“Uncle Frank,” the eighteen of us called him, all the way through high school and for years thereafter.
Not to his face, of course. The only time we actually met our benefactor, after they’d bussed the group of us down to New York City for a “getting to know you” lunch in his midtown office, he was either “Mr. Robertson” or “sir.” If he’d been wearing a ring and had held it out to us, I think most of us would have kissed it.
I know I would have.
We were a dozen and a half brainy teenagers, plucked out of public junior high schools around the country by the Robertson Scholars program and gifted with an education none of our parents could conceivably have afforded without Uncle Frank’s generous support: four years—all expenses paid, including tuition, room and board, airfare home for holidays and summers and even a modest monthly allowance—at the elite Bellman Patterson Hall in Durham, Connecticut. Bellman Patterson, cobbled together in 1924 from the all-boys Bellman School and the all-girls Patterson Hall, was one of the two or three best private prep schools in the country. Off the top of my head, I can name eleven Nobel laureates and six Oscar-winning actors and actresses who were Bell Patt grads—as were seven senators, two vice presidents, and four presidential offspring.
And, thanks to Frank Robertson’s benevolence, eighteen incoming freshman a year receive the benefit of a Bellman Patterson education, free of charge. I was one of the lucky members of the Robertson Scholars Class of 2004, as was Charlie Constantine, who I married in 2010, six years after graduation.
I grew up an only child in Parma Heights, Ohio, a blue-collar suburb of Cleveland. My parents—Mom a special-ed teacher at Parma Park Elementary, Dad a second-shift VPI operator at Swiger Coil—divorced when I was seven, and I shuttled back and forth between them until lucking into my Robertson scholarship. In contrast, Charlie spent his childhood in a classic nuclear family in Waterloo, Iowa, his folks happily married, with two older sisters to look out for him and a younger brother who worshipped him.
Which made it ironic, I guess, that I was the one who thrived in the Bellman environment, while Charlie couldn’t handle being ignored by the rich kids and flunked out midway through our freshman year. We didn’t know each other well in Durham—we Robertsons tended to hang out together, since we were pond scum compared to the scions of the wealthy who surrounded us and looked down their nose jobs at us, but Charlie and I just never clicked. He was into old movies and smoking pot—not necessarily in that order—and I was an ambitious bookworm, determined that, even though my clothes were shabbier than my classmates’, my grades would speak for me and I would someday be successful enough to travel in their hoity-toity circles on my own merits, not just thanks to Uncle Frank’s charity.
After Charlie left Durham and his parents stuck him in a military school back home, the rest of us never really talked about him, and no one stayed in touch with him. We were surprised when he showed up unannounced at our five-year class reunion in 2009, and stunned to see that he had apparently managed to straighten himself out—despite Woodward Academy, he told us, not because of it—and had recently graduated from the U of Iowa with a BA in English and Creative Writing and was working on a novel.
He and I connected at the reunion, squirreled ourselves off in a corner and talked about movies and books for hours—and, a year later, as I told you, we got married.
I had a terminal M.A. in European Literature from UConn, a decent job teaching world lit at Quinnipiac, and a modest one-bedroom apartment in New Haven, a four-minute walk from Frank Pepe’s, home of the best clams-and-garlic white pizza you ever ate, but I wasn’t planning on being a Bobcat forever. I was building my resume, aiming for an eventual Ph.D. and a tenured position at an R1—with all the prestige and financial security that would be a part of that package.
My apartment was cozy, and I liked it, but there was no way it was big enough for the two of us, let alone the family we hoped to start once Charlie finished his book and started bringing in a second income.