In May, flowers burst forth from the awakening soil, and students pour out of schools and universities, prepared to finally bloom in the wide world after many seasons of careful seed-planting and growth. Thought to be named for the Greek goddess Maia, “of the lovely black eyes,” the month of May bears the spirit of the goddess who embodies the concept of growth, and is the ideal avatar for the Spring month.
Any fears of impending doom in the job search, endless bouts of unpaid internships and a lifelong residency in your parent’s basement should be set aside for now. There are accomplishments to toast (no fake ID required, finally!), academic accolades to hoist high, caps to toss in the air and, most of all, dreams to watch hatch and then nurture.
The Hudson Valley is home to a triumvirate of wonderful educational institutions – Bard, Vassar and the United States Military Academy (aka West Point) – from which countless scintillating characters have emerged; many famous, some less so. In the spirit of the celebration, hope and new beginnings that May ushers in, here are some of the wonderful creators and brilliant thinkers that blossomed following higher education along the banks of the Hudson River.
Bard College, a small liberal arts school with roughly 2,000 students, was founded in 1860 and is perched in Annandale-on-Hudson, from which vantage point students enjoy views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. Bard is associated most strongly with its creative programs, and is beloved by locals for its rich cultural offerings, most notably the Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) Galleries and the Hessel Museum of Art, and the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Bard is equally beloved for its roster of gleaming graduates who went on to glam careers on the West Coast, and continue to speak fondly of their old stomping grounds.
Some of its most conspicuous alumni had slightly more complicated relationships with their alma mater, however. Actor Chevy Chase, for example allegedly led a cow onto the roof of one of Bard’s buildings, only to realize that cows are incapable of climbing down stairs – they can only climb up. (The cow’s fate was, presumably – and according to legend – as ghastly as you fear). Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen famously penned the ditty “I’m Never Going Back to My Old School.” Mr. Chase and other notable Bard attendees, like Peter Sarsgaard and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, failed to successfully complete their undergraduate programs before exiting permanently, stage left.
But a roster of notable actors like Blythe Danner, Christopher Guest and Adrian Grenier successfully matriculated from Bard, as did comic book writer Chris Claremont and journalist Matt Taibbi. The list includes fewer captains of industry, though an exception is Asher Edelman, the corporate raider who allegedly inspired the Gordon Gekko character in “Wall Street.”
Vassar College, founded in 1861 as a women’s college (and co-ed since 1969), is also a liberal arts enclave, sprawled across 1,000 acres in Poughkeepsie. Roughly 2,400 students attend; the campus, a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Place, is dotted with designs by a number of prominent architects, including James Renwick, Jr. and Eero Saarinen.
And while, like Bard, Vassar has seen more than its share of creative students, including actresses Meryl Streep, Lisa Kudrow and Jane Fonda, poets Elizabeth Bishop and Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelists Jane Smiley and Mary McCarthy, artist Nancy Graves, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, as well as the illustrious Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who was a journalist early in her career).
Vassar has also had a number of corporate titans, entrepreneurs and scientists under its gabled roofs.
Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, who graduated in 1870, may not be a household name, but she was an innovative industrial and environmental chemist who helped open the field of science to other women. (She was also the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry and the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). And we would be remiss not to mention Lee Zalben, the founder of Peanut Butter & Co., a man who heard America’s call for grand gourmet spreadable nuts and snacks. Vassar does have one especially notable blemish on its record – graduate Elizabeth Bentley, a spy for the Soviet Union from 1938-1945, during the dawn of our nation’s second Red Menace. In 1945, she defected from the Communist Party and informing on other American spies, ultimately naming the names of more than 80 Soviet spies, and helping to usher in the terrifying era of McCarthyism.
Speaking of the stymieing and naming of spies, West Point, a United States federal military reservation founded in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson includes the United States Military Academy’s campus in Highlands. The campus is a National Landmark with primarily neo-Gothic buildings in gray and black granite. Roughly 1,300 cadets enter each new class, and only the strongest 1,000 emerge. West Point’s program is both academically rigorous and physically challenging. All cadets must also adhere to what is known as the Cadet Honor Code: “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.”
Unlike students at the nearby schools, artists do not abound at West Point. Instead, West Point churns out strategic geniuses like Ulysses S. Grant, George S. Patton, Joseph Stilwell, Norman Schwarzkopf and Robert E. Lee, and canny political leaders like Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nevertheless, there were a few oddballs in the bunch who had short, tumultuous tenures at the Academy. Timothy Leary, the late psychologist best known for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs, briefly attended, and horror writer Edgar Allan Poe was also asked to leave (allegedly due to emotional instability and lack of funds).
Perhaps in this crop of May graduates,there is yet another great American president, a purveyor of excellent gourmet snacks, or a sitcom star. Who knows? But our advice to graduates is this: as you toss your hat into the air this month, dare to dream big, dream weird or dream of an elevated status quo; only you can determine (with the a little help from Maia) where your dreams will take you.