Half-Century Annalist Letters

Magic in the Air

Neal A. Brown, Class of 1958

Delivered: June 7, 2008

There were three special days each year at Hamilton that you could count on: the first day back after summer vacation, the last day on the campus before the next summer and Class & Charter Day.

Class & Charter Day took place near the end of the academic year and had three parts. The senior and junior honorary societies picked their successors, we learned who the really smart guys were, and someone, usually a faculty member or an alumnus, or someone who was both, gave a talk. When we gathered in this space on Class & Charter Day 52 years and a few weeks ago, the speaker was Professor Robert Barnes Rudd. Rudd was winding down his 40-plus years of teaching here. He had been a student at Hamilton, arriving in the fall of 1905 as a member of the Class of 1909.

Those were heady days on this campus. Ezra Pound, who became fascinated with the sound of language while a student here and would go on to become the most noted poet of the 20th century, had graduated a few months before Rudd and his classmates arrived. And what classmates! They started the Honor System and created the Charlatans. Many of those who were here then would become national leaders in the arts and professions, including Alex Osborn in the advertising world; Lloyd Paul Stryker, the son of the then College president, who became the leading trial lawyer in New York City; R. Hawley Truax, who, among other things helped create the The New Yorker magazine; and Alexander Woollcott, who became the drama critic of The New York Times at the age of 27 and soon thereafter would be recognized as the nation's raconteur.

Woollcott, an ardent proponent of his alma mater, did more than anyone else in the 20th century to let people know about the College, frequently mentioning it in his weekly national radio broadcasts. Dorothy Parker, a colleague of Woollcott's at the Algonquin Roundtable, a luncheon gathering of the nation's literati, over which he presided, once said that when Woollcott died, he would go to Hamilton. At much too young an age, he did both.

What we most readily remember about the Rudd talk, of course, is the reference toward the end to the memories that visits such as ours this weekend would evoke as we move about the campus: "Hoping among the grass to find the Golden Dice with which we used to play," he said.

Rudd began his talk by telling of his realization the previous fall that he was beginning his 50th year on the campus and that he had "begun to reckon by half-centuries." He then proceeded to tell of his undergraduate days, interesting enough although somewhat predictable. And then, near the end, he asked: "Gentlemen, what makes the College?"

He proceeded to answer his own question: first (and here I interpret), a first-class visionary and dreamer, in this case Samuel Kirkland, the Presbyterian minister who came to the wilderness to show the Oneidas the way. Second, said Rudd, are the teachers and the trustees who raise the money to keep the place going. The final component, which he suggested was the most important, is sentiment "nursed and nourished by one's memories," which led to the Golden Dice reference.

The more that I reflected on Rudd's talk, the more I came to appreciate how good it was. I even concluded that computing the life of a college in 50-year chunks of time is probably as good a measuring stick as any. And so, I propose to follow Rudd's lead and reminisce a bit, take a look at the College today and share some thoughts about what the place might be like when our grandchildren come back for their 50th reunions later this century.

Before going further, I want to say a word about those who couldn't be here today. I took part in several conference calls over the past year or so to lay the groundwork for this reunion. Despite the efforts of the very capable College staff, who participated in those calls to view our reunion in fundraising terms, we pressed on with our unanimous intention to plan a party, a celebration. No one enjoyed a celebration or lived life to its fullest more than Frank O'Brien, unless it was Dudley Hawkes or Phil Hooper or Barry Gerson or Bill Tennant or Mike Brewster. We miss them and all the others. We wish that they were with us.

Let me share with you, briefly, how one goes about putting this talk together. I received a nice note from a classmate soon after our 45th reunion thanking me for my efforts as co-chair of that reunion. He then expressed the belief that I would do a good job as class annalist, which was spelled "analyst," thus presenting me with an opportunity for which I had neither the training nor the time.

Not long after my rejection of the analysis challenge, a Hamilton College chair arrived, a gift from my wife. There were then two types of College chairs — the basic black with the College seal in gold and the more ornate one, which includes a lovely late-19th-century painting on the inside of the back of the chair. The painting is a landscape that includes six College buildings as seen from a vantage point about where the Bristol Center sits. From left to right the buildings are South dorm, the Chapel, Middle dorm, a small white clapboard building about where Carnegie is now, North dorm and a planetarium located about where the Sig House would be built. Despite the fact that Judy had sprung for the more ornate chair, initial sittings brought forth no muse. I decided to bide my time and to continue to throw items into the file titled "Hamilton" that I had maintained for many years, and to look at them later.

