Delivered: Reunions 1984
Thursday, September 18, 1930…
Opening day of the fall term at Hamilton College…
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The worst of times because by then, the country was on the threshold of the greatest economic depression in its history. And it was the best of times because we were all about 18 years old, strong and healthy, and most of us were in love or thought we were. Which, at that age, was just as good (maybe better).
It was the first time the 154 of us had gathered together. Most of us were from public high schools of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and some from good Eastern prep schools. A few of us arrived by automobile, but there being no Thruway then, most of us came via the New York Central in Utica, where we transferred to an interurban trolley, which in about 30 minutes deposited us in Clinton and, after circling the village park, sped back to Utica.
The campus at which we finally found ourselves was not much different in appearance than it is today, despite the addition of several new buildings; and for that the College architects are to be commended. In blending the new with the old they have managed to preserve the original harmony and tone.
The great difference in the Hamilton of today as compared to 1930 is the presence of more than 700 coeds, the same difference once hailed by the immortal cry of the anonymous Frenchman: "Vive le difference!" The full impact of this innovation cannot be realized when College is not in session; one must be present on a normal weekday when the students are hurrying back and forth between classes.
Such a prospect, however, would have been unthinkable to us as we straggled into this monastic community in the fall of 1930. Through dormitory and fraternity house windows could be heard the plaintive rhythms of McKinney's Cotton Pickers begging Baby Won't You Please Come Home or the mellow strains of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.
The 154 of us joined 302 other undergraduates to comprise an imposing student body of 456. The tuition in 1930 was — are you ready for this? — $250 per year! Dormitory choices ranged from $165 per year in South College where the deluxe suites were located, to $70 per year for more austere accommodations in North. All rentals included housekeeping services — and again let me point out that all these charges were for the year, that is, from September to June, and they remained the same during our four years. Today when we have seen, or painfully experienced, tuition costs escalating to nearly $15,000 annually, Hamilton's 1930 charges seem incredible. And let me add one more surprise: board consisting of three meals a day in Soper Commons, which was $7.70 per week freshman year, had actually been reduced to $7 by our senior year — a reduction of almost 10 percent. Fraternity house board was comparable, of course — $278 per year compared to Commons charges of $277.20.
Modest as these expenses seem to us today, they undoubtedly seemed staggering and hopelessly unaffordable to many an upper middle-class father in the early 1930s, broke and out of a job.
But even low prices did not prevent Lou Katz from complaining in a recent reminiscence about the quality of service rendered by a student waiter, one Linowitz, who eventually exchanged his waiter's apron for the striped trousers of an ambassador. I don't know what Lou expected for seven bucks a week, and I'd like to hear from Sol what kind of a tipper Lou was in those days.
This Chapel ("this lovely old hall" as President Stryker once called it) in which we were gathered on that opening day was not the gleaming white pearl it is today; instead it had a somber oak interior reflecting its strict Presbyterian background. There were the same number of pews, however, indeed more, if you counted those for the choir up here behind the platform. Only the chapel markers sat in the balcony, each checking his assigned portion of the student body, without benefit of lists or rosters, and counting each rare absence against the allowance of 12 cuts per semester for daily chapel, two for Sunday.
After that opening session we emerged from the Chapel like early Christian martyrs stumbling into the Coliseum and became locked in mortal combat with the sophomores in something called the "Flag Rush," a barbarism which, I assume, has been abolished — one of the fringe benefits of education.
For our first-year studies, we had precious little choice. One could elect Latin or Greek, French or German; and biology, chemistry or mathematics. English composition was required; two public speaking courses — that is, two each semester for four years; and two or three hours of physical education per week, I forget which.
The classic definition of the ideal liberal arts college with its implied emphasis on faculty caliber is "Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other." Leave out the log, and that description fitted the Hamilton College of the '30s. It was as if Elihu Root, then chairman of the Board of Trustees, had called central casting in Hollywood and ordered an assortment of faculty types for a small college in Upstate New York. In they come. Picture them:
Firstly, their president: Frederick Carlos Ferry, darkly handsome, brown-eyed with closely trimmed moustache; a tall man, with just enough scholarly stoop to lend persuasion to his cultured voice and gentle tone. He served Hamilton as its president for 21 years, retiring in 1938.
