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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Golden Friends I Had

Howard C. Hosmer, Class of 1933

Delivered: Reunions 1983

This is confession time for me. I am only a little less terrified than I was 50 years ago when I stood here before my peers and in Senior Declamation recited Swinburne's A Forsaken Garden. This was done with the steely but kindly eye of Willard B. Marsh fixed in position on one's whole being. To give myself confidence in this present ordeal and also set to a theme for what I hope will not be a dreary discourse, I quote from memory the opening lines of Swinburne's lovely but sad verse.

In a coign of a cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down's edge between windward and lee,
Walled round the rocks as an inland island.
The ghost of a garden front the sea.
A girdle of brushwood and thorn encloses
The steep, square slope of its blossomless bed
Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses
Now lie dead.


That's a relief. I have done it again, in part, and will proceed, since that is the nature of this exercise, to recount some of the events of the last half-century from the viewpoint of one who has been, for good or ill, a professional observer of this and other gardens.

I hope you will forgive me if this presentation is overweighted on the side of sentiment rather than historical fact, which stands there, cold, stark and unassailable.

Depending on what has happened to us in the way of success, failure, lost opportunities and lost loves, we should be the happy survivors of a group of some 130 who arrived here in September 1929, and departed, if we went the whole course, as a graduating group in June 1933.

Since then, attrition has been steady, inevitable and mercifully slow, but it carves sad niches in all our hearts. We lost Al Coburn early and that joyful Buffalonian Paulding Foote Sellers almost immediately. Dan Orcutt went too soon, and later we had to bear in grief the passing of George Kingsley and Bill Sprague, who were totally dedicated to the games they played very well and devoted to their fellows. Much later, we were saddened by the loss of Robert James Hicks, perhaps the only potential genius among us.

In almost recent months, we have lost Richard J. Redmond, the man who created the band; quiet, brilliant Ira J. Nichols and Richard T. Murphy, Jr., that ebullient merry Utica boy who brought a new luster to Hamilton tennis and a new dimension to friendship.

But I am sure that necrology should not be the principal theme of this thesis of recollection. There were many among us who arrived here with intellects uncluttered for the most part, ready to make our ways in a new world ruled by faculty personalities who were at once stern, omniscient, understanding and reasonably tolerant of ignorance, but not of stupidity. I am also certain that in the recording of any 50-year segment in the still-unfinished history of "this other Eden," there must be reserved room in all our memories for these, who showed us how to acquire the knowledge which most of us, we can guarantee, have used to some advantage in our lives and careers.

I suspect that I am speaking for most of us when I say that in 50 years, when many of our friends and their sons have died to preserve a way of life, when, more lately, the world has tried to destroy itself, and make all gardens in all of creation forsaken, the memory of those teachers, for that is what they were, remains as clear to us today as a memory of our parents and friends long or lately gone.

I also suspect that I am not alone in contending that the Hamilton experience is an asset unmatched by most in the wide world of higher academics. I have never been uncomfortable in the company of haughty Ivy-Leaguers or those from the Little Three who wish they were ivy-covered. They have their loves and we have ours, and nothing could have been sweeter than this.

I may be the only person in this shining chamber who spent five years of study on this lovely hill. To take a master's degree under Frank Humphrey Ristine, Robert Barnes Rudd and George Lyman Nesbitt was an experience not to be taken lightly or forgotten in a lifetime. In order to pay for this privilege, I was given the job of running the Press Bureau, which was the College's sole public relations arm. The fact that people like Samuel Hopkins Adams, Alexander Woollcott and Carl Carmer, along with others, were looking over my shoulder added both zest and terror to the responsibility.

To complete an oral examination required for a Hamilton master's degree in Chubby Ristine's study before him, Bobo Rudd and George Nesbitt mirrored, although I could not know it then, what the pattern of my life and career was to be. When the ordeal ended, Chubby, the most kindly of men, came to me on his front porch and said, "Hosmer, you passed. But I must tell you that we were not impressed."

Where else, I ask you, on God's green earth could one undergo this gentle inquisition, this frank appraisal, this kindly censure from a true scholar on a June morning and then in the afternoon pitch for the faculty against the seniors while the chief inquisitor played shortstop?

