A letter from an alumnus about
The Class of 1962 and Erik Wiehenmayer k62
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
Im 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 62s activities. This letter wont 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 Im saying.
I have been unhappy with 62s 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 Eriks
talk, and I couldnt 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 cant. He undoubtedly has been an inspiration to many (another
caveat coming), and Im 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
Losing ones sight is certainly very tough to deal with, but many,
many people do so. My daughter lost hers. Over the years Ive met
many blind people who have accomplished a great deal in their lives, including
the greatest accomplishment of all going about ones 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 dont have Eriks 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 dont know whether his mountain-climbing
expeditions have been funded by Ed or outside sources, but it doesnt
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 Eds
athletic DNA, something else the average blind person doesnt 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. Thats 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 dont 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 worlds
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
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 wasnt 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 Allis 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, Im not. Grieving for Alli yes, and I dont
think Ill ever stop. Different view of life and whats important
and whats 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 dont 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 Eriks.
None of this affects my respect for and loyalty to Princeton, and, as
I explained to Jim Zug, Ill give as much as I can to Annual Giving
for our 40th. (Im comfortably retired but not writing big checks
to anyone until note the hopeful confidence the company
I retired from has its IPO.) And Ill miss seeing my friends. But
the Erik thing has been eating at me for so long that I couldnt
enjoy Reunions. Hope you understand. Not just why Im not coming,
but more important the bigger message about what true courage and success
in life are all about.