, I brought them bagels from Kupel's the morning after commencement. (Kupel's bagels were a Sunday morning tradition at ZBT. We even had an officer -- bagel chairman -- in charge of acquiring them.)

As for dinner the night of commencement, for some reason I remember a disappointing meal at 33 Dunster Street. Perhaps it was the next night that we had dinner at Chef Chow's in Coolidge Corner.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 2, 2011 8:24 AM.

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21st & Yale chase tied to Prue home invasion is the next entry in this blog.

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