I may not have been the only one among us who was a continuous puzzle to Chubby, but I may have baffled him more than some of my contemporaries now here. At the end of one semester, after he had blessed me with a high mark in something or other, he called me in. "I have been studying your record," he said, "and I must confess that I am completely mystified. It took you five semesters to pass one year of freshman math. You received the lowest mark on a Greek final in recorded history. I ask you, how could a man do so well in one of my courses and be so abysmally stupid in other areas?"

I had no answer for him then, but perhaps do now. It may have been, I reason, that I loved him and what he was teaching more.

Some months ago, in one of my periodic fits of panic, I asked the excellent Frank Lorenz of the library staff for guidance in compiling this discourse. He submitted three options: One, the "compendium approach," which meant using lots of names of faculty and classmates. Two — the "remember when" approach, which is filled with anecdotes and nostalgia and "in" jokes. The third, Frank Lorenz noted, was a happy combination of the first two in the right proportion based on a perspective gained in looking back over 50 years.

I have reported three options, but have permitted myself to take advantage of a fourth, one not totally Hamiltonian in aspect, nature or theme, because I believe that Hamilton, by its very nature and what it has contributed to civilized existence, cannot stand isolated from the mainstream of life in America today.

I say this because suddenly, but certainly with ample warning, we find ourselves living in a world where computers are kings and buttons are to be pushed, not to hold our coats together. It is now possible, and who would have believed it half a century ago, to wage total war without putting a single soldier in the field.

If this is evidence of mankind's curious insistence on self-destruction, then may the good Lord have mercy on us all.

If this lovely hilltop itself becomes forsaken, barren of leaf and life, where not even slugs and ants can subsist in the rubble, perhaps on some distant planet to which the survivors of total holocaust have fled by rocket, a new Virginia Dare will be born. She will find a mate in the wilderness of outer space and together they will start the whole thing over again.

At one point in a somewhat checkered career, I found myself prostituted by taking payment for defending a large Upstate New York utility against anti-nuke people who fully believed that nuclear power was sinful, criminal and potentially dangerous to the general health. I plied the utility's executives with every question I could muster, and they answered with candor and what appeared to be good sense — every question but one. The one they would not answer and still cannot is what is to be done in the end with nuclear waste? No one has come up with a satisfactory reply and I doubt that anyone can.

Let me dwell a little further on our friendly little enemy, the atom. On the newspaper on which I spent the best years of my life, everybody had opinions on something or other. On the day that Harry S. Truman announced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the news editor pronounced that the bomb was "just a bigger bomb," but that the telegraph editor, a man of uncanny news sense and visions of mortality said, "Frank, you have to be wrong. This may be the biggest story since the birth of Christ!"

We all learned much about the use of words at Hamilton and I am sure that this still applies. But I also learned a great deal about the use of words on that newspaper of Frank Gannett's, one of many which came for years under the watchful and totally professional eye of that complete journalist, Vincent S. Jones of the Class of 1928; one which printed thousands of words put together to make good sense and inform by the late David Beetle of the Class of 1930, the one to which William McKinley Ringle of the Class of 1944, certainly one of the finest reporters in all the land, migrated from the Rome Sentinel.

There was on the staff a cameraman who could neither write nor spell but who loved words for their sound, if not their meaning. Recounting a police campaign on prostitution, he said, "The cops cleaned out the whole red light district. They threw all them poor girls out on the streets. You know what happened? There was a regular academic of venerable diseases!"

Hamilton man he was not, but his love of words was Hamiltonian. But loving words is not enough. Using them is the thing, and there are those among us here who remember with appreciation and affection one of the most skillful of all practitioners with the written word — Samuel Hopkins Adams of the Class of 1891, who brought football to Hamilton. But far more important to society as a whole, his investigative reporting on the evils of patent medicines contributed to the enactment of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Law.

Assuredly in these days of stress, travail and uncertainty we have enough voice men. Word men we need. Word men from Hamilton like those 19th-century wonders Sam Adams, Josh Billings and Charles Dudley Warner, along with Clinton Scollard. Word men like Alexander Woollcott, Carl Carmer, John V.A. Weaver, John Hutchens, the aforementioned Jones, Beetle and Ringle, Leslie Moore of the Class of 1924 and that splendid Associated Press baseball writer Jack Hand of the Class of 1934, who back in the day wrote sports for Hamilton Life, and that still active Batavia editor John Connor, a credit to his craft.

Few, it is admitted, were more deft with words than Scollard of the Class of 1881, who stood on this spot more than half a century ago and delivered his annalist letter in verse to what has been described as a mixed reaction. But Clinton Scollard for many years had a certain currency and was an outstanding success, as attested by this famous couplet:

"Get out of here, the editor hollered,
I buy my verse from Clinton Scollard."


