The following is the second 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.
“Hello, President Ellway. I’m Easter Blue,” she said, offering her hand.
“Hello,” he replied. “Thanks for meeting me.”
“This is Robin Star…and Victor Pao,” Easter indicated two students a half-step behind her. “We’re here to welcome you on behalf of the student body of Jefferson College.”
“I appreciate the welcoming party,” he said, wondering if her Afro was soft or scratchy to the touch.
“Congratulations on your appointment,” Robin said, drawing up to his side. She had red hair and freckles and, like Easter, wore an ankle-length skirt. But there the similarity ended. Easter’s skirt was a sophisticated African print that emphasized a voluptuous figure; Robin’s was a tie-dyed souvenir of the Summer of Love and gave no hint of curves beneath it.
“You still look like your yearbook photo,” Robin gushed.
“We’ll take you to the Jefferson Inn,” Easter said. “There’s a drop-in at the College cafeteria tonight and an open forum in the chapel tomorrow afternoon. Afterward, the Black Caucus is expecting you for dinner.”
Victor, who spoke English with a trace of a Chinese accent, insisted on carrying Rowan’s bag. As they approached the car, he asked the president-elect, “How does it feel to be back?”
“Ask me in a few days. I expect a lot has changed.”
“Not everything, thankfully,” Victor said, his formal manner echoing his tie and jacket.
“Are the students as studious as ever?”
“Absolutely,” Victor replied with unmistakable pride. Rowan looked sideways at Robin and caught her sarcastic grin.
En route to the inn, Easter steered the conversation deftly as she navigated the country roads. At Jefferson’s town limits, Rowan became aware of his mounting anticipation. He’d taken this road into Jefferson scores of times as a student, and now he was returning to campus as president-elect.
Suddenly, wailing sirens interrupted his reverie. Police cars were racing toward a swarm of people in front of the administration building on the far side of Jefferson Square. Easter parked the car at the inn, and Robin and Victor hopped out.
“What’s going on?” Robin called to a passing cyclist.
“We’ve taken two Army recruiters hostage.”
“I heard this might happen,” Robin said. “I don’t know about you guys, but my place is over there.” Without so much as a backward glance, she raced off toward the campus.
“Robin!” Easter called after her. Exasperated, she turned to Rowan and apologized, trying to be a dutiful hostess.
Rowan, peering through the trees, could just make out the lettering on a huge banner: JEFFERSON FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE, as the sounds of the crowd rose and fell like a howling storm, punctuated by honking horns. His mind was racing; joining a student antiwar protest was no way to make his first appearance, but retreating to the inn wouldn’t do either. He had to free himself of his student hosts.
He turned to Easter. “You go ahead. I’ll register and then come have a look.”
Easter looked relieved. “Are you sure? We were supposed to show you around.”
“It seems our agenda has changed.”
She flashed him an approving smile and headed toward the mélee, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll come for you at six.”
Victor had taken Rowan’s bag to the inn. Catching up with him, Rowan said, “Don’t you want to join the others?”
“Frankly, no, I do not support these demonstrations. My parents came here as refugees from China. College students have no idea what Asian communism is really like.”
Victor left Rowan’s suitcase in the care of a bellhop and took off. Rowan noticed that he headed away from the fracas. The bellhop, recognizing that in Rowan he had a captive audience, seized the opportunity to denounce the demonstrators.
“Military service used to be a badge of honor. These kids treat us vets like we’re the enemy.”
Rowan nodded ambiguously and picked up his bag, insisting that he carry it to his room himself. After he changed into a clean shirt, he set out across the square to discover his new life.
Halfway across the green, he mounted the steps of a gazebo for a better view of the demonstration. From his perch he could see dozens of students violently rocking a vehicle bearing an Army insignia. More students locked arms in a larger circle to block the advance of helmeted police brandishing truncheons. Numbering only a dozen, and facing an incensed mob, the police seemed to think better of assaulting them, and retreated. Minutes later he heard tear gas canisters detonating, and saw clouds of smoke waft over the crowd. From his experience at Columbia, he knew to keep his distance. Before long, the uniformed recruiters abandoned their surrounded vehicle and staggered into the protective embrace of the police.
