The Most Dangerous Game
You're a wounded deer, spilling precious blood in the snow. Your heart is pumping, nostrils flared, head spinning with fight-or-flight adrenalin. You've hopped fences and burrowed into underbrush, but you can't hide forever. They've got your number, your address, your occupation. The final showdown is nigh. You turn to face your hunters, a posse armed not with rifles, or even IRS audit forms, but an invitation to a Stanford tailgater party. They are the most diligent predators on earth -- your college alumni association.
Jenny Tate, B.S. leisure studies '92, strides into the Java City cafe in the Financial District. A blond woman in her 20s, Jenny has for the past three years served as president of the University of Oregon's Northern California alumni chapter. For our appointment, she appears to have shed her sportswoman's forest cammo fatigues for a white blouse, black suit, and sensible leather bag, which contains the alumni hunter's bible, a 3-inch-thick green binder labeled "Leader Handbook."
"It's got everything I need," she says, thumbing through the well-organized outline of attack.
The University of Oregon is but one of many colleges that claim alumni organizations in the Bay Area (locally, 415/905-4157), and certainly the only one with a mascot as noble as a duck. The Northern California chapter is the third-largest in the U.S., boasting 1,250 dues-paying members, which totals 15.9 percent of the potential pie -- a number Jenny and her fellow UofO shikaris hope to improve. With tuition ever on the rise, alumni dollars are more important than ever to America's colleges, and while Oregon can't compete financially with Ivy League schools in the sheer number of stinking rich people who die and leave them fortunes, it does make it worth your while. For a mere $35 in annual dues, you receive a crafty key chain that guarantees return postage if lost.
"You can have all the benefits of being a member; you can be totally informed on everything that's happening, and contribute to the university -- it's a good investment of $35," Jenny explains.
Four times a year the alumni committee directors meet, often for a dinner party at Jenny's, and plan out the next year's activities, from managing the scholarship program to manning a recruiting booth at high school college fairs and sponsoring the "Senior Send-Off Brunch" for incoming students. Jenny also finds time to fire off her chapter newsletter to a select mailing hot list, and is grateful the university's in-house alum program is more than supportive in tracking down strays.
"They have a data base of everything," says Jenny. "They do all of our mailings, they design all of our fliers."
Students are immediately hit up for alumni dues upon graduation, and those of us who steadfastly refuse to sign up are reminded of our alma mater at least twice a year with direct-mail solicitations. Much like the lures used by a champion sport hunter, small premiums are offered to the prospective alum. But instead of doe-in-estrus urine or antler scrapings, the UofO graduate is taunted with personalized address labels, short-term medical insurance, theme park discounts, and the aforementioned key chain. One false move, and you're up to your neck in copies of Oregon Quarterly, inexplicably scanning the lists of campus overachievers and dead faculty members.
Jenny's college memories in Eugene, Ore., are rich and full. "It's a great school," she remembers. "It's a beautiful campus. Really, just good people. Good teachers. The whole city rallies around the university."
In fact, the city rallies around students of every stripe, my deadbeat years notwithstanding. Back in the '80s while living in Eugene, I bounced a check to my landlord, who was also the president of a bank. I made sandwiches for the finicky, spoiled offspring of Long Beach orthodontists, and listened to Ken Kesey slurp a smoothie and ramble through a lecture on fiction writing to a classroom full of giggling Deadheads in yarn hats. But while I was cheating on food stamps, Jenny did a lot of philanthropy and community work with her Pi Beta Phi sorority.
Jenny and the rest of her chapter committee are not compensated by the university for their efforts. All their work is volunteer. But like a big-game hunter whose wall of trophies is never complete, alumni recruitment is an ongoing chore, burdened by the weight of reluctance.
"There's a lot of people who don't care," she admits. "I don't know if it's that people aren't really interested, I just think they don't know how to get involved. Some people aren't very good at volunteering, so you have to say, 'I think you'd be great at doing this, would you please take over this specific portion?' 'Oh yeah, great.' And then they'll get involved."
And like the sharpshooter who brings down a buck after waiting hours in the freezing wilderness, the hard work eventually pays off.
"It's a nice feeling to be at an event and know, God, all these people went to Oregon. When we went to the Rose Bowl [January 1995], going to this tailgater with, like, 15,000 people, it was just amazing to see this sea of green and gold. I don't know if I want to say it was the culmination of college, but it was great."