As diverse as Los Angeles is, there is one thing all good Angelinos do. We wait. We wait in our cars, stuck in traffic on the 10, the 110 and the 405. We wait in line to get into a club, a bar, a concert venue. We wait for a table at one of our favorite restaurants. As busy as this city is, we spend a lot of time waiting.
This past Thursday night I was doing exactly that. While waiting for a table at a popular pizza place in Eagle Rock, my friend Kris called me. Westmont College, my alma mater, was on fire. Students were being evacuated from their dorms. It was not looking good.
I raced inside the restaurant. Do you have a television I asked? No, they replied. Lacking any way to monitor the events, I begged Kris to text me updates. Our table was ready. We sat down. My mind wandered.
Most people have fond memories of their college years. I do. Fondness doesn’t capture it, though. Fondness doesn’t make you tear up at the thought of burnt dormitories.
Fondness doesn’t begin to explain how pivotal my four years at Westmont were. Six years after graduation, I had nearly forgotten. While waiting for fire updates, I remembered.
Freshman year, in an act of solidarity with my section mates, I shaved my head and accidentally dyed it orange, so orange that my mother barely recognized me when my family came to pick me up. Upon my return home for the summer, I converted my high school bedroom into a reasonable facsimile of my dorm room.
Sophomore year we stole the tennis team’s tennis ball machine and turned it into a weapon of mass disruption, launching tennis balls at unsuspecting co-eds studying on the lawn below our dormitory.
We were immature. My wife would say I still am. She is right.
Junior year I traded hair dye and ball machines for weekly trips to Mexico. Not to buy cheap tequila, but to help organize a 300-student service trip to the city of Ensenada. Forced to fully confront my glaring weaknesses, I asked for strength. I worked closely with people whose views sometimes made no sense to me, but for the sake of the goal, demanded my respect.
Senior year, sitting in front of a tiny television screen in a London hotel, I watched the towers fall in lower Manhattan. Two days later, I proudly placed my hand over my heart as I and 45 other Westmont students and faculty listened to the guard play the Star Spangled Banner before Buckingham Palace. Three weeks later, as American troops dethroned the Taliban, a British traveler aboard the same ship bound for Spain chastised us. Blessed are the peacemakers, he warned.
Friday morning I awoke to good news. Westmont had largely been spared. A few buildings had burned, but the campus was intact. The fire hit Westmont’s faculty the hardest, destroying at least 14 homes built specifically for the professors who, when I wasn’t causing trouble, going to Mexico or decamping for Europe, taught me about life, about God and about the world I would soon enter.
The fires cost Westmont buildings and time. The college is preparing for a major renovation that will only make it better and more attractive to prospective students. Certainly those renovations will be somewhat delayed as Westmont recovers from the fires.
But Westmont will recover. Searching for the right words, some television reporters called it Westmont University. But Westmont is no university. It’s not defined by its research, by its endowment, by its historical pedigree. It’s not defined by its spectacular facilities or its football team.
Westmont has none of these things. It’s a college, dedicated wholly to its students.
A fire can destroy many things, and over the past week, these fires certainly did.
Though we all feared for Westmont, we forgot that so much of what we love and — as Westmont alums — who we are, comes from the community that Westmont is. Community is what Westmont does best.
While waiting in line for the perfect pizza, many miles and many years removed from my time there, I feared for Westmont because I had forgotten that.
Kevin Kreutz, a former Business Times reporter, lives in Pasadena with his wife, and fellow Westmont alumna, Heather Meurer-Kreutz. He is in his third year of law school at Loyola Law School. He can be reached via e-mail to [email protected]