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A letter from an alumnus about The Class of 1962 and Erik Wiehenmayer k’62

Below is a copy of a letter sent to the class officers for the Class of 1962.

March 14, 2002
To: Bill Swain, Joe Caltagirone, Bill Venable, Sam Reiken and John Bales

I’m writing to let you know that I am not coming to our 40th this year, and to explain why. As you will see, I have a major problem with one of the ‘62’s activities. This letter won’t change what the class does. But writing the letter will be cathartic for me. And, who knows? Some of you may pay attention to what I’m saying.

I have been unhappy with ‘62’s adoption, sponsorship, and hero-worship of Erik Wiehenmayer since the day it was announced, and by now I am sick of it. Class notes, letters to the class, talks at class dinners, now a presentation by Erik at Reunions... I think it is wrong, and it greatly upsets me. If I were to come to Reunions, I would walk out of Erik’s talk, and I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the activities.

I have nothing against Erik (and certainly not his dad either) personally. I admire the strength and resiliency he has shown since he lost his sight. He has certainly proven that a blind person is capable of remarkable achievements (but a caveat on that later). He can climb Mt. Everest, and most sighted people can’t. He undoubtedly has been an inspiration to many (another caveat coming), and I’m sure that he has raised considerable funds for research for the condition that led to his blindness. All this is a testament to his strength of character and his courage (biggest caveat here), but…

Losing one’s sight is certainly very tough to deal with, but many, many people do so. My daughter lost hers. Over the years I’ve met many blind people who have accomplished a great deal in their lives, including the greatest accomplishment of all – going about one’s life without missing a beat. That is, in my opinion, a greater achievement than climbing Mt. Everest, and it is something that all blind people can relate to and hope for. For most people who lose their sight, it is harder than climbing Everest because they don’t have Erik’s financial or physical resources. I give my daughter more credit for walking the streets of Philadelphia with a cane and resuming classes at Penn within weeks of having her one eye surgically removed due to cancer (the other was removed when she was one) than I give Erik for climbing Everest. And the same goes for anyone else who has lost their sight but successfully struggled to continue living a normal life.

Erik could not have done what he did without tremendous financial resources, which very few blind people have. I don’t know whether his mountain-climbing expeditions have been funded by Ed or outside sources, but it doesn’t matter. And, while Erik has worked very hard to condition himself for the high mountains, I suspect that he was born with a lot of Ed’s athletic DNA, something else the average blind person doesn’t have. To me the message is that a blind person can climb Mt. Everest if he or she happens to have a genetically athletic body, a ton of money, and, oh yeah, a lot of perseverance and willpower. That’s a bad message. Most people who lose their sight struggle just to have the perseverance and willpower after such a traumatic loss. My daughter did what she did without spending a dime (except for coffee; her first "project" after going blind was to use her cane – which she had taught herself to use before the operation – to find and visit every coffee house in mid-town Philadelphia to get used to navigating the city). So I doubt that what Erik has done would be inspirational to most of the thousands of people who lose their sight each year and don’t have his financial and physical resources.

And, in my opinion, the "courage" that Erik has shown in his mountain climbing ranks right up there with sky-diving, bungee-jumping, and other "extreme" sports. Sure, you can die doing any of these, and it takes "courage" to do them. And I respect that. But at least if someone is killed crashing into the barrier after wiping out on the Olympic downhill, they have taken a calculated risk, for the thrill or a gold medal or whatever personally drives them, and lost. And no one else has died with them. That is not true of climbing the world’s tallest mountains. When Erik climbed Everest or any of the other high mountains, he put his whole climbing party at risk with him.

Anyhow, the "courage" required for climbing – blind or sighted — is not the type of day-to-day grinding courage that the normal blind person – or anyone facing a severe illness – must have to carry on with life. That is the kind of courage that I truly respect and admire. And, through my daughter, I have been privileged to see that kind of courage. Using Alli as an example, let me tell you what real courage is:

Growing up knowing that the retinoblastoma she had as a kid was genetically caused, and living with the knowledge that she was predisposed — in fact likely — to develop other types of cancer in the future.

Cruising through school near the top of her class of 500 and active in school activities despite 20-200+ eyesight and being legally blind.

Discovering at 19 that a sarcoma had developed behind her remaining eye, around the optic nerve and next to the brain – a virtual death sentence.

Fighting like hell for the next eight years, not just to live, but to live as normal a life as possible, despite four 18+/- hour craniotomy surgical procedures, months and months of chemotherapy, and several rounds of radiation therapy.

Going bravely into the first three craniotomies not knowing whether she would be blind when she woke up in recovery. And, knowing that, matter-of-factly going to a school for the blind to prepare herself to cope with blindness.

Going into the fourth craniotomy knowing that she would lose her eye in a last ditch effort to save her life. And spending the week before methodically going through her kitchen brailing every can and jar. And, as I said above, walking the streets of Philadelphia with a cane and resuming classes at Penn within weeks of having her eye removed.

Asking all her family and friends to her apartment for a party the night she found that her cancer had metastasized to her lungs — a certain death sentence. It may sound macabre, but it wasn’t — it was a celebration of her life and those she shared it with.

Over the last two years of her life, continuing to live life as fully as she could while her cancer gradually killed her body piece-by-piece and eventually began to steal her mind, all the while in intense pain.

That was real courage. Real, everyday, hard courage. I lived it with Alli, and I saw it a zillion times during Alli’s many hospital stays. Mothers trying to hold back their tears while bravely playing and laughing with their kids who had terminal cancer… You get the picture.

If I sound bitter, I’m not. Grieving for Alli — yes, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Different view of life and what’s important and what’s not — absolutely. Bitter — no, just very upset with ‘62 worshiping Erik on a pedestal. And turned off by the class for doing it. Our class — like most, I suppose — has always celebrated the most outwardly successful of our classmates — the ones who made the most money and/or reached the most prestigious positions — with class awards, invitations to speak at class events, etc. As a former Annual Giving class agent and class president, I understand the motivation. But I don’t like it. Again, the wrong message. The wrong emphasis on what is truly important in life. There are many other, just-as-deserving classmates out there living lives that are just as good, productive, and fulfilling — maybe more so, but we never celebrate or recognize them. And there are other classmates who themselves, or through their children and close relatives, have lived with real courage through circumstances far worse than Erik’s.

None of this affects my respect for and loyalty to Princeton, and, as I explained to Jim Zug, I’ll give as much as I can to Annual Giving for our 40th. (I’m comfortably retired but not writing big checks to anyone until — note the hopeful confidence — the company I retired from has its IPO.) And I’ll miss seeing my friends. But the Erik thing has been eating at me for so long that I couldn’t enjoy Reunions. Hope you understand. Not just why I’m not coming, but more important the bigger message about what true courage and success in life are all about.

All the best,

G. Gordon M. Large ’62
Blue Bell, Pa.

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