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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1929 Letter

Francis E. Mineka

Delivered: Reunions 1979

Since this is a very special occasion, an observance of the graduation of the Hamilton Class of 1929, slightly over half a century ago, it has seemed appropriate to me to seek a distinctive title for the persons being singled out here today for honor and for congratulations. After a long search for an appropriate title I have I believe found it in a piece published in the London Times last year about the National Health Service. According to this article there are in doctors' joking jargon not seven but eight ages of man: there are widdlies, littlies, teenies, youngies, middlies, wrinklies, oldies and crumblies. That's us — the crumblies. To the British physicians that cope with our sort, crumblies are likely to become the major problems confronting the National Health Service over the next 30 years.

The title seems especially applicable to me today, for unfortunately I find that the title is entirely appropriate for the memory of a half-century annalist — this half-century annalist — after a long struggle has reluctantly come to the conclusion that his memory of what is reputed to be the best four years of one's life is sadly defective. I am grateful for the honor of having been chosen, but wish that I could remember more.

I should be able to remember more than most of you do, for I lived on College Hill 10 years longer than you did. I stayed on after graduation for three years as an instructor in English and public speaking, and as a candidate for the M.A. degree and later for seven years teaching the same subjects. This very room has lasting associations for me though it has been remodeled considerably. The platform from which I speak has been enlarged but it is essentially the same as that from which all freshman practiced the declamations they were required to deliver before their peers. My job was to "drill" them in three separate one-half hour periods to achieve the utmost perfection of which they were capable in diction, dramatic expression and sincerity of utterance.

In the fall of 1929, I was joined in this work by the appointment of someone who was to become one of my closest friends and who later became dean of this College for nearly 30 years — Winton Tolles of the Class of 1928. His humanity, his ever-active sense of humor, his warm understanding of young people, all helped to create the Hamilton College of the past 30-odd years. Tolles left Hamilton in 1931 to do graduate work at Columbia, and I followed him there a year later. Our paths separated in 1934 when I was recalled to Hamilton to substitute for Professor Cal Lewis, and then after his death later that year I remained as an assistant professor until 1941. During my term I helped to establish the Alumni Review in 1935 and served as editor in 1940-41.

But I'm getting ahead of where I ought to be — back in 1925 when we entered as freshmen. What was the College like as a place then? The main quadrangle was pretty much the same as it is now except that Truax Hall of Philosophy has been replaced by the Burke Library; Silliman Hall still occupies the corner of the main campus. The other quadrangle in 1925 witnessed the building of the Science Hall which has since been further enlarged, but the main developments since then have been the expansion of the recently named Saunders Hall of Chemistry, the building of the Alumni Gymnasium in 1940, and the erection of the new Athletic Center between the Gym and the Russell Sage Hockey Rink. The three 19th-century dormitories: South, North and Carnegie, plus the converted Soper Gym, still occupy the main quad. In our day, of course, no one had even dreamed of the Kirkland Campus, which has been added with the merger of the two colleges.            

Otherwise, perhaps the most notable change in the campus is the paving of roads and paths. When we arrived here, the roads were dirt and the paths made of the native Clinton red shale. Colorful but messy in the often wet weather! The dormitory accommodations were adequate, but barely. I roomed my freshman year in North dormitory in a three-room suite on the fourth floor with two of my classmates from the Binghamton Central High School, Harold Gillespie and Bob Gage. The rooms were furnished rather barely by the College — desks, beds, straight chairs and bureaus. Other furniture to suit the tastes of the occupants had to be bought from student dealers like Joe Katz, Class of 1926.

For those who did not join a fraternity, food was available in the Soper Commons. It was adequate to sustain the body but rather painfully plain. The price, $7 a week, at least by present standards, seems absurdly low. If you had to supplement Commons fare, you could walk to the town or resort to short-order cooking at Merz's, a privately-run establishment just below the campus on College Hill Road. 

