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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1909 Letter

Harrison C. Thomas

Delivered: June 1959

It will be 54 years next September since the Class of 1909 first met together here in the Chapel. We were a disreputable looking crowd, dressed in old clothes daubed with paint, excited and a little scared by the new life we were starting, sleepy from having been up most of the night for paint night. We sat quietly while Prex read the scripture, said a brief prayer, and led the choir in the hymn. Then as Bill Purdy struck up the recessional on the organ we rose and stood while the faculty and the upper classes filed out. First the seniors, the Class of 1906, great athletes and fine fellows whom we stared at in awe as the ideals of all that we hoped to become. And then the juniors, only 35 of them, but making up in quality what they lacked in quantity. Then the cocky sophomores, looking us over with insolent glances. And finally the Class of 1909, pausing a minute in the lobby for a word of encouragement to each other, and then dashing into the arms of 1908 for our first row.

I don’t remember much about the row, even who won, or about the wrestling matches and the tug of war that followed, except that I wrestled Tad Weeks, and then we went to our first class, beginning our formal education at Hamilton College.

We were, on that September day, an unsophisticated group. We were young. Eight of us were not yet 17 and another eight or ten were barely 17. Practically all of us came from public high schools and more than half of us from small village high schools — Sauquoit, Red Creek, Hancock, Lodi, Delta, Richfield Springs and Clayville. There were a couple of city slickers, Alex Osborn and Hawley Truax from New York City and Dutch Getman from Kansas City.

What about the faculty that was to work in this raw material? Counting Prex, Uncle John Crossley, and the ghost who presided over the library, there were 19 men, about the same ratio of teachers to students as there is today. It was a fine faculty. I’ve seen a lot of teachers in the past 50 years, but never an abler or more devoted group. First of all there was Prex, Melancthon Woolsey Stryker. What a man! He did all the administrative work for the College, without a secretary, without a telephone, writing all letters in long hand. Mr. Stanton, the bursar, came over from Rome once a term to collect the term bills and, I suppose, kept track of the finances. Babcock was a clerk of the faculty and Bill Squires a part-time Dean. Mr. DeRegt was Superintendent of Buildings, but aside from this help, Prex did all the rest. As near as I can figure there are now 12 men and 20 women doing Prexy’s work. I’m not criticizing, of course the College has more than quadrupled and much more is done for students than formerly — and Parkinson’s law is in effect. In addition to these duties Prex was pastor of the College church, did most of the preaching, presided over daily Chapel, trained and led the choir — and frequently drowned it out with his falsetto tenor, wrote hymns, edited the hymnal, wrote the College Catalogue, taught freshman Bible — do you remember? “To the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion, greeting” — and at least one other term of Bible and taught the Seniors Ethics and Christian Evidences, and did all this with vigor and enthusiasm. Prex was no pussyfooter. He had opinions on every subject and expressed them vociferously. For a long generation Prexy Stryker developed the policies, set the standards, and gave the tone to Hamilton College.

Our class was the last class to have the privilege of having Square Root in freshman Math. I think, and I know most of you agree, that that little dried-up old man, in failing health, stone deaf, almost blind, was the greatest teacher we ever had. The other member of the faculty — Little Greek, Schnitz, Bill Shep, Bugs Morrill, the two Saunders, Pills and Stink, Woody, Davy, Wardie, Bill Squires, Hank White — one and all they were scholars and gentlemen. But more than that, they were men, they were individuals. We have forgotten most all the subject matter they tried to teach us but we still bear the marks of their influence in our thinking and out actions.

What about the curriculum in our day? We certainly got a dose of foreign language. Four years of Latin and three of Greek were required for entrance for the classical course, four years of Latin, two of German and one of French for the Latin Scientific. The classical course candidates were required to continue Latin and Greek through first term Sophomore and to begin both French and German in Freshman year. The Latin Scientifics were required to continue all three languages through first term Sophomore. According to some critics of present-day education all we need to win the Cold War and live happily ever after is to require more foreign languages. According to this we should have been supermen.

The “Purpose of the College” was stated in the College Catalogue: Hamilton urges the direct values of mental and moral discipline and such, and does not retire from the claim that language and mathematics are the best formative instruments toward exactness and readiness and breadth. As the science of necessary conclusion, mathematics education is precision, method and sureness. As a record and the implement of personality, language is a prime means toward human realization in the actual world. These disciplines of logic and life are not exclusive, but they are indispensable to a well-formed mind.

Pointedly, this College insists that these preparations are basilar — teaching to think straight and to think broadly, and offers herself to such as desire as she would give. Independently she rejoices herself to be a Classical College, neither seeking nor pretending to be a university or technical school, and not intending to deal with unprepared cossets. She has not compromised with the epidemic, now happily lyterian, toward mere free and easy options. [For those of you who haven’t your dictionaries hand, a cosset is a lamb brought up by hand, hence a pet of any kind, a spoiled child. Lyterian is a medical term meaning ‘indicative of the termination of a violent disease.’] Her courses are not a miscellany. They seek to train men to be true and wise and brave, thus competent, and they emphasize that Science of Man which holds that the soul is a responsible entity and not a physiological function. With such an undiverted purpose, this College joins laboratory and lexicon and library and devotion, and would surround all this with that personal element of influence, life upon life, which is the teacher’s highest vindication.

