AYA Assembly 2003
Historically, there have been two AYA Assemblies each year, one in the Fall and the other in the Spring. Beginning this Fall, there will be only an annual Assembly and it was held November 20-22, culminating with the Harvard game, which we lost. Part of the thinking that led to combining the two Assemblies seems to have been right on the mark. The attendance was a record breaker and actually created some space problems for the AYA. The problems of success. Nice to have.
The two days were really quite wonderful, and I plan to give those of you who are interested a thorough summary. For me, the highlights were the fascinating sessions behind the scenes at Yale's extraordinary art and natural history collections and a fun dinner with five other 1962 classmates, who were attending as representatives of various affiliated organizations.
While past Assemblies have had themes such as the Arts at Yale, Engineering at Yale or the Undergraduate Curriculum, this one seemed to be slightly schizoid. Day One dealt with the Collections in the various schools of the University and their importance to the University. Day Two was entitled "Leadership Conference for Alumni Volunteers". It ended with a truly interesting panel from the Administration. More on that later.
In our invitation packages we were asked to select two out of three for behind-the-scenes tours from the University Collections in the Arts, the Library(ies) and Natural History. I chose the Arts and Natural History. At registration, we had to pick which collections we wanted to see. The list included: Teaching and Learning from the Paul Mellon Collection of British Paintings; Wilde Americk, about the discovery and exploration of the New World; British Art Center Conservation, a look at the conservation efforts in the BAC; Master Drawings at the University Art Gallery; the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments; and Costumes at the Yale School of Drama. All of these were to be conducted, taught, explained, etc. by curators, professors, etc. Tough choice!!
I chose the BAC Conservation track and the School of Drama Costumes. (Keep in mind that I was a Drama major.) Well . . .Theresa Fairbanks. Chief Conservator of the BAC took us into the conservation lab, one of those doors you see at the BAC that says, "Staff Only" on it. She not only explained the different historical styles of painting that conservators need to understand but also demonstrated her specialty, works on paper. She had four versions of the famous Peter Pelham (1697-1751) mezzotint of Cotton Mather done in 1728. First was the original followed by three later versions, restrikes on different paper, and a photochemical version. The differences and evaluations would make a great Masters thesis. It was fascinating. It also was exciting to be behind the scenes.
The second Art track was at the Drama School Annex on Park Street. This is the old Chi Psi house, which by our day was already the Drama School Annex. I had many Dramat rehearsals in it. Also a few parties. The room where the costume presentation was for me a memory pang. It was the room where '62 Drama majors (Waterston, Ligon, Proctor, Hinnant) took our Comprehensives. UGH!! However, this time it had Robin Hirsch, the Drama School Associate Costume Shop Manager, and lots of costumes. First, there were samples from the Irene Sharaff Collection. Sharaff designed many Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, among them, The King and I and West Side Story. There for us to see were her costume renderings for Anita's costume in West Side for the "Dance at the Gym" and both Deborah Kerr's ball gown and Yul Brynner's matching costume from The King and I. Also, there was historical clothing from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People were smaller then and costume makers must make patterns from the historical examples without taking them apart and then create larger patterns to fit today's actors. Lots of questions and many learned answers. My old Dramat friend, Lewis Lloyd '60, joined me in this session.
While these two sessions were mind expanding, lunch really demonstrates what can happen at an AYA Assembly. I had a lunch ticket for Davenport and met Dave Ilten '60, President of the Yale Club of Germany, Sara Jones '94, President of the Yale Club of San Diego, and Toby Condliffe '66, Delegate from the Yale Club of Ontario (Canada, not California). We had an enjoyable lunch and halfway through were joined by the Delegate from the Class of 1942. Where else could this happen??!! I am sure the undergraduates wondered what the old folks were doing but we had a great time!
The afternoon Natural History session had a list of choices that equaled the Arts Track ones but I have lost the piece of paper. I chose the Dinosaurs at the Peabody Museum and am I glad I did! We began with a talk by the director of the Museum, Michael Donoghue, who in addition to the museum somehow finds time to manage a chair in Ecology/Evolutionary Biology as well as a plain old professorship in Geology and Geophysics. Among facts too numerous to mention is this one. Only 17% of the Peabody's square footage is used for public displays. The rest is used for research and storage.
The Peabody was founded in 1866 by a gift from, you guessed it, George Peabody at the urging of his nephew Othniel Charles Marsh, the first professor of paleontology in North America and the Peabody's first director. Marsh built many of the museum's collections that now number more than 11,000,000 specimens. He also discovered the brontosaurus. The Peabody's Brontosaurus is the first found and displayed.
Our guide was Jacques Gautier, curator of paleontology. We spent a short time in the Hall of Dinosaurs. Gautier is a lecturer in the mode of Vincent Scully for those of us who were lucky enough to study with him. It seems that the Brontosaurus has been reclassified as, I believe the Allosaurus. But, just like in Irish families and Scottish clans where the head of the clan is called The O"Neill or The Campbell of the Isles, it seems in paleontology that the first specimen found of a species is called The Whatever. So, Yale's Brontosaurus, which is not a Brontosaurus, is still known in the paleontological world as The Brontosuaus and will be forever. Go figure.
