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Half-Century Annalist Letters

“Outstanding Interval”

Warren I. Lee, Class of 1899

It is related that on the day following his re-election to the presidency, Grover Cleveland received this telegram from a resident of Richmond, Va.: “The country congratulates you and fervently congratulates itself upon the re-election of the world’s greatest statesman and the most illustrious man of all time. Seer and Prophet, I congratulate you.” And in reply Mr. Cleveland sent this telegram: “Your appreciation for the Postmastership of Richmond, Virginia, has been received and placed on file.” Mindful of this reaction to fulsome speech, I shall on behalf of the Class of 1899 confine myself to the expression of temperate, but sincere gratitude for the honor of being accorded the class on this momentous anniversary of its graduation from Hamilton, and then proceed briefly to mention some of the events of this outstanding interval. 

In accordance with time-honored custom, I deal first with the faculty of our day, and I shall deal with them far more gently than they ever did with me. I admired most of them profoundly, but there was no mutuality in our opinion of each other. All that I wished the faculty to do was to leave me alone because whenever they sought information from me it was usually at the wrong time. Bill Squires was my favorite. We had a common flair for politics. I digress to say a good word about politics, which may be defined as the science of circumstances. Politics is the great mainspring of human action. Properly utilized, it is worthy of all praise. The success of a clergyman in his pulpit, or a president in the White House, is usually dependent on the ability to play politics. A pastor, learning that one of his flock desires to become superintendent of the Sunday school, where he would be inept, deftly points out to the aspirant that, instead, a wider sphere of influence would be open to him as a member of the board of trustees where the pastor knows he can be properly controlled. That’s politics.

In the days of 1899, various student officers were nominated by the Athletic Association, composed of students and members of the faculty, but the nominations had to be ratified by the whole student body. Although college politics was frowned upon, particularly by the losers, it was a system which made politics inevitable. The faculty members were the easiest to handle. Two groups of students strove for control. One was made up of the Alpha Deltas, Dekes, D.U.s and Chi Psis, and the other the Sigs, Emersonians, Psi Us and Theta Delts. In senior year the dominant group brought about the nomination of Murray Andrews, Class of 1899, a popular Deke, as manager of football. But before the vote was taken by the students, the opposing group, with incredible depravity, opposed his election on the grounds that his nomination was accomplished by college politics. Dr. Squires, who was one of the faculty members of the Athletic Association, was on principle opposed to college politics, but like many reformers, had machine tendencies and was especially fond of Andrews. Accordingly, in our hour of peril I sought Bill Squires and told him that Andrews’ election and the will of the people were being jeopardized by the influence of iniquitous college politics. “College politics is dastardly,” explained Squires. “Politics has no place at Hamilton. It is utterly reprehensible and should be sternly discouraged. Now lets get busy and line up the votes to put Andrews over.”

At the time in sophomore year when President Melancthon Woolsey Stryker suspended me from College, I found myself in entire sympathy with the condition laid down by the original Board of Trustees that the president of Hamilton should hold office during good behavior, but before long I began reluctantly to admire Prex, and now after the lapse of the mellowing years he stands out in my memory as one of the great college presidents of all time. He never kidded a student, an offense properly deemed flagrant by undergraduates. He was sometimes brutally frank. Once a senior whose mental qualifications were not impressive applied to Pres for a letter of recommendation to a school board. Prex merely wrote the board that the applicant should be worth about $800 a year.

What a speaker he was before any gathering! On the infrequent occasions when Dr. Stryker made a political speech, his wizardry over word would bring an audience up standing, and on one occasion in the Utica Opera House, his eloquence evoked the spontaneous tribute from a bibulous and enthusiastic Republican Party worker in the audience: “Nice going, Doc. Hit ’em again.” When Bryan was campaigning for the presidency on a platform of Free Silver, Prex excoriated a candidate who dared imprint on a 53-cent dollar bill “In God We Trust.” What a personality he had! What a man he was and what an American! And did any alumnus of any college ever reveal more beautifully his love for his alma mater than did Prex in his deathless song of Hamilton — Carissima? He was president during the time the Class of 1899 was in College, and so it is specially fitting that a gifted writer of the Class of 1899, Martin M. Post, has been chosen as his biographer.

Probably no 50 years of American history has been so replete with great events as those that followed the graduation of the Class of 1899. The first was the formation of the United States Steel Corporation with its incredible capitalization of $1,403,000,000 — the first billion-dollar trust. It was estimated that this corporation would have a payroll of $500,000 a day for 250,000 employees and that if its capital were measured in dollar bills it would make a ribbon long enough to girdle the earth six times and leave two streamers each 8,000 miles long. This gigantic corporation emphasized the might of organized wealth, and further increased the reputation of its creator, J. Pierpont Morgan, as one of the world’s greatest financial figures. The public reaction at the time was inimitably expressed by Finely Peter Dunne’s character, Mr. Dooley, an Irish saloonkeeper. Said Mr. Dooley:

Pierpont Morgan calls in wan iv his office boys, th’ prisidint iv a national bank, an’ says he, “James,” he says,“take some change out if th’ damper an’ r-run out an’ buy Europ f’r me,” he says. “I intind to re-organize ait an’ put it on a paying basis,” he says. “Call up the Czar an’ th’ Pope an’ th’ Sultan an’ th’ Impror Willum and tell thim we won’t need their savices afthur nex’ week,” he says. “Give thim a year’s salary in advance.”