Squarely denying that ‘all subjects are equally valuable’ to produce mental skill, not assuming to teach every man everything, claiming to do well her chosen work, Hamilton is more concerned for the quality than they quantity of her ore receipt and mental output, and in the relative ratio of practical results she flinches from no comparison.

This is pure Prex. I don’t believe that any reputable psychologist today believes in mental discipline, although many people act as if they did. If I were inclined to be critical of our curriculum I would say that we might have had a little more English literature and a little less Latin, but we did learn to work and I believe “to think straight and to think broadly.” Certainly we felt that “personal element of influence, life upon life.” Although we have long since forgotten most everything we learned in the classrooms, what we learned from each other and from our contemporaries, from our close life together here on the Hill we will never forget. It helped us develop a sense of second values, a philosophy of life.

Probably the outstanding thing about our four years was our excellent scholarship record. Forty-nine graduated, the largest since 1884 in the history of the College up to our time. The scholastic average was 8.4. We had seven with high honors, twelve with honor and twelve with credit. In spite of this fine record I don’t think that we could be really called intellectuals. We did our work because it was the thing to do, but we weren’t much excited about the substance of what we were studying. Many of our families were making a real sacrifice to send us to college and we felt that learning our lessons well was the least we could do. Those years 1905-1909 were exciting ones. Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, starting his conservation program, busting trusts, settling the coal strike, mediating in the Russo Japanese War and waving the big stick in foreign affairs, sending the fleet around the world. But we took Teddy pretty much as a matter of course, although as good Republicans we thought he was pretty radical. We weren’t much interested in politics. I do recall going to a Republican rally at the Majestic Theatre in Utica in the fall of 1906 when Hughes was running against Hearst for Governor, and hearing Elihu Root accuse Hearst of being responsible for McKinley’s assassination because of his attacks on McKinley’s administration. It was the time of the muckrakers. In The American and McCall’s, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steddans, Ray Stannard Baker, Upton Sinclair and Sam Adams were exposing corruption in our state and city governments and digging into some of the less savory aspects of economic and social life. But we weren’t much interested in these things, or in art or literature, or religion, or philosophy. In our long bull sessions — that term wasn’t invented then — but we had them — we talked about things that I imagine college boys have always talked about, and still do — girls, athletics and college gossip. Perhaps this opinion is a reflection on the company that I kept. It may be that some of our classmates had much deeper intellectual interests than I realized. I’m sure some of them did but it’s significant that one group that was definitely interested in literature, the group we called the sorority, we thought had to be a little queer.

As we looked ahead that September of 1905 the four years we were to spend here seemed almost a lifetime. But four lovely falls turned into long cold winters, four winters turned into muddy springs, and four springs turned into green drenched Junes, and before we knew it we were here in the Chapel again listening to, and pretending to understand, Paul Baum’s Salutatory, and hearing Birmy and Mickey McLean and Mark Rifenbark give their prize orations. Finally came Hauley’s valedictory, and then the degrees, and we were “out in the cold, cold world.” As a matter of fact it didn’t seem so cold. Compared with the world that the Class of 1959 is going out into, it was a warm, secure and confident world.

Teddy had got the jovial 350-pound Taft nominated, elected, and inaugurated, with our own Jim Sherman as Vice President. The budget of the national government was under $700,000,000, the national debt was just over $1 billion. We didn’t have to worry about communism, although we had been warned about the “Roosians,” about income taxes, the atomic bomb, loyalty oaths, the Oedipus complex, or a place to park. In Europe the war clouds were gathering, but no one was seriously concerned about them. If we thought about them at all we were confident as Prex said in his Baccalaureate sermon:

No blowzy lawlessness, no insurrection of a part, will be allowed long to menace the writ of the whole people. ‘The courts are open’ and men must arbitrate there and not with poison and bomb. So might the world be, and so shall it be. A federation shall come from which none shall secede. Attila must go.

How different from what we expected these 50 years have been. No half-century in the history of the world has seen such momentous events, such revolutionary changes, two world wars, the greatest depression in history, the New Deal. We have seen revolutionary progress in transportation and communication. Men of science have transformed our technology, lengthened our lives, and expanded our universe into the infinite greatness of outer space and the infinite smallness of an atom. We have seen the age-old dream of a league of nations come into being and wither into futility against the forces of nationalism. We are seeing a United Nations frozen into immobility by the icy blasts of the Cold War. We have seen the rise and fall of dictatorship, fanatically dedicated to the dogmas that the end justifies the means and might makes right rise in Russia, spread over Eastern Europe and the vast areas of China, and stretch its tentacles all over Asia and Africa. It challenges not only the spread of democracy, but the fundamental principles on which democracy, and indeed civilization itself is based. Attila is still with us.

