Last Word: Lights in the Windows

A campus family only employees get to know.

By Pete Mackey

After heavy snows have fallen, and the only sound is wind rustling through unbowed pines, the Bucknell campus can be so serene it seems forsaken. The stately brick buildings seem to pull their walls in closer for warmth. Ghostly dervishes swirl in gusts across the buried paths of the Grove. The chapel chimes the Alma Mater as if for no one. The landscape appears deserted. It’s not. It never is. But in those quietest moments — in the coldest weather of winter break, in dawn’s pre-class scarlet light, on a July midnight when fresh stars pattern the darkness above the silent quad — Bucknell is indeed most and least like itself.

I worked at Bucknell for eight years, witnessing seven classes commence, seeing in seven Reunions the bonds alumni formed in that place. That’s two bachelor’s degrees’ worth, although at Bucknell eight years is child’s play. Many colleagues called the campus home for 25, 35, 40 years.

Eight years is plenty, though, to have learned that as much as you can enjoy the place’s beauty, the story of Bucknell is not the setting. The pastoral scenes, the Georgian architecture, the quaint Victorian downtown, the river-side geography — they fill the senses. But the people make and break your heart.

While the students rush from one class to the next, preparing for their lives after Bucknell, the employees live theirs, whether students are there or not. Most importantly, they live them together, in a setting whose intimacy, whose seclusion, compacts the force of the lives around you. When class was in session, we were caught up in daily business, side by side like the crew of a giant ship whose passengers come and go. And in our down time, we were running into each other at Weis Markets, the Campus Theatre, the rail-to-trail path, one restaurant or shop on Market Street or another. There was life on campus, life in Lewisburg and life itself, and in a small place, they were mostly one and the same.

The birth or death or marriage of a child, a parent’s slow death from aging, the joys of a new grandchild — these are the seminal moments around which a life organizes. At Bucknell, those moments could also shift the mood of a campus, even a town, because everyone is so connected.

As anyone who has worked at Bucknell for any extended time learns, getting away from campus is hard. It’s everywhere you turn. In life’s pivotal moments, it also surrounds you with its generosities — the cards and notes, the well-wishes on walks across campus, the surprise box of food from people an outsider might imagine are simply co-workers. But those who work at Bucknell don’t think of each other that way. Because there the people are more than part of your work; they are part of your home. And time after time they complete the views, even when silence reigns, with a feeling very much like it.

 

Pete Mackey was vice president for communications and community relations at Bucknell until March 2014, when he became the chief communications officer at Amherst College. Though he has left Lewisburg, he says he remains close with many people here because of the experiences they shared.

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