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Half-Century Annalist Letters

It Will Be Pleasurable to Remember These Things

John R. Schoemer, Jr., Class of 1935

Delivered: Reunions 1985

Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.
(Perchance one day it will please us to remember these things.)
— Virgil, Aeneid, Bk. I, l. 203

Members of the Class of 1935, ladies and gentlemen:

The half-century annalist has endured as a Hamilton tradition for well over a hundred years. The annalist is selected by his peers — "railroaded" is appropriate in my case — to dish up selected reminiscences to those of his mates who have been fortunate enough to make it to the ceremony.

No job description is provided, although the recent program for this weekend says the annalist will provide "entertainment, tempered with nostalgia." This is a daunting task. Is the annalist to be a kind of Ghost of Christmas Past, forcing his classmates to look at the follies and mistakes of their youth? Or is he to be the kind of annalist described by the Emperor Claudius as one to whom men "are in the habit of communicating their recollections, in the hope that elegant writing will eke out the meagerness of subject-matter and flattery soften vices?" (R. Graves. I, Claudius. (1934) c. 1)

At the time of our own Commencement, according to the College Bulletin, the half-century annalist "paid fitting tribute to the faculty of his day (1885) and alluded to numerous undergraduate pranks and frivolities." Pranks and frivolities make threadbare material for the Class of 1935. The stupendous water fights that raged from the windows of North College in freshman year were diverting at that time, but I doubt that a recital would keep your attention very long. I recall a memorable instance of dormitory cooperation when a sophomore who lingered over his pre-dinner shave and shower returned to his room to find it stripped of everything — bed, furniture, desk, books, pictures, clothing, everything. But as a prank or frivolity these are strictly minor league.

So I decided on a more serious approach: why not try to figure out why we all liked this place so much, and why we all seem to think it did such a good job educating us? I sent out some 25 questionnaires and received better than an 80 percent response. (Allow me to thank three classmates who supplied particularly thoughtful and penetrating responses: Bill Weld, our senior class president, Don Ahearn and John L. Brown, whose response was particularly well-written.) Nearly every one of you thought you received a good education by way of a well-balanced and diversified curriculum. There were almost no critical comments. Of course, this may be only the romantic fantasy of a bunch of septuagenarians exaggerating their youthful experiences. It is clear, however, that these opinions are honestly held — so much so that you, comparing your Hamilton education with that provided today at 15 or 20 times the cost, think we had the better of it. But we still are left with these questions: why are our feelings toward the Hamilton of 50 years ago so warm? Are we right in thinking we got a good liberal arts education? Was the collegial environment as congenial and productive as we remember it? Let me try to develop some answers.

Let's start on June 17, 1935, when we were last together as a class in this Chapel. Some may remember the valedictory address delivered by the late George Waters, with its apostrophe to the Chapel bell ever ringing in our ears. But I am sure all remember the salutatory oration presented by the one who is today our best-known member, Sol Myron Linowitz. As it was given in Latin, I am afraid not many of us caught its full flavor. Thus, when Sol declaimed, Mementote semper — unum diplomum et denarius poculum coffeae ement, few of us, I fear, realized that he was saying (I translate freely) "Never forget, this diploma and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee." But then he outdid himself in his finale: "Vale praeses, valete curatores, valete professores, valete amici, et vale Johnson." Wally Johnson, as secretary, registrar and general Pooh Bah, was everybody's pet, and Sol's jest was delightful.

Four years earlier had not been an auspicious time to begin one's college career. In September 1931, when we arrived here, Great Britain abandoned the gold standard; U.S. Steel cut wages 10 percent, and 305 banks closed forever. (F.L. Allen, Since Yesterday, 1939, 51-52.) Yet all was not grey and bleak. There was a carefree attitude in the song Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries, introduced by Rudy Vallee in George White's Scandals the very day our classes began, (Allen, 57) with the cheerful if ungrammatical message:

Don't take it too serious —
It's too mysterious.

College tradition demanded that we start out by trying to climb a greased pole guarded by a pack of howling sophomores, to pull down some flag or bunting. We knew this task was a task at which freshmen never succeeded, and of course we were no exception. But we dutifully selected our leader — Ed Risley, who was to become one of my dearest friends and whose passing I feel keenly, and sallied forth to the inevitable defeat. I understood this juvenile exercise has been abandoned, and I am sure we all applaud the decision.

