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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1857 Letter

A.N. Brockway

Delivered: June 1907

An eminent Hamilton Alumnus, in his long ago Annalist’s letter, is authority for the story of Professor J. Finley Smith and the proprietress of a students’ boarding house, kept on or near, College Hill, more than a semi-centennial ago. The lady in question one day asked the Professor “Will you have some sass?” To which he quickly and wittily answered in Byron’s mellifluous Greek: “Oh yes, indeed, zoe mou, sas agapo.” (from Lord Byron’s Maid of Athens, ere we part. Translation: My life, I love thee. Peatie, Elia W. Poems You Ought to Know. Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969.)

At a banquet given last month to a distinguished member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lady member rising to speak for New York, said that she “felt timid at vying with the brilliant speeches that had been made,” and related the story of the boy who was dismayed because his bantams laid such small eggs — so he hung this advice — “Keep your eyes on the egg, and do the best you can.” I’ll do the best I can — But Doctor Herrick Johnson with his facile pen should have written the Annalist’s letter. He was the Annalist elect last June, to speak for the Class of 1857 at this gathering, but illness in his household prevented his leaving Chicago, so he asked me to take up the burden he could not bear.

To look forward from one’s graduation day to his semi-centennial seems an interminably long period — but to look backward to the day when he started out to seek his fortune in an unsympathizing world, seems but a few years in comparison. Today marks the time when 1857 left the academic halls of old Hamilton to try the issues all unknown to its members. Today tells the story as to what record the men of 1857 have to present at this alumni meeting.

The Class of 1857 has an honorable record to offer. At the beginning of freshman year we presented the average number of clerks, of farmers and city bred boys, a green cluster in the vineyard of letters. We felt the dignity of our position — and, as we out-numbered the class that preceded us — we were not in great fear of their prowess, and the consequence was, that we did not suffer from the feeble attempts of 1856 to “send us under the yoke.”

Fifty years ago no class was deemed to have passed the year with flying colors unless it “rang off the rust.” We went through that solemn ceremony, as we thought, at the time, with immense success. The Chapel bell was rung for an hour or two, the usual cheers and yells were emitted by stentorian voices, and fireballs and other fireworks were used to celebrate our entrance into the tremendous dignity of Sophomore year. I remember that we all considered ourselves as glittering Sophomores, as soon as the last word was uttered on Commencement Day. I also remember how rude a shock to my dignity it was, one Sunday in vacation, to have Tom Wells say to me as we were passing down the aisle in Church, “Hello, Freshman”—It was several months before I completely recovered from that mental perturbation.

When the opening day of our second day in College began, we met to consider among ourselves how best to make the members of the incoming freshman class know that we were “the real thing.” We were members of the sophomore class in Hamilton College. The number of the freshman class was about equal to ours, and the wise heads of our class cudgeled their brains, as to how to let the Class of 1858 appreciate their inferiority. College boys in those days thought it was their duty to smoke out one or more freshmen of each class.

We chose a night and a room and creeping noiselessly to the door, rapped but received no reply to come in. We were not to be disappointed in our endeavors. So we procured a long and heavy timber and using that as a battering ram, were soon in a position for active operations. We began lighting of our pipes and soon the room was filled with fragrant smoke. The freshman showed fight, but what was one freshman to 20 sophomores? Being somewhat subdued he rushed to the window and broke some of the panes of glass that the air of the room might be purified. In order to prevent further destruction of glass we protested and in the melee the student was hit in the head with a piece of iron. Seeing blood trickle down his face we were not as brave as we had been, and all incontinently fled to our rooms. The incident shows how brave and how cowardly Sophomores may be.

During our College days Junior Exhibitions were days of ceremony and rejoicing. Juniors prepared orations to be spoken on the stage erected in the old Stone Church in the village. We looked forward to our speaking as a tremendous occasion. The brass band from Utica was in attendance and between speeches, at intervals, music, such as it was, was furnished.

