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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1885 Letter

Charles Howard Kelsey

Delivered: June 1935

To the survivors of the Class of 1885 at their 50th anniversary, the 123rd commencement of Hamilton College and the 110th annual meeting of the society of the alumni … Greetings!

In the fall of 1881 we rated, by the College Catalogue, a membership of 42, but in reality only 40 ever answered freshman role call, as Callahan and Pughe never materialized.

The new class confronted a formidable task, the Class of 1884 being the largest class, which up to that time had ever entered Hamilton. The 40 freshman faced 64 sophomores, but made up in activity and daring what they lacked in numbers. Your presiding officer and I had the honor of defending the south second floor hall in Middle College; Miller at second front corner and Kelsey at second back middle during the rowing season when “ducking” was the rule. If a sophomore stuck his head below the ceiling to see if the coast were clear, he got the contents of Tom’s giant squirt gun, while if one tried to come up the stairs, he met the contents of the water pail of the other defender. As a result, that hall came to be shunned by all Sophs.

The campus, even then termed the most beautiful in the land, was far from what it is today. There were only nine college buildings, South, the Chapel, Middle and North colleges; in the rear, the remodeled Knox Hall or Cabinet, the barn-like gymnasium and the laboratory; at the North end, Litchfield Observatory, presided over by “Twinkle,” Christian Henry Frederick Peters of asteroid fame, with his satellite, Borst, and on the east side, Perry H. Smith Library Hall.

Eight men composed the active faculty: President Henry Darling, Professors Peters, North (beloved “Old Greek” to every man in college), Kelsey, Root, Chester, Hopkins and Frink, a far cry from today, when, according to President Ferry’s report last year, the College was congratulated on having provided residences for 28 of its officers and at that the number was not sufficient to satisfy the demand.

The whole student body of our day was less that 180, or barely more than a freshman class today.

Physically, the College buildings were equipped about as in my father’s day, 1856-60, save that coal stoves had replaced fireplaces and kerosene the tallow candle, but all water still came from the old College well by the Cabinet. The one great advance was the installation of a single telephone in Bentley’s bookstore in Middle College. What mattered the absence of so-called modern conveniences! We were all young and happy in our work, each with his favorite among the professors, the mathematicians with “Square” Root, the classical men with “Old Greek” and “Hops — the squarest man on the faculty” and other with Chester, called “Buffalo Bill” for some occult reason.

The roster for the Class of 1885, as it still rings in memory — and I can “spiel” it against a stopwatch — changed much from freshman year. King from Western Reserve, “Toby” Park from Pittsburgh and VanMeter from Rochester joined our ranks for the full course while others dropped, and the roll became: Allen, Arnold, Balabanoff, Bartlett, Bentley, Bradford, Burrill, Carmer, Chase, Clark, Cornwell, Darling, Davidson, Flett, Ford, Holman, Jones, Kelsey, King, Kruse, Larabee, Lathrop, Lawyer, Lee, Maben, Marsh, Miller, Ormiston, Park, Parsons, Rodgers, Ruggles, Smith, Swift, VanMeter, Wager, White, Wood.

Of these, Bentley, Chase, Lee, Maben and Parsons dropped out before senior year and Balabanoff remained a special. On July 2, 1885, the class was graduated, 32 receiving the degree of A.B. Of these, 13, Allen, Arnold, Carmer, Davidson, Flett, Ford, Jones, Kelsey, Kruse, Miller, Rodgers, Ruggles and Wager, with Balabanoff as a special, survive at this writing. Of those at one time connected with the class, M.K. Merwin is living.

After that July day in the Old Stone Church in the village, what a scattering there was! In a few weeks “Deacon” Wood was in Ceylon; “Pa” Ormiston in Constantinople; Bradford in South Africa; Rodgers preparing for his life work in Manila, and so it went.

