A Love That Lasts
I can’t say it was love at first sight. For part of my freshman year, I was probably oblivious to what was happening to me. But it was at Vassar where I fell in love for the very first time. And it changed my life.
No question, I wasn’t fully ready to embrace this love when I first bounced onto campus in the fall of 1973. Vassar was its breathtakingly beautiful self, the oaks and elms in full grandeur, the quad inhaling us as a community, and the grounds exhaling with their openness and space. But I was a kid in a hurry and probably didn’t notice.
Vassar was kind enough to accept me after my junior year in high school, but my rush to college was driven less by the appeal of the classroom and more by the pull of my generation. It was on the college campus that young people seemed to be changing the world. We organized against a war, volunteered for civil rights, and sparked a cultural transformation that embraced inclusion, disgraced prejudice, replaced conformity with individuality, and made equality the gut check of our political culture.
And Vassar was at the forefront of two movements that would upend the old ways and chart a new path to human dignity—feminism and gay rights. For a kid with a singular passion to change the world, I was at the right school at the right moment to make a difference.
So really, I wasn’t thinking about love. Instead I would take every opportunity to seek out political action during the day and, at night, rap sessions about the fate of the world or Vietnam or Watergate or grape boycotts or Roe v. Wade. We would rally and petition and organize, fully aware that we were merely one small group at one small institution but empowered with the belief that one person with conviction can still contribute something relevant and meaningful.
Yet even at that moment, unbeknownst to me, I was about to be smitten. It was probably in my American Literature class that I first began to feel something. My imminent love and I shared two semesters with a stirringly brilliant professor, Joe Lauinger, who graced the Vassar faculty for only a year but whose immersion in the power of narrative created an immutable bond among us. What was this rush of warmth I was feeling?
Most evenings I would grab my books and head to the Vassar library, that imposing Gothic structure that turned studying into inspiration and awe. I would tell myself that the library was the best place to do my work, but that wasn’t altogether honest. For it was at the library—and particularly among the stacks—where I would most likely find this love interest of mine, and as much as I wanted to focus on my books and exams, this furtive attraction I felt would sidetrack and distract. Like the enticing index finger of an all-knowing deity, it would beckon me there.
Thankfully my love and I shared many hours in Swift Hall where we sat together enchanted by the professor who would become my mentor, Bernie Weisberger, a legendary historian whose stories of the American past brought the plight of immigrants and sharecroppers and huddled garment workers to life. How infectious was his captivating intellect, his morality tale of our complex history, and just being around him congealed the bond between my love and me.
By senior year I had completely fallen. My love and I, worried that our time at Vassar was slipping away, took more than our share of courses together. We studied Shakespeare with Charlie Pierce, Nineteenth Century Philosophy with Mitch Miller, Art History with a spirited faculty that turned two-dimensional slides into three-dimensional understanding.
So intoxicating was this companionship that I completely lost sight of scheduling and time. By mid-April I awoke in a sweat to a last lap of ten papers and four final exams, and so I spent these closing weeks at Vassar not celebrating memories with friends but hunkered down in the library with tired synapses trying to fire all night long. But I never regretted it because at my side every moment was my love.
My first love, the one that awakened me freshman year and consumed me by the end of my Vassar days? It was the pursuit of knowledge. And like so many before and after me at Vassar, this pursuit has inspired every cause, deed, relationship, and moment of my adult life. Consider this a Valentine to the school that made it possible.
Leonard Steinhorn ’77 is a professor of public communication and a affiliate professor of history at American University, an author of books on race in America and on the baby boom generation, and a frequent lecturer on politics and history.