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Saturday, June 15, 2013

I'll Never Leave You a Million Dollars

My dad is a fairly quiet guy.  He never has had to be the center of attention.  He's the guy who sits quietly in the back and watches everything.

When I first started looking at colleges, I always assumed I would got to a state school in Ohio.  While my family wasn't poor, we certainly weren't rich.  Both my parents went to college while I was growing up.  My sister was in college.  There wasn't a lot-- well any- cash floating around to pay for fancy schools.

But then I got a brochure that said "Do you like economics?  Do you like history?  Do you like learning why people do things?  Do you like to debate?" and it described the Industrial & Labor Relations School at Cornell University.  I grew up in the rust belt in the 70s and 80s.  Strikes were a part of my life.  The steel mills were closing.  The farms were folding.  I lived in a John Cougar Mellencamp song.

This labor relations thing seemed up my alley.

My hometown is small so I didn't have a wide view of the world.  If you were smart, you became a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.  This, however, sounded pretty cool.

And the brochure to Cornell- wow.  Ironically, one of my friends from high school is visiting the campus today with her son and she said quite simply "Nothing else will compare."

My dad looked at the brochure and we decided to visit campus.  We had visited Notre Dame like all good Catholics and a few other state campuses.  A trip to central NY in the fall sounded good.

So off we went.

If you've never been to the Finger Lakes region of New York, go.  It's beautiful.  Especially in the fall.  It is breathtaking in the fall.

When we got up in the morning to go visit the campus, my dad questioned my outfit.  I had on long underwear under my skirt, sneakers and my hair was short on one side and longer on the other.  My dad suggested that I pull up the long johns and push my hair under my hat.  He said "This is an Ivy League school-- you need to look the part."  I sighed and took his advice.

We drove around Ithaca trying to find the campus.  We could see the campus.  It's up on a hill. We could see the bell tower.  Finding the road to get there was a little more difficult (this is before GPS).  It was straight out of a Chevy Chase movie. 

We got there and of course, the first person we saw....

...same hair cut, long underwear under her skirt and wearing sneakers.

My dad said "I guess you belong here."


When we drove back to campus for my interview in January it took us 14 hours-- there was a snow storm.  We were tired and frazzled.  Everyone was in tweed.  I was in purple.  The parents were driving BMWs.  We had a Buick.  We felt out of place.  I say we, because even though my dad never said a word, I knew he was thinking the same thing.

Before I went to my interview my dad said "You know if you get in, there is no way in hell we can afford to send you here.  Good luck."

Gee thanks, Dad. 

I went to do my essays.  The kid next to me went to school with Chris Cuomo and said he had interviewed the day before.  THE Chris Cuomo, then he was just the son of the governor.

So when I went back to do my interview I thought there really was no point, so why not have some fun with it?

Dr. Wagner and Professor Barley both explained they would be writing during  the interview so I shouldn't be offended if they didn't make eye contact.  They clearly had been interviewing a lot of other students.  They had a glazed look in their eyes. 

Whatever.  It didn't matter anyhow, right?

They asked what I did.  I explained that I was in a band that competed nationally, I had been class president and I worked as a waitress.  The waitress part seemed to impress them the most.  They had spent a week talking to class presidents.  I had a feeling I was probably their first waitress to apply.

Then they asked what I read and I said "Cosmopolitan... The Rolling Stone..." and they both spit, laughed and dropped their pens.

Dr. Wagner looked up and said "You're the first person that's been honest."  And we laughed how other kids had said Chaucer and I told them that quite honestly, I didn't like Chaucer- I had used an American English translation just to understand it.  They laughed again.

But I left thinking that it had been fun and I'm sure the girl in the purple skirt with the funky hair would give them something to laugh about when comparing the Muffy, Buffy and Skips.

Flash ahead to April.

I had been accepted with a full scholarship to Ohio University in their Tutorial Honors Program.  OU is a good school.  I like the tutorial program.  It was based on the Oxford model.  It's a very fun school with a good reputation.  It wasn't stuffy. The campus is nice.  I had friends there.  And it was free.  I should also point out that the program to which I had been accepted was more selective than Cornell.  My Plan B was not a bad plan.  I really was okay with it.

