Delivered: June 5, 2004
We were children of the Great Depression and whether from rich family or poor had sensed early in life the effects of that economic collapse that led to bread lines and suicides and CCC camps. When about 7-years-old, we heard the dreadful news from Pearl Harbor and subsequently lived through that tremendous conflict called World War II, huddling around crackling radios to catch news of such far-off and exotic places as Bataan, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Too young to serve in the military, we had waited for news of older brothers, cousins and sometimes fathers engaged in conflict in Europe or the Pacific. We joined civilian defense clubs, collected old metal and materials for the war effort and, in general, sensed great pride in our country, locked as it was in deadly combat with the Enemy.
We learned, in the midst of that conflict, of the death of FDR, the only president we had ever known, and, not many months later, of the first use of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then it was over. Peace at last arrived, and the world that had so long known deprivation and war settled at last into an era of relative prosperity. And we were ready for it, eager to shake off that "scrimp-and-save" attitude of our parents and to tear into life with a passion.
And so, in due season, Hamilton College selected us and we selected Hamilton, and we arrived in the fall of 1950 183 strong, a very large class by Hamilton standards. The majority of us came from New York State, with most of the rest hailing from other Northeastern states. We were all of one gender and one skin color. The College proclaimed itself in its catalogue Christian and demonstrated that faith by requiring all of us to attend chapel services each week. Those occasions were "non-denominational" but with a definitely Protestant slant. "Wasps" predominated both on the faculty and in the student body.
Hamilton was, by almost any measure, a very small college, with a student body numbering only about 600. In fact, because of the outbreak of the Korean War, the class behind us was exceptionally small, and the College even shrank a little in size. And if the College was small, the tuition, by today's standards, was smaller still. In April of 1952, The Spectator reported that the trustees had decided to keep the tuition charge the same — $600, but incidental fees, let the student beware, would rise a whopping $7!
How was it possible, even given the rate of inflation since the '50s, that the College could have managed to provide an excellent education with such a small income? (A 1950 dollar is worth $7.77 today. That would mean that a comparable tuition charge would be $4,662 rather than the more than $30,000 we charge today!) Certainly such a low tuition was not because Hamilton was heavily endowed. Even after a $2 million campaign that began in 1950, it was reported in 1953 that the total endowment of the College was a little more than $5,300,000. Even so we ranked 84th in size of endowment among all American institutions of higher education.
One part of the answer to this question was that Hamilton had a very small administration and support staff. When the Class of 1954 arrived on the Hill, there was just a president and one dean. Then, after a couple of years the College added a half-time dean of students, but that was about it for academic administration. The College did have a controller and one assistant. There was a physical plant staff under Elliott "General" Burton, but that staff was so small it could fit into North and South Courts both its offices and work areas. Virtually its whole fleet of trucks could be parked in the little courtyard between the two buildings. There were two people who handled public relations, including fundraising, and two people in admission. In all, in 1951 apart from a small staff in the library, the College listed only 11 administrators to run the College. I invite you to compare that number with the list of today.
Second, there was the College's policy about social life. The College provided the faculty and classrooms for education, a gym for physical education and sports, and dormitories for sleeping, but left the social life very largely in the hands of student organizations. Fraternities provided not only places for parties and informal social interaction, but much of the food service and a good share of the housing as well. During the first week, before freshmen were pledged, Commons was full, but after that the College had to provide meals for only the small group of men who were not in fraternities. If students wanted to watch The Jackie Gleason Show or I Love Lucy or Dragnet on that newly popular mechanism called the Tube, they had to go to a fraternity house. The College showed little interest in providing such amenities.
Third, the College had no "edifice complex." Today, Hamilton seems to spend much time and money building new buildings and redoing old ones. Every summer the campus is in turmoil as the construction engineers and crews do their work. In the early '50s there was very little construction. Some modest improvements were made — most significantly the introduction of artificial ice in Sage Rink — but in general the College made do with what it had, manifesting that Spartan attitude learned during those lean years of the Depression. Hamilton was still, as it were, saving string and tinfoil. One Spectator reported that the College was to cut maid service for the dorms from every day to two days a week, thus saving between five and six thousand dollars a year!
Fourth, that Spartan attitude was undoubtedly applied to faculty salaries as well. Although I have no hard figures to rely on, I believe that I was told many years ago that the top faculty salaries at the time were no more than $10,000. Course loads were heavy and travel grants minimal; the chief compensation was satisfaction in a job well-done. For faculty, the "Good Old Days" were really not all that good.
