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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1859 Letter

John Hudson Peck

Delivered: June 23, 1909

My Classmates of 1859 and Gentlemen of the Alumni:

The story of our class life is not found in annals. Those were formative days, days of ripening and maturing. Our youth was catching its first glimpses of the origin and the early ordering of things, we were just beginning to hear the voices of the sages and the masterful, and the songs and the sightings in literature and art. We were listening and watchful; and, from among the wonders of which we learned, thoughts and personal opinions were springing. Impressions remained, but annals were not written. I could wish to picture old truths in radiant novelty, as we saw them then. But facts of those days have taken on the hue of distance, and your annalist is looking back to a far horizon. We can catch echoes. College life is full of them. Many of the dramatic moments are recurrences, annually novel to newer lives as they reach them. Let me try to waken echoes.

Hamilton College to me is a setting for most pleasuring and satisfying memories. I do not care to be altogether impersonal. For instance, I shall not disguise the fact that I entered college a lover, warm and newly won. My first sweetheart had been my mother. My alma mater, at first sight, became another. My brother and I had prepared for college without the least thought of entering Hamilton. However, one July morning of 1856 we came to Clinton. It was this way. My father was a Hamilton alumnus of 1825. He had seldom if ever been back to the Hill and never said much to us about his College. Between ourselves and our classmates in a fitting school, we had settled that all should go together to a certain eastern college. About commencement time, my father remarked in a casual way that he would like to go out to his college and see how the old places looked, and that perhaps we might like to go along. Of course we should. On the way we left Utica for Clinton, two boys with their father on a lark; or we thought.

What a morning that was! The air was buoyant, the sunshine brilliant, and everything in nature along the beautiful drive sparkling and exhilarating. On the stage top with us were a lot of the finest fellows I had ever met, and so courteous and affable to boys too fresh to know that they were badgeless or what that might mean. My father was so pleased and surprised as we were. He had never had so lavish attentions from us. Arrived at the Clinton House, we started on foot for the College. Even then there was no lack of pleasant company. I had never known my father’s anecdotes of the mill, the miller and his family, the old maid’s home and reminiscences of coasting and boarding houses so effectively funny. They simply delighted our young friends. By the time we had reached “Halfway-up,” I verily believe we were already more than halfway in. Near Professor North’s it occurred to my father that the professor had been a classmate of his brother, and that it was a good opportunity to show him a pleasant attention. This was just not like father; but it was a gala day, and it excited no special surprise.

Once in the house we boys enjoyed seeing our elders laugh so easily and so much over so little. Perhaps a sly word had lent color to the call; there may have been a deliberate conspiracy. I didn’t know that there was either. At all events a whimsical idea struck one of them. Why not take advantage of the opportunity and examine us for entrance on the spot? No harm would be done if we did not pass, and it might prove convenient if we did. It was quite in keeping with the hilarity of the occasion. We crossed the hall to a little study, and we passed. It was a satisfaction to us — but to the men — well, the joke was too good to be left unfinished. With a smile that was facial in extent and boundless in its expression of merriment, the professor directed us to the residence of Professor Root. He thought that if we found him at home, he would examine us in mathematics in the same accommodating spirit that he himself had shown in the classics. We left my father with Dr. North, but I suspect I could relate quite accurately what had happened between them. Professor Root was at home, singularly enough, on the morning of examination day. The first thing I remember is that he looked up at me under his brows with a twinkle in his eyes and quietly asked, “What is a unit?” To a mind braced for at least some pons asinorum this was as a pebble of the brook from David’s sling, and it might easily have been as fatal. But the professor had landed us; the stress was relieved, and all went well. Before noon we had been dismissed with all entrance examinations passed. The fun those two elderly schemers had that morning has produced in my mind, as the years have passed, almost a suspicion, which I banish as well as I can.

At any rate we had been pretty thoroughly introduced to alma mater, and she was looking her best. Experiences were new and exciting. Every sense was in musical tension and vibrating with an unaccustomed thrill. We were being honored and cultured. Splendid fellows, exulting in academic distinctions, prizes and high standing, and seemingly descended from a different plane of life, were graciously entertaining us. We were shown wonderful views of the great valley, superb in shadows and distances and tones of color. We were taken to the grave of Skenandoa and told the story of a mission school on the New York frontier, that had rested just there not very long ago; of an academy in the forest, and finally of the College, together only part of the fruitage of one heroic Christian heart. We were led to the observatory, to the laboratory and the cabinets and collections in natural history in inspiring contrast with the recent pictures of a rude school in the wilderness. We heard students’ stories of pluck and pranks, of fun and romance, stimulating and charming. When evening fell we were well within the inviting portals, already happy in an allegiance that has never faltered.