Bill Love has saved me the task of telling of the part played by the Class in 1909 in these chaotic years. In this document which you have in your hands you will find recorded the story of our activities and accomplishments, our projects and our progeny. It is truly a tremendous job but “Love will find a way.” From his magnum opus you will see that none of us has been elected to Congress or to high state office; on the other had none of us has been in jail, or at least admits it. We can boast of a county treasurer, a town supervisor, a village president and the chairman of a city park and recreation commission. Several members of the class have distinguished themselves in the ministry, teaching, law and business. One thing that stands out in this class record is the amount of community service performed by different individuals. We have been members and chairmen of Boards of Education, of governing boards of Y.M.C.A.s, Boy Scouts, Red Cross, Community Chests, and a host of wartime service agencies and service clubs, to say nothing of professional and business organizations. All this indicates a high degree of social responsibility, which is one of the things we learned at Hamilton College.

Today as we get together for our 50th reunion, 32 of the 49 who graduated in 1909 are still alive, which must be some sort of a record. Our joy in being here is dimmed only by memories of those who have failed to survive these hectic years since we left. We miss especially our two permanent class officers, who served us so long and so efficiently, George Wallace and Fritz Willoughby. George and Fritz were quite different in personality but alike in their high ethical standards and in their devotion to Hamilton College, and the Class of 1909. Shortly after our last reunion we have lost Hi Blodgett, whose quiet humor made all our reunions more pleasant. Another who was here 10 years ago but now gone is Dutch Getman, whom everyone loved. We think of others who died earlier: Alex Woollcott, without doubt the most famous member of our class and the one who did more than any other to make Hamilton nationally known; Clare Leavenworth, a fine mind, a good athlete, a grand person; Tex Day; Conk; Dot and Griff; Phil Welch, the athlete that Prex brought from Yale; rosy-cheeked Krummy — we miss them all.

As we survivors look each other over, we find changes. Some of us creak a little at the joints, what hair we have left is white or turning white; but it is surprising how little we have changed in appearance, and how even less we have changed in personality. Spence is as hearty and straightforward as when we elected him sophomore President. Dale Appleton is the same dignified studious gentleman, John Butler is still a walking illustration of what the well-dressed man will wear. Dominic is still tolerant of his younger contemporaries. Wordy is still businesslike and efficient. Hap is just the same as he was on class day in 1909 when we elected him as the squarest man in the class.

The campus has many new buildings, beautiful and functional, the latest the new Dunham dormitory. But the essential loveliness of this spot is undiminished, the clean classic lines of this Chapel, the dappled shade of the broad lawns, the breathtaking vista down across the Oriskany Valley. The faculty has grown and changed. It seems hard to believe that our own Bob Rudd is now an emeritus, not to mention a young squirt like Bill Marsh. We are impressed with the degrees and academic attainments of the new men, but we can’t quite believe they are as good as the old timers.

The curriculum has been broadened and deepened, and I think we’ll admit, improved. I’m impressed with the two somewhat peripheral changes; one is the library. In our days the library, presided over by Babcock, had a good collection of books but its usefulness was limited by its lack of lighting. It closed at 4:30 p.m. on December afternoons. Now the library with its fine building, its expanded collection of well-catalogued books and periodicals, its inviting browsing room, and its professionally-trained staff of seven plays an important part in the education of Hamilton men.

The physical education department is now a recognized academic department with a full-time staff of six regularly appointed members of the faculty. The new gym, the Sage building, the golf course and the all-weather tennis courts make possible an athletic program, intercollegiate, intramural and individual which is one of the best, if not the best, in the country. When we hear of a football season without a loss we begin to wonder, but I’m assured that the teams are still amateur.

In our day we had Uncle John. He was listed in the College Catalogue as master of gymnastics. Where he got this degree no one knew; it was generally believed that he had been a tumbler in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Uncle John led us in calisthenics twice a week and theoretically acted as trainer for all the teams. Coaches for each intercollegiate sport were hired by the season. Under this system we got some excellent football coaches and occasionally, by chance, a good coach in other sports, but some of them were beauts — do you remember Murph?

Well, so much for the past and the present, what of the future? It would take a much braver man than I to predict what the world will be like 50 years from now and what will going to happen to the small private college like this. The only thing that we can be sure of is that there will be great changes, greater changes than anyone can imagine. It may be that a hydrogen bomb will have solved all our troubles long before another half century rolls by. We may be living under a Chinese despot with all humans or whatever kinds of sub-humans are left, bred in test tubes, and educated with subliminal techniques.

However, I am optimistic enough, or stubborn enough, or stupid enough to think that we will, somehow or other, be able to mobilize what intelligence and good will there is in the world and muddle through to some sort of viable arrangement in which men can live in peace, using the great discoveries of science for a better life for everyone, instead of for destruction, in which men and women will enjoy the fundamental liberties that give meaning to life and control their own destinies. If there is such a world there will be a place in it, I am sure, for a small college such as this where young men can learn to use the brains they have to help them live as well as make a living, where they can develop the attitudes, standards and ideals that are essential to the good life in any human society. Our fondest hope is that when the members of the Class of 2009 assemble to receive their diplomas, they can look back on four such happy and fruitful years as the Class of 1909 did and still does.