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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1884 Letter

William W. Zimmerman

Delivered: June 1934

The San Louis Valley, wide, long and flat, lies in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Confined on one side by the Snowy Ridge and on the other by the massive Sangre de Christo Range, it is considered one of the most favored valleys of all the mountain regions. Thirty years ago, three travelers, bound for the Cabresto canon in New Mexico, on a vacation devoted to prospecting, were driving down the valley in a wagon rigged as a prairie schooner, and drawn by a team of horses. The wagon was heavily laden with provisions, implements, bedding and dynamite. Progress over the rough road winding through grease-wood and sage-brush, was necessarily very slow. One of the travelers saw, far ahead, over the uninterrupted plain, a vague, low ridge, stretching from the western edge of the valley to the mountains on the east. The ridge appeared and disappeared n the changing light. He asked the driver, who was Absalom Vincent Tabor, what this hazy ridge was.

“That,” he answered, “is the Conejos River. It is 50 miles from here. The ridge you speak of is formed by the willows and cottonwoods on the banks of the river. It will be many a long hour before we are there.” It was a long time before they arrived, but finally, the inquirer found himself on the banks of a swiftly flowing, sparkling, mountain river.

Fifty years ago, a class of travelers, then embarking on a journey down another valley, looked far ahead and saw today’s occasion, vague, hazy and so far distant, that it was thought it would never arrive, or, of it ever did arrive, its arrival was so far in the future that it was of no present avail to consider it. But it has come. It is here.

A history of any class naturally suggests a chronological story, from its entrance to its graduation. To give such a story of the Class of 1884 would, perforce, require unlimited use of the history written by our energetic and efficient secretary. No one desires to put himself in the position of plagiarist. Hence, a different course will be pursued.

It would be an easy, a not unnatural matter, to make of this occasion one of great solemnity, if not of sadness. The dreams and ambitions manfully and energetically struggled for, yet not reached; the aims accomplished and then broken to bits by a fate wholly unforeseen; the long, rough, hard road traveled with toil, only to discover that it was not only not the right road, but was actually leading in the wrong direction; faith broken, by those in whom great confidence has been placed, and then, horrible dictum, the many appearances of the “reaper whose name is Death!” However, the reverse of the coin is not attractive. It is not fitting that it be looked upon today. Let the obverse claim our attention. Here we see enduring friendships, some of them formed on this well beloved deservingly beloved Hill. There have been successes, far above the average, as doctor, lawyer, minister, teacher, editor, college president and businessman; there has been opportunity “to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself;” there has been opportunity to do the finest and best thing a man may do in this life — to work; and always there have been the sky and the clouds, the wild flowers and the birds, the trees and the fields, the mountains and the sea, and, at night, the stars.

The first time your annalist came upon this hill has proven to be a long-remembered time. He did not enter with the freshmen, but at the beginning of the junior year. He walked from the village, with Turnbull. When near the foot of the Hill, the Chapel bell rung. There is, ordinarily, nothing strange nor impressive about the ringing of the Chapel bell. However, this particular pealing of the bell caught the attention and aroused an eagerness to see the Chapel. So deep was this impression that it has returned to your annalist each time he has come upon the Hill in recent years. He never rides from the village, but walks, and the walk is timed so that, at the foot of the Hill, the bell will ring. Its ringing carries him back, as if on a magic carpet, to his first day on the Hill — to the days of long ago. To be swung so suddenly out of the busy and serious today, back into the atmosphere, so different, of years ago, is an experience that has proven more than once not only interesting but well-nigh emotional. Mayhap it would be discreet for him not to admit that several times he has begun to climb, with hesitant step, as he has hoped, in vain, to meet again, at the top of the Hill, along with the surviving members of the class, those other members whom we shall nevermore see in the shadows of these wonderful trees, and whose voices are forever silenced in the few remaining old halls.

When Turnbull and your annalist came to a point opposite Dr. Edward North’s residence, Turnbull told many tales about “Old Greek,” and these tales were repeated and supplemented many times by other undergraduates. They concerned his unusual personality; his success as an instructor; the great esteem in which he was held by all. One of these tales was told at a time and place which seem to have fastened it firmly in the memory. In the quiet of June Sunday afternoons, Miller, Black, Turnbull and your annalist were wont to go down to the College cemetery, and, sitting or lying on the ground in the southwest corner of the cemetery, they would talk and dream and chaff and wonder. Is there, in the wide world, any fairer spot than this same southwest corner? It was on one of these occasions that Miller and Black related the story about “Old Greek.” It seems that, preceding one of the stiff examinations by Dr. North, it was deemed fitting to make him a suitable present. When the presentation speech had been made, Dr. North responded, in his gentle way, and, among other things, said, “Someday you will come back to this Hill and these walls will be whiter and the graves will be thicker.” This short sentence is strikingly characteristic of the man, and the statement was surely prophetic, for it has, this very day, come to pass.

