By Tom Robotham
Recently, I received a notice from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh that my graduating class would be among those honored during this year’s homecoming weekend. Until then, it hadn’t dawned on me that 2023 marks 45 years since I donned my cap and gown and marched down the aisle at the college’s Field House while the band played “Pomp and Circumstance.”
It’s hard to wrap my mind around that. After all, I remember watching homecoming parades when I was an undergrad and thinking that many of the alumni seemed ancient. And why not? People who graduated 45 years before I did were part of the class of 1933!
Yes, my college years were a very long time ago. And yet, to this day, if someone mentions Plattsburgh, my ears perk up.
The college there isn’t prestigious. My grades weren’t nearly good enough to get me into an elite school. In retrospect, though, I’m glad things played out as they did. My experience there was wonderful in every respect.
Part of the appeal was the location. The town of Plattsburgh—just 20 miles from the Canadian border—lies on the western shore of Lake Champlain, and just to the north of the Adirondacks high-peaks region. As such, it offers an abundance of natural beauty, especially in autumn when the landscape is ablaze with color, and winter, when the banks of the Saranac River, which runs right through the campus, are blanketed in fresh snow.
In time, that river became very important to me. I remember, in particular, a moment in my senior year when my mother called to notify me that my father had left her. Sad and confused, I immediately headed to the riverbank, just a hundred yards or so from my dorm, to seek answers. The river offered none except for the reminder that life flows on. But it comforted me, more serenely perhaps than any of my friends could have. Thankfully, I have cheerier memories of the river as well—especially of a warm spring day when a friend and I borrowed some large black innertubes, set them in the water, lay back, and let the current take us all the way to the lake.
Over the years, we enjoyed other outdoor adventures, hiking in the mountains, swimming in a flooded quarry, and waging epic snowball fights. That said, much of my leisure time was devoted to less wholesome activities. Freshman year, in particular, seems, as I look back on it, like one long party—revelry that I joined on day one. Slipping into this lifestyle was especially easy for me since three close friends from Staten Island came to college with me, and we all shared a suite.
There was never a shortage of beer—usually Molson Ale, which wasn’t widely available outside of Canada back then—or weed, and the RA almost always ignored the pungent aroma wafting from our residence. I remember one afternoon in particular when I had several bong hits before heading off to take a history exam. I realize in retrospect how irresponsible this was; then again, I aced the test—perhaps because I was so relaxed—so maybe not.
The hardcore partying was reserved for nighttime, with “pre-game” intoxicants in the dorm, then the main event downtown. There were several bars within walking distance—we always walked, even in below-zero temperatures, which are not uncommon in Plattsburgh—but our favorite, by far, was the Monopole: an old tavern with two pool tables, first-rate pizza, and nightly specials. Mondays were dollar-pitcher nights, and Tuesdays offered 50-cent shots of tequila. You know—just to get the week going. Weekends, we kicked it up a few notches, and generally didn’t get home till daylight, since the bars were open till 4, and there was a great greasy-spoon diner nearby, offering after-party sustenance.
Somehow, in spite of all this, I made it to most of my classes, and they brought their own sense of liberation. I’d hated high school, for the most part, but now I was experiencing an intellectual awakening, especially in Intro to Philosophy, taught by a man named David Mowry, who turned out to be my favorite professor. He had enormous charisma, with a warm smile and a subtle mind. I’ve thought about him often, and I was saddened to learn last year that he’d died. He was, I believe, the single greatest intellectual influence on me, after my dad, and he remains my role model when I’m teaching.
I also liked my journalism teacher—Herman Doh—although he was a staunch Republican and often infuriated me. I remember arguing with him one day in class—
stewing over that all through a poetry class immediately afterward—then going back to his office to continue the debate. This was one of the great benefits of attending a relatively small college: I could walk into my favorite professors’ offices, unannounced, not to discuss a grade (I never did that) but to air out my thoughts on Plato’s Republic, the writings of H.L. Mencken or anything else that happened to be occupying my mind.
Sometimes I went to their homes as well. In a Plato seminar with Mowry, we met one evening in his living room to drink wine and discuss the Symposium. I spent another evening at the kitchen table of an English professor, discussing Paradise Lost over glasses of bourbon. I suspect such things would be frowned upon these days. I’m grateful that they weren’t back then because these encounters made intellectual inquiry seem like the very fabric of life, rather than mere exercises to be endured in the pursuit of a degree.
I had many such discussions as well, over morning coffee, in a place called the English Commons—a comfortable living-room-type space where faculty and students mingled when we weren’t in class.
Equally important to me, however, were the extracurricular activities in which I engaged. I was hungry for experience, and jumped at everything that interested me. Most notable, perhaps, was my work on the student newspaper, of which I eventually became editor-in-chief, but I also hosted several radio programs at the college’s station, acted in a Tennessee Williams play, dabbled in gymnastics, and performed in a small modern-dance company, led by one of my teachers.
While editor of the newspaper, meanwhile, I wrote a series of editorials criticizing the college president’s so-called “five-year plan,” which threatened to gut the humanities. Mowry was part of the faculty resistance to the plan and was an invaluable advisor to me, in this endeavor. Thankfully, the president eventually backed down—and in a memorable encounter at my graduation reception, he admitted to me that he’d been wrong.
It was a gratifying moment—one that not only solidified my career goals, but reinforced my belief in the value of a liberal arts education. The reductionist notion—on the rise again today—that courses in the humanities are worthless, misses the point entirely. For me, at least, that Intro to Philosophy class ignited my passion for learning and my fascination with the big ideas that lie at the heart of humanity: ideas about justice, truth, love, freedom, social responsibility, and the good life. At the same time, the class was a reality check that forced me to confront flaws in my thinking and gaps in my knowledge.
Sometimes, as I look back on my years at Plattsburgh, I wish I had worked harder on academics. But I never linger on that for long. If I had hit the books harder, after all, I would have missed out on at least some of those other experiences, and they were invaluable. Take my experience in the theater, for example. A “practical” person might see it as a nice little hobby, at best. But as I struggled to memorize my lines, understand the characters, and overcome my stage fright, I learned what I was capable of. I learned to have faith in myself. Can you put a dollar value on that?
Even those late nights at the Monopole were of value, not only because they were fun but because they broadened my perspective. Throughout much of my adolescence in Staten Island—a small world that was saturated with machismo and characterized by narrow-mindedness—I’d felt like a misfit. During my countless hours at the bar, I finally felt at home as I engaged in deep conversation with people who were on their own journeys of discovery.
Now, as I begin another semester as a teacher at ODU, I’m reminded of what my dad told me when he dropped me off in Plattsburgh for the first time: “It’s the closest you’ll ever come to utopia,” he said. “Make the most of it.”
If he were alive today, I’d tell him that he was right—and that I’m glad I heeded his advice. I hope my students do as well.