Delivered: June 2, 1990
On this 10th day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.
That was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking at the commencement of the Class of 1940 at the University of Virginia, denouncing the declaration of war on Benito Mussolini's Italy on France. That was Monday, June 10, 1940. Exactly one week later, on Monday, June 17, 1940, here in this Chapel, President William Harold Cowley delivered his charge to us, Hamilton's Class of 1940, and handed each of us our diplomas.
About four years earlier, just before we arrived for our freshman year here on the Hill, Jesse Owens surprised his German hosts by winning four Olympic gold medals, proving in the those track events at least that the Aryan race was not the super race Adolf Hitler had widely proclaimed.
Between those two events we spent our four undergraduate years here at Hamilton, paying little, if any, attention to the earth-shaking events taking place elsewhere on the globe.
Two national political events also marked the boundaries of our four years here.
In 1936, Alf Landon, referred to as the Kansas Coolidge, and Frank Knox who ran against Roosevelt and John Nance Garner, who were seeking their second term. Frank Knox, we discovered shortly after we arrived here for our freshman year, was an uncle of our classmate, Lew Rock. As a result, many of us got our first indoctrination into presidential campaigns by working for Landon-Knox and sporting Landon for President sunflower buttons.
That election changed one of the nation's enduring political slogans from "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." To "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont." The headline in Hamilton Life the next week was rather amazing. It said, "GOP Landslide in the Town of Kirkland Ineffectual in Stemming Democratic Victory in the Nation." Some of us then changed the slogan to "As Maine Goes, So Goes Vermont and the Town of Kirkland."
Four years later, having left the confines of these halls, many of us echoed the chorus, "We want Wilkie." This time two other states joined Maine, Vermont and the Town of Kirkland, lowering Roosevelt's victory margin only a negligible amount.
So, those were the two different parameters of our four years at Hamilton. Few of us had any conception of what we were heading into over the next four years.
In writing this letter I decided to concentrate essentially on just those four years. Almost all of us participated in one way or another in the war which followed our graduation. Three of our classmates were lost in the service. During and following the war most of us used our Hamilton education effectively in a wide range of professions. Four members of the class have served as trustees of the College. Many of us produced sons and daughters who have come here. Now we even have some grandchildren of the Class of 1940 enrolled at Hamilton.
But, even with that limitation, my biggest problem in writing this letter was compressing those four years into 30 minutes.
Let me first introduce the men and women in the Class of '40 by asking them to raise their hands.
The year 1940, like every other year when you look back, was an unusual one. But this one seems to us extra unusual. Take the month of April 1940 as an example:
• Early that month Germany invaded and occupied Denmark and Norway, and a new word entered our language, Quisling.
• On April 16, almost exactly two months before our graduation, Bob Feller pitched the only opening-day no-hit game in baseball history in Comiskey Park in Chicago. Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, was in the stands that day. Now, 50 years later, the White Sox are playing in their last season in that park. A new stadium is being built across the street. But, in those intervening 50 years, no one has repeated Bob Feller's opening-day feat.
• Later in April, Alfred Hitchcock's first American movie, Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, opened in theaters across the nation. Although 50 years have passed, that is the only Hitchcock film to ever win the Academy Award as the best picture of the year.
One of the most unexpected results of any research in the College archives — and this would be good time to publicly thank Waltraut Wuensch, who not mans, but womans the archives, and Frank Lorenz, editor of the Alumni Review — was to discover the same day we were graduated, the Cowleys became proud parents of a daughter, Ellen McCampbell Cowley. I think it safe to claim, without any further research on the subject, that Hamilton's Class of 1940 is the only class in the College's history to be graduated on the same day a presidential daughter was born. "Stink" Saunders, in honor of that day, named one of his new hybrid peonies the Ellen Cowley, a bright red to go along with his deep red Aleck Woollcott.