When you come right down to it, chapel seven mornings a week gave us plenty of time to contemplate these surroundings, not always in the best frame of mind, although there were lighter moments. I always looked forward to the day when Dr. Tweedy of Yale was announced as next Sunday's chapel speaker. The problem of the presiding faculty member was to announce the coming of the Reverend Henry H. Tweedy, D.D., without provoking a lot of whistles and birdcalls. The experienced faculty member knew this was coming, but the newer one was always startled by the chirpings and tweets that greeted the announcement of the arrival of Tweedy D.D.

In our senior year some mild student unrest developed over such conditions as compulsory chapel every day, limited cuts regardless of class rank and a Thanksgiving holiday of less than 48 hours. The College administration was not unsympathetic to our grievances, and I recall feeling some embarrassment at having to retract an editorial in Hamilton Life, then the name of the newspaper, predicting that nothing would come of our protest. A student committee met with the faculty, which soon gave us a Dean's List with unlimited cuts for the academic elite. Then came a meeting with some of the trustees. We scotched daily chapel, but did not kill it; the trustees voted to reduce the number of weekday chapels from six to four. I was amazed to have our beloved Digger Graves repeat to me verbatim in 1975 what I had said to Daniel Burke at that meeting 40 years earlier.

Much of our public speaking was done in this hallowed space. Almost without exception, those of you who responded to my questionnaire thought the experience was beneficial, especially the lawyers, the clergymen and the educators — less so, understandably, the doctors, of whom we had a generous supply. It was not something we really enjoyed; in fact, most of us looked forward to its sessions with some dread. Yet it was useful, not simply because it helped with what — for me at least — was the College's primary educational function: teaching the student skills in writing, speaking and understanding the English language.

Public speaking took varied forms. Do you remember the intercollegiate debates? John Handy and Sol Linowitz, for example, debated Union over WGY in Schenectady, supporting the idea of a system of unemployment insurance, while Hugh Jones and Bob Stackel argued against a team from Mount Holyoke, and so on. Every one of us who underwent the rigors of Swampy Marsh's methods took something away from public speaking, if only a stiff elbow. I well recall when I last stood here, denouncing Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia in a memorized speech. In the middle of it I "broke." I could not remember what came next, and forever learned the lesson: unless you are an actor who has learned his lines well, never try to deliver a "set" speech, one you have learned by heart. In later years I had occasion to appear in many courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, and never once attempted to deliver an argument I had committed to memory. I suspect our distinguished member Hugh Jones, who spent 12 years as a judge on New York's highest court listening to oral arguments, will agree that a good many of the lawyers could have benefited from Professors Marsh and Lewis. Incidentally, a recent issue of the College newspaper referred to Hugh as "a New York State judge." This is hardly an adequate description of one who has been described as the most learned judge on one of the nation's most important courts.

Public speaking was part of our education here, and one of the reasons we regarded it so highly. But of course it was only a small part of the total educational experience, and we must probe deeper.

A good share of the credit for our education belongs to Frederick Carlos Ferry, the president throughout our College years. He was the quintessential college president of the time: aloof, awe-inspiring, polished, firm in his control of College affairs. He was not in today's mold, for today's president is said to spend more time on fundraising than anything else, and the presidents of our great universities are only averaging seven years in office. (The New York Times, 4/24/85, p. B1.) (Dr. Ferry did not seem at all abashed to report in June 1935 that the Alumni Fund contributions for that year amounted to a grand total of $2,703.) Although the ghost of the redoubtable Melancthon Woolsey Stryker was still abroad on the campus (he is the favorite subject of all the annalists of his period), Dr. Ferry was the one whom we respected, even the preposterous spectacle of him as he coasted down the Hill on his sled to his residence. I recall being summoned to his presence as the editor of the College newspaper, which had commented unfavorably on the quality of medical service at the infirmary. There was no bluster; I was not bullied; I was firmly told that an injustice had been done, the College physician had been offended, and it would be best if I apologized. Believe me, I did, without even thinking of my First Amendment position. But when students later agitated for some changes, as I have already mentioned, he saw merit in our position and gave us some support. That air of aloofness that surrounded him was impenetrable for most of us. He once remarked, perhaps with a trace of wistfulness, that the only person other than his wife who addressed him by his first name was Joseph Ibbotson, the librarian. The president of my wife's college told me she found him the most impressive of all of the New York State college presidents when they held one of their periodic meetings. He reflected a great deal of credit on this institution.

