Two Campuses, One Toast: Jack Armstrong (SF83) Delivers Memorable Speech at Gratitude & Reunion Weekends in Santa Fe and Annapolis
October 5, 2023 | By Kirstin Fawcett
Rather than attending just one reunion weekend this past fall, Jack Armstrong (SF83)—who studied at both St. John’s campuses—joined his class for milestone celebrations in two states with a scrapbook in hand, ready for toast time.
St. John’s 2023 Gratitude & Reunion Weekends in Santa Fe and Annapolis were packed with tutor-led seminars, activities, and nostalgia as alums such as Armstrong gathered to observe time passed and accomplishments achieved. Members of the 10-, 25-, 30-, 40-, and 50-year reunion classes attended the multi-day celebrations, as did donors and volunteers; Annapolis also welcomed the guest classes of 1978 and 1982.
Armstrong, who’s in the business of typesetting and printing election ballots, commemorated his last major class reunion—the big 3-0—in 2013 by making a nearly 70-page memory book chronicling his classmates’ lives through words and photos. For this year’s 40th, he created another such scrapbook, and he also took the opportunity during his two class dinners on both campuses to explain his project, raise a glass, and share with the St. John’s community just how much the school personally means to him. His toast is printed in full below.
Not a few people have asked me, “Why are you doing this? What is this book for?” It’s a fair question, because I have now spent a considerable portion of my precious moments on Earth tracking down classmates and asking them about their lives.
I started this project without really thinking about why. It was just a compulsion. But since you asked, I will now try to bring the reasons to light. Partly, it’s an excuse to get on the phone with all these people whom I find endlessly fascinating. This enterprise has been the opposite of a chore. It’s been a series of extravagant delights. It’s provided occasion for a parade of glowing conversations and correspondences with friends, most of whom I wouldn’t otherwise cross tracks with.
But mainly, it’s intended as a thank-you gift. The blessings of my years at St. John’s are more than I could repay in a thousand lifetimes. So many of my happiest memories are crammed into those four short but momentous years. So many of my favorite people, I met at St. John’s. So much of the best of what I am, I became at St. John’s. Academically, it was the greatest of all adventures—a four-year adrenaline-soaked roller coaster. We weren’t just taught about the history of the human mind; we relived it.
But more than that, it was an adventure we took together. The fact that we helped each other through that Herculean labor forged a deep, permanent bond. This book is my offering of gratitude. It is my hope that sharing these stories will help us to savor the bountiful good parts and help us to bear and maybe digest the inevitable hard parts.
I’ve now seen enough life trajectories that some patterns have emerged. First of all, as a group we are thriving. Within these pages is a cornucopia of the manifold joys the Earth has to offer. Another pattern: it took most of us a few years to find our legs in the world outside St. John’s. But we did find them, in a kaleidoscopic variety of careers. We are lawyers, doctors, professors, cabinetmakers, scientists, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, government administrators. Joel Glanzberg created a permaculture institute. Peter Rossoni is a rocket scientist. Literally. At NASA. People come to Athena Steen from all over the world to learn how to build their own homes of haybales. Kevin Holthaus created his own Socratic method school and educated a generation of kids in Alaska. Cynta de Narvaez built a hotel in a ghost town. “Nobody taught me how to build a house, let alone a hotel,” she says. “Our education gave us intellectual confidence. We learned that you don’t have to pay somebody to do something for you, you can learn it yourself. Start anew; learn a language; build a hotel.”
But there’s another pattern here that I find even more valuable. I can’t say that as a group we’ve escaped our fair share of the vicissitudes of life—there’s no shortage here of loss, heartache, and in a few cases, real tragedy. But one pain that is notably absent is the pain of regret: the sense that there’s a boat somewhere and you somehow missed it; the gut punch of realizing you lived your whole life by an inherited and unquestioned set of “shoulds.” That is one flavor of disappointment that I have not heard from a single Johnnie. The one remarkably consistent theme in these otherwise vastly varied life histories that each of us created our own place in the world, rather than trying to fit into somebody else’s.
I have to think our education had a hand in that. It is undoubtably true that, as [classmate] Malissa Kullberg says, we are a self-selected group—that if you picked any random hundred American teenagers and started them at St. John’s, you probably wouldn’t get the same uniform stamp of resolute nonuniformity. Before we even set foot on the campus, each of us swam against a spring tide of cultural norms when we committed ourselves to this college which doesn’t even attempt a fig leaf of pretense that it’s job training. But it’s also true that that choice of self-determination was richly reinforced during our college years.
If I’m not mistaken, that is the intention at the heart of the program. “Facio liberos…” We educated ourselves and each other, as our tutor Howard Zeiderman says. Or, as [classmate] Jonathan Edelman says, the college “put us in the conversation at the creator level,” not as mere passive recipients of ideas. After four years of struggling to figure out those fiendishly difficult books (rather than being told what they mean), the habits of self-determination were burned into our deepest circuits. It worked.
Although we have all experienced pain of one kind or another, what we have not experienced, as a rule, is the unredressable pain of regret. None of us missed the boat, because we all made our own boats. I happen to think that’s pretty extraordinary. So to the tutors and staff of St. John’s College, and the visionaries who fund it, and my marvelous classmates, “I can no other answer make but thanks, thanks, and ever thanks.”
View a selection of photos from Gratitude & Reunion Weekend below: