By Geoff Gehman ’80
Last November, four Lafayette graduates from three decades ate six Cajun dishes at a restaurant in Lafayette, La. Fortified by jambalaya and étouffée, they swapped stories about their College Hill experiences then posed for photographs by a 28-foot-long recreational vehicle decorated with a “Beat Lehigh!” sign and a very hungry leopard.
Louisiana was the midpoint of a cross-country trip by Michael ’82 and Jenny Marshall Weisburger ’82, who met as undergraduates, to rally alumni enthusiasm for the 150th Lafayette/Lehigh football game at Yankee Stadium. Over 15 days and 5,500 miles they expanded a small college’s large reach, spreading the Lafayette College spirit to one and all. Here, a year later, are highlights from Roadtrip to the Rivalry, or Jenny and Michael’s Excellent Airstream Adventure.
“I’m your guy,” Michael tells Karapetian. Michael is, after all, a true-blue Lafayette man, a Triple-A road warrior. For four decades he’s been co-hosting College events at his home, interviewing College candidates from Westchester County, and keeping tabs on College friends. As an insurance executive, he traveled 100 days a year.
“I’m not afraid to try new things,” says Michael. “If there’s something that can bring joy and opportunity to your life, then my feeling is: Go get it.”
Jenny, who helps preserve historic graveyards, agrees. Celebrating Lafayette across America “is one crazy idea that sounds like fun.”
The Weisburgers choose to travel in an Airstream. It’s roomy and comfortable. Its well-appointed kitchen pleases Jenny, an avid cook and a vegetarian who hates most road food. An added bonus is a friend who owns Airstream 2 Go, the only renter of the vehicles in the country.
Rachel Nelson Moeller ’88, executive director of alumni relations, suggests that the Weisburgers cross the country in a car, a smaller, saner vehicle. Jenny balks. “If we’re not going in an Airstream,” she tells her husband, “you’re going by yourself.”
The first visitor to the first Airstream event turns out to be a Lafayette roommate of Michael’s father, Mark Weisburger ’55. “You must be Michael,” says Ron Rudderow ’57, who shared a triple bunk bed with Mark at Phi Kappa Tau.
Speaking from his Westchester County home, Mark Weisburger remembers Rudderow leading frat brothers in step singing, a suitable role for the president of the College choir. Speaking from his Southern California home, Rudderow, a retired cofounder of Proctor & Gamble’s industrial chemical division, remembers succeeding Weisburger as president of the College’s Boy Scout fraternity, which hosted swimming contests and cleaned the Appalachian Trail.
For John Meeks ’65, the gathering is a double homecoming. The environmental engineering consultant knows Griffith Park well; some of his best friends live in the neighborhood. He has an inside scoop on the Lehigh football rivalry; he played linebacker and fullback in the 100th game with the Bethlehem school.
Inspired by the Weisburgers’ epic trip, Meeks and his wife book a cross-country journey by train to the 150th Game festivities in New York City. Edie Meeks shares her husband’s familial attachment to Lafayette. The College was co-founded by her great-grandfather, Russell Smith Chidsey, an industrialist/banker buried in Easton Cemetery.
The Weisburgers settle into their routes and routines. Michael drives, and Jenny navigates a schedule mapped by Rachel Moeller. Their itinerary includes photographing familiar street signs: the Rue de Lafayette in Las Vegas; the intersection of Lafayette and Lehigh in Boulder, Colo. Every day Jenny emails her pictures to Christiane Conn Tomik ’03, associate director of alumni relations. For two weeks Tomik stokes the College’s alumni Facebook and Twitter accounts with accounts of the Weisburgers’ Airstream exploits. In the process, she turns the couple into social media sensations.
Less than a minute after coming to a halt in an RV park, the Weisburgers are greeted with a local barbeque by Sam Stuart ’13 and his mother. Stuart, a Leopard linebacker, tells Jenny and Michael about living with the family of a Lafayette roommate in China, where he coached a semipro football team.
Margolies had quite a roller-coaster ride at Lafayette. He was on campus when women were admitted as full-time students and when running naked across the Quad was fashionable. He switched his major from chemical engineering to American studies, yet as a junior took advanced organic chemistry, a devilishly difficult course. “What can I say?” he says. “I was ahead of my time.”
Vitrella also gives his guests a tour of his Lafayette College life. He praises languages professor Joseph Arboleda, who led him to spend his junior year in Spain, earn a master’s degree in Spanish and launch Internacional Magazine. He celebrates the fiction of Alix Ohlin, who teaches English and creative writing at Lafayette. And he salutes his own rugged Lafayette adventure, an eight-day Canadian canoe trip with his friend Joe Ferdinand ’73, who played football at Lafayette and Hazleton (Pa.) High School with Joe Maddon ’76, manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Jennifer Maloney Schott ’98 sensed the Weisburgers were special while following their cross-country tour on the Facebook page for Lafayette graduates. She comes to the Blue Dog Café to meet them and to meet Vitrella, the only other Lafayette graduate she knows in the area. During the meal she tells her tablemates about her pivotal role as a resident adviser. Supervising a dorm prepared her for her current job for a non-profit that works with schools to help students repay loans and become financially healthier. One of her goals is to make her alma mater a client.