In a telephone conversation with Mrs. Cowley, that attractive wife of the president, and now living in Palo Alto, California, she told me that Ellen was born at 8 a.m. in Faxton Hospital in Utica. Our Commencement started at 10. Mrs. Cowley said she had heard afterward that "Hal had mixed up a few diplomas." That would be understandable. But from our standpoint, Dr. Cowley made the transition from hospital to Commencement in this Chapel, delivering his charge to us and handing us our diplomas, with no indication that anything other than our Commencement was on his mind. Most, if not all, of us were unaware of the big event that had just taken place in his life, being far too engrossed in the big event taking place in ours.
The first thing the Class of '40 did of any note came on the first full day of college on September 17, 1936. We won the flag rush, led by our newly elected leader, John Atlee Light Thomas. The last time that feat had been accomplished by a freshman class was in 1924.
The flag, for those of you not familiar with that then hallowed Hamilton tradition, was a battered old Yale banner (why Yale, I don't know) hung by the sophomores on a rope stretched between two trees and anywhere from 15 to 20 feet in the air. The goal for the freshmen was to get it, and for the sophomores to see that the freshmen didn't, and all within three minutes from the start of the rush.
The freshman handbook, in its listing of Hamilton traditions, said that the opening day of college was devoted to various contests between the sophomores and the freshmen, "to provide outlets for the surplus energy of the underclassmen and to give the freshmen a chance to organize and prove their mettle in action." Ham Life put it a little differently. It said, "Tomorrow morning the members of the sophomore and freshman classes will entertain the remainder of the College in their opening day fun."
Somehow from the mass of bodies congealed under the flag, Van Caldwell, all 115 pounds of him, was thrown up in the air far enough to grab the flag and hold on. For all that effort, banged bodies, torn clothes, bloody knees and heads, we could now wear knickers and any article of clothing colored red. Big deal! Most of us hadn't worn knickers since we'd been in grade school. But the red came in handy for socks and ties. In fact, I have been fond of red socks and red bow ties ever since — even have a pair of my favorites on today.
As sophomores the next fall, with greatly depleted numbers (having lost many of our classmates to what the College referred to as "academic difficulties,") we defended the flag successfully, making our victory the preceding fall even more impressive.
Hamilton Life had welcomed us abroad as freshmen with an editorial, which said, "The incoming freshman will find himself in a College small, smug and eminently satisfied with its conservative at times almost indifferent outlook upon the world."
That was a good description, especially the "indifferent" part.
• On October 25, 1936, while we were enjoying our first fall houseparty weekend, Hitler and Mussolini were signing the Berlin Axis Pact.
• On December 12, 1937, in our sophomore year, Japan bombed the U.S. gunboat Panay in the Yangtze River while Ham Life informed us that Bunny Berrigan had been selected to play at Hamilton's first Winter Carnival next January.
• On September 30, 1938, as we started our junior year, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich with a message of "Peace in Our Time." On that day Ham Life, however, profiled an article on Hamilton's General Burton, the campus saying that he had been at Hamilton 16 years, "enough to go through this College four times."
• In September 1939, as we started our senior year, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and that same month the Soviet Union invaded Poland. President Cowley welcomed us back to campus and tried to bring the world into focus.
But in spite of Dr. Cowley, the world turmoil hardly touched us, and I venture few of us thought about its tremendous effect on our lives in the years ahead.
At our 25th reunion in 1965, Wally Johnson, Class of 1915, whom we all had known as the person who really ran the College — admissions, fundraising, alumni relationships, in fact everything except the Bursar's Office and General Burton's buildings and grounds crew — was his class half-century annalist. He said that many of the prior annalists had gone into some detail about the advances in civilization since their graduation. He was not going to do that. In fact, he was not at all sure that the great advances that had been made since 1915 were all that important to him. "I do not expect to live on the moon," he said, "and I don't particularly care what the other side of Venus looks like."
He added that former annalists asked their classmates to remember the time "we put the cow in the Chapel, or the hen in the pipe organ, or the privy on the president's porch." He wasn't, and couldn't even recall in class doing such things. He also said he was not going to bend his knee to the "sainted professors" of his time. All he wanted to say on that score was that "we had as worthy a lot as any time in the history of the College, and that we remember them with great affection. May they rest in peace."
