The Class of ‘74

By Daniel D. Covell

When someone learns that I’ve recently completed the manuscript for my book on the history of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), often he or she will ask, “How long were you working on it?” “Since August of 1969,” I reply, only slightly in jest. I don’t remember the precise date, but the image of the moment I began is clear to me. After a decade of success as a high school baseball and football coach at Orono High School, my dad Wally Covell moved the family to Waterville to become assistant football and assistant baseball coach at Colby (yes, back then NESCAC coaches coached multiple sports, as well as taught PE classes). In the midst of football preseason double-sessions, I arrived at the front of Colby’s old and now departed (then-brand new and state of the art) field house, and sitting on one of the benches attached to the Brutalist concrete slab near the front entrance, gathering himself after a sweaty day in the traces, was 6’6”, 235-pound offensive tackle Luthene “Luke” Kimball, from Cape Cod. Luke was big by late ‘60’s standards, and gigantic to me. I’m told I’d been going to my dad’s practices and games since birth, but have no clear recollections of any such moments until this one, when Luke said “Hi” to me. I’m not sure what I said in return, probably nothing, as I was in awe. By all accounts, Luke, who died too young from pancreatic cancer in 2004, was a great teammate and a better guy, and uniquely gifted to serve as an effective bouncer at parties at his fraternity. 

That moment began my association with Colby, its athletics and the Class of 1974, who arrived on Mayflower Hill the same time I did. Over the next dozen years, I would spend innumerable hours at practices and games, travelling on game road trips across New England, to New York, and to Florida (my first air flight was with my dad and the Colby baseball team on its spring break training trip in 1973), and sitting in on coaches’ meetings and recruiting visits. I kept the scorebook for baseball when my dad became head coach (there was no opportunity to do so before that, as any Mules baseballer of this era knows that former head coach John Winkin kept the book when he was at the helm). To this day the coldest I’ve ever been in my life was at the conclusion of a doubleheader at Trinity in the mid-1970s, sitting on an unsheltered bench on a frosty, blustery day in early April. It was my own personal “Ice Bowl” where I couldn’t move my frozen fingers to finish scoring. After games, I called in the game stories to the local newspapers, occasionally having to make up opposing player’s first names if they weren’t on the lineup card. Scores of my father’s players spent time at our house laughing, eating, and telling stories. Wins were celebrated, losses were mourned. Assistant coaches lived in our finished basement while another lived across the street. In short, there was no distinction between the goings-on associated with Colby athletics and our family. To wit, my two sisters are each married to former Colby athletes, both members of the Class of ’74, and both had played for my dad, a sort of tryout for things later in life. They seem to have made the cut, as they are both still with my two sisters.

Occasionally, when I visit my sister Schari’s home on Highland Avenue in Waterville – one she and her husband Mike Roy purchased from former Colby French prof Guy Filosof – I’ll wander up to Mike’s office space, go to the bookshelf, and pull out his copy of the Oracle, the Colby yearbook. Since both my parents were educators, looking at old yearbooks connected to our family’s schooling and employment had always been a pastime in our household. My siblings and I would spend hours poring over editions from the 1950’s and 1960’s: the Lewiston High School Folio, the University of Maine Prism, the Orono High School Crimson Crier, and the Edward Little High School Oracle (by coincidence). These were eight-and-a-half-inch by 11-inch, one-inch-thick bound time-travel treasure maps, leading us back to specifics times and places of connection if not involvement. Yearbooks seem to be far less important today, as back then in those distinctly analog times these volumes were just about the only permanent record available for one not only to glimpse into the past, but also actually to feel it. The Prism was especially powerful in this sense, as the stout pages on which the content was printed were redolent with the sulfurous vapors that were the byproduct of the papermaking process. It was if the pages had been delivered fresh off the rollers from Penobscot Chemical Fiber mill in Old Town, run through the printing process, and delivered to my dad direct from pulp dryer with the pages still moist. Marcel Proust had his madeleines; we had the Prism. Anyone who grew up near a paper mill in Maine back would have felt that same emotional pang of recognition.