And who could have fitted the popular conception of college president better than Percy Saunders and Milledge Louis Bonham, both bearded and who, being encountered together, might give the impression that the Smith Brothers had escaped from their cough drop box cover and were at large in our midst; "Stink" Saunders, who drew his name from the chemistry courses he taught, and Bonham, a Southern gentleman complete with Robert E. Lee whiskers and accent to match, professor of history.
And following them, the tall, frock-coated figure of the unforgettable Bill Squires, professor of philosophy. I am indebted to Larry Daressa for an anecdote that illustrates the dry wit of Bill Squires. Bill employed the Socratic method in the classroom, using his students who were required to stand by their seats when reciting, a procedure probably unthinkable today and likely to be protested as a violation of one's civil rights. One day as student after student stood and led us deeper into philosophical confusion, Dr. Squires in desperation turned to John Moses and asked: "Moses, can you lead us out of the bulrushes?" And, as Larry points out, had he gone to John in the first place, he might have spared us all the pain.
In his 42-year teaching career at Hamilton, Bill Squires exercised an important influence on his students, B.F. Skinner's opinion to the contrary notwithstanding. Today his aphorisms still ring in our ears: "Man is the measure of all things," "The test of success is survival," "Every day of your life is an examination day," and many others.
With Bill Squires marches another tall, lean figure: Horace Seely Brown, his coat covered with chalk dust, blackboards being the only visual aids available to math professors in 1930.
And what a rich roll of nicknames, lovingly bestowed on those teachers by generations of students, sometimes derived from their disciplines as in the case of Stink Saunders and of Pills Saunders (physics), Bugsy Morrill (biology) and Roxy Dale (geology). In other cases, less clear, as in Smut Facher, Bull Durham, Trot Chase and Swampy Marsh. And still others, no less affectionately and immediately memorable as Bobby, Cal, Eddie (or Digger) Graves, Bibbsy, Bill Shep, Fifi, Chubby, Supe, Art and Mox. Some don't need nicknames to have fans who held them in affection and esteem: Butcher, Cameron, Carruth, Hauch, Hess, Laves, Patterson, Patton, Perrine, Prettyman, and that hardy survivor who is with us today, full of years and academic honors, George Lyman Nesbitt.
None of us who sat in his class will ever forget the rhythmic cadences of Bobby Rudd, reading faintly erotic verses of John Donne, with his raffish French poodle, Harpo, asleep at his feet. And Eddie Graves, upstairs in Truax Hall, making history come alive for us in his clear, well-organized lectures.
Jean Marcus Gelas, soccer and fencing coach, was an authentic, wiry, mustachioed Frenchman who never achieved a nickname, despite an obvious need for one; nevertheless a lot of legend surrounded him. For example, when hosting a dinner party at home he was reputed to impale a roast chicken on a fork and, holding it aloft, proceed to carve it — wings and drumsticks, and slices of white meat.
What is there to be said, or added, to the legend of Ralph Clewell Super, whose academic credentials modestly cited only an A.B. degree with Phi Beta Kappa at Ohio State and neglected to mention a few months' spell of graduate work at Grenoble, one of the prestigious universities of southern France. Supe was what might be described today as a "closet intellectual" whose bumbling exterior concealed an intense scholarly curiosity; and he was able to imbue his students with it, especially his consuming interest in the origin of words.
These men all shared one common attribute: they were good teachers. Some were great teachers. The low faculty-student ratio of our day, about 1:10, assured us of the close and frequent contact with our mentors, and some of them had profound and lasting effects on our lives. Even though we might never have taken one of their courses, we were close enough to observe and retain the memory of a slight eccentricity or individual coloration. For example:
Berrian Rankin Shute held the post of professor of musical appreciation. In fact he was an entire Music Department if one overlooked Paul Fancher, director of the College Choir, who was officially designated as professor of English. One of Shute's principal responsibilities in addition to teaching was the care and maintenance of a huge orthophonic phonograph and custody of an imposing library of Red Seal classical recordings. He also served as booking agent, publicity man and ticket seller for concerts presented by the Musical Arts Society, which in our time offered several prominent artists in this very Chapel, among them Jose Iturbi, who was just then commencing his American career, and Rose Bampton, a star of the Metropolitan Opera, whose voice, matched by the beauty of her face and figure, guaranteed her an enthusiastic reception from an audience of adolescent tone-deaf males. An important feature of these entertainments was the preliminary chapel announcement by Professor Shute, delivered in his own cultured and persuasive style, and memorable for his excessive use of the adverb "exceedingly." But this is carping criticism; Shute was part of our early exposure to "culture" and we loved him for it.
