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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1875 Letter

Dwight Holbrook

Delivered: June 1925

In unregenerate undergraduate days, I regarded half-century annalists as men having one foot in the grave, or, at best, modern counterparts of Priam, “the prudent Antenor,” and other Trojan worthies, who, having ceased from war by reason of age, were excellent advisors. And now, by one of life’s little ironies, I find myself today the half-century analyst. Is Saul among the prophets? Apparently, he is. And yet I am bound to say that more recent analysts have seemed less venerable than those of yore — in fact, they appear to be renewing their youth like the eagle’s, so much so, that in the not distant future, it may be necessary for them to guard against infantile paralysis and cholera infantum.

A portion of Alumni Day has been put aside for the annalist of the year to indulge in reminiscence, advice, warning or whatever else may be on his chest. I hasten to reassure all and sundry that I have no message to give, for in these post bellum days we are told that the public is more interested in the mess of pottage than the pot of message.

On one occasion, when the vengeful Juno, with the aid of Aeolus, had handed the storm-tossed Trojans an unusually heavy jolt, the Pius Aeneas delivered himself of these words: “Forsan, et haec olim meminisse juvabit.” The time limit, vaguely indicated by olim, must surely have lapsed in 50 years; therefore it may be pleasant to recall a few incidents in our class history.

In our freshman year there were two fires: one of worldwide note, caused by Mrs. Leary’s cow kicking over a lamp, and known as the Chicago fire; the other local and therefore, of more immediate interest, was when the Clinton House and stable burned. Of course the entire college turned out to rescue the perishing livestock. We all had our tales of daring rescue and hair-breadth escape, but the palm for showing resourcefulness in a crisis was unanimously awarded Northrup, Class of 1872, who said that all his efforts to save a frantic old hen were of no avail until it occurred to him to blindfold her and back her out through the flames.

The aftermath of this fire came in our sophomore year. Owing to disputes over property rights, nothing was done for months about clearing away the debris of the burnt area, which extended to the corner of College Street. Meanwhile, one Nick Condon, whether as claimant or squatter, in boots not, had erected at the corner, on slender uprights, a structure resembling a huge packing box. Here he dispensed to the riffraff, local and transient, liquor, which judged by its effect, must have been the granddaddy of present day bootleggers’ stuff. It goes without saying that this groggery soon became a monumental nuisance, not to say, menace. People, especially ladies, dreaded to pass that corner, but, owing to the law’s delay, nothing was being done to abate the nuisance. Clearly here was a situation that appealed to the altruism of your genuine sophomore.

Having ascertained that it was Nick’s custom, after his last probable customer had left, to seek his sordid couch elsewhere, practically the entire class silently materialized on the corner one dark night. Under the direction of self-elected engineers, a rope, duly provided and long enough for the business in hand, was passed around all the supports — at least that was the intention, but in the light of subsequent events it is probable some were missed. The plan, beautiful in its simplicity, required the whole class, trailing on the other end of the rope down College Street, to give a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull altogether and thus, like a multitudinous Sampson, bringing down this modern temple of iniquity. Word was passed along. With one impulse we yanked. There was sound of splintering timber by night. The shack lurched backward and downward and all was proceeding according to specifications, when something held back and Nick, whom we had supposed to be elsewhere, sleeping the sleep of the unjust, turned loose with what seemed to be a Gatling gun. We stayed not for brake, and we stopped not for stone. We would have swum the Oriskany, if bridge there’d been none. I thought I as making a fair bid for the dash, when someone passed me as though I were standing still. I always thought it was Cobb, not so portly then, but lean and lathy and built for speed. Some legal proceeding was attempted in consequence of our public-spirited action, but nothing came of it, much to our relief, for wrecking an occupied building was something else again.

