Bernd Brecher ’54, JRN’55 began his career as a journalist and has never stopped thinking like one; he is currently working on his memoir. His lifelong career as an institutional management consultant and advisor to not-for-profit organizations and to leaders of causes has taken him all over the world, helping educational, health, cultural, youth, religious, arts and other institutions try to heal the world. His volunteer leadership at Columbia and in his communities has always crossed paths with his professional life.
What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I arrived at Columbia a commuter kid from Washington Heights — there having been no funds or space for on-campus housing — with a cohort of two-score-plus classmates from Bronx Science. About 30 men came with me to the College, and about 10 women went to Barnard. My dorm life consisted of about five days for orientation week — which was a short-term heaven, given my circumstances — during which time we had to remain on campus. I protested all the way up to the Dean’s Office because I had an opening night ticket in the back of the balcony (was it $1.20?) for a widely-anticipated Broadway play and I would not be denied. The powers that were in Hamilton Hall gave me special leave to see the play if I agreed to write an opening night (remember those?) review. Agreed! Peace! This was my first exposure to the humanizing effect and impact of Contemporary Civilization and Humanities in the marketplace. For me, the Core has lived ever since.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
My post-orientation week living situation became one long subway commute, first from Washington Heights (actually no strain) but soon after from Jackson Heights in Queens, where we moved soon after I started college. That meant acclimating to the campus life and opportunities I craved by getting to Morningside Heights early, then heading back to Jackson Heights very late. I would not let not “being there” deprive me of the vital Columbia experience outside of class. I was not alone in this, but was often lonely on my daily subway journey, contemplating what I was missing while enduring those two-hour-plus trips. Columbia to me has always been an equal division between what I learned in class and what I experienced outside the classroom.
What class do you still remember and why?
Several classes never leave my memory, including Colloquium with Moses Hadas; writing seminar with Quentin Anderson; the English poets with George Nobbe; several English, theater and humanities courses with Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren and other academic giants; and modern American lit with Fred Dupee (“modern American literature is about man’s search for his father” — think about that). I have a very special feeling for Jimmy Shenton’s class on American history, where you were in for a treat — one day the professor would be dressed up as and acting out Ben Franklin, another day he would be very F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish, dressed in a raccoon coat and boater, waving a college flag while roaring ’20s music blared from a Victrola on a corner of his desk. (Jim became a regular at all our alumni reunions.) All of these great teachers brought their love of education and the world to the classroom every day, and their students felt it to their core. There were many more, but I have to mention a non-teacher who taught me much about education, community, people and Columbia: Joe Coffee, a member of the Class of 1941 and the founder and first director of the Columbia College Fund and an out-of-class mentor to so many of us. As I write this I learned of the passing of Ted de Bary, also CC’41, whom I never had as a teacher while an undergrad, but whose classes, lectures and seminars I participated in since graduation. He was indeed a “continuation” of all that was great about Columbia College education; he was also a speaker at many of our reunions. I will always remember him as Columbia’s man for all seasons.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
As an editor, especially features editor and columnist for Spectator, a good part of my non-classroom hours were spent in the fourth-floor John Jay city room and our offices … we all proudly brought out a daily paper. My fellow editors and I “lived” the newspaper and the place felt like our real home. Still, a very special place for me over the years was, as I recall, the lounge of Livingston Hall, which was my private spot to rest, read or doze on an easy chair facing the fireplace over which words were emblazoned on the mantle: “HOLD FAST TO THE SPIRIT OF YOUTH, LET YEARS TO COME DO WHAT THEY MAY.”
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
There is little I would do over about my College experience, having squeezed every minute and hour for maximum exposure to my education, much of it outside the classroom but all of it related to Columbia, and its integral place in the community and New York. For this I thank those teachers named above and specifically my dean, Lawrence Chamberlain, on whose door I posted a dozen suggestions about improving the College — chutzpah, yes — and who became a friend I visited for years in Pacific Grove after he retired from the University following his vice presidency. I recall how the College recognized my extracurricular activities and contributions and, concerned about my health with five hours of sleep a night, awarded me in my senior year a “scholarship” in the form of off-campus housing on West 113th Street. In loco parentis, indeed.