The following is the first 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.
“Dr. Rowan Ellway … ”
The sound of her voice brought him to his feet. Even after all these years, he knew the invocation by heart: “ … in the name of Jefferson College, and by virtue of the powers vested in me, I confer this degree upon you with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.” Easter unfurled the silk-lined velvet hood, raised it over his head, and placed it around his neck.
Her official letter, with its offer of an honorary degree, had reached him two months earlier at the American Embassy in Moscow. Clipped to it was a note, handwritten on cream vellum embossed with the initials ERB. Although the scent was faint, Rowan recognized it as her fragrance. Rubbing his finger back and forth over the raised letters like a blind man, he had read it again and again:
I do hope you will accept this overdue honor. I look forward to seeing you after all these years. Please drop by the President’s House after the ceremony, say around nine.
A SMILING PUBLIC MAN
… the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
— William Butler Yeats, Among School Children
He let himself into their Upper West Side apartment and listened for Sara. Though no sounds or sights revealed her presence, after five years of married life, Rowan could sense when she was home. As he hung his coat in the hall closet, her muffled voice reached him from the kitchen.
“I’ll be right out.”
He took his usual spot on the sofa and scanned the room. Orange crates still held their college books, but a Tiffany lamp that Sara had bought to celebrate his move to the dean’s office at Columbia hung over a worn easy chair. He took off his shoes and inched his feet across the coffee table, nudging aside a stack of Sara’s professional journals to accommodate his long legs.
“Champagne, Mr. President,” Sara intoned as she entered the room bearing a tray with two crystal flutes. She was wearing a lime green miniskirt and a T-shirt. She still looked more like the student he’d fallen in love with six years earlier than the chemistry professor she’d become.
“Wow! Mumm’s Red Label, and new glasses. You splurged.”
A fly-on-the-wall observer would have noticed that Gumby had his rubbery arms wrapped around the neck of the bottle and was clinging to it for dear life. But this did not call for comment from Rowan. The green doll had seen them through their marriage, serving as a kind of mascot or witness. Sara, who’d acquired Gumby in college, orchestrated his appearances: Gumby sitting in the freezer wearing a tiny muffler; Gumby crawling out of the bathroom cabinet …
“We can afford good champagne now,” Sara said, undoing Gumby’s grip. By the way, your mother called, gushing. She’s so proud—her son, a college president! I’m sure she’ll make the most of it with her friends.”
“By Christmas she’ll be asking when I’m moving to Harvard. Her ambitions know no bounds.” He frowned, hesitated, and looked directly at Sara. “Does the bubbly mean you accept the role of Jefferson’s first lady?”
She handed him the bottle. “Until the butler arrives, you’ll have to do cork service,” she said, ignoring his question. As he removed the cork she plopped down at her end of the sofa. Their champagne fizzing, they swiveled to face each other.
Just as their feet were about to meet in the middle, Sara jumped up and ran to the kitchen. “Oh, thank god I haven’t burned the pizza,” he heard.
She returned with two plates, each holding half of what twenty minutes earlier had been a frozen pepperoni pie. In one flowing movement she settled back into her spot and handed Rowan his half.
He knew from experience that she would answer questions that were hanging between them when she was ready. After delicately biting off the tip of a slice, she asked, “Did you tell the trustees I won’t be living on campus?”
“When I mentioned your NYU job, one of the men asked how often you’d be at Jefferson. Before I could answer, another trustee jumped in. She said her husband spends weekdays in Washington and stays in Manhattan on weekends. That seemed to satisfy them.”
“My life is none of their business,” Sara said emphatically. “You know I support you 100 percent, but they’re hiring Dr. Ellway, not me. If they expect me to play hostess they’re going to be disappointed.”
“They don’t see the president’s wife serving tea and cookies to students, but …”
“Look, I know you’ll do Jefferson students more good as a role model teaching at NYU than you would serving tea at Jefferson, but the trustees will be disappointed if you’re never around.” He reached for one of her feet, still calloused from her ballet days, and began to rub it. “And so will I.”
Sara made as if to pull her foot back and bury it between the sofa cushions. “You don’t have to do that,” she said in what he recognized as a ritual protest. “They’re so ugly.”
Until her late teens, she had devoted herself to ballet with the same single-minded passion she now brought to chemistry. But by the time she’d left high school it was clear that her knees would not withstand a dance career.
As always, his touch calmed her, but after a few minutes she tucked the foot he’d been rubbing under her free leg, and he slipped his empty hand between the cushions.
