Have you ever opened the old photo album of a parent or grandparent and wondered, “Who are these people?” So many smiling faces lost to the passage of time.
We spend lots of effort at the job of being remembered. No one wants to be forgotten, unless, like the old-time actress Greta Garbo, you “want to be alone.”
Indeed, one of the chief reasons people skip high school reunions is the fear of not being recalled.
Look around you at the buildings. Once gone, the person whose name appears on the edifice loses control. Buildings get torn down, names get changed.
Take Dyche Stadium, Northwestern University’s football field in Evanston, Illinois. The edifice opened in 1926, named after William Dyche, an NU grad in the Class of 1882, who later became the Mayor of Evanston and oversaw the venue’s creation. To the dismay of the Dyche family, NU sold the rights to the name in 1997 to Pat Ryan, then the Chairman of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees. For eight-million dollars, Dyche Stadium became Ryan Field.
Percy Bysshe Shelley would have understood. His poem Ozymandias tells a similar story about the collapse and destruction of an ancient monument to a once formidable and arrogant ruler. An inscribed pedestal is the only thing left:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
If the exception proves the rule, then we should talk about Julius Rosenwald. You probably don’t know his name and Rosenwald wouldn’t have cared.
Julius Rosenwald (pictured at the top) was President of Sears, Roebuck, and Company from 1908 to 1924, and the Chairman of its Board until his death in 1932. In 1917 he established the Rosenwald Fund, a charitable enterprise designed to have no endowment, i.e. an untouchable bankroll to be invested for the purpose of the charity’s survival. Rather, Rosenwald intended the Fund to disperse grants “for the well-being of mankind” until there was nothing left. The money was gone by 1948; and with it, any chance we might hear about it in our time. Only a 2015 documentary on the philanthropist’s life has (for the moment) reintroduced his name to the public.
During its existence Rosenwald’s fund distributed about $70 million, with much money going to the establishment of over 5000 schools in the South, aimed at educating black youth. Rosenwald was also a principal founder of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, seeding it with five-million dollars and serving as its president from 1927 to 1932. At the time, people in Chicago were as likely to refer to the structure as the “Rosenwald Museum” as they were the Museum of Science and Industry.
William Schuman’s name, on the other hand, was never a household word. But in his day (1910-1992), only Aaron Copland was a more prominent living American composer in the classical world. Moreover, as president of the Juilliard School and then of the emerging Lincoln Center, no one had a greater influence on serious music in the middle portion of the last century. Schuman also wrote 10 symphonies among other works, and won the first Pulitzer Prize ever given for musical composition. His Symphony #3 is arguably the greatest such piece written by an American.
Yet, the centenary of his birth in 2010 was hardly noticed by performing groups and the major US orchestras pay him little attention. I asked an orchestral executive why, with few exceptions, deceased 20th century Americans like Schuman are not performed. His wry answer: once dead “it is easier to say ‘no’ to them.” All the friends in high places who programmed Schuman’s music are now gone, along with his music, except for occasional performances and recordings. The musicians and executives of our own time don’t know his work and don’t care, or so it seems.
Schuman would have agreed, I suspect, with the notion that a composer’s life is like trying to create art on a block of ice on a hot day in July, to paraphrase Arthur Miller. In other words, you hope those notes will last and be played, but the odds are against you.
Shakespeare treated the fleeting memory of our existence more gently in the words he gave to Prospero, the sorcerer, in The Tempest. Prospero’s comment comes as he ends a brief staged performance — a play within a play. What he says refers not only to the matter of creating illusions in the theater, but also to the insubstantial and temporary nature of life itself, not just our names:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air…
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The irony implicit in Shelley’s and Shakespeare’s words is that while they talk of the transience of things, their names and works live on. Though it’s not called Dyche Stadium any more, the place Dyche built still stands along with the “Rosenwald Museum.”
Got to run. A recording of Schuman’s Symphony #3 is coming on the radio. Perhaps his music, like that of Gustav Mahler, will be revived 50-years after his death.
The future is full of surprises.
Who knows. Somebody at the reunion might remember you after all.
The top video is the trailer for the 2015 documentary, Rosenwald. The 1970 photo of Ryan Field (formerly Dyche Stadium) comes from Greenstrat. Steve F-E-Cameron is the author of the Temple of Ramses II, Luxor, Egypt. The photo of the Museum of Science and Industry is courtesy of Knarfol. All of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final image is the Columbia LP (long playing record) cover of William Schuman’s Symphony #3 with the smiling Schuman facing the photographer.