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Half-Century Annalist Letters

1956-1960: A Time of Tradition — A Time of Change

Preston Zucker, Class of 1960

Delivered: June 2010

I would like to thank Frank Lorenz and Maurice Isserman for their help with this presentation, but “this is my own work unless otherwise indicated.”

Our four years at Hamilton a half-century ago occurred at the beginning of great change. Now whether change represents progress is often a point of view, but the price of change is always the loss of the past, which is the loss of tradition. Were the changes worth the price? I’ll let you decide.

We arrived at Hamilton 187 strong, swelling Hamilton’s total enrollment to 650. We were the last of the Silent Generation, having been told to listen and not talk, certainly not talk back. Sixty percent of us were from the upper academic one-third of public schools and 35 percent from the upper two-thirds of prep schools. Sid Bennett, the director of admissions, justified this discrepancy, saying that prep schools had already screened their students and their parents were financially better off, saving scarce financial aid. Our class continued the Hamilton custom of admitting only 10 percent Jews and at most two or three African-Americans.

Hamilton was not well known nationally, very Protestant and quaintly provincial, only recently substituting French, Spanish and German for Greek and Latin. “It’s a small liberal arts school in upper New York State” soon became our mantra. The large majority of us were from the Northeast. Our president, Sandy McEwen, was a Presbyterian minister who forbade the playing of Dixieland jazz on Sunday. If the Hamilton of our day had a College mascot, it would have been the wasp.

My Hamilton was different from most of my classmates because I am a New York Jew. My ­parents had never seen Hamilton before driving me and my belongings to campus that fall. My father looked around at the other parents, whose clubs he would never have been permitted to join, and asked me whether I was sure I would be OK here.

I began to wonder whether he was right on the second week of the semester during fraternity rushing, an eye-opening and devastating experience for me. Eighty-four percent of the class joined fraternities. My four roommates were being rushed by crowds of upperclassmen while I watched. Finally someone from Squires sought me out. They also knew who was Jewish. Squires’ open enrollment attracted a mixture from New York City and a wonderful, eclectic group of oddballs.

In our junior year, one of my freshman roommates was in an auto accident, suffering an incapacitating injury. Only then did one of his fraternity brothers reveal to me over many beers that this former freshman roommate had volunteered to pledge with any of the four fraternities wooing him if they would also accept me. However their ­charters restricted membership to white Christians. Rush week was a bad week for me, but that anonymous, selfless act defined my experience at Hamilton. From that week onward I never experienced the least bit of discrimination from any member of the Hamilton community. My father was wrong. He was seeing his generation, not mine.

Tuition was $800 per year. Room and board in the dorms and Commons were $700 a year. Health care was free but accidental medical insurance was an extra $12. Accounting for inflation, tuition, room and board in today’s money would be $11,700.

Many have attributed the escalation to the $50,000 fees of today to what some have called the College’s “edifice complex.” On our watch, for the first time in 30 years, new buildings were built, the Rudd Health Center and Dunham dorm, as the trustees and President McEwen forsook their conservative ideals and Scottish thrift seduced by a $1.5 million federal grant. Dunham was built to strict federal building guidelines. So we had adorning our campus a cinderblock building with hallways that doubled as bowling alleys. At least the trustees convinced the feds to allow them to hide their shame by facing it, at Hamilton’s expense, in our traditional Oriskany dolomite.

Another possible contributor to fee escalation might be the proliferation of administrators. In 1956, all 23 of the administration were housed in Buttrick Hall. Today there are 209 administrators, excluding staff, while the faculty remains at the same student-to-faculty ratio. As I said, whether change is progress is often a matter of opinion.

Most of us were housed in South dormitory where the hall fire hoses exerted their siren call for water fights. We were cutting-edge hi-tech for our day. We had ballpoint pens, slide rules and were converting our monophonic 33 1/3 records to stereo. Only the fraternities had televisions, albeit black-and-white, that on a good atmospheric day could receive three channels. There were pay telephones on the ground floor of every dorm. It was the duty, not always cheerfully rendered, of inhabitants of ground-floor rooms to answer the phone and give a shout to the intended recipient. Our isolation increased in 1959 when all 2,800 phones in Clinton were converted to the dial system eliminating the friendly female operator with whom we would occasionally flirt or place fictitious calls just to hear a female voice.

