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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Our Hamilton

James B. Nickel, Class of 1952

Delivered: June 1, 2002

When we attended Hamilton, we were required to take four years of public speaking, a wonderful preparation for annoying our wives at parties and social gatherings. Our first assignment was a three-minute memorized declamation that sent us scurrying for short essays with small words. Our professors assured us that nobody ever died giving a public speech. God, I hope they were right.

Imagine memorizing a speech today? I couldn't tell you my elder son's telephone number. But I can remember a few things from 54 years ago. And that's what I'm about to do.

But first, the formalities. President Tobin, fellow classmates, wives, sweethearts, next of kin, friends, students and alumni of Hamilton College. And, I mustn't forget our honorary classmate Barbara Starnes, daughter of the great Professor Graves, sister of our classmate Steve, and our den mother for many reunions. And a great friend, Frank Lorenz, semi-retiring from editing the Alumni Review and class annalist's letters, whose only mistake in life was graduating from Illinois.

The next 20 or so minutes are about Our Hamilton. Remember Our Hamilton? This modest little black-and-white booklet forever won our hearts and sold us on this remote place. Spare, clean, understated prose that so well-described an atmosphere of learning, growth and rural beauty that nearly a thousand highly qualified young men applied for a spot in a class of 160. Through the years the College's promotional graphics have of necessity gotten more colorful and contemporary — and pricey — but I doubt that any document published today could be more persuasive than that simple, engaging hunk of exposition. Even its description of 12-foot snow banks around the hockey rink made you want to jump in.

Our Hamilton warned applicants: "Hamilton is determined not to admit anyone who on the face of things will slow down the educational pace of any class. This was true even in wartime, when rejected civilian applicants were baffled at being refused entrance." The place got even tougher in the early post-war years as veterans struggled to make up for lost time.

We arrived in September of 1948. For the benefit of those of you of more recent vintage, 1948 fell somewhere between the French and Indian Wars and Elvis. We entered in '48 and left in '52. Perfect symmetry. One foot in the first half of the century — a developing time of electrification, telephones, family cars, paved roads, phonograph records, radio programs, movies, airlines, X-rays, radar, antibiotics, the transistor, the atomic bomb, and wars… lots of wars. And one foot in the second half of the century — a dazzling cosmos of interstate highways, electronic chips, personal computers, jet planes, CAT scans, nuclear power, nuclear medicine, space travel, ICBMs, LPs, CDs, DVDs, MRIs, communications satellites, cell phones, the Internet, wonder drugs and not-so-wonderful drugs, and… more wars. Will there ever be a shortage of wars?

The communications tools for this project included my PC, a laptop computer, e-mail, a fax and an answering machine. Fifty-four years ago, when we landed at Hamilton, the high technology breakthrough was erasable bond typing paper. No Xerox machines, of course, but what we produced hardly demanded a blizzard of copies anyway. Answering machines wouldn't have done us much good because we didn't have phones in our rooms. There were public telephones in the hall on the first floor, not considered much of a luxury by classmates who had to answer them and summon the rest of us. We of course didn't have mobile telephones and pagers. Can you seriously imagine having a cell phone go off at a Frank Ristine Shakespeare seminar? Television may have reached America in those years, but it had barely managed to crawl up the Hill. Paperback books had arrived, surfacing their own unique problem. Many of them — particularly novels in a foreign language — came with uncut pages, an unexpected source of humiliation when we were called upon to translate a particular passage for which we hadn't studied and, too late, discovered uncut pages clearly read by no man.

World War II had been over for only three years when we arrived at South Dorm and a new one would begin before we were halfway to graduation. Though our numbers included a few veterans, we were basically the first peacetime class in seven years. As such, much was expected of us. We were young and felt younger. When you were a raw freshman watching vets wearing leather flight jackets with American flags and Chinese writing on their backs, you learned your place in a hurry. You followed the rules, wore your pajamas and your beanie to the pep-rally bonfire and avoided walking on the grass. You were a freshman, the lowest being in the Mohawk Valley. Oh, we cut up a bit. We had won the Flag Rush and tug of war against the bored sophomores, and thus were entitled to wear red before the Union game in November. Wow. Flushed with success, we bravely trod the quadrangle grasses… bare-headed. Later, we would further break with tradition by winning the Class Sing as freshmen. Our unruly behavior in South Dorm called for a verbal thrashing from Dean Tolles and editorial tut-tuts in The Spectator. Our behavior had been — well — sophomoric.

We didn't realize it, but our administration was practically as new to Hamilton as we were. Temporary president Tom Rudd was counting the days until he could get back to his ledgers and payrolls, but this loyal Hamilton man had presided awfully well. His replacement arrived on the Hill a month after we did. An ordained minister from Minnesota's Blackburn College, President Robert Ward McEwen was dedicated to education and serious about his religion. He was not an easy man to like, particularly when he ruled that beer, Dixieland and Sundays didn't belong together. We would eventually warm to him and he to us, but he would never become a legend. Win Tolles, Class of '28, was our legend, our dean.

