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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1850 Letter

Joseph Welton Hubbard

Delivered: June 1900

“All things come to him who waits.” But “waiting for dead men’s shoes” is tedious business; and the freshman who squeezed in by yesterday’s examination will wait a long time for mine. While coming down, 53 other annalists will step before him.

To act as “Old Mortality,” and retouch the mossy monuments that mark the dust of loved ones, to bring out the dwellers beyond the veil and make them walk once more among the living, to call the living and bid them converse hold with the departed — this is well worth a 54 years of waiting. I am glad I waited. Though the disposition of Providence, and the indisposition of the venerable Dr. Sykes, the first choice for annalist, I am called to step into the doctor’s shoes. You’d scarce expect me to fill them; and I must beg you to sit still as you can while I rattle around in them. It is not true, as a malicious tradition of 50 years ago had it that I read, on yonder spectral stage, a composition on Brevity, said composition being an hour long. But the spectacle of a tired congregation has no terrors for me; and if I catch half of you asleep I shall know that that half are getting good out of this exercise.

The dawn of college life. What pains and pleasures mingle in its memories! We came with high hopes, and yet with palpitating hearts to meet our doom. By spring wagon and farm wagon, by steamboat and steam car, by stagecoach and by Red Line packet we came. Two long days were spent in listening to the stern voice of our Palinurus as he called out, “Bridge,” “bridge,” “low bridge.”

How many a bump would have been escaped if along life’s voyage all had heard a heeded a voice like that. But by September 17, 1846, here we were a lot of freshmen. Examinations over, and knowing that we were all right; we began to look around to see what improvements we could introduce. We attended Chapel, and looked with awe and reverence upon those stately men who faced us, while the good Simeon opened and read to us the Scriptures, and then, in his calm, scholarly way led us up to the mercy seat. We went into our first recitation, and David A. Holbrook touched our hearts by his first sentence and won us forever. I need not dwell upon those names. Those men to whom we looked up for four years were no common men; and we learned to love them all. North and Avery and Mandeville and Catlin and Dwight and North and Upson and Holbrook. My predecessors have painted them as they were. I will do no more than say: Add together the words of praise and love they have all spoken, and we of the Class of 1850 will respond with a loud Amen.

Well do we remember when our eyes were wet at Professor Catlin’s tomb, and how we grieved when Dr. Mandeville left us. No other class gave a heartier welcome than our to Professor Root. Next to the faculty we so delighted to honor were the seniors, whose kindly interest in us as we were welcomed to their rooms won our hearts. Those profiles of white paper and black muslin that adorned the senior recitation room linger with me still; and Senator Hawley, who is not here to look after his fences today, will be glad to hear the rosary, with which I count myself to sleep on fingertips for beads, the names of the Class of 1847. Here it is:

Adams, Allen, Avery, Boynton, Burchard, Camp, Clark, Conkey, Donnelly, Dunham, Green, Hawley, Hopkins, Humphrey, Lee, McMaster, McVickar, Millard, Morgan, Pomeroy, Priest, Rogers, Scofield, Sherman, Shorb, Spencer, Stillson, Strong, Sutphen, Underwood, Waterman, White, Williams and Williamson.

I sometimes fancy that St. Peter should chance to hear me lisp these names he would say, “That fellow out beyond the Mississippi has patron saints than any other man I know of.”

But we must come down to the freshmen. That is just what we were. But we pity any man who has never known the pain and the bliss of being a freshman.

If sometimes there was something about us that made the cows lick at us as we walked the streets, I am sure it was only the prophecy of the “green old age” that awaited some of us. If we had all been dried up then, what would we have been by this time? Had I been called to write this letter by then, I should have presented a magnificent picture of a class. We wear smaller hats now than then. The truth is we were a job lot of materials that had come to be transformed from chaos to cosmos, and Old Greek and the other sainted ones who look down upon us, had their hands full. We had kindly hearts; and if sometimes our heads were softer than our hearts it was because they were made so. We did not always shed tears if a recitation room was fastened from the inside; though we may have shed something worse than tears when the professor marched us off to Chapel for recitation.

In the winter of 1846-47 the famine was sore in Ireland. Somebody told us that there was to be an Irish relief meeting in the village in the afternoon. Our soft hearts and softer heads were touched. We sent our best committee to implore Professor North to excuse us from Greek, that we might attend Greek recitation that afternoon; and in fact I doubt whether one of us was able to drag himself down to the relief meeting. And — and some of the sons of the Belial together with some of the saints repaired to the recitation room and made very fine kindling wood out of blackboards and benches and even the sacred “bear box” and that just after evening prayers. We then waited for something to drop. It dropped with a warning for bolting. Ten or 12 of us were ornamented with two more warnings, for which they charged us each $1 to rebuild the wastes. It may be safe to confess at this late day that the annalist’s share of the fun was all summed up in the warnings and the finem while most of those who wrought with vandal hands escaped.

