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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Scott Johnston

St. Martin's Press


Milton’s Walk

MILTON STRAUSS WALKED WITH PURPOSE. His daily stroll had become something of a personal tradition, and it was good to see life back in the campus.

Things had been quiet over the summer, save for Model UN delegates and high school kids attending summer school programs. Parents assumed these programs increased their kids’ chances of admission. They didn’t, but the revenue was welcome, particularly during the fallow months. It was all about resource utilization. Sure, Devon had a $28 billion endowment, shy only of Harvard’s, but there were always new demands on the school treasury, and Milton, like a Renaissance king, had to receive the myriad constituencies who sought to make a claim. The work agreed with him.

In any event, the bustle of the school year was back.

“Milt!” a student cried from across College Street. Milton smiled and waved.

“Hey, Milt!” another yelled. Milton smiled again, not the least bit discouraging of the implied familiarity. He was their friend, one of them, accessible. Social media, which often documented his comings and goings, said as much. There was even a Twitter account called @FakeUncleMiltie that tweeted witty observations about campus life. He didn’t know who was behind the account, but this pleased him all the more. A secret admirer. He discreetly checked his Twitter feed several times a day: @FakeUncleMiltie was up to three thousand followers. It was a little edgy sometimes, but that was okay.

He passed through a beautifully ornate stone archway. The college campus, Milton thought, was man’s perfect place, a walled garden where beauty and youth came together in pursuit of the truth. Devon was surely its most splendid example.

This pleasant thought foundered as he passed the imposing Pailey Art & Architecture Center, a building always demanding to be noticed. The brutalist architecture fad that had once swept the intellectual precincts had left almost no campus untouched, and Devon was no exception. The building’s Stalinist slabs of rectilinear concrete, set here among Gothic and Georgian masterpieces, assaulted the eye. Naturally, that was the point. “The Pailey” caused a sensation in the early sixties when it was built, as did many other buildings that today offend all but the most slavish preservationists. The interior was more awkward still, with more levels than floors and oddly jutting mezzanines—a layout that seemed to intentionally thwart one’s ability to get from A to B. The concrete was cold and would sweat in the warmer months, giving off a dank, musty smell no countermeasures could ever fix. It was an angry, perspiring fortress.

What of it, then? Campuses were nothing if not places of experimentation, places to provoke the status quo. In the sixties, eye-pleasing aesthetics took a backseat to establishing one’s modernity bona fides. Milton was too young to remember much about the sixties, but he imagined them with fondness. If ever the status quo needed to be jolted from its somnolence, it was the 1960s. At least Devon had one of the first and better examples of brutalism. The Pailey was a tad less hideous than, say, Georgetown’s library or that new(ish) wing of the Boston Public Library. Was that Philip Johnson? Hmm, best to keep his opinion to himself. There were some things the president of Devon University simply couldn’t say. Actually, a lot of things, but Milton didn’t dwell on it.

Not today.

Today was the day after Labor Day, back-to-school day, and the campus teemed with tanned students arriving with their equally excited parents. Milton made a point of walking toward the vast East Quad, where the first-years were housed. On the road outside, dozens of SUVs disgorged wide-eyed young men and women. Milton knew the parents, many of them, had spent over a million dollars getting their children to that curb, and goodbyes would not be quick. He remembered arriving at this same curb, decades ago, but his trip had been by train and then a taxi, a steamer trunk lugged the whole way. That’s just how it was then. Safe travels, Son.

He stopped and helped one family wrestle a huge duffel out of a Volvo, getting it as far as the curb. The delighted parents, realizing who their benefactor was, asked for a selfie with Milton and their daughter. He knew that was coming, just as he knew the picture would get posted to Facebook. It would probably say something like “So fortunate Milton Strauss was able to help us carry all of Susie’s stuff!”

Milton cherished these interactions, the acknowledgment that he, Milton Strauss, son of a tailor—a Jew!—was president of Devon University. Well, perhaps the Jewish part wasn’t that remarkable anymore in this former WASP redoubt, but still. He imagined the figure he cut, the confident stride of a Man of Importance.

“Milt!” another student cried, prompting another wave. Walking on, Milton saw the future site of the two new residential houses. He swelled with pride thinking about what would surely be his signature achievement. No brutalist ruminations for new buildings on his watch, no. Designed by the renowned architect Soren O. Pedersen, these would be soaring, neotraditional Gothic monuments to academia, and—dare he think it?—to Milton Strauss. Teacher, leader, master builder: Robert Moses in academic robes.

Land had been cleared and the contractors were all but ready to break ground. The project would allow Devon to increase its enrollment by 15 percent, which would increase the projected admission rate from 5.2 percent to 6. This would allow room for additional first-gens and students of color. Foster Jennison, billionaire member of the class of ’62, was pledging the first $250 million toward the projected $550 million cost. Milton Strauss, master builder, and Jennison, investment titan, didn’t always agree on everything—Jennison had some distinctly dated ideas—but he was always at the ready for his beloved alma mater with seldom a string attached. In a remarkable display of donor temperance, he even spared the school from having to accept his intellectually tepid second grandson—the one with 1300 SATs. Yes, Jennison was a man Milton could work with. The other grandson—he was still here, wasn’t he? Milton couldn’t quite remember the boy’s name. He must get D’Arcy to double-check on the boy’s status.

Feeling a renewed sense of vigor, Milton crossed Bingham Plaza and approached Stockbridge Hall, where he and other top administrators kept offices. Oddly, a small knot of protesters were outside the entrance. It was early in the year for that sort of thing, but having spent the last several decades at Devon, Milton was more than used to it. He even had sympathy for most of the causes, having himself slept several nights in a shantytown that progressive students had constructed back during the dark days of apartheid. That had been right here, in the stone expanse of Bingham Plaza. What could they be protesting today? No doubt something well-intentioned.

The protesters spotted Milton and instantly became animated. “Hey, Milton! Divest from Israel now! Stop the murder!” cried one. “Divest now! Divest now!” Their homemade signs thrust up and down like pistons.

Milton smiled and walked over. “It’s great to see everyone. Really great.” He began shaking hands, much to the bewilderment of the protesters, who didn’t know what to do other than shake back. “Keep up the good work, and welcome back to school!”

Then, Milton Strauss, seventeenth president of Devon University, turned and disappeared inside Stockbridge Hall.

Copyright © 2019 by Scott Johnston