Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why I Always Smile in Autumn

I always smile when I approach September and October each year because it is time for the NACAC National Conference. I smile because this meeting has always meant so much to me. While packing for this year’s Seattle meeting, I realized that this one just might be my last. Finding myself in the autumn of my years, and just having announced my retirement, this 42nd straight meeting could be my swan song. Next autumn just won’t be the same.

I really think that I started my professional life at my first NACAC national conference. It was 1966, exactly 42 years ago in Washington, DC at that famous convention hotel the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue. As a brand new upstart admissions counselor, I was privileged to have rubbed elbows with and listened to such giants in my field as Bill Wilson from Amherst, Jack Hoy from Wesleyan, Ferne Horne from Mount Lebanon High School, and Jim Cavalier from Sewickley Academy. I was also blessed that my own boss and mentor, Jack Scott, Director of Admissions at Marietta College chose to take me along. I have been attending ever since, first in college admissions for 10 years and then as an exhibitor for another 32 years. Indeed, I always smiled because at each meeting, the people got younger, and thus the ideas always seemed to get fresher. NACAC has provided me with both professional growth over this long career, and also a darn good time – and, folks, there is nothing wrong with that.

As someone who visited high schools in my first 10 years of professional life, I used to comment that the best way to get to know an urban area or a city is through traveling to its schools. I traveled extensively early on throughout New England and the Middle Atlanta states and later throughout the Southeast. NACAC, through its national meetings gave me the opportunity to visit other places. After my first meeting in Washington, the next was in Minneapolis. In the twin cities I found a whole new world. I looked forward to returning again and again in 1982 and 1996.

If you go to the NACAC meeting continually, you find yourself crisscrossing the United States, east coast, west coast, with an occasional visit to the south. From Minneapolis we went to New York where I can remember seeing a smiling Johnny Carson passing through the lobby. We then went to Chicago. Chicago was memorable because of “the revolutionary times.” The 1968 Democratic Convention was fresh in our minds, and an association dealing with access to higher education was not immune from protest from the outside. I can remember watching Colonel Day, the burley but very gentlemanly Director of Admission at West Point, physically removing a profane “outside participant” from the lectern.

The Chicago of 1994 was so different. Jogging near the lake in the art museum area in the breeze and sunshine was so calm and pure pleasure.

San Antonio in 1972 is so memorable, because I had no concept of the Riverwalk before I went – what a great convention in a great city. It was highlighted by Russ Gossage, Director of Admissions at Trinity University, hosting the whole convention to a barbecue in his backyard. San Antonio in 1983 was no surprise – we knew what to expect, but San Antonio in 2001 was held in the wake of September 11th, which was on all of our minds. I had just moved to Atlanta in 1975 when that city hosted the convention and I felt that my new hometown did a marvelous job. Each meeting for me has its own set of personal memories.

It was in New York in 1989 where Stein’s Rob Glass and I did our famous Siskel and Ebert-like presentation of college recruitment publications in front of a packed house at 8:30 a.m. My oldest son, Scott who later became the subject of an NACAC Journal article, Travels With Scott, joined me to see The Phantom of the Opera – a father-son event that I have always fondly remembered. San Francisco is San Francisco. I have been blessed twice in 1971 and 1997.

Now it is rather humorous, but in the San Francisco meeting of 1997, our exhibit/display box was shipped from Atlanta with the wrong display – it contained a display from another division of the company. We had fun with a table, some samples, a white tablecloth, and loads of competitor on lookers with grins. I always attempted to see something in areas in NACAC cities that I normally don’t travel to. During the first San Francisco convention, a group of us rented a car and traveled down by Monterey to see Stanford. It was a wonderful drive.

The first Seattle meeting was a good one to see the beauty of the northwest and eat loads of salmon. Bal Harbor has memories on which I better not expound. I took the MTA in Boston to go to the Kennedy Library. Boston makes me think of baseball. During all NACAC national conferences, we fans are always either caught up in the World Series or the Divisional Playoffs. Often times this has been tough for a Braves season ticket holder like me, but, then again, it has always been tough to be a Braves fan at World Series time. I saw the Cardinals in St. Louis. As a southerner, Louisville did me proud.

Salt Lake City gave me the opportunity to examine my ancestry. In Tampa I lost weight by walking from the hotel to the convention center in the humidity. Orlando was pure Disney and fun. Long Beach was living on the Queen Mary. We were all impressed by the cleanliness and friendliness of Indianapolis. Los Angeles was Los Angeles. To this day, having started my career in Ohio, I am a loyal OACAC’er – Cincinnati was a great meeting. I was impressed both by Pittsburgh and those gracious western Pennsylvania hosts in both 1993 and 2006. In 2006 they showed off a city of change in only a 13-year span. Gold and black always stood tall.

Still the magical meeting continues to be Washington 1966. It was the start of a wonderful life and fine professional journey. I owe the folks at NACAC a vote of thanks for crisscrossing me over the country for the last 42 years, and for the hard work of all the local-arrangement volunteers who have made all of my autumns worthwhile.

But “worthwhile” is what NACAC is all about. I always remember it is only about a kid’s choice of a college - a serious life changing decision in the middle of an impressionable youthful time. And here is a professional association filled with wonderful people who have an awesome duty to protect, value, and insure that the process is kept within the best interest of that young person.

NACAC professionals and the all the nationwide volunteers who make these national meetings what they are will always have my gratitude.

This fall it was back to Seattle for my 42nd meeting and my last. This meeting was a record meeting, attended by more professionals than any other in the history of NACAC. I walked around Seattle this fall amazed just by thinking about how far this organization had come since 1966.

I have been blessed by traveling to those cities, by all those meetings, and, more importantly, by those strong human relationships developed over these many years. Now I will just sit back and reflect, and I’ll remember, and then I’ll smile. It has been a wonderful trip. Next autumn just won’t be the same.

Ross W. Lenhart
Senior Vice President
Stein Communications
Atlanta, GA