Well, I'm not going to let them rest in peace. I would like to spend a few minutes talking about some of them, using the nicknames by which they were known and by which they were never addressed face to face. Nevertheless I am sure they knew what they were and the affection and even the respect that lay behind them.
We had 44 professors and about 440 students — a good one-to-10 ratio.
Gerry Kennedy, the half-century annalist for his Class of 1934, described them well by saying that it was as if the Board of Trustees had called central casting in Hollywood and ordered up a college faculty for a small college in upstate New York. I would only add that most turned out to be real characters.
Well over the half our faculty were full professors, most with Phi Beta Kappa keys and doctorates, only one with neither: Berrian Rankin Shute, professor of music and a graduate of the Institute of Musical Art. Here are just a few in order of their seniority as listed in the College Catalogue:
"Stink" Saunders: His nickname brings back the smells of the chemistry lab and those demonstration experiments of his which should have been on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour, his Scotties, his raccoon coat, his Model A Ford roadster with the top down and Stink at the wheel (probably wearing a straw hat even in winter), his hybrid peonies, and finally his introduction to many of us of string quartets and Joel Chandler's Harris' Uncle Remus, I can see and hear him now, sitting in a rocker in his cluttered old library reading to a few of us gathered at his feet, "'Hol on dar, Brer Rabbitt,' sez Brer Fox, sezee, 'I wanter have some confab wid you.' 'All right, Brer Fox, but you better holler fum where you stan, I'm monstrous full of fleas dis mawnin' sez Brer Rabbitt sezee."
"Chubby" Ristine, the dean, (we only had one in those days), with an extremely attractive daughter, whom most of us were hesitant to try and date but would have liked to if she had been anybody but the dean's daughter.
Colonel "Hambone" Bonham and his color-harmonized maps. Harry McCormick tells about watching Maloy and Griffith and other history buffs from our class wearing out their Crayola sets on the colonel's maps, which kept Harry and many others away from all history courses.
"Brownie," in his black suits always covered with chalk dust, blackboards being the only visual aids of our day.
Carruth and "Roxy" Dale — Harrie Price tells about one of the geology field trips when they all stayed overnight in an Adirondack hotel. One of the students changed the "Men" sign from the bathroom to Roxy's door. The next day at breakfast, Roxy remarked in a rather puzzled way that all night long people kept coming into his room.
"Bobo" Rudd and his dog, which slept next to his chair during our classes in Truax. During the passionate or emotional readings of some of the world's great poems there were no other sleepers in that room.
Hess and Patton, who, according to Will Mark, defined life for his students in economics as "a struggle for prestige."
"Smut" Fancher, director of the choir and professor of English. John Hawley, last year's half-century annalist, said he didn't know where Fancher got his nickname, Smut. I don't know either, but after hearing his somewhat crude putdown of one freshman's efforts in an English composition course, I can understand how he might have rightfully earned it.
Our generation of Hamilton men got its inspiration for effective public speaking from three world-class speakers, Roosevelt, Churchill and "Swampy" Marsh. I received more stories from my classmates about Swampy than about anyone else. I'm going to tell one. Wes Sprague says he will never forget Swampy emphasizing the importance of being clear, concise and deliberate when speaking. He underscored his point by booming out. "Remember, always stink dispeakly." Most of us hated Public Speaking, but today we generally feel that it was one of the most important courses we took at Hamilton. If we had any advice for President Payne, it would be to get the pain of Public Speaking back in the curriculum.
Butcher and Cameron, and "Digger" Graves. Harrie Price said Graves' history classes more than made up for any inconvenience related to Bonham's maps. Digger was a great, talented and revered teacher, and we had the pleasure of continuing to visit with him and his lovely wife, Beatrice, up until just a few years ago.
Patterson and McKinney and "Smilin'" George Nesbitt. His marriage to Helen Weld (daughter of the president of Wells College and the sister of Bill Weld, several classes ahead of us) exactly one year before we were graduated explained the higher than expected marks one of us got our senior year.