Before I knew it, 2007 had arrived. Then I got lucky. I received from Yvonne Driscoll, engaged in one of her periodic purges of evidence that John had had an earlier life, a packet of Hamilton items including pictures taken by my father, Spectator articles from our time, our graduation program and my copy of our face book titled "Meet the Freshman Class of 1958." I decided against calling Yvonne to ask her to look around for my Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan 33-rpm records.

I flipped through the face book. It revealed 188 smiling faces with names, nicknames, home addresses, high schools and dorm rooms, from Akers to Ziegler. We would lose two off the back end, none from the front and 51 in the middle. 135 of us graduated — four in 1959, a loss of about 30 percent.

Why did we have such a high rate of attrition? There were two reasons. During our junior year in high school, Life magazine, then one of the most popular weeklies in the country, had carried a feature article about Hamilton replete with handsome students, some of whom are here today, who appeared to be doing interesting things in a place that was so beautiful that you wouldn't want to go anywhere else if it would have you. In fact, some came here who shouldn't have and by sophomore year had left for other places. Most of our classmates who didn't return simply couldn't contend with the academic requirements.

The College administration in our day consisted of a handful of people, maybe 25 in number, most of whom were the men and women who maintained the buildings and grounds and provided meals at Commons. Those in the administration who regularly sat at desks numbered fewer than 10. At the top of the heap was the man who made sure that this place worked, Dean Winton Tolles. There is no substitute for strong, decisive and caring leadership, and we had it.

Tolles had been an undergraduate here. After graduate school, service in World War II and a few years elsewhere, he came to Hamilton not long before we arrived. He would spend 25 years here as the dean. Equal parts autocrat and pussycat, he always brought the proper mixture of those characteristics to bear on the situation. He knew every one of us. Not just the information in the face book; he knew what subjects we were taking, what activities we engaged in and our hopes, concerns and aspirations. And he knew when and how to help us, and he did so without hesitation. Tolles said farewell in his 1972 Class & Charter Day talk, in which he included several wonderful stories about lessons learned as an undergraduate not in the classroom but on the ball field, in his case the baseball diamond.

Most of us participated in intramurals or played tennis, golf or squash, depending on the season, or maybe in a pick-up basketball game. Some avoided any exercise at all cost using every iota of creativity to come up with acceptable reasons to be excused from the required three nonconsecutive hours of physical exercise a week.

Many of us represented the College in intercollegiate sports. We were generally competitive, particularly in track, cross-country, golf, tennis and football, in all of which we seldom lost. Classmates Brewster, Bruck and O'Brien were football All-Americans. We usually played colleges that were similar in size and with whom we were competitive, such as the University of Rochester, St. Lawrence and Union. Occasionally, the schedule-makers arranged games with teams we had no business playing, perhaps to set us up for one of those out-of-the-classroom lessons to which the dean had referred.

The Colgate lacrosse team played a major college (Division I) schedule and was nationally ranked. In the spring of 1957, about 25 miles southwest of here, Colgate defeated Hamilton in a squeaker, 14-1. We awaited the return visit in 1958 with something less than brimming optimism.

Three things are required to have a chance to beat a superior opponent: you have to show up, have a good plan that is well-executed, and luck. In the spring of 1958, luck came first; the game was rescheduled and would be played on the Monday after Colgate's spring house party. The game plan was the same one that General Washington had used to defeat the British: keep the ball away from the opponent, lull the opponent to sleep and take only high percentage shots. The final score was Hamilton 8, Colgate 6.

Three times in that game John Driscoll lollygagged down the left side of the field, read boredom in the eyes of the player assigned to guard him, cut sharply to his right, accelerated and put the ball in the net. John would leave the lacrosse field and Hamilton, and, after medical school, further training and service in Vietnam, would spend the rest of his professional life at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he would change the way the treatment of prematurely born infants is practiced in the world. He served for 15 years as chairman of pediatrics at the Columbia University Medical Center and as physician-in-chief of the New York Presbyterian Children's Hospital. John would cap his career by raising $140,000,000 to build a new hospital, a section of which bears his name as does a scholarship fund that was created in his honor.

Many others in our class would make meaningful contributions to society: a representative sample includes David Burner, a noted American historian, writer and academician, who is busy finishing a book on Iraq; Frank Rizzo, active in many aspects of the opera world, beginning with a long association with Gian Carlo Menotti, whose operas he directed, and, more recently, to having become the leader in the field of supertitling operas; Brent Wedding, whose work with optics has helped countless people with severe vision impairments see; and Doug Chapman, a major force as a pro-environmental lawyer in Canada, his home country. Becky and John Glezen continue to work tirelessly and effectively in support of gay and lesbian rights. And then there is Donn Andre, who must have done something terribly noteworthy all those years because he still won't tell us what it was.