Wandering incognito around the periphery of the battlefield, Rowan could see paramedics in gas masks giving oxygen to students overcome by fumes. He heard the mournful sound of sirens in the distance as he made his way back across Jefferson Square to sanctuary in the inn. Good god, he thought, what have I gotten myself into?
Precisely at six that evening, the phone rang.
“We’re here,” Easter said. “Shall I come up and fetch you?”
“No need, I’ll be right down.”
As he stepped off the elevator a half-dozen students leaped to their feet. He went around the circle shaking hands while, at his side, Easter introduced each one. The group walked across the town square, and into the cafeteria where the smell of greasy food displaced the lingering traces of tear gas. His little posse accompanied him to a large table where students were boisterously rehashing the day. Easter hushed them and introduced Rowan. Robin led off by asking what he thought of the demonstration. All eyes fell on the president-elect.
“I’m not speaking for the College,” he began, to an audible sigh of disappointment, “but once I take office I intend to argue my personal position that this war is unwise, unjust and unwinnable.” He paused to let this sink in. “And that the sooner American troops are withdrawn, the better.”
There was a burst of applause from all over the cafeteria. Turning to face the gathering crowd, he said, “I’ll elaborate on my views tomorrow at the open forum, but tonight, I’d like to hear what you think.” His invitation unleashed a torrent. One after another, students held forth, on co-ed dorms, racial diversity, the draft, town-gown relations, inflexible requirements, and on having no say in College governance. They were so grateful to be heard that there were no more questions.
Rowan would have been there all night if, just before midnight, Easter hadn’t climbed up on a chair, waved her hands for quiet, and called out, “Aren’t we going to let President Ellway get some sleep? He has a full day tomorrow.” Rowan took the opportunity to offer her a supporting hand as she stepped down. Instead of immediately letting go she gave it a tug, and headed for the exit, clearing a path through the throng for the two of them.
Outside, as they made their way toward Jefferson Square, the chapel bell began to sound the hour. Rowan silently counted off nine chimes, then finished the count aloud: “ten, eleven, twelve.” Turning to Easter at the stroke of midnight, he asked, “Were you afraid I’d turn into a pumpkin?”
“By this time tomorrow, you may wish you had,” she said. “You turned the tables on us tonight, but tomorrow the Black Caucus is going to insist on hearing your views.”
“I’ll be ready. But enough politics for tonight. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Not at all.”
“Your plans? Your goals?”
The silence that followed made him wonder if he’d overstepped. Finally, she said, “You mean what do I want to be when I grow up?”
“Something like that.”
“Oddly, I’ve never felt like a kid, even when I was one. Perhaps it’s because my father always took me seriously, even when I was little. He’s a history professor at the University of Chicago. After I graduate, I want to explore Africa and then specialize in African history, probably at Oxford.”
“Any particular focus?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. I want to study the slave trade—how my people got here—and I want to understand not just who bought them but who sold them.”
“That is an interesting question.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Because it’s not just a race question, it’s a human question.”
“I thought you might understand.”
They chatted easily as they crossed the square. It was so dark below the canopy of elms that they felt the need to visually confirm each other’s presence in the occasional pools of light under the lampposts. When they reached the inn, Easter said, “Tomorrow you’ll be meeting Bill Stone—he’s the Caucus chairman. He’s graduating on Sunday. Bill can be a bit…well, blunt.”
“Are you trying to warn me?”
“Don’t worry. To win faculty support, we’ll need both militants and moderates.”
“Exactly,” she replied, extending her hand. He reached out and shook it.
“Goodnight, Easter,” he said. “Thanks for taking care of me tonight.”
“My pleasure,” she replied, and turned to cross the dark square. As he watched her form recede, he imagined her as an ally in the battles to come, and he couldn’t picture her being on the losing side.
