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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Those Were the Days

Thomas J. Maccabe, Class of 1949

Delivered: June 5, 1999

President Tobin, members of the Class of 1949 and other friends:

Once upon a time, Bing Crosby sang a song that included these two lines:

Those were the days my friend,
We thought they'd never end.

Well, the days of the Class of 1949 never will end — as long as they live on in our memories. And I've got some memories for you.

I entered Hamilton in February 1945 after graduating from a public high school in Brooklyn. That was at the height of World War II, and the College's total enrollment was about 60, all of us living in South Dorm. After I applied to Hamilton, Secretary of Admission Sid Bennett set up an appointment for my father and me at a hotel adjacent to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan for four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. My dad and I got there on time, but Sid Bennett had left word that he had to take an earlier train back to Utica than he had originally planned. So we didn't see him, but we got word a few days later that I had been accepted. I got the impression that Hamilton needed some warm bodies.

One of my first vivid memories involves an unusually warm afternoon in mid-April 1945. My roommate, Fred Kuhner, and I were playing tennis when an upperclassman came by and said that he had just heard that President Roosevelt was dead. Fred and I ran back to South Dorm and turned on our radios. The report, of course, was true. FDR was the only president that most of the students on the Hill could remember.

But there were happy memories, too, in those early days of the Class of 1949. First, V-E Day — victory in Europe. Then V-J Day — victory in the Pacific. Again the bell pealed. The bell would have been the signal for an air raid during the war, but somehow the enemy never chose to bomb the campus. After the war ended, the veterans began returning to the Hill. Carnegie Dorm reopened as enrollment rose.

I was drafted into the Army at the beginning of 1946. I was gone for about a year-and-a-half, but I am grateful to various classmates for accounts of what happened while I was away. Dan Swartz recalls that Dean John Blyth once walked in front of him near Root Hall. Snow was piled up on both sides of the roadway. The dean stopped and picked up an empty bottle from the snow. Then, says Dan, "he turned toward me and said: 'Dan, please tell the boys to be more careful as to where they throw their empty bottles of whiskey."

Jim Benjamin says he has a fond recollection of Lee Bristol touring the fraternity houses on Friday nights of houseparty weekends and majestically entertaining everyone with his renditions of Bea Lilly songs. Jim says Lee's date had to be an awfully good sport to put up with all of it.

Another of Jim's memories of Lee Bristol involved being in the swim pool with him and dozens of other for an obligatory twice-weekly physical education workout. Lee would hang onto the edge of the pool for the entire time, doing, as he put it, the irreducible minimum. Jim thinks that's when Lee dreamed up a new organization for veterans, which he called the Relatively Innocuous Veterans. Its motto was "We ain't mad at nobody."

In the spring semester of 1946, the total enrollment was up to 232, more than half being veterans. According to Charles Reeves, he and other former G.I.s were "cynical, serious, somewhat scared and in a hurry." "We were cynical because we had seen it all," Chuck recalled. "We were serious and somewhat scared because we had lives to put back together, and we didn't know quite how to do it. And we were in a hurry because we were trying to recapture years — something that cannot really be done."

One editor of The Spectator was not really thrilled with the attitude of the veterans. He wrote, "During the 1946-47 academic year, the campus was plagued by a majority of students who, even before they set foot on campus, determined they would accept none of this 'kid stuff.'"

My own recollection is that, when I returned to campus in the summer of 1947, the veterans and the non-veterans were getting along just fine. Jim Benjamin recalls that the fall of 1946 the College acquired some new staff to cope with the enlarged student body. "One of them," says Jim, "was James D. Bell in political science. Bell was rather enamored of the New Deal philosophy, and he frequently tried to stir some of us up with tales of its successes in solving social problems. On one day when the out-of-doors was more attractive than his dissertation, the class was noticeably not attending to him. In frustration he closed his briefcase, thundering, "I've never seen such a hotbed of conservatism," and stormed out of Truax.

Chuck Reeves remembers another classroom experience. "We had learned in the service, if we hadn't known it before, that the one inexcusable sin was for man to break his word," in Chuck's words. "In this connection, a professor gave us a long assignment — as usual over a weekend — and told us we were going to have a quiz on Monday morning covering the entire ground assigned. "When we arrived in class on Monday, he gave us a quiz all right, but not one of the questions pertained to the assignment. We read the questions, looked at one another, and walked out."

Dan Swartz has a series of additional recollections, although he can't assign specific dates to them. He recalls that the old infirmary, supervised by Nurse Theresa Schimmel, was suddenly overwhelmed by an avalanche of students suffering from the flu and sore throats. All infirmary beds were occupied and more were needed. The flu ran rampant throughout the College community. Some students were transferred to Carnegie Dorm — not by ambulance, but by hearse. Dan was one of the transferees. He recalls President David Worcester making the rounds of the rooms housing the bedridden in Carnegie and offering ice cream cones to the suffering to ease their pain.