Gautier then took us to the catacombs, the basement(s) of the Peabody. These are so vast that they also run into and use the basement of the Kline Tower next door. WOW!! We first went to a storage area in which live all the pieces of many dinosaurs that will never be displayed but are nonetheless under continual study. One neck vertebra of one species was four feet wide and seven feet long. He showed us a fossilized dinosaur egg with the fetus still in it and fossilized maggots on the outside. He let us feel a 280,000,000 year- old fossil so that we could sense the difference between the bone and the rock it was in. How do you categorize an experience like that? He showed us a 15 foot long piece of an old lake shore taken from the Connecticut River valley that had tracks of very small dinosaurs and no tail drag marks. Current scholarship tells us that dinosaurs like T.Rex did not use their tails like kangaroos, i.e., they did not drag them or use them for support. All the paintings are wrong, including the mural in the Peabody. They ran very fast with their tails out behind them and these tracks prove it. Further, he led us through the thinking by which we no know that later dinosaurs were warm blooded and the ancestors of birds. Still further, when the great extinction of the dinosaurs occurred, probably through the impact of a huge meteorite whose debris darkened the earth for years, incipient mammals were already on the scene. They were very small and nocturnal. The dinosaurs were large and avoided the night. Hence, the darkening of the earth, which killed the dinosaurs, propelled the mammals in to the forefront and lead to us.
We then went to the lab where his helpers very carefully chip away the rock from the fossils recently found in the American West. This can take months and sometimes years to accomplish. Too much to relate and a great experience! They gave each of us a cast of a claw of Deinonychus antirrhopus, a 3-4 feet tall, 8-10 feet long, 150-230 pound dinosaur found by John Ostrom of Yale aided by Yale students in 1964. The name Deinonychus mens "terrible claw', and it is. The "Antirrhopus " means counter balancing tail. (See above). It was by comparing this fellow's skeleton and that of Archaeopteryx that the loop was closed between the dinosaurs and the birds. By the way, judging by the claw, you did not want to be anywhere near this guy when he was annoyed or hungry. But he died out about 110,000,000 years ago.
The afternoon ended with a panel with Barbara Shailor, Deputy Provost for the Arts, Michael Donoghue from the Peabody, Susan Matheson from the Art Gallery and Frank Turner, Director of the Beinecke. All of these collections are used not only for research but also for teaching undergraduates and graduate students alike. The Yale Art Gallery is the oldest university gallery in the US (1832); the third oldest gallery in the US and the School of Fine Arts is the oldest in the US. Singly and together, Yale's collections are extraordinary.
Dinner turned out to be '62 mini-reunion. Kirk MacDonald was there as Secretary, Marsh Hamilton as President of the Yale Club of Philadelphia, Payson Whitney as the President of the Yale Club of Eastern Connecticut, Peter Sipple as a Delegate-at-Large with his wife Margaret, Larry Lipsher and his wife, Lainie, and yours truly. Most of us met each other at the reception at the Beinecke but all of us ended up at the same dinner table, much to the consternation of a lone member of '63 who got there first. He got swamped!! Great fun.
The dinner speaker was the new Director of the British Art Center, Amy Meyers '85PHD. Most of us know that the BAC is the largest collection of British art outside of the UK. It is also one of the finest collections, period. All thanks to Paul Mellon.
Day two was all about volunteering for Yale, the AYA, making reunions better, etc. First there was a speaker from California who is an expert in motivation volunteers. The best thing about this session was that it was in the newly refurbished Sprague Hall at the Music School. It is magnificent. I wish I could say the same for the speaker.
Then there were seven concurrent sessions that ran in the morning and the afternoon. Each of us got to pick two of them. The '62 dinner group divided up the sessions so that at least one of us went to each one of the seven. I chose "Turnarounds and New Ventures" and "Taking It On The Road". The first dealt with The Spizzwinks(!) starting an Alumni organization, the Nursing School jazzing up theirs and the Class of '88 creating a record turnout for their 15th. They had studied 1962 and our 35th Reunion Survey!! "Taking it on the Road" had the founder and producer of the Yale Alumni Chorus and tours and an old friend, Connor Fay from '51 talking about his class min-reunions which they have had every year since their 35th reunion. This year, they just got back from Florence and next year they are going to Cleveland. Very brave!!
The morning ended with a Town Meeting with AYA's Staff and Board members talking about what is needed by Alumni organizations and what is coming from the AYA.
The afternoon ending session was outstanding. President Levin, Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer and Provost Susan Hockfield were the panel and we are in great hands!! They took and answered all questions from labor relations, to curriculum, unions for graduate students, anything and everything. One Levin tidbit. When Yale went off the early decision program last year and returned to early action Harvard's applications went down and Yale's went up. So did our yield!!
The first day was exciting, thrilling, you name it. I think getting back stage in anything is often more education and fun that what is going on stage. The '62 mini-reunion at dinner was unplanned but lots of fun. The lunch with the folks from Germany, San Diego, Toronto and the class of '42 was outstanding. The AYA is now including delegates from alumni affinity group as well as classes and clubs. Now Assemblies will have representatives of the Dramat Alumni Associates, my friend Lew Lloyd, all the singing groups, the Glee Club and any other such organization. AYA even has a staff officer who deals only with the alumni affinity groups. So, things are getting both bigger and better.
In case you can't tell, I had a great time!
David may be reached at email@example.com.