Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1839 Letter

Charles Rhodes

Delivered: June 1889

Centennials have recently been so frequent and so numerous, and have developed so many detailed sketches of the progress of the country and the age, as to leave scant room for an essay of that kind, which can be brought within the limits of a short letter suitable for this occasion.

The progress of 50 years is wonderful, but as the survivors of the Class of 1839 have seen it all, have been part and parcel of it, the recollection of 50 years ago, which takes us back to the old time when little had been done and little developed, will furnish such a contrast to the present condition of things, that the suggestion of progress will be sufficient. The half-century annalist will therefore devote his attention mainly to the recollections of the class days, which may be presumed to interest the survivors and perhaps others, more than a labored historical notice of the progress during the time that has elapsed. True, the recollections may be fallible, as the writer recently found in comparing notes with a classmate.

In the reminiscences to be presented, notices of the College faculty usually do and may well find a place. They are necessarily so mingled with personal opinions and impressions as to present little room for disagreement on facts or events.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Penney, president during three years of our class life, has received frequent notices in the successive annals. Educated in Ireland, where English supremacy imbued the pupils with high notions of the subordination required in the education of English-speaking people, Dr. Penney brought with him the feeling that in the College, strict government and graceful submission should pervade the relation of president and pupil. His learning, his honesty, and great ability, which made him a successful pastor, were almost wholly subordinated to his English-Irish conception of his duty as master and teacher. The pupils almost uniformly regarded him as an Irishman pure and simple; while, in fact, his English education in an Irish college made him more English than he would have been had he been educated in England, where the restive character of the Irish would not have been mingled in his associations.

It is easy to see that the pupils failed to credit him with his real ability, or his honesty. They repudiated his system of government, characterizing it as Irish instead of English, as it was, and constantly maintained an antagonism, which was transmitted and propagated by each successive class; so that, as usual in such cases, there was hardly a chance for any class properly to appreciate the value of the president, or to credit him with his honest efforts to benefit the pupils. His firm and persistent efforts to enforce suitable subordination in the pupils, met their constant resistance, stimulated by the impulse of youngsters; and the honest determination of the master to rule according to his established convictions of right and usefulness, resulted in a constant war — the pupils struggling to be master, and the president firmly, perhaps passionately, holding his ground against them. These controversies, with their incidents, no doubt tended to induce the president to resign. The following is one of the incidents that may have hastened the resignation.

Dr. Penney, as has been said, had a mania for whitewashing; for several years South college had enjoyed the honor of successive coats of whitewash. There were two boys in college who had skill in drawing. It is supposed that these boys, inspired by their genius, stimulated by their grievances, the war on the president and the large blank wall on the north end of South college, tried their hands at burlesque. One Sunday morning there appeared on this wall a gigantic figure chasing a crowd of boys who were running for dear life. The artists had used blackball, with which they drew the figures on the wall. The immense figure was in every respect so Irish that it could not have been mistaken. But the artists, not knowing their skill, or distrusting it in the dark, to make sure that the Irish character of the figure should not be overlooked, put into one of his hands a fork on which a large potato was impaled; thus it was unnecessarily labeled, as the Irish character was perfect without it. The performance excited the liveliest interest among the pupils and faculty. The whitewash displayed the figures remarkably well; it was a study in black and white. The faculty, after a single glance, turned their faces away from the wall and made haste to get out of sight. On Monday, the janitor was set to work to remove the drawing; he found it easy to remove the blackball from the surface, as two or three thicknesses of whitewash peeled off with the blacking; the dark surface of the wall under the whitewash, however, made a marked contrast with the white on the surface, so that the figures, though toned down a little, remained quite distinct. It would have taken many coats of whitewash to obliterate the drawing, but it ended whitewashing under Dr. Penney, who soon after resigned. There is a dispute to this day whether the whitewashing of the president's horse, or the blackballing of himself on the wall, brought about the resignation and closed the controversy.

