I’ll Never Become a POFA! by
(80 Stories)

Prompted By I Swore I'd Never

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A few days before my Harvard College commencement in 1971, there was a loud knock on the front door of our suite when I was there with most of my roomies.  To refresh recollections from one of my earlier stories, the featured image is what we looked like then.  (I’m No. 29 in your program, but No.1 in your heart, right?)

The knocking came from five or six happily inebriated older guys, who more or less exploded into the room when one of my roomies opened the door; I was safely to one side.  They explained that they were in town for their big reunion and wanted to re-visit what had been their suite when they were seniors.  I recall thinking at the time just how old they seemed but, upon reflection, I later realized that they were there for their 25th, not 50th, reunion.  That meant they graduated in 1946, which still placed them back several dozen generation as far as we were concerned.

Anyhow, we were taken aback by these old clowns, but fairly polite and let them have the run of the place while they barreled around and kept blathering with great bonhomie about all their good times when living there. One of them pointed to our nearest bathroom and proudly proclaimed that they used to “mix booze” in its bathtub.  One of my roomies then casually replied, “Oh, well, now we use that bathroom for growing weed and making hallucinogens.”  Not true, but I winked at him for the great answer. And it had the intended effect of nicely freaking out our visitors, as did the emergence of one of our girlfriends, wearing nothing but a post-shower robe, from another bathroom.

When the old boys had finally had enough, they thanked us heartily, clambered out and, fortunately, somehow made it down the four flights of stairs without tripping or suffering a heart attack. I don’t think any of us roomies actually said a word once the door was shut, but we all looked at each other with the very same thought: “May I never, ever become one of those pompous, old f*rt alums” (hereinafter, “POFA”).

I have tried mightily to keep my own POFA vow in mind over the years, particularly when I attended my reunions and when I took my daughters around to look at Harvard and other colleges.  Indeed, I had had practice early on when my then-wife became President of Barnard and we obviously spent a lot of time on its campus at student events.  However, since she became President at age 31 — also my age at the time — I guess it could more accurately be said that I then tried hard not to act like a PYFA (“Y” for “young,” of course).

One reunion I was particularly conscious of not being a POFA at was my 35th in 2006.  I had been asked to be a Class Marshal for the commencement ceremonies, an honorary position — really just sort of a glorified usher — given to old grads who had been active in fundraising and other alumni/ae activities. Part of the deal for male ushers is wearing this ridiculous outfit — indeed, the very essence of pomposity — comprised of a cutaway jacket, grey pin striped slacks, a white shirt and tie and, literally topping it all off, a f*cking top hat. We also carried a black and crimson baton; presumably to keep the ruffians and other riff raff at bay.

I forbade my (current) wife from taking any photos of me in this clown suit, but here is a stock commencement picture to illustrate it, complete with batons:

Acutely aware that, standing in Harvard Yard in my Marshal attire, I looked more like the quintessential POFA than ever, I really watched my behavior around the young ‘uns.  A number of the graduating seniors were in my area and I smiled and made pleasant small talk with them if they initiated it, but otherwise said little.  Nonetheless, I knew they were thinking the same thing my roomies and I were thinking 35 years before: what a POFA!

We have another big reunion coming up — our 50th! — in 2021, though how exactly it will take place and when are very much open questions at present.  As with our 45th reunion, I am a member of this reunion committee, and thus already immersed in planning.  My particular responsibility is to organize all the various symposia of classmates, as well as outside luminaries (though we have some real intellectual rock stars of our own), that will take place throughout the reunion.  Topics typically include ones such as foreign affairs, US politics, and climate change and other environmental issues, as well as a number of more “self-focused” topics, such as aging, retirement, medical and psychological issues and our world views — both now and in the past.  With regard to that last topic, one of my committee mates has suggested that we also include some younger alums on the panel, like recent grads or alums there for their 25th reunion, which I think would be a great idea.  For example, it would be pretty cool to get Malia Obama, due to graduate in ’21, on the panel to discuss her own totally normal background and world view.

But whoever we get on the panel, while I will not be on it myself, I will have to interact with them in terms of the planning process. And I will continue to repeat, again and again, my vow to never become a POFA. That said, this prompt forces me to recognize the cold, hard truth.   Yes; I’m a POFA!