It was an era of great fortunes. Capitalism had come full flower. There were amazing contrasts between the rich and the poor. Frederick Lewis Allen states that Andrew Carnegie had a personal income of about $15 million a year, with nothing out for income taxes. Great numbers of unskilled workers were receiving less than $460 a year in wages, and some less than $360 a year. For their hazardous work of mining, the workers in the anthracite coalfields received an average annual wage of less than $500. The lot of the laboring man of this era is reminiscent of the pilgrim fathers, who are said to have hoed corn all summer in order to give them strength enough to dig clams in the winter, and who dug clams all winter in order to give them strength enough to hoe corn in the summer. On the other hand, fortunes were made by capitalists in a single business transaction. Millionaires lived in princely fashion. One had a castle with 40 suites for his guests and employed eight footmen, whose only duty was to serve wine. And another multi-millionaire built a mansion capable of housing so many guests that it had a refrigerator that would hold 20 tons of beef.

There has occurred since 1899 the greatest depression ever endured by a country that has since prospered. At a Commencement affair held on the campus when the Class of 1899 was in College, in the beauty of a perfect June day, President Stryker gave thanks that the assemblage could meet under a sky unflecked by any cloud of war. Since then two of the greatest wars of history have been fought. Thrones have fallen, armies have vanished into oblivion, and great cities have been erased from the face of the earth. And from the last war there has emerged a man who, judged by his qualities of leadership, by his courage, and his influential oratory, will occupy a larger place in the solemn pages of history than any other, as future generations will continue to honor the greatness of Winston Churchill.

But the interval since the graduation of the Class of 1899 has been relieved by lighter events. For broadcasting for Hitler, Axis Sally has recently received a sentence of from 10 to 30 years, and after doing the same thing for Mussolini, Ezra Pound has been given a prize for writing poetry. And during this period your annalist of today has vivid recollection of events which pander to his instincts as a lowbrow, of the time, for instance, when in the Coney Island Athletic Club, I sat with newspaper men a few feet from the ring as Jim Corbett in a long and grueling fight scientifically altered the none-too-pulchritudinous pan of James J. Jeffries, only to succumb to a haymaker in the 23rd round; and of the time when on a summer night at Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn I watched Johnny Van Dermeer of the Cincinnati Reds pitch against the Brooklyn Dodgers the second consecutive no-hit game in baseball history.

But events sublime also linger in memory. Never can I hope to witness again anything as impressive as the scene in Arlington Cemetery when the most distinguished crowd said ever to have gathered at one place joined in the lofty ceremony, which marked the burial of the Unknown Soldier of the First World War. 

During a Hamilton College dinner in New York City several years ago, at which many of the sons of Hamilton had dined well and were in mellow mood, the governor of New York entered the banquet, preceded by his military secretary, who was fiercely and spectacularly bedizened with the accouterments of his sanguinary office. Intellectually, this particular governor was not regarded as the supreme product of an all-wise Creator, and as a speaker was seldom at the zenith of his limited powers. However, he wasted no time and abruptly started his speech with this flaming utterance: “Gentlemen, I must talk about our natural resources. If we use up our natural resources we won’t have any natural resources left.” The profundity of these statesmanlike words failed to evoke from an exhilarated audience, ready for raw meat, the enthusiasm that the speaker apparently expected. But as tepidly as his thought was expressed, the governor prophesied accurately the tragic results of the waste of our priceless natural resources. Of these, the waste of our forests is about the most tragic. It has been stated that at one time a squirrel could travel over treetops from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. There was testimony before a Congressional Committee in 1939 that during the existence of the United States, 282 million acres of land had been destroyed, largely by deforestation. The result has been that at the time when forest products are sorely needed there has been, due to diminished woodlands, an extension of devastating floods and the ugly blight of soil erosion, which has destroyed 775 million additional acres. And lovers of nature, knowing that only God can make a tree, have been saddened by stumps where a forest once had contributed so much to the beauty of the land.

Our waters were alive with fish when the Class of 1899 left college. Fishermen were catching two million pounds of shad a year. By 1934 it had fallen to 385,000 pounds. From sardines to whales, products of the sea have been ruinously depleted by unrestrained commercial fishing. Safe for the protection, which the Government has thrown around some of the rarer species, the hunters have taken a terrific toll of the wild life of the nation. 

The extent of the misery in the world today is incalculable. Much of it arises because there is too little food with which to feed too many people. There is insufficient food because of the unrestrained waste of land resources in other countries as well as in ours, and there are too many people because of an uncontrolled birth rate. Chile, for example, contains some of the richest territory in the world, and yet because of its inept utilization, the overpopulation of the country, and the consequent poverty and misery of its people, William Vogt, an author on conservation, has made the statement that one of the greatest assets of Chile is its mercifully high death rate. It is estimated that in China, one hundred million people have starved to death in the last century, and that over four hundred million are now in direst need. The threatened subjugation of that unhappy land by the Communists will aversely affect one-fourth of the population of the world, and may result in the greatest tragedy of this century. Is it any wonder that the cynical comment circulates, “Billions are being spent to better the conditions of the world, but to what end?”