Professor John H. Lathrop, representing the aristocratic element of the faculty, assumed to be such mainly because he occupied the historic mansion of the locality, and possessed a stately and dignified mien and rather austere manner, which in him inspired the pupils with great respect, without engendering dislike or arousing mischievous opposition. In fact, despite his manner, he was rather a favorite. Things that in Dr. Penney goaded the pupils into malicious mischief were treated as commendable in Professor Lathrop, and produced respect, if not admiration. He was a successful and impressive teacher. He delivered lectures on the theory of the internal heat of the earth, a subject not then new, but little understood by the pupils, and the lectures made a profound impression upon them and set many of them reading upon the subject, and some of them looked upon the professor as the bulwark of the internal heat theory. The lectures gave tone to their geological theories and speculations. For a time, at least, he so impressed his pupils that he was looked upon as the great scientific investigator of the faculty.

Professor Catlin, grave and staid, spoke in monotones that were deep, but without suggestion of animal life or feeling, without the slightest motion of face or lips; metallic in sound, but loaded with suggestions of mathematical profundity, the words flowed with solemn current, as if he were the precursor of the phonograph — a living embodiment of the subsequent invention. The criticism of compositions, like the demonstration of difficult mathematical problems, flowed on in the same monotone, and appeared exactly as correct as the demonstration. To the pupils he was the impersonal representation of intellectuality.

Dr. Simeon North, in our time known by his kindly manners and mildness of temper, and even then highly esteemed for his good English and better Greek, succeeded Dr. Penney as president, and for the first time presided at the graduation of the Class of 1839. He was long an incumbent of the office, and continually developed qualities then little known, but fully understood and appreciated by our successors — qualities that have often been commended by able and friendly hands. He did not take pupils by storm, but his commendable qualities grew upon them. He was great without ostentation; each class transmitted its good will and admiration to its successors, and thus in course of time, by a reverse process from that which followed Dr. Penney, successive classes developed increased love and admiration.

Professor Avery lived down to a recent period and was the idol of many successive classes. He was another of the mathematical characters of the faculty. Although he was so genial and so warmly interested in communicating facts and ideas to the boys, that his powers seemed too social for profundity, yet his long life and constant labor achieved for him a great reputation. We remember him, however, as just missing, almost achieving, some of the capital inventions and discoveries of subsequent times. We note a few of the suggestions he made. They have clung to our memory through all the period that has developed such extraordinary results.

Before our time Faraday had invented an electric motor, and Professor Henry had confirmed the invention by his own experiments. The motor, however, had developed little power. Professor Avery took up the subject, made a motor of his own, somewhat after the model of Faraday's and Henry's, and was near the invention of the dynamo of the present day, but like his predecessors, failed to derive large power from the motor; and demonstrated as it seemed, that in case of success, the consumption of material would make the expense too great for the power developed, and would thus have made the result too expensive to compete with steam, and economically impracticable. The subsequent discoveries changed the whole state of the matter, and exploded the reasoning of Professor Avery, which had seemed so conclusive. He, with Faraday, Henry, and others, missed the great invention that is now illuminating the world; transmuting electro-magnetism into heat, light, and power; carrying the subtle fluid long distances through small copper wire, around curves and angles, and without gearing or shafting, delivering it without serious loss at the end in the shape of heat, light, or power. Professor Avery lived to see and appreciate this invention, and to rejoice with his pupils, some of whom aided in the development.

Daguerre had invented sun pictures, called daguerreotypes, which were then making a sensation. The professor attempted to improve them. He had long known and often told his classes that sunlight had bleached fresh butter and rendered it tasteless. It then occurred to him that he had almost discovered sun pictures. One of the boys imprudently suggested that housewives had long known that sunlight faded carpets, yet they did not claim they had just missed the invention of the photograph. The discovery of Daguerre was an extraordinary one, the result of many years of study and experiment. It was the art of fixing the images of the camera. Professor Avery did not discover the art, but he early appreciated Daguerre's discovery.

Professor Avery, in his efforts to relieve the boys of the difficulties involved in hydraulics, procured a large barrel and had it carried to the attic of North college, then unfinished. He made the boys carry water from the neighboring well and fill the barrel several times. In the barrel, near the bottom, he had a faucet inserted and tried the experiment of letting the water run out through it, so as to fall on a plane surface, placed 10, 20, 30, and perhaps 40 feet below, timing the outflow to determine how much the obstructing surface would affect the rate of discharge. It is not remembered what the result in respect to time appeared to be. Some of the boys were more impressed with the carrying up of the water than with the varying time of the outflow. Several of them, however, caught impressions of flowing water not soon forgotten, but we have heard of none who do not still feel some of the difficulties expressed by Galileo and Governor Hunt.

