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There and Back

Award-winning journalist Anthony DePalma ’75 reflects on his return to the University after a long absence.

It was a fresh-faced summer morning, the kind of day that starts with promise and leads to hope because everything seems right with the world. Except that I had lost the library. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be as I strolled across campus that first day of faculty orientation in August 2008, reveling in the odd but pleasant sensation of starting something entirely new in a place that was thoroughly familiar, at least until I realized the library was gone.

I had just made the intensely personal decision to leave a position as reporter and foreign correspondent at The New York Times that I’d been proud to hold for more than 20 years to accept Monsignor Robert Sheeran’s invitation to come home and re-create myself as writer-in-residence at Seton Hall. When I graduated in 1975, I was a long-haired, wide-eyed communications major full of ideas for novels and books and stories, yearning to write my way into eternity. And here I was returning, having written books and followed the news halfway round the world, and back.

I crossed the campus that day without need of map or guide. New and old unfolded around me, invoking a sensation so exciting and yet so comforting that I found myself smiling inside and out. I rambled in these yellow-brick-road thoughts while crossing the University green, noting how the scraggly mulberry tree in the center had grown so long-limbed that steel cables now hold it together. The little leaf lindens and crape myrtles have grown stout and strong, while the path that we careless 1970s students had etched in the grass has grown into a neat brick crosswalk. I recalled how student protests back in the day had kept the green a muddy brown, mystifying first-in-the-family college students like me who hadn’t time between work and rushing to the library to take part.

The library had been my protest, my way of demonstrating that I was breaking from my working-class background in Hoboken, where education often was secondary, to force my way into a world that treasured the Sewanee Review and the other literary journals that Monsignor Noé Field introduced me to. At the library I saw for the first time shelves and shelves of magazines, journals and newspapers from everywhere, each a world I longed to explore.

As I stepped off the green that August morning, I looked up and was completely disoriented. The library was not there, in front of me, where it had been the last time I had been inside it. In its place was a modern-looking building identified by a sign as Jubilee Hall. Though quite handsome, this clearly was not the library. Surely, I thought, as the campus had become more crowded, this new building must have sprouted directly in front of the library. Or perhaps my memory was off and I had forgotten how far from the green the library had been. After all, I hadn’t entered the building since 1975.

I walked around Jubilee expecting to find the library there. I could see other buildings (including what I later found out was the remade McNulty Hall), but definitely not the library that I now realized I had, quite literally, lost.

I eventually found it (after a sleepy graduate student I asked gave me a puzzled look and a lazy thumb) and took my place alongside the new faculty as writer-in-residence at the same University where I had once lost an election for editor in chief of the school newspaper. The winner of that election, Patty Williams, became the first woman to head The Setonian, another indication of how much time had gone by.

Besides the fine new library (they still have Sewanee, now online) I’ve noticed many other changes at Seton Hall. One of the most startling is how much more clearly the University’s Catholic identity seems to show through its institutional shell. Of course, it could be that I’ve changed over the decades and that now that I am a husband and father with a fair amount of living already done, I can perceive what before was invisible. But I think it’s more than that. As I entered the library on that first morning, I was struck by the dramatic words inscribed in the cupola — Bishop Romero’s soul-stirring evocation “My Word Remains,” Aquinas’ “The Son is the Word,” and Pope Leo XIII’s admonition (and battle cry to journalists):

“Let no one dare to say anything false. Let no one fear to say anything true.”

The black robes of priests seem plentiful now that the archdiocesan seminary is on campus. The beer pub is gone and three Masses are celebrated in the beautifully renovated Chapel every day. The academic year began with a Mass at the University Center at which the boys in black were out in full force, and I’ve attended several faculty retreats that have featured prayer, meditation and preaching.

I had changed quite a lot in the decades since I was a student, and so had Seton Hall. The University had become far denser, more filled in with academic buildings and dorms for students who now come not just from the ethnic enclaves of Northern New Jersey that I knew, but also from across the country and all corners of the globe. Parking, even with the new garage, is as bad as or worse than I remember. But because cars are not allowed in the central heart of the campus, parts of Seton Hall can seem more like a refuge than ever.

And yet, the outside world also seems to have intruded on Seton Hall. The front gate on South Orange Avenue that we could use is now sealed, and the other entrances that we would just drive through are guarded 24/7.

And I had to catch my breath the first time I saw the memorial to the students who died in the Boland Hall fire, a sad but necessary reminder of the dangers of contemporary life, and the need for us to look out for each other.

Many days when I’m on campus, it doesn’t feel at all like the Seton Hall I remember, even when I meet members of the faculty who were here back when I was a student. It’s in the classroom that this circling back becomes most transparent, and most vexing. As writer-in-residence, I continue my professional writing, working on a variety of books and articles, while participating in University-wide lectures and presentations. I also teach courses in journalism and Latin American issues, based on my experience as a foreign correspondent for The Times. As I stand in front of my students, I can picture myself sitting in their place, a generation ago.

