Great figures from all walks of life have made the journey to the remote university campus

The longer I live in Alfred, the more I’m reminded that the village also harbors a more-or-less permanent body of residents who, though not native to the place, had the good fortune, or good sense, to grow into it. I am, of course, one of them, an outsider who many years ago became an incomer.

I first arrived, in 1950, as a student at Alfred University, and what struck me immediately as I settled in was an overriding sense of isolation. I recall one or two television sets on campus, a few pay phones in the village. Obviously, the electronic devices that for good or ill now control our lives lay far in the future. I had found myself in a rural hinterland whose main link to the outside world was the Erie Railroad. The school, in short, was a self-contained universe. It was an institution of the book, where intellectual life centered on classroom and library.

For me, a city boy from Brooklyn, New York, Alfred's remoteness had only added to its attraction. Yet it was also a liability, in that the wider civilization that existed far from college lecture halls had to be imported in the guise of artists and musicians, authors and speakers.

Laurie McFadden, Alfred University archivist, tells me that it was always thus. From the university's founding, in 1857, by a group of breakaway Baptist adherents who observed the Sabbath on Saturday, this reaching out beyond our valley was a core component of campus life. The Seventh Day Baptists were a reformist sect. They decried slavery; they were leaders in promoting higher education and voting rights for women.

Throughout the 19th-century, the people who came to Alfred to lecture and meet with students and village residents reflected the historic liberalism of school and church. They also captured the scope of the country's national character.

Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist and author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” spoke at Alfred, as did the social reformer and former slave Frederick Douglass and the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Susan B. Anthony, tireless campaigner for women's suffrage, was another visitor. So, too, was that American original, Horace Greeley, anti-corruption activist, agitator for settlement of the West, crusading editor of The New York Tribune.

For all of them, Alfred was a wilderness outpost. Most would have made the journey from New York City aboard the old Erie from the line's eastern terminus, at Hoboken, on the Jersey side of the Hudson River. They faced an interminable 330-mile crawl with local stops first at Paterson and Port Jervis, then on westward across the flatlands and river valleys of southern New York to Binghamton, Elmira, Corning and Hornell, alighting finally at the brick-and-hipped-roofed depot signposted Baker's Bridge (now Alfred Station), a couple of miles from Alfred Center.

In my time as a student, however, the cultural imports I best recollect were not the speakers but the itinerant classical musicians who, like a band of gypsies, wandered from campus to campus to cobble together the meager concert fees that in aggregate made up a living wage.

Two whose recitals I particularly remember attending were the pianist Philippe Entremont and the Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia.

Tall and slim, barely out of his teens, Entremont was beginning a brilliant career that in time would take him to the conductorship of the Denver Symphony and of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. For his Alfred appearance, he displayed the virtuoso pyrotechnics of what, even at that young age, had become his signature repertoire, works by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

Segovia was cut from a different cloth. For one thing, he was a big man, almost too big for the delicacy of the instrument he cradled. Like Entremont, he performed at Alfred in Alumni Hall, the handsome Greek-revival building — today it houses administrative offices — that, in the 1950s, served as the university auditorium.

But where the piano is a percussive instrument that fills a concert hall with sound, not so the unamplified guitar. It demands from its audience total silence. I remember that early in Segovia's recital, a late-arriving student strode down the aisle. He wore heavy boots. Alumni Hall was an antique. It's then century-old floorboards bent and creaked under the student's weight.

Segovia stopped playing. He glared at the intruder, who, abashed, scurried to a seat. A ripple of laughter spread through the hall. When quiet at last was restored, the maestro picked up where he had left off and finished his performance.

I left Alfred in 1953, returning 15 years later to take up an administrative post in public relations. In the next few decades — from the 1970s and '80s and into the first half of the '90s — the university mounted an ambitious program of attracting authors, poets and political and government figures to give public lectures and to read from their works.

To name but a few, they ranged from the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban and former U.S. spy-agency chief William Colby to anthropologist Loren Eisley. Also appearing were the poets Stephen Spender and Alfred alumnus Marvin Bell.

The list additionally included at least one Pulitzer Prize winner, Galway Kinnell — a poet who once had taught at Alfred — and a pair of renowned poets who eventually would be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney.

Two vignettes of that era come vividly to mind. One evokes Heaney's visit, marred by an incident that nearly wrecked his reading. The other recalls the appearance by Spender, a vague, quirky traveler who had little or no idea of where in the United States Alfred University actually was. Like Heaney, Spender came to lecture and read in the mid-1980s. He died in 1995. Heaney died in 2013.

Heaney, the son of a cattle dealer, was a stocky, broad-shouldered Irishman. He had a lovely speaking voice, a rich confection of unmistakable Irish cadences and baritone Celtic lilt. The night he read from his poetry, he was close to being incapacitated by a raging toothache. Yet despite obvious distress, he carried on in reasonably good voice and spirits with one hand clasped to the side of his jaw.

A few years later, I happened to be working as a freelance in Dublin reporting on travel for a string of American newspapers. At the end of my stay in the Irish capital, the government's tourism agency arranged for me to meet and interview the great poet at a hotel off Grafton Street, the city's main shopping thoroughfare.

“I've heard you read,” I said as we shook hands.

“Now where would that be?” Heaney remarked.

“Upstate New York — place called Alfred.”

His face stretched in a grin.

“Ah,” he said. “The tooth!”

Spender, on the other hand, was everything Heaney was not. A gangling Englishman with a narrow, bony face, he was a poet, novelist and essayist who, in the years after the First World War, had been part of a coterie of British aesthetes and intellectuals whose most famous members were the authors Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey.

The Alfred University impresario responsible for bringing Spender and other visiting writers to campus was Benjamin Howard, a noted poet in his own right and then professor of English.

I recall being invited by Howard to a dinner he gave for Spender at a local restaurant. Lacking what for a London literary man would normally have been the refinement of that city’s cuisine, the poet gingerly ran his eyes across a menu whose standard offerings ran the gamut of prime rib and Friday fish fry. He was nonplussed; he had no idea what or how to order.

With the waitress hovering, Spender pointed to Howard, his host and minder, and said, “I'll have whatever he's having.” Earlier, he had been overheard telling a friend on the telephone that, though he could not be absolutely certain, he thought he could identify “somewhere in Pennsylvania” as the strip of U.S. territory where he was calling from.

On the day of his reading, a student was produced to lead the poet on a tour of campus art studios. There was an expectation, or perhaps a hope, that a walk-through would excite the visitor's creative interest. Alas, it did not. As I later heard the story, the student at one point turned to his clearly bored charge and — alluding to Spender's appearance at Alfred—asked bluntly: “Why are you doing this?”

Our guest was no less blunt. “Money, dear boy,” he replied. “Money.”


Alfred resident Alan Littell is former travel editor of The Sunday Spectator.