Editor's Note: On March 12, 2005, Jim Memmott '64, senior editor at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, wrote a column for his paper that began:
"My alma mater, Hamilton College, has been in the news of late, even making it onto talk radio. The attention came when a program at the college invited a controversial speaker -- Ward Churchill -- to come to the campus. Churchill had written an essay that in part blamed the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for the attacks. Many people objected to his planned presence at Hamilton, which is in Clinton, Oneida County, near Utica. Others argued, for the sake of academic freedom, if nothing else, that he should be allowed to speak. On Feb. 1, the college president canceled the speech, saying that death threats against her and Churchill raised serious issues of public safety.
As it happened, on that same day, Sidney Wertimer, a longtime professor of economics at Hamilton, died. He was 84. For generations of Hamilton students, and certainly for me, that death was bigger news than the controversy surrounding Churchill. Controversies, however serious, come and go. Sidney Wertimer, on the other hand, had staying power."
Indeed, to legions of alumni Sidney Wertimer and Hamilton College are synonymous, and the death of the longtime professor of economics left a void in the lives of generations of his former students.
Soon after his passing, the College mailed to readers of the Alumni Review a booklet that honored the memory of Professor Wertimer and invited additional tributes. What follows are just a few of the many reflections that were shared. Additional alumni reflections and the complete memorial biography of Sidney Wertimer are also available.
Hamilton College was blessed, for 52 years, with the inimitable presence of Sidney Wertimer. He was quite a package:
Institutions honor their heroes with treasured ceremony: Washington, D.C., has its monuments; the Boston Garden had jerseys hanging from its rafters; forts are named in honor of military heroes; cities and rivers are named for explorers and adventurers; and colleges, too, have their traditions. It is entirely appropriate that Hamilton College have a Wertimer chair, a Wertimer scholarship and a Wertimer Hall.
Now I hear Sidney talking to us and saying, "Enough ... enough already," with emphasis as always on an unexpected syllable.
Nevertheless, we should today elevate Sidney Wertimer's memory to the galaxy overlooking Hamilton College. Let his name be on the celestial honor roll that includes Kirkland, Skenandoa, Root, Eells, Stryker, Bristol, Couper and Tolles. He belongs in their company, and I am honored to move that the board of trustees acknowledge with acclamation the 52 years of dedicated service of Sidney Wertimer.
— Joel Johnson '65, speaking at the March meeting of Hamilton's Board of Trustees
When I think of Sidney Wertimer, I turn the old maxim around just as he did: "Fail not to see the trees for the forest." Focus on trees, not the forest. Focus on individuals, not the class. Sidney Wertimer didn't say this to me; he lived it. He loved trees and knew every tree on campus by name. Knew what each one could become. Knew what mix of nurture, shaping and pruning each one needed. Similarly, he knew something about every student who entered Hamilton in the five decades he blessed the College with his presence. No other teacher or professor any of us ever knew in any school before or after Hamilton did that. He cared for us as individuals in his unique way.
He knew our names before we knew his -- knew where we were from, had ideas about what we could become. Right from the first time we saw him, he delighted in surprising us with what he knew. "Hello, John. How was your summer in Riverside?" (Who is this man with the bow tie, this man I've never met? How does he know me on sight? What else does he know?)
Christ told a parable about trees. Cut off every branch that fails to bear fruit. Make the tree stronger and bear fruit by shaping it. Sidney lived that parable: Focus not on what young students are now; focus on what they can become, even if they don't know it yet. He understood the paradox; he knew pruning was part of nurturing. In time, he made us understand it. He changed us for the better. We each have our stories of how he did that.
Sidney knew how to forgive too. He judged our merits and our faults. When he knew that our faults, despite all his shaping and our attempts to grow, were still tipping the balance against us, he added the weight of his grace to what we lacked, tipping the balance back in our favor. Examples of what he told me when I was uncertain are these: "I'll be your advisor for your one-year independent study on endowment management. Send a summary of it to the Hamilton trustees. They'll read it. Nothing you put on paper ever goes away. I'll write your recommendation for Harvard Business School." He started me on my way to becoming a trustee of Hamilton and my career in investment management. He changed my life.
Sidney knew our families. Over time, we knew his. Thank you Ellie, Tom, Sheila, Peter and Steve for sharing Sid with us. All of you have always turned our concerns for you right back into your concern for us, just as he did.
"It's not easy being married to a judge, especially now that she officially is one, and in my hometown, too. You can't get away with anything," Sidney once told me. Ellie, you clearly influenced Sidney and interpreted his subtler and even unexpressed thoughts about us over the years. You focused on us and knew us all by name, too. Ellie, I learned just as much from you as I did from Sidney. It just took time for me to understand this fully.
