In 1975 I was 18 and the world was my oyster. Actually, back then I’d never had an oyster, but you know what I mean.
I was a freshman in a triple dorm room that was pretty much identical to a double room except it had a bunk bed and three closets. Forbes Hall was all male, heavy on scholarship athletes, and each floor shared two communal bathrooms and showers.
And it was the absolute best. I’d finally gotten out of high school, away from my BORING home town, living away from home, at the University of Illinois, back then a stone cold bargain at under $500 for tuition. I was scared stiff and excited all at the same time. To me, Champaign-Urbana was the very best place in the world.
A lot besides the tuition has changed on campus. Chain stores and restaurants and high-rises have replaced familiar old dives in campus town. The dorm complex I lived in has been demolished and replaced with digs that we would have considered palatial.
But still. My visit there this past weekend felt so familiar. To start I saw Barry, a Web developer whom I met at a job eons ago—before there was a Web. We played catch-up and I met some of his swell friends for the first time. Then there was Hanni (Beth’s 16-year-old retired Seeing Eye dog)—I stayed with her and Steven and Nancy one night.
Saturday morning Steven gave me a lift to visit another long-time friend, Jeff, who recently moved to new digs. Jeff showed me his in-progress renovation projects and we caught up effortlessly over coffee and homemade banana muffins. From there it was a healthy hike to Jim and Judy’s—friends and former neighbors—where we sat on their grand front porch and soaked in unseasonably warm weather and a springish breeze while we shot our own breeze.
It was so nice outside that walking was a pleasure, so I decided to hike the mile or two to downtown Champaign (which itself has transformed from a hollowed out ghost town to an entertainment district dense with restaurants and bars and music clubs).
The walk took me through campus—past some familiar sites like 60s era residence halls that looked exactly as I remembered them. The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts looked in good form. Designed by famed architect (and UI graduate) Max Abramovitz, Krannert is a one-of-kind place. One theater has superb acoustics and has been used by the likes of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for recording. And there were some ancient houses that had long ago been converted to university offices and somehow survived.
And then through the center of it all, the Quad.
So much has changed but as soon as I reached the Illini Union at the north end of the Quad, I realized not everything has. It could’ve been 1975. It was 65 degrees and students were out in droves, in premature shorts and summer outfits. Quad dogs. Ultimate Frisbee. Blankets and picnics on the grass.
Instantly, intimately familiar. But there were no familiar faces, and so I felt, at once, totally at home and also like a ghost visiting my past.
The experience, though a tad unnerving, was ultimately comforting. Things change. There is loss. But some things—the feel of a cool breeze on the skin, friendships—abide.