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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1898 Letter

Henry White

Delivered: June 12, 1948

Today “our thoughts turn backward over the long way the kindly years have led us.” To “jump o’er times and turn the accomplishment of many years into an hour glass” is not easy. For it always takes 50 years to grow an annalist’s letter; and such fruitage of the years plucked by one man’s hand, in the marketing, may readily lose its rightful flavor. Who could be adequate to the task of setting forth the chronicles of the Class of 1898 — living as we have throughout the most eventful years of the world’s history? Surely not this scribe, try as he may.

When some of us sat in this Chapel on that far off June day in 1898, hearing an attractive old grad read his story of how things were on the Hill in 1848, we wondered how it would feel to be that old. Now we know; and by the way, young fellow, it isn’t too bad. Wrinkles, bald heads and gray hair are Father Time’s receipts for favors granted. They must not be despised. Let irreverent youth beware the bears of Elisha! Soon, they too, will have nothing on us!

But “what can one bring to lay upon thy bier, O’ yesterday?”

I. Can we not widely bring some fair recollection of man’s estate at the turn of the century and rejoice for the course the years? Naturally we old timers see the days of our youth in a sort of roseate haze and oft times with misty eyes. But despite the glamour of the Gay-Nineties, no one can be unaware of the marvelous advances which the last 50 years have brought to us all.

A half-century is a long time in any man’s or institution’s life. Fifty years ago America was rural, not urban. Most of the students at Hamilton were country boys with moderate means. The population of the United States, including Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma, (not yet states) as well as Hawaii and Alaska, was less than 75 million. We still believed George Washington was right, and would enter no entangling alliances with Europe. The Monroe Doctrine was still a debatable question. Germany was considered the most progressive state in Europe, and a Ph.D. degree from one of her great universities was “tops” in American education circles.

Our regular army boasted 28,100 men. There was no threat of conscription. The Spanish-American War, which enlisted a very few Hamilton men, was considered by Americans as a holy crusade essential to the freedom of millions of Earth’s down-trodden people. The national debt was approximately $300 million. Income and inheritance taxes were unknown. Great fortunes were accumulating; and several philanthropic and educational foundations had been established — in one of which, the Carnegie Foundation, we were a beneficiary. We talked much of “Bloated Aristocrats,” “The Predatory Rich,” “Unregulated Wealth.” Labor unions were in the incubator stage. There were no eight-hour days and 40-hour weeks; nor double wages for overtime. The Sherman Act, not the Taft-Hartley Bill, was in the news.

The electric light was still in the laboratory. We boned by the light of student lamps; and lampposts marked the principle walks on the campus and up the Hill. The horseless carriage was a joke. There was no gallivanting 50 to 75 miles for us to visit some fair one. The O&W Railway and a horse-and-buggy were our nearest approach to speed. The girls of Houghton and Cottage Seminaries and of the town were our likeliest source of feminine inspiration. The radio was 30 years away and television was unknown. Aeronautics was largely confined to balloon ascensions at county fairs. Insulin, penicillin, successful inoculation against typhoid and diphtheria were years away. How much that half-century brought us! No other as yet can equal it.

But these annals would chronicle many compensating features for the old days we commemorate. When a man of the Class of 1898 married it was really “for better or for worse” and “until death do us part.” Then there was one divorce for every 2,000 marriages in the United States. Now it is one for three. Cocktail lounges and women in a barroom were not yet. The jukebox was unknown and boogie-woogie was still in the jungle. We did not dance to jazz and jitterbug rhythm. Psychiatry and psychoanalysis were not in our books. In our day, “soul disorders took priority over psychoses.”

Back in 1898 the future was rosy for every college man who would work. There was an opportunity for riches for some of us, for great public services for others, and a life of usefulness and comparative security for all of us. No one had yet dreamed of even one global conflict, much less two. The atomic bomb was beyond the thinking of the most advanced physicist. Nietzsche’s brutal theories had not yet hatched out Hitler’s Buckenwald; nor had the materialistic atheism of Karl Marx yet organized itself into an international state. Yes, there were compensations for the lacks of our day. The four freedoms were ours in a measure few intelligent men would claim. We were confident even as, with a catch in our throats we sang, “Out, out in the cold, cold world.”