* * *
In the golden autumn days of 1930, we started our College careers, hurrying from class to class, driven by the 12 relentless strokes of the Chapel bell between classes. If not in your seat at the last stroke of the bell, the instructor could mark you absent, and there went one of your allotted three cuts per semester. (In our four years I cannot recall a single instance where the drastic tardiness penalty was invoked.)
Our youthfulness in those days was emphasized by the regulation headgear of a freshman, a little green cap of ridiculous proportions, also known as a "dink" or "slimer," the latter term derived from the description applied to all of us who wore them. Be that as it may, I think most of us wore our "slimers" with pride, and never since have we had a hat so youthful, so becoming.
We had been here only a few weeks when an incident occurred that should have served notice that the Class of '34 might be expected to do things on a large scale. A College tradition required a bonfire pep rally on the night before the Union football game, and it was the task of the freshmen to provide wood for the bonfire. The event was held in the space between the hockey building and the tennis courts, and I recall thinking at the time that the committee had done a remarkable job collecting wood for the occasion. The blaze at its roaring zenith not only lit up the sky in spectacular style but would have threatened the hockey building had it not been of fireproof construction. I suppose it should have come as no surprise when a few days later our class was called together and a collection taken up to assuage the wrath of a nearby farmer who was claiming the loss of a ramshackle barn on his property. It had been dismantled and hauled away on a truck bearing the logo of a local business owned by our classmate Don Brockway's father, with Don at the wheel and a merry band of confederates headed by our class president, Harry Harding. It took the combined efforts of Tom Rudd, then the Oneida County district attorney, a friendly justice of the peace and a cash payment of $160 to appease the rural slumlord.
In our freshman year, Herbert Hoover was in the White House with two more years to go in his hapless administration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in Albany, waiting in the wings until 1932 when he would burst upon the country, and indeed upon the world, with a landslide victory at the polls. We didn't realize it then, but the nation would never be the same. Over our radios we heard his inaugural address — "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" — and the next day all of the banks closed, including the Hayes National Bank of Clinton, leaving us even broker than usual. The College authorized the Commons Dining Hall to accept I.O.U's and Bursar Coughlin began to distribute loans of petty cash for trolley fare to Utica.
Our radios kept us in touch with the outside world; not many of us could afford a daily newspaper. Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and The Mills Brothers sang to us for 15 minutes five nights a week. Paul Tremaine played for us and for luncheon dancers at Young's Chinese Restaurant and on New York's Broadway. If we stayed up 'til midnight on Saturday night we could hear the great Coon-Sanders Orchestra from the Black Hawk Restaurant in Chicago. Fred Allen, Charlie McCarthy and Stoopnagle and Bud were making us laugh; and Station WIBX — the Voice of Utica, was learning that it was cheaper to play records than to hire piano players.
The radio was a welcome distraction from reading and study, bridge and bull sessions, and occasional forays into the beer joints of nearby Kirkland and Franklin Springs. On a cold, snowy night in March 1932, our radios crackled with an ominous bulletin from Hopewell, New Jersey: the Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped from his cradle. For the next few days we followed the sad bulletins. It was our first taste of electronically reported tragedies that would shadow our lives from that day forward.
From then on, as historians say, events marched. In March 1933, those of us with a sense of history waited outside the West End Brewery in Utica until midnight when the gates swung open and trucks roared out carrying the first shipment of legal 3.2 beer to a waiting multitude. On Dec. 5, 1933, FDR signed an executive order proclaiming repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Noble Experiment was over.
In these events of national significance occasionally attracted our attention, I think it can be truthfully stated that we were almost totally unaware of what was happening abroad. In 1932 and 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power but we took little notice. As I recall, only one of us, a pudgy little fellow named Howard B. White, known as "H.B." to distinguish himself from H.L. White, persisted in warning us of the threat of National Socialism to disrupt our lives. But "H.B." was a voice crying in the wilderness then, and we regarded him as some kind of a nut. If his shade is present here today, I apologize for all of us.
