I had lunch at Blue Tractor with my old friends from Northwestern Michigan College on Friday. I say old because we have known each other for at least 30 years (classes of 1978 and ’79), and because all but two of us forgot our reading glasses back at the office so we passed one pair around the table so we could read the menu.
Bruce Byl got the group together, seven of us—some of us see each other often, others only now and then—and he came equipped with donation forms for NMC’s Community Campaign, of which he is this year’s co-chair. Bruce’s terms: he was treating for lunch; we were donating to NMC.
By the time the salads and sandwiches arrived the stories were in full gear. Disco dancing at Shadow Land Bar (aka, The Pit). Polka-dancing at the bar shaped like a tree-trunk in Cedar. The storm of 1978, when snow up to our second-story balcony kept us all on campus (and out of classes) bonding and partying together for days. Skiing at Sugar Loaf. Studying at the Sawmill. And of course, no mini-reunion would be complete without calling Barth Hoopengarner in Florida, where he lives now, to ask him why it was my rabbit’s fur jacket he nailed when he decided to throw-up in the closet.
There have been times over the decades that I’ve questioned my decision to attend NMC for my first two years of college. It wasn’t, shall we say, a logical choice. It was the “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want with it” decision of a headstrong 18 year-old-girl. My father was a college professor at American University in Washington D.C. Naively, he’d assumed I’d apply to four-year schools on the East Coast, or maybe to his alma mater, University of Michigan, where my brother was already enrolled. I had another idea: summers in Leelanau County where my grandparents lived had me smitten with the tall pines and small towns of Northern Michigan. I was fleeing East Coast suburbia with its malls, endless parking lots and cookie cutter subdivisions. NMC was the only school I applied to.
I was fortunate to have a best friend to share the adventure. Carol (Ryan) Hilton and I had known each other since the 8th grade at E. Brooke Lee Junior High in Silver Spring, Maryland. As the friend I got to bring with me Up North in the summer, Carol had developed her own love affair with Northern Michigan. I have often wondered what the admissions directors at NMC did when they received two applications from Silver Spring, Maryland, that year. But maybe our apps just melted in with the kids applying from all over Michigan—Grosse Pointe, Birmingham, Grand Rapids. And from all over the world: the school’s Petroleum Tech program attracted students from as far away as Nigeria and Saudia Arabia.
These were some of the students who greeted Carol and me the fall of 1976 when we pulled up in my yellow Pontiac Sunbird with its Maryland tags, wearing tight pants and platform shoes. Besides students from across Michigan and around the world, there were, of course, plenty of kids from Traverse City and from Northern Michigan’s small towns—including the not-to-be-forgotten Theresa from Manistee and the Duff sisters from Buckley who had more style than anyone I’d ever met in the East (Okay, Nancy and Cathy, you still do).
Our friends were cadets at the school’s Maritime Academy, preparing to make their living on the Great Lakes—even in the chilling wake of the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy two years before. We were pals with the fly-boys at NMC’s flight school, some of whom would go on to become airline pilots, and petroleum tech guys who became the backbone of a whole Northern Michigan industry. There were nursing students, accounting majors and students, like Carol and me, on a liberal arts track.
If the students formed a peculiar one-of-a-kind diversity, the teachers were fabulously overqualified for a small-town junior college. Call them genius for figuring out that a comfortable position in a beautiful city on the bay beat the kind of publish-or-perish grind my father faced in the East. I remember the fear that Al Shumsky’s freshman comp class instilled—and the way this slight-built bespectacled man saw through my rebellious veneer to a budding, if lazy, writer. Paul Welch: I picture you in your Art History 8 o’clocks, hands cupped in sensual description of a Botticelli bottom. And was Joe Rogers so at one with his subject that it just seemed like he had branches and twigs in his hair when he taught our natural resources classes?
After receiving our two year degrees, many of us went on to Michigan State—me with a quick semester stop at Kalamazoo College (sorry Kazoo, you just paled in the face of the fun to be had in Traverse City)—where we stayed close friends and even roommates. (Bruce, Carol, really, really sorry I was so messy.)
There wasn’t one of us around the table at the Blue Tractor last week that doesn’t count those NMC years as some of the most valuable of our lives. When we left, we had the foundations we needed to finish our education and then go on to robust careers. And I know that if I’d gone straight off to a four-year college somewhere else, I would have high-tailed it to Traverse City after college. Perhaps I would have shown up with a broader experience, but I wouldn’t have had the depth of experience I gained from going to college in the region I have spent my career writing about.
I hope this blog is read by many NMC alums, and that after you read it you share your memories in the comments section below, and join the NMC alum group I'm setting up at MyNorth Community. Then I ask you to contribute to this wonderful, incredibly vital Northern Michigan institution that had blessed so many students before my class and has blessed so many after. And if you don't, consider yourself forewarned: when Bruce Byl calls, it’s about more than lunch.