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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Way Back Then, and Later

John K. Hutchens, Class of 1926

Delivered: October 9, 1976

The calendar tells us that this is Saturday, October 9, 1976, but of course, it is nothing of the kind. It is a September Thursday, a fair number of years ago — specifically, a September 21, and what is going on today? President Warren G. Harding is signing the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Bill, whatever that is. Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees is hitting a home run to defeat the Detroit Tigers, 9 to 8. In the field of higher education, 35 Harvard student waiters have been dismissed for eating too much. An institution in Schenectady, N.Y., whose name escapes me at the moment, is preparing for the first game of the football season. The president of Dartmouth is saying that too many men are going to college. There will be an eclipse of the sun today that will somehow test Professor Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. But the real news of this September 21 is that when the sun re-emerges it will be brighter because a class of 111 freshmen is entering upon the first day of the academic year of 1922-23 at Hamilton College.

All but 22 of them are from New York State, only four from west of the Mississippi River, including one who is said to have come by covered wagon from a strange place called Montana. One member of the class almost did not arrive here at all — one Joseph L. Katz, of New Rochelle, N.Y., who stepped off the Toonerville Trolley connecting Utica and Clinton, got in a rented car going in the wrong direction, and was halfway to Colgate, of all places, when a thoughtful Providence intervened and turned him around. (And what, by the way, would the Class of '26 done without him?)

At our first chapel, President Frederick Carlos Ferry, a rather remote, austere figure, welcomes us to the community of higher education, and trusts that we will attain the 110-year-old goal of Hamilton College: the ideal of the well-rounded man who has been exposed to the benefits of liberal arts learning. The sophomores and upperclassmen do not greet us quite so warmly. We are "slimers," we are warned to wear our green "beanies" on campus at all times and to salute our betters, including the faculty, first and with proper respect. A small blue book distributed by the campus Y.M.C.A. advises us that we are to wait for sophomores and upperclassmen to leave any College building before we do. We are aware that among our parents there is a certain amount of concern: beginning with our Class of '26, the annual tuition has been raised from $120 to a resounding $150. Is inflation under way, they are wondering? And for a week's board at the Hall of Commons fee — $6.50 — does seem a bit extreme, considering the fare, which includes breakfast rolls that — cheerfully tossed from one table to another — come under the heading of lethal weapons.

But still, here it is, this wonderful new existence. On the very next day we have an intimation of greatness. There are all — all 111 of us, I venture to say — and there on the Chapel podium is a short, gray-haired, 77-year-old man, who, in a sense, is Hamilton College. He is introduced by President Ferry not as the former secretary of state, former secretary of war, former United States Senator from New York, but as "Mr. Elihu Root, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Hamilton College and valedictorian of the Class of 1864." He speaks in a voice so low that we lean forward to listen. He talks of the Hamilton of his time and that of his father and brother who held the chair of mathematics here for more than half a century, and then he concludes: "Gentlemen, in four years you will reach commencement when you will go out into a world in which 70 is not a passing mark."

A rather startling number of us will not be here for four years, but of course we cannot foresee that. For Hamilton is not, in this year of 1922, at all hard to be admitted to. Nothing more had been necessary for us than a certificate from the school at which we had ostensibly been prepared, assuming that the school was approved by the faculty of the College. That (and I quote) "a satisfactory testimonial of conduct and character." No problem about that last, naturally. Are we not, all 111 of us in Chapel this September morning, nature's solemn intent on enlightenment?

Well, perhaps not all. Overconfidence has its dangers. By next fall, 77 of the 111 will remain. I have no data to explain the absence of the missing 34, but anyone can guess why, for the most part. That list of requirements for freshmen — 16 hours including fairly elementary mathematics, English Composition, public speaking, two foreign languages an elective — is not going to be so simple as it sounds, as the attrition rate following midterm and final examinations will attest.

It truly was a small college then, its undergraduate body in our first year totaling a mere 321. Its faculty was proportionately small. Its departments of philosophy, German, history, geology, biology and economics were each headed by a single professor. On that faculty were men to whom all of us must be forever grateful — William Pierce Shepard, an internationally renowned French scholar. Robert Barnes Rudd, a dynamically inspirational teacher of English, and his colleague, Frank Humphrey Ristine, thorough, methodical, whose course in Shakespeare, among others, would become an enduring treasure in his students' lives. Albro David Morrill, whose courses in biology — or so my classmates tell me who majored in science — provided a handsome head start for them in graduate school. Cleveland King Chase, professor of Latin, and Edward Fitch, professor of Greek, who together made the classics a living presence. Arthur Percy Saunders, professor of chemistry, famous breeder of peonies and the College's chief importer of cultural figures from the outside world. Paul Adee Fancher, choirmaster, who carried Hamilton's name far beyond the campus and a teacher of English Composition with a gift for the terse, instructive phrase. One of those phrases has remained in at least one of his students' memory all down the years — "more verbs, and not so many adjectives."

