I went to Carleton College. It was (and still is) a pricey liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was (and probably still is) a place where the extremely smart and the extremely rich go to undergrad before continuing on to medical, law, or business school. Or if you’re the hopelessly goofy Andy Cheng – double major in math and physics Andy Cheng – you get head-hunted into a government think tank at 21 years old. And actually, I should say “the extremely smart OR the kinda smart with lots of money” because the super smart kids had no money and the super rich kids weren’t the smartest. I was neither extremely smart nor did I come from money, but the school wanted to keep its athletic programs going so I got in with help from the basketball coach.
I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where there were a few families I thought were rich. You know, pool in the back yard, all their kids drive new Grand Ams or Cameros, and the mom doesn’t work… that was my idea of “rich.” Cut to my first day at college. I met a guy who got $1000 every month from his parents. “Allowance.” We became friends and we had to invent ways to spend the money. He would ask, “What’s fun?” I would answer, “Ever shoot off model rockets?” And off we’d go to the hobby store and drop $400 on rockets and engines and igniters. Then we’d glue everything together, paint them, and go fire them off. Invariably, we lost them in the woods, but so what? He would get more money next month and we’d buy softball mitts or tennis rackets or comic books. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I stopped hanging out with that guy since he was also on the smarter end of the spectrum. (hint: it probably had to do with a girl.) Up to that point, I thought he was the richest person I had ever met. Then I became aware of the next level.
Sidebar 1: Right out of college, I was an IT guy at a small software company that was trying to revolutionize medical documentation. The owner/president was a distinguished surgeon who had major backing for the company. He told me a story where he was standing on a cliff in the French Riviera with his son while on a family vacation. They were looking at the ocean (Mediterranean, actually, but he said “ocean” when he told the story) and his son looked up at him and asked, “Daddy? Are we rich?” The doctor opened his mouth to answer when a helicopter zoomed overhead, descended, and landed on a yacht in the bay. “No,” he answered. “That’s rich.” Keep that in mind as we get back to the story.
Pick-up basketball allowed me to skip through several layers of the social strata and I met some people whose fathers worked in “investment banking.” I had no idea what that was. But these were kids who used laundry delivery services, had their hair stylist come to the dorm (boys, I’m talking), and who never wore the same shirt twice.
Sidebar 2: My roommate Tom dated this girl from Boston. One hot June night a bunch of us hopped the fence at the kiddie pool and cooled off. She looked perplexed and asked, “Where’s the sand?” She was used to her club where the kiddie pool had sand in the bottom. I had never even heard of a pool with sand. I also had never been to a club.
But the tops were the students who never carried any form of payment. Seriously, I knew more than one guy who would just walk out of a bar after running up a $300 tab and the staff knew to send the bill to a local accountant who relayed information to some international accounting firm. He even had an open account at Domino’s. “Just order whatever,” he’d say. The local Domino’s branch billed the accountant monthly. That was about as mind-blowing as the 19 year-old me could manage.
My first two years at Carleton, I was a terrible student. Then I changed majors from Computer Science to English and everything went much better. It was dicey for a while because the college had a strict four-year policy. If you didn’t have enough credits to graduate in four years, you got the boot. You could only qualify for a fifth year if you had traveled abroad or had a serious illness. I had neither excuse to use for my appeal so I took some Summer school to catch up on credits. Once I was cruising along in English, getting B’s instead of D’s, I had much more time for basketball and general screwing around. One guy I played hoops with was this Class A prick I’ll call Blamson. He was a year ahead of us and still remains as one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met. I’ll qualify that a little later, but you need to understand that everyone hated him. The people who hung out with him only put up with him for the money. He was stinking rich. But man, what a dick. You couldn’t play hoops with Blamson in the game without him taking a swing at someone or getting in a shoving match. He was big, like 6’4″ and broad, so people didn’t like to mess with him. We couldn’t wait until he graduated.
So finally it’s our Senior year and who should come to our little six-plex dorm door but Blamson. We all thought he graduated the year before. Turns out he F’d a bunch of classes over the years. He should have flunked out, but there he stood. “Can I hang out with you guys?” My five roommates and I stared open-mouthed until one of us said, “Sure, man.” What followed was a year of fairly regular hanging-out, appearances at parties, and general social interaction with Blamson. Turned out he was smart, funny, and overall a pretty normal guy. He bought kegs for the parties and once he ripped a guy’s shirt by accident in a hoops game and bought him a couple new shirts. Not the Blamson we had known by a long shot.
One night we were all having beers and one of my roommates finally asked the question we all had in mind, “So Blamson. Fifth year?” Blamson nodded and kind of made a wince face. He looked up and said, “I’m legacy. Like four generations back.” So what? “So I kinda had to get a degree from here.” That doesn’t answer the question. “Yeah. So.” He took a deep breath and said, “You know that new math building?” Then he just nodded.
The new math building was a multi-million dollar construction project that came out of nowhere. All new computers, classrooms, servers… everything you can imagine. Blamson Sr. paid for a major chunk. Either that’s how much it meant to him for Junior to get a degree from Carleton, or a few million dollars didn’t mean that much.