Our four college years have to be seen against the background of the "roaring twenties", or the "gay twenties", and our early alumnihood against the years of the Great Depression. These four years were also labeled the "stock-market age" — it was the generation of "Harding normalcy", "Collidge prosperity" and "Hoover progress." F. Scott Fitzgerald spoke of it as a generation "grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken," but Fitzgerald's assessment is probably accurate only in part. It is true that our generation, nourished in the superficial, lavish prosperity of the late 1920s, was ill-prepared for the troubled years that followed in 1929. The confident idealism of the years of our participation in World War I had faded, and disillusion seemed triumphant. The League of Nations was rejected. The great social reform that the Prohibition Amendment promised proved to be illusory, and the corruption that resulted lowered our respect for law. In the mid-twenties the revival of the Ku Klux Klan helped impeded progress in interracial harmony. The organization of labor, the development of unions of workingmen, suffered severe setbacks. The forces of inflation in the economy were not yet felt to be dangerous, and the great Stock Market crash of Black Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929, brought a devastating shock. We shall not soon forget the Great Depression, when we began our careers.

As we assembled at chapel service on the morning of Thursday, September 17, 1925, however, 165 of us, at the time the largest entering class in the history of the College, all was confidence and hope. The College began the year with a total of 420 students, also the largest enrollment down to that time. Even the threatened hostilities with the sophomore class of only 114 students held no great terrors for us, as we were presently to demonstrate in class rushes, tugs of war and class banquet-nights.

What was this new Class of 1929 like? One has to confess that it was not much different, except in size, from the freshman classes of the preceding, or the following, 10 or 15 years. The students were overwhelmingly from the northeastern United States, with only a very light sprinkling from the South and West. Even the Midwest was only sparsely represented. As the class questionnaire has revealed, most of us have followed our careers in much the same areas, though there are a few notable exceptions. The concentration of alumni in the East had its influence on our choice of college. I count, for instance, 13 of us who came from Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott, where there is still a heavy enrollment of Hamilton graduates. Not that all alumni tried to recruit students: I remember that my first visit to this College was with a Hamilton alumnus who was a Presbyterian minister and the father of my best high school friend. The reverend gentleman toured the campus with us, including a visit to his fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi. He was much shocked to find playing cards unabashedly in sight on tables in the Alpha Delt House. That minister's son did not enroll at Hamilton.

On the whole, we seemed like an average class — no obvious geniuses and but few dullards —though for various reasons about one third never were graduated. Curiously enough, a survey published in November 1969 by Life magazine named the Class of 1929 nationwide one of the five most distinguished classes graduated between 1920 and 1967. The survey was based upon a study of Who's Who in America. Of those who replied to the current class questionnaire, I have counted four of us listed in Who's Who, nearly 10 percent of the graduating class. (Lest we swell unduly in pride, it should be noted that a still larger percentage of the Hamilton faculty of our day was so listed).

The curriculum offered was conservative, even, one might say, old-fashioned. It provided an ample number of courses in classical and modern languages and English literature but only one semester course each in American and contemporary literature. It offered political science and economics, education or pedagogy, but was deficient in general in the social studies. In the arts other than literature it was manifestly weak: Music, except for the Choir, ably led by Prof. Paul Fancher, and the Glee Club, an undergraduate organization, was largely neglected until the appointment of Berrian Shute in 1927. The visual arts were represented only by one six-week course each term, given by Edward Wales Root. In the main, the social sciences were pretty much out in the cold: no instruction was offered in sociology, anthropology or psychology. There were no counterparts to the present-day "cut-across-lines" comprehensive courses like "American Studies" and "Asian Studies." Altogether, the 1929 curriculum appears meager in comparison with that of 1979.