In a small college such as the Hamilton of our day, the class was less of an entity than is the case today. Next to our own class, our interests centered on the sophomores. Were they a set of Apaches, or did they observe the customs of polite society? At first we inclined to the Apache theory, but after the smoke of battle had passed away, largely extinguished by the drenchings mutually exchanged, we dwelt together in comparative harmony. In fact, so friendly did we feel toward the Class of 1874, that we voluntarily assumed the cost of printing and distributing the program of their Junior Exhibition. Here I pause to drop a tear over this function, lost some time between then and now.

For the benefit of the uninitiated let me say that Junior Ex, as it was familiarly called, was held at the close of second term junior year, when each junior, in alphabetical order, appeared in the Stone Church and in effect said, “You’d scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the stage.” On this occasion each man wrote his own oration and in his own or someone else’s swallowtail delivered it before an admiring audience of parents, friends and sweethearts.

Ah, those simple days, when every man spoke at Junior Ex and Commencement, when the exercises began at about 10:30 a.m. and lasted all day, when there was no close season for the “Claw-hammer” and when, regardless of the six o’clock rule, “the bong tong, deckolet and en regaly” were in evidence any old time. Now the Class of 1874, swayed by motives of either economy or cussedness, had split on the question of paying for the music deemed indispensable on such occasions. If music is considered necessary to maintain the morale of soldiers on the eve of battle, it was doubly necessary to frightened and stage-struck juniors. This music question, however, was not ours to settle, but all agreed that a program was necessary and we hailed the chance to repay or pay back some of the courtesies we had received when first we came here, green as grass, as the old song has it.

As finally arranged, our program was enriched with several cuts. The one on the cover represented Hamilton College as a cow, into whose yawning mouth Dr. Goertner, mentioned by Emmons Paine in his admirable letter of last year, was stuffing bequests. In the foreground, the Class of 1874 was appropriately figured as a calf, with its tail firmly seized to an anchor labeled “No Music.” Pulling at its head was Professor Frink, at that time head of the department of rhetoric. Amidships the unhappy creature was a legend, “Split on Music.” Undoubtedly this picture may have been too crude to please the captious critic, but it got its message across, which is more than can be said of some more ambitious works of art. Determined to give honor where honor was due, we printed beneath the cut: “Bits, Clark and Blackmar, Committee on Ways to be Mean.” As we wished our program to be a happy surprise to our friends, we were debarred, naturally, from asking them to furnish us the titles of their orations. But where there’s a will there’s a way. Remembering that “The style is the man,” and as we had had nearly two years of more or less intimate acquaintance with each man, we took a chance on his style.

Later we discovered that the Faculty was to get out a program with entirely different titles. Thus, strictly speaking, ours was not necessary, but having prosecuted the enterprise thus far, we were determined to go through with it and give the audience a chance to decide which was the more entertaining. To this end, we inserted items of information, bits of verse, etc., thus antedating by many years the theatre program of today, with its “What the man will wear,” etc., credit for which is claimed by Edward Bok, and which credit we have never disputed. I recall one stanza, dedicated to a professor who occasionally embarrassed us by asking for the comparison of certain unruly Lain adjectives. This ran somewhat as follows:

Bonus, melior, optimus
To Junior, Freshman and Soph,
With an occasional Ablative Absolute,
Is all that I know as a prof.

In our senior year, Hamilton, along with a number of other colleges, was bitten by a water bug and went in for aquatic honors. In such a contest we had about the same chance that the hypothetical Swiss navy would have against the British fleet. We see that now, but at the time we didn’t. History records that Rome in her fight with Carthage found that she had to have a navy. Using a stranded trireme as a model, she cut down trees and from the green timber fashioned boats. But at least she had water, water everywhere, while our nearest water, and not too much of that, was the erratic Mohawk, nine miles distant. Well do I remember the day when this unreliable stream, imperceptibly lowering as the season advanced, failed to float us over a snag just below the outfall of the gashouse drain in Utica. When the rendering of the frail timbers of our shell proclaimed trouble, we jumped out and began salvaging our possessions. When we started to push the wreck up to the boathouse, we found it difficult to pull our feet out of the tenacious mud, but it was not until we climbed up onto the float that we discovered the cause. We had been standing almost up to our knees in tar. And we were nine miles from home. It may be all right in comic opera for a poet to sing, “hey, the merry maiden and the tar,” but I don’t know how many merry maidens may be in such circumstances. But mutatis mutandis, I can truly say with Spenser,

“Full little knowest thou that has not tried,
What hell it is in tar long to bide.”