What a marvelous faculty he presided over! These were not mere academicians; locked away in their libraries or their laboratories, emerging only to publish some learned paper. They were teachers, and those who took their courses were exposed to the full force of their personalities and their methods. Many of you commented on the close contact we as students had with them. When I asked you to name your favorites, you replied with a large slice of the senior faculty, showing how well all were regarded. Naturally, you tended to favor those in the departments where you were majoring: history majors loved Digger Graves, the English Lit. group was crazy about Bobo Rudd; the future medical men were great admirers of Hess and Butcher, plus even a few for Arthur Percy Saunders. They were all marvelous teachers, with loyal followings; at one point Hamilton Life was listing their upcoming lectures, so that interested persons could "vagabond," as we called it. They had blind spots, of course. I took a course Seventeen-Century English Literature without hearing more than a passing mention of John Milton; Bobo was said to find Milton unappealing. (I never felt a deep sense of loss at not being forced to read Paradise Lost.) Berrian Shute, widely admired for his courses in music appreciation, was the perfect Wagnerite and scorned other operatic composers. Regrettably, the foolish prejudice he created in his students kept me from Mozart, Verdi and Puccini for many years. Of course this only proves what powerful and dominating teachers these giants of our classrooms were and the effect they had on shaping our cultural habits.

Many others are remembered fondly by number of you. George Nesbitt, who left us recently after a long illness, was a marvelous teacher. He was married to Bill Weld's sister, was a particular friend of many of us, and it is sad he did not live to join us today. Walter Herman Carl Laves, an exciting and challenging figure, has many admirers in this group. Roxy Dale — what a wonderful nickname — is today credited as the founder of the geological association among New York colleges. There are individual pets: John L. Brown admired Professor Shepard, Bill Weld and I both admired the dean, Chubby Ristine, perhaps somewhat colorless next to the effervescent Rudd, but a solid man in his field, able to inculcate in his students a lifelong devotion to Shakespeare, which I at least have never lost.

On the other side of the academic ledger, I was pleased to see that others shared my aversion to freshman algebra as defying comprehension by the human mind. And there were those who felt that chemistry was equally difficult. But all without exception agreed with the recent criticism by the National Committee on the Humanities of the current fashion to encourage vocational training at the expense of the liberal arts; you also agreed that the grouping of required courses is the way to produce a well-rounded person. It probably did us all some good to have to undergo some subjects with which we did not feel comfortable.

By any cost-benefit analysis, our College education was truly effective. Consider the amount of instruction we got for $250 a year: 32 weeks, say, of 15 classroom hours each week comes to about 20 cents a class! Imagine sitting in Bobo Rudd's class of a late winter afternoon, his famous poodle Harpo on the floor at his side, as he launched into one of the lectures for which he was famous: Congreve and Restoration Comedy, or Oscar Wilde. Before you knew it, the magical hour was gone. It was worth a great deal to hear Digger Graves lecture on the Wars of the Roses, or Walter Laves talk on the dangers of economic nationalism. Some of the math classes, however, seemed to me overpriced.

A fair number of you did not send your own sons (or daughters) to this institution. For some this was not a matter of choice; Hamilton refused to accept them, and several of you felt considerable annoyance as a result. Others chose larger and better-known colleges, but there is no inconsistency with their own attachment to this place. The larger colleges offer collateral advantages that a small college does not. I was struck, incidentally, by your answers to my inquiry about a Hamilton old-boy network. Almost no one claimed any financial benefit from friendships he made here. It speaks well for this place, I guess, that so many of you are grateful to Hamilton simply because of the quality of the education it provided, not because it provided you with a list of life insurance or municipal bond prospects.

The College developed in many of us a taste for group singing. We had the Choir, of course, with the remarkable Paul Fancher in charge, the talented Bob Hicks at the organ and piano, and the incredible Alexander Woollcott as official publicist and tub-thumper. Many of you recall the tension in the radio studio as national broadcast time approached; the cue was given; the figure seated at the table began, in a voice familiar to all America: "This is Woollcott speaking." He had an enormous and important radio audience that seemed to love his somewhat ornate prose. In 1934 the best-selling nonfiction book in America was his While Rome Burns, in which the name of Hamilton often appears. I am sure no one since has carried the name of Hamilton so far and so wide. Somehow the Choir was at its best in these broadcasts, as if it felt obliged to live up to the encomiums Woollcott was heaping on the institutions it represented.