They all had their affectionate nicknames — Bill Shep, Bobby, Chubby, Bugs, Trot, Little Greek, Stink, Smut — and I have by no means cited all of them. I think back to a teacher whose idea of a course was the simple rewording of this every word in a notebook to be turned in each week, and woe betide the student who failed to set down the teacher's little jokes. Or another who sadistically bullied his students in open class. At the risk of sacrilege, I would have to say that, Hamilton being then at a curious transitional point, some of us had reason to feel that we were short-changed in certain areas — that Hamilton was not then altogether so good a college as it should have been, and later was to become.

For the early beginning of its improvement I think we may, however belatedly, credit that temperamentally distant gentlemen, President Ferry, whose difficult task it was in 1917 to succeed the tempestuous Melancthon Woolsey Stryker. While we were engaged in our sundry pursuits, as we did not realize then, President Ferry was raising faculty salaries to a respectable level, decreasing the faculty-student classroom ratio, creating new faculty housing units and notably expanding the College's physical equipment.

Fellow contemporaries of Hamilton in the 1920s, I suggest that we might well apologize, this time long after, for the too facile jests we make about him, especially his mathematician's penchant for the use of statistics to cover just about everything, from the advent of the winter solstice to the probable number of students with an honor average in economics who may someday become corporate executives.

We lived those years in a pastoral place whose charm remains unforgettable the russet wonder of the Oriskany Valley in autumn as we looked down upon it from our hilltop, the verdant springtime on a campus that has few peers. Even those rugged winters have, in retrospect, their appeal. We complained ever so bitterly about them at the time. We would later take a certain pride in the fact that we lived through them — somewhat, I suppose, like the survivors of Admiral Perry's trip to the North Pole. We would remember the Chapel in the cold, clear moonlight, and the sled-rides down the icy hill road as far as Oriskany Creek, and the snow into which we jumped from a second-story dormitory window.

It was also an isolated place. To be sure, there was Utica to get away on a Saturday night, there to have dinner in some Italian restaurant serving toxic prohibition wine, and perhaps later to investigate certain educational aspects of life not specified in the College catalogue. A senior well off enough to own a car could escape for a long weekend. For others, the Hill was home, week in, week out, which inevitably led as time went on to a condition known as being stir-crazy. One release was the hoax, though we produced nothing so interesting as that event in the 19th century when a group of impetuous young men shelled a Hamilton professor's house with an 1812 war cannon. Our best remembered one was when a couple of rascals who until recently have been nameless hereabouts fabricated and with great skill publicized an appearance at Chapel by Charlie Chaplin, bringing some hundreds of people on a rainy night to hear his announced speech on the cinema as a career. The Chapel was dark. Mr. Chaplin certainly was not present. The would-be audience rioted. President Ferry employed detectives who prowled the campus for a week. The statute of limitations has presumably expired, but I am still not sure I would bet on it.

In short, ours was an age of innocence. One's mind skips about among memories. The pushing and shoving matches between freshmen and sophomores after morning chapel. The freshmen and sophomore banquets and the elaborate kidnapping schemes designed to break them up. The tugs-of-war that dragged the losing class through an icy fountain. Chapel itself, compulsory on weekdays and Sundays.

Sunday! As likely as not the speaker would be of a recent graduate of a theological seminary talking off a doctoral thesis relating to the number of angels capable of assembling on the head of a pin. After the prescribed 40 minutes of this, the case watches we carried then started clicking throughout an impatient congregation, the young theologian retired in embarrassment, the service concluded, the day went on.