“We’ll survive this,” she said, draining her glass. “Your being off at Jefferson isn’t that big a deal. It will make weekends together special.”
“You could come out Friday evenings and return late Sunday. It’s only an hour’s flight to Michigan.”
“Sure, but won’t you be in New York regularly on business?”
“Yeah, there’s a monthly meeting of the Investment Committee. Anyway, you’re right, we’re not poor anymore, so travel’s no problem. They’re doubling my Columbia salary, and we get a free house, a mansion actually, plus a cook and a house-keeper.”
“Wow! Bring the cook along when you come.” Sara hated cooking. She always said that chemistry had all the recipes she could stand in her life. “Is it really a mansion?” she asked him.
“You’ll see,” Rowan said, wondering if the stately, ivy-covered Georgian manor would prove a drawing card.
“I can’t wait to see it.” Rowan refilled their glasses, and when they’d drained the bottle he reached for her, and she yielded to his pull.
Rowan invariably woke up first. When he rose from the rumpled bed the next morning, he glanced down at Sara, still asleep, her long auburn hair spread across the pillow. Wide-set eyes, full cheeks, and a petite nose combined to give her face a pleasing symmetry. But what held his gaze was her earnest look. Even when she was asleep, she always seemed full of purpose. Indeed, what had first caught his eye was the determined way she strode across the Columbia campus. Spotting her at the chemistry building one morning, he contrived to run into her that afternoon at the department’s daily tea. Only after they’d begun dating, and she’d told him about her dancing days, did he connect the elegant way she carried herself with her ballet training.
Losing her childhood dream had strengthened her resolve to succeed at science, and she’d clawed her way to the top of a field ruled by men. He was proud of her.
Rowan set out a multivitamin and a glass of orange juice for Sara and was wondering whether toasting the last of the bagels would freshen it when the phone rang. It was Wilfred Knight, the kinetic chairman of Jefferson’s Board of Trustees, calling from his command post in a mid-Manhattan skyscraper.
“Your visit to the College is set. We’ve booked you solid.”
“I’m looking forward to getting started.”
“Jefferson’s due for an overhaul. That’s why we chose you. Oh, before I forget, there’s one small formality.”
“Barring unforeseen developments, the board expects you to serve at least five years. And, for the record, I must remind you that presidents serve at the pleasure of the board. You understand, I’m sure.”
“You wanted to meet some more students. I’ve arranged a welcoming party at the airport.”
“Good,” Rowan said, relieved to be done with the formalities.
“Call me when you get back. I want to hear your impressions.”
The call had roused Sara. As she padded down the hall he took the bagel out of the toaster, quickly spread it with cream cheese, and served it to her as she sat down.
Looking skeptical, she washed down the vitamin with a sip of orange juice, stared at the bagel, shifted around in her chair, and looked up at Rowan.
“There’s one thing we didn’t talk about last night. The clock’s ticking, Rowan. If all goes well and I get tenure, then there will only be a few more years for me to get pregnant.”
They’d been over this ground many times, not as antagonists but as partners. “That was Knight on the phone. He expects me to serve five years, but after four they won’t care if I leave.”
“But I’ll be almost forty by then.”
“Maybe when you’re settled at NYU we could get a nanny and manage somehow.”
“It’s no good raising a baby with Daddy a million miles away.”
Rowan was looking into an abyss. He sat down and reached across the table for Sara’s hand. “Last night I lay awake thinking about not seeing each other from Monday to Friday …”
Sara sat up straight. “I’ve got to be in the lab, or else. Without my career, I’d just be Mrs. Rowan Ellway.”
Sara had always dreaded turning into her mother, who’d given up a career in biology to raise a family. If Rowan ever wavered in his support for her career, a holiday dinner with her family was all it took to remind him how the bitterness of unrealized ambition can poison a marriage.
“It’s just that, well, it’s beginning to hit me what being alone out there is going to be like; all the socializing … you’re so much better at parties than I am.”
Rowan loved engaging with people one-on-one, but chitchat made him uncomfortable. At cocktail parties he’d feel that while one part of him made small talk another part was watching from a distance, judging him a phony.
“Oh, they’re gonna love you,” Sara said, leaning over and kissing his forehead. “Just try to smile more, you’re too serious.”
“That’s the problem with this job. You have to put on a happy face like that ‘sixty-year-old smiling public man’ in the Yeats poem I showed you. I’d rather be dead than act like that.”
