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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Those Were the Days

William D. Mattern, Class of 1961

Delivered: June 2011

President Stewart, faculty, alumni, friends and fellow members of the Class of 1961, let me thank all of you for stopping by the Chapel today, a place with very special memories for all of us, to hear a few minutes of reflections on our years at Hamilton.

I am honored to have been asked by our reunion committee to be the class annalist. I wish to thank members of the committee for their help, friends at Hamilton for hosting my visits during the past year and, especially, members of the class for sending me their memories and reflections. I have included many of the stories, in your own words whenever possible, in an attempt to convey something about us and our experience at Hamilton as the decade of the 1950s drew to a close. One cautionary quote comes to mind at the outset, “A special need is served by the historian (in my case, amateur historian) who addresses the recent past, since it is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology.”

When Harry Thomas was speaking as the annalist for the Class of 1909, he began his remarks with the following: “Ever since the Civil War, which coincided with the end of the first 50 years of Hamilton College, at Commencements some member of the class celebrating its 50th anniversary has prepared the half-century annalist’s letter. It reviews, generally, the college life of the class, with special emphasis on the cows that were put in the Chapel belfry or on the president’s front porch; but also pays tribute to the great and outstanding men of the faculty.”

Let me begin by asking the members of the Class of 1961 to please rise and be recognized.

As I look around the campus today, part of me wishes we had waited until now to have our Hamilton experience. I am referring, of course, to the many attractive young … buildings dotting the campus.

Much as we admire the beauty of the expanded surroundings that make up Hamilton today, we would never wish to replace the experience we had here 50 years ago. It marked us forever, helped shape our values, pushed us to think and made a very determined four-year effort to make sure that we would be able to stand up and speak when called upon. I am counting on the success of that effort.

Well, a moment ago we were speaking of buildings. We had four which served as dormitories —South and Carnegie for the freshmen, with working fireplaces and the occasional fire, and Middle and North for the upperclassmen who did not live in fraternities. We had six others for instruction — Silliman Hall, which housed the Music Department; Benedict Hall of Languages; Root Hall, which in addition to classrooms contained the offices of Dean Winton Tolles, Associate Dean Sid Wertimer and Secretary of Admissions Sid Bennett; Truax Hall of Philosophy; the Chemistry Building; and the Science Building, which in addition to classrooms housed laboratories in physics, geology, biology, psychology and anthropology. The construction of the new freshman dorm, Dunham Hall, began in our freshman year and was completed during our second year. Several of us had the good fortune to live there in our junior and senior years as freshmen advisors.

We did have some memorable experiences in South and Carnegie during our freshman year. The catalogue for 1957 notes that, “all of the four existing dormitories have been modernized and redecorated in the past decade, and new furniture has been installed during the post-war years.” As I recall that furniture was showing some wear by the time we arrived in 1957. It goes on to note that, “the dormitories are now equipped with a Protecto-Wire automatic fire-alarm system for the protection of life and property.” It so happened that this very system resulted in a classic letter to the editor of the Spectator from members of our class. And excerpts from the text of this letter give you a good idea, in January of our first year, just how we were coming along with our logic and prose. It begins, “the fire alarm system in South Dorm is an object of ridicule. The alarms have been going off so often that most dormitory residents are ignoring them. … Not only is the fire alarm system a mockery, it has given rise to a highly unjust arrangement of fines for false alarms. … To guard our fire alarm system against jokers out for some excitement, we would have to set up an all-night guard. … Yet, we must pay $50 because we are responsible for somebody walking into one of our bathrooms at 1:30 in the morning, wrapping paper around the alarm wire and then igniting it.” By way of a solution, they suggest in their final paragraph that, “there must be a better and more practical system, although we are not in a position to be acquainted with specifics.” The letter is signed, “One floor of South Dorm.”

My guess is that one or more of the authors of this now-famous letter to the editor may be with us today. Would any of you like to raise a hand?

Our generation grew up with television, just as the current generation of students at Hamilton grew up with the Internet. As children we gathered around the only TV set in the neighborhood to watch Howdy Doody. By our teenage years most homes had one black-and-white TV. As the power of television advertising was recognized, programming on the three networks expanded, with the addition of live evening variety shows and the early sitcoms. By then, also, the networks had discovered the political power of live TV images, with the coverage of the McCarthy hearings in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the integration of a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the fall of 1957, just as we were arriving on the Hill.