But we ourselves, of course, were public speakers of a sort. We had to be. These were those three or four hours a week of speaking courses for four straight years under the tutelage of Calvin Leslie Lewis and Willard Bostwick Marsh. If any one of us denies that he knew of an acute sense of terror on the day of his first memorized speech in Chapel, I suggest that he is toying with the truth. The shadow of it clouded the week before that debut. But, suddenly, there it was. The long walk up this aisle. The bow to Professor Lewis or Professor Marsh. The bow to the audience. The desperate attempt to remember not only the words but the gestures appropriate to the issue at hand — gestures that were said not to have changed in a hundred years or so. Three steps forward and to the right, and then an indignation of resigned acceptance of an imagined opponent's inadequate intelligence. The gesture of moral indignation — the right hand raised, the index finger trembling slightly as the speaker intoned, "Forbid it, Almighty God!" It didn't matter just what was being forbidden, but it did give a magnificent feeling of authority and perhaps a hint of an inside track with parties on high. And I do believe that for all that initial terror, enhanced by pennies hurling down from sophomores in the balcony if one hesitated between sentences, it did somehow serve a purpose, especially for those headed for the law or the clergy. Even the rigors of memorization sometimes had their eventual practical value. Who but a Hamilton alumnus, I wonder, 30 years after his graduation, would have been likely to win a bet in a New York barroom when challenged to recite the conclusion of James G. Blaine's eulogy in the United States Senate to the martyred President Garfield?

The innocence held for sports, too. In that unsophisticated day we were not embarrassed to have heroes — in our own class and the classes before and after us: the Thompson brothers, Watson and Russell, in track and hockey, Dick Fowler, Carl Warren, Fred Brush in football, Jack Hatch in basketball and soccer. Biff Bates, George Marks, George Stanley and Harry Yates, also on those hockey teams that took on Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth with absurdly small squads, and, in our senior year, three notable captains from our own ranks, Eddie Martin in football, Gil Van Vleet in hockey, Deming Payne in basketball. And somehow our pride was greater because, then as now, Hamilton offered no athletic scholarships, tempting as it might have been to invite young Canadians to come south of the border to study American culture. We certainly liked to win, but even a defeat by Union did not send the campus into mourning and I recall no coach fired because he had a losing season. Amateurism was not a patronizing word.

Did we enjoy ourselves? I believe that we did, by and large, for all the inescapable disappointments and personal failures, the consciousness of opportunities missed. And that remembered enjoyment surely is a considerable factor in the memory that we and other Hamilton men have of their College, and one explanation of their unceasing loyalty to it.

Now, we go back again in time to a specific day, this one a beautiful Monday morning in June. And what now is happening in that outside world? A six-year-old girl's picture is in the daily papers because she actually made President Calvin Coolidge laugh. The Salvation Army sternly warns that the motorcar is a threat to the mortality of young women. Babe Ruth hit another home run yesterday. Brazil is resigning from the League of Nations.

And here, this morning, 55 members of that entering class of 111 are being graduated. It is not a happy record, but it is not one to weigh heavily on today's festivities. The star of the day is Peter Bentley Daymont, Jr. — valedictorian, winner of the Clark Prize in Oratory and holder of the highest four-year academic record in the history of the College in 1926. The salutatorian is Burrhus Frederic Skinner who, following tradition, delivers his salutatory address in Latin, one marked by some agreeably libidinous puns, perhaps fortunately recognizable only by Latinists. (For a small fee, he promises not to deliver it again at his class reunion half a century hence.) The Head Prize Oration is by C. Douglas Chretian on "Alexander Hamilton and World Democracy." Distribution of diplomas and honors, a prayer, a hymn, a note of farewell by Frederick Carlos Ferry, and the four years are over.

We are about to move away in many directions and to numerous fields. We will be gathering occasionally at intervals of five years to indulge in the grape and in recollection and bring one another up to date. John W. Chase, Hamilton's fourth Rhodes scholar, is off to Oxford. Within a few years, Joseph Vogel, as accomplished a writer as our class had, will produce a first-rate, well-received novel titled At Madame Bonnard's. Fred Skinner will be a world-famous behavioral psychologist and a novelist as well. George W. Slaughter will become one of America's leading doctors — physician to General Douglas MacArthur, no less. Maurice "Mokey" Ireland, first an insurance man, will become a big-name hunter whose trophies are said to terrify guests at his home who come upon them unexpectedly. William Hazen Freeman will make publishing history on the West Coast. Harold Bohn will be a distinguished professor of English at Montclair State College and, upon his retirement, have a building named after him. Perceptive voters in Penn Yan, N.Y., will send Paul Taylor to the State Assembly. George Schiro will attend 51 consecutive Hamilton Commencements, including his own. These are only some of those whose careers in law, medicine, education, the ministry, journalism, politics and business must be a source of pride to their College and their classmates.