“If you leave after four years, you’ll only be thirty-seven.”
“That would leave us enough time to start a family, don’t you think?”
“Might be pushing our luck.”
“Well, we’ve been lucky so far, plus you’re so healthy and fit.”
“There’s no evidence that fitness extends fertility,” Sara said. “I’ve looked into it. But what about you? What do you see yourself doing after Jefferson?”
“What concerns me most about this move is that, in just a few years, physics will have passed me by. Nobody’s going to want me.”
“I’m not worried about you. You’ve always had plenty of ideas.”
A few days later, cramped into an economy seat, Rowan flew to Jefferson for his début as president-elect. Columbia students had already resorted to force in pressing their demands for a say in University affairs. Jefferson’s students had not yet turned their fury on the College itself; his honeymoon at Jefferson could be brief.
Old President Jacoby and his wife had tried to appease Jefferson’s students by offering them refreshments in the President’s House. When he had refused to address their demands, they had stormed out. The next day the college paper had run an editorial calling for the president’s resignation. Mystified and hurt, Jacoby had called Chairman Knight for moral support. But when Knight had asked him how he planned to respond to student complaints, Jacoby’s only idea was to hold a teach-in on civility.
As the head of a global foundation, Knight had his finger on the national pulse; this was not the first time Jacoby had turned a tin ear to calls for change, and Knight had had enough. He had little trouble persuading his fellow trustees to offer Jacoby a nice retirement package and seek new leadership for the College. Rowan had learned these details from Knight himself at a lunch in his private dining room at foundation headquarters. Over dessert, Knight asked him the same question he’d asked Jacoby: How would you address student grievances?
Rowan had said they could no longer be treated like kids. They were young adults, and colleges had to recognize it. What’s more, when it came to civil rights and women’s rights and student rights, the young were on the side of history. It was their elders—professors, administrators, and trustees—who had to change.
He knew that Jefferson was looking for a new president but he wasn’t concerned about offending Knight; if the board saw the job as mollifying students, he didn’t want it. Rowan’s answer evidently had met with Knight’s approval because, within the week, he’d been invited to campus to meet with the presidential search committee.
He was aware that in normal times his stint as a dean at Columbia wouldn’t have qualified him for a college presidency. Presiding over a campus was a job traditionally given to seasoned older men. But these were not normal times—campuses everywhere were erupting.
During his search committee interview, one thing had come up again and again: While he was teaching physics at Columbia, Rowan had also taught science in a predominately black Harlem high school. Jefferson’s white liberals couldn’t get enough of it. They seemed to want to believe that, when it came to race, he was a step ahead of them.
For two full days, trustees, administrators, professors, and students had grilled him, not only on race, but on all the hot-button issues of the time: the status of women, dormitory life, educational policy, and governance. At the final committee interview, the chairman led off.
“We’ve been grilling you all day, Dr. Ellway. Do you have any questions for us?”
“They all boil down to one: Are you serious about reform?” Rowan paused to let this sink in. “When I was a student here fifteen years ago, Jefferson shaped my worldview. But lately, I’ve thought that the College has become a defender of the status quo. Unless you’re serious about reform, I’m not your man. My first act would be to appoint a commission to examine our strengths and weaknesses and draw up proposals for some far-reaching changes.”
“You’ll get no objections from the board,” Knight interjected. Rowan knew that in Knight, he had a formidable ally, but he also knew that many key reforms would require the approval of the faculty.
“But will I get your active support?” Rowan looked directly at the student and faculty delegations. “Reform is not easy and it’s not cheap. For example, achieving ethnic diversity at Jefferson will require more counseling and tutoring and more scholarship money, and that means changing our priorities.” Several students nodded.
“For starters,” Rowan said, glancing at Knight, “I’d expect the board to take special action to increase the College budget for these items for the current fiscal year and for every year thereafter.”
The inquisition was over; it was now a courtship. Even before Rowan had left campus, Knight told him that he had conducted a straw poll, and the job was his if he wanted it.
As a dean at Columbia, it had riled him to watch his superiors try to placate students who wanted reforms with nothing but cosmetic fixes. Jefferson seemed eager for fundamental change, and he’d promised himself that if he ever got the chance, he’d take no half-measures. Now, to his astonishment, that chance was his. His doubts about the job dissolved—he wanted it.
He phoned Sara to tell her the news. She said she was happy for him. For an instant, he wished she were happy for them, but he had long since accepted the reality that he had his passions, and Sara had hers.