Although New York City’s Journal American featured headlines that read, “Utica, Sin City of the East” (the houses of ill-repute actually had parking-lot attendants), the town of Clinton and campus were pristine. Hamilton’s reputation as the prettiest New England College in New York was deserved. We had snow on the ground from Thanksgiving to Easter and snow banks 12 feet tall against Sage Rink. It was cold — 19 below zero. We did not have a carbon footprint; we had a ­carbon crater. Our uniform was chinos and ­button-down oxford shirts with a boat-necked sweater covered by an army surplus khaki parka. Ties and jackets were required for dinner in Commons.

We lost the elms to Dutch Elm Disease. But when J.J. Ledzelter cut down the stately poplars, it led to a huge protest. Willard Bostwick “Swampy” Marsh bemoaned, “I shall sniff in vain for that subtle fragrance when the spring rains come again.” You might guess he was professor of oratory. It is sobering to think that many of the beautiful shade trees that now adorn the campus were planted when we were students.

To furnish our rooms, the Utica Salvation Army resale shop was our Ikea. Martha Stewart would have had a stroke, but at least you didn’t have to worry about spilled beer. Women were not permitted in the dorm from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. The upper floors of the fraternities were the women’s sleeping quarters on houseparty weekends, and chaperones were required. My only encounter with the Ledzelters was when they were chaperoning at Squires. I had to calm Mrs. Ledzelter when an unknown student had mistakenly tried to climb into her second-floor window. Upon seeing Mrs. Ledzelter, the student wisely retreated into anonymity.

In our junior year the dean found out that there were three women living in the dorms in what was euphemistically called co-habitation. We were sure the cleaning women must have finally squealed. The men were temporarily ­suspended for 10 days. Most of us were envious.

To say that Hamilton was known as a wet ­campus is akin to saying the Atlantic Ocean is damp. Utica Club and Genesee advertised on almost every page of every Spectator. So did Chesterfield, Viceroy cigarettes and Old Spice. One ad that caught my eye on reading old Spectators was for a Fiat 600 that could do 60 miles per hour on 22 horsepower for $1,463. Chrysler will be importing a Fiat 600 next year at about 15 times the price. See what I mean about progress?

But back to beer. Drinking was omnipresent. Many classes were held informally at a faculty member’s home over beers. Alteri’s was a favorite study hall with the Alexander Hamilton Inn for the more sophisticated. Six-packs were constantly cooling on dorm windowsills. However all of this drinking paled when compared to the consumption at houseparties. Dates arrived on Friday, but most of us already had a head start. They ended on Sunday with a “Thank God They’re Gone” party. DKE was reported to have devoured 40 kegs of beer in one weekend. A keg holds 62½ quarts. The campus and fraternities were littered with passed-out couples, and it would take a week before the cleaning women rid the houses of the smell of beer and vomit. We had a great time — at least we think we did. In truth, it’s hard to remember much.

By today’s standard, indeed any standard, such abuse of alcohol is no laughing matter. I distinctly remember alcohol-related automobile fatalities every year, usually in the winter driving back from some women’s college. Fortunately we didn’t kill anyone else, just ourselves, but the pressures of the curriculum, isolation and release from rigid parental control on a basically macho culture had a very predictable overreaction.

The curriculum was tough. Weekly 1,000-word themes, prodigious reading and merciless grading led to an academic warning rate of 40 percent in our freshman year. I soon learned that I was extremely competent in a foreign language called jargon. We were on the honor system and took it very seriously.

We were compelled to take four years of public speaking, which, although fear inducing, most of us feel was probably the most valuable part of our education. Swampy Marsh’s comment on Ed Chaitman’s first presentation was, “We must work on your regional difference, Mr. Chaitman.” Chaitman is from Forest Hills. Swampy retired in our senior year after 40 years on the Hamilton faculty.

Freshman Chemistry brought pre-med dreams back to reality with a crash. The famous student quote was, “On the first day, Professor Yourtee walked in the classroom and said, ‘Good morning class,’ and those were the last words I understood.” But the real test of the pre-meds was Quantitative Analysis and we all knew it. Careers hung in the balance.

There was an arduous experiment which produced a yield that looked and smelled exactly like cookie crumbs. As a joke, I carefully weighed out some real cookie crumbs and presented them to Dr. Cratty for extra credit. Only then did I realize that a confession would be equally as embarrassing for him as for me. At least that is the way I rationalized my silence. This was not to be the end of my life of academic crime. Stay tuned.

