Delivered: June 2, 2001
I must begin with an announcement directed especially to fellow members of the alleged 50-year class. As that last phrasing suggests, there has been a serious mistake. It has not been 50 years since our graduation.
When I was asked to speak today, I felt highly honored but also mystified. I knew that I wasn't that old. My initial guess was that I was being brought in as a ringer for some really recent reunion class — say the 15th — whose unfortunate members hadn't been required to take public speaking and who therefore had no one to stand up before a live audience and say a few words.
Or maybe my classmates, contrary to my recollections, had come to Hamilton after having joined the Foreign Legion in the 1930s, and actually were old duffers. Or something. Anyway, I agreed. But then, yesterday, I saw the other members of the supposed Class of 1951. Clearly — to use Digger's favorite word — these were not old codgers at all. A couple of the Alumni Office people went over with me and stared at their computers until one of them said "Whoops!" Sure enough; it's all a mistake. The Millennium Bug apparently did make its way to upstate New York and infect the Hamilton computers. The upshot is that we may all, if we wish, go back to our dorms and hostelries, pack up, and leave — probably in a dudgeon. But the College is quite embarrassed; so our various payments will be refunded, minus sizable handling charges.
All right. Enough of that kind of fantasizing. Let me move to other fantasies, such as our recollections of what Hamilton was like in the good ol' days.
To begin at the beginning: We arrived at Hamilton, I'm reliably informed, on September 15, 1947. If we ask the question journalists and historians often have to research — What was happening on that date in world history, or even that week? — The answer is remarkable: absolutely nothing. It was as if the world had ceased business, as though the Rapture had occurred and all the properly converted people had been plucked out of their cars on Route 20 so that sinners like us could get to college. The Times that week had to run front page stories about Andrei Gromyko saying Americans were bossy and implying that the U.S. didn't deserve to be in the UN. (Go figure, Ambassador Luers; some things don't change.) It was considered newsworthy that Henry Wallace had called Wall Street a bad place. I kid you not; the big news on one of those days was the cancellation of a bus strike in New York City. On another it was a 3¢ rise in the price of butter. On the Entertainment pages you learned that Betty Grable was starring in Mother Wore Tights. Somewhat exciting. But that was about it.
By contrast, the year of our advent here — 1947 — was remarkable in just the opposite way. It is perfectly astounding to see how many foundation stones were laid that year for the half century we've since experienced. I can only mention a few examples from a very long list: India and Pakistan were partitioned; Jonas Salk isolated the polio virus; Thor Heyerdahl spent 101 days on Kon-Tiki. Maria Callas made her debut, and The Diary of Anne Frank was published. George Kennan formulated the containment doctrine. In Great Britain it was the year of the Beveridge Report, the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, and the founding of the Edinburgh Festival. In Argentina, thanks to Eva Peron, women gained the right to vote; in the U.S., there was the Taft-Hartley Act, Levittown was built, and Studebaker launched the first radical design change for affordable automobiles since the Model T. Up in the sky, part way to where all those raptured folks would be going, a commercial plane made it across the Atlantic on automatic pilot, Pan Am established round-the-world airline service, the first jet fighter was tested, and Chuck Yeager flew faster than sound.
Given these evidences of the extent to which modernity — for good or ill — was launched in the year of our own launching, it probably won't surprise you to hear one more bit of information about 1947: Polls showed that half of all Americans professed belief in UFOs.
As for us, plucked from tranquil hometowns, deposited in this beautiful and isolated spot, aloft with our own visions, what did we know about all this? With the probable exception of the 15% in our class who were veterans, the answer, I'm pretty sure, was "not bloody much." We were here, nonetheless, to see what Hamilton could teach and show us about the real world. According to the yearbook for 1947-48, our class had the highest percentage of high school honors students — of nerds, if you like — in Hamilton history. Presumably that means we all had some curiosity about the world of intellect; but we also wanted to gain leverage on the real world of action that we knew we'd soon be confronting; and certainly we craved experience with the complex world of human relationships.
