David Meyer ’67
When Robert Keen ’67 and I were accepted to Cornell in 1963, we were advised in advance who we’d be rooming with and encouraged to write to tell each other about our backgrounds and interests. In this way Robert learned that my family owned a mail-order company selling herbs and spices in Hammond, Indiana. His family operated a farm in DeWitt, Iowa. I had three older sisters. He had five brothers. All we seemed to have in common was that we both lived in the Midwest. We were assigned a room in Merner Hall.
There we were: a husky farm youth, open and friendly, and a short, skinny fellow still stiff in social settings due to four years in an all-male military school. Robert’s courses were leading to a major in political science and mine to English. Our friendship was based on our differences, not on shared interests—and a need to negotiate the unfamiliar culture of campus life together.
Our second year we moved to Pauley Hall and kept the same room until we graduated. Each of us found other friends at Cornell, but our friendship went far beyond the campus. I often visited the Keen family homestead, wittily named Just-A-Mere Farm. I attended a cattle auction in Tama, Iowa, with Robert and his father, who was fondly referred to as “The Old Pro.” As I swatted at a fly at the auction, he told me I’d just entered the bidding for the heifer in the center corral.
Our last two years at Cornell, Robert and I went our separate ways around campus. I can’t now recall what he was up to outside Pauley Hall, but most of my extracurricular activities were focused on a bright, auburn-haired co-ed, Class of 1969, with whom I’d fallen in love. By 1967 news of the war in Vietnam was intruding on our daily lives. Robert was considering enlisting in the Army to learn helicopter maintenance; but I was intent on accepting a teaching fellowship at the University of North Carolina. While there I wrote a short novel using Just-A-Mere Farm as the story’s setting. By the time it was published in Redbook magazine in October 1970, I had been drafted and was on the way to Vietnam.
I visited Cornell once in the 1970s, staying with Ben and Winifred Van Etten, (my senior English advisor) at their wonderful stone house built by Ben. I stopped by to see Robert’s parents in DeWitt and recall leaning against a fence by a feedlot talking to “The Old Pro” about Robert’s changed way of life since his return from Vietnam. He’d moved out West, was repairing and restoring motorcycles for a living, and studying for an associate science degree in respiratory medicine. I’d entered my family’s herbal business and then began a book publishing company. I often received news of Robert from his parents. When I heard from Robert, it was usually an invitation to come out to see him in Albuquerque, but I was too immersed in my own pursuits to get away.
The decades that followed brought changes to our lives that we occasionally reported to each other, usually by mail. In 1981 Robert’s parents sent me a photo of their 40th wedding anniversary, surrounded by the boys with their wives and children. In 2006 I finally visited him in Albuquerque while on my way to an artist’s retreat in Taos. I met his wife, Elisabeth, and Laura, one of his two daughters. Robert and I passed the afternoon on his back porch reminiscing about our time at Cornell and what had occurred in each other’s lives when we were out of touch. I realized that day how much both of us had not only changed but also had not been a part of the other’s life—yet we had never ceased being friends.
David Meyer ’67 is an author, editor, and book publisher in Chicago.