My son and daughter graduated from college approximately ten years ago, and in a burst of parental munificence, I offered to pay for their college yearbook, remembering how expensive those compendia had become and how little I wanted to spend of my own money as a recent graduate. I also remembered my very mixed feelings about about my college career, more losses than wins from my perspective in the first years out, regrets that might have kept me from shelling out a bundle as I began to look for employment. My parents paid for my yearbooks, I guess, as they probably did for every aspect of my existence. I began to reflect on how little thought I gave to what it must have cost to keep me blissfully unaware of life’s bumps and bruises, when the phrase, “I didn’t ask you to do that” arrived unbidden, reminding me that one of the parental units had prepared an invoice itemizing that cost to the dollar.
The point to all of this is that I made the offer in good faith, contacted the colleges, and found that they don’t do yearbooks anymore. My own college, a fuzzily friendly intimate haven for good people of all sorts, stopped publishing yearbooks with the 2014 edition. I had worked in boarding schools, occasionally acting as advisor to the yearbook, and understood the time, energy, and money it took to pull a year together with photos in focus and as few egregiously embarrassing portraits as possible. There was, perhaps still is, a penchant for “photo bombing”, commonly crashing the portraits of the debate team without having been a debater; I won’t go into detail in describing the very unfortunate, occasionally graphic photographs which have slipped into perpetuity despite the assigning of faculty gatekeepers. During my years, video yearbooks began to appear, offering a far more immediate and vibrant evocation of a senior’s journey. Many were artful, some were inclusive, all are now sitting in the attic with the VHS tapes of family vacations and treasured mix tapes on cassette.
My kids seem to be lumping along yearbook-free with no notable scarring; they have friends and keep up with them, far more regularly than I did. It occurs to me in this moment that I have passed the Biblically endorsed lifespan of threescore and ten (Wycliffe Bible, Leviticus 12, published in 1388) and may have more interest in things past than in things ahead. In this seventh decade I do find myself searching my memory for any variety of insignificant facts. When I manage to retrieve a particularly juicy one, I send it on to one of my pals only to find that they are puzzled with my gift rather than amused, gently advising me that once again I may not have been present in my own life.
All of that aside, my relationships with yearbooks goes well beyond the ordinary human’s experience of the genre. For any number of reasons, most having to do with allergy to instruction, I was often (always) confined during study hours in the hope that I might, well, study. All in vain, however, because trapped in the library, I had little choice but to seek amusement where I could find it, and find it I did … in yearbooks. I would go on to write a guide to generally under esteemed colleges in part because I had come to know and love them as they were in the years before they found their way to the library’s shelves. I don’t know why my boarding school had copies of forty or fifty colleges, but it was with thanks that I dove into them. Some live more vividly in memory than others; I suppose they must have seemed more exotic. In any case, I know quite a lot about Union College in Schenectady, New York (The 1958 Garnet), Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida (The 1956 Tomokan), and The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (The 1957 Colonial Echo) and many, many more.
In my own college career, diversion still a priority, I raided that library’s collection of yearbooks, floating blissfully away to college lives I might have lived in parallel universes. I suspect that I was doing sociological research without fully understanding all that I took in, but, there was also a lovely esthetic to be found in early yearbooks, flourishes and furbelows, particularly in the illustrations that then filled the introductory pages. I stumbled upon a collection of college bookplates, for example, that I still consider among the artifacts I most admire. It’s a wonder that I did not become a professional archivist; a quick glance at my bookshelves, however, reveals the depth of my amateur archiving. I might have let the fascination with yearbooks drift into the same category as my fascination with professional wrestling (another story) had I not driven past The Book Barn somewhere south of Bangor, Maine and decided, what the heck, let’s take a look.
I am not alone I know in enjoying the fantasy of finding an immaculate Mercedes 190 SL, silver grey with red interior, lying under stacks of newspapers in a long neglected garage. Unlikely, you say. The Book Barn was actually a barn, a large barn, stuffed with books of every variety. I like old books and had picked up a few along the way, often selecting a purchase based on the appearance of the spine or cover alone. Like a glutton in Wonkaland, I was overwhelmed by the options before me, blindly rushing from aisle to aisle. I came upon a dull brownish green spine that seemed to call me, paused, flipped open the book, and found that I was holding the 1917 Princeton Bric -A- Brac, a yearbook celebrating the achievements of many Princeton Tigers but with particular fondness, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Princeton ‘17. Fitzgerald wasn’t the only luminary in the class; literary critic Edmund “Bunny” Wilson was his junior and became what Fitzgerald called his “literary conscience”. Wilson’s in the yearbook, of course, and Fitzgerald is all over it. Active in the Triangle Club, Fitzgerald sang, acted, and wrote the text and lyrics for the year’s ambitious production of “Fi – Fi – Fi”. The book is filled with pictures of every activity, from the Banjo Club to the Cottage Club, one of the “Big Four” eating clubs (Cottage, Tiger Inn, Cap and Gown, and Ivy).
It’s an incredibly detailed recreation of the life of the university in the last years of WWI, presenting a portrait of the Ivied upper class in the second decade of the century. My collection reflects my interest in boarding schools as well as colleges; I read those yearbooks on the sly during study hours as well. Recently, I began assembling material for a book on boarding schools, a book that is slowly decomposing somewhere in digital neverland. My ambition and pleasure combined as I scouted out histories of the schools and approximately thirty boarding school yearbooks.
There’s a lot to be learned in looking at these annuals, as there was for Ken Burns in reading letters written during The Civil War. Tides turn, fads and fashions change, language particular to a generation gives way to the following decade’s locutions. I remain fascinated as a quasi-historian but know that an element at play from the start has been “nose pressed to the window watching the swells at ease in their clubrooms”, an outsiders’ longing for a world I never knew.
There are more expensive and dangerous hobbies, to be sure. I’m content to wait by the mailbox, hoping the next delivery will bring the 1949 Kiskimentian, the yearbook of The Kiskiminetas Springs School in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, plenty interesting in its own right, but extraordinary in that it chronicles the senior year of Robert Bruce (Bob) Mathias. He’d won the Gold Medal in the Decathlon at the London Olympic Games in 1948, returning to Kiski for his senior year in high school before entering Stanford. He’d win again in Helsinki in 1952, after playing for Stanford in The Rose Bowl. I’m looking at a picture of the Kiski School track team, Bob Mathias among the group at the starting line, and imagining what it must have been like for high school boys peeking sideways at an Olympian athlete casually taking his position at the start. Mathias played football and basketball at Kiski as well and sang in the Glee Club. He also won the citation for “Best Track Athlete”, a not entirely unexpected honor.
I’m currently not scooping up yearbooks, or Mercedes 190SLs, but I’m not likely to drive past a weathered book barn without circling back, just to see what might be at the bottom of a pile of dust covered large books. Oh, and by the way, that 1917 Princeton Bric A Brac? Now worth $1500.00. Fitzgerald in in the back row just left of center of the picture accompanying this article.