My freshman year and the unorthodox roommate
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
Introduction to “The Shadow” Radio Program, 1937-1954
When I was a kid, I listened to radio mystery programs on Sunday afternoons. One character who impressed me then, and has stayed with me ever since, was the “wealthy young man about town” named Lamont Cranston. Like Clark Kent (Superman), he had another identity. He was The Shadow, a crime-fighter who had the “mysterious power to cloud men’s minds, so that they could not see him.”
Last month’s piece, My College Applications and the Dreaded Thin Envelope, left off with my announcement, “I’m going to Brown,” and our departure for summer camp jobs in upstate New York. When we returned to Claremont in late August, my sister, a recent Syracuse University graduate, told me, “You need the right clothes – khaki pants, button-down shirts, cardigan sweaters, penny loafers.”
We drove downtown to Heller’s clothing store on Pleasant Street. An hour later, we left, with me properly outfitted. Sam Heller knew just what I needed.
When my parents and I arrived at my freshman dormitory, my roommate wasn’t in the room, but his clothes were hanging in a walk-in closet that we would share. Baggy jeans, plaid woolen shirts, old-fashioned black shoes. Not “Ivy League.” Not even close.
After a while, Wilson Brown returned to the room, we shook hands, and that was the beginning of our year together. No two people could be less alike. He had no interest in baseball. He was tall, gangly, stoop-shouldered, wore horn-rimmed glasses, and looked like he needed a shave. When he spoke, he seemed to mumble. An “aw shucks” kind of guy.
“That’s the luck of the draw,” I must have thought to myself. Good luck, as it turned out.
Over the next nine months, I learned a lot from my roommate. The first lesson I remember had to do with the nameplates on the door to our room. I dutifully wrote my name on a piece of paper and slipped it into the slot. Everyone else did the same, but not my non-conformist roommate. He wrote down the name “Lamont Cranston” and put that in his slot on the door. My very own Shadow!
Wilson was neither wealthy nor a man about town, but he quickly became known throughout the Brown University campus as the “Shad.” That singular act made it clear that my roommate had a sense of humor and didn’t take himself too seriously.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize his other good qualities. He was very smart. He was intellectually way ahead of me but self-effacing to a fault. And he had wisdom beyond his years. When I got back to school after Christmas and told him my father had died, he instinctively knew what to do.
Wilson did very well in school, went on to earn a PhD, and became a professor of economics at the University of Winnipeg. He retired a few years ago, but his student evaluations are still available online. One student wrote, “He is the best teacher I have ever had … . He is next to God!”
I’m not sure I would go that far, but my appreciation of him has only increased over the years. Unlike the “real” Shadow, Wilson could not make himself invisible. Both his personality and his appearance, including the plaid shirts and baggy pants, made him highly visible, one of a kind. However, he did manage to be inscrutable. That fall he posted a sign in our room that said, “Promptness is the Price of Piety.”
I still haven’t figured out what that means.
Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner is the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.