We had thus met that first day two men of indelible influence. Nowhere do minds find such stimulus, such intensity of interest, such uplifting and glorifying of all that is wise and good as in instructing and maturing young men. Such a mental trend and aptitude for teaching is a force that works on pupils like a spell. Professor North and Professor Root in natural adaptation, in dedication, in accomplishments, were among the most illuminating teachers. They would have been eminent and honored anywhere. In a faculty that was the potential assurance of the position of the College, they were invaluable members. Sunshine through our Chapel windows is the proper halo about the heads of those long-time messengers of light.

On that same day we began to meet our classmates, most of whom were already on the ground. Superficially they made up what Dr. Avery might have called a mechanical mixture, but from the first, the class spirit was a clear and sometimes brilliant unity. The extremes of age at entrance were 16 and 27 years, and the average age at graduation about 25. The differences in temperament, habits and preparation were quite as wide. The class was small in numbers and inclined to be serious, but it was not exactly staid. Defying nobody and challenging nothing, it developed coherence, initiative and alertness, and it has soon to be counted with in life on the Hill. This spirit in new men was winning and made friends. It became early both a pride and a spur. The class always submitted to those queer, inflexible laws that drift nowhence into student life. Critical study sometimes enabled us to take appalling liberties with written rules. We kept off campus grass, but not off campus hay — we resented a meadow.

At the end of term the factor of safety in regularity marks was rarely more than 10, but that much was carefully assured. When sophomores called on business, they were well-received as upperclassmen, but they did not always “lead the meeting.” In such ways the involuntary salutation of our class became a broad grin. Later, financial inequalities were made unobtrusive in class undertakings. There is hardly anything I am so proud to record. In class subscriptions, the name of every classmate, otherwise ready to do his part, appeared for a fair share, and those amounts were always paid. If fruit were irregularly taken, it was often only as a defiance of bluster and brag and dogs. Class sport was largely under the same leadership as class scholarship. So little did the latter suffer in consequence that men below the relative honor grade in 1859 stood higher than valedictorians in some previous years. There was a high average of industry. The hours of labor, largely voluntary and mostly occupied in research and study of the arts of expression, were simply enormous. Many a day in the winter terms had 18 hours given to intense work; and, as the busy have always the most leisure, there remained in every week spare time for incidental sport and exercise. I think there was no single case of serious illness on the Hill during our entire course. And yet there were desperate struggles going on against poor preparation, that gained no prizes and won no applause — heroic efforts of pluck and grit — that must have gravelly imperiled health.

But the class pledged to do more than its duty. Its motto was Nulli Secundus (“Second to None”) and its spirit progressive. It often assumed the initiative. The Hamiltonian, an annual ever since continued, was established. Classmates frequently met in interfraternity smokers’ and card clubs. The social life of students was broadened in sympathy and manliness. Further innovations will be noticed as we reach them chronologically.

Toward the close of freshman year, when old and obvious thoughts were first beginning to occur to us and were being cherished and exploited as novel and profound, we gave unconscious evidence that we still had, lingering about us, some of the tastes of early youth. A new way to make noise, with some excuse for it, still had charms. We had been unappreciative and thankless for the privilege and blessing of having had in full measure the barbaric discipline of sophomores. At the same time we were openly glad to assume the role. According to the constraining law we must first ring off freshman rust. “Malignant and persistent bell ringing” must be invoked — an ear-splitting, rest-destroying, clangorous rite. From bedtime until dawn, the limpid, soft July air of College Hill must be given a cutting edge. The earliest class function was, by means of the Chapel bell, sonorously observed on Monday night of our first Commencement week. Slam, clang, whang, the rust went off in the last big din of our boyhood.

In sophomore year the real genius of the class did not inspire the smoking out of freshmen. If I remember right, we made in deference to custom, a few essays with not much fun and without marked success. But spring brought to us a compelling duty. We must caricature the Junior Exhibition scheme of the class above us. Wit, sarcasm and satire had become due from us, and they must be produced and published. The class for a term was in a state of congested secrecy, and the committee oppressively grand and gloomy. The solemn times portended deadly fun and annihilating jokes. When the mock scheme was distributed, we thought it was the cutest, funniest burlesque there had ever been. What won’t aunts and mothers do for boys? Ours thought they saw what they did and helped us laugh at the coarse, flat thing. But we had published. We were more or less immortals, and the committee of incubation smiled again. Was all this worthwhile? I think so. It was an ending — a scattering that brought increase. The class passed on.