So, my Dad and I are taking this opportunity now to add your name to the prize scholarship we established three decades ago. Adding your name, it is now the Sidney and Eleanor Wertimer Prize Scholarship in Economics; it will always honor both of you.
I'll never forget Mr. Wertimer's response when I tentatively inquired as to the meaning of the big "G" he had scrawled across the top of my first economics exam: "GOD ... AWFUL!" What a wonderful teacher and mentor to so many of us.
In 1960 my son Carl was a freshman at the College. Late one night in October I was told that his mother was dying. In desperation I called the College and was connected to Sid, whom I did not know at the time. He rose from his bed, located my son in his dorm, secured a ride to Syracuse for him, and Carl reached his mother's bedside before her death.
It is a night we shall never forget and for which he shall ever be remembered. I am certain I am not the only beneficiary of his humanity and dedication.
In February 1978, my friend Jim Doyle ['81] and I decided that we could meet girls by sending Valentines through campus mail. We went downtown, bought boxes of the little classroom cards and mailed out a couple hundred to the few women we knew ... and the many we didn't.
We had extras, so I began sending Valentines to everyone I could think of ... including Hamilton's entire administration. I wanted to see if anyone had a sense of humor.
The following morning at 8:30 a.m., I was awakened by a phone call: "Mr. Kaplan, the provost wants to see you. Please be in his office at 9 o'clock."
I had never met Sid Wertimer, and the call startled me enough to forget about the Valentines. Was I failing something? Had Wertimer somehow learned about the cinderblocks my roommates and I had just lifted from the field house construction for furniture?
I showered, dressed and hurried over to Buttrick where Sid greeted me with a slap on the back, a handshake and a thank-you for the Valentine. I was invited to sit in the dark, homey office, and we talked about everything for the better part of the hour.
Unfortunately, the Valentines-through-campus-mail scheme didn't do much for my social life, but I did gain a friend in Sid -- and that was pretty good for a freshman living in Dunham.
Three courses with Sid freshman year yielded me no more than a "Gentleman C" despite my interest and effort. Sid advised so gently and sagely: "Mr. Baker, what else are you good at and enjoy?" "Well, government, sir. I get all A's and it comes sort of natural to me." Thus did the good professor gently exit me from the Economics Department and nudge me to where my natural talents and interests lie. Ultimately toward a career in law and lobbying in DC that has been satisfying both personally and professionally. While not appreciated at the time, Sid's counsel revealed itself to be his gift, like the gift he freely gave so many others, including my own son who Sid advised as a freshman last year.
Over the decades I often thanked Sid for his wonderful gift even as we talked about so many other things. My last exchange with Sid occurred in December. Standing on the quiet, down-lighted doorstep of the New-York Historical Society, I asked if I could call him a cab. "No, I will handle it." "Well then, good night, Professor." "And Merry Christmas to you, George!" I walked off, leaving Sid silhouetted in the lamplight. I did not know then that a 35-year conversation had ended.
Merry Christmas indeed, Sid, and thanks for your gift, which has made all the difference.
Totally charmed by this man, I quickly agreed to visit Hamilton to interview "his students" (remember, in the early '70s, unlike today, about half of Wharton's students came directly from undergraduate studies). So I did. But, and this is crucial, I didn't visit Colgate -- remember, I was a "rookie" in admissions. Colgate found out about my visit to Hamilton, and the appropriate people were coldly furious. "Unfortunate" was the term they used in a letter to my boss. Sid was delighted!
He was a wonderful man, and he sure got my head in the right place regarding his students! Hamilton will miss him.
In the fall of my senior year, anticipating a career in journalism, I decided I needed to take a course in microeconomics. How this need announced itself seems hazy to me now, except that I knew I had no grasp of money or business or the broader forces of capitalism and suspected that I maybe ought to do something about it. I had heard about "Sid the Storyteller's" legendary course and figured, yep, that's the one. I'll take that, and then I'll understand everything in economics. So I marched into class with a bunch of bright-faced freshmen and proceeded to bomb the course. I studied my keister off, to no avail. Eventually I managed to inch up my grades to a C+ (I think; memory fails), mainly because Sid took pity on me and provided endless encouragement. But what charmed me most was his outright befuddlement at how "gawdawful" I was at understanding the basic principles of his course. "Amy," he said to me one day, "You're an A student. Why aren't you doing well in economics?" "I'm just bad at it," I replied, and we both laughed. We had the same conversation years later, when I was visiting campus in the mid-'90s. He introduced me to his wife, saying, "This is Amy Biancolli. She was a great student in everything but my class. She was really terrible." (I didn't do too well in Don Potter's geology courses either, but that's another story.) Bless him for remembering me. And bless his blunt, cheerful, endlessly impish heart.