That the College authorities and the faculty were aware of the need to make up for a country college's isolation, to bring the outside world and its problems into our range of vision, is very evident if you scan The Spectator for our four years, as I have done.* The College authorities did try to bring the world to us. During our time, for example, they managed to expose us to leading public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Norman Thomas, Philip Jessup and George Shuster; literary personages such as Allen Tate; and the composer Elie Siegmeister. The publisher and humorist Bennett Cerf came and deplored what other publishers were descending to. He claimed they were all turning out books with beautiful girls on the jackets and no jackets on the girls.
It is equally clear, in retrospect, that those who were trying to expose us to the great world aimed to go farther and try to stretch our simple minds, or perhaps just try to teach us humility. I say that because the College repeatedly produced speakers whom we had to work hard to understand, if we could understand them at all. The theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr spoke to us in our freshman year, and then was brought back a couple of years later because it was clear we hadn't been able to follow him the first time. e.e. cummings read his poetry and was well received, The Spectator reported, "despite the obscure parts."
The philosopher T.V. Smith, in an especially memorable appearance at the Alpha Delt house, lectured to us about — among other things — axiology. On that occasion, however, Dean Tolles, part of whose job it was to be kind to struggling students, broke from the ranks of our well-meaning tormentors. As we sat there trying to look as though we knew just what axiology is, our beloved Dean suddenly informed Professor Smith that he, Win Tolles, had no idea what it is, and that probably no one in the room except Professors Blyth and Hayner had a clue either. "Oh," Smith explained amiably, "it refers to the study of values — as in ethics." An audible sigh of relief went around the room; I can hear it still.
I can also hear, to this day, sounds from the concerts and dramatic productions that stretched us in a somewhat different way — that led many of us to realize for the first time that these cultural legacies had come down to us, not just to our parents and grandparents. To trace coverage of the arts in The Spectator is to be reminded of just how excellent the singing groups were, and how professional the Charlatans were, especially given the unusual number of the latter who'd had experience in the armed forces and in summer stock. (Something similar, by the way, should be said about the professionalism of The Spectator itself; there again experienced veterans were important.)
Instrumental music seems to have fared somewhat less well. Individual stars there certainly were, but too few others had remembered to bring their instruments to College. In early September of each year the marching band would surge to an astonishing 20-plus members, or sometimes more. In our freshman year, nurturing dreams of glory, we acquired a drum majorette in the person of Miss Joan Judlowski, champion twirler from the Polish Legion of American Veterans in Utica. But then, year after year, this band that was supposed to be out there invigorating the football team experienced a loss of members that bore a certain mathematical relation to the football team's loss of games. Baron von Steuben, the Prussian drillmaster, would have been appalled and demanded that his field be named for someone else. By November, even with Miss Judlowski and her baton occupying a certain amount of space, there were enough of us to form the vertical members of the H out in midfield but not the horizontal one.
But dramatic productions at Hamilton — those were something else, as were the choral productions. Through the efforts of the Charlatans, the world brought to our attention was that of Molière and Shakespeare and Shaw and Thornton Wilder; and the voices I can still hear in my head are those of some remarkably good actors, a number of whom, as I've mentioned, could claim experience well beyond what the rest of us had gained in high school plays. The late Pete Ostroff's evocation of a terrified lisping child reciting "The Horth…by Perthy Griffith" had regaled American troops in several parts of the world, and it lost nothing in its retellings at Hamilton. When Shaw's Saint Joan was performed in this room, Ostroff was a magnificent Bishop of Beauvais, and the prodigiously talented Don Roscher — also gone now — played a nearly perfect Charles VII. Some others here, I am sure, can still hear Roscher as the frustrated young round-faced king-in-training, railing against the squad of advisers he couldn't abide but without whom he couldn't make a move, let alone a policy. When the Archbishop asked him to please control himself and try to be kingly, the response was, "Oh, anothah lectchah. Thank you." And then, to Joan: "See, they all bully me. What is the good of sitting on the throne if the othah fellows give all the ohdahs?"
These and a host of other activities served pretty well to fill our spare time — such as it was — with wholesome and mind-stretching activities. Yet there were many, especially among the majority who lacked cars, who still found our isolated, all-male community a somewhat boring place between house parties. And so, in the venerable tradition of all country colleges, we busied ourselves contriving and carrying out pranks, often intricate and ingenious ones. We were too sophisticated for such timeworn escapades as sneaking large cows into the Chapel; and besides, there were no local cows. Instead, some among us (I won't name names, partly because the perpetrators weren't known) managed to remove all the desks from Digger's Truax Hall classroom during the night before his hour exam. ("Too bad," said Digger laconically, "I had some questions I wanted to ask them.")