As an atheist, the most grueling requirement for me was compulsory chapel. The student handbook described the chapel services as non-denominational. I soon realized that my definition of non-denominational and Hamilton’s differed widely. I was more at home with Jewish services, student led, in the basement of Clinton’s Methodist church. This brings me to another confession. But to understand the context, I have to acquaint you with one of the cast of campus characters otherwise known as the faculty.

The head character was Dean Winton Tolles ’28. Peter Falk ’49 might have patterned his famous detective Columbo after Dean Tolles. But Dean Tolles was the caricature of Columbo, not the other way around. Many have characterized the dean’s unique way to motivate you, brief, but oh so to the point. To the student thinking of dropping out, he might start his sentence with, “Putting the draft aside for now…” To the student misbehaving, “Let’s not involve your parents this time…” To me, after I called to inform him one Sunday evening that I was at Russell Sage and the highway patrol had closed the Thruway because of snow, he said, “Your excuse from classes expires three hours after the Thruway opens.”

My other significant encounter with Dean Tolles was when, out of boredom, I requested that I might be allowed to fulfill my junior year chapel requirement by attending services at different denominational churches in the area. Without a second of hesitation he approved, unfortunately adding, “I would like to read a three-page paper on your experience. Submit it directly to me.” And so my next confession, I still owe the dean that paper.

By far the most eccentric of the faculty was Robert Barnes “Bobo” Rudd, professor of English. He retired during our stay, and our contact with him was too brief. The stories of him riding to various fraternity parties on horseback wrapped in a black cape with his black standard poodle by his side were legendary. His ability to read English poetry was inspiring. I had the pleasure of inviting him to deliver the Squire’s lecture in the Chapel. He read English poetry with tears streaming down his face to a packed house of enthralled students and faculty members.

Another reading that was always to standing room only was of Robert Burn’s poetry by the dean of the Chapel, Reverend Colin Miller. Dr. Miller’s thick Scottish brogue lent a wonderful musicality if not intelligibility to the poems. He was also the faculty advisor to the Charlatans, our drama group, founded by Alexander Woollcott ’09 — that’s 1909. After writing a scathing review of a Charlatans’ presentation in my best Brooks Atkinson style, Dr. Miller called me into his office. In righteous indignation I proclaimed the truth of everything I had written. His response was to point out that even a child knows how to tell the truth, but a man knows how to say it with kindness. A life lesson I have never forgotten.

The staid, traditional professor gave way to a more casual style personified best by Sidney Wertimer, professor of economics. Popular as an economics professor, teaching with his feet on the desk, and even more popular as an associate dean, a newly created position as the administration began multiplying like rabbits on Viagra. One of the duties of the new office was to drive the Hamilton College fire truck, which was manned by the junior honor society Was Los. At one fall houseparty, some enthusiastic DKEs bought a clunker, hack sawed the top off and used it to stoke up the crowd at the rally bonfire and football game. Having served its purpose, the DKEs gave it a Viking funeral late Saturday night. But somehow flames leaping into the night from a fraternity packed with visiting women attracted a little attention. Roaring down the hill came the venerable fire truck with Was Los in varying states of inebriation hanging on for dear life and Dean Wertimer with his overcoat pulled tightly over his pajamas. There was great speculation at the next chapel assembly about disciplinary action, but Dean Wertimer’s only comment was, “Although the fire truck works very well at 2 a.m., the associate dean does not.” If finger snapping, the only applause permitted in the Chapel, could ever be called deafening, it was then. It is only fitting that the former DKE house is now named after Dean Wertimer.

Each of us has stories of favorite professors. But one of mine well illustrates my central theme of change. Walter Hess, professor of biology, was our medical school advisor. Although he wrongly predicted that I would not be accepted at Columbia because they never accepted two Jews from any school, to the pre-meds he was god. There were occasionally one or two applicants that were not accepted by any medical school. Dr. Hess would then call some admission officer and personally vouch for the applicant. To my knowledge, none of the 20-30 pre-meds at Hamilton ever failed to gain medical school acceptance. Walter Hess announced his retirement our senior year after 32 years at Hamilton.

