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Half-Century Annalist Letters

An Experience Beyond Price

John B. Hawley, Class of 1939

Delivered: June 3, 1989

Classmates of 1939, ladies and gentlemen:


It is pleasure and privilege to share a few memories of our Class with you during our alma mater's 177th commencement season. The half-century annalist's letter was the brainchild of "Old Greek," Professor Edward North, who occupied the Greek chair for 58 years. The series began in 1865 with a letter from George Bristol of the Class of 1815, the first class to graduate from Hamilton. It has continued since without a break. This letter is the 124th.

In composing this letter I learned a great many things I never knew before about my family's relationship to Hamilton. Among the names and faces in the 1902 and 1925 yearbooks I recognized several of my father's and brother's longtime friends. Hamilton may be unique in the intense affection she inspires among her non-graduates as well as among her graduates. Many of you will agree that even an abbreviated residence on the Hill can be an enriching experience and the beginning of lifelong friendships.

This letter would not have been possible without the generous help of Frank Lorenz, Hamilton's archivist and editor of College publications, and Waltraut Wuensch, archival assistant. I am most grateful to both of them. I especially want to thank those of you who so freely and generously shared your recollections. Most of what follows is based on your comments in response to a brief questionnaire mailed out last fall. In some instances I have quoted you verbatim, to preserve the distinctive flavor of your remarks.

We were asked to reminisce about faculty and staff, to recall particular incidents and events, and to reflect on Hamilton's contribution to our lives. Like Caesar's Gaul, this letter is in three parts: the first deals with our memories of our mentors and of our undergraduate days; the second, with what has happened to us since 1939; and the third, with what we feel Hamilton has contributed to our lives.

A Word About Our Professors…

You may have heard the advice one college president gave to another: "Always be kind to your A students. Someday one of them will return to your campus as a good professor. And also be kind to your C students. Someday one of them will build you a multi-million dollar science laboratory." It seems that for the most part Hamilton presidents have followed that advice. More than half of our professors were Phi Beta Kappas and a quarter of them were Hamilton graduates. Furthermore, today's campus us covered with the gifts of generous alumni.

After more than half a century, I suppose it is not surprising our recollections are mostly warm and affectionate, often engaging, sometimes humorous, and apparently unforgettable. Our classmates referred to the "memorable teachers who molded our minds," "the biology greats," "the wonderful lit profs" and "the excellent German profs." We recalled by name 40 of the 45 faculty members, including the coaches.

Boyd Patterson, professor of mathematics and later president of Washington and Jefferson College, exemplifies the caring nature of our teachers. As one of us remarked, "I was doing less than well in algebra. The final examination was at hand and my scholarship might be endangered. I told Professor Patterson about my difficulties and he invited me to his home. That evening we spent two or three hours in his study, I explaining what I couldn't grasp and he showing me with patience and clarity what was wrong. I passed the examination with High Honor. I [wonder] how many college freshmen today can get that kind of attention from a full professor."

We dedicated our 1939 yearbook "to our beloved Stink," Arthur Percy Saunders, professor of agriculture and general chemistry. We respected him for his humanity and for his many talents: a renowned agronomist and geneticist, well known as a breeder of hybrid peonies and show dogs, an accomplished chamber musician — truly a Renaissance man. One of us noted that he "seemed to have eternal youth and derived great pleasure from teaching." I'll never forget the bearded Stink in his coonskin coat, driving around campus with his two Scotties in his open Model A Ford.

One classmate describes Stink "annual wake-up show" as "deliberately low key, with students in the front row half asleep." Suddenly there was a "spectacular shower of sparks as he lit the magnesium and iron filling mixture. Drowsy students were startled into flight toward the back of the lecture hall, much to the merriment of the more alert." Stink could teach a myriad of things without his students realizing he had done so.

