Thank You, Mr. Neuberger
I did not know Fred Neuberger well. In fact, at his packed memorial service at Mead Chapel, I was surprised by the many things I had never known about him: that he had been wounded in World War II, that he was a POW. He was a wood-worker, a practical joker, an advocate for diversity at the College. He was a man who took chances—that I did know about him.
It was a brief encounter in the late summer of 1969. I had been attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was a few weeks away from returning to the Connecticut College for Women for my junior year. Until Bread Loaf, I had never been able to live, breathe, talk about writing 24/7, and as the conference drew to a close, I started having withdrawal pains.
And so on my last afternoon on the mountain, I came down to Middlebury’s Admissions Office. It was a lazy summer day, and the only person around was a man who introduced himself as Fred Neuberger. He asked me what he could do for me, and then listened as I told him about my two weeks at the conference, about my love of writing, about how I wanted to transfer to Middlebury. I was 19 years old, smitten with Frost country.
What I did not tell Mr. Neuberger was that I had applied to Middlebury as a senior in high school; that I had not gotten in; that it was just as well because my strict, immigrant Latino papi would not allow his daughters to go to coed schools. I didn’t tell Mr. Neuberger these things because none of them mattered anymore. I had found fertile ground for my imagination, and I was not about to let mere facts get in the way of a dream.
Mr. Neuberger handed me an application. I had plenty of time: the deadline was four months away.
“No, no, no,” I explained. I didn’t want to come to Middlebury a year from now; I wanted to come now.
“Young lady,” he said in that tough-guy, mock macho style of his. “Them’s the rules.”
I was close to tears; partly heartbroken, partly ashamed. Who did I think I was putting myself forward this way? “Okay, then I’ll just move here. I’ll get a job. At least I’ll be close to Middlebury until I can come here.”
Mr. Neuberger sighed. “How soon can you get this application back to me?”
I bolted up from my chair, as if I was about to fill in the blanks right then and there. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” By now I was hopping up and down.
“I’m not making any promises,” he reminded me.
But he had already given me so much: he had listened. He had heard the sound of a young person connecting with her calling.
Until Bread Loaf, I hadn’t listened to it myself. Two weeks later my family was packing the car to take my older sister back to college. I had had a standoff with my papi and mami: I was not going back for my junior year. I wanted to go to Middlebury.
The phone rang. Fred Neuberger was on the line. “Young lady, do you still want to come to Middlebury?”
I screamed. Even my parents were impressed, which was why, when we finally did drive up to Vermont from Queens, and my father looked around at a campus crawling with boys, he let me stay. This school had recognized his daughter’s talent, and that meant a lot to a man who had put aside his own talents to fight a dictatorship.
When I returned to Middlebury 17 years later to teach, I would tell Mr. Neuberger this story at every occasion. Then I’d let loose with a renewed sally of thank-yous. After the fifth time, he’d just sigh and shake his head. Enough with the thank-yous.
Not quite. Mr. Neuberger, thank you, one last time.