The success of the Choir resulted in a remarkable interest in group singing. Many of us remember dinners as a fraternity house when someone would spontaneously start a song, and everyone would quickly join in. Part singing was the rule rather than the exception, for every house had some choir members to serve as a cadre. Then, as the end of the academic year neared, came the Class Sing. The scene is a balmy evening in late May, the four classes are gathered at different points around the quadrangle, each to sing the compulsory song and three others of its choosing. It is serious business, I assure you: those members who have some trouble carrying a tune under strict orders to move their lips without making a sound. The faculty judges move from one class to the next, listening carefully before the choice is made and the prize awarded the leader of the successful class. The competition was fierce; a banner headline in Hamilton Life in May 1935 reported that the freshmen and sophomores were demanding a postponement so they might have more rehearsal time. Our class never won, despite the heroic efforts of song leaders like Carl Ferry and the presence of such choir stalwarts as John Bicknell and Art Sanford. But for me it is another treasured memory:

"Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony."
(Merchant of Venice, Act V, sc. 1.)

Of course, this was only a fleeting moment. There has to be some more substantial basis for our shared satisfaction in our College days. Could the Great Depression, as we learned to call it, have given them a special glow? Most of us seem to feel the economic problems were not especially crippling, and did not give rise to despondency or despair. Living costs were minimal: $100 or so for a room in North for a year; $7 a week for 21 meals at Commons. It is arguable that the unavailability of funds for self-amusement made us spend more time at the books and in the library, and this in turn led to the to heightened appreciation of the learning we were acquiring. I wonder if today's jeunesse dorée will look backward a half-century from now with the warm feelings we have.

Situated on our remote and windy hilltop, we knew that the Depression was abroad in the land. As he apologized for the no-frills black-and-white 1935 Hamiltonian (the yearbook), the editor said in the foreword that he would have preferred a book "more pleasing to the eye," and begged for the understanding of the reader, "who has perhaps been struck himself by the stern hand of the Depression." A number of you worked at waiting on tables and the like, and this must have been a real character-builder. Sol Linowiz can still remember the effort it took to leave his warm room and walk across a sub-zero campus to set up the tables for supper at Commons. But if you could scrape together a couple of dollars, you could do wonders with them. The literate types, for a dollar-ten, could sit in the balcony of the Majestic Theatre in Utica and watch Katherine Cornell in The Barretts of Wimpole Street — live, mind you, not a film. I am not sure many of us attended, but the opportunity was there. Utica offered other opportunities as well: some discovered a local citizen had converted his basement into an unlicensed saloon where he would mix and serve up a concoction known as a Jack Rose — at 25 cents per drink. Anyone fortunate enough to have a dollar could get himself quite stupefied on four of these little horrors.

I do not mean to glamorize drunkenness, for many of you feel, as I do, that we were often guilty of excesses. In partial extenuation, I point out that repeal did not arrive until the middle of our second year, and Prohibition was a real challenge to all college students and other believers in a free market — witness the proliferation of speakeasies near campuses. Incidentally, I asked if you remembered the name of the principal one near College Hill, and better than two-thirds did (it was Frank's or Frank Livingston's). Perhaps drinking was a rebellion against Prohibition, or the sternness of the College administration, said to have sent down the occupants of a dormitory room where empty beer bottles were found during the Christmas vacation. I fear we overdid the liquor a bit, especially in organizations like Kappa Beta Phi, which was not only Phi Bete backwards but was dedicated to contrary principles. Today, I read everywhere, there is a different problem at all colleges, including, I suppose, Hamilton. We were spared any contact with drugs more pernicious than aspirin.

Those of you who belonged to fraternities generally approved their role in the life of the College and are saddened by their present low estate. Everybody admits that many of the rituals were rather childish, and disapproval of hazing is widespread. Nobody has a good word for the practice of dropping the hapless freshman on a remote road miles away at two o'clock in the morning, with 40 degrees of frost to keep him alert as he tried to get back to the Hill. Paddling was another practice we do not look back on fondly. It was, as you recall, the high velocity application of a wooden implement resembling a large cricket bat to the posterior regions of the victim's anatomy. It created much apprehension, and one of our groups decided to prepare for the worst. Having read that boxers toughened their hands by prolonged immersion in brine, he started to sit everyday in a pail of brine, I suppose, to give his skin a leathery quality that would, so to speak, soften the blow. It is sad to say that his fraternity abandoned paddling that year and his hours of immersion went for naught. Throughout his business career he has displayed the admirable mixture of foresight and caution foretold by his preparations of many years earlier. I cannot say, however, whether they left any part of him permanently wrinkled.

