I was stunned to pick up the paper last week and read about the death of Eugene Vacher. Stunned, but not particularly surprised as Gene was, after all, just a month shy of his 101st birthday. He was, to my knowledge, San Diego State’s oldest living alumnus.
What made his death so shocking, I think, was remembering the last time I saw him. It was at homecoming almost a year ago. Gene attended the War Memorial Ceremony (he was a veteran) and then the Golden Aztecs luncheon afterwards. I’ll never forget how, at the luncheon, Gene went around the room introducing himself and swapping smiles and stories with everyone. He was the life of the party.
While most at the luncheon shared with Gene the common bond of being San Diego State graduates, he was unique in that he was the only one who had attended most of his college classes at San Diego State’s previous location, the former Normal School. It was only in his senior year that Gene and his classmates moved to Montezuma Mesa. His class of 1931 was the very first to graduate at the university’s current location.
Gene well remembered his time as a student on the old campus and the excitement of moving to the new one. He boasted of being a second generation student with his mother having attended the old Normal School and graduating sometime around 1904, as he recalled.
With Gene’s passing, we have lost the last direct link to the class of 1931 and its Normal School past. He was the last survivor of that vanguard class to serve as a living witness as the new campus completed its transformation into our present. Everything on The Mesa now, he was here before. It is astounding to think that in the course of his lifetime this campus evolved from a rural landscape of brush-covered hills when he was a student into the top-flight urban university it is today.
That might be why Gene was so proud to be an Aztec. “I take pride in being a graduate of San Diego State,” he would tell anyone who would ask about his background. Just one year ago during the month of his centennial birthday celebration, he became a lifetime member of the SDSU Alumni Association. Maybe it was his birthday present to himself – an everlasting connection to a campus he and his classmates had helped establish.
In any event, the final bridge to the original graduating class at our campus is now gone. But while Gene’s death represents a break with that part of our past, his lifelong connection to and pride in San Diego State offer us a paradigm in our present and optimism for our future.