Jan Simpson: favorite college memory.
Written May 18, 2018
Like every college freshman, that first year at school is a time of incredible learning and growth. And I don’t mean book learning, although I am sure for many more intellectual types, there’s a lot of book learning, too. I’m talking about learning about yourself, the world, the future and the past.
My freshman year, the fall of 1972, I moved from Montana to Stanford in Palo Alto, California. To say there was a little culture shock would be an understatement. But for an 18 year old who thought the world was her oyster, the challenge did not seem insurmountable. I knew how to get through school—my brother, Robert, had told me the secret: study.
The real learning was the type my dad believed was more important than book learning—how to deal with people. He was a guy who never read a book in his life but was a people person and never stopped studying the dynamics of interaction.
There might be a stereotype of a Stanford student—preppy, but not east coast preppy; serious student; top of the class; incredible athlete/performer/artist; wealthy, privileged. And a lot of kids were like all of the above. But there were some others, like myself, who didn’t fit all the stereotypes.
One of my roomie’s my first quarter was Kristi Reynolds, from Thousand Oaks, southern Cal. Kristi was a top student, but not from a wealthy family and she was raised by a single mom. Kristi had never been away from home before, and that first quarter she got swept away with a group of musical types. One of the guys in that group was from New Orleans or Baton Rouge; his mom worked for some wealthy people who sponsored him to go to a prep school on the east coast. He was a red head, fiery in spirit, but with a chip on his shoulder, never wanting to be or feeling like he was a typical student. Red had a work study scholarship as a janitor at Stanford’s Memorial Church.
Mem Chu (Memorial Church) is a fabulously imposing non-denominational church located front and center in the Main Quad. Driving towards Stanford on Palm Drive, Mem Chu is at the far end of the Quad, in line with the Drive. It reminds me of the big old churches in Europe.
One night I was hanging with Kristi’s music friends, and we ended up with Red at Mem Chu. We were in a service stairwell in the apse behind the altar. The stairs were dark, enclosed, all stone, winding up to the tower. It was after midnight on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. The group of us were all Stanford students and consisted of Red, who played harmonica & guitar and performed at coffeehouses in Palo Alto; a guy who played first violin in the San Francisco symphony (I always wondered whether he was part-time Stanford, full-time symphony or part-time symphony, full-time Stanford); a Marilyn Monroe look-alike who had been a finalist in the Miss Nevada pageant (her talent was playing the flute) and me. They handed me a tambourine.
I was sitting with these amazingly talented musicians, in this acoustically perfect stairwell. There may have been some alcohol or smoking. The three of them began jamming. We were sitting on the stairs, First Chair at the top facing down; Red below him to his right, Miss Nevada facing Red, and I was sitting below Red, my back against the cool stone wall, my left foot on the step I was sitting on, my right on the step below me. The stairwell wound up with a window at the curve, letting in moonlight, casting us in a blue haze.
The music rose up, resonating off the walls. I tapped and shook my tambourine in time with the music. The three of them just moved with the music, sometimes First Chair taking the lead, sometimes Red’s harmonica would cry out, sometimes Miss Nevada with her flute tones piercing the core of my being. To say it was magical seems pale. But I have no other word to describe the night.
It happened only once. And like so many things that happen that first year in college, a flood of other experiences immersed me. Kristi and Red dropped out of school but not together. I got new roommates. The symphony absorbed First Chair. I lost track of Miss Nevada.
But for one night, in Mem Chu, I was part of the magic.