The following is the third of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and for other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon. The author welcomes your comments.
To her colleagues at NYU Sara played down the role, but in truth, being the president’s wife, even in absentia, pleased her. Rowan hoped that her fondness for ceremony might yet find an outlet at gala functions which, several times a year, lit up the President’s House. Soon after he got the job, Sara had called Buildings and Grounds about redecorating the residence.
For the first time in his life, Rowan questioned his assumption that to spend money on décor was to waste it. He’d been raised by Depression-era parents and absorbed their deprecating attitude toward appearance and style. His two sports jackets were threadbare, he owned one pair of brown shoes, and Sara had pronounced his trousers baggy. His only criterion for clothing was serviceability, and it had taxed his wife’s patience to badger him into buying a new suit for the interviews at Jefferson.
But as the sixties had unfolded, Rowan came to understand that style played a part in political change. The house they were inheriting was dowdy, like the aging couple who’d occupied it since the fifties. He sensed that modernizing its look might, in a small way, help renew the college culture and spirit.
On moving day, Sara accompanied Rowan to the campus. When the College driver turned into the driveway of the President’s House, her face lit up.
“Oh, my God,” she said, taking Rowan’s arm when they stepped out of the car onto the slate path that led to the front porch.
“I tried to tell you,” he said, pleased that she was impressed.
Sara darted off to explore the house, and he headed for the kitchen to see what was in the fridge. To his delight, there was a steaming casserole on the counter.
“I thought you might want lunch,” a voice said. He turned around and saw a short, round-faced woman in a bright apron.
“My name is Margaret,” she said in a strong clear voice. “I’ve cooked for the last two presidents.” Her tone made it clear that she owned the kitchen.
“Hello, Margaret. I’m Rowan. Sara is upstairs checking things out. As soon as she’s had a look, we’d love to have some of your casserole. It looks delicious.”
“It’s chicken with broccoli. Hope you like it. Shall I set two places in the dining room?” Margaret asked.
“Right there, in the breakfast nook, is good.” Rowan pointed to a cozy little alcove flooded with sunlight. He knew instantly it would become his favorite spot in this mausoleum. “I’ll get my wife.”
The breakfast nook looked out on a long sloping backyard. The casserole was as good as it looked, and Rowan was about to serve himself a second helping when Margaret came up to them.
“You might want to save some room for dessert,” she said, setting a bowl of warm peach cobbler on the table. “There’s ice cream too.”
“It’s a masterpiece!” Sara said. “Good thing I won’t be around too much; I’d put on weight.”
When Margaret withdrew, Sara said, “It’s all very regal. I had no idea.”
“So you like it?”
“The house has possibilities, but as I suspected, the décor is atrocious. The head of Buildings and Grounds is meeting me here at two.”
“Don’t break the bank.”
“It looks like 1952 in here. Wait till you see what I have in mind.”
A few days later, when Sara left for New York Rowan found himself alone in the mansion except for Margaret’s daily comings and goings, weekly visits by a housekeeper, and a seemingly endless parade of craftsmen following through on Sara’s plans.
From day one he began dropping in on people—faculty, deans, dorm counselors, groundskeepers, librarians, janitors, cooks, secretaries, coaches, even the men who stoked the College’s cavernous coal furnace. To his surprise, many of the people he visited wanted to tell him their secrets. All varieties of personal confessions, skeletons in the closet, tips on the stock market—even scandalous gossip—were pressed on him. Every time he agreed to do something, he made an entry in his breast-pocket notebook, and as soon as he got back to the office he set about fulfilling those promises that required his personal involvement, delegating the others.
During the interview process, Rowan had met Steve Hobson, a young English professor renowned on campus for his course in modern poetry. Hobson had a burly, athletic build, and his rhetorical skill had won him the respect of his faculty peers. Soon after Rowan had arrived, he’d asked Hobson to gather his colleagues for informal discussions over lunch; Hobson was concerned that, by Thanksgiving, Jefferson’s antiquated policies might trigger more student protests.
Toward the end of the first lunch, Rowan brought up his plan to establish a commission to review every aspect of College life. A lively older professor with white hair and mischievous eyes seized the opportunity to give him a quick course in the psychology of leadership.
“The faculty is never going to do anything but talk unless there’s constant, hands-on leadership. That means chairing your own commission, Mr. President.”
“You think so?”
“Even though the faculty holds the legislative authority, that doesn’t mean you lack power. Your power lies in what we psychologists call ‘transference’—the deference that comes from people mistaking the incumbent for the office. But be warned: it only takes one misstep to break the spell.”
“You mean a faux pas…or a political mistake?”
“Anything that makes them see you as merely human, like themselves.”
“Well, I am human. We all are.”
