by Virginia Weir
“To welcome the first graduating class of a University back to campus, 60 years after graduation, is truly is a unique and extraordinary privilege for any University President.”
So began, Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx., S.J., on a warm Saturday in September as he greeted members of the Class of 1951 and their spouses who had gathered on campus for a special luncheon and afternoon of activities to celebrate their 60th Reunion.
“Your presence here today is a gift to the Fairfield community,” said Fr. von Arx, “a gift of perspective, and history, and faith.”
He thanked 60th Reunion Committee members Tom Flaherty, Jim Fogarty, Joe Miko, John Sacco, John Siannis, and Frank Waters for all their work to bring fellow classmates together.
In 1947, when these men entered Fairfield University as freshmen, there were only 14 faculty members at the new university — 10 Jesuits and four lay teachers — one of whom was the luncheon’s special guest of honor, Professor of History Carmen Donnarumma.
“Very few classes can have a guest of honor who was also their professor,” said Tom Flaherty ’51, who introduced Donnarumma “Not to mention a building named after him.” Donnarumma, who taught at the University for 45 years until he retired in 1992, was not much older than most of the students he first taught.
In those days, the University was a small place — Bellarmine Hall housed the Jesuit community, and classes were taught in a building now part of Fairfield College Preparatory School.
“From that one-room school house and two-room library,” Donnarumma said in his remarks to his former students, “you all have created a magnificent memorial… What we made has also made us.”
The first class of Fairfield University, the Class of 1951, numbered 303 young men, a third of them veterans returning home from stints in the Army and Navy and entering college on the G.I. Bill, which paid for books and the $200-per-semester tuition charge.
Often called “pioneers” by following classes, these men initiated many of the traditions that have been handed down class after class over the past 64 years—the first “Men in Red” Glee Club, the first “Red Stags” basketball team, the first student council, the first yearbook.
They left Fairfield University and became doctors, dentists, computer programmers, teachers, and priests. Many of them have sent their children and grandchildren to Fairfield to receive the same well-rounded education they enjoyed.
In the Fairfield University of 1947 most of the students were in their 20s, and all were commuters. There were no residence halls, no gym, and no female students. Between classes, students played cards, ping-pong, and pinochle in a designated room in Berchmans Hall.
Although most students brown-bagged it, lunch was also available across the road at Fairfield Prep’s McAuliffe Hall. “You could get four grilled cheese sandwiches for a dollar, and a Coke for five cents,” recalled one alumnus.
Dr. Bob Conti ’51 discovered Fairfield through his uncle, who was part of the construction crew that built Berchmans Hall. On his first day on campus, he met Dr. John Sacco ’51, who became his lifelong friend. They later went to medical school together at Loyola Chicago, and stay in close touch today. Conti eventually became a radiologist and settled in Florida. One of his daughters, Kimberly Rojas, graduated from Fairfield in 1990.
“At Fairfield, I learned an appreciation of life — the truly valuable things: kindness, appreciation, helping others — those are the things that I learned,” Conti said. “If I can do a good thing every day for the rest of my life — that would be the greatest gift I could have.” In 1989, Conti and his wife Jane established the Robert F. Conti Scholarship at Fairfield for students majoring in pre-medical studies.
In 1945, after four years overseas in the Navy, Monsignor George Birge ’51 returned to his hometown of Stratford, Conn., unsure of what to do next. While stationed in China, he consulted with the Jesuits he met in Shanghai about becoming a priest. After a year of acclimation at New Haven State Teacher’s College (now Southern Connecticut State University), Birge applied to Fairfield, where he majored in history and commuted to campus with his brother-in-law Robert Goodrich — also a Class of ’51 graduate.
His calling to religious life took shape, and Birge went on to seminary school, was ordained in 1956. Msgr. Birge, now retired, serves as senior priest at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Stratford. “I’m so happy that we were a part of the early days,” he said. “I experienced brotherhood at Fairfield. We were blessed.”
Frank Waters ’51 hitchhiked to campus five days a week from his home in Wilton. “I’d get rides from Wilton to Westport and from Westport to the Fairfield train station. They had a shuttle that took us to campus,” he said.
With his degree in mathematics, Waters landed a job at Remington Rand in Norwalk — along with three other classmates, Jim Flynn, Bill Braun, and Jim Burns. “They had designed a computer, and they needed some people to figure them out and show others how to use them,” said Waters. His work in the fledgling industry gave him the opportunity to travel all around the country. Waters eventually became first director of data processing for the City of Norwalk — a new position, where he worked for 23 years.
Beyond an excellent education, Waters said, “Fairfield instilled in me a responsibility to help others in need, and a sense of what I could contribute to my community.” He retired in 1995, and now volunteers as a companion at Notre Dame Convalescent Home and also at Norwalk Hospital. His daughter Joyce Geinger is a 1982 graduate.
The Reunion afternoon continued with Mass, celebrated by Alumni Chaplain Rev. Charles Allen, S.J., who praised the men for their courage in giving Fairfield University — so new and unknown in 1947 — a chance to form and change them. The Mass concluded with a poignant moment, as the University men’s a capella group, the Bensonians, invited members of the Glee Club from the Class of 1951 to join them in singing the University’s school song, “Men in Red.”
After a bus tour of campus, the Class of 1951 returned to the Quick Center for the fourth annual President’s Lecture.
For Fairfield’s first class, it was an afternoon of laughter and reminiscing, recollecting and making plans to get together again. “The whole day was absolutely wonderful,” said Bob Conti. “I loved it. I’m looking forward to my 65th.”