Friday, July 1, 2011
Nothing Good Lasts Forever
Seeing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris recently got me to thinking about what it is that makes a place, a time, an organization or an institution special and memorable. I was born too late for Paris in the 1920s — which Hemingway called a moveable feast that stays with you for the rest of your life — but two things in my experience qualify as moveable feasts in their own right.
One was being at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the early days. The place was a miracle, nothing less. Somehow the regents of the largest public university system in the country got talked into starting an experimental campus based on individual colleges, like Oxford, with an emphasis on a rounded liberal-arts education, undergraduate teaching, and pass-fail grading. When the Santa Cruz campus opened in 1965, it was a soul mate for its time. That probably was its undoing.
Santa Cruz was many things in those days, and one of them was a place where you could reinvent yourself, or, better yet, be yourself for the first time. It attracted a lot of students who had felt like outcasts before and suddenly found themselves in their element. Dean McHenry, the founding chancellor, recruited an outstanding faculty (Page Smith, Kenneth Thimann, Norman O. Brown, among others) who came there late-career in part to reconnect with students and teaching.
Those of us who were there at the time were intoxicated with the sense of possibility (and, at times, other substances), and years later, we still reconnect quickly and intuitively. But the taxpayers have little tolerance for experimentation on their dime, and when times changed in the mid 1970s, the Santa Cruz experiment was dismantled. In short order, the colleges were rendered meaningless, graduate and professional schools were emphasized at the expense of undergraduate teaching, and grades were reinstituted. The buildings are still there, and so are the students, but it’s not the place I went to at all. Aside from the redwoods and the ocean view, it’s a public university campus, much like any other.
After graduating from Santa Cruz by the skin of my teeth, I went to work for the Register-Pajaronian, the daily newspaper in nearby Watsonville. There were some amazing stories (mass murders, farm labor strikes) in those early years, and I learned to cover them from the best in the business.
Frank F. Orr, the editor, a tall, bespectacled man whose gravelly voice was toasted to perfection by years of chain-smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, had led the paper to a Pulitzer Prize for exposing a corrupt district attorney in 1956. Ward Bushee, the managing editor, was the most demanding boss a young reporter could have. If you turned in a story with one question left unanswered, he was certain to demand the answer. After a while, you learned to stop trying and began asking the questions yourself. Sam Vestal, the chief photographer, knew everybody in town and was a better reporter than most of the reporters. They, along with a few other people (Bud O’Brien, Bill Akers, Bob Levy) were my mentors. All gone now.
A couple of ownership changes and the internet wiped out the daily newspaper I knew, loved and worked for. It now publishes three times a week, heroically covering the news with a third the staff we had when I left. Special times and places don’t last, but they should be savored while they do and remembered for as long as possible. Rather than bemoaning the losses, I choose to celebrate the memories. Lucky me.