On a fall Thursday in 1845, the Rev. George Albion Calhoun climbed to the pulpit of the Church of Christ in North Coventry, Conn., to commemorate the church’s centennial.
He was a comfortable figure to those gathered, their pastor of more than a quarter-century, and the athleticism of his youth had given way to a middle age of frequent infirmity. Despite his formidable mind and his often-remarked “commanding presence,” there would be no bombast in the remarks Calhoun had prepared for the ceremony; indeed, across the nearly two hours that he recounted the church’s history and the many theological upheavals of early 19th-century America, his tone was one of humility and humor, of tender regard for his small but loyal congregation.
At the time of his ordination in 1819 — just five years removed from Hamilton, where by a quirk of the alphabet he had been the fledgling College’s first graduate — Calhoun ministered to a church of 142 souls. In the intervening 26 years the church had added just 24 members, and now Calhoun gently lamented “its obscure place in history” and the fact that “no considerable ingathering of souls into the kingdom of Christ ha[d] been allotted” during his ministry. But he also gave thanks for “a parish never rent asunder by contending sects, or greatly agitated by internal commotions” — although, he wryly conceded, at one point “the harmony between the pastor and the singers was disturbed by the introduction of a new style of music.”
It was just two days before his 57th birthday, and following the centennial his church would begin the most ambitious mission in its quiet century of life: As the Second Congregational Church of Coventry, it would undertake the construction of a new house of worship — one that still stands along the Boston Turnpike — at a dizzying cost of $3,700. Calhoun, then, must have had the odd sense that day of looking both back at his own past and ahead at an uncertain future, and it led him, just after his introductory remarks, to a gentle reverie on the continuity of family:
… Who does not manifest a regard and reverence for his ancestry? We love to gaze at the portraits of our parents, refer to their precepts, tell of their deeds, and speak of their virtues…. And we love to trace up the line of our descent, contemplate the circumstances, characters, and acts of our progenitors, until it is lost in the obscurity of the past.
No matter their fame or fortune, Calhoun concluded, “they are our ancestors; as such we respect and revere them, and are interested in what relates to them.” It was a quiet rhetorical flourish, one nearly lost in the very “obscurity of the past” that he mourned. But 166 years later, on the Hill that Calhoun briefly called home, his words echo in a deep and dramatic way.
On a January day this year, with the house to herself and a bit of free time, Jody Clark Jones turned to a favorite hobby — or perhaps passion was a better word, and her family might even teasingly call it an obsession: tracing another branch of the family tree. She’d been doing amateur genealogy for more than three decades, first as a young woman in Maine, and then in St. Louis, where she’d graduated from Washington University and had eventually become a science teacher. She’d found some fascinating branches in her own family tree, “including a couple of witches.” But four children and her career hadn’t left a great deal of free time, so she liked to make the most of these quiet moments.
“She’s very passionate about it, and we’re all slaves to her passion here,” says her husband, Stephen Calhoun Jones. “The materials are spread over the kitchen counter, and it gets in the way of dinner. But she has a certain intuition about it; she gets a feeling and decides to follow it.” Today, Steve was out of the house, as was their daughter, Josie — home for winter break from Hamilton College, where she was halfway through her senior year. And it was to her husband’s lineage that Jody Jones returned.
Just days earlier, she had discovered the name of Steve’s great-great-great-grandfather — an early 19th-century minister of some apparent renown, since a number of sermons, letters and other works by and about him had been published. What had particularly piqued her interest was that he had spent most of his life in Coventry, Conn., where her mother had gone to high school and where Jody herself had as a child often visited her grandparents. It was “some kind of strange cross-familial connection,” she mused — intriguing, but coincidental.
So she’d found a handful of the pastor’s works for sale on antiquarian book websites and ordered them. She thought her husband would enjoy seeing the fruits of her labor, as well as the writings by and about his newfound ancestor. They’d arrived just that day.