The same cannot be said of the library, then the building between Buttrick and Root halls, although the present one is improved both as to the physical facilities and the collection itself. In our day the collection contained 130,000 books: it now comprises over 350,000. But while the size of the collection was and is impressive, it was not merely in numbers that it was distinguished. First of all, it was outstanding in the caliber and quality of the head Librarian — Joseph D. Ibbotson, father of one of our classmates. "Bibs," as he was affectionately labeled, was not a librarian in the sense that he had gone through the standardizing mill of a library school — he was a Bookman with a capital B. He was genuinely concerned that we should have the best collection possible for both faculty and students. The best collection possible meant also that money must be taken into account. "Bibs" kept his eye on the international book market, too, and when inflation devalued the mark in Germany in the post-World War I period, Hamilton profited. And though the library, since the passing of "Bibs," has continued to grow by the excellence of his successors, the greatness of the basic collection will always be indebted to him. With the building of the Burke Library the physical facilities of the new library are of as distinctive superiority as the collection itself.

Actually, so does the size of the faculty. In 1929, there were 40 full-time faculty; there are now 135. The student body has increased nearly four-fold and the faculty almost that much.

Then, as now, the popularity of courses often influenced the choice of majors. According to the answers to the class questionnaire, English literature with 18 was the favorite major in the class. On the other hand, surprisingly, though only one person voted political science the best course, 15 chose to major in that field. Nine majored in chemistry and five in mathematics. Despite the numbers of pre-meds, only four majored in biology. Six majored in history, and the same number in philosophy. Even fewer majored in languages, either classical or modern. It should be remembered that two majors were required of everyone for graduation. The concentration was not regarded as burdensome, and one member answering to the questionnaire couldn't even remember what he had majored in.

Approximately one half of the respondents to our class questionnaire had gone on to do graduate or professional work at a university. Five earned degrees in law, and four Ph.Ds in various scholarly fields. Three earned M.D. degrees, two degrees in dental surgery and another a degree in optometry. Seven earned master's degrees in a variety of subjects. Two have been awarded degrees by this College, and a third has just this past month been awarded a degree by another university: our colleague Maitland De Sormo, teacher and writer and publisher of books on Adirondacks folklore and history, has been awarded a doctoral degree by St. Lawrence University for his distinguished work.

The subsequent careers pursued by our classmates have been even more varied than their majors. The largest number of them — nine — have been teachers, from elementary schools to universities. Seven have been lawyers plus two who have been editors of law books. Seven also have been in business. Four have practiced medicine, and three have been dentists. Two have been engaged in manufacturing and two in the stock market. The rest have engaged in a wide variety of occupations: accounting, industrial engineering, government research, the civil service, land developing, painting, banking, advertising, optometry and food production. The list is long and the variety refreshing. The curriculum, though restricted, imposed no bounds on the future activities of its students.

The purpose of the curriculum was explicitly stated in the College catalogue. "In a period of rapid changes in educational theory, Hamilton College chooses to preserve the earlier college ideals." It sought to provide a broad and liberal training for life. It emphasized the humanities without neglecting any subject essential to a well-rounded education. "By the application of a group system of electives, the College aims to secure breadth without superficiality and thoroughness without cramping rigidity. It demands intensive work on the part of its students, and it strives to offer them breadth of educational and spiritual outlook."

We were fortunate, however, to have as president of our College one who could appear to be both austere and unbending, yet was always actually sympathetic and considerate. Frederic C. Ferry, president from 1918 to 1938, possessed all the dignity appropriate to his office and earned the respect of his faculty and students. That the succeeded in doing so without imposing a pattern of sternness and rigidity upon his faculty is evident in the nicknames bestowed upon the professors by us their students. First of all was Dean Arthur Percy Saunders who was commonly labeled "Stink," a generous human being who tempered his interest in objective scientific experiments with a warm, hospitable welcome to his home where the visual and the audible arts were living presences. His two successors as Dean, Edward Fitch and Frank Humhrey Ristine, while in appearance somewhat more austere than the bearded Stink, were, as "Little Greek" and "Chubby," fully as sympathetic and understanding. "Swampy" Marsh, belying the solemnity and precision of his deep-voiced speech, tempered his judgments on both student speech and behavior. "Digger" Graves was, and is, of course both a play on the surname and a tribute to the thoroughness of the professor's research and teaching. And so on through the list of the nicknames. The one that has always puzzled me a bit, however, was "Smut" Fancher. Was he so nicknamed because of his fondness for off-color talk or stories? Hardly so. Though he was a sophisticated, talented man of the world, the nickname was more probably assigned because of his skill in detecting the student writing he read by the thousands of pages the slightest off-color bit.

