An iconic moment on campus, relived by the alums who were there.
An iconic moment on campus, relived by the alums who were there.
The New York Times Magazine, May 15, 1988, photographed by Jörg Meyer; issue supplied by Columbia University Archives.
The sense of a community healed was perhaps most vividly captured by the magazine’s cover — a photo of the Steps on a sunny spring day, teeming with students relaxing, reading, talking, laughing. This was campus life at its most ordinary, but it was also emblematic of the Columbia experience: undergraduates coming together in the landmark space that every student calls their own.
And yet, for some people, the photo captured their specific experience. Filming for the video yearbook. Doing a crossword puzzle. Drinking a Pepsi. Who were the students arrayed outside Low Library that afternoon? Thirty-five years later, we decided to find out. From a literal long shot filled with half-obscured faces, we slowly chipped away at IDs. A few were surprised to see their younger selves in the image, but many more remembered the long-ago jolt of discovering they were on the cover of the Times magazine.
Ultimately, we found and interviewed 19 alumni, asking them to look back on the day the photo was taken, how they learned they were in it and what it means to them. We also sought out the photographer to get her behind-the-scenes perspective. Their recollections form a kind of oral history of this now-iconic image. Here’s what they said. >>
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
It was warm out, and I was either taking a study break or relaxing shortly thereafter. A number of friends were enjoying the afternoon, which was very typical of us in April and May. I heard about the cover from my sister-in-law, Kyra Tirana Barry ’87, who at the time was my good friend. I thought, “that’s fun, cover of The New York Times Magazine.” Wish I had been facing the camera.
The experience did make me think that the Columbia of 1988 was quite different from 20 years prior. Columbia in the late 1980s was a relatively healthy place. The school, the city, the future all felt good to me.
I was walking across the Steps before my afternoon lecture. It was overcast and they were fairly barren except for Nancy Yaffa Le Roux BC’88, who was sitting on Alma Mater (you can see her to my right). I asked Nancy what she was doing up there. She had a belt that she had to return to a friend (you can see it in the photo) and wanted to be easily found. Chatting with Nancy seemed more interesting than class, so I hopped up to help her and made myself comfortable on that perch. That was probably the first and last time I ever sat up there.
Then the sun came out, and it turned into one of those unexpectedly glorious early spring days. As the temperature rose, a few friends, fraternity brothers and classmates who were also on their way to class asked what the hell we were doing up there. More than a few dropped their books and took a seat. It dominoed from there. Before long, the Steps were packed. I’d guess 90 percent of the people in that photo were supposed to be in class. There was this great energy.
My mother called me the Sunday it was published. She said, “Have you seen the cover of The New York Times Magazine? I think you’re on it.” My first reaction was dread, as to what I did that landed me on the cover. I found it at the newsstand on the corner of 110th and Broadway, and immediately recalled the day [it was taken].
I thought it was the greatest thing. It captured us enjoying the best of residential life at Columbia: being surrounded by friends, enjoying one another’s company and just living in the moment. To give a sense of how meaningful that photo was for me, there are about seven friends in it who were at my wedding. And I’m still in touch with many of them.
To this day, my friends refer to it as “The Photo,” and it quickly attained a special place in Columbia lore. My mother had it framed for me as a graduation gift, and it’s held a prominent place in every office I’ve had. I glance at it nearly every day and it always brings a smile. My wife calls it my “Portrait of Dorian Gray.” Each year it grows a little more faded and tattered, yet every glance leaves me feeling reenergized, optimistic and a little younger.
OMG — I’m sure I knew I was in the photo at the time but I’d long forgotten about it. My friend Diane Daltner ’89 and I had started a video yearbook and we were constantly filming. Because much of the Columbia experience was centered on conversations on the Steps, there I was, with a HUGE video camera on my shoulder, dressed in the worst of ’80s fashion ... Capezio shoes and joggers (which are unfortunately back in style). One could have only hoped that bad fashion wouldn’t repeat itself. Seeing it now brings back so many great memories — it symbolizes the everyday “nothing” that played a part in making the time at Columbia so special.
I associate my college experience with those unseasonably warm days when students would put on shorts and T-shirts and head to the Steps. It was so hopeful — spring was here! It was where Columbia most came together as a community. You never knew who you might see. Even today, on a day like that, I viscerally remember the Steps.
I remember when the magazine came out. I even saved a copy. I remember thinking it was cool to be in The New York Times. I vaguely remember feeling a sense of pride for being a student on the campus where there was an historic uprising, where students would go to such lengths to effect change. It was violent and scary, and it gave Columbia some street cred in the student revolt movement. When I was at Barnard in the late ’80s, there was so much political passion and optimism about our ability to impact the world. I am sure it was related to being young, but at Columbia we were aware of the lore of the events of 1968. It felt like we had experience, a corner on the challenging-authority market. Depressing that 55 years later, we still find ourselves facing some of the same issues.