Then there was the fire engine caper. Late one night four fire alarms were triggered, more or less simultaneously. (This was definitely a collaborative project.) The campus security people — both of them — were too busy checking out these alarms to notice when their Model-A fire truck was whisked away from where it had been idling in front of Carnegie dorm. "Whisked" may not be quite the right word: To minimize noise and escape notice, the pranksters pushed this heap as far as the DU house. From there, engine straining and screaming, they got part way down College Hill Road before the authorities, who now included Dean Tolles in his night cap, caught up and sent them running off into the darkness.
There were a good many such escapades — more, I think, during our four years at Hamilton than I've heard about in 30-some years at Fair Harvard. (That's a different scene. Harvard students can, when bored late at night, stroll over to the Square and try to confuse the jugglers.) I'll just report one other caper from the very end of our time on the Hill, when I guess we were getting really restless. Greene Fenley not only permits me to tell about this but, I would say, shows a certain amount of pride in recalling it. He and the late Jack Boynton, knowing that the veterans' housing was about to be razed anyway and thinking to perform a public service, used some of the porches and steps of North Village to fuel a series of bonfires. Greene was summoned to the dean's office. It was a short conversation:
Dean: "Is it true that you and Boynton have been burning up the porches in North Village?"
Along with its country college isolation, another characteristic that Hamilton shared with most other colleges of the time was the sometimes stifling homogeneity of its student body. Today's Hamilton women and men come from 41 states and 34 countries, and represent substantial racial and ethnic diversity. But diversity at 1940s Hamilton meant, by and large, that there were boys and men from a rich diversity of the towns and cities and suburbs of upper New York State. A few of us had somehow wandered in from exotic places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Long Island and Massachusetts were the Mysterious East. In religious background we were mostly Protestant Christian; and politically, as the class annalist remarked a few years ago, the spectrum ran from Thomas E. Dewey Republicans to Robert A. Taft Republicans. We were of course male, and by my figuring we were more than 99% Caucasian. In these surface characteristics but, I fear, in deeper ways as well, we were about as varied as the Rockettes down at Radio City.
Did our older mentors and guides — the faculty, the administrators — recognize this and try to inject some balance? I don't know how conscious they were about it, but I think they did. In matters political, although, I honestly can't remember any instructor who tried to influence us one way or the other, our mentors certainly prompted and taught us to think analytically, which often meant questioning our inbred certitudes. And something of the kind — some increase in the ability to handle nuance or ambiguity — surely happened to most or all of us. I recall vividly a holiday dinner back home in which conversation was proceeding serenely through some of the usual complaints about the New Deal, the Fair Deal and other elements in the observable decline of Western Civilization. When I — wise college kid — piped up with something like, "Oh, I don't think Harry Truman is all bad," conversation stopped. There was a stunned silence. Someone brought smelling salts for my mother.
I wouldn't want that anecdote, accurate though it is (except perhaps for the smelling salts), to mislead you about the point I'm making. It may be true that I was not the only purebred Republican who was cured — perhaps you'd rather say lured — by certain experiences at Hamilton. ("Good evening; I'm Bill H." "Hi, Bill!" "I'm a recovering Republican.") But surely others discovered the free enterprise system or a libertarian ideology and became more conservative. The point is that Hamilton taught and encouraged us to think for ourselves, wherever that might lead.
The fact that we didn't argue much, or even care much, about political parties — and my scanning of The Spectator convinces me this was the case — doesn't mean that public issues did not intrude on our lives, nor mean we did not respond. They did; and we did. And it's interesting, but not surprising when you think about it, that the hottest public issues for us were those surrounding this matter of diversity.
