Was It Really That Long Ago?
June 11, 2009 by Chip Wood
It was not a moment to make one feel young. I was seated behind the seniors at this year’s graduation of my former high school — in a section reserved for the “golden graduates.” That is, those of us who had received our diplomas 50 years earlier.
It didn’t seem possible that five decades had passed since I myself had heard my name called and walked down the aisle to receive my diploma. As I returned to my seat on that June weekend in 1959, I cast a glance at the oldsters sitting behind me. It never occurred to me that one day I would be sitting where they were. But last Friday morning there I was, with smiling classmates from that long-ago time on either side of me.
The high school I had been fortunate enough to attend was (and is) an extraordinarily beautiful place. If you are ever in suburban Detroit with a few hours to spare, I urge you to visit the Cranbrook-Kingswood campus in Bloomfield Hills. Among the properties in the gorgeously landscaped 360 acres is an art institute, a science museum, a pastoral retreat, and five schools: an elementary school, two middle schools, and two upper schools, one for young men and the other for young women. About half the students in the upper schools are boarding students, as was I.
When I was there, Cranbrook Preparatory School for Boys, as it was called then, was exclusively male. Young ladies attended Kingswood School on the other side of the campus and were as well-protected from our attentions as a coterie of stern matrons could make them.
We had to attend chapel every morning, wear a coat and tie to class, and were expected, always and everywhere, to behave like young gentlemen. Of course we weren’t. Most of us thought of ourselves as mischievous hellions and took delight in bending the rules whenever and wherever we could.
Today, while classes are largely co-ed, graduation exercises are still firmly divided by sex. The boys’ commencement exercises took place in the morning at Christ Church Cranbrook; the girls’ in the afternoon. Or should I be more politically correct and say “the young men’s commencement” and “the young ladies’”?
Our commencement speaker was Bill Prady, Cranbrook class of ’74. In case you don’t recognize the name, I’m sure you’ll recognize his latest creation — the hit television show, “The Big Bang Theory.” Bill got his start in television writing for Jim Henson and the Muppets and his ability to get a laugh was clear from the start. He expressed his surprise that here he was, 35 years after graduation, and he had to prepare yet another paper for graduation.
Bill began by advising the graduates, “Good luck. That’s it; that’s all I’ve got.” And he ended with the admonition that if they forgot everything else he said, remember two words: “Be kind.” In between was a lot of sage advice on how to live, what to expect, and the real measure of success. If you’d like to hear his delightful advisory for yourself, his speech is available as an audio link on the Cranbrook website at .http://schools.cranbrook.edu/podium/tools/
I don’t remember who spoke at our graduation, some fifty years earlier. None of my classmates did, either. But we all remembered the two songs we sung; they had been a staple of every graduation since the first one, back in 1931. And at this graduation, 50 years hence, we once again raised our voices high.
The first song is called “Forty Years On.” It was written in 1872 for Harrow School, one of the most famous of the English “public” (i.e., private) boarding schools. No wonder that it was adopted many years ago by Cranbrook, which was carefully planned and designed to duplicate the English boarding-school experience. Yes, Harry Potter would be quite at home at Cranbrook.
Here’s the first verse:
Forty years on, when afar and asunder,
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back, and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then, it may be, there will often come o’er you,
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song —
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.
Yes, indeed, while sitting there behind today’s smiling, cheerful, optimistic graduates, it was definitely true that “visions of boyhood” floated before me. I’m sure every other golden grad felt the same way.
But it was the final stanza that brought home to me how large was the gap between the Chip Wood who left Cranbrook in June 1959 and the one who returned there this past weekend:
Forty years on, growing older and older,
Shorter in wind, as in memory long,
Feeble of foot, and rheumatic of shoulder,
What will it help you that once you were strong?
God give us bases to guard or beleaguer,
Games to play out, whether earnest or fun;
Fights for the fearless, and goals for the eager,
Twenty, and thirty, and forty years on!
And fifty years too, I hasten to add. Part of me wants to shout, Hey, I’m not that old, darn it! But it’s hard to tell yourself that you look, feel, and act like a youngster when you’re attending the 50th reunion of your high-school class.
For all of you who are celebrating a graduation of some kind this month — whether it be child, grandchild, or your own reunion of however many years — I hope you too have much to remember with pleasure and with pride. And that, like me, you still look forward to seeing what lays ahead, twenty, and thirty, and forty years on.
Dark Days in Detroit
Our drive from the Detroit airport to the northern suburbs took us past some of the most historic parts of the American car industry. It was impossible not to reflect on how the mighty have fallen, as stories of unemployment, foreclosures, federal rescues, and union victories filled the news.
The Obama Administration strong-armed Chrysler’s creditors into accepting a deal where the auto workers union was given 55% ownership of the company, while the secured creditors — who normally would have been first in line, in any non-political (i.e., following the law) bankruptcy — will have to be content with getting 29 cents on the dollar.
Some of the creditors are fighting back. They’ve appealed to the Supreme Court, charging that the agreement violates the law. The Court has put a temporary hold on proceedings, but no one gives the plaintiffs much of a chance of stopping the federal juggernaut.
The Chrysler agreement is a model of propriety compared to the government-brokered bankruptcy of General Motors, however. The biggest losers are those poor investors who bought GM’s bonds. Although they hold $27 billion in notes, all they’ll receive in the new set-up is a 10% stake in Government Motors.
Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers union, which is owed about $20 billion by GM, is being gifted with 17.9% of the company, plus $9 billion in taxpayer cash. As Barron’s Magazine noted, “Never has an American union done so well at the expense of shareholders and creditors.”
It’s easy to understand why the Obama Administration is engaging in such overt favoritism. Democrats know they have the unions to thank for their victories last November. Consider the numbers: Between 2000 and 2008, the UAW gave $23.7 million to the Democratic Party and its candidates. During the same crucial period, the once-powerful union gave $193,540 to Republican candidates. Anyone see a bit of a disparity here?
Fifty years ago, Detroit made cars we loved. But between union feather-bedding and government mandates (and yes, let’s be honest: a whole bunch of short-sighted stupidity on the part of auto execs), all of that changed. We began to disparage the cars Detroit made for us.
Meanwhile, a bunch of foreign car makers came to the U.S. They built their plants in the South, filled them with non-union labor, and began building cars the American consumer preferred. And Detroit was left further and further behind.
Ironically, when Ford, GM, and Chrysler could compete on a level playing field, most of the time they beat the competition. For years, the only place the Big Three have been profitable is outside this country. Ford and GM still make a ton of profits in Europe, Asia, and Latin American. But it will be a long, long time — if ever — before that is true in this country once again.
Forty years on brought a lot of changes to the American automobile industry. In the past year, little of it has been pretty, or fair, or even legal. Too bad. But as Bob Hope put it, “Thanks for the memories.”