When the magazine came out, I had just moved back home for the summer after my sophomore year. My parents had home delivery of the Times. Spread out on the breakfast table that Sunday morning of May 15 was each section of the newspaper, with the cover of the magazine clearly visible. I immediately looked for people I knew. The first person I noticed was my friend Michael Behringer ’89, who was sitting on the base of Alma Mater. I recognized some others, and then I saw what appeared to be half of my face, turning toward my left and about to throw a Nerf football. I think I still have those sunglasses.
I actually kept the magazine and still have it at my home. I enjoyed my years at Columbia immensely and have treasured my time there more and more as the years have gone by. I also am fortunate in that I was able to spend time on campus over the past four years — my daughter was a Columbia Engineering student. She just graduated in May.
I’ve seen this a few times over the years. I’m in what appears to be an unnecessary windbreaker :) Looks like there’s a copy of Spectator in my left hand. I loved those seemingly infrequent days when the weather and schedules aligned — great memories.
I was meeting a friend that day but it was crowded and I couldn’t find them. I decided I would have a better view from Alma Mater. Michael Behringer ’89 (next to me) decided to come have a chat and help me look.
I was away at a rowing regatta when the magazine came out and came home to an answering machine (remember that dinosaur?) full of people telling me I was on the cover. I was so surprised. I had no idea the photo was even taken.
The cover is framed and has always been prominently featured in my home. It reminds me of four of my favorite years — the phenomenal education I received, the incredible rowing experience I had and the inspiring people I met, most of whom I’m fortunate to say are still close friends.
I didn’t even know I was in the photo — ha! Ironically, I was just in the city yesterday visiting colleges with my daughter and staying with my college roommate, Sandy Harris Steinberg BC’90, JRN’98, who’s at the bottom of the photo in the chambray shirt. She still has a copy of the magazine! And she is still one of my closest friends.
Any sunny spring day meant a gathering at the Steps. This day didn’t stand out in particular, though I do recall a lot of chatter in general around the anniversary of the 1968 protests. For our year, that was also significant because it was the year we, my classmates — all sophomores at the time — were born.
I have a vague memory of being in Cannon’s bar at 108th and Broadway when this came out — obviously this was pre-internet, and if I recall correctly, the magazine hit newsstands either late Friday or Saturday night. Someone told me what it was and that I was on it. Needless to say, I rushed out to the corner, bought it and brought it back to the bar.
I don’t know if the photo has a particularly special meaning for me, but on the other hand, I’ve kept it ever since. I actually got it framed several years ago because it was getting pretty worn, so it’s definitely something that I wanted to preserve. It’s absolutely a fun memento of that time in my life, and it’s pretty cool to know that my time at Columbia is associated with a sort of rebirth of the school. I’m not claiming there’s a connection between the two things, but I’m also not not claiming it.
I remember I got a call from a high school friend of mine. He said, “NO WAY — the cover caught my eye and I searched the photo and there you were! Unbelievable!” I immediately ran to the newsstand on Broadway and 116th and got a copy. What is funny is I have my own photos from the day in my scrapbook. Someone had pulled out their camera and taken snaps of the scene because the pervasive feeling was joy — and the light was great. (Keep in mind, they would have had to get the film developed and print multiple copies to share with friends, a little different from photo sharing today.) I had a slightly out-of-body feeling comparing those personal photos to the Times cover and considering that a Times photographer had been there all that time. I asked myself how the Times could have known that was the day to capture the magic of the Columbia Steps! It felt uncanny.
For me, the image celebrates something I absolutely loved about Columbia: the sense of a tight-knit community amidst a big university and an even bigger city. As college sophomores, we knew we had people. We had a place to meet without an invitation. We had a place to see and be seen. The Steps are the perfect space to socialize in a dynamic way.
This was the spring of my sophomore year, and I believe I was going to French class. I think it was after lunchtime. I also spent a lot of time nearby at Dodge Fitness Center (I was on the women’s soccer team), so the Steps were a natural stomping ground for me.
I completely recall when the magazine came out: I was home on Long Island for the summer. We got delivery of the paper, so I saw it on the table and went to the magazine. It used to have real estate in the back that I loved to look at. Well, I pulled it out and was like, “Wow! Cool, Columbia’s on the cover.” Then I looked more closely and saw myself — I was pretty stoked! I remember feeling a huge sense of pride looking at the cover and reading the article. In fact, I have two copies of the magazine at my home here in California!
I remember when the magazine came out. I had stayed for a few days after the semester ended. I was in the Beta House and Steve Hasenfus ’89 came home on Saturday evening and told us about it. I told my parents, and my father said, “I know you don’t have the money to frame it properly, so I’ll pay for you to do so.” I had it put on a wood plaque and laminated, but the color has still faded. I’d love to get a new version, and maybe have it protected to last a little better.
The cover reminds me of a great time in life when I was able to spend hours in deep (and not so deep) conversation with really bright and engaging people. The picture perfectly captures one of those moments and reminds me how lucky I was to attend Columbia at that time. In addition, it was cool to be associated with a university that was improving and evolving into something better.
