An Entryway That Eats Together Stays Together

Straus A reunites for memories, champagne brunch

They gather one by one, trickling into the shady courtyard, the familiar hum of Mass. Ave. wafting in from behind brick buildings and iron gates. Some haven’t seen each other in years; others have arrived with blockmates and best friends. In a few weeks, they’ll scatter once again. But on this day in late May, one group of seniors will take a last look at their first impression of Harvard.

The scene is Straus Hall, the cramped Georgian dormitory at the Yard’s edge that brought these students together nearly four years ago. The Straus A entryway that convened in the fall of 2001 is reuniting for the senior champagne brunch at Annenberg Hall, an annual tradition that offers soon-to-be alumni a chance to dine with freshman friends and remember the turmoil and tumult that mark Harvard’s first year.

“We’re such a bunch of overachievers, aren’t we?” laughs Caleb I. Franklin ’05, this year’s first class marshal, the equivalent of senior class president, and a former resident of Straus A-31. Among this year’s graduating seniors, Straus A produced several prominent campus figures ranging from a cappella singers to Crimson Key officers, newspaper editors to budding entrepreneurs, and academic stars of all kinds.

But today the focus is less on GPAs and resumes and other fixations of senior year. Instead, inside jokes and anecdotes are the topics of conversation, as the Straus A veterans recall the scandals and scuttlebutt that defined their time in the Yard.

“I remember being shocked that they would sleep in the same bed!” says Eunpi Cho ’05, recalling one notorious incident of dormcest.

“Were you there when he picked up the chair and threw it across the room?” Franklin asks excitedly, referring to a former roommate.

For many seniors, this is the first trip back to Annenberg since the wide-eyed days of freshman year. The brunch, like many senior events, evokes a strange inconsistency: a lurking sense of being just a little old for all the Harvard pomp.

Students clutch champagne in one hand and plastic trays in the other, wading through the vaguely embarrassing rituals of freshman dining: long lines, poor food, awkward conversation. With seniors making the transition from dining halls to cocktail parties, sparkling cider to fizzy champagne, breakfast for 1,600 seems a step back.

UNJUST DESSERTS

Mahmoud A. Youssef ’05 wears a crisp white shirt and khakis as he picks over a green salad and sips from a plastic flute of champagne. He’s performing double duty today, meeting with his former Straus A compatriots for the first hour and then jumping behind the bar to serve up bubbly, part of his duties as a senior class marshal.

Youssef is used to this type of multi-tasking: at Harvard he’s served as business manager for the Callbacks, vice president of the Crimson Key Society, and taken Spanish and Russian, earning a language citation in the latter. Originally from Staten Island, the economics concentrator will be returning to New York this summer when he starts at Goldman Sachs.

Despite his achievements, Youssef’s reputation in Straus A stemmed less from extracurriculars than a certain incident involving a stolen box of snack cakes.

One fateful afternoon, Youssef returned to his room to find a formerly well-stocked box of Drake’s Ring Dings completely empty. “There wasn’t a single Ring Ding left,” he recalls, apparently still grieving the loss.

Not one to forgo his just desserts, Youssef jumped into action. In a nod to Martin Luther, he tacked a page-long note up on his door, demanding the return of the cream-filled chocolate cakes.

In Annenberg, the story is a hit. “He was so angry about it!” Franklin yells, barely containing himself. Youssef’s face turns pink. “The rule of courtesy is to at least leave one,” he says.

So who stole the cakes? All eyes turn toward Edward “Eddie” L. Jones II ’05, Youssef’s Straus roommate and a varsity wrestler. “Hey, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me,” he says with a lopsided smile. But the glint in his eye tells a different story.

Jones, affectionately known by blockmates as “Eddie the Enforcer,” is an easygoing blond from Montana. He says his first few days in a strange northeastern dorm were a bit disorienting.