There is much about the Colby Oracle that makes it distinctly a product of its time – that fuzzy transition period sandwiched between the counterculture influences of the ‘60s and the social and economic rejoinders of the ‘70s. It was after Woodstock, during Vietnam (Kent State had occurred toward the end of their first-year spring term), and before the full-on crash and turmoil of Watergate. The design of the yearbook contains no text other than spare captions identifying photo subjects and a few snippets of poetry and prose from some of the canon of Ivy Stylish scribes (e.g., E.B. White, E.A. Robinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau – who was having a rebirth moment thanks to the actions of the period’s back-to-the-land acolytes). As a result, the photos are left to tell the entire story, allowing viewers of today to focus undistracted on the images and to slip back in time to join these subjects as unseen observers.

While the young are often thought of as endlessly focusing on the current and the immediate future, the nostalgia they express can be surprisingly potent, especially so when faced with one of their first benchmark stage-in-life transition moments. Along with its sparse design ethos, the Oracle was interspersed with old-timey photos and prints likely gleaned from the college archives. The cover features an etching of one of the buildings from Colby’s original campus in downtown Waterville – Memorial Hall – the first campus building built after the Civil War. Memorial Hall housed the college’s library and was located adjacent to what is still College Avenue in Waterville. A brick structure adorned with stone features, the main entrance to which was placed in a central tower, the building faced south on the campus plot that sat between College Avenue and the Kennebec River. A classic “college fence” – a wooden split rail version – stands between the building’s lawn and a campus path, on which several clusters of passersby amble about, taking in the clement and agreeable surroundings. When no one offered to buy the building once Colby’s campus adjourned to Mayflower Hill, Memorial Hall was torn down in 1966, three years before the Class of ’74 made its way to the new campus. 

The Oracle contained almost no photos of the world beyond Mayflower Hill, an eschewing of references to the world that had birthed the Class of ‘74 and was now awaiting their return. The few shots that did show life beyond campus were idyllic in nature: Hikers traversing granite mountains; shots of unpeopled forests and beaches. Perhaps the nostalgia, this focus on the past with a very limited view of the present, was unsurprising given that including the present would have meant scenes of burning inner cities, student protests or scorched Southeast Asian jungles. Perhaps it was some form of recognition of the impermanence of the college experience, one with a definite beginning and hard ending, both in a specific time and place, finite and discreet but temporary and never to be recreated. The choice of poems and visual images conveyed that sense of nostalgia the young often carry stronger than we old folk would assume. Perhaps it is because their lives are full of landmarks crowded so closely together, happening one after another, one that we elders have to crane our necks back in time to see. 

The photos of students and faculty are the most evocative to us Ivy Stylers. All in black and white, and none is a studio portrait: All are candids, some interiors shots, some taken outside. The students’ clothing trended unisex, with men and women both wearing jeans, crew necks sweaters and flannel shirts; nearly all featured long hair, with women parting theirs in the middle. The faculty, most of whom were captured toiling in their offices, wore traditional Ivy Style items with hints of ‘60s flourishes, such as multi-striped shirts and ties widening to five inches in some cases. Some smoked pipes, others cigarettes. There were pages for fraternities and sororities, with action shots of students taking healthy pulls from wine skins and chugging from cans of Schlitz beer. The athletics team pages took up a good chunk of the book as well, but no captions accompanied team photos nor were ledgers of won-loss records listed. Football players wore neckrolls, basketball players wore short shorts, and baseball was in the midst of a curious period where all players wore helmets (sans ear flaps) both in the field and at the plate; a handful of women’s sports teams (e.g., basketball, field hockey, gymnastics, ice hockey – one of the country’s first, skiing, badminton) and were also acknowledged. 

In one shot of football action against Bowdoin at Brunswick (a 28-20 Polar Bear win where Colby running back Peter Gorniewicz would set the New England small college record for yards gained in a career – over 3,000 to that point), shows my Class of ’74 brother-in-law, Don Joseph, kneeling with his helmet off, eye black slashed across his face, squinting into the sunlight at the action on the field, wearing the classic Mules road uniforms that were an adaptation of those worn by the Green Bay Packers (blue in placer of green and silver in place of gold), slapping on the helmets the blue horseshoe borrowed from the Baltimore Colts for good measure. A game story in the campus newspaper, the Echo – penned by classmate and baseball reliever Dan Rappaport – indicated that Gorniewicz gained 196 yards on 40 carries and passed for a TD that day. Don’s career was mostly as blocking fullback, so any yards Peter gained were usually behind DJ. 