Somehow we raised the money necessary to buy boats and to put in six weeks of intensive work at Saratoga and then we came to the regatta. It was a beautiful sight. Thirteen lanes had been marked out with buoys bearing the various college colors. Came the start, 13 boats shot gallantly forward. The first half-mile was passed and then came the crab. “Masty” Brown, number four or five in the Hamilton boat, caught a crab compared with which any pre-Adamite crustacean was a pygmy, and for us the race was over. Since then Hamilton has been content to remain a land turtle.

In the memories of college life of all the men in the 1860s and 1870s, Peter Blake occupies a unique place. Pete was chief liaison officer between Prex and the students. He was, also, the aqueduct that brought water to our rooms. A favorite indoor sport was to try to get the better of Pete in a verbal exchange of wit. In this contest, Pete usually came out with the honors of war. For instance, one day Pete in the discharge of some of his various duties came into a room where several Sigs were relaxing in a game of euchre. One of them boisterously greeted him with:

“Pete, our old sinner, where do you expect to go to when you die?”
“To hell, Mr. Baker.”
“What will you do there?”
“Carry water for the Sigs, Mr. Baker.”

There was one sure way to get a rise out of Pete, and that was to intimate that his wife wasn’t as good a laundress as Mrs. McMann. This never failed to bring forth a profanely emphatic denial from Pete.

Compared with the geologist’s dark and backward abysm of time, 50 years seems as a watch in the night when it is passed. Lived, however, day-by-day, summer and winter, shaving every morning and walking with baby at night, 50 years are 50 years and are sure to register many changes.

In speaking of these changes, I realize the longer the spoke, the greater the tire. Therefore, I must contend myself with being like Autolycus, a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” Such as the passing of the double bed — 50 years ago, when it was rumored that a married couple had taken to single beds, the whole neighborhood was shocked and people shook their heads with foreboding, for they saw the entrance to the primrose path that led inevitably to divorce court. In like manner, the good old American nightshirt is retreating before the foreign pajamas, either and neither are giving way to eyther and neyther, and yet opponents of the World Court ask: “What have we to do with abroad?”

And what changes we have witnessed, my countrymen, in the status of woman, at the polls, in the arts and professions, in everything. If any of my hearers are at odds with the opposite sex, my advice is “agree quickly with thine adversary, lest at any time, etc.,” for she has the ballot, for better or worse; for better, I believe, if all of her will use it.

Speaking of women, the discontinuance of the seminaries of our college days may cause some to lament this apparent lack of woman’s refining influence. However, the modern houseparty and the prevailing style of dress make it highly probable that the student of today sees more of the girls than we did. Of that modern instance, the flapper (aptly likened to the bungalow, shingled behind, painted in front and with no upper story) I can only say “though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.”

And yet, I am not one of those pessimists who despair of the future of the sex, for I know of many serious girls and young women who are doing magnificent work in the South and West and in the slums of the East, efficiently accomplishing tasks that would have been deemed improper and impossible by their mid-Victorian forbears. What Voltaire said of the English people: “Froth at the top, dregs at the bottom, but sound and sweet in the middle, like a barrel of their own beer” may be said of the girls of today. Nevertheless, while we are on this topic, and speaking as mere man to mere man, I must confess my failure to understand the psychology that permits the candid use of powder-puff, mirror and the other tools of the toilet, in restaurant, theatre and car, unmindful of the adage, “In van doth the fowler spread his net in sight of his victim.” Equally incomprehensible is the apparent desire of some to make true Kipling’s uncomplimentary definition: “A rag, a bone and a hank of hair.”