I must admit to being only dimly aware of Little Rock when we arrived on September 13. We had virtually no access to television, and all of our attention was focused on addressing the details of our new lives as freshmen: buying books, arranging class schedules, attending fraternity pledge parties and participating in the tug-of-war across a pond with the Class of ’60. It was learning by immersion, except in the case of the tug-of-war, which we won. By the end of September, 80 percent of us had pledged fraternities. The College adopted delayed rushing two years later and added 100 percent opportunity so that anyone wishing to join a fraternity was able to do so.

Just a few months later, in November of 1957, Frank McGee, who rose to national prominence with his live video feeds of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, spoke in the Chapel on “The Meaning of Little Rock.” Later that year, my fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, decided to challenge a clause in the national charter restricting membership. As a result, the charter of the Hamilton chapter was revoked on October 1. The other fraternities without restrictions back then were TKE and ELS.

In March of 1960, the Student Senate at a special meeting decided to draft a letter to 50 colleges in the South and Northeast expressing “support for the peaceful demonstrations of Southern Negro students against segregated lunch counters.” The next day, 46 Hamilton students picketed the F.W. Woolworth store in Utica to protest against the chain’s segregation policies in the South. A report in the Alumni Review that May captured the reaction of the crowd: “One man observing the demonstration told the youths to ‘go back to Russia.’ Another spectator said he thought ‘Utica College’ would never come to this.” When told the pickets were actually from Hamilton, he said, “I don’t believe it.”

I don’t ever recall race being an issue at Hamilton. We did have several African-American students in our class as well as two students from other countries: one from Haiti and the other a Scotsman from George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. But, we were not what you might call in today’s language a diverse group. Apart from the disappointing fact of the times that we were all male, we were heavily concentrated geographically, extending only as far south as Delaware and Virginia and representing only 15 states. Of the 196 of us who started out, almost half were from New York, and two-thirds were from the Northeast.

Our generation was extremely fortunate. We sailed forth along with the burgeoning middle class on the rising tide of prosperity following WWII, with the U.S. at the peak of its power and influence, surrounded by innovation and the introduction of new material and productivity enhancements. We grew up in the calm between wars. We were too young to serve in the Korean War and too old to have our undergraduate education interrupted by the Vietnam War. Attending college was an ambition for many of us, and college was affordable. Total cost for us, including tuition, room and board, books and expenses, was about $2,000 a year. We pre-dated the drug culture by a decade and the HIV epidemic by two decades. The year before we graduated and ventured forth into the world, the birth control pill was introduced. And with great promise John F. Kennedy embarked on his all-too-brief presidency.

Many of us who needed extra money for college worked during the summer breaks and had part-time jobs during the school year. Almost no one graduated with debt; which brings me to the story of the “sandwich man.” Many of us remember in the freshmen dorms, at about 11 p.m., the call: “Ham sandwich and orange drink; Ham sandwich and orange drink!” As it so happens, the original sandwich man was in our class. He sent us this account: Having overstayed his allotted time at a nearby women’s college, he returned to the Hill one Saturday morning late, once again, for a class. As a result, he received a failing grade in that class and lost his scholarship. While pondering his future, he recalled that the cook at his fraternity had a daughter who might be interested in making a little extra money. He hired her to assemble the sandwiches and other goodies, which he then carried around the dorms in the evening in a milk crate. He soon realized that young men grew especially hungry at about 11 p.m. Once they tried the sandwiches they were hooked. He kept selling out early so he hired other fraternity brothers to help and to share in the profits. Soon he had more than enough to pay for his tuition, books and for an occasional date in Utica, from which he always returned on time.

We read earlier this year of the disturbing results of a survey of 200,000 entering college freshmen, a survey they have been repeating for the past 25 years. Freshmen now, they found, have increasing concerns about their future, about accumulating debt during college and finding a job after graduation. We congratulate the College for adopting a need-blind admission policy and for making a commitment, with financial help from all of us, to help make it possible.

I don’t recall any of us ever being concerned about finding a job after graduation. In fact, our main concern was doing the work of our education. We discovered that, indeed, it was work, harder, more demanding and requiring more individual effort than we had expected. On November 13 of our first year, mid-semester course warnings were sent out to 226 students, over a quarter of the total enrollment. We managed to snare over 100 of those warnings, a big surprise to us, but not so much to our professors.

Many previous speakers have mentioned the honor system at Hamilton and the sense of pride they found in being responsible for functioning under it and for administering it. One of us, from abroad, who had never experienced a system like it, was especially impressed when he had the occasion to see the system in action, run by the students of the Honor Court, who carefully gathered evidence and deliberated to reach a fair and just conclusion in a complicated situation.