What is success in life? The almost unanimous answer, in this brutally commercial age, is money, money, money! But compare the career of any millionaire whom you have known, with that of Dr. North. To arrive at the banks of the river Styx, and, while waiting on Old Charon to bring the boat to the landing, to look back upon the course of his years in college, as Dr. North could do, and know that all the men in 50 succeeding classes held him in respect and esteem, and, inwardly and modestly, to know that he well-deserved it is success in life far above anything else. What is the scramble and contest of a life devoted to pelf compared to that!

Having mentioned Miller and Black, it seems fitting to pause here for a moment, and lay a sprig of rosemary on their graves, and say, in the words of Ophelia, “There’s rosemary; that’s for remembrance.” Was there anyone in the class more genial, jovial and honorable than these two men? Working hard when they should be working, playing when they should play, resting when rest was in order, they were ever and always warm and comforting as a spring day. Can it not be said, over their graves, with the profoundest sincerity, “God rest you, merry gentlemen.”

And a word about Turnbull. From boyhood to ripe age, his life was one unbroken course of honorable, altruistic conduct. With no thought of reward, he gave himself unstintingly to the service of others, and died as he had lived, with the welfare of his fellowmen claiming his attention.

Coming farther up the Hill, the campus was shown. Aside from the great beauty of the campus itself, the most interesting, though unpretentious, object on the campus was the astronomical observatory. Old, weather-beaten, unimposing, it gave the impression of being wholly adequate to do that which it was intended to do, and, as a suitable home for Dr. Peters’ work, what more fitting place could have been conceived. He was absorbed by his work. Fortunate indeed is that man who has found, for his life’s work, that which he likes. It is probably lese majesty to criticize college authorities, but the removal of this quaint structure can be defended only by the cleverest arguments. South, Middle and North, surely were a trio of old buildings, but just as surely were they dignified and substantial-looking. They looked like college dormitories. The Chapel was then as it is now, fine, architecturally correct.

In the classrooms and among the instructors, there were found men of character, refinement and intelligence. Who that has heard Professor Root can ever forget the snappy incisiveness of his speech? His thoughts were free from ambiguity and, when they were coined into language, his language was similarly free. Mental faculties like his, clear as plate glass, are indeed rare. Professor Frink — courteous, cultivated, knowing his subject well. Professor Brant — a typical, amiable, German. And then Professor Burdick! He was as agreeable in the classroom as he was competent. On one historic occasion, Samuel Holmes Wilson was debating with another member of the class that ancient question: “Resolved that capital punishment should be abolished.” Willson, of the negative, scored some telling points against his opponent and ended by quoting: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” His opponent replied that he adopted that same quotation. The men who executed criminal shed the blood of criminals, therefore, should the executioner’s blood also be shed, and when would the shedding of blood stop! Professor Burdick’s amusement was undisguised, and the opponent probably does not know to this day whether he made a real point in the argument or quite the opposite.

Dr. Darling — the acme of impressive dignity. A subject in which he was the instructor considered at length the weighty sub-subject: “War.” When, in the course of the recitation for a particular day, that sub-subject was reached, Dr. Darling, assuming the most ponderous phase of his august dignity, and ceremoniously adjusting his nose glasses with such gravity as attracted the attention of the entire class, called “Mr. Zimmerman, war.” There was about the thing that which attracted the attention of the easily assumed Bag, who burst into a suppressed expression of merriment, in which the whole class, their risibilities always easily aroused, heartily joined.

At the College from which your annalist came, recitations were given as the reciting member of the class was seated. The members of the class at Hamilton stood while reciting. This gave the writer a splendid opportunity to study his new classmates and to estimate their ability. It was an interesting study. Expressly disclaiming any intention to write in derogation of other members of the class, there were three members who always recited with unusual intelligence and clearness. They were Tuck Adair, John Dalzell and Murray Gardner.

There’s a magical isle in the river Time,
And the name of the isle is the Long Ago,
And we bury our treasures there.
There are brows of beauty and bosoms of snow
There are heaps of dust, but we loved them so.

Yes, there are heaps of dust and we loved them! But they shall not be referred to this day as heaps of dust. No, they are remembered as stalwart, vigorous, young men. There is William Crowley Barber. I see him now, in his running trunks, set for the 100-yard dash and awaiting the pistol shot. He hears it and is off down the red shale track, his chin pointing forward, his head thrown back, his legs pumping like piston rods. A heap of dust? No, a winner in 10 seconds flat!

Whose step is that I hear on the bare oak floor of Middle? It is a quick, snappy step, and is coming to Middle, south, fourth, front, Middle. It is the step of Robert Walton Perkins, alive, active, quick movement and genial. His arrival was always the signal for cessation of work and the beginning of friendly conversation.