Now I can't personally vouch for all of Dan's recollections, but he tells me there were frequent water fights in South Dorm, with the top-floor students using the fire hose at full throttle to wet the stairs and prevent the lower-level occupants from rushing up to seize control of hose.

Dan also recalls the night before a football game between Union and Hamilton when a group of scholars from Union put red paint of the trees in the main quadrangle.

Union College. I asked Hamilton historian Frank Lorenz, who is editor of the Alumni Review, what ever became of our historic rivalry with Union. He said the rivalry sort of petered out after Union decided to go big-time in football and Hamilton was no longer in Union's league.

I was happy to find out that one tradition still in place is the Honor System. A student handbook of the late 1940s describes the system this way: "Above everything else, Hamilton values its Honor System. Traditionally, the Hamilton student finds himself under the restraint of his own sense of honor when he prepares themes and papers, takes examinations or uses the library. Traditionally this has been a challenge, and traditionally it has been met. The Honor System touches every undergraduate, and seniors leaving the Hill think of it as one of the finest things in student life at Hamilton."

Those words are just as true today as they were 50 years ago.

But another tradition has gone by the board. Students are no longer required to take four years of public speaking. Oral and written communication are still given priority, but today's students can no longer hear the unforgettable "Swampy" Marsh telling us that speakers pronounce A, E, I, O and U as though they were "uh," uh," "uh," "uh" and "uh."

Speaking of Swampy, I want to pay tribute to the entire faculty that the Class of 1949 was exposed to. I hesitate to try to mention all their names, because I'm sure I'll forget someone. But I will mention the professors whom I remember – 50 years after sitting in their classes.

They were George Nesbitt, Digger Graves, Bobo Rudd, Tom Johnston, Rocky Dale, Otto Liedke, and Theodore Bowie. And there were so many others.

Most recent writers of these letters have mentioned tuition, and I will, too. In the academic year that starts in September, students will be paying $31,200. That includes $25,000 for tuition, and $6,200 for room and board. That is, of course, a record high for Hamilton. By contrast, tuition in the 1945-46 academic year was $450 per semester — and $325 for the summer semester.

The College catalogue for that year states that "this sum covers tuition, board, room and infirmary fee — all the essential items of expense except laboratory fees and textbooks. These will vary for each student according to his courses. Laboratory fees range from $1.25 to $6.50 a semester. The average cost of textbooks for a semester is $15."

I recall that I actually got a refund from the College once. It was my first semester after getting back from the Army. The G.I. Bill of Rights paid most of my costs. I also had a New York State scholarship and a Fayerweather scholarship from the College from having good grades as a freshman. After adding everything up, the College sent my dad a refund of about $20.

Jim Benjamin remembers a jazz program at the Emerson Literary Society to raise money for the Red Cross. "Some of us," he tells me, "were fortunate to be invited to ELS after the main show for a jam session and to hear some great jazz. My main memory, aside from the music itself, was sitting near Berrian Shute and John Mattingly and watching their expressions. They were both having a ball."

Jim also remembers what he calls "one of our rare athletic moments of glory." He believes it was during winter houseparty weekend in 1948, when our hockey team hosted Cornell in Sage Rink. It had turned bitterly cold Friday night, and the maintenance crew made new ice about every two hours. By game time Saturday afternoon our ice was unbelievably smooth and hard. Cornell practiced and played on the open surface of Lake Cayuga, a much rougher surface, which was affected by snow and wind. When the game started, the Cornell skaters couldn't stay on their feet. It was all over in about 10 minutes. It was a slaughter. Jim thinks the final score was about 13 to 2, with Hamilton's freshmen playing most of the final period.

One of my own not-so-prized memories involves the great celebration some if us planned on the night of the national elections in November of 1948. I was president of the Young Republican Club, and we were ready to celebrate Tom Dewey's widely expected victory over Harry Truman.

Well, we had a good turnout as we listened to the returns coming in on the radio. As the evening wore on, I noticed there were fewer and fewer people at our celebration. Finally, about 2 a.m., I was the only one left. Tom Dewey stayed in Albany, and Harry Truman remained in the White House.

At one time — and it was before the time of the Class of 1949 — students were required to attend services in this Chapel at 8 a.m. three days a week. That was in addition to Sunday chapel. By 1948, those requirements had been loosened considerably. The Student Handbook of that year states that undergraduates are required to attend public worship each Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m. Members of the Catholic and Episcopal Church could get permission from the dean to attend regularly the 10:30 a.m. services of their churches in Clinton.