Safford’s biggest sports disappointment at Lafayette is that his teams never beat Lehigh. He gained a measure of satisfaction in the 2011 game with the Mountain Hawks. Lehigh was leading 37-0 when he intercepted his fourth pass of the season and ran it back 23 yards. Two plays later an assistant presented the ball to Safford’s mother in the stands. It was Safford’s 21st birthday.
The Weisburgers and their Airstream are the star attractions of the first event sponsored by the Lafayette alumni chapter for the Raleigh area. It’s hosted by Alexandria DeAngelis Bornello ’06, a former cheerleader who helped run a College fundraising relay for cancer research. The project manager for a medical device company, she remains a social pied piper, convincing five non-Lafayette people to meet the Weisburgers.
Michael finally meets Ed Stahl ’83, with whom he has a strange history. On campus, Weisburger was intimidated by the sheer size of Stahl, a three-time All-Patriot League offensive tackle. “He was one of the biggest guys I had ever seen in my life,” says Weisburger. “He frightened me; I feared him. And I never said a word to him.”
This time Weisburger says more than a few words to Stahl, an international sales manager for Columbia Forest Products who volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. “Within five minutes we’re talking about what it was like to be at Lafayette in the late ’70s and what’s happened in our lives since ’82,” says Weisburger. “We felt this immediate bond.”
Michael and Jenny take advantage of three free hours to visit their son, Evan, an Elon undergraduate. They attract the attention of a burly man wearing an Elon sweatshirt who wonders why a Lafayette-decorated Airstream is roaming the parking lot of a North Carolina football stadium. The inquisitive fellow just happens to be Damian Wroblewski ’99, a three-time All-Patriot League center who coordinates the offense for Elon’s football team. He held the position when Elon played a Georgia Southern team with Darius Safford ’13 as a fifth-year cornerback.
Jenny and Michael are deeply moved by a rally for Tom Kirchhoff ’93, a star Leopard quarterback afflicted by neurodegenerative disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Football coach Frank Tavani greets his former player, a leader of Project A.L.S., an organization that supports scientific research through fundraisers like the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Tavani honors Kirchhoff by making him honorary captain for the 150th Rivalry game. Before the game he reads his players a motivational speech by Kirchhoff, who can no longer speak. After Lafayette beats Lehigh at Yankee Stadium, he presents a game ball to Kirchhoff, who will die in March, nearly five years after being diagnosed with a disease named for one of Yankee Stadium’s most beloved athletes.
Michael tears up meeting John F.A. Stevens ’55, his father’s first-year roommate. “I cry easily,” he says. “I’m an emotional guy.”
Stevens didn’t expect to meet Michael at the Airstream event. Yet he immediately realizes that Michael is Mark’s son. “They look the same, and they have the same dynamic personality,” says the Leopard halfback, who once owned a company that sold parts for overhead sprinklers.
The Weisburgers’ Airstream adventure ends on Centre Square in the city where they became a couple. They share a Rivalry150 pep rally with football players, singers, and cheerleaders. The chief cheerleader is their friend Sally Lou Oaks Loveman ’84, who whips up the crowd the way she warmed up audiences for Oprah Winfrey’s talk show.
Jenny and Michael greet old friends and their daughter, Alison, who surprises them with a visit from Boston. They happily pose for photos with strangers wearing all kinds of leopard-spotted clothes and accessories. Some people can’t believe they slept 13 nights in a trailer and stayed happily married.
Jenny and Michael decide not to drive the Airstream to the 150th Rivalry game to avoid possible problems, including damage from zealous fans of both schools. Still, they have another surprising adventure, this time in the taxi they take after the subway train to Yankee Stadium stops running. They share a ride with the very pregnant wife of a Lehigh graduate who would rather not attend the huge tailgate party her spouse is hosting.
“We got a real taste of the rivalry in that cab,” says Michael. During the game Michael’s parents sit in a luxury suite; their fresh air-loving son and daughter-in-law watch the action near the 50-yard line, surrounded by no one they know. “We were so fired up about our road trip,” says Michael, “we got our tickets late.”
The contest is a cakewalk, with Lafayette routing Lehigh 27-7. It’s also a cakewalk for Jenny and Michael, who reflect on the wonders of their cross-country trailer tour. “Even though we weren’t sitting with friends, we looked out at the stadium and knew the place was filled with friends, including ones we had met and brought together with the Airstream,” says Michael. “We felt very proud of the whole experience. After we had destroyed Lehigh, we felt even prouder.”
Nine months after the game, Michael is asked what he learned from the 15-day, 5,500-mile friendship tailgate party. “It confirmed for me the power of connections, that if you touch one person, you can touch people scattered everywhere. And it reminded me of the strength of the Lafayette experience long after you leave Lafayette.”