Rowan awoke to a gray, soggy day and found that the battery in his shaver was dead. Normally, he tried to do something else while he mindlessly ran the Norelco over his face, but with a spare razor he had to monitor the task. He was not one for mirror gazing. He’d weigh himself occasionally, but apart from that, he was indifferent to his appearance. Asked to describe himself, he’d have been hard put to say more than that he had a long face, blue eyes, and light-brown hair that refused to lie flat on one side of his part. He’d recognize himself in photos, but less from his facial image than from remembering the occasion on which the photos had been taken.
The novelty of looking at himself in the mirror brought Sara to mind. She took far more interest in his appearance than he did. He’d barely thought of her since he’d arrived, but now he remembered her advice—that a little humor would ease things with the faculty. None of his limitations had caused him more trouble than what she called his “irony deficiency.”
Distracted, he nicked his chin. He rinsed off the reddening suds, dressed quickly, and took the elevator down, blotting his cut with his handkerchief one last time before stepping out into the lobby. Four professors rose as one to welcome him. The group spokesman was Donald Bentley, chairman of the chemistry department and, of particular interest to Rowan, an ex-boyfriend of Sara’s from her undergraduate days at MIT. Rowan was pleased to see that Bentley had developed a paunch in the years since college.
“Welcome back to Jefferson, Dr. Ellway,” Bentley declaimed. “On behalf of the faculty, I congratulate you on your appointment. We’re here to offer you whatever help we can. Shall we get some breakfast?”
Bentley led the way to a private room in the inn, decorated with floral wallpaper from the forties. A lone potted fig tree stood dying in one corner. Set out on a side table was the same fare—watery orange juice, lukewarm coffee, and greasy eggs—that Rowan remembered from the visit he’d made for his interview.
He’d hardly lifted his cup before Bentley turned to finances. “What can you tell us about your fundraising plans? I presume the board informed you that faculty salaries at Jefferson are barely keeping up with the profession.”
Rowan resisted an urge to say what he thought of this question. How could a faculty leader go straight to the issue of compensation in turbulent times like these? To hide his annoyance, he put his arms on the table and made himself lean forward, all ears. Bentley was just warming up.
“The grapevine has it that you pried a million dollars for Columbia out of our own board chairman. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe we’ve received a nickel from Mr. Knight’s foundation. If I may be so bold, Dr. Ellway, what’s your secret?”
“It’s no mystery. I simply convinced him that we’d deliver on his investment. If you truly believe in an educational project, funders will too.”
That triggered a heated discussion of the merits and demerits of several innovative grant proposals the College had in the works. Without taking sides, Rowan let Bentley know that they were the kind of projects he would go to bat for.
Their time up, Bentley escorted him to his next appointment. Anticipating a solicitous query regarding his wife, Rowan beat him to the punch. “Sara sends her regards. She’s at NYU, working around the clock on her research.”
“Sounds as if she hasn’t changed. Do give her my best.” Rowan thought he detected compensatory nonchalance in Bentley’s manner. Then, adopting a confidential tone, Bentley added, “I wouldn’t want to leave you with a false impression, Dr. Ellway. Some of the reforms you’ve mentioned have already been discussed by the faculty, and I must say we have not found them compelling. On the contrary, for the most part, they are ill-considered, if not irresponsible. My colleagues are reasonable men. We’re willing to debate the issues, but in our opinion the College is in pretty good shape. Getting our votes won’t be like shaking ripe fruit off a tree.”
Rowan wondered what Sara had ever seen in this prig. If Bentley were actually speaking for the faculty, then winning its approval for his plans was going to be much harder than he’d imagined.
The benefactor of the new library, George Clay, had insisted on giving the president-elect a guided tour of the half-finished building that would bear his name. With Mrs. Clay trailing behind her husband like an obedient dog, Mr. Clay showed Rowan through every room in the monument he was erecting to himself. From the sundeck on its roof, they had a panoramic view of Jefferson’s tidy campus. The clouds had lifted and vapor rose from the groomed athletic fields that lay beyond the nearly completed “Mike” Marlborough Men’s Gymnasium, named for the trustee who had provided the funds. Presiding at its dedication would be one of Rowan’s first ceremonial tasks as president. When he asked if a tour of the building was on his schedule, he was told that Mr. Marlborough had insisted on showing the president-elect through the gym himself, and was making a special trip in from Detroit the following day to do so.
