You can go home again. Despite the American writer Thomas Wolfe’s advice to the contrary in his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, I went back to the US for the first time in a decade this month.
The occasion was Villanova University’s Reunion Weekend where I attended the 50th reunion of the Class of 1966 on the affluent Main Line 20 kilometres from centre-city Philadelphia. There were more than a hundred alumni from our class – mostly healthy septuagenarians – and hundreds more in class parties ending in the years 1 and 6, from 1956 to 2011, celebrating the good old days at Villanova and the national basketball championship won by the Wildcats in March.
It was quite a trip from Sydney to my hometown of Philly. After years of travelling on an Australian passport, I arrived in Los Angeles on the first leg of the journey to go through customs on my US passport. The Homeland Security agent looked at my photo, then me – a slimmer version than the picture — and said: “Welcome back home.” It was a far cry from the days when customs officials looked askance at my Aussie passport. It gave me a warm feeling to be welcomed home again.
I had decided to ask everyone I met on the trip what they thought about Donald Trump. Staying with friends in northeast Pennsylvania, I noticed a few Trump yard signs on neighbouring lawns, and a particularly nasty one: “Hillary for Prison 2016.” I felt better when all nine people at dinner party two nights later said they’d never vote for Trump. Hallelujah!
Then came the first night for the Class of 66 festivities: A welcome back reception at Picotte Hall at Dundale, a former private mansion now a venue for alumni and generous donors. It makes a McMansion look like a shack. The food and grog were plentiful, making it easy to steer the conversation toward politics. My first interviews were with three African-American bartenders; all of whom were definitely not fans of Donald Trump: “He may kill us all in a war. He’s no president. He’s dangerous,” said one. The suggestion was echoed by all three – none had a good word for the Donald, who once described a black man at a California rally as “my African-American.” He couldn’t understand why people thought he was racist. There are also fears that the British vote to leave the European Union because of feelings of disillusionment with governments will spread to the US given Donald Trump’s attacks on politicians and globalisation. In small-town America, where manufacturing jobs are disappearing, Trump is a hero. A manufacturing worker in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, about 60 kilometres from Philadelphia, John Keyser, who usually votes for the Democrats, told the New York Times this month: “I like him because he is to the point, and it’s time for a change. I think he’s got the oomph to rattle some cages.”
Later that evening, I asked an old friend, Steve Freind, the president of the student body for part of the year in 1966 (more on that later), and a former Republican representative for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, if he would vote for Trump. “Yes,” was his quick reply. “Why?” I asked. “I’m not going to vote for that (a rude word referring to Hillary. Steve doesn’t like her!).” Steve told me at the 40th reunion he didn’t like George W. Bush because he refused to demand that the United Arab Emirates should stop looking after the security of American ports and “his handling of Hurricane Katrina was atrocious.” He was just one of many alumni I talked to then who were against Bush; most because of Dubya’s involvement in the war against Iraq. In a piece in The Bulletin magazine in December 2006, I wrote: “I was proud of my fellow alumni. Despite their obviously comfortable lives, they were willing to sound an echo against George W. Bush and his war in Iraq.”
Ten years later the echo ringing around the halls of Villanova was against Hillary Clinton. A Villanova nursing graduate (they are the best), Lorraine (Farino) Brewer, told me at the reunion picnic: “Anybody but Hillary.” There was a fair bit of that going around. When I asked the Chair of the Class Committee, S. Curtis Seifert, if he was going to vote for Trump, he said “Yes” immediately. “I don’t like politicians and Donald Trump is not a politician.” Rich Galli, who’s an attorney in suburban Philadelphia, said: “I have to vote for Donald Trump. He’ll scare the foreign leaders and he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.” Joe McCauley, a retired bank vice-president, was standing next to his wife when I asked if he would vote for Trump: “My wife would kill me. I’m not going to vote, I think. I don’t think I’ll want to vote for Trump and I can’t vote for Hillary.”
Another old friend, Tom Sproul, who was one of my flatmates in the New Jersey beach resort of Wildwood in the mid-sixties, surprised me with his reply: “Who else am I going to vote for? I’m not going to vote for Hillary. She’s terrible on foreign policy.” An alumnus standing nearby chimed in: “I can’t stand listening to her.”
(Twitter Photo above of Wildcats at Reunion Picnic from Left: Eric Paschall, Nasir Reynolds and Kris Jenkins)
Some of the most interesting comments about Trump came from the Banmiller twins. Brian was a student government vice-president and Dave was also involved in student government and a member of Gamma Phi, the business honour fraternity. Dave now lives in Kingston, and is a former CEO of Jamaica Airlines. Dave said he met Trump at his house for lunch. Was he a good host? “Not really, he was arrogant and not very friendly. And I was CEO of Pan Am at the time.” I pressed him about whether he’d vote for Trump: “Well, I wanted to get Mitt Romney elected.” He thought Romney was a much better businessman than Trump – an opinion backed up in an article in a recent New York Times magazine by Adam Davidson: “Romney was an undeniable superstar in the field of private equity, and former business associates praised him as someone who could see a business problem more clearly than others and create powerful, profitable solutions. The professional biography of Trump, by contrast – though the man is clearly exceptional at something – hardly inspired such confidence.” I asked Dave again if he’d vote for Trump and he repeated he wished Romney would have run for president. He wouldn’t say for certain if he’d vote for him, but it seems likely: “I just wish Donald would tone it down a bit.”
