John Norton’s ‘58 first trip with Knox College was as a senior in 1958. In six and a half weeks, he traveled through eight European countries with the Knox College Choir (KCC). Their grand tour of Europe culminated in a performance at the Brussels World’s Fair.
“That was a truly major event, what got me started in the directions I went for the rest of my life,” Norton said.
Norton, who went on to serve as a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Army, stays connected to KCC and the people who made his Knox experience memorable through the Fifty Year Club (FYC). The club hosts regular trips, which take older alumni to museums and popular sites in Arizona, California, Michigan and Florida. Two weeks ago, Norton attended a lecture on Native American schools by Professor of Educational Studies Diana Beck in Mesa, Ariz. His favorite events are the ones that bring alumni back to campus, though, when he enjoys joining KCC onstage.
“There aren’t too many in my age group left that get up on the stage and sing but there are a lot of younger ones, many of whom I recognize,” Norton said.
Knox alumni Earnest Elmo Calkins and Edward Caldwell founded the FYC in 1943 as a resource for older alumni. Every time a class of Knox graduates reaches their 50th Reunion, they automatically become club members. Dues ($20 per calendar year or $200 for a lifetime membership) are voluntary and go toward the travel expenses and the biannual Fifty Year Club Bulletin. The publication includes alumni biographies, achievements and photos from each year’s 50th Reunion at Homecoming.
When the club was first established, events were usually held on campus, since alumni tended to remain in the Galesburg area. Associate Director of FYC Programs Megan Clayton said that after 1960, Knox alumni became more spread out across the globe. The FYC’s events have expanded in kind. Knox professors are often called in to speak on an interesting topic.
“You have no lack of choice,” Norton said. “Megan [Clayton] has seen to that.”
Over the past 10 years, Clayton has tried to emphasize lifelong learning in the club’s events. She especially enjoyed a 2014 trip to the historic mission at San Juan Capistrano, Calif., where Professor of Biology Jim Mountjoy delivered a lecture on swallows. The FYC’s travels have also taken its members to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif.
“We tend to have something that’s going to make us think or help us understand something,” FYC President Mary Lu Aft said.
FYC events are held anywhere there is a large enough group of alumni. Aft and her husband, Dick Lu Aft, both of whom graduated from Knox in 1960, have attended baseball games and talks at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center with FYC members in their hometown of Cincinnati.
“You share your life experiences with each other,” Aft said. “But knowing you have this common experience, even 50 years ago, gives you a comfort level to talk with each other and reconnect.”
The FYC also sends birthday cards to around 1,800 of its 3,200 members. Carolyn Swartz Park ‘55 addresses and handwrites each one. This is part of the club’s mission to maintain personal, long-lasting connections with alums. Clayton said the club is also there for those returning for their 60th or even 70th reunion. She said no matter where alumni are in their lives, it is always possible to make new connections as well as revive old ones.
“[FYC members] meet people who might’ve been in their class that they really didn’t have any connection with but they found that they have common ground now,” Clayton said.
This year, the FYC has planned a series of events to help celebrate its 75th anniversary. This spring, there will be a gala event at the home of Janet Greig Post, where the FYC held its first 50th Reunion in 1944. There will be a house tour, after which gathered alumni will recreate a photo from the first event. Clayton has also helped create a FYC booklet, and a slideshow of rare photos and display of artifacts for Homecoming. Owen Muelder ‘63 has given several talks on the history of the organization.
“It’s kind of been a year-long celebration,” Clayton said. “I wanted to plan it so we have a whole year of activities.”
Norton values the FYC because it gives older alums an opportunity to stay in touch with the campus socially and academically. He enjoys seeing all the positive changes Knox has made since he was a student. Aft believes it is vital that Knox keeps up with and celebrates its alumni, even those who have been away from school for 50 years or more.
“A college is what its alumni contribute to society,” Aft said. “The students own the campus for the four years that they’re there but, after they leave, it’s what they do that the college’s reputation is based on.”