TO CELEBRATE its homecoming, a college may line up a patsy of a visiting football team that will lose and bring great joy to alumni. Typically, the school will flank the game with rounds of parties and brunches.
The Naval Academy's homecoming will take place Oct. 21, with Rutgers the hoped-for victim. Tents and grills and coolers will surround Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, and there will be great, smoky smells and men and women decked out in all sorts of combinations of blue and gold.
St. John's College will stage its homecoming Friday through Sunday.
By their own admission, Johnnies, as they and their Annapolis neighbors call them, go about their homecoming just a little differently. They take their rounds of parties and brunches and wrap them around not a football game, but a program of seminars on such topics as Plato's "Phaedrus" or Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
The seminar, explained alumni director Roberta Gable, is at the heart of the learning process at St. John's. With the possible exception of croquet, there have been no intercollegiate sports at St. John's for generations.
Alumni will have to sign up for one of 12 seminars in advance. At St. John's, you can't do the old college thing of hiding behind a football player in the back of class while a professor (or, more likely, a graduate assistant) drones on up front. You will be expected - horrors! - to contribute, to show some evidence of thought and preparation.
"Regarding homecoming, I go just about every year," said Gilbert Renaut of Annapolis and the Class of 1968. "The college's alumni party just about as hard as any other college's, but organize homecoming around seminars, discussions of ideas provoked by good books, rather than football games.
"There is a soccer game on Saturday, but alumni play often rather than watch."
The seminars will include one by Eva Brann, a tutor - faculty member - at St. John's since 1957, who will lead a discussion of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."
The reunion luncheon Saturday, said Gable, will give alumni "a chance to laugh at gray hairs."
"The event that draws the biggest crowd normally is a cocktail party Saturday before a big ceremonial dinner," said Renaut. "There's usually a smaller informal beer and wine party on Friday night, too, and a champagne brunch Sunday.
"One of the more delicious homecoming experiences is discovering someone you admired in vain in your student days unexpectedly present and unaccountably friendlier as an adult."
Renaut added: "Plato's dialogue 'Symposium' is about a drinking party, which is what a symposium was, but drinking with conversation. And even the drinking parties at St. John's tend to keep drinking within conversational limits. Honest. Federal and state alcohol law and policy have changed things, of course, but in the old days even drinking was pretty close to 'curricular.'"
Gable is expecting about 450 alumni and family. Many will be local residents - "stroller-inners," she calls them.
Conventional wisdom has it that it takes a number of years (and a certain amount of income?) before alumni start returning to their schools. Not at St. John's.
"Recent alumni, those from the last five years, come in droves," Gable said. "Many come to see friends who are still currently at St. John's."
The college defines alumnus a bit differently, too. An alum, she said, can be someone who attended only one semester, rather than the full eight.
"It is presumed that people who do not graduate have left because they want to concentrate on another interest," Gable said. "Some of our most devoted alumni didn't graduate."
Alumni figure prominently in the festivities. Guitarists Steve Hancoff ('70) and Karla Manzur ('95) will perform. There will be an autograph party for seven authors who have been published recently. A "double-decker" party Saturday night in McDowell Hall will have alumni waltzing in the Great Hall or rocking 'n' rolling on the floor below.
"It's a delight," Gable said of homecoming weekend. "Working with alumni really is rollicking good fun."