Syracuse University Magazine


Leaving Home for College

By David S. Tomkinson

David TomkinsonIn early September 1963, my dad and I made the 900-mile drive from our home in Peoria, Illinois, to Syracuse University. I had never seen it. But I had heard many stories from my dad and mom, Earl ’36 and Floydine Carley Tomkinson ’30, who were proud alumni.

I was so excited! As the miles unfolded before us, I was filled with anticipation for a new life far from home. I was getting out of the dry flatland of central Illinois and into the hills and lakes of upstate New York. It was a dream come true, especially since I had loved playing high school football, and Ernie Davis ’62 was my hero. In fact, I had seen him play in the “infamous” 1961 game at South Bend, when Notre Dame won on a field goal with no time on the clock (later ruled illegal by the NCAA).

My acceptance at my parents’ alma mater allowed my dad to relive his college years through me. He was as excited as I was to return to what had been for him a refuge from his small upstate New York town and his father’s dead-end milling business. On my first trip to Syracuse we were joined as sons escaping home to enter a whole new life, a new universe—indeed, a university. The difference was that I had the loving support and pride of my dad. He had not. In fact, his dad didn’t trust college folk. 

In any case, this was a trip I will never forget—and one that explains why Syracuse is emblazoned on my soul. My dad and I talked as never before on that trip. I was filled with questions about his college experience, and he eagerly recalled that time in his life—the joy, the struggles, and his great pride and gratitude for Syracuse University. He said the University gave him a life and opportunity he never would have known without it.

Can you imagine my excitement—feeling the rare animation and life energy of my quiet, shy, studious father? The mystery of dad revealed. Neither of us knew how to express the feelings of connection we were weaving on that trip. I was entering into his old world, and he was entering into my new world.

I was 15 when I first witnessed this exuberance in my father. It was during the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1960, when undefeated Syracuse played Texas for the national championship. Dad and I had tracked their amazing season while I played freshman football in high school. We watched the game on our Sylvania black-and-white TV—and when Ernie Davis caught a pass and ran for the first touchdown, we both screamed. Mom thought a woodchuck had gotten into the house. 

When his unabashed excitement erupted while watching his beloved alma mater play, I joined him with unabated joy. Every son needs to feel his father’s passion. This is where I felt mine. It was about the University, yes, but it also represented a loving connection between father and son.

So, three and a half years later, there we were on our way to Syracuse—alone in the car for hours, passing through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. We stayed overnight at a motel near Erie, Pennsylvania, and arrived on campus the next day. I was so happy to see all the places my dad had spoken of from his college years. All the pictures I had seen of SU came alive. It was a wonderful orientation week for freshmen and parents. I was proud to wear my orange beanie with my father at my side (pictured above). I was walking where he had walked 30 years before. The pride I felt has never left me.

David Tomkinson ’67, a retired minister, resides in North Hampton, New Hampshire, where he and his wife, Irene, own Pathways to Personal Growth.