Dartmouth Alumni Columnist, at 100 Years Old, Is Still Looking for New Stories
Mr. Gerson, Dartmouth ’35, Chronicles Lives of Remaining Classmates; Golf, Cats
The Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Edward Gerson was a member of Dartmouth's class of 1935.PHOTO:ZUMA PRESS
LAGUNA WOODS, Calif.— Edward Gerson, a retired button manufacturer and plastics innovator, started his writing career late. He was 87 years old, to be precise, when he took on the role of chronicling the goings-on of Dartmouth College’s class of 1935.
When he started writing the alumni updates in 2001, there were more than 150 classmates and lots of material. As he noted in his inaugural column, “the Lord will provide the obits, but the news of your lives has to come from you.”
He found plenty besides death to narrate: Hobbies, cruises, moves to warmer climes and assisted-living facilities. No tidbit was too humdrum. In July 2006, readers learned that one classmate “is going strong, but his cat is driving him crazy, walking around his head until he lets her out at 5:30 a.m.”
Today, Mr. Gerson is 100 years old, and only three of his classmates survive, according to Dartmouth. That is creating some challenges.
Mr. Gerson relays what news he can of the two alums he is in contact with: Edwin Reich, a former clothier he met at summer camp in 1926, and Irving Sager, who was in real estate. For a time he chronicled Mr. Reich ’s lifetime holes-in-one until he stopped playing golf, and Mr. Sager’s love life, until his last flame—who was actually Mr. Gerson’s first cousin—died in 2013 at 96.
“Hey, fellows! Hang in there or soon I won’t have anybody to write about,” he urged in early 2012.
Class notes—Facebook for the pre-digital world—allow former classmates to share news (or brag) about their lives after graduation. They have been a staple of college alumni magazines since the 1910s, said John R. Thelin, an expert in the history of American higher education. In that world, Mr. Gerson’s column appears to have few peers.
“Occasionally we get class notes from someone as old as 100, but not often,” said Mike Wright, editor of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine. Inquiries at a dozen colleges across the country—of varying sizes and stature—uncovered no other faithful centenarian correspondents.
Adapting to the diminishing material, Mr. Gerson turned his column into a bully pulpit of sorts. “Believe me, it is very difficult to just write about the three of us,” he noted in his most recent entry, after sharing his thoughts on the Jazz Age and the state of tax policy.
In another, he brought up “the corruption that has become the fabric of our society…We cannot continue to hide our heads in the sand.”
Dartmouth College's alumni magazine includes class notes, which are updates on the lives of former students.PHOTO: LINDSAY ELLIS
Seeking to do something rather than just gripe, Mr. Gerson declared in one column he was launching a new political party called “We Listen. Enough said.” He is also pushing Dartmouth to host a new constitutional convention, with no politicians invited.
Mr. Gerson writes his notes, due every other month, in the study of his top-floor condo, which is nestled among the three-story villas and Mission-style bungalows of his Southern California retirement village. He first checks in with his two classmates to collect the latest, then moves to what’s on his mind. He composes his notes in small, block letters on a yellow legal pad at a battered wooden desk. His wife later types the notes for submission.
Writing tends to take him about a half an hour. “I get interrupted sometimes,” he said.
One recent day, Mr. Gerson looked like he was caught between his alma mater in New Hampshire and his current home in California, dressed in a brown fleece vest, plaid shirt, scuffed leather loafers—and no socks. He quotes Dartmouth’s motto: “Vox clamantis in deserto,” which translates as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
For a time, Mr. Gerson could get by describing even the most unfortunate developments in an upbeat tone. In May 2007, he reported that one classmate was falling down with some frequency. “He says his PT trainer is teaching him how to get up. Hey, Lou, how about him teaching you not to fall down?”
Within a few years, material started to thin out, along with the class. In 2011, Mr. Gerson suddenly realized he had incorrectly included two classmates as having died in a remembrance for their 70th reunion.
“It was nice communicating with both of you from the great beyond,” he deadpanned, correcting the error six years after committing it. “If any of my other classmates who have died wishes to communicate with me, please feel free to do so, and I will write up your comments in my new section, titled ‘Revival.’ ”
These days, Ed Reich’s son, former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, appears regularly in the column. The younger Reich graduated from Dartmouth in 1968 and has known Mr. Gerson since childhood.
Mr. Reich, the son, recalls being in the Oval Office with President Bill Clinton in 1996 when an aide interrupted with an “absolutely urgent” phone call. Mr. Reich excused himself and got on the phone. It was Mr. Gerson, then in his 80s, calling to say he was in town and would like a tour.
“Eddy Gerson is fearless,” said Mr. Reich.
Last year, Mr. Gerson reported his impending nuptials to Heide Kreuger, 70, whom he met about six years ago at one of the five pools in their gated development, back when he took daily swims. The union, he observed in his column, “is causing a lot of excitement” in the retirement community. They wed in April.
Even though Mr. Gerson’s original intended audience has dwindled, a newer and younger one has sprung up to take its place. “You are a role model,” one woman, the wife of a graduate of the class of 1969, wrote in a recent note, confiding that she too hopes to make it to 100.
Nichola Gray, a 2008 Dartmouth grad, has Mr. Gerson’s May/June 2013 column taped to her desk, moved by his description of watching the one-handed Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco work on murals in the reserve corridor of Dartmouth’s Baker Library.
The item on the Orozco column was a rare moment when Mr. Gerson sounded sorrowful, noting how the death of a classmate “is a chilling reminder of how vulnerable I am.”
Ms. Gray shared the entry with friends and family and emailed Mr. Gerson to thank him. Writing can be a lonely act, so she wanted to convey, “Hey, I’m listening. Keep writing,” Ms. Gray said in an interview.
Mr. Gerson replied to thank her—in his next column.