One of the reasons for the multiplicity of nicknames for the faculty was its small size, which led to a sense of closeness. In our day there were slightly under 40 full-time members of the faculty — a ratio of about 10 students per professor. In contrast, last year's catalogue lists some 140 full-time faculty, plus a large number of part-time members, for about 1,600 students, a ratio of one professor to about 11½ students.

I am not well enough acquainted with the present faculty to judge the closeness of their relationship with the students, nor to catalogue their eccentricities. But one can still recall the oddities of the method and manner of some of our mentors. There was for instance. Milledge Louis Bonham, Jr., the only professor of history in our first two years in the College. Professor Bonham was a tall, dignified figure, rather portly in bearing. He was a native of South Carolina, largely educated in the South, except for the Ph.D., which he earned at Columbia. Before coming to Hamilton in 1920, he was a teacher in southern schools and colleges. He was little given to class discussion and insisted on a mastery of the textbook he chose for the class. His method was to require students to keep for inspection and grading notebooks in which they outlined, chapter by chapter, the text. The notebooks were collected and graded from time to time, the degree of success apparently being determined by the attractiveness of the variety of colors employed in the outline of the material. Maps were likewise judge partly by the skill in coloring. Professor Bonham insisted upon attention to his lectures. The head that nodded as the lecture ground on was often suddenly awakened by the slap of a blackboard eraser thrown by the lecturing professor.

And then there was "Bugsy" Morrill of biology, who taught his students how to identify campus trees striped of leaves by the Clinton winter. "Bugsy" was known to have scattered misleading leaves and nuts under the trees being identified by the classes on tours of the campus. The identification exercise became an amusing game.

Altogether, faculty-student relationships were cordial and trouble-free. One reason for this was perhaps a by-product of a deficiency in the physical equipment of the College: There was almost no provision for faculty offices on campus. Professors were expected to maintain studies or offices in their homes, and consequently students had to call upon their professors at their homes, which thanks to policy adopted chiefly in the 20's were built by the College, near campus. Professors' wives were usually kindly, sociable ladies who tended to mitigate any professorial severity. Many of us remember the generous hospitality of such ladies as the Mrs. "Rocksie" Dale, Mrs. "Swampy" Marsh, Mrs. "Stink" Saunders, to name only a few. One should include also Mrs. Frederick Carlos Ferry, whose husband seems never to have acquired a lasting nickname. Mrs. Ferry always succeeded in bringing nearer to earth the detached imperturbability, sometimes Olympian dignity and detachment which served to dignify and enforce the authority of the president.

One of the major reasons for the relative calm of the students on the campus was the kind of athletic policy pursued by the College. Although undergraduates are much given to regarding winning teams in football, hockey, baseball, etc. as one of the chief attributes of a first-rate college, and tough alumni often seem to boast outrageously of the success of their alma mater in sports, Hamilton men (and I should now add, of course, women) are respectably modest about the success of their sports teams, proud when they win but not devastated when they lose. The College catalogue still carries a statement of policy very much like that in the catalogue of our day: "The primary emphasis of the athletic program at Hamilton College is upon the educational value of athletics rather than upon athletics as a public entertainment or as a source of financial income. It provides a fourfold program in Athletics: recreational play, instruction in physical education, intramural competition, and intercollegiate programs."

