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Half-Century Annalist Letters

The Silent Generation

William N. Yeomans, Class of 1955

Delivered: June 4, 2005

What a joy it is to spend a few minutes with you reminiscing about our years on the Hill and what fun it was collecting memories from so many classmates who contributed to this. I especially want to thank Ron Krauss, our class president, for his help and Frank Lorenz, who is not a classmate but should be, for his support.

President Stewart, faculty, alumni, friends and fellow members of the Class of 1955 — Before I begin I would like to introduce the members of the Class of 1955, and in a second I am going to ask them to stand. But I have to remind you that when we were here we did not show appreciation in the Chapel by applauding, we snapped our fingers. So here's the Class of '55 — let's give them a resounding round of snaps … It is good to hear that sound again.

We came here in the fall of 1951 when the Dow was at 250, and the population of the U.S. was about half what it is today and predominately white. There were 48 states; Alaska and Hawaii had yet to be admitted. Communications and electronics were primitive. Many of us had telephone party lines at home, and on campus, we depended on a few pay phones to call out. Cell phones were in the distant future. There were no computers or calculators; we worked out math problems with slide rules. There was no Internet and there were no Blackberries. If you wonder how we kept track of our busy social schedules without Blackberries just keep in mind, Hamilton was an all men's school and the nearest women's colleges were hours away. We had no social lives.

There were few airline flights and we traveled by train or car. The New York State Thruway was not completed until after we graduated so we drove home on back roads through towns like Greene, Seneca Falls, Deposit and Sharon Springs. Newspapers, not TV newscasts, were our main source of information. Pro football was a minor sport, and if we knew of wardrobe malfunctions it was not from halftime shows.

We were too young to have been World War II heroes, and we were too old to be free spirits like those who followed in the '60s. Our parents had gone through the Great Depression and World War II, and they were wary. All could be lost at any minute. They kept their money in the bank and built bomb shelters. They had lessons for us from their years of hardship, one of which was children should be seen and not heard. We took that to heart and kept quiet.

Harry Truman was president when we got here, succeeded in 1952 by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Things were okay — we didn't want to make any great changes; we wanted the security of a better life in the future than our parents had. If we had political opinions, we kept them to ourselves. We were the Silent Generation. Dave Sagman and I decided that, to bring home the full impact of the Silent Generation, I could get up here, stare at you for 15 minutes, and then sit down.

Many of my classmates told me they remember freshman year with mixed feelings just as I did. We were excited to be here and were awed by the beauty of the place, but we were stunned by the difficulty of the coursework. We may have been in the top 10 percent of our secondary school classes, we may have had high SATs, but we were not prepared for the hard work and hard thinking that Hamilton demanded. One classmate told me, "I took freshman chemistry. On the first day the professor walked in and said 'good morning.' That was the last thing I understood all semester."

Endless hours in Professor Yourtee's labs, 65 pages of bone dry history text assigned by Professor Ellis to be read by next class, thousand-word themes to be written while Professor Nesbitt waited with red pencil to slash them to pieces. All the while buffeted by icy winds, abandoned on this remote hill to dark winter days, and wondering where all the women in the world had gone.

Of our freshman class, about 46 percent came from Upstate New York where Hamilton was fairly well-known. Those of us who came from farther away had the task of explaining where Hamilton was to people back home. Alexander Woollcott, Class of 1909, had the real answer. He told a Princeton man, "My own college is Hamilton, and if you don't know where that is you can go to hell."

We started out as a class of 164, ended up graduating 97, earning us the reputation as the stupidest class Hamilton had ever enrolled. Maybe, but, oh, those who made it: physicians, lawyers, judges, business and public leaders, ministers, poets, educators, authors — rich rewarding lives that began here.

My classmates told me that whatever success they have had in life was launched here at Hamilton, and they gave large credit to a faculty that is revered to this day. When I asked them what professor or administrator had the most positive influence, I expected some consensus so I could heap praise on two or three, but they surprised me by naming almost the entire faculty, so widespread is the admiration for those who guided us: Starnes, Richardson, Nesbitt, Barrett, Ellis, Wally Johnson and Tom Johnston, Graves, Liedke, Moraud, Parker, Weber … professors who were not only engaging in class, but invited us into their homes, did endless hours of one-on-one counseling, encouraged many of us to go to graduate school and became our friends.