Another great teacher was Robert ("Bobo") Rudd, professor of English literature. He was always seated at the podium with Harpo, his "indelicate" poodle, as one of us put it, asleep at his side. Slightly stooped and leaning over, holding his spectacles close to the page, squinting at yellowed notes, he would rivet our attention with his great enthusiasm of love and literature. I can still see him weeping as he read a particularly moving passage. And when I visited London many years later, it was as though I were coming home. The names of streets and buildings had become familiar to me through the works of Samuel Johnson, John Donne, Congreve and Shakespeare, all encountered in Bobo's courses.

"Swampy" Marsh, professor of rhetoric and oratory, was another memorable instructor. "What a voice!" one of us exclaimed in recalling Swampy's stentorian delivery, his formality and elaborate phraseology. Take his critique of a fidgety performer: "You lack pedal stability." Another classmate recalled how he was forced by Swampy to drag himself to the podium over and over again until he finally got it right.

This same classmate recounts a story told by Clancy Connell, a trustee and member of the Class of 1912. Clancy was soliciting a contribution to the Alumni Fund from the chairman of a major corporation. As part of his pitch, Clancy was extolling the beauty of the College, the red gravel paths, the majestic trees, the Chapel, the erudite professors and the required courses in public speaking. The chairman stopped Clancy right there. "Connell," he said, "I've never met a Hamilton man who could not get up on his feet and speak. However, damn few have had anything to say once they got there."

Then there was "Groucho" or "Mahatma" Mattingly, associate professor of Greek and Latin, famous for his high-pitched voice and his gangling appearance. Some of you may have been there that cold winter's morning when Groucho removed his overshoes, only to reveal a second pair of rubbers over his street shoes. No one laughed or said anything.

On another occasion, a student was translating a passage from Plato's Republic when, in the words of an eyewitness, we suddenly "heard a snore and saw that our dear…Professor Mattingly had fallen asleep. After a whispered consultation we gathered our books and tiptoed out of the room without waking him. We never mentioned it to him and he never did to us."

Exuberant and rosy-cheeked Otto Liedke, instructor in German, was by far the most popular of our younger teachers. One of us recalls his classes in "scientific German" where the science students helped him almost as much as he helped us. Another remembers Liedke's "extended lessons outside of the classroom," that is, the German drinking songs taught them over a stein of beer.

Earl Butcher, professor of biology, was, in the words of one classmate, "one of my greatest teachers who guided my interest in things biological to a career in medicine. It was in one of his classes that I had my first 'Ah Ha!' experience [where] all knowledge seemed to fit together [into] a whole — an emotional high, equaled only by true love and the birth of one's children."

Another writes, "I'll never forget an experiment which Butcher set up as part of an embryology course. He removed the shell from the tip of a fertilized chicken's egg and placed the egg under a microscope. Nothing appeared before my eye but a mass of protoplasm. Suddenly this mass pulsated, again and again, as the tiny heart began to function. I realized that I had seen life begin and I felt a deep sense of awe which remains with me to this day."

Milledge ("Hambone" or "Colonel" Bonham, Jr., professor of history, was one of the most imposing figures on campus. Portly and bearded, with his military carriage from years at the Citadel, he was the perfect southern gentleman, with accent to match. He is remembered for his weekly map quizzes, his love of gaudily colored maps, and for telling "exactly the same jokes at the same place each year." As a rule, he would give the same exam every five years, but on at least one occasion he fooled us all by giving a three-year old test. One of the warmest recollections was of the annual dinner in their home where the Bonhams so graciously entertained the Lambda Chis.

Most of our instructors were the kind of persons one might call "characters." For example, Frank "Chubby" Ristine, dean and professor of English literature, is said to have "skipped any remotely suggestive passage in Shakespeare because he could not bring himself to say the words out loud." Francis Patton, professor of economics, was in the habit of, right after lunch, "picking the sleepiest victim in the class and asking question, then hastily adding, 'No, don't disturb him, he needs his sleep.'"

Paul ("Smut") Fancher, professor of English, was also a tough choir director. One of us wrote that, to this day, when he hears the Messiah, chills crawl up his spine, as they did when he first heard it performed in our freshman year.

