College Park needs lesson from N.Y. on community

Michael Olesker

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SOMEWHERE IN another lifetime, my friend Ron Matz, the television newsman, attended his first class on his very first morning as a freshman at the University of Maryland's College Park campus. The course was held in an auditorium. There were roughly 500 kids in the room when Matz arrived.

"We must be in the wrong place," he said, turning to the stunned fellow next to him. "This seems to be some kind of a rally."

College Park has always prompted that kind of response. The place is too big, it's too far-flung. Were those classes they held, or cattle runs? When I went there, students tended to call the place The Factory. This was not intended as a compliment. It felt like conveyor-belt education. The administration didn't care about names. They gave you a student number. Mine was 054728. I still carry it in my head, like a scar that doesn't quite heal.

Everybody remembers the lecture they got at freshman orientation. The school president, Wilson Elkins, said, "Look at the student on your right. Look at the one on your left. Look carefully - because, by the end of this year, one of them won't be here."

It was the school's way of saying: There are too many of you here, and we intend to weed you out. There were classes known specifically as flunk-out courses. With 25,000 undergraduates, they had to do something. If they didn't flunk you, they just insulted you.

On my first day as a freshman, a political science professor named Jacobs looked out at about 800 of us gathered in an auditorium and said, "I'll be assigning seats. I know some people like to sit near the front of the room, but that's too bad. Of course, some of you like to sit near the front because of hearing or vision problems. If that's the case - well, that's too bad, too."

Why bring up such memories at a moment like this? Because after Monday's tornado in College Park and elsewhere, and the heart-wrenching deaths, and the damage to trees and buildings and cars, the University of Maryland's biggest campus is suddenly touching people's hearts the way it never did before.

And maybe there's a lesson in it - not only for the many thousands who went there, but for those who run the place or go to class there now. Out of tragedy, redemption can come. Up against the worst kind of trauma, the city of New York found its soul in its mountain of rubble and bone. So can the University of Maryland.

New York used to be known as a pretty heartless place. It wasn't just the pre-Giuliani crime and grime. It was a perceived attitude: It's your problem, buddy, not ours. At its most obnoxious around here, it was Yankee fans invading Oriole Park and rubbing our noses in it. Man, those guys are annoying.

But who knew that so much courage, and so much pluck, and so much inspiration to the whole country, could come from a place that produces such people? Out of New York's ashes, the country has rediscovered precincts of its own heart that had been beating strictly from memory. Out of New York, a nation grown fat and complacent and glutted on trivia and self-indulgence has rediscovered notions of patriotism and purpose.

College Park isn't New York. We aren't gathered around the TV set watching the troubles and the emotional outpouring on CNN every hour. They haven't held prayer vigils at Byrd Stadium - though it might not be a bad idea. And, thank goodness, the damage isn't the same.

But it's pretty bad. Two promising kids lost their lives when the twister grabbed their car and tossed it about. A 78-year-old volunteer firefighter died after spending several hours helping out.

There's an estimated $15 million in property damage that will take months to repair. Hundreds of trees that once lined the campus drives lie splintered on the ground. The Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute on campus was destroyed. A dozen buildings were damaged, scores of cars thrown about and mangled, windows blown out, roofs torn away, the steeple of a church was blown off. The $130 million performing arts center, scheduled to open this weekend, had its windows shattered but escaped what was first reported as far worse damage.

It's not New York's scale, or its intentional cruelty - but maybe a lesson can be learned from New York. Like New York, College Park is so big, and so sprawling, and it has so many students who commute from home, take their courses, and then head back out, that many of its students say it lacks a sense of community.

The administration has learned lessons in empathy since the days of Wilson Elkins. (Back then, you didn't graduate Maryland; you ducked under its flunk-out radar and escaped the place.) But even today, how touchy-feely does it get when there are more than 25,000 kids running around?

This is the time to bring them together - to give the place a sense of community. A vigil in the ballpark or the fieldhouse, a memorial for those who were killed and those who were hurt but survived.

This seems to be some kind of a rally, Ron Matz declared long ago. Indeed, it's time for College Park to rally itself - and discover its heart in the midst of the rubble.
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