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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

What Matters Most When Things Go Bad

Finding a friend was never more important.

Ken Del Rossi

By Kevin Cool

I wasn't going to write about the terrorist attacks. Every scribe in America has constructed elaborate metaphors and sobering “what this all means” essays since September 11 cleaved our lifetimes into before and after segments. By the time our readers get this magazine, I thought, whatever I could say would merely pick at the scab.

Then I remembered my son’s cupcakes.

September 11 was Griffin’s fifth birthday. He walked into our family room at about 6:30 a.m., barefoot in his one-size-too-small pajamas, rubbing his eyes and asking about cupcakes. I only half listened, most of my attention pinned to the television screen where pillars of smoke obliterated the Manhattan skyline. But there is no persistence like 5-year-old persistence. Griffin wanted to know if we made enough cupcakes for all the kids in his kindergarten class.

The night before, those cupcakes were the most important topic of discussion in our house. Did they have enough sprinkles? Would the kids like lemon cake as much as chocolate? Now, standing there watching the twin towers burn, I couldn’t even muster an answer for my pleading birthday boy. His cupcakes seemed ridiculous and inappropriate—artifacts from an earlier time when we could afford to enjoy such trifles. But, as usual, the perspective of a child helps sort out the madness. I came to realize that Griffin was right—now, more than ever, we needed to share with our friends.

In the weeks following the attacks, Stanford alumni in New York and Washington and a thousand other places touched by the terror needed all the friendship they could get. They wanted the comfort of familiar places and familiar people, to pull in around them the human connections that provide an emotional safe harbor. Quite a few dropped anchor at Stanford.

We are used to seeing this coming together in the fall, during reunion season. The balloons are out, the welcomes are warm and genuine. Alumni return to campus and wander across the 100-year-old bricks under a California sky and remember why they loved this place and the people they knew here. This year, there was some talk soon after the attacks of canceling Reunion Homecoming. No way, came the resounding reply from most of those who had signed up. The overwhelming sentiment seemed to be “we need this.”

But the gatherings of Stanford alumni that took place in the aftermath of that terrible Tuesday were even more demonstrative of the power of community. Within hours of the attacks, Rian Schmidt, MBA ’96, had assembled a website where Stanford alumni could check in. In seven days, it had 250,000 visitors. Calls and e-mails cascaded through University offices as alumni tried to find out how friends and classmates were doing. On September 24, in Manhattan’s Unitarian Church of All Souls, the Rev. Forrest Church, ’70, led about 100 alumni in a special service of healing and remembrance. And all who knew them mourned the loss of Stanford friends and classmates killed in the attacks (see story).

Dan Rossner, ’75, should have been on the 58th floor in the World Trade Center on September 11. A partner in the law firm Sidney Austin Brown & Wood, he was running late because he planned to vote in the mayoral primary election before going to work. His friends, however, didn’t know that he was out of harm’s way, watching from his Greenwich Village home as his office building collapsed. “I can’t tell you how many Stanford people I’ve heard from—friends I haven’t talked to in years,” he told me. And I could hear in his voice what that meant to him.

Universities work hard to foster community, but in more peaceful times such an effort often relies on shared affinities, capitalizing on the traditions and rituals that signify membership in the club. Young alumni know when to jump when the Band plays All Right Now. Alumni of all ages get a tingle of anticipation turning down Palm Drive after having been away for a while. But is that what binds them? Not really. True community is derived from the knowledge that you were changed, made better, by a group of people who knew you when. Who still care about you despite time or distance, and who, in a crisis, would be the first on your doorstep to offer help. I guarantee you that Dan Rossner and countless others know, if they didn’t before, that as long ago as their years at the Farm may seem, their Stanford days aren’t over.

Cupcakes for everybody.


You can reach Kevin at jkcool@stanford.edu.

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