As one of a dozen or so members of our class who sang in the Choir, I myself still feel the excitement and pleasure of our performances on the Hill and off. I particularly enjoyed being the student conductor of the Choir one April Sunday during our last term when Fancher could not be there. Sam Lake conducted the next week; but since Sam was an old hand at conducting, it probably didn't make the same impression on him.

Paul Fancher's remarkable work with the Choir had gained national attention by the time we arrived in 1935. On an NBC broadcast in 1938, Orson Welles read selections from the Song of Solomon with the Choir humming Schubert's Serenade. The next year the Choir accompanied Woollcott's reading of the Psalms over CBS radio. Spirituals such as Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?, Go Down Moses and Deep River usually brought forth enthusiastic applause.

During these tours the Choir also performed for alumni and their friends who in turn would entertain us in their homes. Special highlights were performances at the Jade Room of the Waldorf Astoria and a vesper service in St. Thomas Church in New York City. An added attraction of those outings was having our own private railroad car. In 1939 we even had two coaches, including a diner with specially printed menus. Alas, the trip ended anticlimactically when the buses carrying the Choir from Utica's Union Station failed to make the Hill. We choristers had to climb out of the bus, take up our bags, and trek our chilly and weary way through the snow up the Hill to our dorms and fraternity houses.

To this day I don't know where the nickname "Smut" came from. Maybe one of you know the answer. I, for one, never heard an even remotely off-color remark from Paul Fancher.

Berrien Shute, professor of music, was also conductor of the Utica Symphony. As a member of the Musical Arts Society, he helped to bring prominent musicians to the Hill each year. One of us wrote that he could "still recall his cheerful mien and contagious enthusiasm for music. He could relate to everyone — musically inclined or not — with an all-encompassing empathy." Professor Shute was especially proud of his collection of more than a thousand classical recordings on the first floor of Silliman Hall. As the record librarian, I remember being paid $15 a month. With meals running at $7 a week, that was pretty good pay, especially for doing something I thoroughly enjoyed.

And now, a word about our coaches: Albert Prettyman, Art Winters, Jean Gelas and Mox Weber. Our yearbook noted that "it is a compliment to four very fine gentlemen that no one has said, or even thought, one word against the coaches during this disastrous athletic year…if our teams haven't won their share of games…we know it isn't the fault of our coaching staff. We are proud of them — and rightfully so." One classmate wrote enthusiastically that all of them made his athletic days a joy.

In our senior year Albert Prettyman's dream finally came to fruition with the construction of our long-hoped-for gymnasium which replaced the old Soper Gym with the running track in the balcony that kept interfering with basketball games. We were also justly proud when Prettyman was appointed the Olympic hockey coach for the 1936 winter games in Germany. One classmate described him as "one of the greatest hockey coaches of all time."

On Mox Weber's death in 1987, the Alumni Review noted that he had been "as much concerned with 'the slow, uncoordinated guy' as he was with the talented varsity athlete." He wanted each of us to discover a sport that would fill our leisure time with enjoyment in the years to come. However, one of us recalled "the horror of having to pass fencing" before being allowed to graduate.

We can truly say that our teachers were superb coaches and that our coaches were outstanding teachers.

Just as the Class of 1989 bade farewell to President Martin Carovano after more than 20 years of dedicated service as professor, provost and president, and welcomed Harry Payne as Hamilton's 17th president, so, too, did our class see Frederick Carlos Ferry, after more than two decades at the helm, pass the torch to William Harold Cowley, Hamilton's 11th president.

Many considered "Prexy" Ferry as the quintessential college president of the times: scholarly, gracious in manner, yet awe-inspiring. Some of us recalled the astonishing sight of this dignified gentleman on his sled, whizzing down the Hill to his house just in time for lunch. (I wonder if anyone ever saw him do a belly flopper?)

The first speaker at President Cowley's inauguration luncheon in October 1938 was Alexander Woollcott '09, who was introduced as one "who never misses the opportunity to tell the world that he comes from Hamilton College…He even persuaded Thornton Wilder, a Yale man, to put two references to Hamilton College in his Pulitzer Prize play, Our Town…His friend Dorothy Parker wrote…that when Alexander Woollcott dies he will go to Hamilton College."

