One of the most wonderful moments of my life occurred without my knowing it. Had I the presence of mind to be more present for things that mattered, I might not have missed it. Recalling what this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence must have been like, however, is the second-best way I know of memorializing it.
It happened when I had finished a graduate degree at Temple University in Philadelphia during the United States Bicentennial Year, 1976. The U.S. was turning 200 years old, and I had studied colonial and urban history, hoping to turn the knowledge into a salable commodity — that is, writing history for a newspaper.
I chose history because, first, I always liked it, having been “turned on” in grade school when a nun told us of the glory of Greece, the land my father had come from in the early 20th Century. The second reason was that history was one of the few graduate courses that did not require two years of language. I might have majored in English had it not been for that requirement.
How I ever got this far in higher education, I’ll never know. I barely made it through high school, graduating from a vocational-technical school where I learned to be a printer. I made it despite having been suspended from the trade school, Dobbins, and earlier, the Catholic school, Bishop Neumann, where I had transferred out after playing hooky.
I cut so many classes my senior year that when I look back, I can’t understand how I got the requisite state days for class attendance. I’d come to school late, sign in at admissions, and someone would mark me “present,” but late. I’d skip the classes I didn’t like, and never get caught, because each teacher would see my name on the attendance sheet as “absent.” I ended up with nearly perfect attendance, but boy, what a record I got for tardiness!
Forget about college on graduation. I never would have made it at age 17. I had too many social plans to keep, girls to meet, and a job to seek. Who cared about cracking the books when you had the whole wide world outside your home to study.
It wasn’t until Uncle Sam drafted me, and I spent three years away from home — one of those years in Vietnam — that I saw the true value of an education. I’d looked at all lackluster officers in the Army, and said to myself, “If those dummies could go to college, I could, too.”
I became the first in my family to enter the halls of ivy, first attending Delaware Community College (my favorite school), then transferring with enough credits to get a B.A. from Temple in one calendar year that consisted of three semesters
Still having credit under the GI Bill, I decided to seek a graduate degree. (Not being able to find a job had a lot to do with that.) So I used up the full 48 months of stipend from the government, and reflected on my life when the college asked students to submit something in writing that they thought unusual or out of the ordinary for graduation. I finished my classes August 1975, but would not graduate until May 1976.
By then, two part-time jobs occupied most of my time, so I made no plans to attend graduation or let my family see me among the pomp and circumstance. I had spoken at commencement at the community college two years earlier, and had skipped graduation for a B.A. in journalism. I thought nothing could top the feeling I got attacking Richard Nixon and Watergate in my unedited talk to students and the mostly Republican college trustees of suburban Philadelphia.
It wasn’t until two close friends who attended the 1976 graduation visited me and my father and told us what we had missed. Marvin Wachman, then president of the college, addressed hundreds of graduates and told them the story of my father, Achilles Contoveros, who never made it beyond 6th grade at his home on the tiny island of Nysiros, Greece, but attended that day to watch his son get a master’s degree in American History.
I got chills when they told me this. I had never expected it. Neither did my pop. I knew it meant the world to him, because his last words before dying two years later were “God Bless America,” in the thick Greek accent he never was able to graduate above. We did it for you, Dad.