Peter Pfeiffer ’69

Coming from a small town public school in central Maine, I was, if not exactly a “babe in the woods,” unprepared for the sophisticated, diverse, and challenging environment I found at Wesleyan when I entered in the fall of 1965. For instance, a colorful character named Bill Gilmore was my first ever non-white friend. Weeks into our first semester we attended a popular Sidney Poitier movie in which, once again, the wise and kindly “colored” man saved the day for some apple-cheeked nuns. Afterwards, Bill patiently explained to me why someone in his shoes—or, to be more precise, someone in his cowboy boots festooned with little bells—might find this long-running dynamic unfulfilling. Thus, my Wesleyan education began.

Savage battles were being fought in the streets of America as both anti-war and anti-racism forces took on the authorities. On a more positive front, the women we chummed ‘round with on various far-flung campuses shed both their swaddling of pink and baby blue mohair, and their traditional roles in order to assume their rightful place as equals. That was refreshing. Social change came at us like an avalanche, and the university seethed with political, intellectual, sexual, and cultural foment. As Bob Dylan sang, “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

Heady times indeed for a lad from the woods of Maine. Fortunately, I was a member of that long-lost generation that did not need to justify every dollar “invested” in an education as a stepping stone towards a high-income career. My parents paid, without complaint or expectation, the $12,000 it cost to receive a degree, although I did chip in what I could save from numerous $1.25 an hour minimum wage jobs. My only requirement was to drink deeply from the well of knowledge offered by both the faculty and my peers, however naïve or hokey that sounds in today’s mercantile world.

But, nonetheless, it was hard to focus as reports came in of my less-privileged high school classmates returning from Vietnam in body bags, as cities crackled with gunfire and fire. After four years of banging around like a loose piston, I delivered a little speech to this effect at an “alternative” graduation. It was picked up and published by Time magazine. In one of those cruel ironies of the times, my brother read the article while stationed with his Marine platoon just south of the DMZ, shortly before he was shot in the chest. He survived, and has gone on to become the most eloquent pacifist I know.

Amidst all this tumult, Mr. O’Gorman’s sociology classes served to frame, quantify, and explain, parsing the underlying cross-currents of social relations, however fractious, with an elegant, mathematical precision that was totally contrary to the tenor of the times. At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Pendleton’s gloriously lush, balletic theater productions opened up a world of expression that encompassed the physical, visual, ideational, and comic. These two seemingly contradictory disciplines proved useful when, a few years later, my acting partner/antithesis, Milton Christianson, and I joined forces with a pack of like-minded, backwoods thespians to form the In Spite of Life Players here in northern Maine. No cows were too sacred to escape slaughter and laughter in dozens of productions spanning decades.

Peter Pfeiffer '69 is the author of Hard Chance: Tree Farming in Troubled Times.