At the center of campus stood a cluster of limestone buildings overgrown with ivy, all dating from the early twentieth century. These included Seeger Chapel, the College Archives, the Administration Building, which held his future office, and a classroom building topped with a patina-covered copper-domed astronomical observatory. Students moved like columns of ants along sidewalks linking the buildings. Rowan recalled the sting of the winter air on his face during his student years as he’d biked along these paths to early morning classes.
Clay Library was being built on a large lawn adjacent to Walker Gymnasium, an architectural gem and home to the basketball team on which Rowan had played in the fifties. Taking his arm, Clay directed his attention to the old gym. “I thought you ought to know that our bequest for the library is contingent on the removal of Walker Gymnasium, which won’t be needed with the new gym. Clay Library merits a panoramic setting, I’m sure you agree.”
Some of Rowan’s happiest hours had been spent in Walker, so Clay’s threat to his dear old gym felt like a blow. By the time he freed himself from the dutiful rigors of smiling at Mr. and Mrs. Clay, his face ached.
As he picked up his room key at the inn, the desk clerk handed Rowan a note, handwritten on cream vellum embossed in maroon with the initials ERB. It read:
Jefferson’s Black Caucus invites you to a barbecue tonight at six o’clock at Sojourner Truth House.
The note smelled faintly of perfume. It was signed “Easter.” Below her signature was a postscript.
P.S. See you at the forum this afternoon. Good luck.
Rowan arrived early for the open forum at Seeger Chapel and, keeping his head down, managed to go unrecognized at first. Students were streaming into the cavernous chapel from all directions. A dozen black students sporting Afros sat together in the front row. Easter’s long neck made it easy to pick her out of the group. A faculty contingent occupied the last few pews. A few rowdies in the balcony called out to their friends below. As Rowan mounted the stairs to the stage, students sitting on the floor directly below the podium recognized him, and one called out, “Go for it, President Ellway.”
Their good faith touched him, and he promised himself not to fail them.
Most of the student body was there, come to see the man chosen to replace the one they’d hounded from office. Half a dozen placards poked out of the crowd: ABOLISH DORM VISITING HOURS; US OUT OF VIETNAM; BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. NO MILITARY AT JEFFERSON was held aloft by a white student wearing a Lenin cap. The banner proclaiming JEFFERSON FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE, tattered and mud-splattered from the previous day’s fracas, was draped along one wall. There were microphones in the aisles, and students were lining up behind them.
Rowan detached the mike from the lectern, walked to center stage, and stood gazing out at the upturned faces. He felt like a gladiator entering the Colosseum. With exams behind them, their final protest registered, and graduation imminent, the students were in a festive mood.
He waited for his audience to hush. The noise level fell, then flared again, but slowly died away until a single cough echoed like a shot from a cannon. Into the silence, Rowan said, “Any questions?”
A student in torn jeans and a Capezio T-shirt spoke into a microphone. “There’s a rumor that Walker Gym is going to be demolished to make room for the new library. Dance has nowhere else to go. Is the rumor true, and if so, what are you going to do about it?”
“Razing Walker Gym was apparently part of the deal that’s bringing Jefferson the Clay Library. I’ve spent many happy days in Walker and hope to spend many more. At this point, all I can say is that I have a very hard time picturing Walker’s demolition.”
A boy on the floor below the stage stood up and, without benefit of the mike, hollered loud enough for all to hear, “Can the food in the College cafeteria be improved?”
After pondering the question for as long as he dared, Rowan deadpanned, No.
Raucous laughter exploded. When it subsided, the same student followed up. “You look too young to be a college president. Are you ready for this job?”
“Same answer.” The laughter grew friendlier.
