Oyster Boy Review 05  
  September 1996
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» Levee 67


The Full Story

Tom Schaller

Of course, I can't forget the first time I met Jefferson Wheat. It was the muggy summer of 1979, and I was assistant managing editor at the Washington Weekly. The "world's most important magazine," as we used to call it, had an open position for a national political reporter who would also serve as the rotating assignment writer substituting for journalists on vacation or otherwise indisposed. We needed someone bright enough to handle the possible complexity and variety of news coverage and spry enough to be bounced around to various locales on a moment's notice.

Like every summer, we had college interns in the office. Most came from Columbia or NYU, with an occasional staff member's niece or nephew from a less prestigious school thrown in for nepotistic flavor. I assigned this oleaginous pack to screen the applicants and pick the best eight. I would interview each finalist for a half hour, starting at eight in the morning, mull the choices over during the afternoon and pick one by dinnertime. There weren't the equal employment opportunity complications of today. I hired somebody and if the kid didn't work out, I reloaded the same way.

But as you might suspect, since I'm not the first person you've interviewed, with Wheat in the picture things never end up as planned. Named by his father after Thomas Jefferson, an ancestor of King Charlemagne, Wheat told the interns that he too was a descendant of the man who established the Roman Empire, a nugget they passed along. Like the loose-lipped journalists they hoped to someday be, the interns let spill that Wheat was their favorite. They scheduled him in the fifth interview slot, believing that too early and I might forget him, too late and I might be edgy.

In the interim I made a few calls. I'm no heir to the Roman Empire, but I am a proud product of Harvard University, the very same institution from which Mr. Wheat had claimed to have graduated in 1977, according to his breezy resume. I connected with the registrar's office, threw my name around a little, and finally got double confirmation that no Jefferson Wheat ever attended my alma mater. I ordered the interns to call Wheat immediately and withdraw his invitation for a second interview.

The interns huddled. A few minutes later one poor soul was dispatched to tell me they had voted to overrule me and invite Wheat anyway. "Very well," I announced across their pack of cubicles, their hair looking longer and bell bottoms baggier. "Mr. Wheat shall get a full hearing." I grumbled back to my office, turning over in my mind various designs about how to properly expose the charlatan who dared to expropriate the Harvard reputation. A week later, after two hours and four engaging but otherwise unimpressive interviews, I finally sat across from Thomas Jefferson's distant cousin and offered not so much as a hello.

"Let me not beat around the bush, Mr. Wheat, as I have it on good confidence that you never even attended Harvard, to say nothing of graduating. And please don't further insult me by suggesting that I have somehow made a factual error. Unless, of course, there is some other Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the existence of which I am presently unaware."

"I imagine," he replied, not a tremor in his voice, "that you refer to the mere technicality that I did not actually matriculate at Harvard, correct?"

Mere technicality? I asked myself, a thought too ridiculous to utter aloud. I had not considered fraud such a technical matter and took the bait.

"Why, yes, you imagine correctly," my last words for twenty minutes.

Wheat reached into his brief case and removed a stack of string-bound papers which were ruffled so as to make them fan out to several inches thicker than normal. They were curved up at the corners and worn a bit, as if left out in the rain and dried by the sun. On my desk he flopped this stack, a mass as grey and rumpled as the pinstripe suit he wore that day, come to think of it.

At my age, a man's memory is like his high school diploma or the twelve-piece socket set inherited from his father, a belonging as surely possessed as it is difficult to locate. But I remember Wheat's words as if a church hymnal repeated a thousand times. But for a word here or there, this is what he said.

Mr. Sutcliffe, I am a descendant of Charlemagne as you now know, but I was hardly raised a prince. My mother died when I was four, and in her last breath she whispered into my father's ear, "Read to Jefferson." My father, a house painter, could boast only as much scholarly background as a ninth grade education gets. But he could read, and he filled my head with books every night, his calloused, paint-splattered hands turning every page. Soon I could sustain my appetites without him.

I quit school when I was twelve because the routine of it became uninspiring. My father signed all sorts of paperwork swearing that I was being privately tutored toward a high school diploma in our home. Lies, all of them. Until I was sixteen he signed these papers with a religious devotion—and my father was a pious man, you should know. His god worked in contracts and soon enough we had a deal worked out from the start. In return for his continued complicity, he made me promise that I would go to college and finish. We shook on it.