II. In the second place this day brings back the remembrance of as fine a group of friendly men as ever graced this hilltop. Perhaps we were not yet as quiet and orderly as some classes have been; nor was the Class of 1898 especially noted for its scholarship record — although we had the usual number of Phi Beta Kappa men and took up most of the honors allowed. Professor Hopkins is reported to have said, “The Class of 1898’s learning should be measured by horsepower, not by mental comparisons.” But we enjoyed life, and our College and fraternity life was rich in its friendships. We would like to think that we were living up to Old Greek’s motto for us, as it may be freely translated, “Common sense is the best coin.”

We started with 43 men in September 1894. Thirty were listed in the classical course, nine in the Latin-scientific course and four as special students. One of the special students, Alberti De Frank, was a negro. Dan LeMont was a picturesque character who ended his career as the first Hamilton casualty in the first World War. Finn, Holly, Reed and Wright were sons of alumni. The inevitable changes that came to the class were set forth in the Hamiltonian in the following impressive verses by J. R. Babcock:

As 1897 mourns the loss of loved ones gone before,
We likewise now in tears lament the loss of near a score.
For 1898 in Freshman year had right good men to burn
But now, alas, in Junior year, we long for their return.

Old ‘Fat’ Robbins and Bachman slim,
Smith, Stanton and ‘Cookie’ with ‘Howdie’ trim,
Wells, Stevens and Bristol and ‘Caius’ Lee
And Dan LeMont who went to sea.

It amazes one who sits down to call up those days how many things quite incidental but assuredly important, to a college education, crop up in one’s memory. “Thus aged men,” Scott says, “the vanities of life forego, and count their youthful follies o’er.”

Some will remember Empie and Finn charging through the arbor against an entrenched foe; some, that dark night when a scurf flag was hauled down from the College pole; others, the charging with which we discovered that somehow wily Cornelius DeRegt and his cohorts had every Chapel seat back in place on the morning after that night when 13 adventurous members of our class had successfully removed them. How incisive was Prexy’s Chapel speech that morning! But it all evaporated in a faculty warning and some enforced vacations.

Then there was Frenchy’s pepper act in Old Hop’s room, which also drew an enforced vacation. Possibly some will find themselves smiling over Brigg’s heartrending excuses to “Hops,” or Harry Stone’s exaltation over “bleeding” Square Root in math; or can see again John Holly in a dash worthy of Dagwood himself, making Chapel clad only in rubber boots and an overcoat. Perhaps one of us sold his Chapel seat to some gullible freshman; or in our turn, believed some fanciful stories about Prexy’s Bible or Schnitzy’s German sentences. Then too, there was that lamp-lighting philosopher, “Dust and Ashes” Pete Kelly, who seemed to know in what closet of what room a stray bottle might be found. Pete was always good for a laugh, as was Brick Blake, behind the College team and a snowplow. And gentle, bewhiskered Tommy Hud sitting at the receipt of custom, listening to hard luck stories and extending term bills. Or perchance, your smiles are in the remembrance of that caricature of Prexy’s “Kirkland Inn,” a small building at the foot of the Hill which opened one morning all plastered with livid green, inviting customers to sample “Hop’s Eye-Opener” or try a “B. G. Cocktail.” Did any class ever call forth more faculty warnings than did the Class of 1898? As a matter of discipline, we had no freshman prize speakers. Much to Prexy’s disgust, ours was the first class to refuse to wear caps and gowns in senior year. Sad to relate on the morning following that unforgettable Senior Ball, every man of us on the Commencement stage broke, in delivering his oration. The record stands; we do not glory in it; but count ourselves fortunate to be able to smile over most of it.

In our day, it was collegiate for football men to cultivate long hair and to wear heavy turtleneck sweaters and look as hard as Roman warriors. Mustaches adorned some faces. In one class picture there were three, Ed Noble’s being the most luxuriant with Gid Empie’s a close second. High collars, chokers or wings adorned every manly neck in the pictures for the Hamiltonians of our day. A derby hat was a necessity for a well-dressed man.

But there were compensating features. In one “ad” in the Hamiltonian, one “George Hill, Practical Trailor” offered suits made to order, satisfaction guaranteed, for $16. A good pair of shoes cost $3.50, and a first-class haircut when indulged in cost 15 cents. The College Catalogue that lured us to gave the estimated annual expenses as ranging from $237 to $382. This included class and fraternity taxes and subscriptions to College publications. The Catalogue further stated that “by stringent economy one can go through the college year upon $300; $450 is comfortable, $500 is liberal, and any sum above $600 is extravagant.” Actually one member of the class spent in freshman year for everything except clothing and tuition only $164. Who will say these were not “good old days?”

