A close up of an old typewriter

I'm With the Team

75 Years of St. Lawrence

Deborah Dudley

“I once figured out that about 100 people have a hand in every magazine,” says Neal Burdick ’72, who served as St. Lawrence’s editor-in-chief from 1977 to 2016. The magazine, which began as the St. Lawrence University Bulletin, was first published in 1943 with the purpose of keeping Laurentians, especially those serving during World War II, informed about their University—a mission that is largely unchanged to this day.

Volume 1, Issue 1 was four pages of copy, typeset and printed at the Plaindealer offices on Main Street in Canton and distributed to a few hundred alumni by the late Atwood Manley, Class of 1916. Manley was a local publisher and secretary of the Alumni Association at the time. Seventy-five years later, the publication has become an 80-page, perfect-bound, quarterly full-color magazine with an international distribution in print of 32,000 readers—alumni, parents, and friends—and a digital distribution of thousands more online and through social media channels.

By his own estimate, Burdick was responsible for approximately 150 issues over a 39-year career. He saw the role of the editor as “kind of the quarterback.” With the assistance of University Communications, University Advancement, sports information staff, the campus photographer and designers, the president, and an additional 70 class reporters, the contributors “amount to a small army”—or a very large football team, depending on how you want to look at it.

“I’ve never thought of it as just an alumni magazine,” says Burdick. “For the majority of the alumni, the magazine is really the only way they have of finding out what’s going on at their alma mater or of being reminded that the alma mater is still there and growing and evolving.”

Class Notes, First and Foremost

With roughly 28,000 alumni, ranging in age from 21 to 102, spread out across 50 states and five continents, keeping everyone engaged and connected can be a challenge. For most alumni, the solution is Class Notes. “I’ve always thought of the magazine as the flagship of the communication to our principal audience—alumni,” says Burdick. “It’s why we gave, and still give, roughly half of the pages to the Class Notes, which not all the colleges do anymore.”

Class reporters were enlisted as early as 1945, and almost immediately, the Alumni Association was inundated with alumni news. To this day, it has not let up. For most readers, the back 40 pages are the most coveted real estate in the magazine. These pages have also served as an unofficial history and archive of the lives of thousands of Laurentians.

As the Class of 1945 reporter for the last 20 years, Helen “Aitchie” Aitchison Ellison ’45 says, “People email me, even now, and say, ‘The first thing I look for are the class notes.’”

Aitchie (pronounced ‘H’-‘E’) has always been a writer at St. Lawrence. During her undergraduate years, she wrote for The Laurentian as well as a wartime humor magazine on campus called The Scarlet Tank. She also worked on The Gridiron. Writing for the magazine today brings back those memories, which she shares in her quarterly 1945 column. 

“I can remember the Navy men had to be in at 10 o’clock,” she tells me. “So, if you had a date and you went downtown, you’d find a lot of co-eds with navy men walking up Park Street, taking them back to the ‘ship’—which is what we called the barracks.” And, Aitchie adds with a hint of mischief, “Then the women would head back downtown because we had a later curfew than the Navy men!” It is memories such as these that Aitchie likes to include to get conversations started. 

In her own way, Aitchie feels she is a Laurentian historian and her memories can be preserved through the last 20 years of her class reporting. She says the magazine is a good place to revisit St. Lawrence’s history, not only for those who lived it with her, but for younger generations who can learn about their alma mater through her column.

“I always felt the reporters in some ways were more important than I was,” says Burdick. “Because they were talking to their classmates, and for many, that is the St. Lawrence community. And the magazine is the conduit for maintaining that community.”

Managing Class Notes was one of the first conversations I had with Burdick, when he handed over the magazine playbook to me in June 2016. “I really tried to let them have their voice to the extent possible,” Burdick tells me. “So, while I spent a lot of time editing the notes, my pen wasn’t red. It was pink, I guess.” 

Staying connected is what Marion Davenport Bergeron ’48 decided to do, when last year, after her 90th birthday, she volunteered to take the job of class reporter for the Class of 1948. “There was nobody at all,” she says, “and, all of a sudden, I decided that somebody ought to be saying something, so I took on the job.”

Bergeron is assisted by her son, Andrew, who helps her out on the computer with the emails and correspondence. The magazine is her way of staying informed.