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Amazing how life catches up to us, isn’t it, John? (Or, as they sing in “Zorba”, “Life is what you do, while you’re waiting to die. Life is how the time goes by.”) Your tales from 50 years ago are quite funny. But I’m sure you won’t crash into your old suite, with all your buddies, stoned out of your mind, just to reminisce, will you? Too bad there’s no photo of you dressed as a Class Marshal.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Yes, Betsy, that is a line I will not cross. I’ve been back to my residential house a number of times for events in the last couple of years, but always resisted the urge to visit my old room. Of course, the fact that it was on the fifth floor and there is no elevator also had something to do with it.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Oh, John, aren’t we all POFAs at this point? My teenaged granddaughters serve as a pretty good reality check when they roll their eyes and say, “Oh, Gramma.”

  3. Marian says:

    A giggle from your POFA sister, John, as I looked at that ridiculous getup in the photo. The rest of the story really resonates. At Mills, we used to think, “Who are these old ladies who want to see their old rooms in Mills Hall?” After I graduated I worked at the college for a year and came to appreciate the POFAs after having to spend the entire reunion time with them. Turns out that women who went to college in the 1920s and 30s were pretty cool. I kept active with other alumnae through the years, and before I knew it, I was one of the old guard, keepers of history.

  4. Suzy says:

    John, this story brought back such great memories for me! And not just of you and your roomies in that amazing picture. I was a class marshal for one of my reunions, and it was such fun! The women just had to wear a black or white dress, then they gave us a crimson sash and a cute little hat to wear – much better than the top hats and cutaways that the men wore. I bet I even have a picture in the outfit somewhere, although my pre-digital photos are in total disarray. As we marched in the alumni processional, we told the senior women that the reason they were 50% of the class and lived in the Harvard Houses was because we fought those battles, and they applauded us.

    Love your line about Malia Obama and her “totally normal background and world view” too. Thanks for a great story. And you are definitely not a POFA. You may be O and A, yes, but not P or F.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I was pretty sure you’d enjoy the memories. It would have been even funnier if these guys had lived across the hall from us and knocked on your door instead.

      Do find your Marshal picture. Was your hat like the one of the woman in the picture I found? And glad you got the totally well-deserved applause.

      • Suzy says:

        Yes, that would have been funny. I was not graduating, of course, but I was still around because I was singing in the Commencement Choir. Do you think it would have freaked them out to discover there were women living in their old room?

        I don’t remember my Marshal hat being as elaborate as the one in the picture. But we didn’t get to keep them, just wore them for the ceremony, then gave them back to be used again the next year. Was that how it was with your top hats?

        • John Shutkin says:

          I know it would have freaked them out. They were already freaked out by the girlfriend coming out of one of our bathrooms in a robe.

          Yes; we had to return our top hats. However, I actually have a couple of top hats I inherited from my father. (One he wore while riding horses.) I can assure you that I look as idiotic in those as I did in the Marshall hat.

  5. Ah John, your post about your college reunions reminded me how bereft I am.

    I graduated from NYU Heights in the Bronx, a small uptown campus of the school. Nine years after I graduated NYU sold the lovely buildings and grounds to the City University and it became the new home of Bronx Community. No reunions.

    After NYU I got a Masters at Columbia‘s then graduate School of Library Service. Some years after that Columbia dropped that program – one bitter assumption was that librarians weren’t big donors. Anyway, no reunions.

    Luckily my husband has been an active alum at his school, has usually been on the reunion committee, and we’ve gone to his reunion every five years since 1969. .
    Like all spouses, I get a name tag to wear , but I always edit it to read NYU ‘64..

  6. John, I find every five years is lovely for a reunion, but alas the In Memoriam list keeps growing so we try to carpe the diem – altho a bit hard now!

  7. Since I didn’t attend university, the closest I can come to relating to your story, John, was driving very slowly by the house I grew up in and when I saw the current owner outside, stopping to explain that I used to live there. She was sweet enough to invite me in. Everything was so different yet so much the same, and of course I was going on and on about how there used to be this here and that there, etc. ad nauseam, all of which of course meant nothing to her but I was acting like it was the most fascinating information in the world. I think I might have earned the title of POFL (Pompous-Old-Fart Lady).

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