I recall my surprise one morning finding a letter postmarked “Woonsocket, S.D.,” on my newspaper desk. I had heard of the place as one boomed as a site for the capitol of that new state and wondered who could have written me from there. I found the letter came from Tom Miller, and at once wrote asking what the deuce (or words to that effect) he was doing out there in Woonsocket. Back came the reply, “I am in charge of a church here.” My wonder at finding myself a newspaper man was as nothing to my astonishment at Tom’s elevation in the world, and I made a very hasty mental inventory of the newspaper language in which I had couched my inquiry.

You all remember DeRegt, whose eagle eye inspected every College building in the wee sma’ hours daily for evidence of upperclassman deviltry. The only time the Class of 1885 “put one over on him” happened in this wise: A small group of 1885 mischief-makers, caught in a heavy shower late at night in front of the Chapel, considered various schemes for the discomfiture of the Class of 1884. Finally someone, I think it was George Chase, suggested giving the sophomore seat cushions a thorough soaking on the grass. The rain did its work well. The wet cushions escaped DeRegt’s vigilance and no sooner were the Sophs seated at the regular morning chapel when they began to stir around uneasily and look up at the ceiling, then started sitting on their books to our intense enjoyment. Some turned around and caught the grins on freshman faces, while others, as they filled out of Chapel slyly felt of freshman cushions as they passed.

It was certainly some row which started the instant the freshman advanced guard appeared in the Chapel lobby, where the irate and wet sophs were awaiting them, a row which was only stopped through the muscular efforts of “Hops,” the Rev. Abel Grosvenor Hopkins, who certainly knew some things not found in any lexicon.

The high light of our sophomore year, in my memory, was the time when the rowing season was abruptly called off by the upperclassmen because of the Sexton incident.

Coming from a famous Eastern preparatory school, this freshman thought it necessary to carry a revolver for protection and drew it one evening on one of our classmates. The next morning he was seen telling his story to Prexy on the lower campus. The instant he left the presidential protection a group of our men set out after him. Long-legged Bradford was the first to grab him, despite the flourished revolver, and the rest were not far behind. The idea was to take him down in the ravine where water could be found to cool his heated head, but en route he espied Professor Kelsey and appealed for protection. He got it, and his captors stood firm while their names were taken.

As a result, there wasn’t a Sig or a Deke sophomore in College that afternoon, while Ruggles and some others were also “out” for ducking “Newky” Cleveland on the Observatory steps. This broke up sophomore recitations. After repeated pow-wows with the faculty, at which all concerned showed up, whether summoned or not, we were told to surrender the revolver to Mr. Sexton and all would be re-instated. We “took time out” and sent an emissary to Utica with the gun. He returned with a duplicate, which was duly turned over — but the revolver still reposes in 1885’s class box.

In junior year came the Class of 1885’s memorable class ride on Billy Rob’s old tally-ho. We were bowling along, late at night, homeward bound, when a watchman on upper Genesee Street tried to climb up behind to stop us. Before hostilities could commence, he explained he wanted us to serenade Colonel Reynolds, of shoe fame. We did, and the good colonel “opened up” until we pleaded with him to stop. It was probably a portent of my later career that I was deputized to telephone the item to the Utica Herald, my first venture as a newspaper reporter, the very last line I ever expected to follow. In subsequent years, other classes endeavored to follow-up 1885’s serenade, but the colonel’s residence always remained dark.

Speaking of newspapers, it is a strange fact that of my fraternity delegation in the Class of 1885, the two survivors up to last year had all passed their days in newspaper work. Today I alone remain, yet no one has ever accounted the third estate conducive to longevity. The newspaper field has its fascinations, if not its great emoluments. The star reporter rubs elbows with the great and near- great of his city and senate. Congressmen, senators, governors, bankers and heads of great industries learn to “lay their cards on the table” with implicit confidence that the trust will not be betrayed. Representing his paper, he travels with presidential candidates and reports great party conventions.