Brother Brian had a similar response: “I don’t know who I’m going to vote for. He (Trump) should just shut up.” Brian is a long-time broadcaster and is now working for CBS. As a former business reporter at Fox News, he was surprised by the animosity towards Fox at CBS. He admitted Fox News was biased. I could have told him that. On a more serious note, I had written ten years ago about the battle between the well-to-do Tweeds, led by the Banmillers, and the down-to-earth Dirtballs, guided by Steve Freind et al (including me), during our senior year. It was a college brouhaha which saw Frank Eck elected student body president for half a year and Freind for the other half. A successful lawyer in Richmond Virginia, Frank died of motor neurone disease (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease in the US) in 2011. Brian and Dave took Frank for a cruise on the Queen Mary 2, including 24 members of both families in July. Brian wrote at the time: “He had a great time … then I visited Frank at his farm in early August. He died two weeks later. It was a blessing. He had lost total control of everything except his mind. Very sad.” Brian said later that Frank told him after a Mass on board the Queen Mary that he felt like the “luckiest man on the face of the earth,” quoting Lou Gehrig at his emotional farewell at Yankee Stadium. I told Brian and Dave at the reunion the Tweed-Dirtball feud was officially over: “The way you looked after Frank … it was just the best thing …”
I guess you can say that’s what friends are for. Later during the trip, I was thinking more about mates than I was thinking about Donald Trump. The gala dinner was a night to remember friends, with silver balloons made up with the class year on them, a clip of the Kris Jenkins basket that won a championship, a great band, Soul Patch Philly, and the university president, the Rev Peter Donohue, OSA, singing “New York New York.” (The photo at the top shows from left: Bill McCloskey, Bill Dolon, Tom Krause, Betty Keech & Jim Morgan. The photo below shows me hanging on to the ’66 balloon at the Keech house.)
Fifty years on, my fellow alumni and their partners are still my friends: Jim and Roz Morgan, Tom and Betty Keech, Bill and Nancy McCloskey, Bill Dolon and Larrie Majors and Ron and Eileen Javers (Ron and Eileen weren’t at the reunion. I stayed with them the following week; their hospitality like my other friends was huge) and my best mate from my days in New York, James McCausland, fellow journalist and co-screenwriter of the first Mad Max film, who took me to Sydney as his photographer on an Israeli company freighter 45 years ago. He’s beaten cancer, but has severe back pain and I only wish I could wave a magic wand and make it disappear. He has a saint for a wife, Maureen, a former nurse and now lawyer, who loves him and cares for him. He came to northeast Pennsylvania from Staten Island to stay with the Morgans for a few days, and it was great to see him. I just hope he can make it to his daughter’s wedding later this year. I would wave the wand again to send him and Maureen to Melbourne first class on Qantas. I wish I could bring back my good friend Carol (Egan) McKeon, who died a few years ago. She and Dr Betty Keech were very close, having graduated with nursing degrees in 1966. Carol was wonderfully brilliant, so too was the president of our class, Jimmy Griffin, who died of cancer only a year after he graduated from Villanova. He could easily have become president of the United States, and I really believe that. His wife Ann Meyers has just established a Villanova scholarship in his name so that he won’t be forgotten. As long as someone from the Class of 1966 is still alive he won’t be forgotten. I wish we could bring him back, too. I believe in miracles, but this is a bridge too far.
Speaking of miracles, I hope Hillary Clinton gets the nomination; the FBI gets off its bum and admits it doesn’t have enough to indict her over email server allegations; she beats Donald Trump soundly in the presidential election, and Villanova repeats as NCAA basketball champions in 2017. Before I end this long-form post, I should put in a plug for my alma mater. Villanova is known for its sporting prowess: basketball and track and field come to mind immediately, but it also has excellent academic credentials. As Father Donohue mentioned in his address to the Class Dinner, Villanova is now a doctoral university and gone from a regional to a national status, with 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in its six colleges. Bloomberg Businessweek has designated Villanova as the number one business undergraduate university in the US, and the US News and World Report has consistently ranked Villanova among the top ten undergraduate engineering schools in the country.
There were two moments during the dinner when I choked up a bit: the singing of God Bless America and the school anthem at the end. God Bless America because everybody sang it loudly and passionately, and the school song because it brought back many memories:
Loyal heirs of Villanova
Sing a hymn of praise
To our dear old ALMA MATER
And our College days.
Donald Trump talks about making America great again. Well, Donald, if you were at the Villanova Room at the Connelly Centre on the night of June 10, you would have realised that America is still great and you’d need to find a new slogan for your hat. But one thing I’ve learned is that you can go home again. As the 20th Century US clergyman and author, Gerald Stanley Lee, once said: “America is a tune. It must be sung together.”
That’s a tune you should learn, Mr Trump.