We believed then that the Balkan question could be solved: That some day Tennyson’s dream of a federation of the World and a Parliament of Man would be an actuality. We had lived through the depression of Grover Cleveland’s day, the Klondike was open, great oil fields were being discovered, the laws were generous — men’s hopes were high. Actually these days marked the beginning of the amazing scientific technical and industrial advances of the 20th century.

III. In tribute to our yesterdays, we may also bring a brief record of the living members of the class. Our class was more nearly typical than exceptional. It was a group of men trained after the Hamilton tradition, in basic classical knowledge, generally loyal to high ideals of character and conduct, and honorably intent upon becoming useful and successful citizens.

It has been estimated that even of college graduates and professional men, at least two percent are moral failures, down-and-outs in life. There are a few men on our roll of whom we have no information, yet we venture to suggest that the generally high level of attainment in the Class of 1898 helps to keep the name of Hamilton — as it has usually been — among the leaders in the realm of higher education in its proportion of successful graduates. Twelve of our number have found an honorable place in the necrology list of the College, some of them with exceptional records. Of the 17 living members whose records are known to this scribe, four are excellent lawyers: Allen, Briggs, Cunningham and Wright, the latter having been federal judge and now is bank president. Two were successful teachers: Neil White, a superintendent of schools, and Minor, a learned professor of the University of California. Harry Stone became well known in Y.M.C.A. work and in Masonic circles in New Jersey lectured much, especially on George Washington.

Allan Ames is the senior partner in one of the oldest and best-known concerns in public relations counseling, whose clients include important corporations, trade associations and social, philanthropic and religious societies of our times. Clem France wound up in Providence, R.I., where as a lawyer and public servant he gave his state exceptional service in the Department of Social Welfare. A last-minute report announces that he has just been admitted to the practice of law before the Supreme Court and is running for governor of Rhode Island on the third-party ticket. Clem must think that life begins at 70. Stan Butler, John Holly and By Turnbull are prosperous businessmen. Empie, Piercy and White — every one with an honest “D.D.” — have made good in the ministry. Two doctors complete the list, Ted Reed a noted orthopedic surgeon of California, and Hymen Weber, who was a missionary to Africa and has one of the most outstanding records of our own or any other class. His record of distinguished service would easily fill a good-sized catalog, telling of degrees and honors he has received, scientific collections he has made and of his notable missionary service under the Presbyterian Church to the Cameroon. He was largely responsible for the erection of more than 40 brick buildings used in the work of his mission to lepers and for the healing of tropical diseases and the education of the natives. Dr. Weber holds a high place in the missionary annals of his church.

It is of more than passing interest in such a record to note that many of the men of 1898, even though at Hamilton seemingly indifferent to religion, later became active in some church and responsible leaders in a cause which earlier they had neglected. “Grin” Rogers was one such, as his nickname implies, he was rated as “one good fellow” by all of us. He was a fine halfback and otherwise active in College life but little interested in its religious life. As an alumnus, however, making good in business, he became an elder of the Presbyterian Church of Lockport, superintendent of its Sunday School and until his death, widely known throughout the state as a leader in Y.M.C.A. and church work. I submit if this were universally true of college men, it would argue well for the continuing greatness of America. Democracy has never thrived in pagan and secular surroundings.

IV. Once again 1898 would pay grateful tribute to the College of our days, even as we express the hope of a better College yet to be.

We came to Hamilton in the midst of change. M.W. Stryker, then three years in the presidency, was injecting new life into every phase of the College’s life. During our days the Chapel interior was refinished; the Hall of Science and Hall of Languages were erected; a reservoir was built, water was piped to the campus and outdoor plumbing was forgotten. While Hamilton had liberalized enough to offer a Latin scientific course and to accept special students, Prexy stood pat on Greek requirements for the A.B. degree and waxed many a valiant battle in its behalf.

Under Stryker’s dynamic leadership Hamilton became a singing college. Carissima was born, and football songs found their throats; a new hymn book was introduced for chapel, and a new organ helped Prexy’s choir to lift such a volume of song as few colleges then could boast. The fellows sang their way up the Hill evenings and after dinner in the frat houses. We used to see Prexy’s neck swell out and his face grow red as he put all he had into some favorite hymn in Sunday chapel.