“The magazine brings back memories, obviously, but things look like they are changing,” she concludes and tells me about her great-grandson, a hockey player. “He knows St. Lawrence is a big hockey school because he and his brother come up to Lake Placid every spring for a gathering of junior hockey players. He’s decided that’s where he wants to go,” she says, “and I’m encouraging him.”

The Other 40 Pages

From 1943 to post-World War II and into the late ’60s, the world changed rapidly and St. Lawrence University was working to keep pace. By the 1970s, the magazine had helped alumni stay informed of the wave of changes in faculty, enrollment, curriculum, governance, and student activism, and it attempted to bridge alumni concerns with the University solutions. 

“By the July 1969 issue, my single column was expanded to two full pages in an effort to both explain and reassure,” explained H. Sargent Whittier Jr. ’57, editor from 1960–1970, in a 1993 article by Burdick about the magazine at 50. “It was mostly a plea for open minds and patience,” Whittier said at the time. “ROTC, recruitment of minority students, visiting hours, and the grasp for ‘power’ by students were hot topics. They prompted features, messages from President Piskor and student leaders, and more columns by the editors. The issues were not easy to explain and often much more heat than light was brought to bear.”

During Burdick’s tenure, there were many topics covered that remain familiar to contemporary readers. Tackling the urgency of adverse effects of pollution and fossil fuels on the environment was featured heavily in the 1970s, with dire consequences outlined by science faculty that, if they were alive today, would have every right to give us all a big “I told you so.” Issues surrounding equal and civil rights, student recruitment, diversity and inclusion, and identity politics—all reoccurring themes in the magazine of the past four decades reflect the intellectual and cultural exchanges and changes that continue to evolve at St. Lawrence.

Changes, as Burdick points out, are ones that not everyone likes or agrees with and that often prove difficult to capture adequately in the magazine.

“I think the Greek issue was always touchy,” says Burdick. “I always felt my principal responsibility was to tell the truth to the extent that I was able to, even if some people didn’t like it on either side of the fence, as long as I felt I had told the truth and told the story fully, honestly, and accurately. And I think my predecessors felt the same way. In fact, I probably acquired that from a predecessor of mine who was my mentor, Thurlow Cannon, editor for 12 years.”

Burdick and I agree that knowing exactly what alumni want can be tough, and it gets more complicated with the addition of every new technology and increasing demands on alumni attention. Audience interests and expectations continue to change. Engaging Laurentians ranging in age from 20 to 102 is tricky because they have very different memories of what St. Lawrence was to them and different affiliations that will motivated them to stay connected.

“As editor,” he said, “I tried to put myself in the position of our audience: What do they want? What would they like to hear about? What do we think they need to hear about?”

For now, print remains the preferred format, even with young alumni. Innovative design, bold photography, and expanded aesthetic vocabulary are all part of contemporary storytelling, and the magazine has and will always keep pace with communication best practices. What the magazine consistently strives to capture is the intangible reflection and connection to St. Lawrence, not just the community formed here with classmates, but as Burdick puts it, “the concept of  St. Lawrence.”

“My children graduated from two fine institutions, and are close with a small cadre of friends. They’re pleased to have degrees from Princeton and Haverford, obviously,” Burdick explains, “but, there isn’t an emotional attachment to the idea of the place. Whereas, I think here people have a tie to the concept of this place as well as the physical place.”

Burdick believes the connections stay strong because of another reason. “St. Lawrence is good at maintaining traditions but also changing with the times, and that’s a tough tightrope to walk,” he says. “I think the magazine has reflected that and needs to continue to reflect that.”

As the current editor to an alumnus of the Class of 1972, I ask Burdick what he needs from his alumni magazine in the next 75 years.

“Tell me what’s going on with my alma mater. I want to know how it’s changing and progressing. I want honesty about its strengths and weaknesses, challenges and successes. I want the magazine to help me feel like I’m part of the place with its good points and its bad points, with its clean laundry and dirty laundry. I want thoroughness. I don’t want the problems to be sugarcoated, but I want the solutions of those problems to be trumpeted, to be crowed about.”

After two years of getting used to the Laurentian uniform along with some coaching from Burdick, I feel I’m up for the challenge. And I know about 99 other people who can help me out.

The print cover of the Fall 2018 St. Lawrence magazine