Laurentian School Ties

Over dessert and coffee at a recent dinner party, I heard a new St. Lawrence “pride” story. One of the dinner guests described watching on television the exciting finish of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, where the world’s top professional men golfers warm up in the winter sunshine of the United Arab Emirates. The gallery attending this made-for-TV tournament is meager by comparison to PGA events or major championships, so the eye-witness crowd that day better resembles the un-roped setting of weekend duffers. No one is really watching, because no one is there. At Abu Dhabi, the international field was playing to the cameras only.

As the lens zoomed in on one of the contenders standing over a determinative putt, it pulled back just enough to reveal a clear picture of a lone spectator who was standing on the edge of the green, a true fan enjoying an unspoiled walk a long way from home. He was wearing a cotton ball cap, curved visor pulled to his head in the American style, with very identifiable colors and an unmistakable logo: On the front of its crown was the name “St. Lawrence University.”

What are the odds of a rural college’s distinctive image getting “flash framed” from 7,000 miles away, seen in a passing instant by millions of Golf Channel viewers? Is St. Lawrence truly everywhere nowadays? Or is it a trick of the mind, an example of magnified subjectivity creating a desert mirage, an optical false reality that is somehow tangibly mythologized by a one-off anecdote?

The consensus St. Lawrence reputation, which has always been reliably strong and well respected over many decades, is noticeably larger today and, without equivocation, it is for real. We track closely the annual increase of campus visits by prospective applicants, we count larger attendance at alumni events, and we register the record number of website hits, media mentions and sales of “logo” gear and related Saints apparel.

The history of the scarlet and brown “old school tie” is a borrowed one. American colleges and universities have all had striped silk ties for their graduates to wear with understated loyalty, undoubtedly indicating a subliminal sign of membership. Before there were sweatshirts, blazer buttons and hats to wear displaying the university’s insignia, there were, beginning in the 1920s, ties and scarves available to show one’s school colors. They were derived from a forerunner fashion practice created by the colleges within British universities, probably first by an Oxford rowing team, but generally a popular wardrobe accessory that was introduced in the early years of the 20th century.

One theory of the school tie’s origin assumes the influence of the British army. When military field uniforms changed from vivid colors (think Zouaves in the American Civil War) to a drab olive or dirt-road khaki, the regimental tie was created to give particular identity to those who had once served in the infantry, cavalry or artillery. If you have read a fair sampling of spy novels, you may remember how a secret agent’s cover can be blown by wearing the wrong four-in-hand tie. On American college ties, the stripes point diagonally from the right shoulder to the left waist; on an old school tie from across the Atlantic, however, the stripes are in the reverse direction. A mistake in that detail could bring the result of an embarrassing social faux pas or a firing squad.

Beneath a few observations of “ball cap sociology” is a fundamental question, a personal one, about the meaning of institutional affinity and the significance of belonging. After many years of my own St. Lawrence alumni experience, I am absolutely convinced that among all the graduating classes there exists a deep reservoir of feeling filled by loyalty, gratitude and affection. But for some, once they leave college and start crossing the seas of life and work, pride in St. Lawrence may not for a time run as deep.

There are big ships upon those after-college waters, giving calm passage to the accomplished alumni of other, better-known universities, better known because of athletic prominence, academic wonkiness or social prestige. And that, for some Laurentians, gets in the way of what their “school tie” could possibly mean to them; while momentarily in that big boat “wake avoidance,” they should cast again an anchor of quiet confidence.

St. Lawrence ought to be most proud of one thing: its powerful, distinctive habit of connecting people in closely felt relationships and lifelong friendships surpassing all other affiliations in the journey we take. Even though our University has had much notable success in athletic competition and intellectual attainment, and is known by a campus ethos informed by its egalitarian roots, we have reasons to feel and express pride that are different from all others.

At St. Lawrence there is an intimate solidarity of continuity, allowing one to be part of a long tradition where belonging, connecting, making friends is a first principle. On the eve of Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1905, John Hay (Lincoln’s personal secretary and McKinley’s Secretary of State) gave the young leader a gold ring that was cast to include a strand of Lincoln’s hair and the pairing of the engraved initials, TR and AL. The inscription was in Latin, a line from Horace, “Good Captain, may you grant long periods of peace….” Every student at St. Lawrence has someone or something to look up to, wearing the equivalent of this personal ideal on one’s ring finger.

The pride of place is also inescapable. We create in our minds a special room for the North Country memory of woods and waters, the deepest cold, the greenest corn. It’s a retreat, a place to go when you’re in the midst of airport anarchy or aimed homeward while staring over the wheel at an infinity of brake lights. Alumni whose university towns are dense and gritty can have their remembrance of a tailgate picnic on asphalt ground. But I’ll take the dawn in Canton, the color of blue jeans bleached by the moon hanging over the Grasse River.

And then, there is our pride of compassion; some may extend the idea to call it soulfulness. Some may also wisely caution against the risk of coupling these terms as the potential overtaking of humbleness by arrogance. St. Lawrence, however, makes me proud because, while no two lives are ever identical, we make a virtue of imagining and sharing the experience of others. In good times and tough times, it is immensely reassuring to feel a hand upon the shoulder, as if to say, “I, too, have experienced all that and endured the worst; I’m not going to forget you.”

Emerson once scratched a line in his Journal that teachers are supposed to do for their students an elemental business: “get the soul out of bed.” The goal at St. Lawrence is not to have its students merely taught, but to have them awakened, enlivened, and made aware. Awareness is the beginning of compassion, and compassion draws from a deep place we can discover during a time of daily wonder.

At St. Lawrence, not only do we become awake and alert to our world, but we also happily get dressed to face it, with our old school tie knotted and our ball cap worn to purpose, that is, with the visor facing north. —WLF