They are etched in our memories forever. Not that every memory is sweet. John Merriman remembers struggling through a speech in Professor Hunt's class, after which Hunt said, "Merriman, that was terrible, remember this is a captive audience." John Keeler, after getting a low grade on a theme, discussed it with Professor Nesbitt. Keeler said, "Perhaps I didn't organize my ideas well," to which Nesbitt replied, "I guess you didn't have any ideas." Roger Strand, who played third-string hockey, recalls a game in which the star, Jack Taylor, broke his skate. Legendary coach Greg Batt pointed to Roger on the bench — to send him in to save the day? No, to ask if Taylor could borrow his skate.

Who can ever forget "Bobo"? Just the mention of the name brings on smiles and stirs the emotions. Robert Barnes Rudd, Class of 1909, Hamilton B. Tompkins Professor of English Literature, was eccentric in all the ways a college professor should be. He had a thirst for life and loved fraternity parties. Wearing his cape he rode his horse from house to house, and at least once rode right into a house, Theta Delt, I believe. He would have a few drinks and then ride on to the next. Considering there were 12 fraternities including Squires, he had a long liquid night ahead of him.

We were allowed to miss three classes a semester, but Bobo gave himself unlimited cuts. One day when he was on the way to class he encountered his department head who said, "Robert, I'm told you have missed your last two classes." "Yes," Bobo replied, "let's make it three in a row," turned and marched back home. But he was worth waiting for. In class, he was magnificent. He could transport a room full of college hot shots to another world as he reverently read Shelley or Keats, pausing to stare out the window, tears in his eyes, moved by the beauty of the words.

Willard Bostwick "Swampy" Marsh, Class of 1912, Upton Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, terrorized us through four years of compulsory public speaking, correcting in stentorian tones our diction and pronunciation at every turn, insisting, for instance, it is status [stay-tus] not status [stah-tus]. He was a great admirer of Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, who was president of Hamilton when Swampy was an undergraduate. You could bring a class to a halt, for instance, if you were up next and didn't have your speech quite ready, by asking a question about President Stryker, and Swampy would go on at length until the closing bell. His reverence for Stryker was unbounded; he considered him a man of highest status [stah-tus]. Status [stay-tus].

There were the kid professors who came here with their new Ph.D.s about the same time we did, among them Sid Wertimer and Channing Richardson. Many of us took Economics 101 from Sid, and what a pleasure that was. After having endured classes with Swampy, who was as stuffy as a Victorian sofa, it surprised us to find out that a professor could put his feet up on the desk, talk like one of the guys and make us laugh. Sid made the dismal science fascinating and understandable. And of course he and Ellie have been mainstays at this College and in this community for a half-century, teaching and enriching the lives of students here from 1952 until this year. I hope you were at the dedication of the Wertimer House. It was a very moving tribute to a couple we all love.

Channing Richardson also came here in 1952, taught political science and chided us for being the Silent Generation, explaining that students in other cultures were much more active and vocal politically, and urged us to speak up. By the 1960s of course he got his wish and much more as student riots exploded on campuses across the country. As a side note, Hamilton students were unusually quiet during that time, perhaps taking a cue from us in the Silent Generation, but that doesn't mean they were always docile. A hundred years before we got here, Hamilton found it necessary to adopt rules forbidding students to "blaspheme, rob, fornicate, steal, duel; or assault, wound or strike the president or members of the faculty." I don't think that is exactly what Channing had in mind.

No discussion of Hamilton in our era could ever be complete without a word about Dean Tolles. Winton Tolles, Class of 1928 — if there were a man better suited to be dean of a small men's liberal arts college in the 1950s, we couldn't have imagined one. He kept order with a firm but gentle hand, understanding us better than we understood ourselves. Classmates described his patience, kindness, faith in us, humor and his huge heart. More than one of us sitting here today in the Class of '55 was helped, even kept in school, with the dean's solid guidance. Walt Crosier told me the dean had yanked him out of hockey practice telling him, "You are off the team until your grades improve," and many of us have similar stories. The term "tough love" had not been invented yet, but that's what Dean Tolles was made of.