"Fifi" Gordon, our French professor, and John Mattingly, who, Eddie Glenn reported, vacuumed his horse rather than currying it. Rather up-to-date for a classicist, said Ed.
Tom Johnson, one of God's great gentlemen and the talented composer of many of the lyrics of Hamilton songs.
Our own Otto Karl Liedke, made an honorary member of our class 30 years ago. Next to Alf Langdon, Otto was the presiding humorist of the class at Hamilton. Harrie Price remembers the German class when a sophomore, perhaps thinking of the inhumanity of the Germans, asked Herr Liedke if the Bible had ever been translated into German, provoking a mild explosion from the front of the room and some banging on the blackboard. I also loved the story Otto used to tell about his first class at Hamilton. It came on a Saturday morning of houseparty weekend. No one had given him any warning about possible conditions in classes that morning. Otto found his students "in tuxedos, pants and shirts pulled over pajamas, barefoot and sleepy, and worst of all, hungover." Otto, unfortunately, is not well enough to be with us today.
And Edward Root, that kind and gentle, considerate man, listed last in the College Catalogue as "lecturer of art." His course on art appreciation was one of the highlights for many of us of our College careers.
And finally, our four coaches, Prettyman, Gélas, Winters and Weber — a great quartet backed up by "Doc" Bryden, trainer, bone fixer, keeper of the towels, guardian of the equipment room and in general charge of the smells of the locker room. And those five were the entire athletic staff.
Albert Ira Prettyman, coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team in the 1936 Winter Olympics and the real father of Hamilton hockey. Mox Weber and Art Winters had been star athletes at Oberlin and between them handled almost everything except hockey, fencing and soccer, plus, of course, all the required PT classes.
And Jean Marius Gélas, whose main efforts were directed at fencing. We competed with the likes of Columbia, Army, Navy, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Cornell, and won more than a fair share of the matches. Gélas' father had been a fencing master in France. Young Gélas had come over to the United States temporarily in 1902 to learn English. "But you never went back?" "No," he replied, "I'm still learning English."
The Gélas award, given each year since death in 1954 "to the senior who has displayed outstanding development in sportsmanship, leadership, strength in character and athletic ability during his College years," keeps this wonderful man's memory alive for future generations of Hamiltonians.
In spite of all that wonderful coaching, only one varsity sport had a winning record during our four years here — ice hockey. And we competed with the likes of St. Lawrence, Cornell and Army. Ice hockey's only problem was the cancellation of many games because of soft ice. No artificial ice on the Sage Rink in those days.
We never had even one winning season in football — in fact, we didn't even win one game in our junior year.
Our poor athletic record really disturbed Dr. Cowley, who felt that one year of that kind of performance was enough. His solution, as outlined in his speech welcoming us back for the start of our senior year, was to build up an esprit de corps in the student body and mold a few inspirational leaders among our athletes.
Away from the classroom we were also blessed with some of the great humorists holding forth on the stage, screen and radio.
• Benchley's Treasurer's Report is still being shown and is rolling them in the aisles. He was the one who said that there are just two classes of travel, first-class and with children. He also told about the time he and Dorothy Parker were without jobs, she having been fired and he having resigned in protest. Together they rented a triangular office on the third floor of the Metropolitan Opera House. Benchley said, "One cubic foot less space and it would have constituted adultery." "My college education was no haphazard affair," he said. "No classes before eleven or after two thirty and nothing on Saturday. On that rock was my education built."
• W.C. Fields turned up recently in the popular game of Trivial Pursuit. The question was, "Who said, 'Who is the scoundrel who stole the cork out of my lunch?'"
• And Fred Allen, who made the comment in his national radio broadcast program that, "When Garbo kissed Gilbert, you could hear the butter dripping from the popcorn machine in the lobby."
One of the mysteries of life then was where all those amazing and usually raunchy limericks originated. Here's one from our day which can be repeated.