And who, may I ask, knew more about the language than Ezra Pound, that irksome genius who, George Nesbitt once told me, will be remembered when all the others are forgotten?

In 1932, I received a postcard from Pound giving me permission to use some of his new translations in the 1933 Hamiltonian. This was achieved only through the good offices of Dr. William Pierce Shepard, but the acid left its mark even on the little postcard from Rapallo. Pound wrote, "I don't suppose that Hamilton has altered tradition and now will pay the author for his efforts."

The card now reposes somewhere in the Burke Library. There are, of course, many anecdotes about Pound, who, having transferred here from Penn, was in college when my father was. James Jackson Hosmer told me on Sunday evenings President Stryker liked to have certain undergraduates in for supper and that on one occasion, this honor fell to Ezra Pound, among others.

Midway through the meal, Pound left the table and disappeared. His absence was so prolonged that President Stryker ordered a thorough search of the administrative premises. Ezra Pound of the Class of 1905 eventually was found upstairs, taking a leisurely bath in the presidential tub.

This true man of letters, this Renaissance man of the 20th century, this radical curmudgeon who on occasion made a science of hatred, rarely waxed lyrical about nature. It is not known, for example, how he felt about springtime on this hilltop, which so impressed one of us now here that in remembrance of the faculty gardens he wrote:

I must wait for spring to come
To see the crocuses in bloom,
And stop to pass the time of day
With daffodils along the way,
And see the tulips standing tall
Against the farthest garden wall,
Anticipating peonies
And blossoms on the apple trees;
Then watch the lilacs come to stay
Too briefly in the month of May,
When one mysterious purple tree
Is a lovely sight to see;
See hyacinths and jonquils die
While lilies of the vale pass by
Before the month of June discloses
The wondrous beauty of the roses.

Perhaps this unidentified romanticist was stirred by what Professor Saunders was doing by way of hybridizing blooms, which was nearly as fascinating as watching his Frisky son strike a five-iron on the golf course he knew better than any man before or since his time, played as well as any, and far better than most.

Was there ever a finer faculty anywhere for anyone with curiosity, ambition in the thirst for fact and fancy? Some of those who took Spanish from Ralph Clewell Super may have used it to advance themselves in a Spanish-speaking world, but it wasn't what he taught but how he did it that endeared the man to us.

One spring, as in many springs, it rained for seven days straight and red paths ran like rivers of blood. On the seventh day, it fell to Super to lead devotions in morning Chapel, which he opened properly by reading from the Scriptures a simple phrase, but one most meaningful: "The Lord reigneth!"

Super had an attitude about fraternities somewhat different from that held by most of us half an eon ago. A delegation of members from the Union chapter of his national fraternity called on him on the Hill one day. The young men introduced themselves and identified their mutual affiliation. "Hey!" Super said, "Is that thing still going?"

I know that most of us here enjoyed fraternity life and gained more from it. But how many of us remember our contemporary, Mr. X, who was tapped by no house, perhaps because he didn't wear tab collars? He pursued the course for four years, quietly, politely. Yet, when Commencement time arrived, Mr. X's parents were the only ones who arrived for the occasion in their own private railroad car!

Hamilton College, I love you!

Can you believe that even in this gloriously enlightened place we actually made fun of Hitler and Mussolini and never even considered the abysmal wickedness of Josef Stalin? And why were most of us unaware of the horrors to be, some of which will remain with us forever? There were those, but too few, in the faculty who were apprehensive. Surprisingly, one of these was Super. His hatred of Nazism was so intense that it was almost a thing of beauty.

Oh, my friends!

I now take advantage of Frank Lorenz's suggestions and refer to his No. 2 option — the "remember when" approach, because there is so much to cherish in memory and recollection — events, performances, personalities and experiences like these:

Robert Leo Fay as Captain Stanhope, Robert E. Brownlee's Hamlet and John Walsh's Falstaff — a sermon by Dean Bobby Wickes — a piano recital in the Chapel by Jose Iturbi, one calculated to make us forget the battleship Maine, San Juan Hill and the Battle of Manila Bay — the lovely sight of Katharine Cornell striding across the quadrangle with an Irish setter in her wake, and the antics of Bobo Rudd's lavender French poodle Harpo.