Since the graduation of the Class of 1899 the shifting scene of politics merits brief comment. Prohibition has come and gone. During this period the political fates have been generally unkind to the Republican Party. Save for the two elections of Grover Cleveland there have been a succession of Republican Presidents since the Civil War until the time of Presides Taft, during whose administration a Republican Congress in response to an insistent demand that it legislate to reduce the cost of food and the high cost of living, obligingly passed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff bill, which lowered the duties on turpentine and oxalic acid. The result was the defeat of Taft and the election of Wilson, who was succeeded by Harding and the loquacious Coolidge. And before Taft there had been Theodore Roosevelt, whose magnetism and vigor, whose determination and discovery of the Ten Commandments made him one of the most spectacular and popular Presidents who ever sat in the White House. And later came Herbert Hoover, who ran on a platform calling for the abolition of poverty, a car in every garage and two chickens in every pot. He was undeservedly blamed for the Depression, ran for re-election in the wrong year, and was defeated. Last fall, Dewey, another Republican, ran in the right year, and was also defeated.

The desire and the need of a college education is greater today than ever. College teachers no longer are exclusively confined to the seclusion of the classroom, but are taking a useful part in the affairs of government. President Conant of Harvard, with his contribution to the success of the Atomic Bomb, is another example of these useful activities. It was different in days gone by. It is related that a professor of Latin who spent his entire career on the declension of Latin nouns, said on his death bed that his life was a failure, as he had covered too wide a range, and lamented that he had not confined himself to the accusative case. Consider the ever-expanding need of education; it is dismaying to realize that today the very existence of the small independent college is seriously threatened. The cost of college operation has risen over 100 percent in the last few years; tuition charges are so high that they cannot be further materially increased, and endowment funds do not go as far as formerly. The independent college may be defined as one that is not subsidized by the federal or state governments, and accordingly is not at the mercy of appropriation committees, and is not dependent upon the caprice of politics. The value of the small college was never better revealed than by President Stryker’s statement that there is much to be said in favor of a boy’s going through a large college, but there is more to be said in favor of a small college going through the boy.

Any impartial résumé of past events and present problems cannot make pleasant reading. And yet there are good grounds for hope that if happy days are not yet here again, they are on the way. As early as Biblical times there were lamentations because the Golden Age of the world had passed. Nearly 100 years ago the abolition of the Patent Office was mooted because there was little left to invent. However, during the last 50 years achievements in the field of invention and in science have been colossal. So accustomed have we become to amazing achievements that it hardly occasions comment that we can sit at home and hear Admiral Byrd address the world from his headquarters on the shifting ice of the South Pole. At the very time the Class of 1899 was graduated, Nellie Bly’s trip around the world in 72 days and six hours was a front-page story. When this spring the B-50 flew around the world without stopping in 94 hours, the feat evoked comparatively little attention. The new 200-inch telescope on Mount Palomar has carried the vision of man to a billion light years. College-trained scientists are now working as never before to counteract the waste of natural resources and devise substitutes for those forever lost.

But apart from these material achievements there is an increased sense of responsibility which man feels for his fellow man. Many of the great fortunes accumulated in the past have in these later years been devoted to the betterment of all. The money of Carnegie has built libraries and the wealth of Rockefeller and others has created great foundations, which have done so much to advance science, promote health and relieve diseases in many lands. There has been a leveling off process that has lowered the former disparity between the very rich and the very poor. Fifty years ago a strike, irrespective of its merits, rarely succeeded. Today it seldom fails and the workers’ wages have soared. Fifty years ago capitalism was in the saddle and rode ruthlessly. Today labor is ascendant.

And one of the comforting developments of the present material age is the increasing prevalence of prayer. Whether in aid of personal problems or in behalf of victory in war, where human efforts seem futile, people more and more have come to rely on Divine aid. On D-Day, the churches of the land were filled by those who came to pray for the success of Eisenhower and his allied armies. As Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and six companions drifted 21 days in a rubber raft under the broiling sun of the Pacific, they were parched by thirst and at the point of starvation. But they never stopped praying, and rains came to relieve their thirst. Two fish, escaping barracudas, leaped into their raft, and a sea gull lighted on Rickenbacker’s head, and food was supplied. Finally, approaching an island with the oarsmen too weak to row, they were being swept back to sea, but they continued to pray, and against a strong adverse current the boat seemed to be propelled to the beach by unseen hands, and they were saved. And the fool hath said, “There is no God.”

And so, after the lapse of years, the Class of 1899 comes again to its alma mater to experience once more, but not for the last time, the beauty and romance of College Hill and to rejoice in the priceless memories, which will forever cling to it.

In the words of Carissima,

Dear is thy homestead, glade and glen,

Fair is the light that crowns thy brow, Gather we close to thee again.

Mother of loyal steadfast men,

Our own sweet Lady thou.