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Willem Lange: My School Class Gathers for the Last Time

Northfield, Mass.

The hulking gray granite school chapel crowns a hill of equally solid granite. Northfield Mount Hermon School looks steeply down on the playing fields and track below, and beyond them, to the Connecticut River. Some of the best moments of my life occurred on those fields. It’s pleasurable to stand there and remember them, but with a certain rue for things that never can happen again.

By its shape, I’m guessing the hill was rounded by the last continental ice sheet, and the flat land below deposited on the bottom of glacial Lake Hitchcock as the ice retreated. The rocky crown is pure New England, — scraped down to its essence and left open as a reminder. And the native-stone chapel is a symbol, on a campus dripping with symbols and metaphors, of the faith that founded this place. Built in 1899 by a combination of student and local labor, it’s literally founded upon a rock, a metaphor much favored by evangelists; its concrete basement floor is much interrupted by ledge.

In my senior year, it was part of my work job to climb up into the tower and ring the big bell for Sunday services. This involved carrying a thick bell rope up a rickety winding stair straight out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and, gripping it firmly, launching out into space to roll the bell upside down. After using its momentum and a vigorous tug to keep it going for the prescribed number of peals, I grabbed hold again and let it lift me into the air as it rolled slowly back to rest. I often regretted that my brilliant performance was invisible to the rest of the world.

Just outside the north door of the chapel lies a granite outcrop called Senior Rock, where only the exalted were permitted to gather; I’m not sure anyone bothers anymore. Sixty years ago this very day my senior class — 166 of us — filed out of the chapel after commencement, stood in a circle around the rock, and passed diploma folders from hand to hand until each of us got his own. It was impossible not to notice, with a pang, that a few of the folders contained only names.

Now, 60 years later, we survivors have returned, to what is our last formal reunion — rather like the review of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1915. We’ve had them every five years until now. After this, we may return for any reunion we wish to, and will be included in a group called the “Grands.” There are quite a few of those here today, including a member of the Class of 1934, who, if you do the math, is nearing 100.

The school was founded by the famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody, a barely literate local boy “farmed out” when his father died, who rose to prominence as a preacher, founder of institutions and fundraiser. He first began a “seminary” for girls in 1879 on the east bank of the river on his family farm, and a boys’ school on the west bank two years later. Both now occupy the former boys’ campus. He was one of a group of 19th-century preachers that published a list of “fundamental” principles of Christian belief, which had a lot to do with my being brought here in the fall of 1950. The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and its various media outlets still espouse and propagate those beliefs; the school does not.

There’s still, however, a religion requirement in the curriculum, and music and hymns are a large part in the school’s culture. Walking around campus is like strolling through Havana: music everywhere. But this isn’t salsa; this is Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Exploring the new arts center yesterday, I heard singing down the hall. I followed the sound, and emerged, somewhat embarrassed, onto a stage behind a group of students doing doo-wop for an alumni audience.

Last night in the chapel we alums, hundreds strong, gathered for the annual hymn sing. It’s an exercise guaranteed to remind septuagenarians that their voices have gone the way of their legs. What a pleasure it was to tread again the familiar notes and words of Cwm Rhondda, Hymn to Joy, the Navy hymn, and Ora Labora, our old headmaster’s favorite, a Victorian wheeze celebrating the joys of manual labor. Wheeze or not, its last line still gets me: “... and the glad sound comes, with the setting sun, ‘Well done! Well done!’” Another perfect metaphor.

There are students everywhere — in the kitchen and dining rooms, at the registration center, and flying around the campus on golf carts, ferrying gimpy old alums from venue to venue.

The director of dining services, one of my favorite staff members and a good man to know, is getting an award for excellence this weekend. The school archivist, who lets us look at our records when we’re here for reunion, is amazingly kind: He found all my old school records, somewhat damaged by water and smoke in a fire that destroyed the original archives, scanned them, and emailed them to me. They’re interesting reading. I’ve discovered that, though I had no doubt at all some 60 years ago of a successful, happy life, only a few of the faculty shared that confidence.

My old roommate is here from California with his wife. We were out of touch for decades, but with email, we now write back and forth several times a week. A delightful old relationship.

In about an hour we’ll have our class dinner, applaud the classmates who helped make the weekend happen, and then begin to disperse to the winds for the last time as a class. I’ll probably never see most of these friends again. We’ve had a good run, and now we “turn to the darkening tunnel of the years.” But not without a song and a lamp to light our way.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.

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Letter: There But for Fortune

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

To the Editor: Such a pity that Willem Lange’s formative years were squandered many moons ago at a rural New England boarding school whose granite ledge foundations are apparently imbued with a miraculous blend of biblical and geological majesty. Had he been born one generation later, he might have honed his prodigious writing talent at a suburban public high school …