At alumni weekends, age is no longer a hindrance


Sara Asgari, Class of 2015, snaps a photo of Tom Newcomb, Class of 1962, and his wife Mary with NASA astronaut TJ Creamer. Creamer, who graduated in 1982, came back to Loyola University for an alumni picnic. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 7, 2012

Along with the rest of society, alumni weekends are getting older.

Shenandoah University’s April reunion in Winchester featured a 103-year-old pianist from the Class of 1926. James Madison University drew four 1942 alumni to its spring gathering in Harrisonburg, Va. Loyola University’s Golden Greyhounds dinner last week in Baltimore had nearly 500 registrants, none younger than 70.

Colleges across the Washington area are paying more heed to alumni who graduated at least a half-century ago— because more of them are showing up at reunions. Several schools have organized new groups for “golden” alumni, with induction ceremonies built into reunion weekends.

Alumni weekends are traditionally held in spring or fall, and several local colleges marked the occasion last weekend.

For the institutions, surging numbers of 80-, 90- and 100-year-old alumni who are healthy and mobile present both an opportunity and a challenge. Their very presence on campus serves as an inspiration to younger generations of dedication to one’s alma mater. But the yawning age gap separating old and young can make it difficult for alumni officials to program reunion gatherings.

Millennial alumni, it is said, favor happy hours, open houses and late-night mixers. Twenty- and 30-year alumni are drawn to classy dinners and homecoming games.

Fifty- and 60-year alumni, for their part, sometimes prefer luncheons to dinners and coffee to chardonnay. They crave the intellectual stimulation of a faculty lecture or a state-of-the-college address. They enjoy a simple pleasures of a campus tour. And, oh yes, they prefer an invitation on actual paper.

“It’s just nice to get back,” said Betty Fulk Strider, 86, a 1947 alumna of the University of Mary Washington, the public liberal arts school in Fredericksburg. “And it does mean a lot to me. As you get older, you don’t know how many more of them you’re going to attend.”

Leaders of Mary Washington recently formed a 1908 Society, named for the year of the university’s founding and tailored to alumni who have reached the 50-year reunion mark. Inductees are invited back each year to alumni weekend because they “don’t want to wait five years to attend another reunion,” said Marty Morrison, university spokeswoman. This, too, is becoming common practice.

With their growing numbers, older alumni aren’t just donating time. Although 80- and 90-something alumni might be past their peak earning years, they can be a bountiful source of donations. At Washington College in Maryland, the Older and Wiser group of senior alumni gave more than $1 million at this year’s reunion. Last year, a 96-year-old George Washington University Law School alumnus donated $6 million.

In 2009, GWU began inviting its alumni “emeriti” to walk, clad in golden robes, in the graduation procession. The school’s Alumni Emeriti Society has 5,300 members.

“They serve as an example of what it means to stay connected,” said Mark Forrest, a GWU alumni relations officer.

Annual attendance has been rising, too, at the University of the District of Columbia Legacy Brunch, an event for alumni of 50 years or more, last held in May.

Georgia Herron, 87, is a 1946 graduate of Miner Teachers College, one of several institutions that ultimately merged into UDC. Each year, she assembles a group of classmates from the historic African American institution.

“Last year, it was 10. Now it’s dwindled to about five or six,” she said. “I have to get their children to bring them. But we love to come back to campus.”

There’s scant data on the trend of aging alumni, but college officials say it is far more common now than 20 or 30 years ago to see a table full of alumni marking their 65th or 70th reunion.

“This concept of what it means to be old has changed. Retirement no longer means that you just go into a corner and wait,” said Rae Goldsmith, a vice president at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. “They’re volunteering more, and they’re connecting with their alma mater.”

This spring, the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, hosted 101-year-old Mildred Williams Doughty, from the Class of ’32, at its Old Guarde Weekend.

Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, drew two men from the Class of 1937 to its May 5 reunion. One is a great-great-nephew of Johns Hopkins’s. The other, a former ambassador, performed on the harmonica.

The roster of activities last weekend at Loyola University Maryland bespoke a multigenerational event, including a family picnic, a golf outing and an estate planning seminar. One evening, the school hosted a healthy turnout of alumni from the early 1940s at its Golden Greyhound dinner dance. Jere Hamill, a 90-year-old alumnus from 1944, served as toastmaster.

“I think this was my last time. I could keep doing it,” he joked, “but I’ve done it so long, I’m sure people are tired of me.”

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