Robert Ward McEwen was the president of the College when we were here. I do not recall having seen McEwen often, and neither was I aware of what he did nor thought about it. He certainly had the air of a college president — he wore three-piece tweed suits, smoked a pipe and had four separate sets of initials after his name in addition to his undergraduate degree. We were to learn, however, just how busy McEwen was, for he set in motion two activities — one of which we saw daily and the other of which we learned about later — that would change this institution profoundly and forever.

The activity that we knew about was the construction of Dunham dormitory, the first building of any consequence to be added to the campus in many years. It was needed because enrollment was increasing. The laying of the cornerstone was memorialized in a prescient doggerel by our classmate Allen Mellen that appeared in the College humor magazine and is remembered by Brent Wedding as follows:

"Oh Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, return to us we pray
The College doth have need of you upon this dreadful day
They're building dorms of cinder block, just facing them with stone
Come back and make McEwen for this foul deed atone."

Stryker did not return and Dunham was built. It was the first in a campus building-boom that has not abated. Many of the buildings that have been added are at best an architectural curiosity. Many have never functioned well for the purpose for which they were built and most appear to have been constructed without any deep thought about the future cost or practicality of their maintenance. The College Catalogue lists about 120 employees of the College who do nothing but maintain the buildings and grounds.

In time we would learn about another activity that occupied President McEwen: his plan to add so-called "coordinate colleges" on land to the south and west of Hamilton. The first college would be for women, would have a curriculum that would compliment that of Hamilton's by focusing on the arts and would be named for the visionary who began all this. The first class matriculated in 1968. At a time when brother institutions such as Williams and Dartmouth began to "go coed" by adding women incrementally to an existing operation, Hamilton went in a different direction and created a separate and unequal college for women. Ten years later, primarily for financial reasons, the two colleges merged.

In the corporate world, most mergers fail. In the not-for-profit world, as any physician whose hospital has merged will tell you, one grins and bears it and makes it work, the passage of time often being the key ingredient to ultimate success. The integration of the two colleges and the administration of the resulting entity have been complicated by the encroachment of the outside world. We led lives of splendid academic isolation here in a period of American hegemony a decade after our fathers and uncles had defeated the legions of Tojo, Mussolini and Hitler.

Tucked away in this beautiful spot, our contact with the outside world, and its with us, was limited to newspapers, radio, mail, occasional trips and infrequent use of the telephone, of which there were few on the entire campus. Television arrived while we were here, but it was in its infancy and served only as a modest and sporadic diversion.

By 1978, when we returned for our 20th reunion, America had witnessed the murders of President Kennedy, his brother Robert and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and had gone through the divisive and politicizing Vietnam War. Television had become ubiquitous, even here. The computer arrived soon thereafter, followed by the Internet and the Web. The world shrank and engulfed this hilltop, throwing up roadblocks to the pursuit of the educational mission and the academic freedom that was taken for granted when we were here.

Three years ago the College completed a six-year assessment project that had been funded with a Mellon Foundation grant. The purpose of the study was to determine how well Hamilton was doing in fulfilling its educational mission and to develop a metric for use by other colleges. The project focused on a handful of subjects, including an evaluation of the progress of student writing and the sophomore team-taught seminar requirement that was introduced in 2001. With regard to student writing, the report concluded that it improved materially from senior year in high school to sophomore year in college and then declined modestly during junior and senior years. There is no suggestion in the report of how well the writing of Hamilton students compared with that of students of other colleges. The sophomore seminar requirement was deemed a failure and has since been abandoned. The one element of the sophomore seminar requirement that was universally applauded by the students was the public speaking component.

Twenty years ago the College established the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center as a place where students could go to obtain help with their writing. The center is considered a success. It was the subject of a lengthy article in the Spring 2007 Alumni Review. While a faculty member oversees the Writing Center, and there are pictures of Professors Nesbitt and Johnston on the wall, the students who go there for help receive it from fellow students, presumably the way we did from our dormmates and fraternity brothers before submitting our papers to Professors Nesbitt and Johnston and the others.

The Mellon report and the article about the Writing Center have a common thread. While many students are pleased with their experience here, many others clearly would prefer a more collegial experience. They are trying to create their memories. They want there to be Golden Dice when they return to the campus. But it's not as easy as it used to be because the social and support systems that existed here are gone and have not been replaced. When we were here, most of us were members of one of the fraternities. When I refer to "fraternities" I mean the 12 buildings with their members that existed on this campus — the 10 fraternities that had national affiliations and two locals. More than 90 percent of the students were members of fraternities and soon after we left, a new system was implemented that guaranteed all students membership in a fraternity if that was their preference. The fraternity system wasn't perfect, but, on the whole, it not only worked well but was a material contributor to the educational process when we were undergraduates.