Because air time had arrived, we had to skip dessert. So Woollcott began his remarks by saying, "I offer my part of postprandial give and take in lieu of a cream puff. As a spokesman for the body of Hamilton graduates, … I welcome Doctor Cowley … none the less cordially because he himself is not a legitimate son of Hamilton … Surely a college named after Alexander Hamilton, of all people, is in no position to question any man about the way in which he came into this world … I hope [Dr. Cowley's] ministry here will be long, eventful and stormy."

Woollcott turned out to be a good prognosticator. In June 1939, The Hamiltonian speaking for our class, noted that "We…feel that we are leaving our Alma Mater in safe and loving hands." But, in the wake of Pearl Harbor the College became a training camp for Army Air Force, and that in turn affected student enrollment, faculty recruitment, institutional income, and Cowley's plans for curricular reform.

All of this led to growing disenchantment with his administration, and eventually, to his departure. As an 1834 graduate observed, "The history of Hamilton College has been one of always hunting for a president, when not engaging in hunting one out."

Our class was fortunate to catch a glimpse of Hamilton's "most distinguished son" and "most famous alumnus," as Hamilton Life referred to Elihu Root, Class of 1864. One of us recalled "his tall spare figure in tweed cap and cape directing the grounds crew in trimming campus trees, pointing with his cane" and, in 1937, his funeral with "the Chapel bell tolling 90 measured strokes as the procession went slowly across the campus to the college cemetery."

Memories of Undergraduate Life

Our memories of student life could fill a book. Let me just recall a few events to give you the flavor of campus life half a century ago.

We started our collective college careers ignominiously by losing three out of four events in the interclass competition with the sophomores. That is, we "slimers" (that was the unappetizing epithet reserved for us freshmen) won three of the four wrestling matches but lost the flag rush, the relay race and the tug of war. Worse yet, by losing the flag rush two years in succession, a debacle described by a contemporary reporter as an "unheard of catastrophe," we were not allowed as sophomores to enforce the rules on the incoming freshmen. The rules stipulated that if the freshmen lost, they were prohibited from wearing knickers or anything red until the following Easter.

Furthermore, freshmen were not supposed to walk on the grass but only on the sticky red clay paths; they were required to wear their green beanies and say "hello" to any upperclassmen they encountered. A Hamilton Life editorial had this to say about us, and I quote:

Freshmen rules have a very necessary place in the campus life of any college…They should be obeyed because the freshmen should be taught…that they must give way to the men who have been in college longer… a condition that helps to instill into the freshmen some of the subservience that he will need in the business world… For the most part, the Class of 1939 has been acting rather aloofly when passing upperclassmen.

I wonder how this sort of thing would play out with today's freshmen!

Our blatant disregard for the virtues of subservience notwithstanding, we managed to merit honorable mention in our first interclass sing and to win "Smut" Fancher's trophy the next two years.

In our first year, Hamilton Life took editorial issue with another long-standing tradition, namely, fraternity rushing — which, in the editor's words "is…totally obnoxious. We challenge any of the Hill societies to defend [the] system of lying, kidnapping, hypocrisy and cheating which each semester's…rushing involves." The next week's issue was headlined "Chapel Poll Condemns Rushing System," with over 60 percent of voters opposing the continuation of the practice. However, I couldn't find any evidence of actual changes resulting from these efforts. In fact, one classmate recalls rubbing his posterior with rosin in anticipation of the pain expected from the paddles that he and his fellow initiates were forced to make themselves. Talk about adding insult to injury! Another tells of "Freshman Hell Week," when an entire fraternity pledge contingent fled the campus and "holed up in a lumberjack fleabag in Utica."

During our junior and senior years, Hamilton had its first winter carnivals. The first-ever campus dance was held in '38 at the Yahnundasis Country Club with Bunny Berrigan's Orchestra. And there was the time in '39, when a car went up in flames in the parking lot almost unnoticed because we were too busy with dates, drinks and Glen Miller's band to pay attention.

