Me posing like an idiot in front of Old Main at Eastern Illinois University.

Leaves you with nothing, mister

Eight-minute read

On a lovely early fall day in 1992, I was walking across campus.

It was move-in day at Eastern Illinois University. I’d just unloaded my meager possessions from the back of my aging beige hatchback and was wandering around taking in the sights.

The day was warm and the leaves had not yet started to change. Dozens of students were wandering around. Families were disgorging belongings from the backs of minivans and trucks.

Posters and fliers covered buildings and bulletin boards. The ‘92 election was a couple months away, so Bill Clinton placards were up all over.

The opening notes of U2’s Zoo Station blasted from an apartment window as I passed. It felt so much like college, bustling and alive.

A thought – actually more of a feeling – hit me. It was as if the world stopped and had snap-zoomed in on me. I realized what the moment actually meant for me.

“I can’t believe that I’m actually here.”

For many people, college was normal or even expected. Not so for me.

I came from a lower middle class family. The people I grew up with weren’t really on the college track. For many childhood friends getting a job on the line at Caterpillar was the ultimate goal.

But from a young age I knew I didn’t want that. But I didn’t know what I wanted. So far I’d been a day laborer, a warehouse worker, a janitor. Nothing inspiring.

By 1992 I had been getting my life on track. I’d done two years of junior college, and even though I’d been accepted at Eastern I had no money.

I spent the summer going through the motions of a person headed off to school in the fall, but with a sense of doom. I filled out the forms for housing and picked my classes, fearing that in September I’d be staying home.

My funk deepened as fall approached.

Then, seemingly at the last minute, everything fell into place, almost improbably. A grant came through. I got a tuition waiver. My brother helped me earn some money. I ran the numbers. I had enough, just.

I was going to college, or more accurately I was now finally at college. I was really there.

It was unbelievable. It was one of the few “pinch me I must be dreaming” moments I’ve ever had. I’ve never forgotten that moment and what it has meant to my life.

This weekend I traveled back in time.

The Daily Eastern News, the student newspaper at Eastern, celebrated its 100th anniversary. Myself and dozens of other former DEN staffers returned to campus to celebrate and catch up on the two decades that have passed.

Once again I found myself walking across the Eastern Illinois University campus on a lovely fall day, with crisp temperatures and a clear blue sky. Again I was swept up in the feeling of “I can’t believe I’m here.”

But this time it wasn’t awe. It was more a sense that I was finally back at a place I longed to visit but never really had the opportunity. I don’t get to rural Illinois that often.

I was wandering about looking at the campus, doing selfies in front of buildings and feeling a swell of nostalgia.

I heard a shout, “Hey, Putney.”

It was a couple of my old Daily Eastern News chums. Within minutes we ran into a couple more. A few minutes after that we were sitting around a table at Marty’s, one of our long-ago haunts. Gone was the dark, cavelike decor. Bright sunlight streamed in the windows.

I was back. I was really back.

When I think about the Daily Eastern News and what it did for me, it seems impossible to sum up.

Yet, somehow seeing everyone this weekend makes it easier to take measure, as if things have a start and endpoint now. One stage of life can be compared with another.

Our 20’s and early 30s are about getting somewhere. It’s about acquiring the trappings of adulthood. Earning your place. Paying your dues. Getting ahead. Building a life. Looking forward. New, new, new.

The late 30s and 40s are about being somewhere. This is my house. This is who I am married to. These are my kids. This is my career. This is my life. This, this, this.

The last time I saw my DEN colleagues we were in our early 20s. We were passing one major life milestone – graduation – and headed to another: first job. Everything seemed possible. Now, the future seems a bit smaller, the past much larger.

At the opening reception I wended my way through the crowd searching for people who looked roughly my age and vaguely familiar. There was laughter at the recognition.

I was suddenly back in the old days.

Back in the DEN newsroom, a lovable, beat-up old thing that produced some of the best college journalism in the state. The ragged, stained orange carpet was salvaged from the student union. Furniture, likewise, was intercepted on its way to the dump and delivered to the DEN.

The newsroom, literally one-half of a former middle school gym that still hosted basketball games and ROTC drills on the other half, was freezing in winter and sweltering in the summer. The press, a Goss the size of a semi truck and louder than one, was at the back of the newsroom. Working late in the newsroom meant getting to feel the press shake the whole room.

“Can you believe they let us smoke in the press room?” one of my former colleagues marveled during the commemorative dinner. “There were giant rolls of paper in there. They would have burned for weeks.”

The daily struggle of a small staff trying to get the paper out every day in this run-down office bonded us. We were in it together.

Everything flooded back. Memories. Late nights in the newsroom. The fights. The crushes.

At least two dozen of the core group from the ‘92-‘96 DEN were there. The cool kids and the uncool. The “two Chrises” – Seper and Sundheim – were there. Probably outside of the faculty, they had the biggest influence on me, if only because I wanted to be as good as they were. I never was, though.

We sat at a table toward the end of the night and talked about life, work, disappointments. Life often doesn’t turn out like you’d hoped, but most often it still turns out.

“How did we get this old?”

“I don’t know.”

The conversations of the evening could be summed up as this: Where are you now? How did you get there?

It’s the kind of Big Chill-esque conversations people have after getting back together after 20 years. There were a few surprises, such as who turned out to be gay. 1 It wasn’t really a prurient thing so much as people finally getting to say what couldn’t be said 20 years ago.

A show of hands of how many people were still in journalism would likely have been quite revealing.

In the days since, I’ve been trying to think about the reunion, to find a way to really understand it, fit it into my life experience. I keep returning to the campus itself.

Upon my return, I pointed my rental car directly toward Buzzard Hall,2 which housed and still houses the DEN newsroom. I’d driven there dozens, hundreds even, of times while attending Eastern. It’s the first right turn past Old Main. 3

This time, however, I confronted the fact someone had constructed a building across the road mid-block.

As I wandered campus the weekend I saw more changes. Buzzard itself has been renovated, as has Booth Library, whose decrepit stacks once looked like a setting for a slasher movie.

Both were lovely modern facilities now.

My freshman dorm, located far out on the edge of campus across a grassy lot dubbed “The Tundra,” was closed. Signs in the darkened windows warned me away. The Tundra was now a parking lot and tennis and basketball courts.

Everywhere I looked was something familiar, something that pulled me back to my past. Yet, change was everywhere. Same, yet different.

It’s as if my time at Eastern and my time since has been written on the landscape.

  1. Universities need to do a “who turned out to be gay” special edition of their alumni magazines.
  2. When I gave people the address of the building I always used to say “Buzzard, as in journalists circling like …”
  3. It’s building shown above, with the idiot in front of it.