I have a nostalgic streak in me which seems to be gaining influence as I age. There is more to be nostalgic about now than there was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. But volume of memory isn’t the only change. The memories themselves seem to have more meaning. Maybe I understand the past better now that I have some distance from it.
I was thinking those very thoughts this weekend as I drove onto the campus of the boarding school I attended from 1978 to 1981, which I currently serve as a trustee. Much has changed over the years. The campus is totally transformed. Not one of the three dorms that I inhabited as a student exists anymore. All have been torn down and replaced with admittedly superior structures. The Academic Center where I went to class is gone too, as is the dining hall. I asked to have a student take me on a tour of the campus so that I could understand the new facilities a bit better, but I am not really there for the buildings. Maybe I’m not even there for the students, at least not the current ones.
It’s the presence of my old classmates I feel most profoundly in that place, of our victories large and small, our misadventures and regrets, our humor, our hopes, our fears and our friendships. Those classmates are not with me, of course, as I attend meetings and plan for the future of our school, but they are still present in my thoughts, eternal reminders of the “who” of my service, and maybe even the “how.” I know what the school did for us.
But my memories are not without bias nor are they patient. They come in waves as I pass a familiar spot or spy a group of students sharing a moment together. And they gravitate with disconcerting energy to those people I loved most and particularly to one classmate, Jay Niles. Jay was my roommate, my captain on the soccer team, a linemate on the hockey team, a groomsman at my wedding, a fishing buddy for nearly 40 years, and one of the best, most gracious, most resourceful people I have ever had the privilege to know. Among his many memorable accomplishments at Westminster was a quasi-prank that he accomplished singlehandedly during the fall of our senior year. For several nights in succession prior to the big soccer game with Avon, Jay would leave the room at midnight and be gone for hours. He was a prefect and leaving at that hour was a no-no, but Jay seemed unfazed by the risk. All he kept saying to me when I asked what he was doing was, “You’ll see.”
The following Saturday we trotted onto the pitch and found ourselves transfixed by a massive wooden wall twice the size of a soccer goal and several feet taller adjacent to the field, adorned with the school seal and a huge “W.” In just over a week, Jay had transformed an old backboard using additional lumber, cement footings, black and gold paint, and an artist’s eye for design into a beacon of energy and school spirit. That sign literally pulsed with power. Avon didn’t stand a chance. Jay scored the first goal in a 4-0 romp. Our opponents were doomed from the start.
Fittingly, Jay became an entrepreneur as an adult—conceiving everything from child-safe insect repellent (fittingly called Skedaddle) to innovative education financing tools to various apparel companies to renewable energy solutions. He reveled in building things, friendships included, though his greatest pride he reserved for his wonderful family. Two of his children ultimately attended Westminster as well, following a trail their father blazed forty years ago. But Jay, himself, can’t go back to Westminster anymore, at least not like I can.
Kidney cancer took him 18 months ago, the summer before his youngest daughter began her senior year at the School. He was always the best of us when we were in school, and he was no less great as he battled for his life. His remarkable humor, his unfailing generosity, his unflappable resolve, and his unprecedented capacity for love were on perpetual display. To borrow from Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It, even in sickness “he was beautiful.”
Maybe that is why it is strangely reassuring to me to return to that campus. Because Jay in a certain form is still there. The essayist Brian Doyle captured this very phenomenon in a piece he wrote about his brother, “The breath and laughter and tears and furies and despairs and thrills and epiphanies of children on a campus season the very air.”
And so I breathe Jay in each time I return to that campus, savoring the chance to be in his gentle company again, to remember, and to pay it forward as best I can. In such ways nostalgia becomes oxygen, giving life to what was and energy to what will be.