In the spring of 2018, Barbara Lewis, AB ’73, brought her son, William, to the Washington University campus for her 45th reunion. He was 17 at the time, a rising senior from Bethesda, Md., looking at colleges and universities throughout the country. But while his mom was in reunion activities, he remembers walking the Danforth Campus by himself and being awed by the architecture, Thurtene Carnival and the friendliness of the students he encountered. And he was hooked
“I fell in love with the place,” William Lewis says.
Five years later, at the 162nd Commencement May 15, Lewis found himself a few sections away from his mom on historic Francis Olympic Field, both clad in WashU’s iconic green academic regalia: William with the Class of 2023; Barbara with the 50th Reunion Class of 1973.
“What are the odds I would be able to share my mom’s 50th reunion at my graduation?” says William, who majored in anthropology and biology in Arts & Sciences. “She’s been such a big factor in my academic career, supporting me when times were tough. I’m just happy she’s here. We’re both celebrating our own thing, but we’re coming together for each other.”
“This is a unique, special moment.” Barbara Lewis says. “I’m a single mom and he’s my only son. The fact he got accepted at WashU was impressive but this …” Her voice softens. “I’m thrilled to be sharing it all with him,” she says.
The Lewises were just one of the storylines in a day filled with high emotion. More than 3,500 graduates and their families and friends, as well as some 50 members of the Class of 1973, packed Francis Olympic Field to take part in the cherished WashU tradition. Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown gave a stirring keynote speech, and Chancellor Andrew D. Martin conferred honorary degrees on Brown; Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop; Alphonso Jackson, the 13th secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Paul Michael Lützeler, the Rosa May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Washington University; and Anthony S. Fauci, MD, recently retired director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the NIH. Fauci received a standing ovation from the crowd.
And seated side by side on the turf were two groups: the oldest – and the newest – alumni. Two cohorts separated by 50 class years, but both enduring significant social change their first years in college.
“Can you believe it’s been 50 years?” says Robert Koenig, AB ’73, who has had decades-long career as a journalist, diplomat, foreign correspondent and writer. “We’ve been saying that a lot to each other this weekend. It’s surreal because we still remember so many details.”
For the Class of ’73, those details include the burning of the ROTC building in February 1970, campus protests, and exams being canceled with the specter of Kent State and the draft hanging in the air — all in their first year.
“For a lot of young people, that was a difficult time,” Koenig says. “That first year forced me, for the first time in my life, to look at the wider perspective of the world and what was happening outside of St. Louis. One important thing about Washington University and other great universities is that they open the world to you.”
Both classes participating in Commencement this year had the world painfully opened as first-years. Like the Class of ’73, the Class of 2023 was sent home at spring break after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
“When the pandemic sent us home in March 2020, no one knew how long it would last or what would happen next,” undergraduate student speaker Samm Kaiser, BSCS ’23, said to her classmates during her Commencement address. “We had to attend lab classes on Zoom, keep up our social lives via watered-down virtual events and navigate all our relationships differently in this new world. An unjust number of people died, and countless more endured physical and mental health crises. It was a great suffering.
“At the same time, COVID-19 gave many of us a reason to slow down. … To live through a significant piece of history and reimagine how we could take the sourest lemon that life had to offer and turn it into something resembling lemonade,” Kaiser said.
Expecting the unexpected is a lesson that defines both classes.
“My generation thought we could plan our way forward, that we knew what the arc of our lives was going to be,” says Tony Nocchiero, BSChE ’73. “What Washington University does best is that it teaches you to be open to things when they present themselves, because you never know which way life is going to take you.”
Closing another chapter
For Barbara Lewis, after her undergraduate studies, she earned an MFA in film studies from New York University, traveled all over the country as an independent film producer and scuba diving instructor, before earning a doctorate in cultural anthropology in 1997, also from NYU. She has since taught media and business classes at Brooklyn College-CUNY.
Fifty years later, life had come full circle, and she was closing another WashU chapter, spending Commencement weekend alternating between attending William’s graduation activities and reconnecting with her classmates, reminiscing about office hours with Howard Nemerov and having to cross a picket line to go to philosophy class and being called a scab in the process. “I needed the notes,” she recalls.
“I had no anticipation of how fulfilling and sentimental this weekend would be,” Barbara Lewis says, “in reacquainting our adult selves with our 22-year-old selves. So many of my classmates have done powerful, important things, and I’m amazed at what they have done with their lives.
“But to be able to share this time with my son, who has grown into an adult in his time here,” she says, “that’s unforgettable. I don’t even remember my Commencement speakers. He won’t forget his.”