Where They Are Now

Back to school

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Kem Edwards ’49, now starting his 15th y ear of auditing Yale College courses, studies in the Jonathan Edwards College library. View full image

Kem Edwards '49 calls himself "a perpetual sophomore." Since 1996, Edwards has audited 98 Yale courses—and read all 720 assigned books. For 13 years, the 82-year-old retired computer systems manager spent his semesters in a rented York Street apartment. Last year, he and his wife Phoebe sold their house in New Jersey and moved to New Haven full time.

Y: How did you come up with this idea?

E: I retired and thought I had all sorts of things to do. I found out I really didn't, except reading the New York Times every day. I harked back to a classmate of mine, Neil Lombardi, who's dead now, who'd come up here, oh gosh, 20 years ago, and spent a fall term taking courses. Neil talked about walking down York Street shuffling the leaves in the fall, book bag slung over his back, and what a marvelous experience it had been. So I thought, I'll try that. I started in the fall of 1996 with three courses. After the first term, I said, I'll take a second one. Two stretched into three, stretched into four, and every term I'd pick up the Blue Book [the Yale College course catalog] and look at all the courses that would be fun to take—usually about 20 to 25.

Y: Which courses have struck you as extraordinary?

E: One that I found a lot of afterglow with was [late history professor] Robin Winks's course on empire. It was very inspiring to reach out and see what's happened in all of the empires that were built up and fell apart over the last 400 to 500 years. Another was [political science professor] Ian Shapiro's course, The Moral Foundations of Politics. All my friends said, isn't that a paradox?

Y: What changes have you noticed since the 1940s?

E: The Blue Book was a lot smaller in those days; it is broad beyond comprehension today. And there are a lot of more specialized courses. I can remember taking a course in the Romantic poets, and now there's a course in each one of them. Another thing is that we used to have a single textbook; now there's a lot of additional readings. We didn't have Xerox packets of readings back then. Of course, we didn't have Xerox. And now the Xerox packets are gone and everything's online on a website. The best thing about this place is that we have this fantastic library. In my undergraduate days, I think we thought there was a library; I wasn't sure.

Y: You thought it was a church?

E: Well, yeah. I was more interested in the temple of sweat [Payne Whitney Gymnasium] than I was in the library.

Y: Were you an athlete?

E: I was on the swimming team. I was also in the Glee Club, and I sang with the Spizzwinks(?), and then senior year, with the Whiffs. And the intramurals and all that kind of stuff and, just, you know, college life.

Y: Are you a better student now?

E: I think I'm a more committed student.

Y: So can any alumnus audit classes?

E: I think it's the best-kept secret, that Yale has this available to alumni for $500 per course. I've met a number of other old graduates who do the same thing, but they don't do it the way I do. They come in two days a week from somewhere, sit in a lecture and read the books. They don't live the life.

Y: What does that mean, to "live the life?"

E: Up until my wife joined me, my usual practice was to go to classes, go over to the library, then go up to the gym in the afternoon, work out, sit in the sauna for a while, come back to the library, take a nap, and then maybe read for another hour or two and then go home.

Y: You took a nap in the library?

E: I did. Yes. Lots of people do. I used to particularly like the newspaper room, because it's sort of dark. And the chairs are comfortable, and there's always somebody else who's put their head on the table.

Y: How do undergraduates react to you?

E: They say, gee what are you doing here? I sometimes say that I'm making up for a misspent youth. Some truth to that: I was a "gentleman's C" scholar overall. But I had a wonderful experience at Yale, and if I didn't make Dean's List, I think I was imbued with the idea that education is a lifelong thing.

Y: I've been wanting to ask what your wife thinks of this scheme.

E: Last fall Phoebe took two courses, and then a couple more in the spring, and now she's hooked, too. 

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