Snow was nothing new to most of us, but we had two monster snowstorms, both in February, one in 1958 and the other in 1960. They completely transformed the look of the campus. When the walks were cleared, the snow was piled so high that we could only see straight ahead while walking. Cars were buried, statues were buried, and a blanket of snow covered everything. The snowstorm of 1960 began on the Friday of Winter Carnival Weekend. The Lionel Hampton band had arrived safely and played a scheduled concert. Their next stop was Colgate, but they never made it; they were snowed in with us. A fraternity brother at ELS offered them lodging, food and all they could drink. In return, Lionel and the band generously agreed to jam without pay for the rest of the weekend. As they set up in the downstairs living room at ELS, word slowly spread. A large crowd soon began to gather at ELS. An epic party was under way. The furniture was pushed out of the way, and the rugs were rolled back. Lionel, with his xylophone, and the rest of the band went to work, dominating the scene without stopping through the night and into the next day. Thinking the party was over, one of us arrived at the fraternity that afternoon with parents in tow. When he opened the front door, his parents were greeted by the sound of drum beats, the smell of stale beer and the sight of a die-hard partygoer sliding toward them on his knees across the glistening tile floor, body arched backward, face uplifted with a look of growing consternation as he coasted to a stop at their feet. Some years later, a classmates who was at the party spoke with Lionel after a concert in Paris. He asked him whether he remembered that night. Lionel laughed and declared, “Oh yes I do.”

One of the advantages of being at Hamilton was the opportunity to participate in activities such as sports, singing and the theater without having great natural talent. It is true that we had some excellent athletes and singers and some above-average actors and directors. In fact, one of my early experiences was in golf. I was thinking about trying out for the team since I had played in high school, so I went to a few practices to see what it would be like. One day at practice I happened to be standing behind one of the other golfers while he hit a shot off the first fairway. I had never seen anything like it: the ball just exploded off the club-head, streaked off low to the ground and then rose gradually in the distance to settle softly on the green. As the saying goes in golf, “He was playing a game with which I was not familiar.” That golfer was Ward Wettlaufer, the Hamilton College golf captain. Earlier that September, after being paired with Jack Nicklaus in the Walker Cup matches, he had defeated odds-on favorite Billy Joe Patton in the second round of the U.S. Amateur Championship.

On the reverse side of the coin, so to speak, is the football team. One of our classmates sent me a note pointing out a fact that was startling to his non-Hamilton friends. Of the 1961 class on the football team, all went on to receive advanced degrees: one M.D., four J.D.s and two Ph.D.s.

The choir was an excellent example of the opportunity to participate with modest talent, in this case with exceptional results due to the magical ability of John Baldwin to take some 70 students (more than 10 percent of the student body), some of whom had studied music but virtually none of whom had majored in it, and meld them into an amazing musical organization. The choir sang at Sunday evening chapel services, at Smith College with the Smith Glee Club, at concerts in New York City with the Smith, Radcliffe and Vassar choirs, and during a spring tour to Washington, D.C., in the rotunda of the National Art Gallery and at the National Cathedral. No one could understand how John managed to achieve such wonderful and exciting musical experiences without the benefit of trained singers. Thanks to this start with the Hamilton Choir, many of us have continued to sing with groups throughout our lives. The choir, by the way, was a great way to meet women from other colleges.

There were many great and outstanding men of the faculty, many of whom are mentioned with respect and fondness in the comments that were sent to me. George Nesbitt was one. He became the chairman of Hamilton’s English Department in 1952. He was a devoted admirer and former student of his predecessor, Robert Rudd, professor of English literature, known to all students as “Bobo.” Unfortunately for us, Bobo retired from the faculty in June of our first year at Hamilton. He was tapped for Pentagon here in the Chapel on Class & Charter Day in 1958. He did speak and read from poems at the Squires Club Lecture in the spring of that year on the topic of realism, the kind of literary realism, he said, which creates an immediacy of experience for the reader — “the moment made real.” And George Nesbitt, in describing the impact of his teaching on students over the years said that you can see what is going on in his mind when he “almost literally reads into you” a poem which becomes a part of you.