Such revelry prompted President Cowley during one Wednesday morning chapel talk to call for moderation and for sobriety at the forthcoming house party. The following week a Hamilton Life editorial reported that "parties on the Hill are models of restraint, temprancy [sic], and gentlemanly behavior compared to similar events at any other campus one can name." To which the campus muckraker, Carpe Diem, added in his column:

Party time has come and wented,
With lots of heads and fenders dented.
The girls are gone, but not forgotten-
Good Lord, my mouth is full of cotton!


Many of Hamilton's most revered traditions and reminiscences center on this Chapel. Our Sunday preachers could have been selected from the Who's Who of theologians of the 1930s. As one classmate put it, "The Chapel had a special meaning for me — not only because the Choir performed there [but] because of speakers like Dean Wickes who helped keep one's faith on an even keel in a very questioning period, and artists like Helen Hayes, who in a simple dress on the austere chapel platform delivered … Portia's 'Quality of Mercy' speech from The Merchant of Venice with such intensity and impact that we forgot where we were."

Not all activities in the Chapel were so uplifting. Some of you may recall those time-honored freshmen declamations with half the captive audience either asleep or "waving towels at the unfortunate speaker." (I'm relieved to see no towels here today!)

One of the highlights of the alumni luncheon following our Commencement was the verbal skirmish over fascism between the two honorary degree recipients, Ezra Pound '05, then the College's most famous living alumnus, and the noted radio commentator, Hans Kaltenborn. Several of us described the event as "an exchange of insults," a "dispute" and a "confrontation," with the antagonists "sniping" and "growling at each other."

Other incidents reflected the natural exuberance of undergraduates 50 years ago — like the time I was locked out of my room in North while I was in the shower, and the nightly water fights with fire hoses in the dorms. Then there was the stink bomb in Carnegie when the whole building had to be evacuated (the guilty party was never found), and the time when the entire contents of an absent Alpha Delt's bedroom were deposited on the porch of the Hall of Philosophy. One classmate remembers racing to class at the last moment amid shouts to "hold the bell." Another recalls the spectacle of two naked streakers braving temperatures of 45 degrees below zero and five feet of snow to race from Carnegie to the gym and back for a purse of about $5. (And we thought streaking was an invention of the '70s!) Many of us also recalled "the parade of vendors through the dorms and fraternity houses which included a Parisian tailor; Ward, the caricature artist; a phrenologist; Skin Russell, purveyor of neckties and rubber devices; and certain nefarious characters dealing in booze and football pools."

But undergraduate life wasn't all fun and games. Remember the infamous hit list — the practice of posting all grades in public view in the library lobby. I wonder how many students today would put up with such cruel and unusual punishment!

On the other hand, you may recall that in our senior year the College took a step forward with the organization of a new local fraternity, the Squires. This lent a measure of dignity to those of us who, until then, had been tagged, somewhat contemptuously, "the neutrals."

I close these recollections of undergraduate life with a classmate's vivid portrayal of a famous incident:

Hamilton [he wrote] left me with one of the craziest experiences I've ever had. On October 31, I believe it was 1938, a fraternity brother and I took the trolley to the Stanley Theater in Utica. On the way back, when we passed Peg's, the place was in turmoil. Being somewhat familiar with the blandishments of the establishment and its clientele, we decided to investigate. Nearly every one of the stalwarts was plastered. Behind the bar, a few were pulling bottles down from the shelves and pouring copious drinking, which they were handing out to one and all.

"Where's the boss?" we asked.
"He's gone home to die with his wife and kids?"
"Why has he gone home to die with his wife and kids?"
"Because of the invasion."
"What invasion?" we asked.


"Well, we've been invaded. Those little men from Mars are in New Jersey and moving north. Nothing can stop them. Soldiers, guns, shells. Nothing! Hell, they'll be here before morning. The boss said, 'Drink up, none of us will be here after tomorrow anyway.'"


We walked soberly up the Hill. By the time we reached the fraternity house, Orson Welles had put out the word that it was all a big spoof.

