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  • Writer's pictureJim Donaher

At 17

Lord, on a day much like this one, 42 years ago, I first visited the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass). I no idea what it was all about, or even how college was supposed to work, but many friends had gone there and though its nickname was 'ZooMass', or maybe because of it, I felt like I could get an education there and hopefully figure out my future.

It was a cloudy, cold day, the day after Thanksgiving, when Dad and I drove out to visit two schools: One was American International College (AIC) in Springfield, which had expressed interest in me as a football player, and UMass, which Dad was more interested in than I was.

The previous morning, I played my last high school football game, and had an interception and some tackles in an 18-15 win over our archrival Weymouth South on muddy, snowy Legion Field.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Dad and I had no appointments, no one waiting to show us around. Only an old-school pair of brochures with pictures of the campuses and some basic information.

Both campuses were ghost towns. Unlike UMass, AIC was small, urban and located in what looked to my suburban white kid eyes like the ghetto. We never searched out any athletic facilities, not did we find anything resembling classrooms, labs, dorms or anything else. Not impressive.

Dad said we could drive to UMass in a half-hour or so, so we did. With the sprawling campus, with high-rise dorms and library, and modern (back then) concrete slab buildings, it was an attractive ghost town. We had no map or guide or any indication as to how much campus there was.

We parked on Haigis Mall, near the Whitmore Administration Building and the Fine Arts Center. Behind me was the business school, where I would spend a lot of time in the coming 4 years. I had no idea it was there.

So we wandered around a bit, and I peered into the darkened Herter Hall but was unable to see anything but a lobby.

I remember noticing flyers everywhere for all kinds of events– happy hours, music shows, lectures, parties, plays, political rallies, sit-in protests, and so many other things. There were also flyers selling goods and services, and they would have tear-off tabs with their phone numbers for people to take. Whether they were selling old refrigerators, looking for roommates, concert tickets, rides home and other places, or hiring themselves out to type papers, tutor, or provide lecture notes, there was so much.

I didn’t so much draw a conclusion from this as I did catalog it in my memory. In my 4 years, I don’t think I ever posted something like that. I was a consumer, not a provider. But it probably affected me unconsciously, suggesting that this was a place of great activity, at least when it wasn’t the day after Thanksgiving when everyone had gone home.

In contrast to AIC, UMass seemed to offer quality and variety. It also provided reasonable cost, which was important for me, because in hindsight, I had no idea what college would be like or what I should do to get something out of it.

I had looked at Bentley and Southeastern Massachusetts (now UMass Dartmouth). Well, we tried to look at SMU. Mom and Dad and I drove down, but we were unable to find the campus. We drove around for a while, Dad getting frustrated, me losing interest, and eventually Dad blew his stack and headed for home. We may have visited SMU another time, but it was not memorable for me.

It is interesting to look back on such a strangely inefficient day as we had back those many years ago. We drove for about 5 hours, visited one campus in minutes and another in a few more minutes. I spent a lot of time in the car with Dad, and we talked on and off, listening to the radio. He was remarkably calm and patient during this trip.

Snapshots of the day include:

  • Passing the Smith and Wesson plant in Western Massachusetts, I believe in Springfield.

  • The dingy alley between two AIC campus buildings, one of which had some flyers about Afro-American studies on it.

  • The aforementioned flyers at UMass.

  • The song ‘Year of the Cat’ by Al Stewart on the radio once driving out, once driving home. To this day, one of my favorite songs.

At the end of all this, I think I applied to UMass and Bentley, no place else. I got into both (I think I got into Bentley, because if I didn't, I would hold it against them to this day) but UMass was the only realistic choice. Bentley would work if, and only if, I wanted to be an accountant, which was their strength. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do that but if I did, I could do it just as well or better at UMass.

Nine months later, I started college at UMass Amherst. It was wonderful for me.

I am not someone who spends much time thinking about roads not taken. What if I stayed home and went to Northeastern or BC? What if I went out of state, to New Hampshire or Maine or even Vermont? What if I followed up on the random flyers I got after taking the SAT from St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN, or Ball State in Muncie, IN?

At the end of everything, Lord, you took me as a clueless 17 year old and deposited me where I would be able to grow and be happy. There may have been hundreds of such places, but you found me the one that fit like a glove.

So I took that road, didn’t look back. And like the poet said, it has made all the difference.

Thank you for blessing me on that day 42 years ago, for my Dad taking me, and for the good day we had together.

How quickly time passes.

Thank you for blessing me with those days, those people, those lessons, those times. And especially for my Mom and Dad, who I am missing somewhat more than usual today.

In Jesus' name, I pray, gratefully, AMEN!

Jim Donaher is a writer, blogger, and author of the soon to be published, "Call Him, He's Home: Learning Prayer to Start and Grow Your Relationship with God" Click the title to read an excerpt.

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