This past weekend, Chris and I took a quick trip back to Yale. The chair of Chris’s graduate department was retiring after 40 years. Ben Sammler is a giant in the field of technical theater production. When Chris was an undergraduate student at the University of Central Florida, he studied text books written by Ben. It blew his mind when he was accepted to Yale for graduate school and realized he would be taking classes with none other than Ben Sammler himself.
(SIDE NOTE: The Buddha ice sculpture is a joke within the Drama School production students. One of the projects they do in their first year of the program is learn how to estimate time and budget for how long a project is going to take. Ben gives them the specs for a giant Buddha sculpture and that’s their first project – estimate the production time and cost of building this Buddha. It was pretty funny that they chose to make this the giant focus of the dinner, and it made quite a few of the alumni groan with memories of the project…)
Throughout Chris’s time at Yale, Ben was an instrumental voice for Chris’s career path. He taught Chris everything he knows about theater production and management, but Chris’s loyalty to Ben goes beyond that. Since Chris has graduated, he has called on Ben at different points in his career for advice and has never been led astray.
My graduate program was largely underwhelming. Most of my classes were online and when I did meet in person there were often guest lecturers, which meant I very rarely ever met my professors. As a result, I learned very little and have utilized that degree minimally. In contrast, Yale, and specifically Ben Sammler, have made lasting impressions on Chris’s career and have shown me the value in having a true mentor in your field.
Whenever you mention an affiliation of any kind to an Ivy League school, you almost always get the same response. Raised eyebrows and a very condescending “Ohhhhh…”, said in the same voice as if you were falsely praising a child. It goes from being condescending to downright insulting, actually. I’ve learned over the years that it comes from intimidation about some “mythical” place that few people are connected to personally, which is so funny because having lived and worked at Yale for so many years, it is anything but intimidating. The campus and the two programs Chris and I interacted with (drama and music) are friendly, curious, kind, and helpful. Throughout the course of the night at the dinner, the theme of community and family kept arising, and that is truly how I would describe our time there, as well.
(Ben is a gardener. No, actually, more like a farmer. And the centerpieces of the tables reflected his hobby. They also doubled as our dessert!)
And, as with any part of your past, you look fondly back on places where you felt a strong sense of belonging and support. But, it’s hard to convey that to most people who simply raise their eyebrows and judge based simply on the name of the school. So, going back “home,” in a sense, was so nice. It was nice to be back in that community of people who understand the strong connection we feel to Yale. It was nice to not have to justify our relationship with the school and the program, like we feel we have to do if Yale somehow comes up in conversations outside of New Haven. To not feel as if we will be perceived as hoity-toity or grandiose in just mentioning the name, but to feel that closeness of family again.
Chris and I talk about Yale often, but no more often than anyone mentions an important part of their lives or pasts. It comes up as naturally to us as when others say things like, “Back when I lived in Albuquerque…” or wherever. But because of the school that it is, I think people sometimes cast judgmental eyes our way when we mention it. As if we are rubbing their faces in it. But it’s not that at all. It’s just like talking about home or family to us because in our seven years at Yale, that’s what it became.
Not YALE the Ivy League institution, but Yale the place where we grew into adults, the place were we learned, the place where we started careers, marriage, and family. And for those reasons, Yale will always hold a special place in our hearts.
And what is Yale without Ben Sammler?
So, all of this is to say that we celebrated Ben Sammler this weekend, not as the incredible giant that he is in the theater world, not as a Chair of the Drama School at Yale University, or even as a professor. We celebrated Ben as a friend who has accomplished so much and has helped countless others accomplish even more. Our lives would look very different without him. Thanks, Ben. xoxo