What Became of Us?

And now a few words about ourselves and the effect Hamilton has had on our
lives. The 50th Reunion Yearbook, so expertly edited by Ed Hitchcock, recounts in detail what became of each of us. Let me just add a few observations gleaned from your responses.

Even though most of us saw the war coming, one classmate probably spoke for many when he wrote: "Poor naive me, even with the starting of the draft in October 1940, Pearl Harbor was a fantastic shock…!" During our years on campus, Chapel polls showed that 60 percent of the respondents would not support America's entry into a war; but when the time came, at least two-thirds of us joined one or the other of the military services; and most of the rest of us did our part in some civilian capacity connected to the war effort.

After the war more than half of us went on to pursue careers in business and industry. We became bankers, engineers, salesmen, scientists and researchers, accountants and executives. Several moved into communications, including writing, publishing, printing, advertising, journalism, radio and television. Medicine, dentistry and allied specialties appealed to at least 20 of us. Education lured another large group, with 10 becoming professors and administrators at various colleges and universities, and another half dozen or so teachers and administrators in public or private secondary schools. Lawyers comprise the third biggest group. As for clergymen, politicians, government officials, career military officers and farmers, I could find no more than two or three of each. One of us even ran for president of the United States recently.

At least two-thirds of us at one time or another entered professional or graduate schools; many earned advanced or honorary degrees along the way. Our valedictorian, Herb Long, was awarded by Hamilton in 1972.

One of us commented that because of Hamilton, in a long chain of events, he met, fell in love with and married his wife. I wonder how many others have met their mates through the Hamilton connection. Since our 45th reunion in 1984, Irene and I have often talked about how impressed we are with the wives of our classmates. I'd like to think that Hamilton had something to do with such good taste in the choice of partners.

What Was Hamilton's Contribution to Our Lives?

Historically, one of the functions of liberal arts colleges has been to help undergraduates slough off their parochialism and acquire a more cosmopolitan outlook. One classmate remarked that he had not gone to Hamilton he might have ended up in the coalmines of Pennsylvania. A number of us commented on the fine academic foundation we received here — a foundation that would stand in good stead not only in our professional careers but in our personal development as well. In the words of Sidney Wertimer, quoted by one of us, "Hamilton trains you for nothing, but prepares you for everything."

One classmate's testimonial epitomizes the sentiment of many. He said, "I would not be earning my bread and butter to this day without what I learned on the Hill. Graduate school added little or nothing. The tenor of my life and its ideals can be directly traced back to those days on the Hill."

As someone once said, an immortal speech doesn't have to be everlasting. Therefore, I shall close this letter with a couple of quotations for our classmates. Writes one:

Let me tell you about this malleable bit of clay that was driven to the Hill by his parents one Sunday afternoon in early September in 1935. I was extremely provincial. I had left the village of about 1,000 only rarely before I entered Hamilton. There were few sources of culture in the village. There were no concerts. Church choirs and a brass band, on occasion, provided music. The only theater was a rare Chautauqua or the movie houses in nearby Hudson.

It was rare for anyone from our village to attend college. The rule was, "When you become 14, you go to work."

So what did Hamilton give me? It took me into a new and exciting world. It gave me a deep curiosity about many things that continues today. It provided me with a confidence that enabled me to make my way in the world. It introduced me to great books, poetry, music and art. It helped me keep my faith strong.

And finally, an educator among us quotes Elihu Root's oft-cited reference
to the professors at Hamilton:

To live with such men, to be close to them during four of the most impressionable years of youth, to observe and become accustomed to their simple and sincere lives, … to get their standards and become impressed by their estimates of the values of life, … that is an education beyond price.

But I would add
[our classmate continues]: to have lived four years with a group of the finest and brightest young men, to have heard their strong fresh voices echo over the evening quads at the spring sing, to have watched them play games for the pure joy and love of sport, to have talked far into the night with them… to during bull sessions in the dormitories and fraternities, to have known all of them by name, and to have made lasting friendships with some of them, that too was an experience beyond price.