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The Carolers of Middle Kenyon

By William Goldhurst / December 17, 1990



EDGAR DOCTOROW was late. Perhaps he was studying or, more likely, packing to go home for Christmas break. Whatever the reason, we were already gathered around the front porch of the home of Kenyon College's president, Gordon Keith Chalmers, warming up our vocal chords facetiously in the manner of a string quartet. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Edgar approaching at a run, his oversized topcoat billowing behind him. He added one more member to our informal chorus of seven. So there we were, in the winter of 1951, caroling in the light of a full moon, brightened and enhanced by the plump rise and fall of clean white snow covering the Ohio campus's landscape.

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I sang tenor. With us that night we had one or two good bass voices, as well as one member who sang thirds; so we had a strange harmony going - highly spirited, though certainly lacking the precision of four-part harmony.

Who was there that night? Can I remember? Was it Sy and Evan and Tersch and Mort and Doctorow and me? That seems accurate. Was the seventh man Ron Sanders? I hope so, for his bass was much in demand when we assembled for spontaneous sessions in the stairwell of our dorm, Middle Kenyon.

The only qualification to join our group was the ability to carry a tune. You didn't even have to be Christian. In fact, the whole chorus was Jewish, with myself and Sanders comprising half-and-halfs, so that there was one whole Christian somewhere in the genealogical background.

We started off with ``Little Town of Bethlehem.'' I was conducting with more energy than precision, I am afraid, in the style of a student band leader at football half time - with much pumping of arms and raising of shoulders.

We had completed ``God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'' and were well into ``O Holy Night'' when Doctorow eased himself into the position of conductor, displacing me. How he accomplished this takeover puzzles me. He didn't push or shove or demand, but rather sidled, insinuated, and planted himself while I (like a wimp) retired. Perhaps Doctorow's instinctive assertiveness served him well years later when he wrote his novel, ``Ragtime.''

PRESIDENT CHALMERS came to the door and invited us in for milk and cookies - possibly to spare himself the pain of listening to another carol. We shared a warm moment of camaraderie in his kitchen before moving on to Kenyon's resident philosophy professor, Philip Blair Rice. We sang maybe seven carols this time, enjoying the postcard-like conditions of moonlight on fresh show. We had just about given up on ``Phil-Bo'' when he appeared in an upstairs window.

``Wassail!'' he called to us, standing in his nightshirt, the word floating palpably through the freezing air. Then, with a jolly gesture of the hand, he was gone, closing his window against the wintry blast. Or was he waving us on to the next stop?

Without doubt, our most gratifying reaction came at ``Timbuck's.'' Timbuck was Phil Timberlake, an old-time English professor and bachelor, rumored to be the literal contemporary of Geoff Chaucer, the poet he liked best to teach. Timbuck was a favorite with the students.

Timbuck invited us in and served punch all around. Then he sat down at the piano and accompanied us in some hearty caroling. After a while we got restless.

``Got a lotta stops to make,'' we said laughing.

``Don't go...,'' Timbuck urged.

It occurred to us that he was lonely. After all, it was close to Christmas Eve, and we wondered as we reached the road outside if he had any family to visit or invite over for the holidays.

I must confess it was a kind of wake-up experience. Timbuck was one of those professional people who, in our youthful self-centeredness, we did not think of as human. Thus his appeal for us to stay was something of a shock to our mood. The euphoria brought on by the season was dimmed by a touch of sadness at our professor's vulnerability.

From that point, it was a mad dash back to the dormitory. In order to appreciate the full flavor of our expedition that night, it should be understood that our dorm - Middle Kenyon - was a nonfraternity cluster of oddballs, Marxists, beatniks, fraternity rejects, reclusive geniuses, a sprinkling of atheists, several poets, some card sharks and chess champions, two fencers, at least a dozen kids destined for ACLU membership, two or three stand-up comedians, and a host of Jewish kids from eastern high schools such as Bronx Science and Central High in Philadelphia.

THIS raises the question: What were people like that doing singing Christmas carols in public? In answer, I would have to say we were singing hymns of praise to a personage we did not strictly believe in, but whose influence we acknowledged.

We were, in our way, joining in, participating in the rituals of the season that to us meant joy, fellowship, hope for peace, and the idea of giving.

We were seven Jews and a ukulele spreading warm feeling, sharing goodies with our college president, rousing our professor from his midnight lethargy, and cheering the solitary hours of a good old fellow who must have thought he'd been left out of the season's festivities.

That's what we were doing that night at Kenyon all those years ago. Of course, I can't speak for the ``founder'' of Christmas, but my guess is, he would have approved.