Exactly one, two and three decades later, alumni reflect

by Amanda Cohen | 6/9/07 10:35pm

With members of the Class of 2007 wondering what their futures may hold after Sunday's Commencement ceremonies and their farewell to the College, they can find comfort in the tradition of success many of the College's alumni have had in a wide range of fields. Whether graduates have stayed close to the College or fled to the West coast, their experiences at Dartmouth have stayed with them and served them well.

Here, we highlight the varied accomplishments of Dartmouth alumni celebrating the 10th, 20th and 30th anniversaries of their graduation respectively.

Jay Lavender '97

Film major Jay Lavender '97, who co-wrote and co-produced the movie "The Break-Up," said his career plans began to take form after an exchange term at the University of California at San Diego, where he took his first writing course. Upon returning to the cold weather of Hanover, Lavender thought, "What way can I live somewhere warm and actually make a living with my writing?"

Before his term at UCSD, Lavender had taken to writing solely as a hobby.

"I was self-taught in many ways," Lavender said. "I started writing first outside the classes. It was something I'd always loved--to write -- and I started writing on the side, and that sort of came out of the isolation frankly."

Lavender waited until the very last minute to declare his major during his sophomore spring, "having no idea where it would lead, but knowing that I'd always love to read, I'd always love to write, and I'd always like movies," he said.

At a screenwriters conference he attended in lieu of his senior week, Lavender made connections that helped him to begin a career in Hollywood.

"That was pretty much my in," he said. "I basically had an agent kick me to an agent, kick me to an assistant and that assistant was my guardian angel and sort of set me on that path I've been on for the past 10 years."

With the help of the assistant he'd met at the conference, Lavender took his first job driving a television director for $50 per day before taking some time off to write.

"Anyone who I could introduce myself to, I gave them my scripts and tried to get them to read them," he said.

In 1998, Lavender took over as an assistant at the Creative Artist Agency, where he worked 12-hour days at the minimum wage for 16 months.

"Really what it was, it was my master's degree," Lavender said of the education he received working at the agency.

Lavender left the assistant job in 1999 and soon after sold his first script.

He began writing "The Break-Up" in 2002 and continued to work on the script until 2004.

Noting the "relentless drive" required by working in the film industry, Lavender remarked on the satisfaction gained from his career.

"There's the entertainment side of what I do, which I love, but there's got to be, 'How do we use media to both entertain and inspire, but also to influence and help make the world a better place?'" he said.

Lavender, who was a member of the Varsity Golf team his sophomore through senior years, said his best memories and most of what he has taken away from Dartmouth involve the relationships he built with his classmates. He acknowledged his passion and ability to risk-take as main factors to his success.

"What I would say to the Class of '07 is take the time and make the effort to stay in touch with your friends as everyone scatters around the globe, and if you find yourself in the next few years unhappy with your path, trust in yourself and go find a new one," he said. "Use your Dartmouth degree as a springboard and a safety net, but don't ever rely on it. Remember the excitement you felt when you got into Dartmouth? You've just been accepted now into the rest of your life -- go figure it out."

Gerry Russo '87

It took Gerry Russo '87 until after graduation to set foot in the woodshop. After moving to Norwich in 1995 to teach Italian at the College, Russo discovered his passion for woodworking while making furniture in the basement of the Hopkins Center for his new apartment.

"It was great to be in that shop, to learn these skills but to just be in this situation where students and faculty were equal," Russo said.

Russo's passion would develop into a career as a furniture shop owner. He described his experience in the woodshop as a "informal apprenticeship to furniture making."

After working for four years in the Italian department, Russo moved his family to Edmonton, Alberta, and took a hiatus from academia to build a career in woodworking.

"I thought, rather than live with regret and trying this later on in life, I'd take a risk, and I sold out my retirement savings and took that hit -- the federal tax hit -- and bought the equipment and went into business," he said. "It was a really different experience to any kind of academic pursuit, and I would say at times even more satisfying because you really can see results and work with your hands."

Russo said that while working as a professor at Dartmouth, he took advantage of many resources, including the woodshop.

"I got more out of Dartmouth as a teacher then I did as an undergraduate because I was just being more mature, more focused," Russo said. "You realize the beautiful area that it's situated in and can enjoy everything that there is in the Upper Valley and the experience can be much more eye-opening."

As an undergraduate, Russo was a member of Sigma Nu fraternity and a court jester for the Chamber Singers' Feast of Song. He worked as an Italian drill instructor and was a member of the Italian club. An English major, Russo continued his education, eventually earning a master's degree in Italian from Middlebury. He then studied applied linguistics in the context of the Italian Department at the University of Toronto before his 1995 return to Dartmouth.

Russo went back to teaching after closing his furniture shop in 2006.

"I realized I miss being in a classroom and interacting with people the way I do in a language classroom," Russo said.

Russo began teaching English as a second language in Canada and tries to integrate Dartmouth language teaching techniques into his methods.

"I think that the student body perhaps doesn't realize how amazing language instruction really is at Dartmouth," Russo said. "Having taught in many different schools and seen what's out there and the caliber of teaching staff, generally speaking, elsewhere -- it's really a gem. [It's] something that I'm trying to recreate in my own way in my own classrooms, trying to bring the enthusiasm to learning that is pretty much standard at Dartmouth but by no means is elsewhere."

Jeff McKee '77

Once the president of Phi Delta Alpha fraternity, businessman Jeff McKee '77 embodies the benefits of having a strong connection to the College.

After Dartmouth, McKee became a wholesaler/regional manager at the mutual fund investment management company Lord, Abbett & Co. after working for three years as a salesman for Xerox after college. After 25 years at Lord, Abbett & Co., McKee retired in 2005.

A history major, McKee said that when he was a student, he was unsure of how he would apply his major in the post-college world, but knew he was interested in sales.

"I think a lot of it was the history major forcing you to research, organize your thought and give thoughtful presentations," McKee said about his professional success.

McKee's father, Pierce McKee '51, his brother Jim McKee '82 and his daughter, Kimberly McKee '06 were history majors at Dartmouth as well.

McKee emphasized the importance of the people at Dartmouth in his social and professional success, noting that he was hired at Xerox by a Dartmouth alumnus.

"Your places are made by people, and the class of '77 -- not that it was that unique from others -- it was just made up of some wonderful people from all walks of life and have been very special friends through the years," McKee said.

At Dartmouth, McKee played football his freshman year and rugby his sophomore through senior years. He was also a member of Dragon Senior Society.

"It was the best four-year party I ever went to," McKee said, quoting a member of his fraternity.

Since retiring, McKee has been working to help raise money for Dartmouth. He serves on his class's reunion committee, which raised $2.5 million for this year's reunion.

He returned to campus in September 2005 for the dedication of the Corey Ford Rugby Clubhouse, towards the construction of which he had donated money to build.

McKee briefly went back to work last year for Foundation Source, a company which administers 425 foundations, but has since come back into retirement.

McKee said the crux of his success was his passion for his job, a piece of knowledge and experience he said he wished to pass to the Dartmouth graduating class.

"One of the keys to being successful in life is to be passionate about what you do for a living," McKee said. "If you have intelligence and you are motivated, if you have passion about whatever it is you're doing, generally you'll find yourself doing a very good to outstanding job and not to mention it makes life more enjoyable when you look forwards to work every Monday morning."

McKee said his greatest debt to Dartmouth lies in the people he met while at school.

"Does Dartmouth give you a better education than a Villanova or something like that? I'm not sure, but the people there, but the friendships and the contacts can really pay dividends down the road," he said. "It's the people that are the difference there at Dartmouth College, and I was fortunate to be one of them."