My mother's death crippled my father as much financially as it did emotionally. And when the time came he could not afford to send me to a college that would challenge me, among which I rated but a few. Besides, I did not have a high school diploma, for nobody had tutored me or could verify that I had completed the degree requirements or class work. I never took a standardized exam. My father and I didn't bother the narrow-sighted school administrators with my predicament, as they were all too busy keeping their own kids out of trouble. I submitted no applications.

But I still had a deal to uphold. I packed my bags the summer of my seventeenth year and moved from Buffalo to Cambridge, intent to find a way into Harvard. When I arrived in Cambridge I discovered women. College women. Raised alone by my father, with mostly books as companions during my teen years, women had been an abstract concept, revealed like so many other ideas in stories. They were not flesh.

A peach-skinned co-ed caught my attention, and though her name escapes me it was through her, or the pursuit of her, that I came up with the idea of how to get my Harvard degree without paying a cent. I followed her to class that first week, an astronomy class, stole some notebooks from a student who had turned away momentarily, and filed in behind her. So many students were in the lecture hall that nobody noticed that I didn't raise my hand when the roll was read by the portly professor. I was handed a syllabus like everyone else, which told me when the class met, what books were assigned, when the tests were. I patched together the few dollars I had, bought the books or checked out earlier editions from the Cambridge public library—naturally, I didn't have a campus library card—and went to class so religiously my father would have beamed.

I waited tables at night and went to class during the day. I was more interested in anatomy than astronomy that fall, but between daydreams I soaked up the lectures. Books being my first true love, I read the texts voraciously, prepared to discuss any astronomical topic on the chance I might engage in conversation a particular celestial body that sat two rows ahead of me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. She eventually faded like a dying meteor into the arms of some pre-law snodgrass, but by then I had nearly finished the course. I took the final exam and filed it exactly where I had filed the mid-term exam—in the back of an accordion folder I kept at my apartment.

Two nights after the final, as if the planets themselves had moved into perfect alignment, the spheric astronomy professor sat alone at one of my tables at the small bistro where I worked. Recognizing my face, he asked how I thought I had done in his class. He said he noticed that I was intent during lectures, though he wasn't sure if I was actually paying attention to him. He was good natured, and I was feeling gamey myself that night. Clearing his table I told him the truth. He seemed surprised, yet not angered. Sensing opportunity, I asked him if he would grade my exams. That I had not only audited the class but also sat for the exams was all the warrant he needed. I took my break early, ran to my nearby flat to fetch the papers, and handed them to the professor as he dispatched with the last of his coffee.

A week later I received in the mail a note from the selfsame prof declaring that I had finished at the top of the class, with a near perfect grade on the two exams. I wrote back to ask him if he would certify on departmental stationery that I had met the requirements of the course, stating on it my grade: an "A." That very letter sits, though somewhat weathered, at the top of the pile you're holding, Mr. Sutcliffe. It was the first of forty such letters, each of which are in that stack, along with a master checklist of every course required for the successful completion of an A.B. in classics at Harvard University. But let me not cheat you of the full story, for I tell it only occasionally, and once underway there is no stopping me.

Thumbing through the stack I recognized the names of professors who were teaching at Harvard when I attended a decade and a half earlier. Not a peep broke my lips. Wheat had outpaced me in many of the courses: McDonagh's Rhetoric of Shakespeare, Sinclair's Politics of Social Movements, the impassable Differential Equations taught every spring by Mordecai Woo which Wheat elected to take—they were all in the pile, each signature bolder in stroke than the last. With his turned-up chin, Wheat began again in earnest.

I went home briefly for Christmas and told my father what happened. He agreed that if I could finish forty courses in a similar fashion, that I would be, more or less, a Harvard graduate, thereby satisfying my end of our bargain. I rushed back to Cambridge, worked double shifts over the holidays to earn some quick cash, and started the spring as the newest member of the Harvard freshman class. Determined to graduate with my incoming class, I decided I would audit six courses that spring. But which six?

I obtained a copy of the degree requirements. I then approached my astronomy professor, the only member so far on the Harvard faculty I knew, and told him my intentions. He declared himself an ally, and promised to privately ask a few colleagues if they would similarly allow me to freeload along with the regularly matriculated students. In addition to these classes, I simply looked at the times and availability of courses and sat in on as many that first week as possible. Some profs just didn't look amenable, and I "dropped" these courses. I took a chance by approaching some others, and enough reluctantly agreed. The accordion file of letters grew: Sociology, Calculus, Art History, Philosophy, Latin. I took six classes each term to my colleagues' five in order to catch up from that first semester.