Meanwhile, back on the campus, life in the Groves of Academe went on, serene and tranquil, free from any unseemly disturbance. Well, almost. In 1933, a novel titled Dance Out the Answer appeared. It was reputed to be about Hamilton, thinly disguised under the name of Adams College, and portrayed some faculty personalities as engaged in fairly scandalous behavior. Howard Hosmer, then editor of Hamilton Life, considered running a review of the book with a key to the characters, but abandoned the idea after a little talk with President Ferry.
In response to my request for especially vivid memories of our undergraduate years, here are some replies:
for Martin Barnes, it was the hours spent in the Browsing Room and then walking back to the dorm under the starry sky of a spring evening
for Bus Areson, the after-exams parties in South Tower, one of which was followed by a summons to the hosts to meet individually with Prexy Ferry who startled Bus by opening the interview with: "Mr. Areson. Do you actually sleep under the bed?"
for Jack Dengler, joining forces with H.B. White to support Norman Thomas for president in 1932 and thereby gaining notoriety as "Campus Reds"
for Bob Miner, a nostalgia for morning chapel and the "splendid hymns"
for Durant Osborne, ringing the Chapel bell in joyful peals on a Saturday afternoon in the fall after a football victory
for Jan Deelman, the annual photograph of the entire student body, taken after morning chapel with a panoramic camera, which received slowly enough to permit the agile to race around and appear several times in the same picture. (I believe the all-time record was made in our freshman year by Tom Robertson, Class of '33, who appears as identical quadruplets — and Jim Huff has the photo here today to prove it.)
and, from my own memories, a recollection of Jase Marrow playing varsity football at 140 pounds, looking like Mr. Peepers in helmet and shoulder pads and constituting Art Winters' "special team" for punt returns; and of Henry Neff, on whom no amount of hockey padding could conceal his slight 140 pounds, which he made up for by skill and sheer guts on Coach Prettyman's winning hockey teams.
* * *
Finally, on a sunny morning, June 18, 1934 — Commencement.
A brass band played. Eighty-six of us, capped, gowned and hardly recognizable to each other, stood in line under the trees, while Wally Johnson scurried up and down trying to separate B.A.'s from B.S.'s. It was only then that Bill Roehrick learned to his surprise that the degree he was about to get was not the B.A. he thought he was earning, but somehow, inexplicably, a B.S. (Thirty-seven years later Hamilton tried to make amends by conferring on him an honorary doctorate of humane letters. This was after Bill, on tour with a road company in Tulsa, discovered a dusty painting in a secondhand shop which, with an eye trained by Edward Root, he recognized as a Winslow Homer original and bought it for $35. Three years later he sold it for $35,000. Some scientist!)
After speeches from John Moses, our valedictorian, and from Coley Burke, salutatorian (Coley's was in Latin — how's that for a touch of class?), came the moment of truth: as Chubby Ristine called out our names, each of us stepped up to this platform where Prexy Ferry, in robes and hood, shook us by the hand and solemnly intoned:
By the authority vested in me by the Regents of the State of New York, I confer upon you this degree with all its rights and privileges, and hereby admit you to the fellowship of educated men."
"Rights and privileges," "fellowship," "educated men" — heady stuff indeed — and in June 1934, not one of us detected the blatant sexism implied in those words.
* * *
No recruiters from IBM or Dow Chemical, or even the Fuller Brush Company, visited Hamilton College to interview us in 1934. They would have wasted their time, for few of us possessed the "employable skills" sought by business and industry. A few lucky ones found teaching jobs, a field in which Hamilton graduates had a longstanding reputation for excellence. The other professions attracted their usual proportion: three were called to the Episcopalian clergy; Lockett Ballard became a bishop at an early age; George Nichols was a charismatic clergyman of the same denomination; and Bill Noon found he had what is known as a "late vocation" to the Jesuits, who point to him with pride today as an acknowledged world authority on the life and works of James Joyce. It is sad to note that all three of these classmates have passed away.