I will never forget the thrill of pride in “Old Hamilton” and her greatest living son that swept over me when, in the Chicago convention which marked the final split between Taft and Roosevelt, I saw Elihu Root, chairman of delegates, twirling his gavel over his fingers, until he faced Bill Flynn of Pittsburgh, who was standing on a chair waving both arms in the air and shouting his head off.

“Mr. Flynn,” said the chairman firmly, “you will take your seat or, delegate or no delegate, I will have you ejected from this convention.” Bill eyed the chairman for an instant sat down and shut up. “Gee,” said a Pittsburgh reporter at the next table, “I didn’t think there was a man living who could ‘call’ Bill Flynn.”

We are all of us with our faces turned toward the setting sun. As I sit here jotting down these reminiscences of half a century ago, St. Petersburg’s noted sunshine flooding everything, the fronds of the palms waving in the breeze and the Royal Poincianas a blaze of glory all over the city, my thoughts turn to those of our number who have gone before.

First, I think, was “Pat” Darling, who met an untimely fate with his wife and child in Chicago in 1893, though George Chase, who was with us up to senior year, passed away in Central America in 1891. Then comes speculation as to the life which left its imprint on the greatest number and for the greatest good. For that honor I would nominate good old “Deacon” Wood.

But the member of the Class of 1885 who has left the most tangible evidence of a successful life is one who, in his College days, was lank and lean, homely and even uncouth, and he least likely, it would have been thought, ever to rank with big financiers. As the traveler from Chicago on the Milwaukee road nears Kansas City, he sees, off to the left, a gigantic flour milling plant, capacity 18,000 barrels a day, and emblazoned across its wide front: “The Larabee Flour Mills Company.” Yes, Frank S. Larabee was the founder of that company and its president until his death in 1921, and Larabee flour is a household word through the middle west and is even found on grocer’s shelves in this Florida city. After graduation, Larabee went to Stafford, Kansas, and engaged in banking. He was president of the Farmers’ National Bank of Stafford until his death, served as mayor of Stafford, was a candidate for presidential elector on the Republican ticket in 1892, president of the Board of Regents of the Kansas State Normal School at Emporia, and also the organizer of the Mid-Continental Iron Company in the Ozarks. With his brother, he was joint owner of 10 casing-head gasoline plants, large tracts of land in Kansas, through a resident of Kansas City, and member of prominent clubs when cut off by appendicitis.

Turning back to that July day 50 years ago, which marked the end of happy-go-lucky College days, I have my last memory of Prof. Edward North, “Old Greek” to all of us. In the salutatory I had referred to the class motto, “Ethelourgois Theos Sunergei,” as given “ex Graeca, a Graeco.” On leaving the stage I encountered the old professor, who came toward me with outstretched hand and a twinkle in the faded eyes back of the old fashioned steel-bowed spectacles he always wore. He said, in his usual soft drawl: “Why didn’t you say ‘antiquo’?” A touch of the old Attic salt!

A sketch of Hamilton of half a century ago would not be complete without mention of a feature lacking in the Hamilton of today, the sister institution on the other side of the Oriskany, Houghton Seminary, where members of the Class of 1885 found their sweethearts and some of them their wives. Hamilton, without Houghton, “would not be what it used to was” for a lot of us old codgers. I escaped with a college engagement, to fall before a pair of dark-eyes in Marquette, the girl who has made me all I am or ever hope to be. Stevenson’s tribute to his wife is a veritable word-picture of her.

But I have wandered up and down and all around in this half-century talk and must close with the hope that the old College will continue to grow in beauty and renown and that many future sons will bring their sheaves of success to lay them at her feet.

May each successive president in the years to come be able to utter the proud boast of the old Roman poet — I quote from memory the lines as scanned:

Exegi monument’ aere perennuis,
Regalique situ, pyramid’ altius,
Quod non Imber edax, non Aequil impotens,
Possit diruer’ aut annorum series
Et fuga temporum.