Regarding changes in athletics and speaking after the manner of the famous chapter “On Snakes in Ireland,” there were no athletics in our day. Football was represented by an occasional scrimmage on the campus, with Bill Blackmar, a veritable Menelaus, good at the war cry, ingeminating from the steps of Middle College: “Demnition, victory.”

Baseball was better organized. If we thought we could beat, we challenged, but there was no set schedule. We had some fans, as they would nowadays be called. Jim Sherman was one. Jim wore glasses, which bothered him by slipping off his nose as the game proceeded. To prevent this, he had a habit of scooping up dust and sanding his nose. In a short time this dust was converted into mud, whereupon the sanding process was repeated. At the end of a spirited game, Jim closely resembled a Comanche Indian in full war paint.

When, last March, I heard the Hamilton College Choir in the Booth Theatre render medieval chants and Russian folk songs in a manner that commanded the admiration of competent critics, my mind went back to the choirs of our day.  Then we took it more or less as a matter of course when the lowing herd sounded slowly off key. While “touchin’ on and appertainin’ to music,” as Bill Devery would say, I would call attention to the development of that easily played instrument of our childhood, consisting of tissue paper and a comb into the modern saxophone. Personally, I am rather inclined to echo the wish of Dr. Steiner, who said he hoped to live long enough to kill a saxophone player.

What changes 50 years mark in the questions for prize debate. Now, comparatively speaking, they are ephemeral; then they were not of age, but of all time. To be specific, the prize debaters of the Class of 1875, for two-and-a-half hours on a hot June night, wrestled with,“Resolved that all human knowledge is derived from experience.” In that debate I learned one thing, the difference between a priori and a posteriori, like Mark Twain’s Californian, who spent a year in Heidelberg and learned only two words, but he knew those words might well. They were “Zwei Lager.”

Fifty years ago there was a most galling condescension in foreigners, especially Englishmen, for things American, but when Pierre Lorrilard’s Iroquois won the Derby, England began turning her monocle westward.  Now the United States bulks large, especially on the credit side of the international ledger. And we are bound to become more and more a world power, for if it be true, William Jennings Bryan to the contrary, that the fittest survive, that, owing to improvements in weapons, the fox of today is foxier than the fox of yesterday, who can forecast the development possible to the surviving descendants of present-day automobile and income tax dodging Americans?

Halfway up Freshman Hill stands the monument marking the line of property between the Whites and the Indians. Concerning this I recall a remark of Elihu Root’s some time ago. He said the trouble with Hamilton College was that it was on the wrong side of this property line. Apparently, that trouble no longer exists. We have experienced the sweets of adversity. How about the dangers of prosperity? When the public prints bear, as they recently have, such headlines as:

“Want Alumni Spirit Based on Knowledge”
“Emotional Enthusiasm alone may even be a detriment”
“Emotional Enthusiasm alone may even be a detriment”
“The Old Grad. A Back-slider”

And when a college president is quoted as remarking that by preference he would rather be president of States Prison, because there the graduates never came back, it behooves us to tumble to ourselves and see ourselves as faculty and trustees see us. “Barrett Wendell,” I quote from a recent editorial in The New York Times, “used to have what he called a shorter catechism for Harvard men, in which this passage occurred:

Question: What is an Overseer?
Answer: One who oversees.

Question: What does he accomplish?
Answer: An oversight.

Now that Hamilton is arriving (and thank God she is) it is quite within the bounds of imagination to see the Babbitts coming back to reunions in flashing cars, with overdressed wives and underdressed daughters, patronizing president and faculty, asking all sorts of questions, giving all sorts of advice, fairly radiating self-satisfaction.

It was said of Lord John Russell that he was ready at a moment’s notice to pilot the fleet through the English Channel or perform the operation for stone, and that from his manner no one could discover that he had sunk the fleet or killed the patient. Thus the prosperous, self-satisfied alumnus, back to tell the cockeyed world he is some baby, is ready offhand to criticize trustees, president and faculty. If such a state of things should ever be true at Hamilton, as is the case at some colleges, what must be the relief of all when after the tumult and shouting of Commencement dies, “Silence comes like a poultice to heal the blows of sound.”