April 1st used to be when most top schools sent out notification letters.  Via mail.  I had show choir practice after school and had to be at work.  I was on my way to work from school, in my waitress uniform, and I thought screw it, I wanted to know.  Regardless if I was going, I just wanted to know if I was good enough.  Little ol' small town, blue collar me.

I drove up to my mailbox and my neighbor Mr. Wheeler greeted me singing the alma mater.  I knew... he had looked (yes, I know it's a felony, but I adored him and loved that he took the time to learn the alma mater).  The mailbox was full of envelopes with the Cornell logo.  When I saw the Residential Life envelope, I started shaking.  Then I saw THE letter...

Dear Miss:

We would like to offer you....


I ran into the house and called my dad at work.  I was shaking.

"Dad, I did it!  I got in!  I know we can't afford it, but isn't it great!?!?! I got in!"

There was a pause and then my dad said one of the most profound things I had every heard:

"I will never be able to leave you a million dollars, but I'll make sure you can earn your own. We'll figure something out."


My heart stopped.

I could go.

My hard work all those years had paid off when other kids partied and read Cliff Notes, doing my homework in a booth in the back of the restaurant when it was quiet-- I had a ticket out.

Now I'm not going to lie and say it was easy.  I worked a LOT in college.  Cornell was very generous, too.  I worked hard to keep my scholarships and to make sure I could stay there.  There were more than a few times I thought how much easier it had would have been to go to OU.  My senior year in college I was fortunate to take a position that normally went to graduate students so most of my tuition was covered.  It was exhausting.

I didn't go on fabulous spring break trips-- I usually worked.  Aside from volunteering, there weren't any activities- I couldn't afford it.  When my roommate wanted to order pizza and I said I had no money, she remarked that I could pay her tomorrow when I went to the ATM. I laughed and said "Um there's no money in the ATM." 

But I got a fantastic education.  I traveled the world through research programs and internships.  I had my choice of jobs during the last bad recession when I graduated.  I got to study with some of the brightest people I'd ever met- professors and students.

It was worth it. 

Because you know, Dad, I built a business and I'm dependent on no one.  Just like you wanted.  Because you had faith in me and what I could do.  It wasn't simply the degree-- it was the idea that anything was possible.

You don't need to leave to me a dollar-- you already gave me the most important things of all-- love and opportunity. And it continues to compound.

Thank you.

Happy Father's Day!  I love you!


Kristen said...

I loved this so much. I too went to Yale when we couldn't afford it, and I worked my way through to afford it. My dad did the same thing, and worked there after graduation for his entire career. He made sure I got the same opportunity he did -- and like you, it's enriched my whole life.

And small world, but Chris Cuomo didn't end up at Cornell, he went to Yale. Lived downstairs from me in my entry at Saybrook. :) He was a class below me, but I mainly remember him because he was the one who told me Bart Giamatti (former president of Yale, then commissioner of baseball) had had a heart attack and died. Giamatti had two sons, Paul and Marcus -- I went to high school and college with Paul; since my dad worked at Yale and technically so did his, we hung out together. Of course, he's gone on to quite a bit of fame. :)

Mama Bean said...

Wow-- very small world! I remember sitting next to this guy-- and he said "My friend said the essay question was this yesterday, so we know it won't be this...." And I asked "Do you think your friend will get in?" He replied "I'm pretty sure--- it's Chris Cuomo-- his dad is the governor." Then we had a conversation on how Gov. Cuomo elbowed a lot playing basketball.

I felt so out of place and thought "Well, at least I have a good story!"

I knew Chris had gone to Yale-- I think Cornell was probably his safety school! I believe, ahem, that was what you guys cheered at the football games....

So you must have been there when the Cornell Daily Sun staff stole all the Yale Daily News papers and replaced them with the satire papers-- ala The Onion. One of the best college pranks, if I don't say so myself.... one of my good friends was involved, but I am sworn to secrecy....

Anonymous said...

This is an absolutely beautiful tribute to your father! His gift of confidence in you is immeasurable. I only wish I had made an equally public tribute to my father before his passing in 2006. This is something you both can treasure for all time. Just got off the phone with you, so ... I'll just sign - Anne D