The handbook also says: "To be counted present in chapel, an undergraduate must occupy his assigned seat unless accompanying a guest from without the College, in which case he must sit in the gallery and report his presence to his chapel monitor at the time."

The same handbook also says that the bringing of liquor to College premises and the possession or use of it there will be counted as a serious offense against College discipline. It says smoking "is permitted in the hallways of the recitation buildings, the burnt matches, ashes and stubs to be put in receptacles provided for the purpose, and it is permitted or forbidden in the private offices and in the laboratories as the officers in charge may determine."

We made a lot of trips to Utica in the 1940s — sometimes to see a movie at the Stanley Theater or to listen to some music at a club. Utica appeared to be a fairly prosperous manufacturing town, and the population hovered around 100,000. I was shocked to read last month that Utica's population is now down to 64,000. Its economic decline began in the years after World War II when the textile industry abandoned the area and moved South. Some people called Utica "a mill town" then, and once the mills closed, its downward trend began. More recently, Utica's economy has apparently been done in by the loss of two General Electric plants and a Lockheed-Martin plant, and the closing of Griffiss Air Force Base.

We've all seen the splendid security force that directs traffic and keeps campus safe. I asked Frank Lorenz how many security people are employed here, and the answer was 18 — including full-time and part-time people. In the days of the Class of 1949, as I recall, there were no security people on the campus, but the village of Clinton had a one-man police department. I believe his name was Perkins, and he was presumably on call in case a riot broke out. I don't recall his ever being called.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no pot on the campus in the 1940s — and no other narcotics.

What did make the late '40s unusual was the construction of North Village — a series of quonset huts behind the DU and Alpha Delt fraternity houses. They were built for married students and their families. Most of the students had married while away in the military. North Village was not an unqualified success. It seems that many of the roofs leaked, and the plumbing was frequently out of order.

The attitude of the Class of 1949 deserves additional mention. Others may interpret it differently, but I was inspired — after my own post-war service — by the older veterans. They were intent on hitting the books hard, ignoring some of the sillier pre-war campus traditions and getting on with their lives.

Now this didn't prevent our class from preserving one silly tradition that went back 100 years. Someone in our class — I have no idea who — discovered that the Class of 1849 had walked off campus a century earlier, and we determined to do the same. Thanks to Frank Lorenz, I have a description of what the Class of 1849 did — as written by the class annalist, Levi Parsons, 50 years later. Imagine. Parsons delivered his report here in the Chapel 100 years ago.

After describing another adventure of his class, Parsons wrote that an escapade of those early '49ers was known as the Trenton Falls bolt. Trenton Falls is north of Utica, more than 15 miles from the campus. The Trenton Falls bolt, according to Parsons, is not easily explained. In his words, "This was not a usage handed down from antiquity, and which must be kept; it was unlike anything that had happened before or has happened since. It was under no sense of obligation that we must go to Trenton Falls, for we did not so much know as we were going there. The whole affair was cyclonic in its origin; we were simply hit, and away we went."

Parsons recalled that it was a bright October morning when his class left the Hill, and he concludes his account by describing a torrential rain that descended on Trenton Falls while his class was there. The students paid farmers to take them back to the campus in horse-drawn wagons. In 1948, our plans were not as ambitious as those of the 1849'ers. We assembled on top of the Hill and marched only as far as Clinton on our own sunny Saturday in October. After spending an hour or two at the Alexander Hamilton Inn, we returned to the campus to cheer for our football team. Some people think that we were not intent on preserving a glorious tradition as on finding an excuse to skip Saturday morning classes.

Before closing, I'd like us all to remember those of our classmates who have passed away. According to the records of the College, they include John R. Adams, James B. Aitchison, John R. Atkinson, Richard V.H. Baldwin, James H. Beaverson, Robert D. Belden, James L. Burns, Alvah B. Davis, Jr. Bennett M. Derby, Edwin S. Francis, Clifford P. Greck, Herbert C. Hansen, George C. Harlan, Walter J. Herz, Bernard D. Illingsworth, Fredrick S. Kellogg, James T. Kerr, William S. Latham, Alan M. McAneny, John A. McCleave, John J. O'Neill, Jr. Robert H. Orth, Thomas V.W. Pope, Bruce E. Prum, Demetrius C. Rose, William B. Sculthorpe, the Reverend Xavier E. Simonetti, Gabriel Smilkstein, Joseph A. Volotta, Harold R. Wagner, Vanderbilt B. Ward, Jr., Dale P. Williams and Harvard B. Williamson, Jr.

May we have a moment of silence in their memory.

I labored a bit on how to conclude this letter and its delivery here in the Chapel. I told my wife about this problem, and Virginia said: "When you're through, simply walk away from the podium." Good advice. So I'm walking away from the podium. Thank you very much.