She sat down and gently opened one, a tattered 145-year-old pamphlet titled The Crowned Christian Soldier: A Discourse at the Funeral of Rev. George A. Calhoun, June 10, 1867. It was a eulogy for the pastor, delivered by a William J. Jennings — Calhoun’s colleague at Second Congregationalist in his final years — and she saw at a glance that much of it was 19th-century funeral boilerplate: soaring rhetoric, long chronologies, “shining bands of angels” and the like. She skipped through the text until she came to some biographical information, which she slowed down to examine. She read:
In 1811 he became the hopeful subject of divine grace. In 1812 he entered the Junior Class in Williams College, but left that institution at the close of the second term, and joined the new Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y. He and one other young man constituted the first Junior and Senior classes in that College, and graduated without a commencement in August, 1814.
Jody Clark Jones blinked. And read again.
Jennings’ eulogy was a final chapter in a life well lived, if somewhat circumscribed by geography and erratic health. Despite his modesty from the pulpit, George Albion Calhoun was in fact an accomplished and devoted theologian who “declined pressing invitations to larger and more attractive fields” during his nearly half a century at North Coventry, according to his obituary by legendary Professor Edward North in the March 1868 Hamilton Literary Review. Calhoun was for the most part a moderate and conciliatory voice in the fundamental theological debate of his time, over the Great Awakening that sought to infuse the Puritan spirit with a new passion favoring revelation — and, in its more radical “New Light” manifestations, sometimes mysticism — over reason and ritual. “While strongly attached to the old theology of New England,” North wrote, “he was tolerant and kind to those who had different views and sympathies. The law of charity controlled his speech and conduct.”
Calhoun’s often-contentious correspondence with the Rev. Leonard Bacon — a Yale professor, founder of what would become the Yale Review and arguably the most influential Congregationalist cleric of the era — was so extensive that each man published a book of the letters. Like Bacon, Calhoun served as a trustee of Yale. In 1852, in recognition of his accomplishments, Hamilton honored Calhoun with a doctor of divinity degree.
The farm boy born in October 1788 in Washington, Conn. — just 60 miles from where he would preach for most of his life — did not always seem destined for such distinction. Strong and tall, he was worked hard in the family’s fields as a child and spent little time in school. At 18, Calhoun wrote of himself, “I became a man for business,” but he soon found himself woefully unprepared; North pronounced Calhoun’s early education “defective” and noted with dismay that he did not begin to study Latin until he was 22. Belatedly applying himself in pursuit of a law career, he attended school in Wolcott, Conn., before entering Williams College in Massachusetts, struggling through a series of menial jobs to pay his way without a patron.
He remained at Williams only two semesters before heading west to the newly chartered college in Clinton, N.Y., where he found himself one of fewer than two dozen students on the rolls in the inaugural academic year of 1812-13, and one of just two students — the other was William Groves, a transfer from Union College — in Hamilton College’s first “class.” They received their diplomas in 1814, and Calhoun, first alphabetically, became Hamilton’s first graduate. It was a distinction that he treated with characteristic humor and humility, noting decades later in a letter to the College that his “standing above all the other graduates” was simply a matter of chance and that others nevertheless surpassed him in more substantive matters.
Hamilton made very little hay of Calhoun’s special status at the time of his and Groves’ graduation. In penciled notes archived at the College, Joseph Ibbotson, Class of 1890 and later a librarian, historian and English professor at Hamilton, summarized the awkward situation based on 19th-century issues of the Hamilton Literary Monthly:
Was never present at Comm[encement]. His class of 2 grad. without public exercises…. Pres. Backus excused Calhoun and Wm. Groves with the remark that “he didn’t care to have Alma Mater appear like an anxious hen, clucking and scratching for a couple of chickens.”