Compared with today's curriculum, course offerings in 1950 also look very spare indeed. There were certainly no frills and nothing was particularly specialized. Several science departments, like psychology, geology and physics, were staffed by only two faculty members. The English Department was much larger but still unable to pay much attention to what had happened in English literature in the 20th century. The social sciences also offered only a bare-bones curriculum. Earl "Noah" Count by himself introduced students to the rudiments of both anthropology and sociology. Economics, for a while, was taught by only two people, and all of human history was assigned to three historians who were aided by Francis Gilbert, a teaching fellow who, I thought, knew about everything there was to know.
One reason why the College could make do with such a small faculty is that the whole curriculum was very Eurocentric. Modern languages included just French, German and Spanish. Who would have even imagined studying Russian or Chinese or Japanese? History courses covered topics concerning mainly Western Europe and America, though Professor Starnes did offer an upper-level course in Russian history. Outside the one course by Paul Hayner in World Religions and perhaps some work in anthropology and political science, one would scarcely have guessed that Asia and Africa existed at all.
In a sense, however, such lacunae did not matter so much, for what we really learned to do was to think critically and to articulate those thoughts both orally and in writing.
Every time I go into the Chemistry Auditorium I remember a course with Professor Marsh in which each of us had to deliver our speeches standing, without podium or notes, on top of the laboratory table — with shaky knees in full view of everyone. We can all remember, I think, the gallons of red ink the English Department spilled over our themes for English Composition 1-2 and the terror of those "Yes" themes needed to pass the course. For those who have forgotten, each student had to produce at least two essays written in class that were totally free of all grammatical and spelling errors. Some of us got down to the very last day without having fulfilled that requirement.
What I am saying is that education in the liberal arts was and is not so much the presentation and absorption of huge quantities of material as it is the development of critical skills and habits of mind, for once those are developed one can use them to explore anything from black holes to voting trends to the shamanism of Ulan Bator. The very limited nature of the course offerings at Hamilton allowed us the opportunity to hone those skills and I believe all of us benefited in great measure. Moreover, it should also be noted that although the faculty has grown enormously since the 1950s, the faculty-student ratio today is only marginally better than the 1:10 ratio in 1954.
The formal curriculum, of course, was also supplemented by other offerings — particularly lectures and concerts — that helped to overcome the isolation of such a small college tucked away far from the centers of civilization. As I reviewed the Hamilton Spectator from the early '50s, I must say that I was impressed by the variety and stature of those who came to the College to speak. Of course, there were the chapel preachers including such notables as Reinhold Niebuhr, Ralph Sockman, George Buttrick and Will Herberg, but there were also poets: E.E. Cummings and W.H. Auden; literary critics: Cleanth Brooks, Lionel Trilling, Bennett Cerf and Basil Willey; men of science: Karl Menninger and Loren Eisley; classicists: Gilbert Highet and Carl Kraeling; as well as several commentators on social issues such as Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate for president, Dexter Perkins, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and our own Philip Jessup. Edward R. Murrow was, as classmates may recall, our Commencement speaker.
Offerings in music were somewhat thinner, for we had no Wellin Hall to accommodate large ensembles, but we did hear Virgil Fox give a recital on the College organ as well as several noted pianists and string quartets. Moreover, Hamilton's own choristers were able, under the direction of Berrian Shute and John Baldwin, to participate in the presentation of such works as Bach's B Minor Mass and Mendelssohn's Elijah.
The College also sponsored each year a jazz concert featuring such notables as "Pops" Foster with the Jimmy Archer band and "Wild Bill" Davison. During our time at the College both the Buffers and Hamilton's own "Catatonic Five" came into existence. The latter, with some of the original members, has been offering jazz at reunions ever since.
I should also mention that the Charlatans provided us with very fine, home-grown dramatic experiences, offering such works as Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, Melville's Billy Budd and Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I. There was no Theatre Department and no theater building. Stages had to be constructed in Commons; props had to be cajoled from faculty and staff. Directors and actors were on their own. Nevertheless, because of the talent of such students as our own, now departed, Bill Woodman, performances were creditable and sometimes even exciting. Perhaps there is something to be said for developing student creativity and initiative rather than just directing them.
At this juncture, I suppose, I should say a word about sports, though I will not elaborate extensively on that sometimes sad tale. Unlike drama, sports were coached by some very good coaches, but that didn't seem to help too much. Our first year on the Hill was not auspicious for football. We lost every game, falling to Oberlin by a score of a whopping 52-0. Hockey ended 7-8, but basketball recorded 14 straight losses. Oh well, Hamilton was pretty small. The next year things were a bit better with Hamilton football beating Haverford, Kenyon and, miracle of miracles, Union. The basketball team also improved, and tennis was always a bright spot.