Within our Hamilton world, as in the society outside, two sets of questions were regularly under discussion in The Spectator and elsewhere: Number One was "Why is this community not more diverse?" In fall 1949, for example, the editors offered what they called a "modest proposal" that Hamilton go coed; and, not so modestly, urged that this begin immediately, so that the incoming class the next fall would be 50% women. But the Number Two form of the diversity question actually got much more attention, and in that sense was Number One: How well are we dealing with diversities that already exist at Hamilton, limited though these may be? Here the focus, in the late '40s and early '50s, was overwhelmingly on religious intolerance, and especially on anti-Semitism. Especially in the beginning, the declarations, petitions and organizing efforts, and the contentions between Hamilton fraternity chapters and national nabobs, were generally initiated by veterans. Something of the sort happened, on average, once or twice per semester. (As Thornton Wilder pointed out in a rather famous article — and may have said at Hamilton as well — you've got to be careful about those stereotypes of a postwar Silent Generation.**)
In these initiatives, all forms of discrimination were being questioned. (That was one reason why national fraternity officials, along with some alumni, resisted. "Jewish members? What next? There goes the neighborhood.") The presenting issue was anti-Semitism, but the subtext and the language were broader.
And on this front, unlike the coeducation front, there were modest changes to go with non-modest demands for change. New fraternities were established to accommodate more members of the student body, and some of the older ones resisted or ignored discriminatory clauses in national charters. At least one also ignored the advice of cooler heads and notified alumni that the chapter would pledge whomever they chose to pledge. The young Davids in that instance were rewarded but a bit let down when only one furious Goliath turned up with objections. Overall, one can see in retrospect that the move was on toward the 100% opportunity rushing system that Hamilton instituted several years later.
However laudable, these incremental adjustments were not adequate from the point of view of those who still felt left out and put down. One of the sticking points was compulsory chapel. Some of the objections to that remnant of an older all-Protestant Hamilton were not religious in nature, but others clearly were. If you were Jewish or Catholic, you had a Hobson's Choice: Either attend these Protestant services or troop off to Clinton or Utica, perhaps at some less convenient time in the weekend, and bring back a note certifying that you had actually showed up at Mass or the synagogue. As for the agnostic or (gasp) atheist, he had no choice at all.
The Chapel Strike movement, in the spring of our freshman year, was a protest against this situation. One would not call it a Jewish or Catholic protest. Like so many of the initiatives taken against discrimination in the immediate postwar years, it was in large part a veterans' protest. When we were all summoned, on a Wednesday noon I believe, to an anti-chapel rally — held, of course, in the Chapel — the organizers were ranged across this space to my left looking very much, in their army fatigues, like those guerrillas in the stage version of Evita, only without the M-1 rifles. One of the organizers, Peter Falk, has by now become so thoroughly associated with his principal acting role that I find it hard to be sure he wore fatigues and not a raincoat. As for what he said, surely it must have been:
"We're sorry to intrude upon your time, gentlemen; we know you want to get to lunch. And we have nothing against chapel. My girlfriend loves the chapel services; she comes for the music. But we do have some questions."
The students assembled there also had questions; not, I think, about the aim of ending compulsory chapel, but about the need for a strike to achieve this. Well, as Falk/Columbo might also have said, "Ah, you never know, sir." We'll never know whether a strike would have helped or hurt, because support was slim, and the idea was abandoned in favor of a petition, together with letters to the acting president and the new dean of the Chapel.
As for that Wednesday rally, it ended in rollicking good humor. Someone in the assemblage, interrupted by someone else, shouted, "But I have the floor!" Don Roscher, who carried his marvelous orotund stage accent with him everywhere (except possibly the Deke House), countered with the surprising information that "Theah is no flooah heah." We looked down toward our shoes; there was general merriment; and we did leave for lunch.
Though alterations were made, as soon as the next fall term, in chapel services and the organization of religious life, the chapel requirement hung on into the 1960s. But in that 1948 episode, as in so many others, war veterans were doing what they could to quicken the slow pace of change.
I need to say a little more about what we could call the veteran factor, because it was singularly important in our college experience, especially during our first two years. As I've mentioned, ours was the first postwar class to be heavily non-veteran. As a result, we benefited from the presence of these elderly college-mates (the president of my fraternity, aged 29, was known as "Pappy") in ways that were not merely singular; they were probably unique. Just a couple of years earlier, according to class annalists, young high school graduates had been so much in the minority that they felt intimidated. But when we swarmed in, the remaining veterans functioned, in relation to pea-green freshmen and slumping sophomores, very much as resident graduate students function in the living units at Chicago or Harvard. They were non-threatening older students who were available to advise us but who did so mostly by example.
