An unusual, ongoing dinner date — every 50 years at Haverford College

Isabel Agnew is amused by a Wawa ad in a Haverford College yearbook of 50 years ago.

It might be the rarest and longest-running dinner date in history, coming around only somewhat more often than Halley’s Comet.

It landed again Thursday evening — as it did 50 years ago, and 50 years before that — a one-night convergence of gloriously youthful Haverford College seniors and gray-haired members of the class that graduated half a century earlier.

“Fifty years? People keep asking me about my five-year plan,” said 22-year-old Alexis Schafsnitz, a chemistry major who took part.

It’s not a reunion. Or a homecoming. It doesn’t even have a name. It’s a little-known, highly unusual maybe-once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime assembly where old and young share insight, hope, and history, maybe glimpse the future, and renew a pledge to classmates living and gone.

Robert Frost wrote that the afternoon knows what the morning never suspected, but how to convey that to young people eager to change the world?

“Even though we’re old — we’re basically as old as their grandparents — our memory of Haverford was as young kids,” said Charles Hardy, Class of 1967, a retired Philadelphia lawyer who helped organize the event.

At the White Dog Cafe, the conversation flowed, first jobs and graduate school, protests then and now, JFK’s murder and LBJ’s war.

George Stavis, 71, told how he had performed as opening act for famous bands — the seniors knew the Grateful Dead, but Richie Havens drew a blank — and of recording on the foremost technology.

“You ever heard of vinyl?” he asked, to laughter.

The tradition originated at the end of the Civil War, when members of the Class of 1867 made a pact to meet 50 years in the future with members of the Class of 1917.

They kept their promise — and gathered in the face of a new and terrible conflict, in Europe, as young Americans prepared to ship out and into the Great War. Half a century later, as war raged again, in Vietnam, members of the Classes of 1917 and 1967 took seats at the Treadway Inn in St. Davids.

Robert Singley sat among the seniors that night.

“Now the tables are turned,” said Singley, 71, a retired San Francisco lawyer. As a young Haverford graduate, he boldly set out for Africa. Now he’s a grandfather, no longer dreaming of continents but of spending time with his children’s children.

Haverford has changed, too. Begun in 1833 as an all-white, all-male Quaker institution, it boasts flowering diversity today: More than a third of its 1,290 students are people of color, and half are women.

“Maybe in 50 years,” said senior Isabel Agnew, who majored in the classics, “I can come back and do this.”

June 11, 1917

On the cool and cloudy evening of June 11, 1917, five from that class met with six from the Class of 1867, gathering in the trophy room of Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania.

The names of the elders rang with Quaker rectitude — William Penn Clark, Robert Howland Chase, Zebedee Haines.

Before dining, the 11 men — Haverford would not admit women as first-year students for more than 60 years — walked to Pennsylvania Hospital to visit the ailing Class of 1867 president, Richard Jones. Though deathly ill, he made “a magnificent effort to be himself and seemed the soul of light-heartedness,” according to notes taken at the time.

At dinner, the carnage in Europe was never mentioned. Nor was the loss and heartache of the Civil War.

Instead, the men swapped stories of their time at Haverford — the sports they played, the people they knew, the fun they had.

Their main interests at school, the older class confided, were “study, mischief and cricket,” including a match against Penn near Cobbs Creek. Who won or lost? None remembered. What remained vivid was the commotion of players splashing through the creek in search of lost balls.

As the evening broke up, the younger men promised to continue the appointment.

“Walter,” an aged Charles Darlington asked his 1867 classmate Walter Wood, “I wonder if the rest of the class is holding a reunion tonight?”

His question went unanswered.

50 years later

In May 1967, it seemed as if the world had come undone. Young men were dying by the thousands in Vietnam, and the draft loomed.

Five worried members of Haverford’s newest class dined with a couple of dozen from the Class of 1917. It turned out that one of the older men had driven an ambulance in World War I.

“I remember thinking, These gentlemen — and they were gentlemen — they appeared quite distinguished,” said Bob Gorchov, 71, a semiretired member of the 1967 class. “I wondered if 50 years down the line, I would be as distinguished.”

Singley sat with his '67 classmates, not quite sure why he was chosen to be there. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps, then enrolled in law school before being drafted — luckily sent to South Korea, not Vietnam.

Now, almost 72, he considers the notes he scribbled as the old men spoke that night.

“Fruit growing,” he had written.

Singley can’t remember its meaning. But, oddly, he now grows fruit trees at a home in Sonoma County.

“Somebody might make that note to me, that little note on a piece of paper, what your own life comes down to,” he said. “The grand plans we once had, our ambitions, our hopes, reduce themselves to common things. Enjoyable things.”

He couldn’t attend Thursday, but knows what he would have told the seniors:

“Seize the moment, appreciate things that come your way, use your education.”