The Last Eliot Scholar

Holding my diploma, 20 May 1990

My graduation from college twenty years ago today was a journey fraught with tragedy and comedy, which apparently was my preparation for the past two decades, as a college education should be.

Despite a propensity to slough off my homework, I’d started college early. Mom worked as a quality control chemist and one of her colleagues was teaching in the summer program at Lane Community College. I don’t remember the particulars of how I ended up the first two sections of a basic chemistry course the summer after my freshman year of high school (I can only assume that Mom suggested it because I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise) but I do know that I felt pretty cool spending several hours a day at LCC as a kid among people making up credits or taking requirements for the programs they were entering in the fall. By the beginning of my senior year of high school, I had a full year of college chemistry (with a B average) under my transcript.

But as with so many other things, follow-through wasn’t my strong suit. My senior year in high school was an emotional roller-coaster, and despite inquiries from places like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT, I never followed-up, presuming that a) there was no way I could afford to go there and b) there was no way they were going to offer me a scholarship (see above regarding homework).

I’d wanted to be a sci-fi writer for years, and I’d had a short article professionally published already, but figured I needed some sort of job to actually make money. I was interested in computers. I’d been messing around with them since the summer of my first chemistry class, when I’d stop in downtown Eugene after school and hang out at a new shop called The Real Oregon Computer Company. My aptitude tests pointed me to engineering and sciences (except for an outlier that said I should be a music instructor). So I applied to and was accepted at Oregon State University — where my parents met — in the Electrical & Computer Engineering department. I’d started a part-time job at Gandalf’s Den bookstore in the spring of my senior year of high school; they’d opened up a branch in Corvallis at the Old World Center in downtown, and I was able to earn some money there while I was living in the Beaver Lodge co-op, the least-expensive of the school-approved housing facilities that all freshmen not married or living at home had to stay in. (Is a big house with thirty guys in bunks in a third-floor sleeping porch what came to mind when you read co-op?) Unfortunately, the Corvallis store was probably a bad idea from the start and it was sold to a new owner by Christmas break. I was still moping and upset from the previous year but a girl I knew from high school and I had gotten involved and I wanted to be back in Eugene where she and my few other friends were. I made plans to move back home and switch to the Computer & Information Science department at the University of Oregon for the Spring term. I told my buddy Jon Pitchford that I was moving back to town and he told me he’d just signed up for six years in the Navy. My girlfriend broke up with me on Valentine’s Day.

That early period back in Eugene for me is sort of a blur. I know I went to classes — at least most of them — but I kept falling asleep in even the classes where I usually did well. One name that stuck with me was my discrete math teacher, Sergey Yuzvinsky, who had a most enjoyable accent that I have imitated for thirty years (according to his web page, I must have had him just after he arrived at the university and he’s still at the UofO). Gandalf’s hired me back at the Eugene shop. I met someone — who I’d be with for most of the next four years — in the fall.

The C&IS program of 1980 was a very different world than programming today. At both OSU and the UofO when I first started we were writing lines in FORTRAN or COBOL onto punch cards, turning stacks of cards over to people at windows in the computing center for batch processing, then going off for hours or overnight to bite our nails and hope that we hadn’t made any typos or logical errors. The UofO installed interactive teletype machines in the computing center the first year I was there, which made a world of difference just in the speed at which you could refine and expand a program. Then, a few of us underclassmen discovered the Terak in the basement of Prince Lucien Campbell Hall that was supposed to be for grad students. Instead of a noisy, clattering teletype that shared processing power with everyone else and printed graphics that took minutes to update, just a whirring of disk drives and fans with video.

Problem was, I tested well but I was still a crappy student. I was getting better — or at least I was failing fewer of my courses — but an interest in Japanese culture, a failure to study hard, and a spotty record my first couple of years of real college added up to a perfect storm of academic disqualification when I got an “Incomplete” in the first semester of a Japanese language course I wanted to take. Six credits of failure in one semester and I was out.

By that point in 1982 I was flailing. I didn’t have any money, my folks had been paying for all my school expenses, my bookstore job wasn’t exactly lucrative, I was living with my girlfriend. The economy was going south and my boss was trying to sell the bookstore to us for sweat equity (while keeping the then-profitable game distribution portion of the business for himself). A transcript that had started off as a teen chemistry geek had turned into a formless, useless, 20-year-old. I needed to put some shine on the turd.

Reading aloud had always been fun for me and even as a young man I’d gotten lots of comments on my voice. I don’t know why, because it’s not what you’d think of as a classic phone or radio voice; I sang first tenor in choir, I’d far prefer to have something deep and resonant. So when I looked over the catalog for Lane Community College again, I picked the Mass Communication department. It was fun and interesting. I took a few courses in audio production (I know how to splice tape!), some advertising theory, and a class in electronic music that let me get my hands on an ARP 2600 synthesizer. It wasn’t a four-year degree program, but it was the road to recovery. At least that’s what I thought.

By 1983, the economy had really sunk into the tank. Dad had been hired a couple years earlier as a business agent by the machinists union after serving for most of the ’70s as a local president but so many people lost their jobs that the union laid him off. My brother — who wasn’t just smart but was also popular and a hard worker — had graduated high school as a valedictorian and headed off to college with some savings from summer jobs, scholarships, and financial aid, but he was at Reed College and while it wasn’t charging then what it’s charging now it still wasn’t cheap. I don’t think I ever asked if my folks were helping him out the way they were with me, but I assumed they were. I’d lost my job when my boss finally found someone to buy the Eugene store, which led to a two-year period of unemployment. There just wasn’t a lot of demand for the surplus of moderately-educated young men in Eugene. At that point, I couldn’t see how I could justify staying in school; I was leaching off my folks for living expenses already (not to mention the fallout from the Eucon debacle). I’d come full-circle to LCC. That was the end of it.

