The trees look the same. That splendid fall mix of russets and reds from the hardwoods all over town reminded me that, years ago, I came into this city at this very time of year because what I remember well, oddly enough, is that householders were permitted—and everyone did it—to rake their leaves into the street and light ‘em up right then and there. There were little fires all over town, along the streets.
I was here to do a story, one of thirty-some, and the subject was a young guy, like I was back then, a young guy who’d made it big in his field, a scholar, a teacher.
I wasn’t alone. My wife had come with because she’d known him before, in high school. We must have left the kids—who were little back then—with their grandparents, taken a day or two off, just the two of us. I was writing a book.
Of the interview itself, I remember very little, although the essence hasn’t slipped my mind. He was a Dutch Calvinist, a northwest Iowan originally, who’d gone on to college and graduate school and was now teaching here, at the University of Notre Dame, teaching history, medieval history, in fact, teaching priests their own story. Here’s the lede: Dutch Calvinist teaches Roman Catholic priests their history. Man bites dog somehow.
We had a wonderful time—that I remember. The two of us—two young couples—getting along royally. At least part of the book’s agenda was to gather opinions and attitudes of the church to which we all belonged. What’s your view of the CRC?—that sort of thing.
And his answer—circa 1980—I remember at least a part of. It was a thoughtful analysis of the seminary itself, the denominational brain trust. He wasn’t strident, but he was passionate in maintaining the need of a generational change. His argument went like this: the current generation of seminary leaders had been reared in a specific era, a time that had come and gone. We won’t advance as a church, this bright young scholar claimed, until a new generation could take over, a generation shorn from an old vision, a vision created by a shared identity in ethnic ghettos.
It was a historian’s answer, a fascinating answer. A generation of leaders were shaped by their own very similar experience—bright young people emerging from an ethnic past so tight that it required real effort to leave. That was the matrix they all shared, and it wasn’t true anymore of the generation we were a part of, the boomers. We saw things differently, he said.
And as my wife and I traveled home that night, I remember being not all that far out of town when I told her that I found that analysis really fascinating. “Maybe,” she said, “but it suggests that we’re also products of our particular time.” Someday someone would be saying the same about us--she said that too.
I remember that dire assessment—and it felt dire back then—because it hit me more deeply than anything the professor had said: if those sem profs are products of their era, then it's likely we are too.
We weren’t that far out of town. I remember watching the road.
He’s still here. I just looked him up. His accolades have grown—scholar in residence at the best universities in the country. Once, in a very good way, I thought him a friend, but it’s been years since I’ve seen him.
I remember his little house, his wife, their boys.
Today, he’s divorced from the woman he'd married and we met back then, has been for years. I met one of the boys not long ago when, a graduate student himself somewhere. He said he too remembered that visit years ago.
The book has long been remaindered. I bought the last 100 copies myself for next to nothing. Still have a few copies. The faculty at the seminary is entirely replaced, has been more than once.
And yesterday, when I drove down the inside streets of South Bend, IN, I didn’t see anyone burning leaves. The laws may well have changed.
All of that was 30 years ago.
The trees look the same, even from the air—a palette of burnished earth tones, that blaze of glory we call fall.