Blast from the Past

by Mike Sager 78C

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Illustration by Alex Nabaum

I made my first return trip to Emory in 1990. A dozen years post graduation, my twenties and most of my hair already gone in a flash, my best pal Henry was getting married. It had been some time since the monumental Woodruff bequest. My beloved alma mater was well into her Oz-like transformation: The familiar and studious little village that had nurtured and galvanized me was fast becoming the soaring and upscale mini-metropolis it is today.

I can’t remember where I parked my rental car—that must have been an adventure—but I do remember beginning my walking tour on Eagle Row. Never much of a joiner or a leader during high school, I nonetheless found myself pledging a fraternity during the heady days of freshman rush. By my junior year I would grow into an unlikely, two-term chancellor of Mu Chapter of Tau Epsilon Phi, responsible for a nation-state numbering eighty guys, every one of whom I learned to love, eventually. One of the most important and lasting lessons of college, call it the Frat House Dichotomy: A guy can be a jerk sometimes and still be a good guy. Including myself.

Where my frat house was, I found a brand-new house, this one occupied by Alpha Phi Alpha. It seemed appropriate to a Baltimore-raised suburbanite that the lot upon which my traditionally Jewish frat once stood was now occupied by a traditionally African American one.

The next thought that came immediately to mind was this: Weren’t there like, fourteen black students at Emory in my day?

I continued along the Row, remembering Dooley’s skits and endless Frisbee catches, casino nights and band parties, all the times we had to push my Fiat down the hill to get it started. Passing Sigma Alpha Epsilon, I noticed that the proud lion out front had been vandalized with a splash of bright paint.

I’d come to campus as part of a wave of Northerners when Emory had begun to expand its reach. You’d have thought there’d have been more tension as all those mannered and honeyed Southern accents acclimated themselves to our sarcastic and edgy Northern ones; it did make for some spirited intramural contests, to be sure. But as my time at Emory passed, I found myself making the trip across the street from the TEPi house to the SAE house more and more frequently. Today, two of my dearest friends are former SAEs. I still remember hearing them complain about having to scrape and repaint the lion . . . again.

And I can remember always being secretly pleased, in a way only a Greek could be.

I first arrived at Emory two weeks prior to most of the other freshmen in my class—a walk-on candidate for the soccer team. It was the summer of 1974 and predictably swampy in Hotlanta. The taxi dumped me off in front of the old gym with my large, non-rolling Samsonite bag, built to withstand the anger of a great ape, perhaps, but not so good for traveling.

Probably the main reason I’d chosen to attend Emory (besides the grateful fact of my acceptance) was the chance to play soccer. All my life I’d been the kid with his ball or lacrosse stick. Like any high school jock, what I wanted most was a chance to try myself in the big show—or at least the biggest show that would have me at five-foot-three, 128 pounds, and woefully under-coached (yes, in college I grew a whole two inches). I’d spent the entire summer lifting weights and practicing my bicycle kick, running miles barefoot to toughen my feet.

The events of the next two weeks are as indelible as any memories I have of Emory. But probably the highlight was seeing my name on the final team list and receiving my official, heather-gray Emory Soccer T-shirt. By the time the other freshmen arrived on campus, I already felt like a bona fide part of things—a strong and confident thread in the fabric of the Emory community. I sailed through rush, wearing my Emory Soccer T-shirt everywhere, helpfully giving directions to fellow freshmen. There was never a time in the ensuing four years when I didn’t feel that hard work would bring me face to face with any chosen goal.

Most of the time, I still feel the same today.

And when I need reminding, I have my old Emory Soccer tee, bottom drawer on the left.

Thrown off my internal map by the placement of the new Woodruff P. E. Center and fields, I meandered around campus. Everything was familiar, yet everything seemed off, like my memory was playing tricks. The Candler Library, the Quad, the marble buildings . . . it was all there, but shiny, and renovated. And oh my, the beautiful Callaway Building. Many of my writing seminars were held on roughly the same spot. As I type this, my first English professor, John Bugge, has just returned my email; he is due to retire from his post in the English department in nine days. It was he who urged me further into my talents. It was he who admonished: write crystal daggers. It’s corny, I know. But I was eighteen, and it worked. And I still try. His lesson resonates every day as I sit down to do the thing I love most in the world, a love I found inside myself at Emory.

In my day, the name Dobbs invoked the dowdy freshman dorm you didn’t want to draw. Dobbs Hall was considered so bad, in fact, that it made you cool to live there, an indy Emoroid outlaw. (I may have hung there a time or two with my indy Emoroid outlaw friends.)

So you can imagine my surprise as I came upon the DUC.

The first thing I spied was a big, hand-painted sign advertising a meeting of a Pakistani student organization. I stood for a moment, trying to recall a single Pakistani person I’d met during my own four years at Emory. The food court now occupied a space that was formerly a parking lot.

And then I came upon the familiar red-pink marble entrance to the student union of my era, enshrined like a small Greek temple within the DUC.

From there, it wasn’t long before I found the old staircase and worked my way to the top floor, where the offices of the Emory Wheel were still housed. It was in this room that I met my best friend, Henry Schuster 78C, now a distinguished television news producer, whose wedding I was in town to attend. Back then, Henry was the honcho at the Wheel. He brought me on board and gave me my first column.

There was nobody in the Wheel office, so I went inside. The computers were all new. But over in one corner, unmistakably, was the very same headline machine we’d used in 1973.

Since that first visit, I’ve been back to Emory on a number of occasions to read and teach. Another lesson I’ve learned from Emory: You can go home again.

I love all the growth—the beautiful new buildings and sporty renovations, the impressive scholarly and artistic acquisitions, the amazing faculty, the enhanced international standing on so many fronts.

And even though the roads through and around campus look completely different . . . even though my frat house has gone the way of the dodo, my old gym and soccer field no longer exist, the old classrooms where I learned my lifelong profession have been replaced by a beautiful new structure . . . even though I probably wouldn’t meet Emory’s admission standards today, or be a good enough player to make the soccer team . . .

I still feel like a bona fide part of things—a strong and confident thread in the fabric of the Emory community.

Mike Sager 78C is a novelist and award-winning Writer at Large for Esquire magazine.

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