One day, yet another water fight broke out in South Dorm — then the freshman dorm — during which fire hoses were unwound from their stanchions and turned on. Plumes of water flew out the windows and the staircases became waterfalls. When Dean Tolles arrived to restore order, someone aimed a hose at him and let him have it full bore in the chest. The cigarette he always had in his lips sagged soddenly and his sport coat and slacks hung on him, drenched. But to tell the truth, the dean was not known for sartorial splendor, and he didn't look much different after the hosing than before.

The culprits, realizing what they had done, quickly abandoned the hose and tried to look like innocent bystanders, but the dean knew who they were. He knew everything. And then he did something that will live forever in our memories. He laughed. Then signaled that the battle had ended and trudged back toward his office leaving puddles of water behind him.

When we were here, the drinking age in New York State was 18, so the administration did not have the thankless task of trying to keep three-quarters of the students, those under 21, from touching alcohol. We were free to drink and we did. Parties were happy raucous affairs, and lord they were fun. No Silent Generation in evidence there. If there were rules governing our behavior, they were mostly self-imposed, all of us learning that if we wanted nice girls to come to campus, we had to show some semblance of gentlemanly behavior.

The thing most of us remember was music. We didn't drive our parents nuts with our music. Our music was their music. We listened to Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller and Doris Day. We sang songs that would make a kid gag today: "Up a Lazy River," "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad." Can you imagine? But sing them we did, enthusiastically and over and over, until we remember the words to some of those songs better than we do our coursework. Claude Thornhill came to campus to play, as did Billy Butterfield and Duke Ellington. Dixieland was … well … we couldn't get enough of it. Wild Bill Davidson played for us, and Willy Alger and the Salt City Five came out from Memory Lane in Syracuse to play for a spring jazz concert.

And we had our own resident Dixieland band, the Catatonic Five with Dick Sherman, Em Brown and Derry Hall. Later this became the Alumni All-Stars, the very band that is playing here this weekend and has been playing almost every year at reunions since we graduated. Dick Sherman '53 is still at the drums, but Em Brown '56, is gone, as is Professor Paul Parker, who played piano for many years, replaced by our own John Ibach who unfortunately was not able to make this reunion. The Catatonic Five was so popular that President Robert "Sandy" McEwen, an ordained minister, had to step in and rule that it was not appropriate to play Dixieland on the Sabbath. Promptly, Sherman and Hall wrote lyrics, played to the tune of the old Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial, and called it "Sandy Don't 'llow no Jazz on Sunday."

Things we remember: The freshman-sophomore tug of war, the interfraternity sing, Alteri's, 8 o'clock classes, snow sculptures, compulsory chapel, first-semester rushing, Whale's Tales, the Alexander Hamilton Inn, the choir, carry-over sports, beanies, white bucks, North Village, the Continental literary magazine, 20 below zero.

None of us will ever forget Winter Carnival of our freshman year. St. Lawrence came to play hockey against us in Sage Rink. We played in the big leagues, powerhouses like Clarkson, Army, RPI, Middlebury and Norwich. We did well enough, but St. Lawrence was one of the top teams in the country, a favorite to go to Nationals, and we hoped, at best, that our team would not embarrass us, especially in front of our house party dates. Sage Rink was packed, and we were transfixed as the game tore on, and by some miracle, we were able to hold St. Lawrence to a 2-2 tie into the third period. With five minutes left in the game, Paul van Dyke took the puck down the ice for the Continentals, was upended, and as he sprawled on the ice got off a spectacular pass that Jack Sanborn rammed into the St. Lawrence net. Hamilton had pulled off a 3-2 upset in possibly the most thrilling athletic contest any of us will ever see. Our goalie, Rod Gander, explained that the team had not really expected to be in the game and had been up all night partying. "We owe it all to Seagrams 7," he said.

And then there was the LIFE magazine visit to Hamilton. The editors wanted to do a story on a small liberal arts college. As part of the story they wanted pictures from a real live party and the DUs, ever supportive of good journalism, volunteered to throw one. We sent word to Wells College, hoping a few girls would come over and make it look like a real house party. To our astonishment, a busload of the most beautiful women we had ever seen showed up — where had they been all this time? We had some beers, sang songs, and LIFE magazine photographers snapped away. When the photographers packed up their equipment, so did the Wells girls. They piled back on the bus and sped off into the night, leaving the DU brothers to wonder what in hell had just happened.