Now and then, in a spell of fantasy, I find myself imagining that one of those 111 who matriculated in 1922 and who somehow never has been accounted for, actually went to Timbuktu on some mission or other and remained there until now. He returns to today's Hamilton, and he is understandably startled by what can be described as certain changes.

What's this? Six dormitories instead of three. New science buildings, a new gymnasium, a student center with accommodations for returning alumni, a magnificent new library containing three times as many volumes as the old one, a snack bar serving beer. (He recalls that the possession of liquor on campus was once a cause for expulsion, which he risked when he called a Clinton taxi driver and asked in a secretive voice for "some of the white," meaning gin.)

The list runs on. A student body numbering just under 1,000. The faculty that has increased from two score or so to 85 and includes (the old alumnus scarcely believes this) six women. A curriculum that is a far, far cry from the old, rigid one, with majors that did not exist in his day — art, anthropology, music, religion, Asian Studies, even a full course in a single author, William Faulkner, who he vaguely remembers published a small first novel back in those 1920s.

And what is that on the other side of College Road? A women's college with 650 students, many of whom attend Hamilton classes, as Hamilton men attend theirs. Some of the old alumnus' crustier contemporaries, he hears, once suggested that it be called Aaron Burr College, fearing its effect on the ultimate fate of Hamilton, but upon investigation he gathers that Kirkland College has been one of the happier developments in Hamilton's history, together with the open rushing that has eliminated the socially barbaric exclusiveness of the old fraternity system as he knew it. Gone, too, is that deplorable policy whereby matriculation was easy but the long pull difficult — a policy cruel in its effect on the student who, if he had failed here, had a black mark against him when he applied elsewhere.

In a speech celebrating Hamilton's centenary in 1912 Elihu Root, devoted as he was to the Hamilton of his student days, said: "I am bound to say that Hamilton is a better college than it was then. Her work is better done and her students are better educated."

And so, I think, it must seem to us now, as compared with the Hamilton of half a century ago. I sense that some of us who return now, with a misty, romantic tear in the eye, and the mind a picture of a perpetually sunlit campus, the stately buildings, the dear comrades and admired teachers, may take exception to this. But surely there is room for candor along with the justified sentiment — a sentiment, not sentimentality. That expanded curriculum implies a greater concern with the outside world than the teaching in our time did — a world infinitely more complex than the one we faced — and a highly dangerous one, too, with all its instant and potentially catastrophic changes calling for vital and immediate decisions. The old goal endures: the well-rounded man. But the newly hatched alumnus comes to that new complexity, those swift changes, with more sharply disciplined skills, thanks to the greater emphasis on the social sciences and a closer day-by-day relationship with the scholars who have prepared him.

To be sure, as Dr. Carovano said in his inaugural address in 1974, the student "must, in the last analysis, educate himself." If he does not work at this, Dr. Carovano went on to say, "he will not gain very much." But, of course, he cannot go it alone, wherefore the guidance that has its objective (and again I quote) "something that is both simple and marvelously complicated. Namely, to teach a student how to think, or, perhaps more accurately, how to learn … to sharpen the powers of observation, discrimination, analysis and synthesis.

I confess to having found myself more than a little apprehensive when I read in a letter sent recently to my classmates that this annalist's letter would contain an important message. I couldn't help being reminded of the time George S. Kaufman, the playwright, was asked why his plays never contained a message, and that Mr. Kaufman replied, "When I want to send a message, I go to Western Union." But if there were a message, it would be this. At the moment the College is clearly in excellent condition — financially in the black, without a deficit, its endowment healthy. Just the same, it is moving toward critical times. In the early 1980s, for reasons of demography, there will be 15 to 25 percent fewer graduates of secondary schools. The competition for college applicants will be keen. Costs of operation are almost certain to increase enormously. Fewer potential students will be able to afford college. In a word, Hamilton will never have needed its faithful alumni more.

What, one has to wonder, will it be like in another half-century? Advanced as the study of geriatrics is, I don't suppose we will be around to know — at least, I'm inclined to doubt it, even if a modest 45 of those original 111 have, at the latest count, carried on. In the meantime, here we are, our 50 years representing one-fourth of our nation's history — it was thoughtful of the government, wasn't it to adjust its bicentennial to our semi-centennial?

What brings us back? It was Hamilton we knew; however we may occasionally have been critical of it. It is the Hamilton we have cherished as we watched it through five decades and as we see it today — the little College on the Hilltop, whose days will never end.