But to me, the senior photos in the Oracle were the most compelling and surprisingly familiar, echoing those in my Bowdoin senior yearbook – the Bugle – 12 years hence. In ’74 there were multiple shots of subjects peering around or through a coppice of trees, or sitting on stone or split rail fences, or holding cats, or standing on beaches – some in winter, some in summer. Of course, there were a few shots in the Oracle that wouldn’t have passed muster in the more staid and protected era of the Bugle: An image of a women lying naked photographed from behind, centered directly on the divide in her derriere; another of six grinning seniors (three male, three female) lying in a bed with the covers pulled up to their collective chins (perhaps a take-off on the popular 1969 film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about the doings of a pair of married Californian swingers).

But to me, the most poignant senior pics were the of the four wearing their Colby “C” letter jackets. Three of the guys I didn’t know, and one I did: Gary Millen. The shot of Gary was the best by far. He sits on the edge of the one of the well-worn and slightly warped wooden benches on the west (the visitor’s) side of Seaverns Field, legs cross and extended in front of him, resting his elbows on the top slat of the bench’s back rest, peering toward the campus to the south, a baseball hat shielding his eyes from the low slant of an early spring or late fall sun. The wooden visiting stands rise up behind him and the Quonset-style Building and Grounds facility squats beyond it in the distance.

The Colby letter jacket didn’t feature royal blue and silver like the football uniforms did (nor yellow, as some Colby uniforms back then had incorporated as an accent color), but rather  was a wool navy body, grey wool sleeves with ribbed collar and cuffs – navy with two grey stripes, and grey cotton grey lining with pockets to allow it to be worn inside-out. A grey chenille block “C” was sewn on the wearer’s left chest, with navy metal snaps for closure. Somehow, one of these jackets ended up in the closet in our house on Roosevelt Avenue. My father’s letter jacket from the University of Maine was also in there, and we kids would wear them both from time to time. Slipping these on gave one the feeling of great worth, a sort of aura of power, the chance to become something I had yet to achieve but maybe someday could. 

I earned two varsity letters playing football at Bowdoin, and upon earning the second, I was given not a jacket but a letter sweater – and they were given, we did not pay for them. The item was a substantial black wool crewneck with a white block “B” knit , not sewn on after the fact but knit directly into weave. While I still have mine, a direct-contact wool aversion means I’ve worn it only a handful of times. These days it is worn mostly by my wife Pam. Perhaps I should dig it out and start wearing it, but even when I got it, strangely the one I earned never had the power of the “C” jacket I commandeered. In my Bowdoin yearbook only a few senior pictures feature the letter sweater, and those who did were mostly women. Maybe it was a signal of an evolving equity with men’s sports, as by 1986 every men’s team had a women’s equivalent (except for wrestling and football). Maybe the women who chose to wear their sweaters never had their high school moment and felt more strongly about what their collegiate athletics experience meant.

Next to the Bowdoin game photo of DJ, the editors chose to place a quote from E.A. Robinson’s poem, “The Town Down the River.” It read: “Said the Watcher by the Way / to the fiery folk that hastened, / To the loud and the unchastened, / “You are strong, I see, to-day. / Strength and hope may lead you / to the journey’s end, – / Each to be the other’s friend / If the Town should fail to need you.” The poem cited was the one for which the collection was entitled, and the lines recorded were in the first verse of the second stanza. The poem contained four stanzas in all, each of which were collections of four verses of eight lines, most of which were seven counts per line. Edwin Arlington Robinson, was a Maine native from Head Tide, near Whitefield in Lincoln County, an hour or so drive due south. He grew up in Gardiner, on the west bank of the Kennebec, the same side as that river as Waterville. As noted, Colby’s campus was once nestled close to that same river, before the college pulled up stakes and decamped to Mayflower Hill around the time the Class of ’74 came into this world. “It may come to the notice of our posterity (and then again it may not),” wrote Robert Frost in his introduction to another series of Robinson’s poems, King Jasper, “that this, our age, ran wild in the quest of new ways to be new. … Robinson stayed content with the old-fashioned ways to be new.” 