If we had few rules for parties, we did have one set of rules we fiercely observed and that was the honor system. We lived by it in our courses, exams and papers, and in a larger sense our overall behavior. There were few violations during our years, but when one did occur, it seemed like a personal affront, so dedicated were we to this way of living. We were developing strong personal value systems 50 years ago, and many of us feel that the honor system was as important to us as anything we learned in the classroom. Jim Nickel, annalist for the Class of '52, said the honor system was the ultimate carry-over.

There is no better way to get a sense of what was going on on-campus when we were here than to review old Spectators. Here are a few items:

HEADLINE: Firearms outlawed in college dorms.
This does not apply to fraternities since they are independently governed. Art Stucki told me he asked if he could use hunting to fulfill his phys. ed. requirement and was allowed to do that. He kept his shotgun in the dean's office closet.

HEADLINE: New Hell Week Rules Evoke Storm of Protest.
Fraternities may not allow Hell Week to disfavor Hamilton or inflict harm or indignity on any student. Fraternity men reacted angrily to this, especially the indignity part since that was the main purpose of Hell Week.

HEADLINE: Hamilton Beauties Get Bid. The promotional director for the New York Division of the Miss America contest invited Hamilton to enter a representative. The Spectator reported that in its 143-year history, Hamilton had never had an entrant in a beauty contest, and worried that competing against Vassar, Smith and Holyoke in the swimsuit and evening gown competition would put us at an unfair disadvantage.

In an instant, it seemed, it was 1955 and we were ready to graduate. While we were here, J.D. Salinger published Catcher in the Rye, the U.S. and Russia developed hydrogen bombs, the French pulled out of Vietnam, SEATO was established, Joseph McCarthy was condemned by the Senate, the Salk vaccine was introduced, Joseph Stalin died, and the Korean armistice was signed, all without much involvement from us because, after all, we were the Silent Generation.

Graduation day. Then as now, we were allotted only a handful of warm sunny days on the Hill each year, and June 5, 1955, was one of them. I was about to be the first Yeomans to graduate from college. While we, the graduates, were lined up waiting to go into Sage Rink for the ceremony, Dean Tolles came up to me and said, "Yeomans, you haven't paid your ten-dollar cap and gown fee yet." My Dad, seeing his dreams of having a college-educated son about to be dashed at the last moment, grabbed bills out of his pockets, spilling them all over the ground, picked up a ten and handed it to the dean who was smiling knowingly.

Four years earlier that same Dean Tolles had told us at freshman orientation that, "Liberal arts will not prepare you for anything, but will prepare you for everything." Now we were ready to find out. I think all of us here today in the Class of '55 would agree that the dean was right and would not trade the liberal arts experience at Hamilton for anything.

And now in another instant we are back for our 50th Reunion. Much has changed since we were here. There are many new buildings; an entire college, Kirkland, has come and gone. There are women all over the place without the attraction of LIFE magazine. There are three times the number of faculty members, but the student-faculty ratio remains the same, about 9.5:1. In our time there were about 50 administrative employees including buildings and grounds people; today there are 423! But the College provides many more services for the students today. The overall annual cost for attending Hamilton has gone from about $1,300 a year to nearly $40,000.

Over the years, the College has made decisions some of us disagree with, and has done some things that have made us angry. It has also introduced many excellent changes that have kept our school right up there as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. And while the College has been changing, much has remained the same. The beauty of the campus remains, Hamilton is still hard to get into and harder yet to stay in once you get here. There is a renewed emphasis on speaking and writing. Standards of honor are high. And the spirit of the place still exists. Our reverence for Hamilton, what it has done for us and what it has enabled us to do with our lives, will live with us forever.

For someone firmly rooted in the Silent Generation, I sure do talk a lot. But I'd like to end with a toast. I hope tonight, when you have real glasses in your hands, you will use it because it was a favorite of our friend and classmate Carter Bacot. It goes, "Here's to us. None better." Thank you.