A Blast From the Past

After spending nearly four years at the oldest university in the nation, it took a raggedy auto mechanic’s shirt, once worn by a man named Joe, to teach me the importance of tradition. Like most Harvard students, I was too harried to notice the countless gates bearing inscriptions from the University’s past or to pay much attention to its ivy-covered walls. I trudged on to my next class, my next meeting, my next rehearsal.

Beside me were hundreds of quintessential organization kids. We spent most of our time looking forward—cramming for exams and planning our job interviews that would pave the way for suburban homes, spouses, SUV’s and 2.5 children. Now, as many of us prepare to receive our diplomas and leave Fair Harvard behind, we’re finally starting to look back. We remember the trauma of Expos, the voyeurism of Primal Scream and the simple pleasure of late-night conversations about nothing in particular.

It was only a few months ago that my first real backward glance began.

For a year, I’d prepared for many a long night at the Crimson by fastening the shirt’s four (barely) remaining buttons. Many people looked at me quizzically as I dashed around the newsroom wearing it. They asked if I’d ever washed it (I had). They asked if my name was Joe, as the shirt’s label claimed (it wasn’t). They asked where it had come from. I had no idea.

It was passed on to me by one of my editors, who’d received it from one of his editors, who’d received it from one of her editors. No one really knew when the tradition had started, but everyone was almost positive that it had something to do with a dry-cleaning mishap a few years back.

For most of my tenure as an executive editor, I trusted their explanations. After all, we rely on Tradition at Harvard—routinely boasting of the oldest this or the first that. It’s the foolproof response for anyone who dares to question the Way Things Are. But as I prepared to pass the shirt on to a new owner, I decided it was time to pinpoint its origin once and for all.

I intended it to be a quick-hit quest, beginning with the person who had given the shirt to me and tracing it backwards from owner to owner as fast as I could. Since it was probably only four or five years old, the project wouldn’t take long.

With each reply I received, however, I discovered the history of the shirt was far more complicated than I had realized. Within a few days I’d followed it back to 1994, and I still hadn’t tracked down the original owner.

Suddenly, my search was about much more than a lousy old shirt. I was unearthing my own little piece of Harvard history. I sent frantic e-mails to Rome, Los Angeles, Beijing and Boston. Half of the responses turned out to be dead ends. But four days and more than 40 e-mails later, I finally struck gold.

At 7:29 p.m. on the night before I was planning to pass on the shirt, I received an e-mail from Joe Garcia ’84, confirming that he was its original owner. It had been a gift from Dollar-a-Pound, a still-extant used clothing store in the Garment District. He passed it on to his successor as a bit of a joke, never expecting it to last.

“I’m shocked to learn that it lives on,” he wrote. “I hope you have a similar chance to look back fondly after—gasp—20 years. I can assure you it will feel more like 20 minutes.”

It was the perfect e-mail for me to receive as I entered the twilight of my Crimson days and my time at Harvard. Indeed, even more fulfilling than compiling a list of the shirt’s past owners was reading the stories they had to tell. Alums who graduated more than 10 years ago recalled specific occasions when they wore the shirt—down to the particular color of the pen they used as they proofed pages and pages of Crimsons past.

At the beginning of my search, the shirt’s meaning was tied very explicitly to the daily dealings of the Crimson. But really, this isn’t a story about resilient articles of clothing or rapid-fire e-mailing or even our work at 14 Plympton St. Far from being weighed down by the confines of tradition, most Harvard student organizations are limited by the turmoil of turnover. Most institutional memory lasts four years at best. As one class graduates, another ascends into leadership positions. Inevitably, they chart a new course for their organizations. For a few months, they reinvent the wheel, trying to move forward while stumbling over age-old problems.

This one little textile’s tale has implications for everyone at Harvard, where tensions between old and new are ever-present.

The fabric of Harvard is sewn with thousands of traditions. Some are big, some are small. All of them inform who we are and where we’re going. Don’t wait until your last weeks here to look back.

Catherine E. Shoichet ’04, a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2003.