Twelve of us became lawyers; seven of our brightest went on to medical school; two went into dentistry.
The cultural mecca of New York City already included in 1930 the names of Hamilton graduates such as Sam Adams, Lloyd Paul Stryker, Alexander Woollcott, Hawley Truax, John K. Hutchens, Max Wylie and many others, and a few courageous members of the Class of 1934 decided to try their luck there. Among them was the aforesaid William Roehrick who, armed with his B.S. degree, was now ready to embark on a theatrical career. Alexander Woollcott was pleased to give the wayward scientist a letter to Guthrie McClintic, one of the foremost directors of the time, who happened to be married to the legendary Katherine Cornell. The letter went something like this:
"Dear Guthrie: The bearer is William Roehrick, a recent Hamilton graduate who has been acting like mad in the Berkshires, and is eager to depict under your direction. Please give him his choice of several important roles and oblige your friend, A. Woollcott."
A few weeks later, Bill went on tour with Miss Cornell and Company in Romeo and Juliet, and has been one of the elite few, known as "working actors," ever since.
And so we left the serenity of this hilltop and took our places in the real world. The next 50 years were to witness more startling events than any other equal period in recorded history. In 1936 we listened as Edward VII of England abdicated the throne for love in an emotional farewell to his subjects. A few years later we began to grow increasingly uneasy as Hitler's bombs were dropped nightly on London. And on Dec. 7, 1941, the "day that will live in infamy" — Pearl Harbor. We were at war, an eventuality never dreamed of in our carefree Hamilton years.
For most of us, the war was certainly the most important event of our lifetime. For all of us, it was an unwelcome interruption. For the 42 of us who served in the armed forces, it meant months, even years, of loneliness and separation from loved ones. From two of our number, Art Clay and Doug Cormack, it meant tragic death at a too early age.
There's probably nothing like a war to pick people up, shuffle them around and then drop them in the most remote, improbable places. And thus it came to pass that in January 1945, Vince Strully found himself chief medical officer in a flotilla of LSTs ferrying men and supplies across the English Channel in a hasty reinforcement operation following the Battle of the Bulge. A nearby troopship carrying the 12th Army headquarters detachment took a torpedo amidships and sank, and Vince's ship circled to pick up the survivors. Vince was on deck when up the side ladder and over the rail came Captain Duncan Edwards, Hamilton '34. There was instant recognition and Vince, with a spare bunk in his cabin, was able to provide Dunc with dry clothes, cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon before putting him ashore in France next morning.
Duncan Edwards has passed on, but if he were here this morning, I'm sure this would only be the second happiest Hamilton reunion of his experience. But Vince is present, and we thank him for being there in 1945, and here in 1984 — along with Vin, Jr., Hamilton '69.
On Aug. 6, 1945 there occurred another one of those "Great Events" with which our lives have been cursed, namely, the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on a civilian population, with such terrible consequences that it brought Japan, a mighty military power, to its knees within a week. We rejoiced in the victory, but today the realization of the enormity of that event and its terrifying potential is beginning to dawn as we engage in a national soul-searching for ways to control the awesome power unleashed that fateful day.
* * *
Meanwhile, back at the campus, Hamilton College was experiencing an ordeal, which had begun with the retirement of President Ferry at age 70 in 1938. His successor was an innovator, but no diplomat, and by 1942 curriculum changes had so polarized the faculty and disrupted the students that the Board of Trustees started to grant the new president a series of leaves of absence which grew longer and longer, finally culminating in his departure in 1944. As I described in a speech at the alumni luncheon in 1974: "He left us as he came — fired with enthusiasm."
We managed to run through five presidents between 1944 and 1974, when the Board of Trustees under the chairmanship of Coley Burke chose Martin Carovano to head the College. This may have been Coley's greatest service to Hamilton College and standing alone would merit the honorary Doctor of Laws he received from his grateful alma mater in 1982.
