“Over the Hill and Still Climbing”

7 February 2024
By Paul Schmelzer

At 90, alumni Bill Buffett and Kenneth Fisher look back 68 years after Carleton.

Bill Buffett ’55 and Ken Fisher ’55 struck up a friendship in 1951, their first year at Carleton. Their lives have taken them in different directions since. Buffett attended Harvard, Yale, and Boston University and held a range of jobs, including high school teacher, taxi driver, and, finally landing the “perfect” role, director of the Fenwood Inn at Boston’s Mass Mental Health Center. He’s authored seven self-published books, including Foods You Will Enjoy (2008), a history of the grocery store his family founded in Omaha in 1869. As a Rhodes Scholar, Fisher earned his master’s in chemistry at Oxford before attending MIT to study industrial management and Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his medical degree. Now based in Los Angeles, he’s in the finishing stages of writing a book about sleep, his longtime medical speciality. Having lost touch over the years, it was Carleton reunions that sparked the pair to rekindle their friendship. The duo recently met up online to share their views of Carleton and what it taught them from the vantage point of age 90.

Ken Fisher in 1955

“We got paint brushes and went into the freshman men’s dormitory and painted the toilet seats with shellac. Wasn’t that a friendly thing to do?” – Ken Fisher ’55

How did you come to attend Carleton?

Bill: My parents went to a meeting at our high school where the principal told them I should go to Carleton. I’d never heard of Carleton—but I applied and got in. There was never a campus visit or a backup school. Spending four years at Carleton was one of the best things that ever happened in my life.

Ken: I had also never heard of Carleton, but my high school chemistry teacher said he knew it had a terrific chemistry department. I applied to Harvard, Washington U in St. Louis as a backup, and Carleton. Don Klinefelter in the Carleton admissions department wrote the most warm and friendly letters I’ve ever received, from anyone. His letters, more than anything, were responsible for my going there. I felt so welcome. It was just a great feeling, especially in contrast with Harvard, who basically said, “We’ll call you; don’t call us.” It was my great pleasure later when I applied to the business school at Harvard and MIT, and they both allowed me in, and I was able to do this to Harvard [thumbs nose comically].

What are some memories from your Carleton years?

Bill: I have a vague recollection that there were maids who came in and changed our sheets and made our bed every day.

Ken: Not daily. I think they came in weekly.

Bill: We’d better not mention that because today’s students may get some wild ideas that will bring nothing but discomfort to the administration. I also remember that when we had our meals, they were down in Burton and we were served by waiters with white coats.

Ken: That’s a big loss, when they stopped doing that, in my view. I remember as a freshman sitting at a table that included seniors and others; it was not pure freshmen. The discussions we had at that table were really stimulating—so much so that we all realized we were holding up the waiter. We all felt guilty that we were keeping him, but he said, “Don’t worry about it. I love listening to you!”

Bill: I remember when we had to guard the homecoming fire. Once we had the wood in place, some of us had to stay up all night watching, because students from St. Olaf would try to light it. On the afternoon of homecoming, a car pulled up and some Oles got out and handed us a log. “You have protected the bonfire,” they said, “and we present this as a peace offering.” We were almost in tears, so touched by their generosity. But when we carried the log over to the fire, we noticed a little piece of paper sticking out. Somebody pulled the bark back and here was a fire bomb set to go off when everybody would be eating. I still have a picture of what we did after that: we took the Ole students and shaved their heads.

Ken: I might’ve gotten into my own mischief as well. One time a friend and I found ourselves on Manitou Heights. We got paint brushes and went into the freshman men’s dormitory and painted the toilet seats with shellac. Wasn’t that a friendly thing to do?

Bill: I’m going to tell the college what you did, Ken.

Ken: Tell them my name is Bill Buffett.

What are some of the lessons you learned here?

Bill: During the fall of junior year, the football team had an unbeaten record and the final game would be against Ripon, which had a very poor team. I was CSA president and the afternoon before the last home game, I ran into the dean of the faculty, Frank Kille. “If we win next weekend, we will have an unbeaten season,” I said. “If that happens, can we take a day off of school?” He said, “I’ve been anticipating that request, and I think it’s a bad idea. Why celebrate something positive, an unbeaten season, by doing something negative, canceling classes for a day? That’s what other schools do, and can’t we at Carleton come up with something different? Next spring, when we announce the Phi Beta Kappa, should we cancel a baseball game?” That’s the best example of Carleton logic I’ve ever heard in my life.

What is your advice for Carls today?

Ken: For God’s sake, find something you enjoy doing. There will be tough times, whatever your career is, and if you basically know you’re doing something that feels right to you, you can put up with an awful lot of aggravation. But if you’re not at all sure that that’s what you want to do, your life is going to be a lot harder, emotionally.

You’re both authors. Why do you write?

Bill: One of my inspirations is a great-grandfather. He was 24 when he arrived in Nebraska and started to carve out 160 acres under the Homestead Act. I’m so curious about him. Why did he leave Kentucky? Why did he settle on the south side of the Republican River? How did he make it through the first winter? These are all questions I’ll never know the answers to. So part of my motivation in writing is to leave for my people who come behind me some idea of who I was and where they came from.

Bill Buffett in 1955

“There are just things that happen to your life that you’re tremendously grateful for. And Carleton and time spent on my grandmother’s farm are two of those for me.” – Bill Buffett ’55

Ken: Bill, I hope you’ve read [Willa Cather’s] My Ántonia.

Bill: I have, and I’ll tell you, there’s a phrase in there that I want on my tombstone—although I’ll never actually have a tombstone. Jim Burden is narrating his story about growing up on the plains with this little girl, Ántonia. He meets her when she’s grown and has children of her own, and among his descriptions of her was “she was a rich mine of life.” To me, that’s a beautiful, beautiful term. And the other thing I want on my tombstone comes from another Willa Cather book, Death Comes for the Archbishop. The Archbishop is sick, and some acolyte is standing at his bedside. The Archbishop looks up and says, “I shall not die of a cold. I shall die from having lived.” Those two quotes, wow, they’re beautiful.

Ken: I was thinking that Ántonia’s family represents what your great-grandfather did.

Bill: Absolutely. I’m both full of Carleton and full of Nebraska, specifically Red Cloud, Nebraska [Cather’s hometown], and life on my grandmother’s farm, where I spent every summer of my boyhood. There are just things that happen to your life that you’re tremendously grateful for. And Carleton and time spent on my grandmother’s farm are two of those for me.

One of the legacies of the class of 1955 is the Jacques Lipchitz sculpture The Reader (1918) that’s on view in the Athenaeum at the library. You donated it?

Ken: We did. I think we raised eight thousand dollars. We sent Tom Zuck ’55 and Barbara Hanscom [Graham] ’55 from Philadelphia to visit the artist in New York. They said they wanted to buy a gift on behalf of our class, and Lipchitz replied, “I don’t normally sell anything at this price, but I guess I could let you have this one,” and he showed them a sculpture about 15 inches high. Last time I visited, the librarian told us that that statue is now the most valuable piece of art on the campus.

The college website states that what sets Carleton apart is “unmatched teaching in a close-knit community where intellectual curiosity leads to a lifetime of exploration.” At 90, it seems that statement still rings true for you both, from your career journeys to quoting Willa Cather to writing books of your own.

Ken: I think that statement really captures it.

Bill: I’ve just joined the board at the Metropolitan Opera. So I like to say I’m over the hill and still climbing.

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