One day in the first term our door opened after recitation, and in walked the stalwarts of the sophomore class, and presented us the “freshman club.” It was a noble specimen of handiwork, black walnut, bound with brass. It had been handed down from class to class after Hercules could wield it no longer. One day Lai Sun, our beloved Chinaman, called a class meeting. Professor Mandeville went out, then opened the door and inquired, “Did you want me to stay?” “Yes,” said Lai Sun, “if you consider yourself a member of the class”; and the professor went off, as nearly folded up as his delicate form would permit.

Down here (in the old laboratory) Panet M. Hastings discoursed of bones, and Professor Avery discoursed of stones and gases, and sometimes called the class to order with uplifted hammer as his gavel. And here we came for examinations. Well will we remember a cruel rule announced that henceforth we must leave our classmates and stand before our examiners all alone, “for reasons obviously obvious.” “Two are better than one.”

July 7, 1848, a little unpleasantness occurred while the plank walk was being laid. The sophomores having completed their task next to the bridge, had come to the rescue of the freshmen, who were laboring at the top. The juniors, 1849, were working midway and coveted the planks of the freshmen that Professor North’s patient oxen were bringing up on a cart. From coveting the 1849ers went to highway robbery. Thomas B. Hudson (now D.D. etc.) and ruthlessly overthrown with a whole load of hemlock, and the many handed juniors were gathering up the spoils. The swift-footed sophomores and freshmen descended upon them like the whirlwind. The last plank was grasped by a tall sophomore and a mighty junior, and finally the loving arms of a freshman walk, while one hard-kicking freshman, with swift iambics, applied to the helpless junior the “a posteriori argument” till the freshman destroyed his sole — of his shoe, while another of the class spread and smoothed the kicks with alternating applications of a shovel. The plank securely nailed and marked, we returned, expecting to wipe out the junior class. We found a professor in the midst of them hardly bested. He held in his hand a wand about a cubit in length and the size of a wrist. He had waved it gently in the midst of a fight; and the juniors were abusing him for mingling in a fight not his own. One of them finally said, :Terry, it was not policy for you to get into it.” The answer came quick and decided, “Damn the policy, I go in for principle.” That settled forever the first and last fight of our time. Each sophomore and freshman upper jaw was lifted, and the juniors joined in with a weakly amen, while a mighty shout rent the air. The “Professor of Dust and Ashes,” Terry O’Brien, had made peace saved the skulls of the juniors and the honor of the college.

On November 30, 1848, we learned that a boy had arrived at the home of Professor North, in an alarming state of destitution. Our tender hearts were touched. We hastened to buy an outfit that would reach from head to foot, and, mindful of the stranger’s lineage, we added an Agamemnon, the Greek play we were then reading. To the professor we returned good for evil. We left on the “bear box” top our offering, and, so much better than the professor had been to us, we excused him from the recitation that he might hurry the much-needed wardrobe and literature to their owner. The next morning we made our recitation in Greek; and in departing the professor said, “I have been made the bearer of a communication to the junior class, which I leave upon the desk.”

To our horror we found that “young Greek,” who was equally at home in Greek and English, had answered our communication in Greek. To save time, and fear you may not all have kept up your Greek, I will give you the translation only: “The unnamed North hereby extends his hearty thanks to the kindly juniors for the many silver purchased articles he has lately added to his wardrobe and library.” The early study of that Agamemnon, which served him in college, and is now an heirloom at halfway-up, doubtless contributed much to help the young man in his successful career. I may say in passing that we were not forgotten; and we closed our career, “At peace with all the world, and the rest of mankind.”

And now we have brought the story of our class to lay it at the feet of alma mater. It comes from the graves by the Atlantic, by the Pacific, from mid-continent and Southland. It comes from the living equally scattered. It is the story of a broken band. It is freighted with the best wishes and prayers of loving children. And here, among all changes, we find one only familiar figure. One human, yet more than human tie, binds us to alma mater. “Old Greek” has been here always. From 1837 to the Class of 1903, 66 generations have known and loved him. And yet the loving heart beats as in springtime beneath the head now decked with the autumnal snow. I have never gone over to the higher critics; but have done a little study along their line. Fifty-four years ago Professor North, clad in that long cloak of his, reminded me of Elijah the Tishbite. I account in this wise for the long delay in his translation. “The horses” are ready, “the chariot” is ready, “the mantle” is ready, and God knows the man is always ready; but the Master is waiting to fully fit an Elisha to wear the mantle.

Once more we from toward the sun setting join the younger sons who follow, and say, “Hail alma mater!” We all bless thee; the rich build thy palaces; the prayers of the poorest are ascending for thee; and all crown thee with their affection. We are passing; the century is dying; but thou remained. And so. Farewell, alma mater! From thy seat of unrivaled beauty thy face is turned ever to the sun rising. With radiant face wilt thou greet the mornings of the centuries to come. Thy massive halls may become stardust again; but thou wilt live on in the unending life of the sons whom thou hast nourished and girded for the labors of time, and under God, fashioned for the employments of eternity.