And he was only in his second year on the job. In 1946, he had helped open and run Utica College. Being dean of Hamilton must have fulfilled his lifetime dream. So, we had a freshman president, a sophomore dean and a dormful of former prep and high school hotshots with a lot to learn.

In Our Hamilton we read that a Hamilton professor "is not a remote figure at the far end of a room hiding behind a beard… (but) friendly, approachable, interested more in teaching than in research." Our close relationships with our professors would affect the rest of our lives.

Our faculty was an intriguing blend of pre-war and post-war: veteran professors and professorial veterans, many with superb nicknames. Willard Marsh, the resonant head of public speaking, was Swampy. Edgar Graves, the iconic head of the history department, was Digger. Geologist Nelson Dale was, of course, Rocky. The highly theatrical English professor Robert Rudd was, for some reason, Bobo. One classmate remembers the shameless tears "coursing down his cheek" as he recited Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. For another, it was Mathew Arnold's Scholar Gypsy that opened the floodgates. Bobo had a thirst for the good life. He was known to tote his own bottle of Ballantine's Scotch to the Psi U house. When he found himself in failing health, he canvassed the medical world for the one doctor who would agree that a daily martini would do him no harm. One unfortunate public speaking instructor earned the nickname "Mumbles." George Nesbitt, the brilliant but shy English professor, and one of the class' favorites, was "The Nez," except for one time when he'd scored a second thimble of sherry and asked to be called "Nez-babe." Hamilton's most accomplished scholar — he had graduated with something like a 98 average — force-fed us the ideas and words of the great writers from Plato to Twain, wrenched weekly thousand-word themes from us and, as a faculty advisor, dared us to take the hardest courses. Ironically, he was called "The Smiling Shaft" by some who resisted his formidable standards. But, our classmates rank him among the very best we had.

There was "Bull Durham," and David "Spoolie" Ellis, a Hamilton man who, legend had it, could spool off historical trivia and who was immortalized by a Deke Winter Carnival snow sculpture portraying Rodin's "The Thinker" with a spool for a head. And the misnomer of them all: chemistry professor emeritus "Stink" Saunders, a distinguished and retiring soul. In earlier times, the eminent Root family had produced two mathematics professors appropriately labeled Cube and Square. A slightly chunky head of the English Department was nicknamed "Chub" Ristine, but no sane person dared call him that. Latin professor John Mattingly, though without a moniker, owned a horse that he vacuumed regularly. Our new president, Robert McEwen, of decidedly Scottish ancestry, was Sandy. Not to be confused with Sandy Dolomite, the facing stone for most of our buildings.

And, of course, there was Squintin' Winton Dean Tolles. You addressed him as such at your peril, however. He ran a tight ship but a fair one. Fair as in: you stroked the oars and he stroked the whip. A tall, seemingly gruff, imposing man of few words, most of them thunderous, but a fellow with a huge heart, he was a man you could trust then and for all the years thereafter. Win Tolles kept many a Hamilton man a Hamilton man — issuing mid-course corrections to troubled souls inclined to wander from the path of sense and righteousness. He also kept our classmates in class instead of the military. He had served as a lieutenant commander with duty in the South Pacific. "It's not that you don't want to serve in the Navy," he told one classmate, "it's just that you want to serve it better with a Hamilton education." His belief was that the Army tended not to put its brightest warriors in the front lines.

Since the houseparty was to Hamilton men as ice was to the hockey team, Dean Tolles was known to use the occasion to enjoy an occasional cup of tea at the various social emporiums. He was also famous for guiding unsteady undergraduates out of harm's way to the safety of a dormitory bed. One classmate remembers a drunken intruder who had caused enough trouble to require a call to the constabulary. The dean, himself summoned from a party, bellowed: "You can't be a Colgate man. Colgate men hold their liquor better than this." He importuned the deputies to return him to his college without a prison record. Another classmate remembers Dean Tolles appearing at his door with a suggestion that the dormitory windowsill, while eminently practical for cooling beer, was perhaps a less than appropriate storage place.

In a very unscientific poll of our classmates, Bobo, Digger Graves and Paul Parker were our most-liked professors, Nesbitt and Liedke our most admired, and Nesbitt and Parker the most influential on our later lives. But the man we most admired and the man who influenced us the most was, by a landslide, Dean Tolles. If old Alex ever gets lonely out there on the lower quadrangle, a bronze statue of Winton Tolles would make fine company.

