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Vermont Quarterly

Margaret Shirley '55

From 1955 to 1979 to 2010

Margaret Shirley
photograph by Cheryl Senter

Departments / Alumni Voice

From 1955 to 1979 to 2010

 The essay that follows has waited thirty years to see print in Vermont Quarterly. Actually, the magazine was simply called Vermont back in October 1979 when Margaret Louderback ’55 pitched the editor with her “alumna mother’s-eye view of UVM and Burlington today as her son begins his freshman year twenty-eight years after she matriculated at the same university.”

Then-editor Bud Chambers planned on publishing the piece, but the essay fell through the cracks following a shift in staffing. This October, Louderback (who now goes by Margaret Ann McGowan Shirley) put her decades-old essay in a brown envelope along with that original cover letter and a new pitch to a different editor. As her fifty-fifth reunion approaches this spring, we’re pleased to share the reflections of this writer who knows UVM from many angles.

Margaret Ann McGowan Shirley ’55    My status at the University of Vermont changed suddenly in September 1979, when my seventeen-year-old son entered UVM as a freshman, Class of 1983. No longer was I an individual alumna, Class of 1955, College of Education and Nursing, Elementary Education major. Now I was an Alumni Parent. (As long ago as last spring, letters started coming to the house addressed, not to Margaret Louderback ’55, but simply: To the Parents of James P. Louderback.) Now I was an indistinct member of a group of forty-ish adults still hesitating to call ourselves middle-aged, who wistfully packed our late-adolescent children off to college and remembered another September day when we, too, were young and dizzy with excitement.

“That’s my college you’re going to, Jim,” I said to my son as we packed the car early on Labor Day morning, both of us suffering from lack of sleep because we had gone to a Grateful Dead concert in Augusta, Maine, the night before, and it was after midnight by the time we started on our two-hour drive back home to New Hampshire. “I wonder what has changed over the years. I wonder what has not changed.”

As Jim and his older brother drove off a few minutes later, I waved goodbye and called, “Drive carefully. And, Jim, call me tomorrow if you get a chance. I know you’ll never write.”

He did call. And he hasn’t written. Some things about college life just don’t change from generation to generation, and writing letters home—or rather, not writing them—is one of those invariable things.

As for UVM and Burlington, I was to discover how much they had  changed—and hadn’t changed—two weeks later when I drove to Vermont to see how Jim was making out and, at the same time, take some things to him that he had forgotten.

A beautiful highway is I-89, curving and winding along mountains and farm country, cutting diagonally through the state from White River Junction to Burlington, closely bypassing Barre and Montpelier, and then heading north to St. Albans and Montreal. But Williston Road is another kettle of fish.

When we turned off the highway at Exit 14E, culture shock set in immediately. “Where are we? Which way is town? Are we headed toward the airport or away from it?” Traffic lights and more traffic lights. Motels and more motels—HoJo’s, Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Econolodge, and more. Shopping centers. University Health Services. Living and Learning Center. And so much traffic. I hated driving on Williston Road, but it was a small price to pay for having driven ninety miles across the state in less than two hours. I remember that the trip from Burlington to Dartmouth for Homecoming and Winter Carnival used to take forever.

The University Store is now in a building of its own on Williston Road, and so is Bailey Library, and so is—hooray!— the UVM Dairy Bar, where I learned long ago that a frappe is a milkshake made with ice cream and a milkshake is a milkshake made without ice cream. I also learned that hot fudge sundaes made with rich creamy vanilla ice cream consumed once a week can easily put on ten pounds over the course of two semesters.

The scenery and the weather in Burlington are still the same. The scenery is beautiful, and the weather is—well, the weather is changeable. Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump still glisten in the sunlight, and the sunset over Lake Champlain and its islands and the Adirondack Mountains, viewed from the old one-room school on Spear Street, near the house were Jim’s great-grandmother used to live, is magnificent, breathtaking, awesome, and proof to me that “God’s in His heaven—/All’s right with the world.”

The residence halls—once upon a time called “dorms”—were, for me, the biggest on-campus surprise in a weekend filled with surprises. I saw: Coed dorms; locks on the doors; homemade sleeping lofts; efficiency-sized rented refrigerators. Unbelievably intricate stereo systems with the ear-shattering blasting power of a road-building construction gang with all its gigantic equipment operating at full force. (First semester of my freshman year, we weren’t even allowed to bring radios!)

I also saw: Comfortable seating arrangements; plush room-sized rugs; colorful cotton tapestry wall hangings; and desks that looked more like kitchen counters or sale tables at Filene’s Basement than studying areas. (“Are you crazy, Mom?” Jim had asked, in response to my motherly suggestion that he clear off his desk so he could do his homework there. “You can’t study in the dorm. It’s always noisy! You have to stake out your claim to a quiet place somewhere else, like in Bailey Library or in a church or in the Music Building on Redstone Campus.”)

Rooms in the residence halls are much more personalized and individualized by today’s students and much less Spartan than they were in the days when the south half of Old Mill was converted into three floors of bedrooms, and I lived on the top floor with four other women in a space that had once been a classroom.

While we were having breakfast on Sunday morning, and I was beginning to think about going back home, I asked Jim what he likes about UVM. What is it that makes UVM so special? Why is he so happy to be living in Burlington, Vermont, attending the same college his parents and aunt and uncle are proud to call their alma mater?

“That’s easy,” he replied. “It’s the people. Almost everyone is friendly and helpful, and they care about me. They care about whether I’m feeling good because great things are happening to me, and they care about whether I’m feeling depressed because everything seems to be going wrong. They care about sharing my life with me.”

Twenty-eight years ago, I told my parents exactly the same thing.

Maybe UVM hasn’t changed so much, after all.

Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue.

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