“He didn’t talk for the first week he was here,” laughs Lauren N.D. Wiggins ’05-’06, who blocked with Jones. “We would go to the dining hall with him and count the words he would say and it would be in the single digits. But he turned out to be a gentle giant.”

Jones says he “thought a lot to myself” during the first weeks of school, but ultimately found the Straus environs to his liking. His freshman entrymates, however, have not stopped bothering him about first-year foibles.

“He takes horse pills!” Leif Holtzman ’05 volunteers at one point. The two are roommates in Winthrop House.

Jones knits his brow. “Penicillin is the same whether it’s for dogs or horses or humans,” he says.

Holtzman laughs. Holtzman is headed to a career in marketing, after serving as president of the Harvard Advertising Club; this fall he’ll start work as an analyst for Digitas, a consulting firm. Julie E. Kobick ’05 sits across from the two boys; another blockmate from Straus A, she headed up the Harvard Center for Enterprise, a program that fosters entrepreneurial interests among undergraduates.

At the other end of the table sits Erin K. Sprague ’05, clad in a floral print summer dress.

Sprague and Youssef joined Crimson Key together their freshman spring, helping each other through the difficult comp process. The two coordinated Freshman Week for the Class of 2007 and emceed that year’s a cappella jam together.

But when it came time for Crimson Key elections, both former Straus residents had their eyes on the top spot. Did the friendship survive a heated election?

The two are silent for a moment. Then Sprague breaks into a smile.

“Awk-ward,” she laughs. Sprague took president, Youssef vice president.

“We came out better at the end,” Youssef says diplomatically.

BIG MAN ON CAMPUS

“Is there room at this table for a Strauser?”

Halfway through the brunch, the group looks up to see the beaming face of its most recognizable resident. Franklin was elected first class marshal of this year’s graduating class, after a Harvard career spent accumulating a laundry list of extracurricular pursuits. Franklin, a gregarious and engaging social studies and African and African-American studies joint concentrator, breaks into a wide smile. Before long, he’s cracking jokes and regaling his entrymates with long-forgotten anecdotes and fondly-remembered antics.

“Caleb would have this yell, Steeeraus A!” Sprague says, laughing at the memory. “You could literally hear it across the Yard. I think the freshman class all knew about Straus A.”

Franklin offers his own assessment of his freshman neighbors. “We’re a bunch of crazy party animals,” he says happily. “I think there are people in our group who drink very heavily.”

Always the center of activity in Straus A, Franklin quickly slips into his old routine. Before long he’s raised a glass of champagne, leading a toast.

“To the good times we had in Straus A,” he says. “Ultimately I hope as we graduate, we keep in touch with each other in our lives, and we all say together, Steeeraus!”

Zachary D. Raynor ’05, a pre-med economics concentrator in Leverett House, smiles and downs his glass. Raynor has turned his own dramatic tendencies into some success. The Callbacks crooner made it to the second round of auditions for “American Idol” and appeared on MTV’s “Say What? Karaoke.” At Harvard he competes for varsity track and stays involved in the campus black community.

After graduation, three Straus residents will be reunited for a different sort of freshman experience. Sprague, Daniel J. Irom ’05, and R. Christian Wyatt ’05 all start work this summer at the Blackstone Group, the investment firm in New York.

“It will definitely be like living in Straus A again: Hanging out, sitting at our computers together, pretending to do work,” Sprague laughs.

As the brunch comes to a close, farewells are offered and numbers swapped. There are still papers to be written, exams to study for. The dreariness of reading period looms on the horizon, and then, the great unknown. Many of the seniors share a final backwards glance at the long tables and ancient portraits that decorated their past: the first anxious days of Freshman Week, dinners with roommates and dorm-mates, last-minute cramming sessions, and Sunday morning gossiping. Some linger, but most don’t. Trays are bussed, handshakes and hugs exchanged. The Class of 2005 streams out the oak doors of Memorial Hall into the noontime sunlight, ready for the challenge ahead.

­—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.