President Azel Backus’ reasoning was recalled a shade differently by George Bristol, Class of 1815 valedictorian, in his class annalist letter of 1865:
Our College course being completed in July 1815, we were required to prepare for Commencement. The Class of 1814 containing but two individuals, they were excused from speaking, although it had been a subject of debate in the meetings of the faculty whether they should have any Commencement exercises. Some of them were in favor of it, but Dr. Backus opposed it, declaring it would never do: “It would be quite too much like a young rooster flying upon the fence, flapping his wings and trying to crow, before he could get his throat open.”
Whether Backus employed rooster or hen in his allegory of the fledgling College, the clear implication was that he believed a ceremony for two graduates might appear frivolous — especially during wartime — and subject Hamilton to public ridicule. But by the following year the War of 1812 had ended, and Hamilton’s second graduating class comprised a more robust six members, including Alpha Miller. After meeting at Hamilton, Calhoun and Miller would become brothers-in-law, would spend most of their lives just miles apart, ministering in adjacent parishes in Connecticut, and would die within a few weeks of each other.
“My first thought,” Jody says, “was that this was really weird.” The 200-year-old Hamilton connection to her husband and daughter had come out of nowhere, leapt off the page. “My second thought was that I had made a mistake.”
She retraced her steps, checking her findings at each turn. The one-time biology major is a painstaking researcher, working with online programs such as the highly regarded Ancestry.com, with its nearly 30,000 searchable databases, then corroborating information against additional sources. “It’s remarkable how much official documentation you can come up with,” she says. She prefers to do her own work, seldom relying on family trees posted by others. “They don’t always provide sources,” she says, “so you don’t know if it does have a factual basis, if it’s based on family lore, or if somebody just thought it would be neat to have a Civil War ancestor in their tree.”
Her work on the Calhoun line had in fact required particular care, because one of George Albion Calhoun’s sons, George Whitefield Calhoun — husband Steve’s great-great-grandfather — was virtually a historical blank. But she had found her way around the obstacle through the pastor’s other son, David Samuel Calhoun — who as a judge and Yale graduate was a well-documented figure — and through George Whitefield’s son, David Randolph Calhoun, who had brought the family west to St. Louis as a dry-goods salesman and ended up as something of a local celebrity, with a long trail of society-page newspaper articles in his wake.
Jody had, she soon realized, traced the line correctly. The “Calhoun” in her husband’s name had run through each of the six generations but one in stretching back to George Albion Calhoun and a tiny, once-struggling school on an upstate New York hilltop. Their daughter, Josie Jones ’12, about to embark on her final semester at Hamilton as the College celebrated its Bicentennial, was the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Hamilton’s original alumnus. When Steve arrived home a short time later, Jody was waiting with the evidence.
“The first words out of my mouth were ‘tuition remission,’” he laughs. “But my first serious thought was, ‘What a fabulous opportunity for Hamilton in its Bicentennial year — to build on this connection in a way that will help the institution.’ I know the Bicentennial is, among other things, a huge opportunity for the College to develop further its relationships and to reconnect with those who may have drifted. We all ought to be excited that there is a special story which may help in this process.”
Then it was their daughter’s turn.
“I came home, and she looked at me and said, ‘I need to talk to you,’” Josie recalls of her mother. “I thought, ‘Oh, no’ — for a second I thought I was in trouble.” But instead of explaining, her mother just brought Josie over to the books and computer screen she’d been studying and pointed out what to read.
Josie concedes that she usually has little interest in her mother’s research, and now it took her a moment to see what was in front of her. “I was like, ‘Soooooo, what’s the big deal?’ she says. “It took me a minute for the significance of it to completely register. Once it did, it was so exciting! I started calling my friends.”
Following graduation, and with his educational shortcomings remedied by hard study at Williams and Hamilton, Calhoun spent three years at Andover Theological Seminary and then more than a year doing missionary work in Geneva, N.Y., “preaching almost daily and laboring so diligently as to permanently injure his health,” North noted. He was married to Betsey Scoville in 1819 and ordained at his beloved North Coventry church in the same year; aside from several respites demanded by illness — during which he often ended up doing missionary work anyway — he would spend the rest of his life there.