The appalling catastrophe at Johnstown, Pa., last May, would, if time permitted, furnish subject for a note on the ignorance or criminal negligence that rendered possible such destruction of life and property. The forgotten efforts of Professor Avery to enlighten and stimulate his pupils to study science and promote invention, were constant and useful, and would cover a wide and fertile field, if they could be recalled. They have left an impression that merged into and formed a large element in the estimate of the character left by the learned professor, who lived and diffused his genial character among students of recent date. They will pardon allusion to events that can be known only through reports of their predecessors.

Professor J. Finley Smith was a brilliant and scholarly character and illumined his short career with many and learned exhibitions of talent. Few who knew him, when acting as professor, have forgotten the outburst among the boarders, when, in reply to the boarding housekeeper's question to him, "Will you take some more 'sass'?" quick as a flash replied, "Yes ma'am, sas agapo." The explosion of the boys was tremendous, and overwhelmed Mrs. B— with confusion, increased by the supposition that she herself had made a blunder.

The tutor, Oren Root, afterwards professor, devoted himself to science with marked industry and success, some of the trophies of which the college now enjoys. I have a kindly remembrance of him, for he in great measure conducted my entrance examination and afterwards apparently forgot the conditions imposed on my entrance. I shabbily repaid his kindness by answering "not prepared" at the first recitation. I was too diffident to stand up in the class and attempt to recite.

It would be ungracious to omit from these notices of the faculty that favorite of all the boys, Tutor Bradford, always mild, always attentive, always overflowing with kindness to the pupils.

At this point I learn of the death of the last trustee elected more than 50 years ago, Hon. Henry A. Foster, of Rome. He for 52 years attended commencements regularly. The brilliant and untiring lawyer, the able and honest judge, the honest and reputable citizen, and for an ordinary lifetime a trustee of this college, which may well mourn his loss and will find difficulty in supplying his place with a man of equal character, reputation, and usefulness.

While every trustee who held office during our time has passed away, and every officer of the board and faculty has gone to the enjoyment of his final rest, there remain two professors who suitably represent and inherit their names, North and Root, the reputation and abilities of their predecessors; and whom the students of the present and future classes will do well to hold in high honor and respect.

The remaining trustees, excepting Judge Bacon, are to us only grown-up boys. Miller, Kendall, and Dwight are of the Class of 1840; North of 1841, and yet a person the longest connected with the College. Rogers, Ward, Root, Jay Knox, the two Hawleys, Pomeroy, Cochrane, Brockway, and perhaps others were juniors to 1839; 1840, however, has carried off the honors in a curatorial sense, having had four representatives on the board. The great men of our day were Davis, Knox, Hubbard, Spencer, Kirkland, Denio, Lawrence and others.

The Class of 1839 was a mature and grave one, made up largely of young men preparing for the ministry, who did honor to their profession.

By advice of a successful annalist, I am to say little of the living members of the class; the known survivors are few, supposed to be seven. I hope they may enjoy the honors they deserve, and reap reward due to their unspoken merits.

After 50 years of active life, the memories of the past may be expected to grow dim. I remember the church on the green, the successive stone churches, the Deacon Gridley mansion, and the Foote house and Everett hotel or Clinton house, and other landmarks. Several of them have been destroyed and succeeded by more pretentious buildings. Many localities rise up in our memory with varied associations.

The first Arbor Day was observed in our time at Hamilton. This tree planting was not the setting out of a class tree, as is now done, but the planting of a tree by each pupil in the college, in order to make a grove on the College grounds. It was not a success, except that it was the precursor of more tasteful and ornamental work. The campus has grown young with years and literally blooms in a green old age. Credit the Class of 1839 for a part of this; for the tastes of Gridley furnished a guiding touch in rendering the campus a forest of beauty, strange but grateful to the earlier graduates.

The alma mater is the happy resting place of our memories, and it is our fervent wish that it may flourish and deserve the continued regard of every alumnus.