Then, as now, the College supported a full range of athletic teams, even though the size of the institution was small enough that without special recruiting it was unlikely that a winning schedule could be maintained with institutions of similar size. The record in winning teams over our four years here, however, was creditable. In football we succeeded our first year in tying Union 0-0, after having lost dismally for a number of years. The previous year we had been defeated 62-0. In our second year we lost to Union at Schenectady, 36-0, and the third year again. But at long last in the fall of 1928, we returned from Schenectady triumphant, by 8-6. Led by our classmate Captain Chatfield, ably supported by Paul Schneider, Dick Reinecke and Lou Bush, we outplayed Union in all but one period. Soccer that fall of 1928, led by Captain Hin Chan, aided by Ted Ingalls, Chambie Ferry, Bob Montgomery and John Normite, won only over Cornell and RPI. In cross country the team was wholly Class of 1929 — Captain Ray Crane, George Clark, Ed Douglas, Maurice Isaac and Emerson White. It won only over Hobart and Rochester, but placed second in the State Intercollegiate Athletic Association meet. In hockey, Captain Paul Schneider, assisted by Stu Baker, Ted Ingalls, Bob Brown, Bob Montgomery, Palm Cutter and Harry Harmon, although defeating Union in a second overtime period, 4-2, lost the season, six games to four. In basketball, the team, still suffering from the inadequacies of training in the cramped old Soper Gymnasium, with John Normile as captain the only member of the Class of 1929 on the team, showed improvement but won only four of 12 games. The baseball team, led by our captain Walter Knox, won four games — against Albany, St. Lawrence, Rochester and Susquehanna — but lost to Haverford, Union, RPI and Rochester.

I have listed as one of the major aims of the athletic program the provision for physical training of non-athletes, among whom should have been included your crumbly speaker this morning. As a child afflicted with heart disease, I was excluded from the usual physical games and recreations. I was not allowed, for instance, to learn to swim, and I was never included on the rosters of the team sports. In College this resulted in some embarrassing moments. I remember (it was in sophomore year I believe) my first and only baseball game. In gym class, teams were organized rather indiscriminately. Inevitably, my turn came to go to bat. I stepped up to the plate for the first time in my life, fully expecting to strike out ignominiously. My debut was, however, triumphant. I HIT the ball! I ran like hell, intent only on reaching first base. Then, suddenly, a roar of laughter: I had followed the white boundary line of the field and not the line to first base! Well, I had some exercise, anyway.

In speaking this morning as the 1929 half-century annalist, I am carrying on a tradition that goes back to the very early years of this College. In preparation I read a good many of the earlier letters, from the 1860s to last year's by Vin Jones, Class of 19'28. The variety of the recollections is considerable but there is a consistency of tone. All the letters I have read are colored with rosy optimism: Hamilton was a great place 50 years ago, and its future is unquestionably assured. I am fully aware of the temptation in writing such reminiscence to glorify the past and to assure that the future will be golden.

But times do change, and while I yield to no annalist in my cheerful appraisal of the past, I should like in the closing minutes here to take a sober look at what the forthcoming years may hold for Hamilton. The merger with Kirkland College has unquestionably strengthened Hamilton at a time when private colleges in the United States face an uncertain future.

Until fairly recently, higher education in this country was dominated by private colleges. Now only 22 percent of the total enrollment is in the private institutions. As late as 1950, half the college enrollment was in private institutions; 10 years later it was only 41 percent. In the 1970s over 129 private institutions have closed. The reasons are both demographic and economic. The college age group, that is, 18-21, is expected to decline about 25 percent in the next 15 years, or about two-and-a-half million, the equivalent of 5,000 colleges of 500 students. In New York State, which had approximated 540,000 students in 1978, there will be about 375,000 in 1988. The cost of higher education, especially at private institutions, has skyrocketed. We paid about $100 a year for tuition — now it is $4,000. Fixed costs are no longer fixed. To maintain a satisfactory physical plant costs more and more. To maintain a superior faculty on a tenure basis is increasingly expensive. Altogether the outlook for many private colleges is bleak.

All this is not to say that I am pessimistic about the future of Hamilton College. It will find the going tougher during the next 15 years, but its high reputation for many years, its relatively strong endowment, and its fine physical plant, all strongly suggest that it will survive. But it will survive only if it continues to receive the loyal personal and financial support of its sons and daughters. Then, and then only, we can be sure, as the song has it, that Hamilton's "days will never end."