Have you ever been married at sunrise, under weeping willows, by Johnson Pond, with two flutists playing Handel’s Water Music, by a religion professor who did not believe in Jesus as the Christ? Well, we have.
It was April 19, 1968, at Colby. I was the 21-year-old groom and Sara Orton the 19-year-old bride. Our professor, Gustave Todrank, agreed to marry us when none of our parents thought it was a good idea. My parents—bless their souls—fiercely resisted. Sara and I have remained happily together for 43 years and still counting. It still amazes us to look at a photo of students standing as witnesses in the chill of that early morning.
Being a college student in the Northeast in 1968 was to live in a time of transition. We read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life, and William Whyte’s The Organization Man. We listened to the Young Rascals and Steppenwolf (“Born to be Wild”). The country was embroiled in civil rights marches and protests against the Vietnam War that grew in intensity in the following years.
And there were other transitions taking place in the classroom.
Sara and I had taken the introductory religion course, a lecture class for more than 100 students in Lovejoy 100, taught by Professor Todrank. Tall, lanky, and conservatively dressed, Todrank easily could have been mistaken for Ichabod Crane. Because of his formal demeanor and bald head, we thought he was old, but he probably was only in his forties.
On the podium, his somber manner was replaced by a pacing personality of charisma, thoughtfulness, and humor. He taught his students, mostly Protestants interspersed with Catholics and Jews and maybe a few Muslims, that Jesus was not Christ. He told us that Jesus lived and died as a Jew and never made the claim of being the only son of God or the only Christ. It was Jesus’s followers, Todrank explained, that gave him the singular identity. It was pretty serious stuff to be teaching captive undergraduates. But Todrank always was respectful of his students and never pushed us to believe what he believed. We liked him.
Sara and I had decided to be married quickly. We knew my observant Jewish parents would put up a fight, and Sara’s sufficiently Presbyterian parents would be less than enthused to have their teenage daughter carted off to who knows where by an unknown college guy with no job prospects and no clue as to what they, a newly married couple, would do. Memories are sketchy, but what I remember is that we made an appointment with Professor Todrank.
He listened calmly to us, two students asking him to marry them in a few days at sunrise by the pond. He asked how we would write our ceremony, and we answered that we would draw from Eastern and Western religions and include some spiritual discourse as well. He must have asked about our parents, but it was not a significant part of the discussion. Finally he smiled and told us that we would make a good couple, or something like that, and agreed to officiate. He did not know us particularly well, and considerations that might cause a faculty member to hesitate—such as parents complaining to the administration—were of no concern to him.