Winton Tolles was the dean of Hamilton College for 25 years, beginning in 1947. That was his title in the catalogue; for the thousands of undergraduates who studied during his tenure as well as the faculty who were his associates, he was “The Dean.”
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1906, he received his A.B. from Hamilton in 1928. As an undergraduate, he earned letters in soccer, basketball and baseball. In his senior year he won the Clark Prize. After graduation he taught English at high schools, and he was an instructor in public speaking at Hamilton while earning an A.M. degree in 1931. His Ph.D. in English literature was received from Columbia University in 1940. His dissertation on the Victorian playwright Tom Taylor, originally published in 1940, was reissued in 1966 as an important contribution to literary and theatrical history. He taught English at Washington College from 1932 to 1942, and ended as chairman of the department. From 1942 to 1946, he served in the Navy and left its ranks as a lieutenant commander. In 1946-47, Tolles organized and founded Utica College of Syracuse University as its first chief officer. That summer he accepted appointment at Hamilton as dean and professor of English. He taught one section of Introduction to English Literature until 1955. Even though his class met at 8 in the morning, it was a section keenly sought by students.
Dean Tolles was not an educational leader who blazed new trails in shaping or teaching the liberal arts. When discoursing on the satisfaction of being dean in his “Farewell” Class & Charter Day address, he described his role best by modestly observing that his function was to help “improve the curriculum so that it more nearly approached the need of the present student in the present world.” And again later: “If I had one wish for Hamilton, it would be that over the next decade or more, Hamilton’s aim should be to do what we are doing now even better.”
In his office he had an enormous capacity for work, dealing, as he did in those precomputer days, with a Sahara of detail. In Professor George Nesbitt’s felicitous phrase, “Win’s peaceful coexistence with the faculty” was due to his qualities of “integrity, kindness … capacity for hard and incessant work, and an interest in a dedication to his job which made it possible for him … to carry the Dean’s Office around with him in his head.”
Win Tolles shone best as an advisor. A superb listener and questioner, the dean could encourage the faltering, able student and suggest new avenues of approach to those pointed in the wrong direction. He shored up parents oppressed by guilt and gently restrained those with excessive ambitions for their sons. He was, in the best sense, one of the last of the great, long-lasting intuitive deans whose tradition had begun with Thomas Arkle Clark at the University of Illinois in 1901.
On retirement Hamilton bestowed upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Delaware Valley College, which he had helped achieve accreditation, had also awarded him the degree of Doctor of Letters, and he went to serve there as assistant and acting president after his retirement from Hamilton in 1972. Among other activities, he had been chairman of more than 25 Middle States Association Accreditation committees. He enjoyed his membership on the board of directors of the Hayes National Bank, and it was at a meeting of the board that he suddenly died on November 18, 1980.
Professor Edwin Barrett, in the Alumni Review for Summer 1972, observed that “in all the time I had known Win, I had never seen a sign of his having any personal ego at all.” Winton Tolles should never have had, finally, to retire. It was the only phase in life for which he was unprepared.
Win had a tender and sensitive side that he left unrevealed to all but a few. It was inherent in this man of great sensibility, nurtured by his study and understanding of the works of English literature. One of his favorite poems was Shelley’s Ozymandias. It is, perhaps, fitting to close this memorial with what was one of his favorite lines, reflective of his attitude toward human frailty, including his own: “My name is Ozymandias, Kind of Kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”