When he addressed a crowd, Rowan invariably felt a part of himself detach from the man at the podium and take up a position overhead, calmly observing the scene below. An hour of robust give-and-take flew by before the moderator stepped in. “We have time for one last question. Even though he’s not in line, I know that no one will object if I give Professor Rivers the last word.”
“Thank you very much,” Rivers began solemnly. From the sudden stillness, Rowan knew this was their spokesperson. “Over the last few years, many of us have spoken out on civil rights and the war in Vietnam. I’d like to ask about the role you see for Jefferson—as a College—on these national issues.”
Rowan was not going to duck this one. “We’re at a crossroads,” he began, “not just our college, but our country as well. There are several areas where the past can no longer serve as a guide to our future. As a College and as a country we’re rethinking the relationship between the races, between the sexes, and between elders and the young.
“I think our College’s namesake had it right. If, as Thomas Jefferson said, we are all created equal, then why shouldn’t our student body and faculty reflect our nation’s diversity? Why shouldn’t a college education be as available to the poor as it is to the rich, and as hospitable to women as to men? Why shouldn’t students have a say in the way they live and the courses they take?
“The whole country is searching for answers. Only once or twice a century do colleges get a chance to set an example for society, and this is one of those times. Before the year is out, I expect Jefferson to have taken a stand that will make us all proud. We’ve done it before, and with your help, we will do it again.”
He was on his way out of the chapel when Easter appeared. She gave him a lovely smile and a thumbs-up, but before he could respond, a group of students had cornered him.
As she’d done the previous evening, Easter lingered unobtrusively, then picked the right moment to extricate him from the well-wishers. “The president-elect is expected at Sojourner Truth House in ten minutes,” she announced. Instantly, the group bowed to Easter’s claim, and she stepped in to lead Rowan off to his rendezvous with the Black Caucus.
As they approached Truth House, Rowan sensed that their conversation, which had seemed like play, had become work. Once inside, she showed him to a seat on the long side of a large oak table, and positioned herself in a chair opposite him that had obviously been held for her. On cue, an intense young man at the head of the table, clad in a traditional dashiki, gaveled the meeting to order.
“Welcome to Truth House, Rowan Ellway. My name is Obea Uhuru and I’m the chairman of Jefferson’s Black Caucus. It’s our custom to put business before pleasure.”
Making a mental note of Bill Stone’s name change, Rowan nodded his assent, but Obea, who had the peremptory manner of one accustomed to being heard, was already forging ahead.
“Jefferson’s student body is 98 percent white, 1 percent black, and 1 percent other minorities. Apart from a token exception, the faculty is all white. What do you intend to do about that?”
Rowan waited for the murmurs of agreement to subside, then said, “Jefferson has about four thousand students, and we’ve been graduating about ten blacks a year. If the senior class reflected the racial composition of the country, then it would include at least one hundred minority graduates.”
“We’re not interested in ‘minorities’,” Obea interjected. “The Asian and Native Americans can take care of themselves. We’re here to speak for our black brothers and sisters.”
“What about black faculty?” someone yelled from the far end of the table.
“A president can’t make faculty appointments, but he can refuse to forward departmental recommendations to the board if the recruitment process hasn’t included black candidates…”
“We proposed that to your predecessor,” Easter interrupted, “and we got no response. Zero.” Rowan was startled by the force of her comment. She pushed back her chair and rose to her feet. Eyes blazing, she spelled out her case in a tone that commanded the attention of the room.
“Since I arrived, not one new professor has been black. This is unacceptable. Student admissions are only marginally better. Jefferson says that admissions are color-blind, but the numbers say otherwise. You have to understand, Mr. President, that things can’t continue like this.”
When confronted at Columbia, Rowan had tended to get defensive, but Easter’s indignation was passionate and impersonal. Her tone seemed directed at the institution, rather than at him, and he responded with an equanimity that surprised even himself.
“Do you recall your first impression of Jefferson?” he asked. “Take a moment and remember how you felt. Did you come away from your interview certain that you were wanted here? Or, did you detect some ambivalence in Jefferson’s approach to you?”
