"Where the sunsets were so beautiful they could cause heartache" — an [almost] member of the class of 1970 reflects on his years at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales

by Tom Roberts [almost] ‘70 | Jan 08, 2016

I had a rather startling encounter with my younger self when recently I opened fund-raising pitch from the university. In the upper left hand corner of the flyer headlined “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” was a photo of what we then referred to as a “folk group.”


The Valley Company folk group from Allentown College St. Francis de Sales

This one was made up of three young men, all students of what then was called Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, and a young woman. The group was called The Valley Company, a nod to the actual location of the college. The photo is of the group’s first performance following months of rehearsals. For the record, if memory serves, the year would have been 1968, it would have been the spring semester, and the setting was the stage in what was then the basement of DeSales Hall, which, with two dorms (Conmy and Tocik) and “the round house,” (Wills Hall), constituted the whole of the campus. During normal hours the stage was used by a visiting professor whose lectures on world history could have been packaged as a cure for severe insomnia. I also recall the image of one of the Oblates, a biology teacher, lecturing there and bounding about the stage, a model of a DNA molecule in hand.

At the time, on the hill above the main campus, only the left parentheses of the then DeSales Seminary had been built, and it curved around one side of a chapel. 

Everywhere, sidewalks stretched out to structures that existed only in someone’s imagination.

In 1965, the year before I arrived, several cornerstones still were on skids on the sidewalks waiting to be inserted into gaps in the buildings. The quad, which drifted down from DeSales Hall to the dorms, was repeatedly reseeded only to have the next rain wash the effort down the slope into what I believe is the northwest corner of the big square defined by sidewalks. The grass grew very thick in that corner.

“Yesterday, today and tomorrow” echoes the Pauline phrase about the Master that ends in “forever” in some translations and was, coincidentally, one of the readings the weekend the fund-raising letter arrived. I had to smile about the intimation that today, 50 years after the doors were first open, there is still about the Salesian endeavor in Center Valley an easy exchange, presuming the reference was intentional, between the language of faith and the wider culture. 

I hope some things, especially the element of community – one of the flyer’s bullet points -- have not changed in principle. I wouldn’t know about “the winning spirit of our athletic teams,” another bullet point. I don’t think we had any at the time, and if we did, I doubt they won much, except in spirit.

In hindsight, the decision to found a college smack in the middle of the 1960s  was either horribly naïve or a noble act of hope and courage. The decade to some has become the symbol of a kind of libertine excess and mild anarchy that seeded all that has gone wrong since. To others, it was a time of liberation and creativity, the beginning of an Aquarian age, a bit of astrological gibberish that somehow translated into freeing humans from the ties of old and unnecessary strictures and conventions. Both, of course, are caricatures, each holding some truth about the age’s dynamism and its destructive tendencies. Daily reality lay somewhere in between.

One revolt on campus I recall was against the requirement that we wear coats and ties to class and dinner. (Some of us had figured out a way of keeping coats, shirts and ties together on a hanger so that getting into it all at once was similar to pulling on a bulky sweatshirt.)

The requirement was dropped the second semester of my freshman year, the start of 1967, a year and half into the college’s existence.

In the spirit of that era, one of The Valley Company’s performances was at a rally, held on the roof of the lobby (if I recall correctly) of Conmy Hall, against the Vietnam War. But that mild showing of disapproval was as radical as it got in Center Valley, where the sunsets were so beautiful they could cause heartache. 

Perhaps it was heartache over the sheer loneliness and isolation of the place. At times it felt a world away from all the thunder of that decade. We might read about Berkeley and Columbia and, God help us, even Notre Dame. We in the valley, however, could only imagine and wonder. Free love and hippiedom may have been sprouting elsewhere. We wished in vain in those years for the mere appearance on campus, to use Kazantzakis’ phrase, of “the female of the species.”

I wasn’t aware at the time, but the difference of this place went far beyond its geography and the collection of underachievers and otherwise misfits, as well as the overachievers who couldn’t afford elsewhere. Some had just drifted in, I suspect, with the flow from Oblate high schools to the order’s new and only college.

The real difference for me, someone from the far Northwest reaches of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, was exposure to Salesian spirituality, though I would not have called it that at the time. Here was a coherence, a whole world view, if you would, fashioned within and through the greater reality of Christian experience over centuries.

I was running constantly into the mid-20th century interpretation of a saint, heavily influenced by both the French and the Italian versions of the Renaissance, formed in faith by the Jesuits and practicing a kind of evangelical Catholicism in the teeth of the Reformation. All the while, he was giving up privilege yet conversant with the world at so many levels. The Oblates in Center Valley in the mid 1960s taught Christian humanism, an approach to living that engaged in a Salesian conversation with the world, not a fear of the world or a strategy to keep the world at bay. What we rather heard – and it was startlingly new for some of us who had known only the rote religion of archdiocesan exam preparation – was a call to holiness regardless of one’s state in life.

What happened on that sparse and isolated campus nearly a half century ago, my encounters with the giants of that era – Bernie Donahue, James Finnegan, James Longelaan, Gerard Schubert, Alexander Pacetto – would thread through a lifetime.

The weave that began in that long ago has become more pronounced in its color and dynamism with the papacy of Francis. I recognize themes of generosity and mercy, of a Catholic identity that can’t be outlined in a list of orthodoxies or measured by juridical calculation. And I’ve had to smile at times at my Center Valley memories, as their dimensions seem to fill out anew in the fresh air of this papacy, and say to myself, “In important ways, those founders were well ahead of their time.” 

The only way I’d make a university brochure these days is in a throwback photo. My academic past was, to put it in imprecise terms, checkered. But I have to think there is something notable in this coincidence: The brochure was the second memory jolt of a given week. Just a day or two before the brochure arrived I discovered, sorting old files, a 1984 letter from Fr. Pocetto, then vice president for academic affairs. I had written something endearing about the college in a local paper and he wrote to thank me with a proposal.  “I checked your permanent record,” he said. “It seems to me that it is possible for you to finish your degree here. You have completed a total of 34 courses out of the required 40 courses.” He went on to tell me that I wouldn’t necessarily have to take another six courses, that I might take some “challenge exams for credit” and engage in something called “the portfolio assessment method.” 

A generous offer, but the demands of a growing family and a journalism career that took me to New York shortly after receiving that letter means I never satisfied the remaining six course requirement.

It’s okay. Things have worked out well. Those sunsets and my first immersion in Christian humanism have hung around for a long time.

Apparently someone at the other end has diligently kept the institution’s scrapbook. It was pleasing to be reminded of the connection. I also recalled another Oblate who was backstage that evening.  Leon Bolich, then treasurer of the college, had given us some valuable coaching on the whole matter of performance. I’ve lost track of the whereabouts of Ursula King, the young woman in the photo. It is too bad the image is silent. She had a magnificent voice. One of the men, Tom Klein, on the left with guitar, a most gentle soul, died in 1994. He was 45. And the other in the center, Dan Wyatt, a dear friend still, was a French major at the time. He went on to earn an advanced degree in sacred music and became a distinguished church musician who has served the Catholic community in that capacity for decades.

I may even respond to that flyer.

About the author:
Tom Roberts is an almost member of the class of ’70. He is editor at large for National Catholic Reporter and the author of The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself (Orbis, 2011) and Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith (Orbis, 2015)]


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