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The rearview mirror

Forty years later, I can tell students: Don't just attend JMU, attack it
By Michael Cappeto (‘70)

Michael Cappeto (‘70) welcomed returning alums to the 1960s/1970s Madison reunion.

Michael Cappeto (‘70) welcomed returning alums to the 1960s/1970s Madison reunion.

I took one final glance at Madison through my rearview mirror as I left campus the day after graduation. Those were four great years, I thought, gone in a flash. I could see the cupola of Wilson Hall fading into the distance as I drove up Rt. 11. It didn’t take much longer to lose the radio signal from WHBG. I was now alone in the car, reflecting on my Madison Experience. I had the top down on my aging two–seater sports car enjoying the sun and wind, and the memories flooded my head.

Images of my classmates made me smile. Thinking about some of the ridiculous things we did made me laugh aloud. I thought of my professors who challenged me more than I had thought possible, and the members of the administration with whom I had shared many valuable experiences. I’d look forward to keeping in touch with them. They were people who cared about me, not just my education, but about me as a person. I’d try to emulate them in life.

As a young alumnus, I returned to Harrisonburg often to share the good times with my classmates as we watched one another progress in our professions. As family and careers grew, reunions and visits became shorter and less often.

This past fall, I found myself excitedly driving back to campus in a new two–seater. But, this time I was not alone. My classmate Bev Johnson (‘70) was in the car with me and we talked about the good times we shared as students. Bev and I married shortly after graduation, had children and now have grandchildren. This trip to campus for a 1960s/1970s Madison reunion was more than 40 years after our graduation. How could that much time have passed? Forty years: Gone in a flash!

We stopped at my old Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity lodge on Rt. 11, now a convenience store. I bought a caffeine–free Diet Coke, something I would have never considered drinking when I was a student. We passed the L&S Diner where my friends and I would have late–night breakfasts after dropping off our dates at curfew time. Curfew? I made the turn onto campus and was instantly transported back to my Madison days. I felt a rush of adrenaline course through my veins. The campus was a portkey to an earlier era.

One of my Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers Steve Smith (‘71), who is lucky enough to work at Madison, err, I mean JMU, organized this special reunion. I greeted him and my classmates with enthusiasm. We had all changed – some more than others – but change was what our professors had prepared us to do.

Mike and Beverlee Cappeto (‘70) at Madison College in 1970

Michael and Beverlee Cappeto (‘70) at Madison College in 1970.

I was struck by the notable success of classmates who had returned. I asked each one to tell me about the last 40 years, and I watched them beam with pride while talking about their families and careers. Several were teachers and school administrators, and I could hear the phenomenal impact they clearly had on students and learning systems. Other classmates were flight attendants – the glamour jobs of the 1970s – business executives and entrepreneurs, people who had volunteered worldwide to improve humanity, college professors and administrators, financial managers and artists. I won’t venture into a discussion about the criteria that measures satisfaction and success – those obviously vary among people – but listening to my classmates reflect upon 40 years revealed enormous pride in achievements.

Almost all talked about how Madison had helped form their lives.

So how did our Madison Experience shape our lives? I’ve been a college professor and administrator most of my career and know that the answer to this question would consume volumes and still be open to debate. The in–and–out–of–classroom learning environments created at Madison are highly effective in personal development and in preparing students for life.

My classmates and I learned in class and we learned from our extracurricular activities. We learned from our professors and we learned from each other. We learned to think creatively, analytically, critically, scientifically and quantitatively. Most importantly, we learned to take our Madison Experience and newly gained knowledge and transfer what we had acquired to the new problems, situations and environments that we would encounter in our lives.

One unscientific conclusion I drew from my conversations with classmates was that a high relationship existed between their level of engagement with the college as undergraduates, and the level of success and satisfaction they reported in their lives. If that hunch is correct, what lessons might today’s generation of JMU students learn from alumni? Simple: Don’t just attend JMU, attack it. Challenge yourself. Associate with the best and brightest in the student body. Immerse yourself in learning, both in class and in out–of–class activities. Become one with the university.

After the reunion, Bev and I got into our car and headed back north. We stopped at Jess’ Quick Lunch and agonized over the loss of George’s Restaurant, Doc’s Tea Room, Leggett’s Department Store and Charles Mathias Clothier. We stopped at the fraternity lodge for another caffeine–free Diet Coke. Top down, the sun and the wind and the sky filled our heads with visions of Madison 2011. The best view of Madison, we concluded, is not through the rearview mirror, it’s through the windshield, looking at the future as your Madison Experience continues.

About the Author

Dr. Michael Cappeto (‘70, ‘71M) is provost at the State University of New York – Maritime College. He has been a faculty member and administrator at Washington & Lee University, the Claremont Colleges and Colgate University. He was also vice president for higher education assessment programs at the College Board and oversaw the SAT. He earned his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. His wife, Beverlee Johnson Cappeto (‘70), is executive director of development services at Fordham University. They have two daughters and two grandchildren.