A Table for Two, Please

By Edward W. Ahart ’69

Alison Byerly’s first five years as Lafayette’s 17th president coincided with my final five years as chair of the Board of Trustees. When the Search Committee decided in 2013 that Alison was our unanimous choice to succeed Dan Weiss, it was my job to make the offer—and get her to say “yes.”

Ed Ahart ’69 (left), with trustee Stephen Pryor ’71, congratulates Alison Byerly at her inauguration.

We met for dinner in Boston, where Alison was then a visiting scholar at MIT. It was our mutual feeling about Lafayette’s potential and our shared vision for what the College could become that capped our dinner and enabled me to close the deal with Alison. Nevertheless, what Alison could not have known then was that our
seal-the-deal dinner would be followed by about 100 breakfast meetings between just the two of us over the next five years.

The Station Diner near Clinton, N.J., sits along Interstate 78, about 35 miles west of my office. Every other week, Alison would make the 16-mile trek into New Jersey to join me for sunny-side up eggs, always with extra fruit (her preference), and eggs over easy with bacon, of course (my choice). She brought her list; I brought mine.

Typically, those lists consisted of aspirational goals to approve and then implement, and accomplishments to celebrate. We worked with faculty, staff, and trustees to increase the financial aid budget, enhance the student and faculty profile, grow the student body, and add new faculty positions. It was at one of those breakfasts that Alison floated the idea of beginning a new annual holiday tradition in New York to bring alumni together in a big, festive party. I wasn’t at all certain that enough folks would be interested and actually attend. But after several consecutive years of requiring bigger and bigger facilities to meet the demand, I guess it is fair to say that I was wrong.

Sometimes we needed to discuss items that were not so positive or aspirational, such as when a student suffered a serious personal setback or even tragically passed away. What could we do to best help and support family and friends? What should be the timing and scope of any messaging to the greater community? Should any related policies or practices be reviewed for possible improvement? My role in those moments mostly was to act as a sounding board and allow Alison to talk and emote on more personal terms. There was more than one occasion when Alison and I were alone in some room on campus, and I would sit quietly while she wept because people she cared about and thought of as “my students” or “my parents” were dealing with a tragedy or significant disappointment.

Fortunately, Alison and I had many moments and events to celebrate together. For example, we didn’t get to see much of the Leopards’ victory in Yankee Stadium for the famous 150th football game against Lehigh because we spent most of the game greeting the team, cheerleaders, band, and various alumni groups throughout the crowd. But walking through the stadium’s tunnels—just the two of us, talking about the history of the rivalry and the undying love for Lafayette among its alumni—I remember thinking how lucky I was to be part of Lafayette, and how fortunate we were to have Alison as our president.

I am truly proud and appreciative of the enormous contributions that have been made here at Lafayette under Alison’s leadership. As I remember my time with her over the coming years, it will be those intimate moments together in planning, grieving, and celebrating that will produce my deepest and most satisfying feelings.

And, of course, we can always return to the Clinton Station Diner

Ed Ahart ’69 is former chair of the Board of Trustees and a recipient of the Lafayette Medal for Distinguished Service. He and his wife, Catherine Folk Ahart, are the parents of Amy Ahart DiGiovanni ’97, married to Tom DiGiovanni ’96, and Alison Ahart Williams ’03, married to Shaw Williams ’03. Ed and Cathy were inducted into the Société d’Honneur in 2017.