northern Illinois university.

A Ghost’s Homecoming.

By: Chris Warren.

I was on vacation, rocketing west across Illinois on my motorcycle. The day’s mission was to pick up Illinois Route 2 in Rockford and take it down to Sterling. It’s a beautiful, scenic, twisty road that hugs the Rock River. I had not been that way in many years and was looking forward to revisiting a personal favorite. The weather was eighty-five degrees, sunny, no rain for three states in every direction. My motorcycle was compliant and smooth. Clipping down I-88 at at 75 miles per hour and 5800 RPM out of the engine, all systems were normal. My mood was as well tuned as the motorcycle below me.

My plans were firm until the moment I passed a sign on 88 near DeKalb, IL: “Northern Illinois University exit Annie Glidden Rd.” Successfully operating a motorcycle requires a very high awareness of one’s physical environment. A side effect of that is an awareness of oneself, a Zen-like intuition of soul & spirit you cannot get from driving a car. Whether they realize it or not, motorcyclists are also philosophers, When on a motorcycle no plan is ever “firm”. Something inside me said to take the exit. I listened to my inner voice.

Exiting north onto Annie Glidden Rd., the first thing I noticed was the road was a lot wider. There were many new businesses. The Bottle Store, a popular liquor store that was famous for displaying hundreds of confiscated fake IDs (some of which were hilariously bad), was now a CVS Pharmacy.

Mixed in with the new were familiar old sights: Dumpy student apartments, The Junction Diner, the Evans Fieldhouse. There were many new buildings, but I was startled by how much had not changed. They rearranged some of the parking lots, but 80% of the place was the same as it was back in the late 1980s. I didn’t intend to stop and walk around. I just wanted to do a quick drive-by and roll on to Rockford. Then that voice came back. I steered the motorcycle towards Reavis Hall, home base of the English Department. northern Illinois university homecoming

Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com
Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com

It’s very difficult to park legally at Northern Illinois University without a permit. I stopped my motorcycle in front of Reavis, cut the engine, and dropped the kickstand. It was summer; school was not in session and the Covid virus was keeping most of the staff at home, so I figured it didn’t matter. I dismounted the bike, removed my helmet, and for the first time in over three decades I was standing on the NIU campus.

The place had a familiar yet creepy vibe. Familiar because it was mostly the way I remember it. Creepy because other than the occasional jogger, there were no people around. Feeling like an undergraduate again, I walked up to Reavis Hall. The door was locked. I looked through the window. Everything was the same: The wooden doors on the rooms with stenciled numbers. The dated tile floor. This was the building where I had spent hundreds of hours studying, rejoicing in successes and lamenting struggles. It’s where professors like Dr. Garrab and Dr. Van Cromphout (both deceased now) impressed me with their knowledge. n

I felt like a benevolent spirit drifting undetected through Reavis Hall.

I wondered if Reavis 214 was still the undergraduate advising office. I spent many hours in RH214 talking to Dr. James Miller, the undergrad director in my time. He was responsible for shepherding us through our degree requirements and steering us around our own screw ups. About a year after I graduated, I sent Dr. Miller a lengthy thank you letter. I don’t know if he is still alive. If he is, he’d probably be in his 90s, or very close to it. Leaning on a bench outside the building, I took a few moments to reflect. That building was the setting for an important part of my life. I was grateful. northern Illinois university homecoming

After walking the area for a while, I was surprised that a guy in a motorcycle suit roaming around peeking in windows had not attracted any attention from the police. I guess I really was alone. During my exploration, I found one of the doors to Reavis Hall was unlocked! I could not believe it! It was as if fate had left the door unlocked just for me. I nervously stepped inside.  

northern Illinois university homecoming
Reavis Hall, Northern Illinois University, floor 2. Summer 2020. Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com

northern Illinois university homecoming

The building was like a time capsule. Except for a laser printer and some recycling bins in the hallway, everything was exactly as I remember. The only significant change was a wheelchair ramp and an elevator. Even the faculty directory, the old style kind with white plastic letters hand-placed into a black backing board, was there. I didn’t recognize a single name. The vending machines remained, upgraded over the years but in the same spot near the door. The building was well maintained. Very clean, no signs of neglect. There was an eerie quiet. I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the place. I didn’t see or hear anyone. I felt like a benevolent spirit drifting undetected through Reavis Hall.

Reavis Hall Room 214. Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com
Reavis Hall Room 214, Northern Illinois University, Summer 2020. Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com

I wanted to take my time and soak it all in, but keeping in mind my motorcycle was illegally parked and I was probably not supposed to be in the building, I felt hurried. I walked the entire length of the second floor until I came to Reavis 214. My question was answered. Not only is it still the undergraduate advising office, but it still had the same lettering in the window. At that point, I figured I had pushed my luck far enough and I better leave before I get into a situation that might require posting bail. northern Illinois university homecoming

I wasn’t done with my unplanned quest just yet. I pointed my motorcycle toward Grant Towers South dormitory, which was my “home” for two years. This area was desolate and empty too. Grant South gave mixed messages. It generally looked like it had not been used in a while, yet showed some signs of life such as a working vending machine and a clean but empty lobby. There were no unlocked doors but it was easy to see through the large windows. northern Illinois university homecoming

Grant Towers South entrance, Northern Illinois University, August 2020. Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com
Grant Towers South entrance, Northern Illinois University, Summer 2020. Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com
northern Illinois university homecoming.
Grant Towers South, Northern Illinois University, Summer 2020. Original photo ©2020 twentyfirstsummer.com

The best thing I got out of living in Grant South was my friendship with Jay. I met Jay on my very first day at NIU. We clicked immediately and have been close friends ever since. He lives in Arkansas now; I video called him so he could be a part of  this experience and see what Grant South is like now. We reminisced for quite a while about our younger lives there as I showed him as much as I could. Jay is more serious & thoughtful than he will admit. His insight was the last necessary element of my ad hoc journey of time and place. My conversation with him completed the circle. northern Illinois university homecoming 

The motorcycle pulled me down the entrance ramp to the tollway with the campus behind me no longer pulling back. As I left NIU for what will probably be the last time in my life, I felt a sense of satisfaction. I graduated in 1989 with a BA degree in English. No longer an aloof & immature student, I returned a generation later as a responsible, successful, functioning adult.

I grew and learned from my mistakes. I evolved into a better person because of my time at NIU. Perhaps unconsciously I felt I still had something to prove.  Maybe I needed to show the ghosts of NIU what had become of me? It seems now I am a something of a ghost myself. Like a wandering spirit who found a resolution I didn’t know I needed, I can finally let go and move on. This motorcycle philosopher took a thirty year detour and never made it to Rockford. northern Illinois university homecoming

2 thoughts on “A Ghost’s Homecoming.

    1. Most of my time has been devoted to my off grid radio blog. I enjoy doing both and will try to post here more than once or twice a year. I have plenty of ideas for articles, it’s just a matter of finding the time.

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