James Blair Hastings. At a class reunion, 20 years ago, he told, in a modest, self-deprecating manner, of his struggle in aiding his wife to recover her health. He had taken her to the sea. He adopted Homer’s expressions — down by the “loud sounding sea” and “the many dashing ocean’s waves.” His tale showed a most exquisite example of heroic endeavor to restore his wife to health. It caused many a lip to quiver and disclosed the heart and the courage of a man among men.

It would be profitable, but it has been found that it consumes too much time, to recount the virtues of all the others who have put out to sea. But there is one who demands mention. It is Absalom Vincent Tabor. Since graduating, we have lived together in a cabin at timber line in the Rockies; have slept in the open in an August snowstorm, on the mesas of New Mexico; have camped in the quaken asps, at the top of the Continental Divide, at an altitude of 11,000 feet; and have tramped, fished, camped, hunted, surveyed and prospected over many a square mile of mountain territory, and I cannot leave him out of this occasion because I am bound by a promise to him. Nine years ago, sitting before our scanty tent, on the very roof-tree of the continent with the brilliant stars of the Colorado sky coming down close to us, and peering awe-inspiringly in our faces, I promised him that, immediately preceding this event, I would call him in order that he might come here with me. By the same impulses that urge the life blood through the veins, out over the infinitely extending ether waves of my friendship and my fondness for him, I have sent that call, and far into the night have lain and listened, but there has come no response.

On occasions similar to the one referred to, we have discussed everything in earth and sea and sky, and in these discussions he frequently and unfailingly spoke kindly of you. In the valley in which he made his home, I visited his grave, lying in a beautiful grass plot under some cotton-woods, with the high, far-away mountains casting their long morning and evening shadows over his sleeping, and I came away, never to return.

It seems altogether appropriate to say a word about Pete Kelley, our janitor. A man who does his work well and cheerfully, regardless of the character of the work, is a prince, even though he be a pauper. Pete was such a prince, but not, by any means, a pauper. By the mysterious processes of nature, the fuel which he carried to the dormitories, had all its warmth concealed, but the warmth and geniality of Pete’s nature were entirely unconcealed. He carried out the refuse from fuel previously bought, but the good-wishes which accompanied him were far from refuse. They were the outcroppings from friendly and manly young hearts. A barrage of badinage, some of it good and a great deal of it very commonplace, usually greeted his coming. If the raillery became too caustic, Pete subdued it with his native Irish wit. If, in the Land of the Blest, medals of honor and distinguished service medals are given for faithful and cheerful work done down here below, Pete certainly wears both medals on his breast.

Never shall we have done with envying the men in high places — the presidents, the governors, the supreme court judges. These classes of men are respected, respectable and needful. But there is another class, from which the first-mentioned class is recruited, which is equally respected and needful, and that is a good citizenry. A good citizenry stabilizes any political division, be it town or township, city, country or state. It is an aid and encouragement to everything good and a deterrent influence on everything evil. Everywhere and ever its presence has spelled progress and its absence retrogression. At this time, more than any other time in the history of our country, is such a citizenry necessary. The governmental innovations; the infractions upon individualism; the apparent or possible inroads on the constitution — all require the most thoughtful and dispassionate consideration, and this can only be given by intelligent, impartial citizens. In proportion to its numbers did any class of 50 men, from any college, ever contribute more toward such a citizenry than has this Class of 1884.

All of the men of this class have either attained prominence in their several callings of have reached positions above the average, and all, without exception, have been and are good citizens, exerting a quieting influence in times of passion and a stimulating influence in times of apathy.

And now for the big event — the “bolt.” How shall it be treated on this occasion? Shall all the animosities of that controversy be resurrected and paraded before you? In short, shall the whole matter be here revived, or shall it be permitted to remain where it has been for 50 years?

This letter will not revive it.

Rest, thy warfare o’er
Sleep the sleep that knows not waking.

Far out in the West and down near the horizon, I see a round, red orb. It is the setting of the sun of the Class of 1884. God grant that when it finally sinks it may set in a Pacific sea!

But the West — has the West any terrors for you? In Westward Ho, we read:

Is not the West the land of peace and the land of dreams? Do not our hearts tell us so each time we look upon the setting sun, and long to float away with him upon the golden-cushioned clouds? They bury men with their faces to the East. I should rather have turned to the West, when I die; for I cannot but think it some divine instinct which made the ancient poets guess that Elysium lay beneath the setting sun.

Fifty years ago this autumn, a freshman class, just beginning preparation for a long, long life of work, was seeking a class motto. Dr. Edward North wrote on the blackboard (in Greek): “The best fruit grows high.” This was adopted as the class motto. To suggest a change of this motto now would be near sacrilege. A doge of Venice, finding that he was growing old, resolved that he would fight against it and continue his work until the very end. He also adopted a motto. Would that Dr. North could come from the spirit land and write on the same blackboard, not as a new motto, but as a supplementary one, the motto of the doge of Venice, Senescit, non segnescit. (“He grows old but he does not grow indolent.”)