“Hide it as long as you can. Because, once you disappoint them, they’ll blame you not only for your mistake, but also for their loss of enchantment. From then on, things will go downhill.”
Chairman Knight had urged Rowan to pay a courtesy call on John Rideout, a Washington-based attorney and singularly influential College trustee. He’d made his reputation by defending the foreign service officers Senator McCarthy had targeted during the Red Scare. Mr. Clay’s call for the demolition of Walker Gym gave Rowan all the reason he needed to consult Rideout, and in early August he found himself in Rideout’s sumptuous office, not far from the White House, gazing down at Pennsylvania Avenue.
Rideout began by commending Rowan for his “willingness to bear the burden of service,” essentially making it sound as if he were a mere water-carrier, whereas Rowan saw his presidency as an opportunity to make change. Rideout ended his pep talk by asking how he could help.
“I got a call this week from George Clay. He wants to know when we’re going to demolish the old gym. He wants my personal guarantee before he’ll release the second half of his four-million-dollar bequest for the new library.”
Before Rowan could go any further, Rideout exploded. “Jesus, I warned Jacoby about that. That library is Clay’s monument to himself, and he’d have given the money regardless. I’ll be damned if I’ll see Walker Gym sacrificed to that fool’s vanity.” He paused, reached for a cigar, and passed the humidor to Rowan.
Rowan eyed the torpedo-sized cigars, recalled a coughing fit induced by a much smaller one he’d once tried, and declined. Rideout then set about lighting up. His jaw was so large that the cigar all but disappeared in his maw. He leaned back in his leather swivel chair, put his shiny black shoes up on the mahogany desk and, taking a puff, calmly inquired, “Tell me, what do the kids think of our old gym?”
“It’s home to the dance program now, plus intramural sports.”
“And the faculty?”
“Everyone loves the place.”
“Okay, here’s the plan.” Rideout then gave Rowan a lesson in power politics, ending with a jovial, “We’ve gotta let Clay rape us, but don’t worry, we’ll give him a good dose of the clap.”
As Easter walked into his office, she struck him as prettier than before. He got up from his desk chair and went around to greet her.
“I hope you’re getting some rest this summer,” she said, offering her hand. “Things are going to heat up fast once we’re all back.”
“I’ll be ready. Would you like some tea?” On a table behind his desk Rowan kept an electric kettle, a teapot, and several large tins of loose black tea.
“I’d love some.”
“What are you doing here on campus? The place is empty.”
“Oh, lots of things,” Easter replied vaguely. He surmised that she’d come to see Obea.
Rowan poured the tea—amber, earthy, and strong—and suggested she drink it like the British, with a little milk. Noting her plans to study in England after graduation, Easter took his advice.
“Something’s just come up and I need your help,” Rowan said.
Easter nodded attentively and leaned forward, clearly pleased to be asked.
“You know that Mr. Clay is insisting we tear down Walker.”
“That is so stupid. Bill—I mean Obea—is up in arms. He says there’s no room for intramural sports in the varsity gym.”
“Easter, I’ve been wondering if a little demonstration of affection for Walker Gym could be organized, with media coverage, to persuade Mr. Clay to reconsider. What do you think?”
Easter leaned back and, with a smile that grew broader as she took in his meaning, said “Now this could be interesting. Obea was on the football team. He could get the jocks involved.”
“Do you know faculty who would participate?”
“Professor Cowper is interested in Jefferson’s architectural heritage. He’s my honors advisor. I’ll sound him out. I can keep your name out of it.”
“Yes, that would be best.” He thanked her and, jotting his home number on his card, gave it to her, saying, “Call me anytime.”
As she stood to leave, he asked, “You’re not going to change your name, are you?”
“Obea thinks changing ‘Easter’ to an African name would make a statement.”
“That I’m proud of my roots.”
“But ‘Easter Blue’ already makes a statement. ‘Easter’ stands for rebirth. And in the French tricolor, ‘Blue’ stands for Liberté. Hard to top that.”
“True. Plus, changing my name would upset my parents …”
“Were you born on an Easter Sunday?”
“Yes, but my birthday hasn’t fallen on Easter since. It will again some year, far down the road, when I’m old and gray, and… ”
“And ready for rebirth,” Rowan finished her sentence.
The following evening was hot and humid. Rowan was in the kitchen when the phone rang.
“Hello, Dr. Ellway?”
“Hi, Easter.” He knew her voice instantly.
“I talked to Professor Cowper about the gym and he’s going to lead a procession of professors around the building in full academic regalia! And Obea and I had no trouble recruiting students.”
“When will it happen?”
“The first Friday after school starts. My friends on the paper will make sure TV cameras are there. This demonstration won’t go unnoticed, I promise.”
“Just don’t blow me out of the water. I’ll need my political capital later.”
“I won’t let it get out of hand.”