More and more we were becoming Hill-centered. There was talk of a Commons, of a Hamilton Inn, of bringing all the frat houses to campus. The Class of 1898 was the first to hold Commencement in this Chapel.

When we entered College, there were only 17 members on the faculty — 11 of them being full professors. Only the president received more than $1,500 salary. Five of the faculty, including the president, were Presbyterian ministers. Clergymen and lawyers made up almost two-thirds of our body of alumni. There were six ministers and eight lawyers on the Board of Trustees, along with 13 businessmen.

Although our Hamiltonian was filled with “scurfs” of the faculty, today we look back to that handful of mentors with gratitude and respect. We venture to suggest that no Hamilton class has ever had the privilege of more adequate instruction, more satisfying association with faculty men of personal worth, real culture and honest scholarship, than our class did. Where could one find abler men, both as teachers and preachers, than Square Root, Bill Nye and Prexy Stryker? Where could one find finer teachers of languages than Old Greek, Little Greek, Schnitzy Brandt, Old Hops, and that rising young scholar Bill Shep? Or scientists more effective as teachers and friends than Bugs Morrill, Pills Saunders, Bill Squires and Rocks Smythe? Every one was a Christian man.

The Hamilton College of our day was unique among eastern colleges in at least two respects, both of which, unless I am sadly mistaken, most of us of the Class of 1898 deem as among the most helpful influences of our lives.

1. We are grateful that we attended a small classical college wherein written and spoken English were wedded in practical and required some courses extending throughout our whole four years. Granted that it was distasteful to some, that many educators discounted its value and urged that it stole valuable time from more essential subjects, yet most of us old-timers regret any changes at Hamilton that would rob our grandsons of such a training in speech as we enjoyed. It is a regret to us that K.P. and Prize Debate have been shunted to places of subordinate importance. These were gala events of the senior year of our day. May Hamilton College never forget wherein her greatest fame hath lain.

2. Most of us, too, are grateful that we attended a college of strong Christian traditions, with morning Chapel, a College church, a more or less active Y.M.C.A., a four years required course in Bible. In this connection, let me remind you that the great majority of Hamilton students have always come from church homes. Probably 90 percent of the members of the Class of 1898 were nominally members of some church, even though they may not have been active members. Up to and throughout President Stryker’s administration, every president had been a Presbyterian minister. The presidents since, worthy of great honor though they have been, have added little luster in any kind of leadership — cultural, social or administrative — which their predecessors had not manifested. Even though we kicked against the pricks of compulsory Chapel, what an education it was to hear men like President Stryker and Dr. Terrett speak on the great themes drawn from the Bible. Unconsciously, perhaps, but surely most of us were enjoying one of the greatest cultural privileges of our lives, when every day in Chapel we heard a passage from God’s word and listened to a prayer from an honest man.

In support of this contention, let me submit this announcement taken from the Class of 1899 Hamiltonian and dated October 19, 1897, when the College Chapel was being refinished, “Students put in a petition for morning Chapel to be held in the gym until the Chapel is completely renovated.” This annalist therefore ventures to say — May Hamilton College never forget her founding; may she never become a school which simply prepares men technically for a job or profession. It is not enough in these critical days simply to acquire competence in some particular occupation. An effective education in character values is demanded today, one which makes men ready to perform their full Christian duty as citizens, as parents, as patriots, and producers of worthwhile things.

Today the Class of 1898 has come to what may be our last conspicuous appearance as a class in these beloved surroundings. We will not mourn. We have enjoyed great privileges. We are profoundly grateful for Hamilton as she was, as she is, and please God, as she will be. Do you remember Prexy’s baccalaureate? His text was Rom. 8:28 — “All things work together for good to them who love God.” He called us to a sound optimism, and committed us and our ways to Samuel Kirkland’s God.

I hold
That it becomes no man to nurse despair
But in the teeth of clenched antagonisms
To follow up the worthiest, till he die.

Every one of you, whatever he has misdone
thus far (sic! I wonder what he was thinking of?
Why did he bring that up?) - Yet stands for a splendid
possibility. Stand in with the constructors – not the
censors. Instead of pulling back the freight of the
years, push it along!

These days will pass swiftly for us as days have a way of doing. The changes are sure and ordained of God. They will be good. Let us learn with Ritchie Smith to believe:

The sunset is as radiant as the dawn
Nor doth the world’s horizon bound the sky,
Earth’s day of toil is measured by the sun:
The lights of heaven appear when day is done.