Recently I learned that a girl I went with in college died, not surprisingly, of cancer. She smoked all the time, which bothered me at the time, I remember, but not so I could do anything about it. After all, I worked at Kam’s at the University of Illinois 3 nights a week, including twice on Friday, and to say that Kam’s basement was smoke filled was to understate it dramatically. I’m kind of surprising I don’t have lung cancer from the place. Gayle Niemeyer was her name, and I will never forget what she did for me. Coming out of an underachieving high school, I really knew little about studying. My parents were really no help, either–they’d both attended college, but not finished, and they couldn’t guide me other than issue threats. I got terrible grades when I first went to Illinois as a junior, got put on probation, did poorly twice more, and finally The Big U dropped me. The last time it happened, I had a semester to go, and I actually made pretty good grades, but they said, no, you’ve got to go.
So, I went home. Gayle called me and said I had to come back from Homewood that night. So I caught the midnight train, got up early and went to appeal. It was turned down. I packed everything, and I called my parents to drive down and get me.
Now, at this point, I’d really improved as a student. I got a couple of A’s, and a couple of C’s, but they weren’t enough. So, I resigned myself to going into the Air Force, as an enlisted man, and start over again as an student. None of the colleges would accept me–I was just short of a C average. So I figured I’d have to pretty well start over. This was at the very height of the Viet Nam war, so I figured I’d be over there in a matter of a couple of months. Meanwhile, I’d work at Republic Steel until my draft number came up, enlist, and take my chances.
That night–I was going home in the next few hours–Gayle said, Don’t do anything. I said, Why not? I can’t just hang around. But she persuaded me to meet her at the Chancellor’s office the next morning. I didn’t see what good that would do, but I said okay. We met at the Admin building and sat for three, maybe four hours. At last, the chancellor came out, introduced himself, smiled and said, ‘Okay. You can register.’
What had happened was that Gayle had, on her own, walked over to President Henry’s home, spoken to him personally, explained my situation. He went in to work the next morning, ordered LAS (that’s the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences) to take a look. For some reason, they agreed that I had made excellent progress, and that I should be allowed to register. Now, to this day, I’m not certain why they did this. Still, I took five classes, got terrific grades–all B’s except for one C–and brought the grades up.
When I got home, I called the Dean of LAS and asked if I could appeal the drop. He said I didn’t need to. He said I wasn’t dropped, and I should come on down and register for the two classes I needed to finish the degree. He suggested that I come back in the fall for the fall semester, but I decided to come down and finish in the summer. I did so, got a couple of A’s and my diploma. Meanwhile, I took a job for the fall in a little school system in Thornton, IL. That’s another subject.
Gayle, meanwhile, stayed at the University of Illinois where she had about a semester and a half to go. In that first semester, I remember, it became clear that we weren’t right for each other. We split up, and I never saw her again, though we did speak–almost by accident–just before she died and reconciled and managed to say good-bye. The love, if that’s what I actually felt for her when we were 21, was gone long since, and I had married the right girl, had two terrific kids and seven standout grandkids. So no relationship was in the cards, not even a friendship. Gayle broke it off with me because she really didn’t want to get married. She waited, I learned, almost ten years before she took the plunge. And then about a year ago, she died.
Still, she saw what I’d accomplished since her amazing kindness to me, her great concern, her magnificent courage. I never met Dr. Henry, either, but I appreciate what he did. LAS was ready to toss me out over a few decimal points. Dr. Henry and Gayle saved me in many ways.
I’m waxing eloquent tonight. When I got my doctorate, a couple of the people told me I was the sharpest student in the group. It was a five year struggle for the dissertation, but worth it. Getting to enroll in January, 1968, benefitted me, my family, my wife, and my children, to say nothing of my students.
Another girl who came into my life I have to call by a pseudonym. I think Grace would be best, for reasons that are personal, but she’d understand. I got tossed out of College at the end of my freshman year of college. Again, I got in trouble with grades, but there was well deserved punishment in there also. So, I went to Bloom Community College for the summer semester and met–intentionally–this beautiful girl. We’d dated for a few weeks, and things were going well, when I decided that I had to tell Grace what had happened. I ran through the whole sordid story.
When it was finished, I said that I’d learned a severe lesson, and that was true. I managed to rally the courage to ask–“so, what do you think of me now?” I’ll never forget her answer: she smiled and said, ‘no less, Jeff.’
It’s difficult to relate what that meant to me. In the next year, I went to her college to see her a few times and she came home several times also. We broke it off when she met the right guy, and when it was over between us, I realized she was probably right to dump me. To this day, I like her, and valued my time knowing her. Still, we were totally wrong for each other, and would have been miserable in a marriage together. She’s helped me out a lot in recent months–nothing remotely romantic, need less to say–and I’ve enjoyed seeing pix of her wonderful family. Grace also meant a lot to me and helped me figure out what I wanted in a wife. Most of those aspects I managed to find in Jacqi, with whom I’ve been enormously happy, despite some very hard times sometimes.
All relationships, I guess, move us to understand what we want in life. They teach us what love is like, what it should be, how to select the right person. I think it’s terrible that when two people who have meant a lot to each other have to split up–and there have been others, as well, not just the two I’ve discussed here–that they can’t somehow negotiate a means so that the good parts of the relationship, the friendship, and so on, can’t be preserved. I wish such a thing was possible. Perhaps, though, friendships later in life are possible, maybe from the distance provided by Facebook or other such medium. Lord knows, I don’t want to harm a 44 year marriage, and I’m sure Grace doesn’t either. Gayle is gone, of course. May God bless us in the friendships we have.