“While it’s happening, I’ll be with Clay, watching it on TV and asking him to back down.”
“This is fun,” Easter said. Then, turning serious, “It’s apt to be the only demonstration that is…fun, I mean.”
“I want to talk to you about what comes next. Are you here for the weekend?”
“I’m leaving first thing tomorrow.”
“Do you have time this evening?”
“Sure. Give me half an hour.”
Easter arrived at about eight o’clock wearing a short red halter dress that revealed smooth mocha-colored shoulders. He showed her through the house to the back terrace that looked down a deep lush yard ringed by lilacs and rhododendrons. When they sat down, Rowan told her he intended to appoint four faculty, four students and several deans to a commission on Jefferson’s future that he would chair himself.
“Which faculty members? Which students?”
“Steve Hobson has identified some open-minded faculty. I’m hoping you’ll help me with the student appointments and serve on the commission yourself.”
“Oh! I’d be honored.”
He excused himself to get the iced tea and returned holding two tall glasses dripping beads of condensation. As he handed her a glass, she asked, “Is this where you cool off in the evening?”
“When it’s this hot I go to the College pool.”
“Doesn’t it close at six?”
“One of my perks is a master key to the College. That includes the pool. When I was a student you had to swim two laps to graduate.”
“Whatever was the point of that?”
“Probably a holdover from the days when colleges aimed to educate—pardon the expression—‘the whole man,’ body, mind and spirit.”
Sounds rather nineteenth century.”
“Well, it terrified my friend Huey Scott. Today, he’s Princeton’s only black professor. As a student here he ran the fastest quarter mile in the state but he couldn’t swim a stroke. I taught him to dog-paddle, and swam along with him so he could meet the requirement and graduate.”
“He must be your secret weapon for finding black faculty!”
“That’s why I mentioned him.” Despite Huey’s show of optimism with the Black Caucus, Rowan knew it would be hard to recruit black professors. There still weren’t that many candidates, and Ivy League universities could offer higher salaries than a college like Jefferson. If Huey Scott couldn’t help him find some black faculty, he didn’t know where else he could turn. “I’ve talked to him and he’s already scouting for us,” Rowan concluded optimistically.
Easter’s smile brought him back. “Do you swim?” he asked.
“My father taught me in the University of Chicago pool. Going there made me feel special, but also guilty. I never once saw another black kid in that pool.”
“That reminds me of Obea’s idea to open the pool to the town kids. We’re going to do that.”
“I’m supposed to be at his place now. Would you like to come tell him yourself?”
“Why not? I’ll grab my trunks and we can all take a dip afterward.”
Swimming in the College pool made Rowan feel like a student again. He could still perform his old feat of doing two laps underwater, and he was pleased to see relief on Easter’s face when he completed the round trip and surfaced in front of her. Obea did not seem impressed.
As if to match his exploit, Easter climbed the diving tower; she stood poised on the board for a moment, concentrating, and he stopped breathing as her svelte body arched through the air in a swan dive.
“Easter and I have been together from the day she got here,” Obea announced as she swam to the ladder. “I scare ‘em and she charms ‘em. A princess, don’t you think?”
“Good cop, bad cop?” Rowan ignored the question.
“Exactly. Without Malcolm X, King wouldn’t have been effective.”
“I take your point, but I don’t think scare tactics are what’s needed now.”
“Lasting change is the objective,” Easter added, hanging onto the side of the pool with one hand while she treaded water. She climbed out and sat between them.
Cool for the first time all day, they sat dangling their legs in the water. Rowan was struck by the contrast between the straggly brown hair clinging to his forehead like a damp mop and the tight black curls that crowned their heads.
“Easter and I have been brainstorming how to save the old gym,” Obea offered.
“The coalition we’re putting together will be a first for Jefferson,” Easter continued, directing her remarks to Rowan. “Athletes and artists for Walker Gym.”
After driving them back to Obea’s apartment, Rowan’s mind returned to the image of Easter soaring through the air in her crimson swimsuit. As if to blot it out, he turned on the car radio. “Intense fighting near Da Nang has resulted in heavy American and Vietcong casualties. After evacuation of the wounded, the area was subjected to saturation bombing by a squadron of B-52s.” Rowan followed the war closely, but tonight it seemed almost peripheral.
In bed, he had just turned off the light when the phone rang.
“I thought you were going to call me,” Sara said. “Are you coming tomorrow? I tried you earlier and got no answer.”
“Sorry, it’s later than I realized. I took a dip in the College pool. Yes, I’ll be there by four.”
“I’ve missed you. Let’s take a walk in Riverside Park.”
“Sure, plus dinner and a movie.”
“That sounds great.”
Rowan closed his eyes. The heat was oppressive, and he threw off the sheet. Although the swim had left him pleasantly fatigued, it was a long time before he fell asleep.