Meanwhile, despite Calhoun’s unceremonious graduation from Hamilton in 1814, the College soon recognized his importance as both an ecclesiastic voice and a historic link to the College’s origins, and honored him accordingly. In addition to the doctor of divinity degree he received in 1852, he was present and spoke at the inauguration of President Samuel Ware Fisher in 1858, and archives indicate that he was invited to campus on at least three other occasions. One letter to North, apparently dated 1866 and written in a palsied hand, declines an invitation with the explanation, “I am now frustrated by a second shock of paralysis from which I do not expect to be fully restored.” The following June, “greatly weakened in body and mind by several attacks of paralysis,” North wrote, “he sank peacefully to his rest, as a child falls to sleep in his mother’s arms.”
A few years earlier, unable to attend the College’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1862, Calhoun instead wrote a letter to Hamilton, now regarded as a precursor to the class annalist letters that officially date from George Bristol’s 1865 address. It was with Bristol that the annalist letter would become the rich weave of historical research, humor and misty reminiscence that still define it today. But it was Calhoun’s note of just 222 words that first captured the “grateful and filial affection” at the heart of this revered Hamilton tradition.
“I am thankful … that a watchful Providence has nourished and reared up the infant institution with which I was connected as a member of the first graduating class,” he wrote.
“It is with pleasure that I indulge the hope and expectation, that on Hamilton’s centennial celebration, her sphere and usefulness will be much enlarged.”
Just as George Albion Calhoun had forgone the pageantry of commencement, what followed the Jones family’s discovery of the connection to Hamilton’s first graduate was not exactly a celebration, at least not in any conventional sense. “I think we all just felt a little ‘weirded out,’ as the kids say,” Jody recalls. “It was an almost mystical kind of thing.” In retrospect, they realized, the feeling was not only a reaction to the cascade of coincidence that had led to that moment; it was also a response to the odd, seemingly charmed, route that Josie had taken to Hamilton in the first place.
An older sister had attended Colgate, but Josie — who had had a stellar lacrosse career at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School in St. Louis — had never heard of Hamilton before being contacted by Coach Patty Kloidt during her senior year. “I was in an ice cream store” when Kloidt called, she remembers. Josie had no expectations, but decided on a whim to come up for an overnight visit with some women lacrosse players. They were members of the 2008 team that would go on to win a national Division III championship, and the combination of chemistry, camaraderie and campus hooked her immediately. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “It was pretty overwhelming.”
She has never looked back. Four years and lacrosse letters later — and two appearances on the Liberty League All-Academic team before this season — Josie is preparing to turn a major in psychology and a minor in communication into a career in advertising. Her interest in the field was piqued during study abroad in Sydney, Australia, where she filled in briefly at an agency. “I came back and took three comm classes in one semester so I could get caught up with the minor,” she says. She worked a funded internship in Boston last summer, and this semester has worked with Cheryl Casey, visiting assistant professor of communication, on an independent study project researching the relationship between social media and consumer behavior.
Josie believes Hamilton has helped her find a balance in her life. “Teachers have worked with me to develop and challenge my interests,” she says; lacrosse, in turn, has taught her “about life experience, from being on a team and competing, from the diversity of getting along with 25 or 30 people and finding a common goal.”
Her father agrees. “One of the questions parents ask when their kids leave home is, ‘Who are they going to be spending the next four years with?’” he says. “The opportunity for Josie to spend that time with Patty Kloidt has been one of the best parts of her experience.”
As her time on the Hill comes to an end, Josie and her parents, like George Albion Calhoun on that October day in 1845, have the odd but rewarding sense of looking both back and ahead, to a remarkable past and a promising future. “Our Hamilton experience has been nothing short of outstanding,” Steve says. “We appreciate, so much, that what is special about Hamilton and what is special about our daughter coincided so well.
“But the knowledge that there is a direct family line between our daughter in the Bicentennial Class and the first graduate of Hamilton — that certainly adds a whole new level of feeling to our appreciation.”
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