At the close of our first term junior, we had a celebration and a jollification which were also far more. The mental athletics and polishing processes of pure mathematics for us were over. Old Calculus was “off his job,” dead. Arrangements for his funeral had occupied a considerable portion of life among us. Obsequies began as examinations closed. A departure from College customs, the plan and its execution were immeasurably beyond the possibility of our origination in any previous term. It was a frolic that showed transforming progress. The project had been carefully studied, and it was elaborate and dignified. Original songs had been written, as I believe by Hall, in Latin, Latin-English and English; they had been committed to memory and were sung in full chorus. A eulogy was pronounced in the Chapel — burlesque indeed, but neither clownish in fun nor in the least a profanation in the place. The grand marshal even then enlisted in the host of the Prince of Peace, marched that night as Gen. E. Ration, accompanied by his aides, Major Axis and Square Root. The virgin mourners, veiled and beautifully costumed in white, were electromagnetic to underclassmen, who marched for miles on each side of the procession that contained weeping and sobbing Minnie Mum, Pollie Nomial, Eva Lution and Jennie Ration, with a gallant devotion to it as if they had been in fact the young ladies they seemed to be.

Under the starlight the illusion certainly was very perfect and pretty, and the sobs quite moving. One small boy from the village did confide to his sister that a funny lady “sword” at another funny lady who had stepped on her dress. His estimate of the language was probably due to the use of nursery measure. The entire class “went over,” “understood” and “saw through” Calculus. At last the black-robed pallbearers, Sir Face, Sir Cumference, Sir Veying, Hi Perbola, Cy Cloid and Ab Scissa, placed what remained on the pyre, the flames arose; and amid the libations and lamentations of the class masked and posing as relatives and friends, Calculus smoked. The ashes were gathered in an urn that had been part of my stove and were buried during the chanting of a dirge. The whole thing was a complete surprise to the College as well as a success and established the reputation of the class for initiative.

What an incitement Junior Exhibition used to be! How much thought and study it focused! Of how many dreams and ambitions it was the bloom! It was then a student to begin to individualize himself outside the College. The marvel of our first term had been that a senior was able to write enough on one subject to need four minutes for its delivery. But we were already eager for more time than that. Our scheme was the most gratifying study to one familiar with the class as freshmen. The subjects invaded nearly every domain of literature. It showed maturing judgment, gathering culture and peerings toward uplands of thought. It was eloquent of work done for us as well as by us, and in varying degrees under the appeal of both subjects and teachers. Junior orations were in some sense a correlation of such influences in original addresses. Their preparation was under the supervision of Professor Upson, a man of infinite patience, apt wisdom and considerate sympathy. His purpose was to lead students to an effective use of their whole equipment, and so he studied as well as taught them. The professor delicately exposed their crudités and weaknesses; and students often by their attempted defense of their own conclusions, learned that an opportunity to rewrite was a privilege and not a task. They busied themselves in suppressing habits and cultivating aptitudes. His work in the College during many years was so far as I know unique; to some extent he specialized its reputation. He subsequently became chancellor of the University of the State, but all of his honors I believe he enjoyed most the gratitude of those whom in early life he had led to gates of opportunity.

For many weeks prior to our exhibition, the sophomores had been gathering into a mock scheme aimed at us, their most blighting wit. They arose on the morning of the exhibition to find the Hill and village placarded with broadsides containing the whole of it. Notwithstanding their utmost vigilance it had, thanks to Paine and Wolcott, reached our hands prematurely. We had turned our own guns upon them. The College and the community were in a roar of derisive laughter. The sophomores showed good grit and produced a substitute before the exhibition was over. The first two years of our course were the last years of a long presidency by Dr. Simeon North. He had been wise, astute and strong. To us his manly figure and scholarly bearing were imposing rather in the perspective of extended reputation than from our own association.

During our senior year the College was presided over by Dr. Fisher. His inauguration in its first term was probably the most impressive function ever celebrated at the College or on its behalf. Three distinct sets of exercises occupied the entire day and evening. It was marked by splendid orations and great enthusiasm. Horatio Seymour, William F. Allen, Samuel B. Cox, Joel Parker and several others of the most eminent men of the state participated. It was generally supposed to open to the College a new era of great prosperity. Not the least interesting and the only spectacular features of the occasion were the exercises at night on the Hill. They were in charge of the students, and our class as seniors were leaders. It certainly was a gala night. The music of a large band on Chapel steps, the peals of the old bell, that on this night seemed even gay, set in the darkness vibrating and dusted unaccustomed echoes. The village community, with its guests and those of the College, came to the campus in crowds. The Chapel was as nothing to accommodate the throng. Lloyd spoke there for the students to responsive hearts and satisfied exaggerated demands. The new president, the members of the faculty, the first graduate of the College, responded happily in the prevailing spirit of joy and hope. Then those who had filled the Chapel joined the masses outside. There brilliant fireworks with beautiful and thrilling surprises, startled to enthusiasm the merry multitude. A little later — it seemed in those pre-electric days as if by magic — a separate light illuminated each pane of glass in every building on or near campus. The effect was inspiring. The air was filled with cheers and exclamations of pleasure, drowning the music. The scene became a very carnival of delight, where all as friends of the College were friendly together. Finally the students with music and torches escorted the departing guests to the village.

