Description of the Class of 1956 Davenport Summer Fellowship

The Class of 1956 Davenport Summer Fellowships
(a. k. a. Davenport Fellowships):
Many Years of a Good Idea

By John W. Rindlaub

It was Tersh Boasberg’s Idea, and it turned out to be a big one. Back in 1983, when Tersh was our Class secretary, he proposed that we take a bit of money from our Class treasury and use it to fund a summer fellowship for a Davenport College junior. The purpose of the fellowship was to enable the student to do something he or she “deeply wants to do and would otherwise be unable to do” in the summer between his or her junior and senior years. Applications related to course work were discouraged. The idea was to do something for its own sake during what was apt to be the student’s last free summer for years to come.

The Program was a success from the start. The first year, we received more than 20 proposals, and we awarded the fellowship to Kit Schmeisser, who wanted to travel to England and Scotland and paint watercolors. Kit understood our purpose perfectly, pointing out that he loved painting but hadn’t had the time to pursue it in college, and he returned with an impressive portfolio of watercolors that he exhibited at our Class dinner in the fall. In 1987 we began awarding two fellowships; in 2000, we upped it to three. In the years since the program began, we still get more than 20 applications every year.

Many winning proposals have been delightfully self-indulgent: To visit English churches ringing change on the bells. To travel through Europe, learning from jugglers, fire-eaters, and other street performers. To study children’s theater in France. To study Andalusian music in Spain. To try to be an “improv” comedian in New York City. To study the cello instead of doing lab work in preparation for medical school. To hike the Pennine Way in England and Scotland.

Others have been remarkably altruistic: To help at a Vietnamese refugee camp. To teach art to autistic children in New Haven. To work with midwives in Guatemala. To study access to reproductive services for poor women. To visit mission hospitals in Zimbabwe by bicycle. To report on Bosnian refugees in Hungary. To write and illustrate a children’s book about how some seventh graders in Appalachia prevented the destruction of a mountain through strip mining. To return to one’s Cambodian immigrant community in Bridgeport and organize a summer program for young people.

We have received letters from several Davenport Fellowship winners describing the difference their summer made in their lives. One calls it “the most important learning experience I had in four years at Yale.” Another credits it with changing her career from medicine to music. But the recipients have not been the only beneficiaries of the program. Each year, at our Class dinner after the Princeton or Harvard game, that year’s fellowship winners make presentations about their summer experiences. These talks, slide shows, exhibitions, and performances have given us a first-hand feeling for the remarkable students attending Yale today and a chance to live vicariously through them.

I suspect that the people who have enjoyed the program most are those of us who read the proposals each year and meet to play God and pick the winners. These discussions are spirited in more ways than one, but before the evening is over, we manage to reach a consensus. Originally a committee of classmates from the New York City area made the choice. But after a few years, Tersh started Davenport Fellowship committees in Washington and Boston as well. (He may have felt that we needed help after we awarded a fellowship to go to Jamaica to study reggae.) On the face of it, this was a system designed not to work. All three committees read the same proposals and choose their favorites. Then the chairmen of the three committees negotiate. But surprisingly, in spite of the subjective nature of these judgments, we usually find that we have selected the same three or four proposals and can easily agree. The names of the classmates on the three selection committees are on another list in this section.

Let me end this piece by thanking all those who have made the Davenport Fellowship program such a success. The 500 or so applicants whose interesting proposals have made it so hard to decide on the winners, the many fellowship recipients who have put our money to such good use. The committee members who have had such a good time choosing them. The classmates whose Class dues have made the fellowships possible. And Tersh, who thought up the idea in the first place.