Southwestern Alumni and the Peach Tattoo
by Josh Franco
October 19, 2018
October 19, 2018
I share the tattoo pictured above with Meagan Elliott, Ashlee Andrews, Travis Jeffords, and Ben Johnson. We got these in spring of 2007, when we were graduating, and none of us has been compelled to find a removal service since. It’s that rare college impulse decision nobody regrets. Why we chose to go ahead with a collective tattoo is pretty basic: we love each other. Why a peach? We’ll get there.
What first really brought us together was a humid corner of Herman Brown Hall. It was prone to possums, and the planters out front were ludicrously painted. I hope these facts remain. The cul-de-sac of dorms was called Green Hall then, which I think is no longer the case. To live there, you had to demonstrate active commitment to advancing the campus’s greenness. Enter Ben Johnson. Ben was president of S.E.A.K., led outdoor excursions for the school, and introduced me to Chacos (Ben continues to have pro deals with many Chaco-like companies). Perhaps the greatest mark he left on Southwestern was his leadership in advocating for the president to sign the Talloires Declaration. This agreement, established in 1990 in Talloires, France, commits the signatory colleges and universities to being global leaders in sustainability efforts. We all care about the environment, but Ben was (and is) the Captain Planet to us humans. Currently, Ben is the lead for the National Recreation Special-Uses Program at the U.S. Forest Service. This means he safeguards and activates the places in our nation where people meet our preserved landscapes and natural environments. I cannot imagine a more suitable person for this staggering job. Go to a park. Thank Ben. His job also means I get to see him in D.C. on a fairly regular basis, where we plot improvements to our country and FaceTime our friend family over good meals. In those moments, it’s like we never left The Cove.
Roommates are an integral part of the college experience, so let’s talk about Ben’s roommate in our Green Hall year. Let’s talk about Travis Jeffords.
I could talk to Travis for days on end and not lose interest. As we regularly continue to note in our decade-old text thread, Travis is fascinating. This is probably because he is himself fascinated by everything. “Whoaaaaa!” is still the sound that comes to mind when I picture my friend’s face. Resting Blown-Away Face (RBF). I sometimes wonder if Travis has spent so much time and focus on becoming a shimmering musician that he didn’t catch on to too many other things growing up. He is a freaking musical lion. Among my top three memories of college are the times that I was installing an exhibition in the Sarofim art gallery and Travis would emerge from the rehearsal rooms to join me with his cello. I hammered and leveled while Travis made his instrument sing for us. (Musicians, take note: the acoustics are real good in there.) In the sound was a lifetime of practice and passion. I wonder if he’s been so committed to his craft for so long that his moments of discovery outside of music are spread out over his lifetime at further intervals than the rest of ours. So you’ll forgive him his RBF.
But still, we are forever curious about daily life with adult Travis, which is something only his wife can shed light on. She’s a peach, too.
I call her ‘Shlee Man. It’s like “‘Shlee, maaan”—like if Matthew McConaughey is greeting Drew Barrymore (yes, my opinion of us is high). Y’all would love that movie. And anyway, Ashlee Andrews is not one to shy away from a good gender scramble. With hero professors like Elaine Craddock, Shannon Winnubst, Dave Stuart, and Alejandro de Acosta, we spent hours and hours in the RAC (Religious Activities Center) together. Before, during, and after class time, we basically solved every existential conundrum generated by systems of gender, religion, and “society” itself. Y’all welcome. Ashlee is an academic par excellence, which has been clear from day one. But not, like, in the pretentious way (that’s probably more me, the art historian). Knowledge, for Ashlee, is the key to the floodgate that, when opened, unleashes a biblical flood. It washes away the most despicable power dynamics operating in our world. For Ashlee, there is not a hair’s breadth between Knowledge and Love. I thank goddesses, gods, God, and the ineffable imminence that she is on the path she was always surely meant for, now a hero professor herself. Currently, she is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She lives there with Travis and their daughter, Roxie. Against all expectations, Roxie was unfortunately not born with a peach tattoo. As one of us, though, she is of course beyond perfect in every other way.
And then there is Meg! Meagan Elliott taught us how to be cool. She had done everything college in high school it seemed. We floated in her wake, pretending to be just as preternaturally chill. Meg faces threatening dramas head on and cuts ‘em off at the pass. Looking back, I think Meg was our protector against taking easy paths. College friendships are so often premised on the ease of being together in an incredibly privileged environment. It’s an environment that makes interpersonal frictions easy to ignore: one can just move on to the next party, the next clique. Meg was having none of this. Pushing us, as a family, through hard moments was a major factor in why our attachments to one another endure. Now, as a parent and a civil servant, her superpowers benefit little man Levi and the city of Detroit, where she is chiefs parks planner. Of course Meg is boss of public and shared spaces in one of our country’s most distressed urban areas. (Here, Meg is shouting at me through the screen to stop propagating the flat image of Detroit as damaged.) Like I said, Meg does not avoid a challenge, and she does not back down. She is a warrior guardian for the places left where we can come together on level ground, no matter where we are coming from. Be under no delusion that parks are neutral. Meg is having none of that.
Finally, there’s me. My work in the world revolves around legacy and collective memory, which is probably why I’m the one writing. I am the national collector at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which means I work with our country’s great artists to preserve their material legacies and to document their stories in oral histories. It is as dreamy as it sounds. I made it here because of Southwestern. Because of Kim Smith’s lectures and office time, and her rigor and high expectations, and for being my first and most enduring model of what a serious art historian is and does. Because of Thomas Noble Howe and how he opened up the vastest swaths of history before us and made us feel like we had the capacity to enter them without getting lost. Because of David Gaines, bottomless well of enthusiasm and intellect and wordplay and humor. Because of Rebecca Sheller, Paideia professor with the expansive mind who ended up presiding over a majority of peaches entirely by chance, but we all know it was fated, and it was perfect. Because of all of our professors, the heart of the school, the flippers of pancakes at midnight during finals week (as I become an adult, I only appreciate this gesture more and more). Give them gifts every day. Give them your most shining attention. Southwestern faculty, I describe you in this passage meant to describe me because as a scholar, you remain my brightest guiding stars. All the peaches feel this way. We will never not bring you up when we gather.
Southwestern faculty, I describe you in this passage meant to describe me because as a scholar, you remain my brightest guiding stars.
So why a peach? Simple. After Green Hall, throughout the next few years, different configurations of us lived in a house on Main Street that was painted peach. That’s all. It’s less about peaches than it is about the hours of anxious studying, languid TV watching, and raucous dancing that took place there. Oh, the dancing. There are probably around 57 other people who, in my mind, are also inked. They danced with us whenever the message spread: “Party at the Peach House!” They’re the other vital parts of that scene long gone, the celebrities of our world. You know who you are. Now we all have jobs, babies, lives dispersed. But whether in ink or in spirit, we will always have our tattoos.