I don't mean to overstate the case; some on both sides of this generation gap may have wished those on the other side would go away, and I suppose the examples set by the elder brothers were not always salutary for us youngsters. But so far as I recall, the veterans did not, like the poor Dauphin's advisers, "give all the orders."
One thing I do recall clearly is an otherwise trivial incident that represented pretty accurately how little the veterans yearned to lord it over the rest of us. Walking up from Clinton one afternoon, I was picked up by some former commissioned officer. I said something routine like "Thank you, sir," and he apparently thought I was being deferential. "Please don't call me 'sir,'" he said; "I had enough of that in the Army."
As I've already intimated, the veterans were impatient with a number of the things that a tradition-steeped Hamilton seemed ready to continue or revive in this period. Some of the old customs were fine, but others weren't. The Spectator noted that our class was supposed to buy and wear those demeaning little "freshman dinks" — the caps that looked as though they should have propellers on them — and reported that upperclassmen, especially the veterans, had advised us to just forget it. I remember nothing about this, which probably means it's true. The veterans, bless them, had also had enough of funny hats.
If the veteran element in our lives was important, the faculty element was even more so. The responses from my classmates to queries about their Hamilton experience are eloquent on that point. I suppose one must be realistic and recognize that when grandfathers like us are asked what we remember most fondly about Hamilton, we don't write "house parties." But I also figure that whereas enthusiasm for beer kegs and raucous social life may have dulled somewhat in 50 years, appreciation for what Win Tolles and Digger and Swampy and Rocky and at least two dozen others gave us has really become more fervid and more poignant. I say poignant because it is — and I don't mean to sound morbid — a bit like the situation we've all experienced when a friend or loved one has passed on: We wish we had done more about thanking them in person.
Some of us had opportunities to do that, whether or not we seized them, because we later — sometimes much later — approached them about recommendations. We are likely to have wondered, when we ventured such requests, whether we'd be remembered at all from, say, a freshman math class, let alone have our performance recalled in any detail. But more often than not we were pleasantly surprised. They did remember us. As a longtime teacher myself, I would like to assume that this is because professors are more observant than you think, and perhaps more assiduous about keeping good records and aides mémoire. But there's plenty of evidence that it was really a matter of their having had more interest in us, and more concern about us, than we could have imagined when we sat in their classes.
Again, let's be real and admit that sitting in their classes was not always a warm and fuzzy experience. In some courses we were regularly on our guard, if not regularly in a state of low-grade terror. Since I could not possibly refer here, even briefly, to all the faculty members whom my classmates and I remember with huge appreciation, I shall just say something about one, George Nesbitt, who plainly stands especially tall among those who inspired gratitude and affection, and stands almost as high among those who kept us in a state of fright. Professor Nesbitt was not simply smarter than we were; he was a lot smarter. And, as several sitting here today have testified, he could be very, um, "direct" in what he said if you didn't perform as he had a right to expect.
To digress just a bit: One of our class members, Tom Dolan, has published an article — twice — about how he managed to perform spectacularly in his philosophy seminar with the help of 10-year-old reading notes, on the difficult topic of symbology, that he had come across down at the Lambda Chi house. Well, someone, who shall remain nameless because again I don't know who it was, tried something similar in George Nesbitt's seminar. But this guy made the mistake of consulting the notes of someone who had taken the same seminar just a year earlier. After the student had offered up his wisdom and was smiling contentedly, George, who was also smiling — sort of — said, "No, Mr. X. I thought that last year. I don't think that this year."
Tough love, I think they call it. To be sure, George Nesbitt administered that in his own special way; yet I think of his demeanor when teaching or advising as a pretty good representation of how most administrators and teachers dealt with us. From all that I've heard, those traditions in faculty-student relationships haven't changed very much even in the larger and more complicated Hamilton community of today.