In his 2007 biography of Robinson, Scott Donaldson stated that at the time of his death in 1935, Robinson “reigned as the nation’s leading poet.” He won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize awarded for poetry, but other than a “flurry of attention during his centenary in 1969” – the year the Class of ’74 enrolled, “Robinson’s reputation had declined” over the subsequent decades. “Robinson remained devoted all his life to traditional forms. His poetry on the page came to look almost old-fashioned in its use of meter and rhyme,” wrote Donaldson, noting also that when Robinson wrote, “it was in a way manifestly his own … His best works look closely at the people around him, exploring for secrets within.” Poet and writer Archibald MacLeish, mostly recognized for his modernists approaches to writing, observed in ’69 that Robinson’s voice, a tone “touched by irony, suggests truths about his characters (and ourselves) that we almost but don’t quite recognize.” “We don’t despair – not quite – and neither does Robinson,” MacLeish commented. “His is the after voice, the evening voice, and … we know the thing it means.”

Perhaps the centenary had stirred something amongst Colby’s English faculty or a few English majors, but whatever the case the inclusion of the lines from “The Town Down the River” were serendipitous. Perhaps it was more than serendipity, since Colby and the Miller Library have been home to Robinson’s collected letter and personal library since as early as 1941, and today there are multiple boxes and hundreds of linear feet contained in the trove. 

The final verse of the poem’s second stanza reads “Not in vain have you delayed us / though the River still be calling / Through the twilight that is falling / And the Town be still so far. / By the whirlwind of your wisdom / League are lifted as leaves are; / But a king without a kingdom / Fails us, who have come so far.” The poem’s final stanza closes with this verse: “In the name of all created, / Let us hear no more, my brothers; / Are we older than all others? / Are the planets in our way?” – / “Hark,” said one; “I hear the River, / Calling always night and day,” – / “Forward then! The lights are shining,” / said the Watcher by the Way.”

Donaldson tells us that the town in the poem was New York, a place where Robinson had spent much of his time each year. He also revealed that Robinson was well-loved by his friends. “Most great artists are great only in their art,” one of them observed, but thought of Robinson as the best man he had ever known. One critic saw Robinson as “a man almost without a biography who became a legend to his friends.” In many ways, Gary Millen fit this same description. Gary had been a regular at our house on Roosevelt Avenue, and had done one of his Jan Plan placements with the Head Start program my mother had started upon our arrival in Waterville, leading him to his long career in secondary education. While Gary also played football, he earned his letter through his baseball participation, serving as the quintessential crafty lefty who could spot his offerings with uncanny accuracy, and tossed a no-hitter in his first college start, at home against North Adams State. Baseball veterans know that Coombs Field was hardly a pitcher’s paradise, especially for lefty pitchers when the spring winds formed a jet stream out to left field, supplying additional loft and length to balls off the bats of righty hitters. Gary was a member of Delta Upsilon – a baseball house mostly – and didn’t drink. “Gary was old-fashioned in a lot of ways,” said my brother-in-law Mike Roy, a DU brother and fellow pitcher on the Mule teams of the era. When I reminded Mike about Gary’s senior photo with his letter jacket, he was not surprised. “He would have wanted to be seen wearing it. He was reliable, solid and could always be counted on to do the right thing.” Maybe wearing a letter jacket wasn’t cool in 1974; maybe, as Mike said, it was “too much of a high school thing.” But that seemed to fit Gary, as he when he left Colby he would eventually settle in as a coach and teacher at Kennett High School in New Hampshire, and died while out for a run in 2006, two years after his 30th reunion.

When one looks at the Oracle today, and reflects on the life led by Gary Millen and many others from the Class of ‘74, one can feel stronger tones of mortality in the Robinson poem. But from the perspective of the Class of ‘74 in the final semester of their final undergrad year, Robinson’s words carried the import and glint of possibilities yet known. Had Gary ever been tempted to leave Kennett for some town by the river, or some other place that was calling night and day? Of course he was well loved and well respected by the legions of students and players with whom he had contact. But to many, his life would have seemed unremarkable: A young man who played football and baseball and majored in history in college who took a coaching and teaching job at a high school in New Hampshire after graduation. Once there he never left, and died too young. Perhaps the river about which Robinson wrote is not some far-away metropolis full of twinkling lights, but rather is a place and station where our best destiny lay, a place where wearing one’s college letter jacket would never be seen as uncool. That is what I choose to believe Robinson meant. Forward then! The lights are shining. And don’t forget your letter jacket.