Put the nutria in Willamette's pantheon. The little come and go rodent legends sit next to Blitz and Barney the Bearcat. Boots the Duck is in there, too. The Star Trees stand sentinel and the Mill Stream runs through. Even Dolly Parton has a place. The pantheon's pride of place and seat, however, lies empty. The man who vanished from it left hardly even a trace in modern Willamette memory. Perhaps that is because he never existed.
Even in the height of his fame, basic details surrounding Tufton Beamish ('61) were foggy. Students pieced together his legacy like a family trying to recreate a dead relative's recipe. Giving it their best go, the writers of the Fall 2010 issue of an old magazine called "The Scene" said "So far as we can tell—and we write this with the understanding that we will probably be corrected—Beamish '61 was the brainchild of a group of fraternity men in the late 1950s."
Almost immediately, Beamish was a child to make any parent proud. He'd done a year at Oxford and played better than anyone on his old team. What did he play? No one knows. His GPA was just below 4.0. Beamish excelled at everything he did, probably because he was a ploy by one fraternity to get the others to spend a lot of time and resources on recruiting the perfect student. He never seemed to show up at any events though.
It was a different time. Willamette's red brick buildings matched the big crimson cadillacs going down State, blaring Elvis and Chuck Berry. For alumni like Mike Durrell ('64), Chapel attendance was mandatory. Durrell said a student like Beamish was highly desirable, but suspension wasn't out of the question when the chaplain was regularly predicting a scene from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
"Beamish?" the chaplain called over the pews, looking for a face he didn't know that he'd ever seen. "Beamish? Beamish?"
How his name ended up on the roll call, no one seems to know. It was like he was becoming real.
He was even physically manifest. Durrell described his first year in Baxter, seeing a table in the commons stacked with Tufton's subscriptions to various magazines. Part of it was a way to hack subscription plans with a fake name. Another part of it was that Tufton ordered "Playboy" for everyone so that no one else had to. How nice of him
Despite being a standup guy, Beamish fell by the wayside in college. Professors received no answers when they called his name in class. Clubs waited for the person on their register to show. According to some, Tufton was probably out skating. The recipe for a legend was gaining its ingredients.
This legend grew to a point where a couple of women set out to do what many generations of Willamette students have tried to do since: to find Tufton Beamish. Durrell described the old dating practice of fussing. Essentially, it was Tinder in a newspaper. Beamish had a popular profile. Dating was hard enough then—Durrell said the dean of women cracked down on men and women so much as sitting on the same picnic blanket. The most popular student on campus gave the dean no trouble. In fact, he kept a few spots next to women empty as they waited for a love that never came, that never even was.
It was a cruel thing. Beamish might have been a lesson for many that the world didn't contain all the good things they thought it did. He was an early kick in the head to youthful optimism. Some good things were apparently only figments of imagination.
Not just one imagination, however. Put a couple imaginations together and what they dream up is something more. This is how you make a Willamette legend. Add a couple whispers heard on the stairs of Eaton, something about that guy who might get expelled. Add some talk at chapel about someone who's probably out skating. Stir in a stack of Playboys. Sprinkle in a love for this place and the time spent in it, for being unabashedly young and dumb. Cover in some wonder and willingness to believe.
It isn't ready as is though. The legend of Tufton Beamish is like bread—you have to let it rise. At this point in the story, he's just barely begun.
Stay tuned for Part II.