There was a young lady from Australia
Who went to the dance as an azalea
But the petals revealed
When they should have concealed
So, the dance, as a dance, was a failure
And the writer of those clever Burma Shave advertising signs at the side of the highways of the nation deserves some special mention in reviewing those four years.
College boy your courage muster
Shave off that fuzzy cookie duster
A peach looks good with lots of fuzz
But a man's no peach and never wuz.
While on the subject of advertising, ads were a large percentage of each issue of Ham Life. Cigarette advertising (I'm ashamed to say) took up about a third of one page in each issue. Others you will remember: "George's Sanitary Barber Shop," "Wicks & Greenman for the well-dressed man," "Ford's Market," "Crane's Dairy" and in a little box, the smallest ad of all, "Compliments of Frank Livingston."
Frank's was the College's favorite watering hole, a pretty orderly place, actually. Ham Gouge tells about the time he and several other Alpha Delts arrived at Frank's to find it overpopulated with Elks from a convention in Utica. The College students and the Elks didn't seem to hit it off, so Ham and the boys decided to head back to the Hill in their convertible, taking their glasses of beer along with them. Apparently the Elks took out in pursuit. One of the Hamilton lads tossed his glass full of beer up in the air and was pleased to see that it landed on the hood of the pursuing Elks' car. So, a little later someone else tried the maneuver only to discover it was now the State Police in hot pursuit. You can ask Ham how they got out of that one.
A few final minutes on some of the real differences then and now:
• The biggest difference, I guess, would be no TV. The first scheduled public TV broadcast was President Roosevelt opening the New York World's Fair on April 30, 1939, as we were nearing the end of our junior year. On that day there were about 200 TV receivers in the entire nation, most of term right there on the fairgrounds.
• Instead, we had movies, and I mean classics that we are still talked about today. The Oscar for best actor in 1939, for example, was won by Robert Donat, who starred in Goodbye Mr. Chips. Greer Garson made her screen debut in that movie. Donat won that Oscar over Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights and Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
• And Broadway plays: One of the greatest ever written, still produced somewhere in the United States many times every year, was Our Town by Thornton Wilder, which opened in New York City during our years here. The fact that it mentioned Hamilton College and Clinton, New York, which Woollcott took some credit for, didn't hurt its standing up here.
Here on the campus the biggest difference would have to be no women. But that didn't mean that we didn't think about them and talk about them.
One article in April of our freshman year was headlined, "Coeds Possible." And I would remind you that was 42 years before it finally happened. Just where is the rule, the article asked, which explicitly bars girls from Hamilton? The College charter merely says the College "is for the education of youth." But, the writer adds, before we rush out and demand coeds, big changes would have to take place: neckties, shaves, purity of language and don't forget that dark moment in high school "when after you had responded with a blank look to a teacher's question, some dizzy blonde got up and made you look like a chump."
Wally Johnson reported in a later issue that 10 to 12 women applied for admission to Hamilton every year, most of the Middle West where practically every educational institution is coed. Wally's standard reply was, "Hamilton College has for 128 years been strictly a men's college and will always continue to be for many years in the future. Sorry."
To illustrate how starved we were for female companionship and the lengths we would go to see them and still not forfeit a precious Sunday chapel cut, Arja Adair reported that he and Keith Barden drove down to Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, one winter weekend. They left early Saturday morning, spent three hours with their dates Saturday evening, and then drove back all night so they could be counted as present at the 11 a.m. chapel service that Sunday morning. It's a wonder that any of us survived.
Two Dartmouth students put out a book, which many of us found very helpful, titled "For Men Lonely." It was a guide to girls' college towns — where to take your dates, what to do while there and where to stay. The last chapter, however, was devoted to the girls themselves in the different colleges. I only remember two of the descriptions. Bennington, they said, is terribly hard to get to, but even if they moved it to the Belgian Congo, it would still be worth the trip. And — the girls at Bryn Mawr are supposed to be smarter than most girls, but "girls will still be girls."