The Our Hamilton booklet warned: "If you feel that a football stadium is necessary to your college education, you had better not choose Hamilton." Seats for the Big Game against Union were never hard to come by. But Our Hamilton failed to mention an unheated natural ice rink whose temperatures often registered in the 20s when the blowers were working, or a hilltop soccer field sometimes more suitable to building snow forts. There was ample room for high school and prep stars on Hamilton's teams, and a fifth of our class went out for varsity sports in our first autumn. Our Hamilton had warned philosophically: "…while Hamilton men like to ring the College bell after victories, there is a strong presumption that even though a dropkick goes a couple of yards to the south, the sun will probably rise the next day." During our first three years, Hamilton sports results were rarely listed alphabetically. Our football team amassed eight victories…but it took four years. Other sports bore out the contention that this was no athletic factory. Yet, participant and spectator interest remained high. The problem was scheduling. This past winter I noticed an intriguing basketball score: Hamilton 86-Vassar 59. Bingo. Where was Vassar when we needed her?

Before our four years were complete, Hamilton's sports teams had more than redeemed themselves. In football as seniors, we finally beat Union, and learned a new Hamilton technology: ripping down their goal posts. The hockey team upset mighty St. Lawrence for Winter Carnival and set back training principles by 10 years. Our tennis team lost one match in two years. And in soccer and lacrosse, Hamilton found itself on the left side of the results column more often than not. The place, however, was still in no real danger of becoming a sports dynasty.

During our time at Hamilton, wise heads required that we become proficient in outdoor and indoor carryover sports: golf, tennis, badminton, squash. You had to prove you could play a useful sport well enough to carry it over into later life. In qualifying for golf, you had to score 50 or under for nine holes. You were on your honor to do it fairly and realistically. I don't believe we'd even heard of playing a "Mulligan." Chapter I of the 1948 Student Handbook takes three pages to set forth the rules and reasoning of the Honor System. You signed a pledge that your writing wasn't something you borrowed and that you didn't use the experience of a classmate to improve your test scores. You could roam about and you were on your honor not to use the time to improve upon the knowledge required of you that day. In the opinion of one graduate, the sense of honor we developed was as important as anything we learned in our classrooms. In recent years, we have, in this country, learned to forgive our politicians a staggering list of sins, lies and unbelievably vulgar deeds. Wouldn't it have been nice if they had discovered, as we did, that your sense of honor is of far greater value than any score you might achieve on an exam? Hamilton saw honor as the ultimate carryover.

Our Hamilton viewed the College as "a crossroads for ideas – the ideas of a living, moving, growing world." As we were to appreciate in our later days, Hamilton had equipped us with the tools for enjoying the world around us. So many of our classmates have reported on a lifetime of pursuing art, music, languages, literature and the earth sciences. They travel not just to leave somewhere but to be somewhere and learn something.

By the way, a few years prior to our time at Hamilton, graduates were required to be proficient in either Latin or Greek. Had they not dropped that commandment, many of us would still be here and declining would not be a noun process but a physical one.

In 1950, the Korean War was to intrude in a major way on our studies and our futures. A few of our mates had joined Reserve units as a way of avoiding foxhole accommodations. Unfortunately, they were the first to be called up. Close to 90 percent of our graduating class went straight into the military for the Korean War and found our new instructors lacked much of the erudition of those we left behind.

While 121 of us were on our way out of Hamilton on June 8, 1952, the 10,000th Hamilton man in 140 years was on his way in. In many schools these days, 10,000 is the size of an incoming freshman class.

At Our Hamilton, two men — Berrian Shute and John Baldwin — taught us music. The department now lists 33 faculty members. Professors Ristine, Nesbitt, Johnston and Barrett have been succeeded by an English Department of 18. And, it takes some seven deans and assistant deans to replace Win Tolles. But, when you think about it, that's about right.

Today's Hamilton bears little resemblance to the place we left 50 years ago. But they seem to be getting it right. It's still a tough college to get into and out of. And the women we imported three times a year for houseparties? They're here 24/7, bless 'em. To an old-timer, it still seems odd to see women flocking out of South Dorm on a Thursday afternoon. But it's amazing how quickly these veteran eyes can adjust to the sight of young ladies.

Our Hamilton isn't here any more, but the soul is. And the heart. And the brain. And the determination to turn out smart, literate people.

If the early '50s called for well-balanced young college graduates who could distinguish between right and wrong, sense and folly, duty and sufferance, fair play and dishonor, it strikes me that the qualities Hamilton instilled in us back then are in just as short supply today. The world needs plenty more of what Hamilton can give it. We're just 10 years short of a bicentennial celebration here at this beautiful place. Personally, I'm counting the days.

As we used to attest, this is my own work unless otherwise indicated …except that I had a whole lot of help from the Class of 1952, the archives, and a modest little black and white booklet called Our Hamilton. I thank the class for letting me tell our story.