Professor Nesbitt, himself, frequently read to us in class. Some of us remember well his reading of The Canterbury Tales. He always found an encouraging word, even as his pencil slashed through a badly written essay, in the process turning it into something quite respectable. He was somewhat small and shy with a very large heart and, unknown to most of us, a photographic memory. This was on display when he presented himself rather apologetically to the Honor Court holding a student essay and an old magazine. Apparently, while he was grading a student essay he realized he had read the words sometime before. After reflecting, it came to him where. A trip to the library confirmed his suspicion. There before the court were the words of the essay, in a 1938 issue of the Readers Digest. This good-hearted professor was a bit sad that his memory was so complete and his responsibilities so clear.

Sid Wertimer was another. One of our classmates recalls sitting in Sid’s office, a command appearance for what he describes as a “minor disciplinary matter,” when the phone rang and Sid was summoned to put on his volunteer fireman’s hat and head out. The Park Hotel in Clinton had caught fire. It was quite a fire. The temperature was zero degrees, and the water froze almost as soon as it left the hose. The disciplinary discussion was suspended, never to be resumed. Years later Sid invited that same student on several occasions to speak to his accounting class. The story about that encounter was always a well-received part of Sid’s introduction of him to the class.

Dean Tolles was always there, quietly in the background, although he had a way of appearing up front every now and then with rather dramatic effect. A favorite place to study in the evenings was the classrooms. It was quiet and you could find a big desk with a nice flat surface to lay out your books and papers. An even better place, discovered by one of us, was the dean’s inner office in Root Hall. His desk was always clear and he had a large comfortable chair. One night, while our classmate was there at the desk enjoying the comfort of the chair, in walked the dean, hat in hand, peeling off his overcoat. “Oh, hello,” he said, “I’m just picking up a few things. Stay where you are. I’ll only be a minute.” He walked over to his filing cabinet, took out a few papers, turned and said, “I forgot to take these with me; chilly out there.” And, off he went, without another word. At another time, he reached out to one of us through a postcard in the mail at mid-term break. It read: “You continue to be a marked underachiever.” The postcard did not go unnoticed.

Ours was the first class to participate in the independent study program. As I was waiting in the wings to take my final, independent-study oral examination, I realized after several minutes that Dean Tolles had quietly come up to stand beside me, observing the student who was then being quizzed by his departmental committee. I said, “I believe you had something to do with this.” He smiled and said, “Yes, I did.” He had worked hard to help design and shepherd it through the approval process.

A memorable event at Hamilton was the speech by Doctor Tom Dooley to a capacity audience in the Chapel in October of our junior year. Doctor Dooley had just returned from Laos where he had provided medical care to thousands of fleeing North Vietnamese and helped establish hospitals for their care. Earlier he spent several months working in Africa with Albert Schweitzer. His story was one of selfless devotion under extreme conditions. At the end he said he usually concluded his talks by asking for donations of $5,000. Dean Tolles, who was sitting in the front row, rose immediately, proceeded to the podium and wrote out a check.

It was a special event when the faculty invited us into their homes. Bobo Rudd did so often, with bourbon, books, poems and lively conversation, even in his later years with us. Gene Long, our track coach and a former Marine, would set a decathlon and participate in it with the students each spring. If he beat you, you bought him a milkshake; if you came in first or second, he invited you to his home for a steak dinner. He also had a pizza party at his home for the whole cross-country team. Wally Johnson invited his class to his home for playreading as the senior-year speech requirement. Others, like Channing Richardson and Jim Brown, also held classes in their homes. A small group of students in our class read books and articles for a senior seminar on The Role of Science in the Modern World in preparation for discussions with President McEwen at his home on Sunday nights, along with homemade cookies courtesy of Mrs. McEwen. And, of course, there were Sid and Ellie Wertimer, who hosted groups of us in their home on many occasions.

Those of us here for the reunion, and all of you who are part of the more immediate Hamilton community, probably read the article by Sara Rimer in The New York Times in January of this year on a new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum. She describes an “unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates at 24 U.S. colleges and universities through four years of college from 2005 to 2009. It found that large numbers did not learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.” She goes on to report that, “many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event.”

Rest assured, these were not students at Hamilton College: not in our day and not now. The faculty and leadership here simply would not permit it, including the five members of our class who have served on the Board of Trustees. They urged and encouraged us to stretch to acquire these skills.

In the springtime of our senior year, as we relaxed in the sun or tossed a Frisbee around on the lawns in front of the dorms and fraternity houses, we knew we had done something and been somewhere. We had each done it on our own, but we had been here together and done it with their help. There was a bond, there is a bond, and that bond still draws us together across whatever else separates us: a shared appreciation of that exceptional educational experience. So, here’s to you, Hamilton, from the Class of 1961.