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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1853 Letter

William Wirt Howe

Delivered: June 1903

It is said that Dr. Whewell, the learned master of Trinity College, Cambridge, after praying in the usual form for the members of that institution, would add: 'And we pray also for all small college men, for they too are God's creatures.'

When our class entered in 1849, beyond doubt they belonged to the category of small college men. There were but nine of them, just enough to have formed a baseball team, if baseball had been in vogue in those days; or, if we wish to be classical, they were a number equal to that of the Muses. They were indeed so few that their names may be recited — Burnett, Cooke, Dada, Gilfillan, Hewson, Lathrop. Paddock, Parker and Woodford.

During our sophomore year our number was increased to 19, and we received one addition during junior year. At the Junior exhibition, May 5th, 1852, there were 14 speakers, of whom 10 are still living. If a life insurance company could have all its risks of that type it would be very successful. On Commencement Day, July 27th, 1853, we mustered 16 graduates, who delivered sixteen orations to a long-suffering audience on a very hot day. An unusual feature of that Commencement day was a poem by the venerable John Pierpont, then of Medford, Massachusetts. He was to have delivered it on the preceding evening, before the literary societies, but he had missed a train and was late, and so he read the poem after we had finished our alleged orations. It was a very brilliant effort, and it was a great pleasure to see and hear the distinguished poet, the author of some of the finest lyrics and hymns ever written in America.

One of our number, Burnett, died during the freshman year. Hewson left College in 1852, but received an honorary A. B. some years later. Morris went back one year and graduated in 1854. Lee left us at the end of junior year and graduated from Union College. He went to Kansas, where he became prominent in politics and in the Civil War. He became a brigadier general of volunteers, and I was for some time on the staff of his cavalry division in many campaigns in the southwest. At one time, in 1862, when we were near Corinth, Mississippi, Lathrop paid a visit to our headquarters. I was unfortunately absent at the time and did not see him. He had been my chum in senior year and a most intimate friend. In 1861 be was a member of the bar of Cincinnati and became colonel of an Ohio regiment and in 1864 he died in service. Lathrop was a very noble man, a fine lawyer and a good soldier. It has always been hard for me to realize his death, and when I consider the matter I am reminded of the decision reported in the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that, for certain legal purposes, those who have fallen for their country are considered as still living — "in perpetuum per gloriam vivere intelleguntur." Our classmate, Lee, was a brilliant cavalry commander and did important service, especially in the campaigns of Corinth and Vicksburg. In our first assault on the latter place he was severely wounded but soon recovered, and he is now in business in New York as a banker.

As I understand, the names and residences of the surviving members of our class are as follows: Beach — Chicago; Brayton, —Delhi, Iowa; Dada — Syracuse; Dakin — Evanston, Illinois; Hackley — San Francisco; Hewson — New York; Howe — New Orleans; Lee — New· York; Morris — Madison, Wisconsin; Parker — Rockford, Illinois; Paddock — Denver; Powell — Clinton;  and Stevens —Madison. It is rather remarkable that there should be 13 survivors out of a list that never exceeded 20. We do not claim any personal credit for longevity, which in itself may be a very dull thing much less do we boast, lest, "like Oedipus, we should come to grief. We simply note the foots and give the air of College Hill the credit. And this leads me to propound a theory.

The late William M. Evarts, who was always a very delicate-looking man, was asked at the age of 80 why he always enjoyed such excellent health, and replied: “I suppose because I have never taken any exercise.” Many a true word is spoken in jest. Professional athletes are generally short lived. That training table may develop youthful giants, but they will often have rheumatism, neuralgia and hypertrophy of the heart. But, however this may be, and of course opinions will always differ in regard to these things, our class never suffered from athletics, because we had none. We ate too much pie probably, like Mr. Emerson, and perhaps we drank too much of that strange fluid that Austin used to sell under the name of “pop,” the formula of which is a profound mystery, but we never took too much exercise. What we did was this, that once at least and generally twice a day, we walked from the College to the village square and back, and that thousand-times-repeated climbing of the Hill gave a certain quality to heart, lungs and muscles that still endures. I have never met a Hamilton man of that period who could not climb a staircase or a mountain with little trouble.

In fulfilling a supposed obligation to have some eccentric performance during sophomore year, we chose the burning of the Convivium of Xenophon, a little book with which the class had wrestled in much agony during freshman year. Our literary exercises, held in the Chapel at 9 p.m. in November 1850, were very elaborate. Paddock led the singing. I was made to write a Latin hymn, which was probably the worst, both in sense and syntax, ever known. George Dakin read a very clever poem, Hewson delivered an oration, and Morris fumbled an English song. We wound up with a tragedy, in which the fate of Convivium was foretold by a kind of Greek chorus of professors and tutors. Then we crossed the road in front of the College and burned the book on a great funeral pyre.

Recurring now to the thought with which this letter began we may indeed agree with Dr. Whewell that small college men are also God's creatures; and we may go still further and assert from our experience that we were led by a kindly Providence to be members of a small class in what was then a small college. We did a great deal of study and reading because we had little else to do. In our recitations we were almost always called to our feet every day, and were thus incited to be ready. We knew our fellow-students intimately. Our relations with the faculty became friendly and social because we were so few; and as we look back upon those years we see little to regret and much to make our hearts glad. It is easy to see now that there are many compensations in the life of what we call the small college. An institution of learning may be so large that the young student is almost lost. Pedagogy may become so scientific as to lose its human interest. The personal equation is so precious. Garfield said that Mark Hopkins sitting on one end of a log with a student at the other made a university. The greatest teachers of the world have had a few disciples only. Some years ago, in the American Bar Association, we were discussing law school methods, and one side was standing up for the inductive and the other for the deductive, when a member from Louisville suggested that there was one other method that ought not to be forgotten, and that was the seductive — the method of Theodore Dwight — the bright, friendly, intimate converse between master and disciple that means so much to the young student. Looking back now we can see that we were much favored in our relations with the teaching body. President North, Professor Root, Professor North, Professor Upson and all the rest were men whom we had an opportunity to know as human personalities. And we remember them, not only with respect, but also with true affection.