Of over 50 commencements I have missed only four or five and I can fairly claim to be a hardy annual. In fact, I do not consider my college course as ended yet. I have kept pace with the many changes in personnel and equipment. Consider the changes in the presidency.

Our president, fine scholar and cultured gentleman, seemed to me to dwell apart, like Zeus on the loftiest peak of many-ridged Olympus. President Darling was an interlude. And then came what an English navy called Daniel Webster, “a steam engine in breeches,” and things began to hum on this old Hill. I still remember the thrill that went through us on that cold, rainy November day, 1897, when we flocked back to this place and were shown what had been done and what was to be done.

Then Hamilton distinctly got off the toboggan slide and began her upward march. I tell you the debt this college owes Woolsey Stryker for what he was and what he did is beyond the capabilities of any Dawes Commission to estimate. In the floor of St. Paul’s the slab that covers the remains of its builder, Sir Christopher Wren, bears this legend: “Si quaeris monomentum, circumspice.” So of President Stryker it may be said, if you seek his monument, look about you, at the new buildings and other improvements and don’t forget he gave us Carissima and a decent College color — buff and blue.

What he did for the scholarship of the College is reflected in the high position she occupies among our institutions of learning. To digress, I recall with amusement the feeling of sympathy and pity I had for him, who I had remembered as a slender, dreamy, music-loving student, when I heard that he had accepted the presidency. I wondered what the faculty of gray and grizzled veterans would do to him and his theories.

Imagine my surprise when I heard Dr. Terrett — called upon for an impromptu speech at a Commencement dinner —characterize the government of Hamilton College as a despotism tempered by epigram. In other respects that was memorable dinner. The caterer’s van, in rounding Sophomore Hill had upset and the kerosene for heating the dishes had gotten into the salad. Seth Heacock, speaking at the dinner, said while he was interested in Standard Oil and was always looking for new uses, he drew the line at salad dressing.

And now Dr. Ferry, the fourth president since our day, occupies the chair. When General Grant, in his famous tour around the world, reached Japan he was introduced at a banquet in his honor by a Japanese toastmaster whose command of English was good, but not quite good enough. Wishing to say that General Grant was born to command, he said that General Grant was made to order.  It can be said of President Ferry, also, that he must have been made to order, for he successfully meets every requirement made of him and so far as I may speak for the alumni I pledge him their loyal support.

We sometimes hear Hamilton called Elihu Root’s college. Gentlemen, we can stand it, if Mr. Root can, for this is the best publicity the College could have. In the years past I have induced a very respectable number of boys to go to Hamilton, many of whom had never even heard of Hamilton, but they or their parents had heard of Elihu Root, and when they learned that not only he, but his two sons were graduates, their interest immediately was quickened.

Like Massachusetts, Mr. Root needs no encomium. His place among the great men of his time is assured, and in common with all Americans, we have been proud of his achievements. But in his steady, unwavering loyalty to our common Alma Mater, we take a particular pride.

Generous with his means, for 50 years Mr. Root has been more generous of his time and of his interest in this little-known struggling college, until now, largely by his efforts and the efforts of those whom his example has influenced, Hamilton is making most satisfactory progress.

In his long and arduous career as leader of the American Bar, as Secretary of War, as Secretary of State, as United States Senator, and as citizen of the world, Elihu Root’s devotion to the College has known no variableness nor shadow of turning. No man has been more regular than he at all Hamilton functions. His assured presence at all meetings of the Board of Trustees, of which he has long been president, has inspired a like fidelity among his colleagues.  Today, I am safe in saying no institution of its kind can boast a more competent, zealous board of trustees than can Hamilton.

When, in some future time, the muse of Hamilton’s history shall make up the roll of her benefactors, “dipping her pen in the sunlight, she will write in the clear blue, above them all: the name of the steadfast friend, the wise counselor, the loyal alumnus — Elihu Root.