Happy Birthday, John Newberry

Our time at Yale

Say what you will about Facebook, but it definitely makes birthdays more fun. Since my friend John Newberry died before Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, I am posting this to remember John on his big day..

John Newberry was born on October 29, 1948 in Springfield, MO. He liked to point out that the date was associated with Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929 when the stock market crashed, precipitating the Great Depression. His macabre sense of humor was his trademark. He passed away on June 5, 1990, survived by his wife Mary, son Ethan, and daughter Rosie. He left us way too soon.

Here’s a chronology of our time together in college.

58 Vanderbilt Hall

September, 1966

John moves into #58 Vanderbilt Hall on the Old Campus of Yale, where all freshmen are housed. I move into #59, across the hall. We are members of the Yale Class of 1970.

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We are both attending Yale with full scholarships provided by the United States Navy. We are sworn in as Midshipmen on September 14.

John is very quiet. He is a fish out of water. Our classmates are mostly from wealthy suburbs like Scarsdale, NY, Winnetka, IL, Shaker Heights, OH … bastions of wealth and privilege.  We’re intimidated by the pomp and circumstance surrounding us. Suddenly, we are two aliens on what is called the Old Campus, where all freshmen live.

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midshipmen

We are required to wear jackets and ties to meals. Anti-war sentiment is beginning to run high.  We both feel like aliens marching off to drill practice while everyone else is smoking dope and growing their hair long. No wonder we bond!

1967

John has to fill an language requirement, so takes introductory French which is painfully difficult for him. We all have our crosses to bear.

summer-of-love2

1967 is the Summer of Love, but I think we all knew that the Summer of Love would be followed by the Summer of Something Else.  While everyone else is railing against the Establishment, John and I spend the summer on our Navy “cruises,” otherwise known as active duty.

morse-college

Returning to New Haven in September, we move into our residential colleges, where we will live for the next three years. Morse College, named for the inventor of the telegraph and designed by renowned Finnish designer Eno Saarinen, is our home for the next 3 years.

Below is a glimpse of college life At Morse College. This is a Saturday, before a home football game at Yale Bowl. John’s date for the day is Ellen Snyder (red sweater), the sister of my future wife, Laura. Note the ubiquitous cigarettes and the prevalence of long hair, nearly unthinkable when we arrived on campus when girls were not allowed in dorm rooms. How quickly the barriers fell:

(These videos are primitive by today’s standards, so don’t feel compelled to watch in their entirety. They do provide a valuable glimpse into the tenor of the times.)

In March of 1969, John, Bill Peck, and I decide to make an epic road trip for spring break. Bill’s father insists we take his big hog Plymouth Fury and we set out for Springfield, MO and points beyond. Our plan (so well-thought-out) is that we will keep a journal to preserve our collective creativity and cleverness.

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I still have the journal and it is a testament only to our youth and self-aggrandizement.

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Here are sample entries. Read ’em and weep …

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And we made a float trip down the Gasconade River, which generated countless memories made epic by time.

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In Springfield we are introduced to the concept of “Dying Blackouts” which will later find expression on the Yale campus.

At some point, Bill wins John’s sister Stephanie in a poker game. He never collects, however. I wonder if there’s a statute of limitations?

John and I again go on our euphemistically described “summer cruises” with the US Navy, passing up the likes of Woodstock and the moon landing for, in my case, the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam. A fringe benefit of being sent to a war zone is that I purchase a Super-8 movie camera for cheap in anticipation for a film course I am planning to take senior year.

My principal activity in college is theater, something I had never tried in high school. I enjoy being part of the Morse Experimental Theatre (note pretentious spelling) and recruited my friends to join, John being one. Initially, he helps out backstage, but eventually, he ventures out into the limelight and acquits himself well.

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John as The Tippler in St. Exupery’s The Little Prince

Here he is in the role of The Tippler in an original stage adaptation of Antoine de St. Exupery’s The Little Prince. (Truth be told, we were all little princes at that time … tipplers, too.)

Here are a couple songs from the show. The dark-haired fellow at whom John is staring quizzically, is James Naughton, who went on to a very successful career in films and on Broadway.

Remember Dying Blackouts? That provided the inspiration for a video that I made for my film course. Dying blackouts are ordinary vignettes that end abruptly end with violent deaths. It is a Newberry family tradition which explains John’s dark side. Here is my crudely-made interpretation:

John and I were bonded by the fact that we were both in the Naval ROTC program during a period when we (and everyone else around us) was violently opposed to the war in Vietnam. After my experience in the summer of 1969, I resign from the program, which provides some short-term relief, but carries the risk of making me eligible for the dreaded draft. In hindsight I was a fool, but it turns out, a lucky fool.

From Wikipedia: On December 1, 1969, the Selective Service System of the United States conducted two lotteries to determine the order of call to military service in the Vietnam War for men born from 1944 to 1950. These lotteries occurred during “the draft”—a period of conscription, controlled by the President, from just before World War II to 1973.

My lottery # was, and forever is, 338, meaning I will not have to serve. I won my bet. John must have felt badly for himself, but he is genuinely happy for me. That’s the kind of guy he was!

Amidst the chaos, the Class of 1970 limps to the finish line. Kent State happens. The Black Panthers invade New Haven for the trial of Bobby Seale. Finals are cancelled. No one knew what will happen next. No one has a plan. John, however, is certain of one thing … he will be going into the Navy.


John survived the Navy and eventually went to law school and joined the same law firm as his father and brother. He met Mary, the love of his life, bought a house and even a pontoon boat, had a son and a daughter, and was truly happy. He was where he belonged.

Happy Birthday, John. You would have been a great Silverback, but instead you chose, in your own words “to live well, die young, and leave a good corpse.”

More of my memories of John are collected here:

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