I just got back from my 50th college reunion at Salem State University, formerly known as Salem State College. When I enrolled in 1958 it was Salem Teacher’s College, and before that it had been Salem Normal School. The designation ‘normal school’ was for training teachers, so called because the first school so named was intended as a model.
I’ve attended several reunions over the years, and each time I was surprised by the changes – the growth, new buildings, new degree programs, etc. For example, the class of ’62 had one building for all our classes, and no dorms. Now there are dorms for more than 2,000 students, which is 20% of the school population of over 10,000. Our total population was less than 1,000.
In our freshman year we paid $50 tuition a semester, which was doubled in our second year. My high school guidance counselor recommended Salem State to me, knowing that I would be putting myself through. Salem was in commuting distance to Wilmington.
Walter Cuffe was class president in our junior and senior years – I was vice president. Walter and I have kept in close touch all these years. After a few years in the classroom, then as a guidance counselor, Walter devoted fulltime to his family funeral business. As vice president, I did anything Walter asked me to do.
He gave me a couple of assignments for our 50th: first to create a video message to be sent to each member of the class, encouraging them to attend and asking them to contribute to the scholarship fund we were establishing as our class gift to celebrate our 50 years. The video was very well received – I got lots of good feedback. My second assignment was to be Master of Ceremonies at the reunion dinner.
A few weeks ago I got news that Walter was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was told that it was not treatable. I agreed to meet with a sub-group of the planning committee to talk about how we would handle the news about Walter’s illness at the reunion. We met for lunch last Thursday at a restaurant in Lynn, near Salem State.
When I arrived our class treasurer, Maryann, asked, “Have you heard the latest news about Walter?” Her question was meant to prepare me for what she was about to say: “Walter died this morning.” While I wasn’t surprised, I was shocked. His illness was diagnosed just at the beginning of May, now, before the end of May, he was gone.
I filled in for a couple of things Walter had planned to do – words of welcome at the start of our dinner gathering, and the reading of the names of each of those in attendance as they received a special 50-year commemorative diploma.
I opened with brief remarks in honor of Walter’s service to our class and to Salem University; then I lightened things up with some personal comments and a couple of jokes.
After dinner we honored those in our class who have died – there are now 39 on that list, including Walter Cuffe. The dinner and other events at our 50th went well. I got to see lots of old friends – and when I say old, I mean it in both senses!
The last event for our 50th weekend was to attend the wake for Walter, at his funeral home, on his 70th birthday, yesterday afternoon. How strange it all seems – a new, unfamiliar territory.