Under President Carovano tranquility has been restored, and finances have been brought under control. In the latter connection, it might be noted in passing the Alumni Fund which amounted to a mere $2,800 item in 1934 when we became eligible to contribute, has grown to a spectacular $1,402,000 total in 1983. That, I submit, is progress, and if the strength of an institution is measured by the support of its alumni, it is abundant evidence that Hamilton College is in rugged good health as it embarks on a 175th Anniversary Campaign for $29 million dollars, the most ambitious in its history. If successful — and there is no reason to doubt that it will be — the future is bright. I resist the temptation to look ahead another 50 years. In the immortal words of that great American sage of our time, Casey Stengel: "I never make predictions, especially about the future."
Women have been assimilated into campus life and traditions, although the process, I gather, has not been without a certain amount of uproar, as illustrated by an incident which occurred in this Chapel about 10 years ago during the outbreak of a nationwide behavioral phenomenon known as "streaking." I quote from an eyewitness account prepared exclusively for this occasion:
"It was a typical January morning: temperature hovering around freezing, a chilling wind whipping across the Hill and a foot of snow blanketing the ground. The student body, faculty, and the usual gaggle of curious Kirkland women had assembled in the Chapel to hear news of upcoming College events. The 30-minute program was about halfway through when the commotion began at the back where standing-room-only latecomers crowded the entrance. The only discernible comment from those being pushed aside was: 'Oh my God! I don't believe it!'
"From their midst she came, clad perhaps in a smile, ski mask effectively concealed in any expression her visage might have betrayed. But other than the mask, nary a stitch stood between the voluptuous visitor's considerable assets and the dumbstruck, albeit delighted stares of hundreds of Hamilton men. In truth, she may have been wearing shoes, but the eyewitness had yet to come forward who can recall whether the lady had feet, much less shoes.
"Down the aisle she sped directly toward the assembly moderator, the lone occupant of the platform who, undeniably, had the best seat in the house. At the right with a move that would have done O.J. Simpson proud and disappeared through the side door into pages of history, accompanied by the most thunderous ovation that the sleepy-eyed Monday morning gathering could muster during their academic year."
(The foregoing passage was written by the annalist's son, James O. Kennedy '74, who was the assembly moderator referred to. His account also included an amusing sequel: "The following spring the College was celebrating Charter Day with the program of awards and stunts that go with it. One of the most popular activities was the pie-throw. Students and faculty would nominate a student or faculty member to be the target, and the gathering would bid for the privilege of chucking three whipped cream pies into the face of the nominee. The aforementioned assembly moderator being a person known around the campus was placed in a nomination. The bidding was spirited, finally narrowing down between a fraternity brother and a young blond lady whom the moderator thought he had never seen before. She finally bid the brother into submission and lustily launched all three pies into the face of the bewildered moderator. Afterward he sought to ask her out and asked her 'Why?' She replied coyly, 'I just wanted to get back at the only person who had a full frontal view of me when I streaked in the Chapel.' Three pies in the face seemed like a small price to pay.")
I want to express my deep gratitude to two members of the College administration, Frank Lorenz, editor, College publications, and Mary R. McLean, assistant director of the Annual Fund, who have been patient and prompt in answering my questions these past few months. And my special thanks to our classmate Lou Katz, who, in the process of compiling his "yearbook," made himself a human computer of 1934 data, with a special terminal connected to me.
It was a lucky day for the Class of '34 when Henry Harding and his wife Aggie, herself bound to Hamilton by multiple ties of father, brother, husband and son, decided to take up permanent residence in the gracious Harding mansion at the foot of College Hill. Since then, they have gone beyond all expectations of ordinary hospitality in welcoming us to their home and grounds whenever we returned, singlely or collectively, through the years.
And another individual strategically located is our esteemed classmate, Harlan Lewis, Lord Mayor of Clinton these past three decades, of whom we are justly proud.
* * *
The class that was graduated from Hamilton last Sunday numbered 252 men and 183 women. They are dispersed now to begin a half-century of experience after which they will return, as we do today, to "the College on the Hilltop whose days will never end" to compare notes.
Please God, no more surprises.
So ends the letter.
Gerry Kennedy's way with words was already evident in his College days as a contributor to Hamilton Life and the Hamiltonian, and as editor-in-chief of The Continental, the campus humor magazine. Following graduation, he turned from a promising writing career to the study of law. He received his J.D. degree from Harvard Law School in 1937 and thereafter established a practice in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. A past vice president of the New York State Bar Association, he is a retired partner in the firm of Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle, with which he was long associated.