Alma Mater Memories
This time of year, high school seniors learn the results of their college admissions applications. The process is an increasingly difficult and emotionally trying experience, but from what I have seen, most everyone ends up in exactly the right place for them. And soon they will be looking forward, wondering what their college journey will be like for them.
I thought I might share one person's story, my own. For our 25th reunion, my classmates and I were asked to write an essay for the reunion book. My essay is below. I won't say my experience is in any way typical, but perhaps it will amuse and possibly inspire at least one young person to stay the course even if it gets rocky at first. (Please note that while some terms would not be used today, they have been retained for historical accuracy.)
Dartmouth 1980 Reunion Book Essay
Daniel M. FitzPatrick
It all started with a green 1973 Cadillac.
It was the Fall of 1976 and I remember watching my parents drive away in that car, heading home to Plattsburgh, New York and leaving me alone on the sidewalk behind the [Hopkins Center], not entirely sure what to do next. My brother had gone to Dartmouth (Class of ’71) and I had been on campus many times, but other than a handful of people I had met on my Freshman Trip, I didn’t know a soul. But I did know that I was at Dartmouth to become a world-class engineer. Or so I thought as I headed off to meet my new roommates in a “triple” room on the top floor of Russell Sage Hall.
Midway through the first quarter of freshman year I experienced a series of setbacks. In a single week, I learned that I was failing Math 5 (I got a grade of 54 on a test Professor Bogart described as “too easy” since the median class grade was a 92!); my grades in French 2 (why in the world had they put me in 2 instead of 1?) had gone from B- to D+; and Professor Epperson had singled me out in our small Freshman Seminar English class as the person “most likely to be disappointed” with the grade on our first writing assignment. It was like the academic equivalent of a triple whammy. Oh -- and I learned that the Dean of Freshmen was required to send a letter to my parents regarding the failing Math grade. All this, and it was only Wednesday!
At Thayer [the campus dining hall] that evening, I ran into a very attractive classmate and we sat down together for dinner. I told her my tale of woe, finishing with something to the effect that college certainly was turning out to be more challenging than high school. She responded – innocently and quire sincerely – “Really? I thought it was much harder at Exeter.” At that point the week really was a complete failure.
In the end I managed to turn things around before the end of that quarter, but I quickly realized that the world would be better off (and potentially safer) if I dropped my plans to become an engineer. So I became a Government major instead, though I vowed that I was not going to follow my father, brother, uncle and cousin into a legal career.
At various times and for various reasons, I have said that there are certain things I would never do in my life. These included: going to law school; practicing corporate law in New York City; commuting by train from the suburbs; living in Greenwich, CT; driving a Suburban; and – especially – never, ever working for an investment bank. Well, there’s an old saying that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. Most everything I have said I would not do, I have in fact done. So I now tend to avoid the term “never.”
At the suggestion/insistence of a hometown teacher, I applied (sight-unseen) and was admitted to Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, TN. I owe a lot to that decision – not only did I receive an excellent graduate education, but I also met my wife, Helen, at Vanderbilt. Odd that I had to go all the way to Tennessee to meet a girl from (Greenwich) Connecticut.
After Vandy, I joined Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York as an associate attorney, spending days, nights and weekends serving the needs of major corporations in the whirlwind days of the late 1980s. Helen and I were married in Greenwich in the summer of 1985 (fellow ‘80s Dan LaChance and Mike Dula served as groomsmen) and bought a house in Darien, CT in 1987 just before the market crash. Our daughters, Whitney (1990) and Caroline (1992), and son John (1995) were all born while we lived in Darien, and Helen continued to advance in her marketing career, ultimately serving as president and co-owner of Reach Marketing, Inc. in Westport, CT. In 1992, I left the practice of law to join JP Morgan’s private banking business. Though I had not specialized in trust and estate matters at Davis Polk, I ultimately ended up running Morgan’s personal trust and estate administration business globally, and in 2000 was recruited by Goldman, Sachs & Co. to build a personal trust business for that firm from scratch. I now serve as president and chief executive officer of The Goldman Sachs Trust Company, N.A., a national bank limited to fiduciary activities.
In the midst of all this, Helen and I managed to survive the process of building a new house in Greenwich, where we have been living since 1996. Our house is just down the street from the house where Helen grew up, and where her parents live to this day. My mother still lives in Plattsburgh (my father passed away in 1988) and each summer we all pile into our trusty Yukon (Suburban equivalent) to visit her up in the North Country. It’s been terrific to have our children grow up knowing their grandparents so well, and Helen and I have been very fortunate to have taken a number of amazing trips abroad with her parents and siblings.
And the 1973 Cadillac? Sadly, the green one is long gone. But this past April, I purchased (to Helen’s great dismay) a white Eldorado convertible of the same year. At 19 feet long it barely fits in the garage, and I’d rather not talk about the gas mileage, but it brings back some great memories. It’s not likely I’ll fix all the leaks and wobbles (or re-paint it green) in time to bring it to our reunion, but I am looking forward to being back in Hanover with the rest of my family to celebrate – and celebrate with – the terrific Class of 1980.
That essay was written 17 years ago. The white Eldorado convertible is gone now, sadly, the victim of a large tree falling on it in a freak storm in 2009. After Goldman, I ran Citigroup's global trust business for some time, which was a great experience. After Citi, I tried my hand with the entrepreneurial life, starting a de novo wealth management business with some friends, then ran a regional wealth management team for BNY Mellon and the private banking business for Webster Bank. In 2017, I started my own firm advising individuals and family offices on matters involving trusts and estates (the young people will likely have no idea what that is). Our children are grown and successfully launched on their own careers. Helen and I still live in the house we built, with two beautiful Australian Shepherd dogs. Life is good.
The moral of all this for the young people anticipating the start of college in the fall? Be very excited. Life is an adventure. Be careful about placing unnecessary limitations or requirements on your future. Remain open to the possibilities and opportunities life may present you with. Don't get discouraged by the setbacks you will inevitably face -- quite often, they are life's little reminders and suggestions of pathways that might lead to a better consequence than you could ever imagine on your own.
There is an old saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." I particularly like Mark Twain's version: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." Let that sink in for a moment. How wonderfully exciting is that thought? To me, it means that the possibilities for our lives are not limited to what we could ever see, foresee or imagine. There is absolutely zero chance that I could have imagined, much less predicted, where life would take me. In fact, if I had insisted on following the "nevers" I mention above, I would have had a very different life indeed; one I have to believe would not have been nearly as happy and fulfilling as the one I have been privileged to enjoy. Even as I write that, I can hear God chuckling!
And the Cadillac? Well, you know that I could not leave that loss unaddressed. Two years ago I bought (again, to Helen's dismay) a white 1970 Eldorado coupe. Two inches shorter than the 1973 convertible, I still barely fits in our garage. I love it.