I am under the “ec” in “Recovered” actually doing a New York Times crossword puzzle. I always thought that was cool. My mom contacted the Times and purchased a different photo taken a split second before or after, and I was clearly visible in that one. I lost that photo in a move a few years ago.
I have zero memory of that day; all of college is one big spectacular blur. I would guess that I was trying to catch some rays while doing my best to look cool and also avoiding going to the library.
The truth is that I have seen this iconic photo many times since we graduated, most recently circulated by friends on social media, and I had no recollection of being in it! I must have known in 1988 (it’s the kind of thing I would have gotten a huge kick out of) and then somehow mysteriously forgotten!
The photograph vividly captures life at Columbia in the late ’80s — the clothing, the hairstyles, the mood. Looking back on it now, it strikes me as very Less Than Zero. Definitely the greatest time of my life.
I wasn’t expecting a nice, warm day and was wearing a heavy sweater. I crossed the Steps on my way to class, saw most of my friends hanging out and decided not to attend. The cover says “May 15, 1988” but my guess is the picture had been taken a month or two earlier.
The magazine came out just as I was returning home for the summer. I learned about it right away, as my parents were lifelong subscribers. It wasn’t entirely a positive for me, as I had been having some academic issues and my parents weren’t too excited about seeing a picture of me hanging out with my friends on the cover of the Times magazine. But it always did have special meaning for me since in the picture I am sitting and talking with some of my closest friends, and a number of members of my fraternity (Beta Theta Pi) are also in the shot. It also includes a few people I only peripherally knew (“there’s that guy I played cards with sophomore year!”) and might not have remembered otherwise. I’m sure I could still dig out a copy or two of the magazine.
I cannot believe that picture was 35 years ago! My boyfriend woke me up, he was so excited — he had gone out for coffee and seen the Times somewhere. He kept shouting, “You’re on the cover of The New York Times!” I had no idea what he was talking about, but then he ran to a newsstand on Broadway and bought a copy to show me. It was exciting to be a part of University history even in a small and peripheral way, and I was, technically speaking, a “cover girl.” I went to Kinko’s straightaway and had it laminated. The picture is framed and hanging in my house even now.
That whole part of campus is loaded with history, and it was (and is, probably) also a part of most University students’ daily lives. The Steps and College Walk are both ordinary and extraordinary in that way. Plus being in that photo meant a lot to me personally. As a junior transfer student at Barnard and a southerner from Alabama, it took me some time to find my place in my class. When I saw this cover, I realized I knew almost all of the people. Quite a few were and are good friends. And it was just really cool having that moment memorialized.
Knowing what my habits were, at the moment that photo was taken there was probably a classroom with an empty chair where my butt should have been.
My parents were devout Times readers, and my mother spotted me immediately. She called me at school and told me I was in the photo. My back was mostly to the camera but I recognized my shirt and glasses.
Around 2005 I was working at Good Morning America in New York. One of the executive producers had the cover hanging in his office. When I was introduced to him, the person ushering me into the office said, “This is George Suarez.” I pointed myself out in the photo and said, “This is also George Suarez.” The executive producer was a Columbia grad, and that led to a brief conversation about CU.
My friends and I spent a lot of time on the Steps. It was no different from studying in Butler, which could be every bit as loud and social. If you had really serious work to do, something that demanded quiet focus, you could always go to the Law School library.
I saw the cover at University Food Market when I was getting coffee in the morning. I remember thinking, “Oh look, the Steps.” And then, “Oh, hey there’s [Michael] Behringer [’89] and [Brian] Kennedy [’90]!” And then thinking, “Oh shit, that’s me.” Pretty sure those are the exact words that went through my head.
Of course I remember! I mean, I was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Coming from Oregon, my home state, that’s kind of a big deal. I also seem to recall teasing our friend who was hidden behind the barcode. Seeing it now reminds me of how vibrant and fun Columbia was!
Sara Krulwich, photographer, The New York Times
Todd Heisler / The New York Times
I went to the building across the way [Butler Library] and every single window was locked; but there was one window that looked perfect. I had to get permission from, like, a million people to get somebody to open it. “Let me go out on a terrace and look to see ...” I had to figure out what lens to use and what would look good. So it was many different levels of security to even get a chance to check out the view. Who could give me the person who could give me permission, and who could give me the person who had the key — it was so bureaucratic.
Then I had to wait for warm weather.
I made friends — I had to go through somebody’s office to get to that window, so I deputized the person whose office it was to tell me when it got crowded on the Steps. I needed somebody to say: It’s a spring day and there are a ton of people. So then we had this beautiful day and I got the call, and I had to bring a tripod and a huge, long lens. And I had to sneak through the person’s office and through that window, and I had to time it with the guy who had the keys.
[The terrace] was tiny — one of those pretend balconies that makes a building look pretty. I sat there for a long time, taking pictures. The reason that frame was chosen was because there’s a little teeny motorized car in it. If you look at it, kind of in the middle, above the “a” in “Alma,” somebody was running that car back and forth. Kathy thought that was fun and added an element.
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