When I walk past Lauinger Library these days, I think of Fr. Leonard Neale, S.J.
When Neale was president of Georgetown College from 1798 to 1806, his bedroom in Old South — the first building to grace the Hilltop — doubled as the campus library. Every night Neale would unfold his press bed in one of its 10 rooms, and every morning he would enclose the bed in its case once again so students could access the books stored along his walls.
Lauinger is, admittedly, an aesthetically imperfect library — but what an upgrade from Neale’s bedroom!
I began to understand the library in this way after conducting a research project on its history for a writing seminar last fall. The project transformed my relationship with Lauinger from one of indifference into one of awe, helping me understand the building as a representation of Georgetown University’s two-century evolution from an elite boarding school for Catholic boys into a modern university.
I experienced similar realizations across the Hilltop this year; exploring Georgetown’s history brought new richness and meaning to much of my college experience; I only wish I had learned earlier that history can so powerfully envelop us in meaning and ground us in shared purpose.
I think about history these days when I walk down 36th Street between N and O streets, where a Jewish Student Association house once stood. Established by Jewish student activists in 1972, the house hosted weekly Shabbat services and became a foundation for Georgetown’s Jewish community as it grew in size and strength in the years that followed.
It was the boundless love and determination of the students who inhabited the JSA house for four decades that built the vibrant Jewish community I am lucky enough to call my own today. They did so with the guidance of Rabbi Harold White, who served Georgetown for that entire time, and in the spirit of Archbishop John Carroll, S.J., who wrote in 1786 that this school would be “open to students of every religious profession.”
My gratitude became much deeper, and my experience as a Jewish Hoya incomparably richer, when I came to understand the importance of Carroll, White and the JSA House to my community by writing my senior thesis on the history of Jews at Georgetown. As I shed tears of joy at my last Georgetown Shabbat service two weeks ago, I did so in their debt.
My thesis on our Jewish community and research project on Lauinger Library were the most significant ways in which I explored Georgetown’s history this year, but there were so many other smaller experiences that also brought new meaning to my final year on the Hilltop.
Serving as the Georgetown University Student Association historian helped me understand Students of Georgetown, Inc. — which was born out of anti-war protests in 1971 as an independent legal entity capable of suing the university — as the inspiring result of an ambitious vision for student empowerment.
Speaking with alumni helped me understand The Tombs — which was founded in 1962 and run for decades by Richard McCooey (C ’52) — as one man’s life-long labor of love for Georgetown.
Even my house on the corner of 33rd and Prospect streets has developed new meaning, as I consider its construction in 1900 and the way that its residents over the last century have reflected the demographic and cultural transformation of the neighborhood around it. Looking back at history has made the spaces I inhabit come alive.
Looking forward, our shared history also becomes empowering. As students we are often tempted to think about Georgetown as if it only exists for the four years we are here, but history reminds us that it is a living institution, and that all of us who pass through its gates play a role in continuing or changing its traditions. We cannot acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of those who came before us without also understanding that we are the benefactors of those yet to come.
We must study the legacies of Leonard Neale, Harold White and Richard McCooey, along with many other histories yet to be told. I can attest that doing so this year has given me the gift of meaning and purpose, making me feel a part of a 229-year story.
Without an identity informed by our history, we are simply a school. But with it, we are Georgetown.
Ari Goldstein is a senior in the College.