Little Keepsakes and Large Events

With my suit jacket in one hand, my briefcase in the other and my shirt sleeves rolled up, I walked past a police officer in a busy city cross-walk. A few paces beyond, he turned around, a perfect about-face, and followed me to the curb.

“Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?” he asked while just off my shoulder, arriving like a pitcher trying to cover first base on a dribbler up the line. At first, I thought he was just asking me, “Can we talk?” in that detective story way of false politeness, often depicting uniformed authority as both wise-guy and tough-guy. Then, I took his meaning more literally, realizing he only wanted me to look at my watch.

I complied and gave him the hour. But that wasn’t exactly what he was after. Breaking character and going totally “civilian,” the beat patrolman said next, “I’m a collector and I’ll give you $500 right now for your watch.” He then named the maker and the approximate date that the overseas jeweler had assembled the timepiece. With a trustworthy earnestness, he assured me that his offer was a very fair price.

I was not expecting an off-camera “Antiques Road Show” moment, for this particular wristwatch, suddenly under hasty street appraisal, was in its second generation of family ownership. It belonged to my father, given to him by my mother to celebrate an anniversary, or the completion of his dissertation, or the inauguration of President Kennedy. Its deeper meaning, in truth, signaled the hope that the Great Depression finally took leave of an old, low-grade despair. The occasion of the gift was never explained, though any or all of those reasons would fit the family history around 1960, if only as a child recollects his parents’ quietly shared triumph. I had no way of knowing then how comparatively few their valuable possessions were.

The watch is still worn for important occasions, runs like a hummingbird, and would be, if old age should drive me to financial contingency, one of the last things I would ever pawn. For this reason, I have singular television affinity, except when the Red Sox are playing.  For more than a decade, the premise of the popular “Antiques Road Show” is to give people a sense of their belongings, particularly how history makes them valuable. They bring their mementos, favorite works of art, or family china for expert assessment. As the piece under consideration for potential auction is described, the suspense builds around its authenticity, historical context and personal connection to the owner. The best viewing moment is the joy of the market supplicant hearing a higher appraisal than expected, and in that instant also realizing the golden price would never warrant a sale, no matter what.

To be touched by history through intimate memories or small personal possessions can nearly overwhelm in its power to educate an individual about choices in life, questions about purpose first contemplated in the student days away from home. If the skeptic of human behavior insists, in the end, “everyone has a price,” then what can be set aside while still young as something so precious that it will never be sold?

In this college-time formation of reflective thought, there is also enough power in it beyond the individual to teach others nearby, even elders on campus, who will spare enough curiosity to ask for someone else’s story of achievement, hardship or survival. This year marks a cluster of commemorative anniversaries from the last 200 years—1965, 1945, 1915, 1865, and 1815—each touched by the fire of conflict. For a significant number of people, their own family histories, often painful or heroic, can be tied back to many of those dates. A university as old as St. Lawrence also has a cable-tow extending off-shore marked by the buoys of a far-reaching history. Over half the Class of 1915, for instance, men and women, served in the American military during wartime.

What history, remotely or personally, touches students at St. Lawrence today? Do they have the vocabulary to talk about it? When our students study abroad in France, they live in the ancient Norman city of Rouen. As they walk those narrow streets near cathedral and martyr sites, they will see the bullet holes in the sides of buildings from the liberation of 1945.

Meanwhile, for others on campus the contact point of history is sometimes nigh and raw, for we have students and professors among us for whom war is not a distant event on the page or part of a tour guide’s colorful detail. At St. Lawrence today I can recite a very present past: a student’s father was assassinated by an explosion in a peaceful neighborhood; another’s parents have lived for years in and out of refugee camps; still others have come from places that only 20 years ago were killing fields amounting to historic genocide. There is usually a story behind the family picture on the desk or the remembrance kept in a dresser drawer.

The purpose of historical mindfulness in a college community is not so much knowing with accuracy the exact detail of events or other lives, but developing a certain kind of emotional understanding as intimate as an heirloom wristwatch. When we emphasize in our living and curricular arrangements the sharing of diverse experiences from all over the world and across the centuries, we are reminding ourselves of a deeper necessity for finding sufficient ears and voices that can extend the long conversation intelligently.

We cannot escape even the smallest tokens of the past, the cameo brooch or signet ring, because they are always encoded with untold meaning, unexpressed even for those who would never let them go. They are conversation starters for important matters. Every student and every teacher potentially carries some small keepsake that reveals more about themselves than mere inventory value. Look no further for the crown jewels of the University.

Ryszard Kapuscinski in his remarkable book The Soccer War warns his readers about people who “devote too much attention to so-called events heard round the world, while neglecting the periods of silence.” He calls the challenge of allowing the past to speak, “the battle against silence,” because it is, ultimately, silence that neglects another person’s humanity, protects tyrants and hides crimes. And yet, the antique watch ticks away; it pulses with a hard-won, beautiful story; and it is worn by a grateful son because it stands for something essential.

William L. Fox
President