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SUMMER 2013 | St. Lawrence University Magazine
T
he summer job was for me the extra
credit course of the college years. The
expectation of work for wages and
savings in the months after the last final exam
traces a particular American history shared
between farm and campus. Each place tried to
simulate the oldest garden of all, a lost paradise,
served soberly by the ancient
admonition: “You will eat of the
produce of the field, and only by
the sweat of your brow will you
win your bread until you return to
the earth.” Hard work in the sum-
mertime also granted the privilege
of hard study in September.
Nearby farms fed the first gen-
eration of St. Lawrence students; when classes
were in session, the young scholars tended the
wood stoves in winter and drew their own water
from the college wells. The accommodations
for study improved over time, but students still
returned in the summer to work on the farms
and in the factories. While the idea of the rural,
residential liberal arts college is originally and
distinctively American, so, too, is the tradition
of the summer job.
The summer job, in my case, included the
shovel and blade of the maintenance worker in
a 5,000-acre regional park formed by Maryland
farmland and the headwaters of Rock Creek.
Three blistering summers, entirely in the sociol-
ogy of open air, gave me wages to cover most
of my fall expenses at St. Lawrence. Another
two summers in a government printing plant
condensed my working life to a personal his-
tory that covered both agrarian and industrial
economies.
To this day, I can still hear in my solitude the
backbeat of the giant presses pierced by the dull,
shrill thump slicing through foot-thick paper on
the cutter I operated. The shifts were long, the
work sometimes dangerous, and the pleasure of
a dinner break was, on reflection, much greater
than all the black-tie banquets I have enjoyed in
subsequent decades.
My St. Lawrence friends and I came back
to college with stories that kept us mutually
enthralled for a while, at least until the first
round of quizzes. They painted houses, worked
in foundries, cooked in restaurants, counseled
in summer camps, joined construction crews,
covered as vacation replacements in banks and
department stores. Laurentian adventures —
riding on an interstate moving van, or repair-
ing the high bridge between Ogdensburg and
Prescott – remained vivid. Classmates were
turnpike toll-takers, sanitation workers in the
city, or wranglers on a dude ranch. Some actu-
ally returned to the farm to cut hay and milk the
herd.
Nothing else, save a liberal arts education,
can expand and move social capital upward
with such force and speed. But the role of the
summer job has also had an important,
salvific purpose. Old aristocracies,
the kind with soft hands and formal
attitudes, generally evolved by three
distinctive phases: duty, privilege and
vanity. In American social advance-
ment, the interlude of the summer job
gave many of us a deeper sense of duty
and obligation. We understood better
the accidents of privilege, and, most certainly,
manual labor prevented or mitigated vanity.
Among the lessons I still register from
seasonal employment, at least two continue
to serve me in vivid perspective. There is the
first lesson of “being invisible.” It is a harsh yet
critical occasion when you are in the middle of a
task, dressed in “work” clothes or uniform, and
anyone passing by hardly notices that you are
present. You are to them—the public—faceless,
nameless or anonymous. A St. Lawrence educa-
tion, among its many measures of excellence,
continues to include an intellectual and social
self-confidence that releases one from the nar-
rower boundaries of cautious imagination. Until
one has felt the awkward indignity of being
ignored, I don’t believe the self-assurance gained
on campus could ever be as valid.
The other lesson I carry with me is from
inside the actual lives of people who taught me
how to work with discipline and precision. My
first impression of my first boss, Mack Bower,
who departed school and Appalachia at an early
age, was his willingness to get out of the truck
and work beside us. No one could outwork or
outwit him; everyone worked all-out to earn his
admiration. But it was also coming to grips with
the immediacy of human worry and the limita-
tions of opportunity in the lives of other workers
that I can never forget. Their names resound as
if fromWordsworth: Mutt Springer, Chubby
Bixby, Dallas Royal, Dix Bell. To know them
and gain their trust still matters, for they were
like a faculty without texts; their lives and hard-
ships, their kindness and hands were powerfully
instructive. Like the material of wisdom itself,
they taught me that it’s always easier to throw
the load off the wagon than it is to shovel it on.
Wi ll iam L . Fox ’ 75
Learning to Work
a word from the president
Publisher
Tom Evelyn
Editor-in-Chief
Neal S. Burdick ’72
University Writer
Meg Bernier ’07, M ’09
Photographer
Tara Freeman
Class Notes Editor
Sharon Henry
Design & Art Direction
Jessica Rood
Class Notes Design
Alex Rhea
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