In which I say goodbye to dear friends.
In the fall of 2007, I was an English teacher struggling to make it through a semester at a high school in upstate South Carolina. Among my challenges: teaching an Intro to Theatre Arts class whose students had desperately little interest in theatre. Even more challenging was a trio of exasperating young women in the class named Faith, Hope, and Tequila, the latter of whom was particularly more adept at managing my class than I was.
This wasn’t the first time in my life I’d contemplated leaving teaching, but it was the most serious. I wasn’t making much money, and I had little clue what else to do with an English degree, but soon enough I began Googling job openings at colleges around Statesville, and read with great interest the job description for one Annual Fund Gifts Officer position.
I had no idea what I was applying for, but the job sounded fun—it meant working for a college, a good one at that. It meant traveling around the country, something I wasn’t able to afford much as a young teacher. It meant no more Faith, Hope, or Tequila. (Although the drink makes an appearance before the end of the story.) So I applied and interviewed, and over the course of what felt like an eternity but in fact was only a modest Davidson hiring cycle, I one day opened my flip phone to hear Maria Aldrich on the other end offering me the job.
My first day is funny to look back upon now. It felt like an exercise in drowning at the time. Among other things, Bill Vinson ’49 handed me a check (my first donation—on Day One!), I got “the walk” around College Relations, learning along the way that nearly everyone I worked with had graduated from Davidson, and ended the day in a fundraisers meeting, where I was summarily introduced again and then handed a stack of contact reports and AMACONT entries, to which I could only nod as if I understood what was happening.
That was February 2008. On my fourth day of work, Coach Fagg took me out for a hot dog at Bob’s Grill. Two and a half weeks later, Davidson won the men’s basketball Southern Conference tournament, and a week and a half later, the ‘Cats played Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament, a game I watched with my new colleagues in Vail Commons. Davidson won, and Eileen let us all go home early. Then, on Easter Sunday, came the stunning Georgetown defeat. The next day’s Monday fundraisers meeting was a flurry of action. The Cats were going to the Sweet Sixteen, the trustees were going to send any student who wanted to go, and everybody was calling in favors for tickets. I only thought I was drowning on day one.
In fact, it was the first of many experiences acclimatizing to Davidson’s great heights. There were such experiences. I would meet Sam and Ava Spencer while giving them a golf cart ride, the same way I met Claudia Belk. I would mistake Parker Ingalls for Tom Ross, and I would be astonished when I eventually introduced myself to Tom, and he knew more about me than I did about him. I would smoke John Chidsey’s cigars and drink rotgut brown liquor on Will Terry’s back porch. I was there when we videoed Peter Wagner dancing with Nancy Blackwell, when Steph Curry declared himself eligible for the draft, when the Great Recession struck and the endowment lost $150 million, and when the endowment got its nose back over $500 million. I heard the audience gasp when Mackey McDonald let slip that the next president of Davidson College was a she.
I would eventually walk around the streets of London with that president and let her borrow my sunglasses, just one of many, many trips on behalf of the college. By my calculations, I flew more than 150,000 miles in my time at Davidson—six times around the earth, to think of it one way—and God knows how many miles I put on our pair of well-worn Ford Tauruses. I represented Davidson in 27 states and four countries, sitting down with folks from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, and from Mt. Olive to Milan.
And I met thousands of Davidson people in my years as a fundraiser. So many amazing people. Over time, they helped me shed my lack of self-confidence in not being a fellow alumnus by simply accepting my credential when I said I was calling from Davidson College. I never got to say it to them directly, but I loved those people for that graciousness and hospitality. After our first daughter was born, one of my Chicago donors met me at his house with champagne to toast her arrival. Others have put me up for the night, or driven me to the airport, or treated me to the best restaurant in town, or shown me around Zurich, or sent me Christmas cards or copies of books. It all seems astonishing when you consider that I was there, in part, to ask them for money, but it speaks to how remarkable they were nonetheless.
Remarkable, too, are the many coworkers with whom I’ve shared my time and created so many memories and stories. Eleanor and I got to see Steph play in Madison Square Garden together—and later we saw the ‘Cats play in Seattle, a trip that somehow got us stranded in Myrtle Beach. Gray and I ate oysters on Nantucket and did no favors to the Donor Relations budget anytime they let us near a bourbon bar. Annie and I somehow raised a million dollars for Dave Fagg in nine weeks. Jason and I worked to break the sound barrier in a rented Audi on the North Dallas Tollway. Dan and I made a thousand laps on the DC Metro’s Blue Line in two days. Brad and I watched the Red Sox play at Fenway. Louise outdrank me at the Brick House two nights after Barack Obama was first elected—and beat me to work the next morning. If she had a hangover, she never let on for a minute. (I told you there was tequila.)
Nine years at Davidson has given me the network and associates to play the “Six Degrees of Separation” game with a minus two handicap. From Pulitzer Prize winners to MVPs, from astronauts to Supreme Court justices, from billionaires to Bertis Downs, I’ve had the privilege of sharing space with some of our world’s most interesting people, and it was all part of my job!
All of which is to say that I am a vastly different person now than I was when I first came to Davidson. Nine years ago, I lacked so much confidence and experience, so much perspective and strength of character. Davidson has given me a lot more than a job. It has allowed me a seat at tables filled with giants. This place, which is its people, changed my life in very measurable ways.
In a way, I feel a bit like I’m graduating. I am only able to make this next step in my career because of the personal investment of my colleagues and friends at Davidson and the opportunities they afforded me.
I leave here with the high hopes that I will always be able to call upon this company of amazing people, that whenever we reunite our friendship’s flame will quickly spring forth, and with the tender understanding that I owe them each a debt I may never be able to repay.
I have treasured—and will treasure—all of this.
With love and gratitude,
Your Poet Laureate Emeritus