When I look back upon our Junior Exhibitions and the orations presented, the whole subject seems trite and inconsequential — Junior Exhibitions were long ago abolished, and, I think, with good reason.

The faculty of our day was a body of scholars; men who were thoroughly prepared for their work as teachers. I well remember President North, a timid man, who with thorough scholarship was disinclined to appear much in public. His sermons and addresses were models of good taste and faultless English. His politeness was extreme and all of us who will soon forget his “Sit, won’t you,” which was said to all students who visited him on “official business.” Professor Root, with his calm and dignified manner, was the personification of a mathematical professor—what he knew he knew to a mathematical certainty.

Professor Dwight was the model of what a lawyer and jurist should be. He seemed a man who knew everything, and he knew it thoroughly. We thought him a marvel when he appeared in the class recitation room, without a book to serve as a guide in the recitations. No man was more learned in the law than he seemed to be.

We loved Professor Upton, for what he knew and taught us in rhetoric and declamation. He was a cultured man. His course as an educator was to be envied and he died loved and lamented by all who knew him.

In the list of Hamilton alumni no name stands out more prominently that that of Professor Edward North. No name is mentioned with more respect and reverence, and his gracious presence will be remembered by all as long as we remember anything. He occupied the “Greek chair” for 58 years, a longer period than that of any other college professor in the land. We all recall the beauty of his diction, the rhythmical pronunciation of his Greek and the inspiration of his gracious presence.

He died full of years and full of honor and his precious dust was laid to rest in our beautiful College Cemetery, near the graves of President North, Dr. Avery, Dr. Root and others who served the College long and well.  Peace to their ashes. But one of the faculty of our day, Dr. Hudson, then Tutor Hudson, remains, adorning the profession he chose and which he filled with great honor to himself and the College.

In speaking of some of the professors I should not fail to mention Peter Blake, the respected and greatly lamented “Professor of dust and ashes.” He was an Irishman with genuine Irish wit. He brought water to our rooms, and swept them and carried out the ashes — the dust was allowed to remain. Those who were in College 50 years ago will remember his facial distortions. He came to a room early one more muttering to himself with usual grimaces, “I wish I was in hell. I wish I was in hell.” One of the boys asked him “What would you do in hell?” Oh, make fires and carry water for the boys, of course,” he said.

The College Campus, which 50 years ago we admired for its beauty, has been greatly improved and beautified. The trees lift their stately branches more loftily than in our day and the grounds laid out with walks in directions, with their Class memorials in bronze and stone make it an ideal resting place for scholarly men.

The College buildings were the Chapel, South, Middle and North Colleges, the Cabinet, the Gymnasium and Laboratory built in our time were the only buildings then standing. The Litchfield Observatory building in which the world-renowned Dr. H.C.F. Peters discovered 48 Asteroids, came soon after we graduated, followed by the Perry H. Smith Library Hall.

Then came Silliman Hall, Root Hall, Benedict Hall, Truax Hall, Commons Hall, the Laboratory, Carnegie Hall and New South College. A goodly array of new buildings, surely. Carnegie Hall and South College are not surpassed by any dormitories in the country. The occupation in which “Professor Peter Blake” and his successors for so many years were actively engaged, is now in disuse, for through the munificence of Dr. Elihu Root and Mr. Charles B. Rogers, an unfailing amount of pure water is distributed throughout the buildings.

The Chapel has been enlarged and beautified and furnished with a magnificent organ, gifts of Mr. Chauncey S. Truax, Dr. H.B. Stillman and Henry H. Benedict. The windows are filled with portraits of those who have been distinguished in the history of the Institution. The entrance to the Chapel was greatly beautified by the contribution of Dr. Franklin D. Locke and others. Through the gracious gift of Mr. Thomas D. Catlin of the Class of 1857 we owe the bell now in the Chapel belfry, and the stone sidewalk in front of the older College building. The latter is a great improvement to the muddy shale walk of his day.

In every way Hamilton has risen to a higher plane, and ranks with the best institutions of the country. We are all proud of her greatness, and our prayers are that her progress may be onward and upward for all time.