When we were graduated in June of 1951, we were of course showered with sage counsel about how to conduct ourselves in the real world, assuming we were really serious about going out there. Our Commencement speaker, who was the president of Haverford and also a cutting-edge geographer very much ahead of his time, urged us to do what we could to protect the earth and certain dangerously dwindling resources. The Baccalaureate speaker, for whom I had to stay awake because he was my father — then president of Lafayette College — advised us to give the same kind of careful attention to our own ideals. It was his experience, he said, that when one returns much later to a youthful stomping ground he is reminded of those ideals. He even suggested that, since a nostalgia trip can do funny things to your brain, we might actually run into our younger selves out in the quad, or maybe, in this case, in Root Glen. He told us to be ready for some searching questions from this young idealist.
Well, I tried that some years ago and did have a kind of conversation with that gangling, self-confident, rather self-righteous fellow. I'm not sure whether or not he approved of me, but I have to say I wasn't all that impressed with him either. On the present occasion, after spending time reading half-century annalist letters from earlier years, I find that there are several of those annalists whom I'd love to run into out in the quad. The one I'd really like to exchange views with is the annalist of exactly 100 years ago, the Honorable Henry W. Knox.
Knox was of course speaking to, and for, our predecessors in the Class of 1851. And he was far more conscious than we are that the celebrations in the year of their 50th reunion were celebrations — or announcements, really — of a new century. Knox and his contemporaries were not in the least confused about that calendrical issue that got so much attention when the year 2000 arrived; for them, the 20th century began in 1901, not 1900, and that was that! In fact, the prospect of holding a reunion at that epochal moment was so electrifying that the Class of 1851 renounced their own tradition, which had been to key their reunions to the year they had entered. The class had already celebrated a glorious 50th reunion in 1897, yet were meeting again a mere four years later. The annalist remarked wryly on the advantage in this: "At the same generous rate of discount," he said, "it will be possible to arrange for several other meetings during the period in which it will be convenient for most of us to attend." But he also stated, quite seriously, that the real purpose of meeting in June 1901 had been "to greet the opening century." He even ventured, at least half seriously, that so far as Hamilton was concerned, the 20th century was not "really and officially open for business" until President Stryker and the reuning Class of 1851 gave the signal.
And what a century it was to be! The 19th had been an epoch of economic progress and amazing technological advance. The 20th would be the great century of moral progress, indeed would be privileged to realize age-old dreams of human perfection, of God's Kingdom on Earth. This was not just one optimist's dream. As he asserted quite correctly, it was the "general expectation" of most people in his time. So if we were to run into the Honorable Mr. Knox or his classmates this weekend, back for their 150th, we could expect some pretty harsh words, the 1901 equivalent of "Boy, did you guys mess up!"
Any answer for that? We'd undoubtedly have to concede that things have not gone as well as Mr. Knox's generation so confidently expected. We would also want to point out, however, in all candor, that the vision of perfection current in June 1901 was what Walter Lippman called it 50 years later — "a daydream during a spell of exceptionally fine weather" — and that in June 2001 that particular extravagant dream is no longer around.
On the other hand, Mr. Knox, we're still around. You and your buddies were sure that, after your 50th, there would be more reunions in your future. So are we. Medical science, including geriatrics, is one of a number of endeavors that have gone pretty well since you read your annalist's letter. "The century gone is but the dawn; our day has just begun." We'll keep trying. Check with us at our 70th.
* This is the time for me to acknowledge, parenthetically but forcefully, that most of what I'll talk about in the balance of this Letter does not emerge from any prodigious memory of my own. Katherine Collett, of the Hamilton Archives staff, researched The Spectator for me, Frank Lorenz excelled in producing solid data from hard-to-locate sources, and my classmates responded handsomely to a request for their own recollections.
** Wilder speech at Yale, November 1951; then Harper's in April 1953
William R. Hutchison left Hamilton with his diploma and Phi Beta Kappa key in 1951 to pursue Clio, the Muse of history, at Oxford and Yale. After acquiring his Ph.D. from Yale in 1956, he began a teaching career that soon took him from an instructorship at Hunter College to a professorship at the American University, where he also chaired the American Studies Program. In 1968 he was named the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard University, and he held that chair until his retirement in 2000. He now has the status of research professor at Harvard.
Recognized and honored with numerous awards as a leading authority on the history of American religious thought, Bill Hutchison is the author or editor of a half-dozen highly influential books, and he is soon to add another volume to that distinguished scholarly output.