Even “outsiders” rediscover deep Northwestern connections through affinity gatherings.
Of all the odd rituals rekindled by alumni on Reunion Weekend 2009, one activity stood out as particularly unusual. The Friends of Latham House closed their reunion with a walk to the Rebecca Crown Center. Once there, the small gathering stopped for an impromptu demonstration, raising peace symbols and clenched fists in defiance.
"It was very much an homage to the times," says Jim Collins (WCAS72).
Indeed, the gesture was all in good fun. This time, anyway.
Collins was the main organizer behind the gathering, which brought together 1960s and '70s alumni who resided in a small men's dorm called Latham House (below, Latham House residents in 1972). The building itself has not existed in nearly 40 years, its decline and demise once the subject of intense controversy and confrontation.
Last October roughly 20 former Latham residents and friends returned to Evanston for the reunion — one of several affinity gatherings that Northwestern's reunion program helps facilitate each year. Alumni can plan an affinity gathering for any organization to which they belonged as students. Affinity gatherings have proven to be one of the most popular aspects of Reunion Weekend.
In the case of the Friends of Latham House, Collins says many "Lathamites" might not have returned to campus at all were it not for their affinity gathering.
Latham House, named for former trustee Helen Babcock Latham (WCAS1892), was located on Clark Street on the south end of campus; a Burger King occupies that spot today. The large 19th-century house was home to 40 or more Northwestern students at any given time. By the mid-1960s its condition had deteriorated quite a bit.
Because of Latham House's proximity to the School of Music, many of its residents were musicians. At the time, residents noticed other common denominators.
"There was a sense that the University kind of took its work-study students or scholarship kids or kids from working-class backgrounds and put them in Latham House," Collins says. "That was part of the gestalt of Latham House. Even in our reunion, that came up again. A lot of people still think of themselves in their Northwestern context as being outsiders."
Trouble began in fall quarter 1972, when rumors began to circulate that the University planned to demolish Latham. In the already contentious political climate, it's no surprise that things came to a head.
As the demolition story took on life of its own, residents decided to throw a party — a party that would ultimately seal Latham House's fate. The bash quickly spiraled out of control, and an estimated $10,000 in damage was done to the house. Embarrassed, Northwestern officials held hearings — contentious affairs in which angry administrators squared off against indignant students. Disciplinary action was taken against some students, and Latham House was eventually closed.
Nevertheless, the bond Latham residents forged has endured the test of time. "Many of us had kept in touch over the years," Collins says. "We thought it would be terrific if we could get back together again. The University was nice enough to kind of facilitate that."
As for the irony of the University helping to reunite the group of "outsiders" it once clashed with? It's not lost on Collins.
"While I think some people maybe still thought the University should have done more while we were there, overall their experience at Northwestern was a good experience," Collins concedes.