Neal Bandlow doesn't show up for lunch empty-handed.
When my former journalism professor at Morrisville Agricultural and Technical College arrives at the Copper Turret last week, he's got a box under his arm.
It's filled with memories.
"I have an envelope for every one of you that's kept in touch with me," Bandlow explains to the people around the table in the warm, cozy restaurant on the western edge of the Madison County village.
A few days prior, I'd received an email from Bandlow, who lives with his amazing wife Carol -- they married in 1971 after meeting as students at Michigan State -- in Oneida, just up the road from where he taught journalism students for 27 years before retiring in 1999. Mike Sorenson, class of 1974, was coming with a handful of friends and classmates to celebrate a birthday. Would I care to join?
Certainly. I was part of the class of 1977 at the two-year college that's part of the State University of New York system, so Sorenson and I were never in the program at the same time.
But that's the thing.
Thanks to Neal Bandlow, department head Jerry Leone, and fellow teachers that included Dan Reeder, Charlie Hammond, Joe Quinn, Ann Teitsworth and Lisa Boulanger during my two years, the Morrisville journalism experience stretched endlessly past those two years.
I knew Sorenson's name from the wayback. I laughingly call this phenomena the cult of journalism.
As we settled around the big table, Bandlow handed Sorenson and me cardboard-backed lists of every student we'd received our associate's degree with in our journalism class. The class of 1977 was 71 students strong. I still consider two of them, Mike Agostino and Greg TenEyck, among my closest friends in life.
To me, Bandlow also handed over a pamphlet. "The first advertisement for journalism," he said. The main picture featured the journalism lab, 25 freshmen wearing headphones, hunched over manual typewriters. There I was, in the center in the photo, looking forever young, that freshman who'd chosen the farmland of upstate New York instead of the congestion of Long Island. There Neal was, in the front of the class, eyes shining through his glasses as led the excercise. This one he wanted back for his box of memories, along with photos of me and him from the party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the journalism program in 1993 and his big retirement bash in 1999.
We laughed and carried on about the old days. Journalism teachers and students used their life stories -- and pitchers of beer -- in this very restaurant. But when I was one of those students, it was called the Towne House. Neal and I laugh at my memory of how the owner back then, Gene Keegan, opened the window from his living quarters above the bar to yell at us malingerers in the parking lot to go home.
We looked through the pictures he's saved from all the parties. There's Nancy Cardillo, still a friend from my class. There's Jimmy Johnson, still a friend from the class of 1978. There's Matt Amodeo, still a friend from the class of 1979, after which he moved south with fellow journalism graduate Steve Michaud -- still a friend -- and attended the University of Maryland, just like Ten Eyck, Agostino and myself had done two years prior. Hell, they lived in a rented house in Greenbelt, Md., as we started our professional careers and they went to college.
Bandlow knows all this well. His eyes shine when I tell him that Michaud is now a campus policeman at SUNY Potsdam and how both of his children have followed him into law enforcement.
And he laughs louder when he recalls how a certain math professor on campus back in the 1970s used to chide he and the journalism teachers that they'd never earn the respect of the students because they got too close to them.
Every Christmas, I receive a Christmas card from Neal, with funny hand-written comments gracing the card and even the outside of the envelope. Inside is a typed catch-up letter about he, Carol, their daughter Nicole and the grandkids.
I'm not much for holiday cards, but I do send him emails. That keeps me on the list.
Eleven years ago, he tells us at the table, he sent cards to 170 former students who'd kept in touch with him. Now the list is down to 80.
Life happens. It is 15 years since any names of his graduates were added to that list. In my class, there is one mark that Neal has placed that a classmate has passed away.
We shake our heads in sadness for Gary Izzo, who is also in that brochure photo with Bandlow and I.
Neal Bandlow is proud of each and every student he taught.
"With Syracuse and Colgate right here, with Buffalo pretty close, I used to worry that my two-year students wouldn't measure up. You didn't. You were better," he says, ticking off a long list of successful careers, and not just in journalism.
Well, of course. He and that loyal crew of teachers had taught us well in the classroom. And writing, interviewing and researching skills translate so well to so many pursuits. Besides, the most important lesson, perhaps, was the one they taught by example. It is important to find something you can be passionate about in your professional life.
And this journalism legacy continues, thanks to current department head Brian McDowell. McDowell walks into the restaurant an hour later than the rest of us because of teaching commitments. I know him very well. He started teaching at Morrisville in 1995, when Jerry Leone retired. He's sent dozens of students my way the past 19 years, filled with questions about being a professional journalist.
McDowell tells me how wonderful my daughter is. She works in Hamilton, at the orthopedic office where he goes.
I ask him who the college hired as the new journalism teacher in the past year.
That would be Butch Charles, a longtime Syracuse radio personality who's in the Syracuse Area Music Awards Hall of Fame. I know Butch well.
It's a small and interesting world, this cult of journalism.
"We have two bachelor's degrees now," McDowell says. "That puts the department in good shape for the next 50 years."
The planning already has begun for the party to celebrate the first 50. It's scheduled for July, 2017. Nancy Cardillo and Jimmy Johnson have already volunteered for the committee.
"I want 400 alumni there," Bandlow says.
So does Jerry Leone. He tells me from his home in North Carolina. Carol Bandlow had called him on her cell to share the happy lunchtime vibe that had stretched to three hours long.
Have you kept in touch with college teachers and classmates? Share your memories by commenting below.