In our junior year Hamilton football happily discovered Brooklyn College, an institution that must not have allowed its team to practice at all. We beat them 52-0! We went on to beat Wagner, Haverford and Union as well, which prompted President McEwen to write a piece titled, "We like to win but…" emphasizing that Hamilton (unlike some of its rivals) valued academic learning over mere athletic prowess — a worthy sentiment no doubt.
Most of us came to Hamilton because of its reputation as an old and venerable institution. Few of us realized, however, that the Hamilton we attended was still in the process of reinventing itself after the long hiatus called World War II. President McEwen and Dean Tolles had only been in office since 1948. Although there were several faculty members who had taught at Hamilton in pre-war days, many of our favorite professors were virtually as new as we were.
Perhaps it was because of the newness of the institution that the administration consciously encouraged a return to the old traditions. Freshmen were expected to wear beanies and risked, if they did not do so, a headshaving at the hands of sophomores. There were contests, like the freshman-sophomore tug-of-war, with the losers being dragged through the fountain in the central quadrangle. There was a snow sculpture competition each February and inter-class and inter-fraternity singing competitions. In fact, what I remember most about social life is the amount of singing that went on around campus. Every fraternity party that I attended saw men and their dates sitting around with beers in hand (it was legal back then) singing old and sometimes raunchy songs. They Built the Ship Titanic, Sweet Violets, Sweet Antoinette, Waltz Me Around Again Willy. I am embarrassed to say that I remember the lyrics of these and many other songs much better than the principal parts of the French irregular verbs over which I labored so long.
Social life was a little tough, I might add. We did have three major houseparty weekends a year with Winter Carnival featuring big bands like those of Billy Butterfield and Ray Everley. On those occasions hundreds of young women arrived to share a frenetic weekend of dancing and singing and, of course, drinking. (We won't mention other activities.) There were many blind dates. On other, frequent occasions, there were "rolls" to such far-off places as Wellesley, Mass., and Aurora, N.Y. I myself hitchhiked to Poughkeepsie (really Arlington), N.Y., the home of Vassar College, on more than one occasion. In those days dating was not something you could take for granted; it demanded planning and fortitude. Nevertheless somehow we survived, and eventually most of us found someone to love and marry. In that respect, I think we were at least as successful as students today.
Finally, after four years of public speaking and physical education and those many other requirements, we sat and listened to Edward R. Murrow, received our diplomas and, with great hopes and some little nostalgia, left the Hill to pursue our fortunes in the Big Wide World. We did not know it then but the old world that had been ours was coming to an end. To be sure, Bing Crosby still was on the Hit Parade and Burma-Shave signs were still being put up around the nation. If you don't remember those signs here's a set offered in 1954:
On curves ahead
That rabbit's foot
But Burma-Shave signs were soon a thing of the past, and actually nothing could have saved the bunny. Listen to the events that took place in 1954, the year of our graduation:
Ray Kroc began franchising McDonald's.
The United States detonated its first H-Bomb and launched its first nuclear-powered submarine.
In Southfield, Mich., America's first shopping mall opened.
Diner's Club offered the first credit card.
Construction began on Disneyland.
Ford introduced the Thunderbird.
The Tonight Show premiered.
Hank Aaron hit his first major-league home run.
Swanson introduced its first frozen dinners.
Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile.
The Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal education is unconstitutional.
IBM launched the first mass-produced computer.
SEATO was organized, committing the United States to defend Southeast Asian countries from the threat of Communism.
And last but not least, Elvis Presley debuted with That's Alright Mama.
The old world was changing, as it always does; Hamilton College was changing, as it always will. But the Class of 1954 will savor the time we spent here in what President McEwen loved to call "The Ivory Tower" — a time that transformed us forever. No matter what the modern lyrics say, our alma mater still concludes:
"We still will be thy boys, we still will be thy boys."
After four years as a student and 44 and counting as a faculty member, Jay G. Williams has long been intimately acquainted with Hamilton. He has not only observed continuity and change in the life of the College over more than a half-century but has also reflected incisively upon it, as evidenced by his annalist's letter for the Class of 1954.
Williams followed his father, Jay G. Williams, Sr. '23, to Hamilton in 1950. After his graduation as a philosophy and English literature major, he went on to earn an M.Div. degree from Union Theological Seminary. Two years as an executive with the National Council of Churches was followed by his return to College Hill in 1960 as an instructor. In subsequent years he acquired a Ph.D. from Columbia University, chaired the department of religious studies from 1968 to 1990, and served several stints as director of Asian studies. Currently the Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies and a specialist in Asian religions, particularly those of India and China, he has introduced generations of Hamilton students to the cultural life of the Far East.