What shall I say to the Class of 1857? In our College days we thought our boys took rank with those of any class. We had good scholars, good speakers, good writers, and now after the lapse of 50 years we look upon the record as a good one. The whole number in the class was 53. Of this number 18 were ministers, 13 were lawyers and three were practitioners of Medicine. Several of the ministers as eminent as pulpit orators in the Presbyterian Church. Dr. Johnson has for many years been a theological professor and Dr. Pierson had made for himself an honored name as a preacher at home and abroad. Two were especially eminent as jurists; Judge Newman adorned the bench in all the Courts in Wisconsin, reaching the highest State Court, and was a State Senator. Judge A.S. Seymour was for many years an ornament to the Judicial Bench in North Carolina. Serving in addition in the Legislature and as State Senator four years and was a member of the Constitutional Convention of that State. Literary honors have come to several. L.L.D. was conferred upon Diven — Johnson — Newman — A.S. Seymour and Woodard. Three add D.D. to their names — Johnson — Pierson and C.E. Robinson.

Twenty-nine have paid the last debt of nature, leaving 24 who “only a little longer wait.” Four have met death by accident, one, Charles M. Ferrin, was killed while in College, being thrown against a tree while coasting down College Hill on the sidewalk. Eleven of the class bore an honorable part in the war of the Rebellion. Baldwin was three times severely wounded. One, Hastings, was for many months a prisoner in Confederate prisons, twice escaping to be recaptured and fully escaping to suffer untold privations, before he returned in safety to the Union Lines. One Woodard, served in the Confederate Army.

The honor men of the class were James S. Baker, Benjamin D. Gilbert, Herrick Johnson, Duncan McA. Parker, Arthur T. Pierson, A.S. Seymour and Erastus Willard. Willard was the valedictorian—but was unable to deliver the valedictory oration and died of consumption in New Orleans April 3, 1858, following our Graduation Day. Professor North said of him: “Few young men gave promise of a brighter future than he. With an intellect clear, grasping and comprehensive, his love of books was second only to his love of active life. Equally marked and admirable were his personal and social qualities. He was an ardent Democrat, and his addresses in this county and in the state of Indiana were remarkable for the readiness with which he used historical facts and his enthusiasm was seldom witnessed in so youthful an orator.” The Phoenix and Union Literary Societies were then in their prime, but have long since disappeared and the cry of “Charcoal” with which members were summoned to the meetings, has been for many years unheard. Their libraries were merged with the College Library.

The Hamilton-Oneida Academy was the predecessor of Hamilton College. The cornerstone of the Academy was laid by Baron Steuben, assisted by Skenandoa, the celebrated Oneida Chief, on July 3rd, 1793. The building stood on the campus, between what are now the Chapel and South College.  The precise spot is marked by a memorial stone, erected by the Class of 1886, The charter of the College was granted by the Regents of the University May 26th, 1812, and five years from this date we hope to celebrate her centennial, with pomp and ceremony and feasting and rejoicing. Hamilton College enthroned upon her beautiful hillside, her look ever eastward to the sun rising, sends her tidings of peace and goodwill, her love of everything good to all the Earth. The fountain has sent forth streams, which have gladdened the waste places and made them blossom and bear rich fruitage. We all delight in her prosperity Her catalogue of members is emblazoned with the names of those who have distinguished themselves in Arms, in Arts — in Science — in the Pulpit — at the Bar — on the Judicial Bench — in Legislative Halls — in Literature, and in all that ennobles mankind, and makes the world better. Our dear Mother on the Hill, graduates her sons into the world with her favor and rich benediction. She rejoices in their prosperity, and in return her Alumni come back on each succeeding year to worship at her shrine and offer congratulations at her prosperity and progress. The Alumni have faith that her future will be abundantly bright and useful to the world.

Then crown Alma Mater with honors forever,
May her plenty and peace flow deep like a river,
May her names be all sweet, Homeric and tender,
Bright throned, silver footed, fair Learning’s defender.