Several years passed. The relationship broke up. I worked briefly for a national electronics chain, a Commodore business computer shop that never sold anything, and six months in a convenience store. Then I got back into the book business through the back door at F.C. Himber & Son, who had expanded their grocery store book and magazine distributorship into paperbacks, trade paper and hardcover books for bookstores. My job was low on the totem pole, opening boxes of books, counting and checking them against the packing lists, handling returns, pulling orders when there wasn’t anyone else to do it. Only part-time at first, but it was back working with books. Meanwhile, I started to pick up some after-hours volunteer slots at KRVM-FM, the radio station owned by the 4J school district, and was getting tickets to a variety of music events around town.

In early 1986, my folks passed me the AMC Pacer my father had used for a work car before he was hired back by the Machinists. I started travelling up to Portland for some shows. About the only person I knew there — who wasn’t my grandmother or an aunt or uncle — was Barbara, who I only really knew through the monthly parties at John Varley‘s house. I’d always thought she was pretty entertaining and funny, and when she expressed an interest in accompanying me to punk rock shows at places like Satyricon I was more than happy to have the company.

Looking back on it it’s almost incredible to me how quickly things progressed. Barbara and I hadn’t so much as kissed before June; sometime in the next couple of months I was busily engaged in re-applying to college. And not just any college, but one with a reputation for academic rigor that was at odds with my previous scholastic record. The girl who’d dumped me on Valentine’s Day six years earlier graduated from Reed (although I didn’t know it at the time). My brother had done three years at Reed and moved on to vet school (and wrote me a very nice recommendation letter for my application, making me a legacy of my younger sibling). Reed didn’t have a computer program, but it was an Apple University Consortium school with one of the earliest campus computer networks (in part because of its association with Steve Jobs) and I had seen some of the graphics possibilities of the early Macintosh computers. I’d also decided to go into English, and I figured at least an English degree from Reed ought to command slightly more respect.

At the time, the college had a program called the Eliot Scholarship, which paid two-thirds the cost of two units of classes for a student over the age of 25 with no undergraduate degree. It was a trial — either two classes in one semester or one class in two semesters — after which the college and the student could decide whether or not to continue the relationship under normal circumstances. I didn’t turn 25 until December of that year, but I got my application and transcripts in order for entry in January. For some reason they (specifically, the scholarship administrator, Toinette Menashe) let me in.

Almost nothing from my transcripts transferred. Most of it didn’t have any equivalent at Reed. My PE credits, a couple of math courses, and the year of chemistry I’d taken while I was still in high school and that was about it. I’d been in college full-time for almost three years by 1983, but at the beginning of 1987 I was somewhere in the middle of my freshman year.

I started off with what was ostensibly a math class but which was actually a foray into compiler language theory taught by an instructor in from Oregon Graduate Institute. It was a far cry from the basic programming classes I’d taken seven years before and I doubt I did very well even if I hadn’t been in a class with brilliant kids like Tyler Morrison and Scott Quinn, who were working on Rascal (Real time Pascal), a language developed in Prof. Richard Crandall‘s Software Development Lab (Crandall was also Chief Scientist at Jobs’s NeXT Computer and is an Apple Distinguished Scientist). Within a couple of months I’d started working at Powell’s Books (Himber’s was one of their suppliers at the time, and the company was a lot smaller, so some of the people there were familiar with me). I worked as a “terminal watcher” at Reed, helping people with questions about the computers in the labs. In the fall I took my first semester of the freshman humanities course. I started as a full-time student at the beginning of 1998.

Barbara’s mother died that fall. She quit the law and went to work as a used book buyer at Powell’s, then returned to college herself. I spent the next two summers at Portland State University fulfilling language requirements. My proposal for a creative thesis (essentially the plot for the Robin Williams movie Man of the Year) was shot down, so I wrote my senior thesis on Shakespeare. We searched for and bought a house that year. I defended my thesis and I was through.

My father’s step-father died in early May 1990 and we buried him the week before my graduation, which was held outside on the Reed lawn as tradition demands, in a downpour. Every so often, some portion of the tent over the seats would spill over and dump cold water on the folks listening to Oregon Symphony conductor James DePriest‘s commencement speech.

After the ceremony, everyone was supposed to meet Barbara and me by the flagpole, but apparently this info didn’t get communicated to the peeps. Nor was anyone in much of a rush to congratulate me for finally graduating, because we were waiting by the pole for quite a while while everyone else was scarfing down food in the reception tent. We did finally catch up with people, which is when the photo above was taken. Then we headed home to finish cleaning out our rental house, because graduation day was the last day we had to move out before the new owner took possession.

And that’s the story of The Last Eliot Scholar. At least, the last one to graduate. A few others came after me — one, another Powell’s employee, to whom even I gave a recommendation — but Toinette told me some time later that the program had lost its funding, and that I was the final student to enter through the program and graduate.

It’s been an odd twenty years since. There’s a reunion coming up in two weeks. I’m both interested and apprehensive about going. What’s that say about me?