We felt very seriously our responsibilities as a president’s first class. New rules were not resisted, but ignored or caricatured. For example, wearing dressing gowns to the president’s classroom was disapproved of quietly enough. But the next day several seniors appeared with their gowns transformed into calico dress coats. The cut was most absurd, and the figures of the cloth were red and yellow splendors of the Orient. The incident closed in great hilarity, with which the president heartily joined. Teaching then was a novel task for Dr. Fisher, a pulpit orator of wide reputation and influence and accustomed to assemblies of mature and notable people. But he was well-poised, full of confidence and early became attractive and strong in the “bear box.”

The time for our graduation was now rapidly approaching. The great Clark Prize exhibition had passed, the Curran examination had been held, the contests for essays decided, and the final appointments announced. We met and said adieu to Professor Curtis of the chair of ethics and College pastor, a profound student and a genial and engaging gentlemen. We had also passed from another of our great and inspiring teachers. Professor Dwight by his personality had impressed us as immutably as by his instruction. His power was not so much capacity or even talent for teaching as it was genius engaged with graceful and graphic art on plastic and forming minds. With the skill of a master, he guided thought and gave it place in the memory as a keen, tool-like equipment of reason. His rise later to high reputation was the inevitable result of becoming known.

The final week of class life at length was reached. We began to realize our new bearings, when, at the close of the baccalaureate sermon, we arose to receive the latest admonitions of our alma mater. It has been a discourse in great dignity. Revelation in language, and also in the forms and forces of nature, developed through similar processes, was traced to an identical divine origin. The power of the preacher was magnified by the grandeur of his theme. Its awesome effect lent solemnity to a cordial and graceful valedictory that was felt as well as heard.

That evening, the farewells of our class began to be said. In the morning Marron (now our Rev. Dr.) delivered what was spoken of in an important journal as “crisp and vigorous” valedictory before The Union Literary Society “exhibiting maturity of thought and earnest reflection.” The valedictory address before the Phoenix Society on the same occasion was made by Hawley, now “Honorable” in one world and “Doctor” in another. It was characterized in the press as “beautiful and brilliant.” In the evening, before the combined societies, Dr. J.G. Holland was orator and John G. Saxe, poet. Wednesday was then, as now, Alumni Day. A formal meeting was held in the afternoon in the Stone Church, presided over by Hon. Darius Peck of Hudson, at which Rev. L.F. Dimmock was orator and William Wirt Howe was poet. At an informal evening, Judge Bacon of Utica presided, and many brief, witty and interesting speeches were made.

The sun shone next on our Commencement Day. Even in light and air there has never been another day that has seemed to us just like it. It was irritating to see anyone working or trading or treating it differently. How fine the men, how gay and fair the ladies, who were hastening toward the church! Its great doors stood open. A procession of officers, alumni and guests of the College marched with us after music of a special thrill about the park and into the church. There, already in the pews were our mothers, our sisters and our cousins. On the rostrum were official representatives of Alma Mater and some of her elder children, among them our fathers waiting to become our brothers. One after another we appeared and delivered orations. They had been rated in advance by the faculty as of differing dignity. They were re-rated by the plaudits of the people. The orations were as characteristic of the men as their figures and faces, which were as unlike as in freshman year.  It was a fine commencement and a triumph of honest work. I shall quote an estimate of its quality from the next issue of the Utica Herald then conducted by Hon. Ellis H. Roberts, confining myself to the summary: “The exercises were characterized by at least the usual interest and ability. That they surpassed in some respects those of previous years we believe was the common opinion. The present class is conceded to be one of the most talented ever graduated from Hamilton. Many of the orations displayed great grasp and intensity of thought; some of them would have done credit to almost any occasion.”

Then, at last, after the prizes had been delivered and the degrees conferred, we arose and stood on the brink of a new life. The tender mother that had equipped us for its coming stresses breathed over us the momentous prayer of benediction. A record of the succeeding moment of silence is the closing annal of the Class of 1859.

Its motto, Nulli Secundus had been aspiration. Had it become history?

With a full sense of all I owe you, I am your friend of half a century or more, John Hudson Peck.