By the end of my sophomore year, I had become a subject of regular discussion among a small but curious clique of the faculty. I could count many friends, even admirers, among them. But a commotion erupted when one professor who got wind of my scheme but did not know my identity took it upon himself to stop me. He notified the faculty senate. A memorandum was circulated, specifically warning the faculty about students auditing classes then seeking official certification of course completion. I'm caught, I thought.

The letter backfired. Upon learning of my mission many faculty found my crusade quixotic. Dozens wanted to meet me, and some went so far as to announce to the assembled students at the start of classes that I was "welcome here." The astronomer became my conduit, my adviser and my friend, screening offers by professors who were genuine from those acting in concert with the administration. The professors who knew my identity maintained my secrecy. There were no records to show they had taught me, of course, so their identities could not be determined either.

The student newspaper, learning of the squall that was squaring administrative circles, exacerbated matters by canonizing me as the "mystery student." Yet I was seen around campus by so many other students that, in more than one casual conversation, I was asked by a classmate who I thought the mystery student was. Several impostors with anatomical pursuits similar to mine that first semester falsely tried to lay claim to my title. They were quickly exposed as impostors of the impostor.

"If I had time to accept this award I wouldn't be accepting any awards." I attributed that quip to Wheat when I ascended the stage on his behalf to accept the various awards he won for his coverage of the hostage crisis. By then he'd already left the Weekly for Southeast Asia to conduct his extensive interviews with Pol Pot. I took the speeches seriously, committed to conveying the sentiments Wheat would have had he been there himself. And what better way than to borrow one of his favorite ploys? Wheat always said the key to a good story was leaving the reader with one good phrase, maybe not even a whole sentence, that will linger long after the paper has been discarded. Spend half of the time dedicated to a story on that one phrase, went Wheat's mantra. "Impostors of the impostor"—that's a line you can hang onto forever. Wheat paused momentarily to let me drink in that imposters-of-imposters line, then plunged ahead.

The administration did not fold. My cosmic conduit warned me that in the fall of my junior year campus security would be randomly checking student identification cards at classroom entrances in an attempt to flush me out. Dozens of legitimately matriculated undergraduates who forgot their identification or protested the encumbrance were rounded up for interrogation. By dumb luck I wasn't one of them. Well, this is Harvard University, and within a few days an uproar from students, faculty and the local chapter of the A.C.L.U. forced the administration's hand. It had embarrassed itself. Though a few continued to hunt privately, Harvard abdicated. They needed a tip to expose me, and no professor was forthcoming. There was no paper trail, and the administration knew better than to attempt to bully the faculty the way it had unsuccessfully tried to shake down the student body. The administration resigned itself to hoping that I would simply fade away.

I did. I wasn't interested in campus agitation, embarrassing the university or creating a stir. I just wanted to uphold my end of a deal struck with a fifty-five-year-old house painter with rough hands and a soft heart. My senior year came and went like a comet, and my last semester was the easiest. By then I was taking courses exclusively from professors with whom I had previously registered in my private university. It was smooth sailing through to graduation day in May 1977. At the ceremony, I put my name on an index card as every other student was instructed to, walked the platform, heard my name bellow out across the auditorium, and heartily shook the hand of Harvard's president.

This was the break the administration wanted. While simultaneously checking a list of every graduate expected to cross the stage that day, they discovered the name Jefferson Wheat was not on the list. I was arrested by a campus police officer as I descended from the stage. My index card was confiscated for evidence, and I was de-robed on my way to county jail. Within hours a battery of professors, ready to admit their complicity, got Bill Kunstler on the phone, and he promptly bailed me out. Kunstler never actually spoke to me, but when I came trotting out of my cell in the handcuffs he looked at me and laughed, his glasses bobbing precariously atop his wiry hair. With a handful of reporters hanging around the police station, Harvard quietly dropped the charges. I went home that night, grabbed my accordion file full of letters, and left for Buffalo the next day as the proudest graduate of the Harvard University class of 1977. The fact that no computer in the Harvard office of Alumni Affairs will spew my name from its database to certify such is, I submit, indeed a mere technicality.

I raised myself, went silently to the door and yelled to one of the interns who was pretending not to watch the activities through the plate glass windows of my fishbowl office. "Send the rest home," I told the intern, and promptly anointed Jefferson Wheat as the Weekly's newest staffer. Second only to proposing to my wife, it is the smartest decision I can publicly claim I have ever made. Be sure you put that line in your story. It's one you can hang onto for a long time.