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Archive for June, 2018

The great joy of a high school or college reunion is, of course, reconnecting with former classmates and exchanging memories and life experiences since graduation.

It’s also a time, though, for taking stock. And I’m not talking about casual observations like, “Gee, you sure haven’t changed much,” or thoughts like, “What the heck happened to him?”

It’s an occasion ripe for taking stock of one’s self.

And so, last weekend, at the 50-year reunion of my 1968 graduating class at Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY, I spent a lot of time not just enjoying the company of former classmates but also thinking about how I had changed from 1968 to 2018.

The reunion consisted of three major school-sponsored events — a reception last Friday evening, a campus tour and dinner Saturday, and a brunch Sunday. About 40 of us graduates, however, had a reunion within a reunion. We were the charter members of a social organization that sprang up on campus in my sophomore year, 1965-66. We called ourselves Podiceps, after a species of bird.

We started out as an intramural, touch football team, but it blossomed into a social club, complete with a “clubhouse” in an unused church rectory near downtown Louisville. A few of our out-of-town members (the “day-hops” lived in town; the “dormies” were from out of town) lived in the rectory, but its highest and best use was as a party venue. One member was good with sound systems, and we’d dance late into the night in the rectory to songs like “Do You Believe in Magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett.

But let me back up and tell you how I came to be a Podicep…Back then, as a freshman and sophomore in 1964 and 1965, I was coming out of a period of depression — undiagnosed but significant — that had enveloped me in about my junior year in high school. Coming out of the depression, I felt a sense of release and newfound excitement, but I was battling other demons, too, including a go-it-alone personality and a totally unwarranted superiority complex.

At Bellarmine, as in high school, I didn’t participate in any extracurricular activities and, living near campus, I would go to class and come home. (As I came out of the depression, I also became emboldened enough to start striking up flirtations with girls who were attending Ursuline, an all-girls school with which Bellarmine, an all-boys school, was in the process of merging.)

It came as a surprise to me, then, when the Podiceps approached me in my junior year about joining the club. I was flattered but by no means had my heart set on becoming a Podicep.

There was no grooming period or hazing. All you had to do was sit for a group interview, following which, the members voted. In my interview, I remember being edgy and accusing the group, in so many words, of exclusivity. After that performance, I thought I’d be blackballed for sure, but, lo and behold, they voted me in.

Even in the fold, however, I kept my distance. As I recall, I didn’t participate in events other than the parties and didn’t become close friends with any of my fellow Podiceps.

After graduation, I never looked back and rarely thought about the Podiceps…until earlier this year.

**

One of our 27 founding members — a retired general with the Kentucky National Guard — came up with the idea of having a Podiceps reunion in conjunction with the Bellarmine reunion. He began sending out group emails, and the idea immediately took root. In an Easter Sunday conference call, it was decided that we’d have a Podiceps reunion dinner after the official Bellarmine “welcome” reception.

As the weeks passed and plans firmed up, I got increasingly excited about the prospect of the Podiceps reunion. Even though I had been just a marginal member, I found myself thrilled that I had been a part of this group within a group. A half century after the fact, my sense of identity as a member of the Podiceps was swelling.

At the same time, I was also eager to redeem myself with at least some of the 27 founding members of the Podiceps and show them I had changed, that I had shed the inflated sense of self-importance I lugged around back then.

The Friday night Podiceps dinner took place at the Louisville Boat Club, where the retired general is a member. It was a wonderful event, with several former leaders of the group speaking about their memories of the Podiceps and why being a member had been special to them.

One of the speakers was Mike Nabicht, who was Podiceps president when I became a member. Mike was three years older than the rest of us, owing to the fact he didn’t start college straight out of high school. All of us looked up to Mike because he was extremely intelligent, had great organizational skills and was blessed with premature maturity. I had not been close with Mike in college but had always recognized and respected his level of maturity and knew he was the essential bonding agent for the entire group. Without him, we would have been far less of an organization than we were.

Friday night, I sat at a table with Mike and his wife Mary Jane but didn’t get a chance to talk to him because he was on the other side of the table.

The next day, though, in passing before taking our seats at the Bellarmine reunion dinner on campus, he said, “Let’s talk.” I was flattered that he wanted to talk to me and, although we were at different tables, I determined to seek him out during the course of the evening.

When I saw he was free later, I pulled up a chair, and we began talking. He told me about his main health problems — including an arthritic spine, which limits his mobility — and about his career as owner-operator of a company that produced religious educational films. His most significant production was a film about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was later awarded The Bellarmine Medal, the school’s highest award.

But Mike didn’t do all the talking. He asked me about my career and family, and I told him about Patty (who couldn’t make the trip) and her business producing liturgical garments and about our children Brooks and Charlie.

The next morning, Sunday, we talked at length again, just he and I, at a reunion brunch. That conversation got more personal, and at one point he noted that I had been something of a fringe member of the Podiceps. “You seemed kind of angry,” he said. I readily acknowledged that and said, “Chip on the shoulder.”

“Yes,” Mike said, “that was it…But you’re different now. You’ve changed.”

Mike Nabicht (right), his wife Mary Jane and another Podiceps member, Vinnie Linares

On Sunday night, the retired general and his wife hosted a closing party at their home for the Podiceps and their spouses — those who had come, anyway. Once again, Mike and I talked one on one before heading to different tables with our plates of lasagna. As the sun set on an unusually cool June evening, we chatted on the deck, happy to be in each other’s company one final time before wrapping up a special weekend and resuming our everyday lives.

As I was leaving, I walked into the dining room, where a group of six or seven people were sitting and talking. Mike was among them.

“So long, fellow Podiceps,” I said. “It’s been great being with you.”

They smiled and waved. As I started for the front door, Mike pointed at me and, with a big smile, said, “You’re a better person than you were in college!”

I tell you, I left that party walking on air.

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