Alumni Column – Spring Break: A Class of ’56 Experience



Gordon Miller '56

As part of a COVE program, I joined 15 Colgate students who had volunteered to spend their Spring Break in New Orleans on a work project. A unique way to spend their time off from studies, I thought, as I flashed back over fifty years to a memory of station wagon loaded with classmates driving non-stop to Ft. Lauderdale for a week of twelve-to-a-room motels, painful sunburns, and ineffective fake IDs.

So who were these students and what would a seventy something alumnus encounter as part of this work group? From first-years to seniors, they came from places as far ranging as Oregon, Maryland, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania and India. They had one thing in common: A willingness to work.

As for New Orleans itself, the words “shock” and “awe” were truly applicable. The enormity of the devastation went beyond the pictures I had seen. In the 9th Ward, we viewed hundreds of deserted homes; power lines still down, the low hum of the wind echoing through broken windows and shattered roofs. The roofs of some homes had TVs and other unusual debris on them. Ghostlike, there was absolutely no sign of human activity as we passed.

The words, “lack of commitment”, jumped to mind. Other members of our team described their reactions to what they saw as “so much work,” “important for others to see,” and the ever-present “How will it end?”

As de-motivating as the situation was, we plowed into our work assignment, which began at 8 a.m. each day and ended around six in the evening. It involved tearing down walls and ceilings, pulling thousands of nails, removing bathrooms, rusty appliances, floor tiles and tons of plaster. It was hot, filthy, work that required dust masks, gloves and boots. The team stopped only for a lunch break of PB&J and gallons of drinking water. At the end of the week, much of our working gear was unusable.

Adding to the hard work was the impact of the symbols on each house indicating the number of people found dead and the condition of various pets found. The houses we gutted were once under five to twenty feet of water and the personal effects we removed had often floated as high as the roof lines.

Our rewards came when families would visit us to see how the work was going. They were incredibly grateful as this was a final step before their homes could be rebuilt. One little girl from a family of 10 gave hugs all around for helping her to get her room back.

Spirits and commitment ran high even as we fell off ladders, dodged falling plaster, fought off a variety of insects, kept a keen lookout for snakes and relived the sad picture of people’s lives through the things they had left behind.

At the day’s end, we struggled with limited shower time and tried to appease our ravenous appetites. Through it all, we knew we had made a small but important difference in the lives of others. For me, I always will be grateful for sharing time with this group of dedicated Colgate students – their commitment, humor, hard work and selflessness signal good things for Colgate as well as America’s future. It was a great spring break!