But I know my students don’t easily picture me sitting in their seats. That’s probably inevitable because we take the measure of time differently. For them the supply of time is inexhaustible, like air or water, with no conceivable need to circle back. They don’t feel they must squeeze from every minute all the living juice it contains. I know I didn’t when I sat where they are.

I’ve developed a kind of double vision whenever I am on campus, seeing things as they were in the past as well as looking at them in the present. As the academic year drew to a close, and seniors in my class were about to graduate, I wondered whether I dared tell them how difficult the road ahead is going to be? How many disappointments they will bear? How many turns in their own road they are going to have to navigate no matter what they decide to do with their lives, or what their lives do with them?

Thirty years ago, my own professors offered me life advice, telling me that I’d be better off switching from print to television because the future of newspapers was grim. I followed their advice and accepted a full-year University internship at New Jersey Network that set me up for a promising career in television news. Then, as soon as I graduated, I went back to the TV studios to work as producer of the statewide nightly newscast.

But after a few years I felt hollowed out. I knew that I had been right from the beginning, that I would find my true voice in the written word.

Today, the end is awfully close for some newspapers, and publishing as a whole is undergoing a fundamental transformation, down to the definition of what constitutes a novel, a book, a story. And that led me to believe that another one of those peculiar patterns of life was emerging even as I wrote these words. I was faced with the choice between giving my students the same kind of advice that was given to me 30 years ago, or refusing to close this particular circle.

To jog my memory about my own history I spent an afternoon looking through The Setonian’s archives. I found many of my own stories, including some that I had assigned when I was features editor.

I also found my very first published byline. The piece was a series of highfalutin aphorisms in a 1971 literary supplement published inside The Setonian, and for me it represented a near-perfect combination of journalism and literature. The first of these “thoughts” dealt with the subject of dreams, not the fantasies of sleep but the aspirations of life not yet lived. “Possibly the strongest power on earth is that of the dream,” I wrote with the haughty pretension of a teenager testing the cool waters of literature. “When a man just dreams and does not try or want to actually accomplish, then he becomes stagnant. When he stops dreaming he is dead.”

The adolescent pomposity of those words made me cringe, but given where I am right now I sensed that what I had written then might apply just as well today. And that helped me realize I had no choice but to encourage my students, not only to dream, but also to be willing to take big risks to achieve those dreams no matter what roadblocks lie ahead.

So I urged them to turn up the volume and dream. Dream big. I don’t know what the future of newspapers will be, but I do know that the basics of clear thinking and solid writing will always be in demand. And there’s more. In the short time I’ve been back at Seton Hall, I’ve gotten the sense that student dreams are not the only ones here lacking helium. Seton Hall should feel comfortable filling the shoes of a solid and respected 153-year-old center of higher learning, but it doesn’t always. The University, all its faculty and staff, along with the ever-changing student body, should use the perspective of the past to peer clearly into the possibilities of the future, and dream big.

When Monsignor Sheeran talked to me about coming to Seton Hall, he invited me to come back home. I hadn’t thought of it that way, as a kind of circling back to the beginning. I’ve been moving ahead so fast that the E-ZPass of my life barely registered landmarks but collected a hefty toll.

Talking to him made me realize that sometimes, something just happens to allow us, like swallows and chain letters, to end up circling back to where we began, only to start the cycle all over again. Now, he has announced that he is stepping down as president because God has other plans for him, a new chapter in his storied life. I don’t pretend that I felt the same kind of calling, but I think I do understand a little of what it will mean for him to embark on his new voyage, wherever it leads.

I can trace so much of my life back to the time I spent at Seton Hall that it does seem like home. My younger sister, Rachelle, is an alum, as are my twin nephews, Jeff and Joel. My wife, Miriam, and I were married in the Chapel, and in 2005 we returned to celebrate our 30th anniversary there.
And in the same year that I returned to campus, Andrea, the daughter of one of my closest friends, was here as a freshman, beginning her voyage of life. She had other choices but decided she wanted to come to Seton Hall.

She is the kind of high-achieving servant leader that Monsignor Sheeran is bringing here, while also preserving the University’s commitment to first-generation college students — like me — for whom the campus still represents the home that you leave, but that never leaves you. And that truly reflects the Hall’s Catholic heritage, its soul. Coming back gives me a chance to give back. And while I am here I will be on the lookout for the busy student with the bundle of books who is rushing across the green to get to the library as fast as he can, and hope he gets there.

Anthony DePalma ’75, writer-in-residence at Seton Hall, recently received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, the oldest international award in journalism, for his work in promoting inter-American understanding.

Portions of this essay have appeared in The New York Times.

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