Walking to and from class with Jim Morrill and Bud Hollinshead; enjoying the ever-pleasant company of Fred Keeler and Bill White; feeling secure in the knowledge that the financial aspect of publications was in the capable hands of Harold Symonds; watching Dick Fogle swish a hook shot; having the friendship of Irv Gellman and Clare Frank; driving Mac Diggs' red and black LaSalle convertible to the Clinton Courier to get out the newspaper; knowing that when the hockey season arrived, Hank Crumb, Roy Crane and Jim Heyl would be ready; playing golf and basketball with Ellsworth Qualey; watching Ollie Kenyon pass a football; remembering how Lafe Todd and Spider Webb, like two young Chattertons, wooed the muse Erato with marked success.

Spending two great summers in Maine with Fred Schilz waiting on tea room tables; realizing the continuing devotion of Henry S. Work, who has done us proud this weekend as our class historian; cherishing the friendship of the three brothers Bremer and Sam Ayers, watching Smut direct the Choir when the tenor voice of James Taylor Heyl made a chapel a pleasure and appreciating very deeply the latter year friendship of Tom Robertson, Bill Corwin, Tim Holden and Chauncey D. Cowles.

And remembering the weekend in the spring of 1933 when Hamilton went to Rochester and bested the university in tennis, baseball and track, losing only in golf, a disappointing turn of events which caused Albert Ira Prettyman to glower for a full five minutes. The track team, with Frank Bellatty and Bill Sprague in the 440 and the mile relay and Peboe Ruland in the dashes, was superb. They ran like Olympians. Far more recently, a member of the tennis team, approaching the age of 70 on quiet, tennis player's feet, produced a work of literature of which even some of Hamilton's better-known men of letters might well be proud. I recommend to you all a reading of Philip Schleit's Shelton's Barefoot Airlines.

How very fortunate we were to have coaches with the understanding and infinite patience of Al Prettyman, Art Winters, Mox Weber and that fascinating Gaul, Jean M. Gelas, the last of whom put us in the big league of intercollegiate fencing and the first of whom helped continue us as a hockey threat no matter who our opponent was. They all strove mightily to mold us into teams to compete against predators from other worlds like Schenectady, Canton, Potsdam, Rochester, Troy, Geneva, Buffalo and Niagara Falls. In the course of 50 years, superstars like Walter Pritchard, Dick Murphy, Milt Jannone, Ward Wettlaufer and Cedric Oliver have been few and far between. The credit, I say, for most successes, and this goes for Hamilton's superior ranking in Division III basketball nationally today, should go to the coaches, not just the eager participants.

Just as the credit for piquing our interest in the past and its meaning in the present should go everlastingly to superior people like Edgar B. (Digger) Graves (bless him) and others showed us how much the present depends on what has gone before and what we have inherited from the examples of antiquity to guide us.

Now — how should we celebrate the more than 50 years which separate our arrival here and our latest meeting — years extending from Herbert Clark Hoover to Ronald Reagan, from Frederick Carlos Ferry to J. Martin Carovano, from Kirkland Cottage to Kirkland College, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, from knickerbockers and plus fours to Bermuda shorts to slacks and blue jeans, from the War for Survival through the unnecessary tragedy of Korea and the bloody stupidity of Vietnam, from MacArthur to McCarthy, from Mary Pickford to Brooke Shields, from Douglas Fairbanks to Robert Redford?

Simply, I think, by holding very close to us the associations, the friendships and the fresh memories we held dear when we first said our first fond farewells to this lovely hilltop. We knew then, in our secret hearts, that never again would we all be together, but we also knew that the associations treasured then would keep their luster despite the corrosion of the years.

We who can remember clearly and with awe the historic figure of Hamilton's most distinguished son, Elihu Root, walking around his beloved acres wearing history under his cape, may well envy the Class of 1983 its knowledge, its youth, its beauty, its vigor and its opportunity to achieve, against greater odds, perhaps than those we opposed, what we have not gained and never will — the Irenic reality of world peace. But all these, too, may one day echo Housman when he says:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a light-foot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The light-foot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

Let us hope, as we depart this idyllic scene, this garden of knowledge, that when the next great cataclysm comes, it will be spared and not forsaken. Let us pray that somehow, 50 years from now, a class annalist less bemused than this one will be able to say from this very rostrum how happy he or she is to say how much this place has meant, and to say, as I do now, that every word spoken here has been directed to Hamilton —with LOVE!