I now come to my final confession. Hamilton encouraged independent study and so to enhance my credentials for medical school, I completed a three-year study on alcohol and its effect on rats, giving me free access to the lab’s supply of ethyl alcohol. For those of you who never took Chemistry 101, when you dilute laboratory ethyl alcohol 50/50 with water, you get a substance commonly called 100-proof vodka. Unfortunately Hamilton’s water was so hard that it formed a mineral precipitate when mixed with lab ethanol necessitating a tedious filtering procedure, but it also cemented Squires’ reputation for having the most potent houseparty punch on the Hill.

Coaches Greg Batt, Chip Hunter and Don Jones improved our sports program culminating in our years as Hamilton’s first and only undefeated football team. Our track team won the New York State championship. Our hockey team was even more extraordinary. Matched against the top hockey powerhouses, we achieved the second-best record in the East. It is only just that I single out for praise one student hockey player among our many hockey all-stars. Hamilton’s prior four-year record for goals scored was 90. Tim Norbeck scored 168 in his four years, making everyone’s national all-star team.

By far the most popular extracurricular activity was music. In order to remember the time, you must remember the names. Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio were the beginning of the folk music decade. Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Nat King Cole helped us out when slow dancing was as close as we ever got to foreplay. Elvis Presley was just making a name for himself. John Lennon could not even legally buy a beer. From jazz performances at houseparties by Les Elgart, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton and Billy Butterfield, harmonies by the a capella Buffers, barbershop quartets or Bach’s B minor Mass by the choir, we were immersed in music. But our pride and joy was the choir which John Baldwin so energetically developed into a nationally recognized male voice. They toured the nation performing with choirs from Columbia, Vassar, Crane School of Music and, most memorably, with Smith in St. Thomas Cathedral simulcast on mutual ­network radio.

We pulled our share of pranks, some clumsy like the ill-fated attempt to steal a moose head from a Utica bar while someone staged an epileptic seizure to distract the bartender. The TKEs wedging the VW bug of their national representative between two trees was caught on camera. But the most diabolical was when some classmates made a full-sized replica of a stop sign and drove around in town with it sticking up from their convertible. After being stopped by the local gendarmes a ­couple of times, the annoyed officers spread the word on the radio that the stop sign was not ­genuine. The next morning, about a dozen purloined genuine stop signs mysteriously appeared on the main quadrangle. Sometimes I think Dean Tolles’ main duty was keeping us out of jail.

But change was accelerating at Hamilton and in the country. The Chapel was illuminated for all to see. The home of the Root family was donated to become the Root Art Center. Hamilton started the Junior Year in France program under Professor Marcel Moraud. Homecoming became an official weekend event. Jascha Kessler became the second Jew ever to be on the faculty. Continuing the B.F. Skinner ’26 tradition, Professor John Blyth was given a $200,000 grant to develop a teaching machine leading to panic among the faculty.

In 1958, the Student Council proposed “Total Opportunity Bidding” modeled after the policy at Williams College, assuring every freshman an assignment to a fraternity. It drew fireworks among students, influential alumni and trustees. Lindsley Schepmoes wrote a sarcastic article implying that the trustees were trying to torpedo Total Oppor­tunity while the faculty was clandestinely trying to destroy the fraternity system. He was summarily removed from his position as editor-in-chief of The Spectator by the Publications Board and banned from any Hamilton publication. The actual events will probably never be known, but the life lesson was clear. Speak the truth to power at your own peril. Although many of the fraternities insisted on retaining their white Christian traditions, the adoption of Total Opportunity in April of 1959 signaled the demise of the old system.

The Annual Presbyterian Synod at Hamilton in the summer of 1958 voted to commend the NAACP for its work. The local Lambda Chi Alpha chapter passed a nondiscriminatory resolution and was ejected by the national shortly followed by TKE. An African-American was elected president of the Class of ’61. In March of 1960, 46 of us picketed Woolworth in Utica protesting its southern segregation policy, followed by a ­Student Senate resolution supporting Negro ­college students in their peaceful demonstrations in the South. We had come a long way from the Spectator headline in our freshman year announcing “Negro to Sing Next Week,” to the headline in our senior year about the Woolworth protest, “Hamilton’s Finest Moment.”

We may have entered as the Silent Generation, and we were not yet hippies when we exited, but we had changed. Hamilton made us men who could think and act independently. It had changed us, but we had changed Hamilton. And that was not the end. After leaving Hamilton, we continued to change our communities, our country and in some cases, the world. Now, when we are just happy to be on this side of the grass, it is history’s judgment whether it was progress or not.