Love was different in those days. How different? Well, here are the lyrics of one of the great love songs of our day:
You're lovely to look at, it's thrilling to hold you terribly tight, for we're together, the moon is new, and oh it's lovely to look at you tonight.
But we were not completely deprived. We did have fall and spring houseparties and a winter carnival during our last three years, where we danced to music provided by Bunny Berrigan, Hal Kemp and Glenn Miller, bandleaders whose names are familiar to a generation 50 years younger.
Tuition for us was the large sum of $300 per year of each of our four years. That was a good deal more than the $24 per year charged Hamilton's first class a century and a quarter earlier. Harrie Price reported that his father gave him a $1,000 check when he left for College each September to cover everything. And it did, with some left over.
Tuition at Hamilton next year will be almost $16,000, with the rest of the College fees bringing the total bill to over $20,000 per year. At the rate of increase it may be costing almost half a million dollars to attend Hamilton for one year 50 years hence. Impossible to even contemplate.
Inflation, a College about four times as large and a lot more complicated to run than it was 50 years ago, more than twice as many athletic teams (most with longer schedules), computers and an exponential growth in applications are at least some of the reasons for the more than 20 times growth in costs.
We even saw a 50 percent growth in the administrative staff from the start of our freshman year to our senior year. We started with just six administrators: President, Dean, Bursar, Buildings & Grounds, Press Board and Wally Johnson. By our senior year, a dean of students, Campbell Dixon, had been added, Sidney Bennett came abroad as assistant to the president, the first ever in that position, Tom Rudd and Ralph Rogers were added as controller and assistant controller, replacing Coughlin as bursar, and Dave Beetle replaced Ed Main with a new title, director of public relations. Wally Johnson remained with somewhat fewer responsibilities, and General Burton remained behind the horse-drawn snow plow and in the front seat of the fire engine.
Now, however, there were 63 with titles listed in the current catalogue in administrative positions, headed by two vice presidents and three deans behind our president.
In addition to this year being the Class of 1940's 50th reunion, it is also the 125th anniversary of the first of these half-century annalist's letters. The first was given in 1865, most appropriately by a Bristol, George Bristol, Class of 1815.
Of the six graduates of that class, five were still living 50 years later. That's an 83 percent survival rate, a good deal better than ours which is only about 70 percent, advances in medical science over the past 175 years to the contrary notwithstanding.
We had an easier time than the members of the Class of 1815 on this campus. Their classes were year-round. We had a whole summer off. They arose at half past five to attend chapel at six, and their morning recitations started at seven. We had chapel at eight, and, as I remember, only three mornings a week, and our classes didn't start until eight-thirty. Their curriculum was mostly Greek, Latin and mathematics. Ours covered many more subjects.
I'd like to close by quoting the last entry in Bob Williams' diary, which he kept in our junior and senior years. It is dated June 17, 1940:
The great day has come and gone and I feel no different. It used to seem as though the moment of my graduation from Hamilton would be so full of everything I'd wished for that it would be almost unlivable. But I thought only of whether I would trip over my robe. My diploma is in Latin, and I can't read it.
And here we are 50 years later, still feeling no different, and still having trouble reading our Latin diplomas.
So ends my report of the years between September 17, 1936, and June 17, 1940. May this half-century annalist letter tradition continue at Hamilton, "ad infintum."
Chuck Root, who majored in mathematics and English while at Hamilton, is a member of a family with numerous connections to the College, beginning with his great-great-grandfather, Austin Smith, Class of 1826. After his graduation, Chuck joined Towers, Perrin, Foster & Crosby, then a small Philadelphia consulting business. By the time he retired as vice president, director and a partner in 1977, it had become an international management consulting firm with some 2,000 employees and offices worldwide.
Besides his career as a consultant, he served as a gunnery officer on a U.S. Navy destroyer during World War II and on the boards of numerous corporations and institutions, including Hamilton and Kirkland colleges. Long a resident of Philadelphia, he has a second home near College Hill, but is ready for a quick game of tennis wherever he may be.