He looked at each person around the table, but didn’t wait for anyone to answer. Looking directly into Easter’s eyes, he said, “If we go into black high schools and tell students we want them, if we make them know that the welcome awaiting them at Jefferson is a warm and sincere one, and if they understand that to mean that we’ll provide them with all the academic, financial, and emotional support they need, we can make Jefferson a mecca for black students.”
He took a deep breath, then continued.
“Word will get out, and within a few years we’ll have highly qualified black students clamoring to get in, and topnotch black faculty applying for teaching positions. I’ll set an example with the administrative appointments I do control as president. There will be at least three new black administrators by Christmas. I’ll ask the Black Caucus to interview the candidates and give me your views on their suitability. But understand this: I will make the appointments, not anyone else. Instead of lowering standards, which is what the faculty fears, we’re going to surprise everyone by raising them. I don’t expect to convince you now, but I am absolutely certain we can do this.”
From that point on, though there were some expressions of skepticism, and several stories of promises broken, the Black Caucus adopted a wait and see attitude toward the new president. When Obea declared the business done, they moved to the patio for the barbecue. Obea draped his arm across Easter’s shoulders and, smiling proudly, addressed Rowan, “She’s pretty persuasive, don’t you agree?”
“You make a good team, but I’m not your opponent.”
“We’re glad to have a sympathetic ear, but we’ve got to see results.”
Over dinner, Rowan learned that Obea had been born and raised in town, and asked him what it had been like growing up in the College’s shadow.
“The College was off-limits to us. It was a castle inside a moat.”
“Do college students still work in the public schools?” Rowan recalled his own tutoring in the local elementary school, in a program organized by one of his math professors.
“Just a handful. What we really want is access to the gym and pool. They’re hardly used during the summer, just when townies most need something to do.”
“I’ll look into that,” Rowan said, jotting a reminder in a notebook he carried in his breast pocket. He then brought up the subject of the status of women at Jefferson. Easter had plenty to say on this subject, and Obea fell silent. Catching a glum expression on his face and mindful that friction between the civil rights and women’s movements was good for neither, Rowan suggested they call it a night.
“I have to go to the art library,” Easter said to Obea. “I’ll drop Dr. Ellway off at the inn.”
“Okay,” Obea replied, giving Easter a kiss. As she and Rowan left the patio, he called out after her,
“See you back here tonight.”
“Obea speaks for all of us,” Easter said as she ushered Rowan out. “If the College actually hires some black teachers and admits more black students this year, you’ll have our support…across the board.”
“I understand. I’m counting on your help.”
Under the first lamppost in the square, Easter said, “It’s my turn to ask a question…okay?”
“What’s your fondest memory of Jefferson?” The timbre of her voice confirmed that they were off duty.
Before he could reply they were again hidden from each other by night. He ruled out telling her about the weekend he’d spent with his girlfriend in Niagara Falls, but to impress her with an athletic achievement, he’d have to inflate his modest record. As they passed a lamppost, he landed on a vivid memory. “As a sophomore, I cut class to hitchhike to a Van Gogh exhibit in Toledo, Ohio. I’d never cut a class before, and it felt like a mortal sin. I only did it because I looked up to the guy who had asked me to go with him. Tony Radcliffe was a legend at Jefferson. When Viva Zapata came to town, he dressed up as a revolutionary, rented a white horse, and rode it around campus to promote the film. Tony just wouldn’t let me say no. I still think of the corner of College Street and Main, where we hitched our first ride, as a leap that changed my life.”
“Afterward, I stopped playing it safe.”
They had reached the inn. Easter said nothing, but looked up at him pensively. Then she asked if she could stop by and see him when she visited campus in July.
“I’ll be disappointed if you don’t.”
“Till July then. Goodnight, Dr. Ellway.”
When he reached his room above the square, he went to the window. As Easter crossed the first pool of light, he saw her turn and glance over her shoulder toward the inn.