I joined the Psi Upsilon fraternity. Psi U, like all of the others, had exacting requirements for membership. At the risk of reprimand for revealing long-kept secrets, Psi U's requirements were the willingness to live in the house three years, to help pay the heating bills, not having too much in common with anyone else there and being able to afford the $20 per semester social dues, which says more about the social life we had when we were here than the frugality of our social chairman.

The fraternities provided a home away from home. The number of students in each varied from about 30 to more than 60. The fraternity houses were, for the most part, comfortable, well-kept places where many, if not most or all, of the upperclassmen lived, and where nearly all of the members sat down to eat together twice a day. With generally little guidance and/or financial support from alumni, and with a laissez-faire approach by the College, the students in the fraternity houses managed their own affairs, from the maintenance of the physical plant, the provision of food, the arrangement of social events and the resolution of issues that arose among the members.

The fraternity houses provided a manageable social unit in which the students freely discussed at all hours important matters, such as whether Mays or Mantle was the better center fielder, the fastest route to Saratoga Springs, or whether or not Penelope should have dated while Odysseus was away. And they provided a place where underclassmen could look to their seniors for advice and help with their studies. Fraternity living provided valuable lessons in how to get along with others. Lastly, the fraternities provided financial support for some by swapping board and/or room for work such as waiting on tables.

The fraternity system also contributed to the Hamilton education in another more subtle, and perhaps, even more important way. Not having to tend to the living and social needs of most of the students, the College could devote its energy and resources to the purpose for which it existed — a place for teachers to teach students who came here to learn. And teach they did. When we went home on vacation, we brought with us a secret that discretion dictated we keep to ourselves, but which we effusively revealed to our hometown friends after a beer or two. We knew that somewhere in the country, at one or another of the colleges like ours, there was a faculty as good as ours. But we knew that there was none better.

Before you all conclude that what had begun as a stroll down memory lane with some history thrown in has lapsed into the ranting of a curmudgeon who thinks we should bring back the fraternity system, let me be clear — I do not advocate its return. But I do advocate the continued evolution toward a living environment here that provides the educational benefits that flowed from the system that existed on this campus 50 years ago. Those benefits remain relevant and valuable.

Returning to Rudd's reckoning system, what will our grandchildren find when they return here in 50 years or so? We don't know, of course, but the College has embarked on a strategic planning process that should provide some answers. Eight subcommittees have been created, each with six core members: two faculty members, two from the administration, one trustee and one student. Each subcommittee is responsible for one or two items, with topics ranging from curriculum to the recruitment of faculty.

While all of the subjects being considered are important, it seems to me that one issue pervades and rises above them all. The College is a community. People live and eat here. Unless the College becomes energy self-sufficient and, to the extent practicable, obtains its food from local sources, the rising cost of those two expenses alone will preclude an ever-increasing number of worthy and desirable students from being able to come here. The College's financial aid resources, already overtaxed, will simply be unable to keep pace. Woollcott needed significant financial aid to come here; so did our classmates Burner, Chapman, Rizzo and Wedding.

Fortunately, this place was founded by a man of uncommon vision. If Samuel Kirkland had been a capitalist, he would have made a fortune in real estate. He understood the value of both buying early and location. That he selected a site of great beauty is not subject to debate. What even he may not have appreciated is that it appears that he also selected a site peculiarly well suited to the production of both energy and food. The College sits on a hilltop with open exposure to the sun and wind and is surrounded by some of the finest farmland in the country.

Hamilton has the opportunity to be the first college of its type to meet all of its energy needs from renewable sources. The entire College community could become involved in an historic endeavor. The benefits for recruiting, development and other activities are obvious. And, while the campus is being retrofitted to accommodate the new sources of energy, the living spaces can be tweaked to provide living units with many of the educational benefits that we enjoyed, each with a mix of students from all classes who have the opportunity to run their own affairs, with a faculty member or two in residence, a variation perhaps of the Harvard house system.

My time is up. I first came to Hamilton in the early fall of my junior year in high school to meet with Sidney Bennett, the director of admission. I remember few details of the meeting. What I do remember was my first sight of the campus as my father drove up the Hill and then around the quad to Root Hall. I thought that it was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen. And I thought that there was magic in the air above the grass out there. I still do.