Our Willamette Class of 1973, Our 50th Year Reunion

A message from the Class of 1973 by Ron Bemis and Guy Stephenson

It was a long time coming and now a long time ago … and fondly remembered. “There are no goodbyes …”

In August of 1969, we were less than three months graduated from high school. Teary-eyed parents (when would they leave?) dropped us off at Willamette University, leaving us to navigate Freshman Camp at Silver Creek Falls and an orientation week on the banks of the beautiful Mill Stream, to learn who our roommates would be, and in which residence we would spend the next nine months. Newfound friendships, independence, fun times, a stimulating student life, often interesting classes, and Willamette’s beautiful green campus with old brick buildings (drenched in 60 straight days of drizzly rain and clouds that first semester) provided a brand new world for our inquiring minds and youthful energy.

An unmatched mix of just over 300 students in our incoming class, mostly from the Northwest and from 32 states and 12 foreign countries in total, we were set in a quiet residential New England style campus across from the Oregon State Capitol building and led by President G. Herbert Smith in his 30th year, perhaps unready for us (as our first semester was his last).

From 1969 to 1973, we were introduced to experienced professors, some of whom were stunningly accomplished, and a new batch of professors, many still in their late 20s and early 30s, who opened new worlds for our study, exploration and interests. Free speech and open discourse were common in our classes and on campus, whether the topics were academic, social or political. We were exposed to a variety of differing perspectives, opinions and ideas as we aimed to be respectful, fair minded, truth seeking and critically thinking adults ready to tackle the world ahead. For many, our Class of 1973 was the transition point for Willamette and for ourselves, as we helped move the institution to accept new realities about its students in a changing world.

Meals in the dorms, brought to us by Saga Food Service, included blue and green ham, bowls of chili and spaghetti, and some nearly unidentifiable foods - but hey, there was ice cream on Saturdays! It was quite a change from mom’s meals and our previous home and school lives. In our Freshman year, visitation hours ended at 10:00 pm on weekdays and at midnight on weekends (well observed, of course) in our dorms reserved for men only and women only. Some had fold down beds, and what’s this, drawers that will hold ice (hmm)? Freshman Rush was in September for the sororities and fraternities. Other classmates were Independents. All influenced Willamette’s future.

Initially, the rules seemed much like high school but with the university as surrogate parents. No drinking, no smoking, no after hours visits (right), be home by midnight, a bonfire on a foggy Willamette Valley night, and a kegger or two (or more) for those 21 or older, of course. In our Freshman year, the Willamette Bulletin (perhaps unread or unclear to many students?) stated “The University expects from its students a high standard of Christian ideals both on and off campus. The use of tobacco on the campus is not permitted … possession or use of intoxicants is prohibited … Students … become liable for disciplinary action which may result in suspension or expulsion from the University (if) serving or drinking intoxicants at any function … (or) coming onto the campus or attending University functions while under the influence of an intoxicant … (or in) violation of any Oregon Law relating to intoxicating liquors.”

Except! All compressed into a few years in that era were the Summer of Love, Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Chicago, Woodstock, Moon Landings, Vietnam, the Draft, Kent State, Nixon, the Women’s Movement, Free Speech and more. All these events and their aftermath, from the dreaded Military Draft 2nd Lottery to the influential golden era of late-‘60s/early-‘70s rock and roll and musical hits, were part of our Willamette experience … and made change inevitable. Senator Wayne Morse spoke on campus about Vietnam, and there were anti-war and Vietnam Moratorium marches, the Watergate break-in, and a U.S. President resignation. On our Willamette campus, many advocated for and achieved open dorms, an end to dress codes, and fewer restrictions on students. A newly published Students' Critique of the professors and courses provided a controversial opportunity to evaluate our tuition of $1,360 a year, plus room, board and living expenses, which totaled about $11,500 over all four years ($95,000 in today’s dollars). In comparison, Willamette’s four year total today is $240,000 (about $150,000 after average financial aid). The Putnam University Center opened in early 1970 as we began our second semester, but the other major buildings added since then, including the big new sports complex, did not open until long after our graduation.

After an unsuccessful change in University President succession to Dr. Roger Fritz and, in our Junior year, the firing of Chaplain Phil Harder and resignation of Student Affairs VP Jerry Whipple, a kind and wise Interim President, Dr. James Corson, arrived for our Senior year to pick up the pieces.

Yet, even within our time of big transitions, some Willamette traditions were preserved. Freshman GLEE, the centerpiece of tradition and class competition, remained robust and energetic. For four years we were fortunate to have John West create music with wonder and John Welty march us with tireless energy. In Freshman year, organized by a (then) red-haired Freshman Glee manager and ten committee chair classmates, with judges that included Mark Hatfield and musician Don Ellis and the always suspenseful presentation of results by Professor Paul Trueblood (and later, by Buzz Yocum), our “Soul and Inspiration” placed third in probably the closest scoring in Glee history, with all classes separated by only 8 points. In our Sophomore year we moved up to second place, only 4 points behind the Seniors. And finally, in our Senior year, surging from last to first, we won it “on a journey, a sometimes lonely road.” Glee might have seemed an anachronism to a few, but for those who participated, it formed a life-long bond with each other and, for many, with the University. It was an amazing event year after year.

In music, the Freshman year was extended by six weeks for 80 lucky Choir and Band Ensemble students on a summer performing tour in Europe, an amazing first trip abroad for many. In theatre, we saw How to Succeed, Marriage of Figaro, and Tartuffe, among other plays, and in our Sophomore year we did the musical “Mame.” In our Senior year, the musicals were “The Boyfriend’ and ‘Jacques Brel,’ the trumpeter Doc Severinson performed, and our talented classmate John West presented a three hour extravaganza, j.w.p.!, of songs, dances, ensembles, and piano solos.

A photo of the 1973 glee poster 

The mandatory convocation forums had many great speakers, including Julian Bond (“The New Coalition”), Vance Packard (“The Urban Crisis”), Dr. John Searle (“Confrontation and Confusion on the American Campus”) and Buckminster Fuller. In later years, when no longer mandatory, the Speakers series included Senator Robert Packwood and even Country Joe Macdonald, who sang a truly obscene song, in addition to the Fish Cheer, Gimme an F! In our Senior year, the speakers included Senator Frank Church, actress Sally Struthers, comedian Tommy Smothers, and Senator Mark Hatfield on politics or plugging political candidates, as well as the renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who described a 'New Industrial State’ and predicted “we will all be saved from a dull life.” As seems to have happened.

Willamette’s motto was, and is, “Not unto ourselves only are we born.” So here we are now, celebrating our graduation 50 years later, as late-stage ‘baby boomers' who embraced our new Willamette friends, experiences and diplomas, entered into our adult lives, and made things happen.

With fond memories of college friends then and now, whether still living or since departed, as we “draw closer to our final destination," may you "tickle the love that made you laugh” and "watch you grow” every day and year … because ”there are no good-byes, so let no tears enter your eyes."

Willamette University

Alumni Engagement

Salem Campus

900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.
503-375-5304 voice
503-370-6830 fax

Back to Top