Once you got past these juvenile hazards, fraternities had a lot to recommend to them. They offered what for many of us was the first experience in self-government we had ever known. Under the severe pressures of the Depression, we were required to operate self-ruling and (most important) self-feeding units, which provided an adequate level of living for the minimum funds available. Meanwhile, we relieved the College of the burden of housing and feeding a large part of the student population. Most of us feel that desirable qualities of self-reliance were encouraged by our fraternity associations.

Another boost for one's character came from the honor system. I came to Clinton from a city school where monitors prowled the aisles during every examination, and it was considered fair game to try to outwit them. Being suddenly placed on my honor was for me a stunning experience. I consider that the honor code at Hamilton profoundly affected both my social and my professional life. Many of you, Jim Rockwell in particular, agree that finding we would be trusted if we said that the work was our own, or that we would bring the book back to the library, developed an abiding distaste for deception and falsehood that has influenced our dealings with others throughout our lives.

Athletics, both for participants and spectators, received exactly the right emphasis implicit in the "amateur." Thumb through the pages of the Hamiltonian, and you will see on athletic teams many who are here today. Here is Bill Weld, on both the tennis and soccer teams, as well as captain of basketball — a fascinating sport, as played in the Soper Gym, with the corners of the court clipped by the running track above, to the distraction of the visiting player trying to set shot only to see the ball drop like a stone. Hockey, of course, was the prime winter sport. Under the incomparable Coach Prettyman, Hamilton was a power to be reckoned with. We started off with the advantage of the Sage Rink, unusual in those days for a small college. The rink had no refrigerating equipment, and the occasional warm spell would cause the skaters to throw up bow waves. What exciting contests we saw! Williams, Middlebury, Army, Cornell — all fell to skaters headed by Henry Crumb, Duncan Edwards and then our own Carl Ferry, who in junior year had been captain of the soccer team. In our last year Carl scored better than a hat trick — four goals in a 7-1 victory over Cornell. John Bicknell, Bry Lindley and Bill Van Allen, all soccer players, will not be offended if I say that their team's record was somewhat less glittering. Also, there was fencing, under Coach Gélas, which handled a real heavyweight schedule, losing to Yale 10-7 and to Columbia 9-8, while easily defeating Cornell and Colgate.

Even then, football was the principal sport, although it bore little resemblance to today's exhibition of grunting behemoths. Our junior year saw a Hamilton team arriving at the Union game with only a single loss (to Amherst) and then winning by three touchdowns, the biggest margin in 20 years. The strict protocol of these games, as administered by the cheerleaders, was astonishing. If the opponents were penalized at a critical point, a deathly silence was enforced: no cheering the misfortunes of the enemy! And if a player on the other side was injured, a sympathetic cheer from the Hamilton rooters — a kind of get-well card — was commanded. What a fascinating game it was as 11 iron men played both defense and offense, with rare substitutions! Both at the intercollegiate and intergroup level, amateur athletics — performed for the love of the sport — made a large contribution to the College days we look back on so fondly.

The world that greeted us on graduation in 1935 was a very different place from that of 1931. The Great Depression was still with us, but its worst economic excesses had been brought under some control by the New Deal. Now the focus was on deteriorating world conditions and an alarming armaments build-up. The pacifism movement had been felt here; in a 1935 poll of students only 17 percent said they would willingly serve in the military if they were called, while nearly one-third said they would not defend their country even if it was attacked (Hamilton Life, 1/15/35). But I rather imagine we all answered the nation's call when it came, and we never forget that two of our class did not survive.

"Education," said Aristotle, "is the best provision for old age." (Lives of the Philosophers, Bk. V, sec. 20.) Those of us who are sustained by pensions and Social Security understand that he is talking about the preparation of the mind, to accept and even rejoice in the golden years. Herein, I suspect, lies much of the reason we all have that deep-welling sense of gratitude to Hamilton for what it taught us: to find within ourselves, and those around us, the capacity and the serenity to enjoy what Cicero called "the crown of life, our play's last act." (De Senectute, Bk. XXIII.)

We summon up remembrance of things past, and smile with pleasure as we pay tribute to this old place, rejoicing not only in what it did for us, but for what it will do for those who will stand here in years to come.