A Word in Edgewise: Gaudiamus Igitur…A Memoir

Harvard Commencement makes grand spectacle, and one’s Fiftieth Reunion a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

May 30, 525 Class of 1963 members celebrated their longevity and the University’s 362nd Commencement (although founded in 1636, Commencement wasn’t initiated until 1642).  Per tradition, the soon-to-be-graduated Seniors lined both sides of the path in Harvard Yard, cheering and applauding as we ancients (the oldest, Class of ’30) processed into Tercentenary Theater.

Time, as time will, had wrought significant changes. Security guards checked bags and wanded all entrants, while on a more prosaic level, cherished institutions were no more: Cronin’s and twenty-five-cent draft beers, Elsie’s ambrosial fifty-cent steak sandwiches. My own personal change involved shifting from alumna to alumnus.

Born during World War II, 1963 matriculated in 1959–before the Bay of Pigs, Loving vs. Virginia, Stonewall, or any inkling of same-sex marriage. There were whispers about homos and lesbians, but nothing of the or of today’s rainbow acronym. Gender dictated behavior. In 1959, men and women attended the same classes with the same professors, but received different diplomas. The Class of 1963 was the first in which every graduate’s AB read “Harvard.”

For today’s undergrads, replacing silence and shame, gayness is highly visible through numerous groups, including the Harvard Queer Students and Allies (QSA). Would that outreach reach back half a century? We had each submitted our personal histories for the fat, crimson Class Book that we’d pored over before arrival. Everyone’s badge had a first name–mine read, “E.B.”

How would classmates react to Ethan? “Were you in Holmes Hall?” a woman asked, spotting the “Boatner” (Dorms were not co-ed) “Yes.” “It looks good on you!” she enthused.

And then, the Class Portrait on the Widener Library steps. I had four choices: All alums and families; all alums; just Harvard; just Radcliffe. Which to order? I stood first with the alumni, then the alumnae, where the woman beside me whispered, “You may be in the wrong group…” I explained and she exclaimed, “Wonderful! I’m proud to stand next to you!” I ordered both. A personal victory, yes, but consider also that Harvard’s President, Drew Gilpin Faust, is a woman, our Class Day Speaker the freshly-minted, honorary LLD, Oprah Winfrey.

lot has changed in half a century.

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