As I aimlessly headed out the door, I began to recount the guidance, friendship and advice that Sidney had so generously shared with me. In my senior year, I sat down with Sidney to seek career advice. He listened to me ramble through my worries, which ranged from how I would write a résumé to how I would secure an interview. He abruptly stopped my babble and told me that first I needed to know what I really wanted to do. He told me to go back to my dorm room and to write him a letter titled "What I want to do when I grow up." This simple exercise forced a personal accounting of my strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, goals and aspirations. The following week as I turned my paper in to Sid, I had come to the realization that Wall Street was the place for me. He picked up the paper and said, "Now that you know what you want, go out and get it!" In the ensuing months, Sidney was my spiritual guardrail. He would give me a gentle push in the right direction, but would never do my work for me.
Later in life, I had the joy of having the Wertimers attend my wedding, and we always sent each other Christmas cards. Each year his greeting was something that I looked forward to as he would share some insight, humor or advice. Sometime later, perhaps at my 15th reunion, I recall another conversation that would stay with me to this day. I had become financially successful, but I felt a peculiar guilt that my vocation remunerated me very well while other important professions, like teaching, did not compensate nearly as handsomely. I will never forget Sidney's response to this difficult question. He had not one bit of professional jealously. "Bob, they pay you well because you provide a valuable service. They will not continue to do so if you do not." I asked him about his circumstance, for surely his work was more valuable than mine. His answer: "I am in many ways rewarded better than you are."
As I returned to my desk, I realized that my emotion had turned to one of thanks, happiness and optimism at my good fortune of having known Sidney. Even though Sidney loved John Meynard Keynes' observation that "In the long run we're all dead," I am certain that Sidney will live forever in my heart and in my character. He will also stand as a towering figure in the history of Hamilton College and as a magnificent mentor to many.
In the early 1960s, Hamilton had a well-deserved national reputation as being a wild houseparty school. One of the houseparty traditions was to hold "room parties" in individual dorm rooms, which meant the authorized presence of girls in your room during evening hours! Very exciting stuff. In order to hold a room party, a written request had to be submitted and approved. Among the rules governing these room parties were that the door to the room had to remain open at all times (generally not observed), and that the party must cease at a given time and the girls had to leave (usually 11 p.m., generally observed).
I have a clear recollection of Dean Wertimer giving us a word of advice regarding our room party behavior at the weekly Chapel service before a weekend. He said, "If you're having a room party, conduct yourselves in such a manner that if your father walked into your room, you might be surprised but not ashamed." Wow ? isn't that a nice distinction? In a gentle way, he was getting it into our heads that we should act with some degree of restraint at these parties, wild Hamilton men that we were notwithstanding! And his message was actually received. Dean Wertimer had a nice touch.
On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination was being received, everyone was stunned, literally not moving, frozen in place. In this experience of communal shock, I have in my mind a clear picture of Sidney Wertimer striding purposefully and quickly (maybe angrily) across the quadrangle to the Chapel, where he immediately started ringing the Chapel bell for a long, long time. It was comforting and right, somehow, to hear the bells being rung with such passion and energy during this sad time in our lives.
My freshman year was a struggle. One of the few courses I barely passed was economics -- a "D." So as a sophomore, when it came time to declare a major, it should have been no surprise that the chair of the Economics Department questioned my choice. Yet the rebuff from Professor Wertimer hurt. Regrouping, I protested his assessment of my commitment and ability, and confirmed my choice. He rubbed the palm of his hand over his furrowed forehead, leaned back in his chair and nodded once. I wasn't welcomed into his department; I was challenged to earn my place.
From that moment forward, Professor Wertimer coaxed me to find myself academically at Hamilton. I soon learned that meant more than mastering economics. He also encouraged me to explore unfamiliar territory when selecting courses. There was a glint of delight in his eyes when, in 1968 (the first year of Kirkland College), he signed this chunky tackle from the football team into the first modern dance course taught on the Hill. It was a terrific experience that made me appreciate a performing art I enjoy to this day. It was a lesson in the value of a liberal arts education for which I have Professor Wertimer to thank.
From Hamilton I went on to grad school and am today a professor of economics at a community college on Long Island. Along the way I also became a father of two girls. My second daughter is Hamilton '07, and when I dropped her at South Dorm her freshman year, it was like leaving her with family. I was confident she would be happy and cared for. I called a week later to ask about her course schedule, she told me her advisor asked about me. Sure enough, it was Sid. Now I was certain she was in good hands.
My daughter called me from Clinton the moment she got word of Professor Wertimer's death. The sadness in her voice was obvious, and I choked on my words as I tried to console her about the loss of this fine man, mentor, advisor and friend. She and I were lucky to have had his counsel and support. His long tenure at Hamilton spanned more generations than that of my own and my daughter's, but for each I am sure it was the same. Sidney Wertimer was the embodiment of the challenging, highly personal and supportive educational environment that is Hamilton. We honor him best by preserving his legacy in Hamilton's future.