Levi Parsons

Delivered: June 1899

We, the Class of 1849, highly favored in being permitted to gather, after 50 years from our graduation, at our alma mater, to recall some of the incidents of our college life, to mark the prominent events in our subsequent histories, and to renew our boyhood friendships. This occasion may be sad or joyful, depressing or inspiring, just as we may be determined to view it. As retrospective merely, it must be sad. As a summing up of achievements for their own sake, we cannot evade the conclusion that all is vanity. But when we think of the work we have done and the victories we have gained, not as past, but even now as a part of ourselves, and our potential for higher development, and nobler, purer, and complete characters, when we realize that we are only in the infancy of our existence, then such a union is refreshing — stimulating and full of hope.

To the graduates of today we probably seem as old men, but this is their mistake — their eyes are out of focus — a defect which will correct itself in 50 years. We know better, we know that we are still but boys, in the preparatory department of God’s great university, hard at work as ever in studying our first lessons, with interest not only unabated but increasingly intense.

A very simple equation indeed, viz.: “1899 — 1849 = 50,” but how significant, when we think of the 50, as measuring the larger part of our lives, and as almost identical with the latter half of the nineteenth century, which has been so noted for its progress. These 50 years, when measured by events, are perhaps not less than 969 that Methuselah lived.

It is pleasant indeed to call up the memories of our college life.  Those were happy days and our advantages were exceptionally good. Fifty years have not abated the respect that we then cherished for our faithful teachers. We can now see them, as they occupied their conspicuous seats in the Chapel, at morning and evening prayers: President North, Professors Avery, Mandeville, Catlin, Dwight, North and Upson were scholars, instructors and gentlemen. They knew how to manage boys, and have patience with their infirmities. The Baccalaureate of President North, from the text, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God pulling down on strongholds," was a happy introduction to our life work, and would not have been inappropriate to the opening of our present Peace Congress at The Hague. Those were not dull days — we managed to keep things lively and give the faculty something to do. I am sorry to say, that with most of us, we were not over-studious; there was no danger that “much learning would make us mad.”

In our opinion the most successful recitation was the one was we got out of. That a professor was sick, unable to meet his class, was regarded as an unmixed evil; we were always quick to discover the silver lining to that cloud.  Our hardest study was done at examinations in the Philosophical chambers, when we gave the subject under consideration our undivided attention, managing to keep a little in advance; what was known as skinning ahead. It was then we made up in part for lost time. But who can express our ecstasy, when leaving that chamber, we jumped into some farmer’s wagon or sleigh and were off for the railroad station, homeward bound. We wisely left all our cares behind and borrowed no trouble.

In our transition from freshmen to sophomores, there was a lightening-rod affair, connected with rust-ringing, that requires some explanation. It was a fine illustration of unity and diversity. The faculty and the boys were all after the same thing, only in different ways. All were anxious for the honor of the College, and the glory of Old Hamilton — the faculty by maintaining order, sustaining government and keeping up at least a show of authority — while the boys were zealous for the traditions of the elders, and cherished those ancestral customs, which they had found as part of the College, and in their opinion perhaps even the more important part.

The difference became quite interesting, as rust-ringing night found the faculty occupying the entire lower part of the Chapel, while the boys were limited to the belfry. The two parties stood in the relation of besiegers and besieged, and the question was one of endurance. The contest was proving quite unequal, for the faculty presumably were fortified by pies, cakes and cold coffee, while we in the belfry who were enduring the siege, were destitute of all the provisions. But what about the lightning rod? Much every way, but especially down. To Benjamin Franklin belongs the high honor of discovering the utility of the lightning rod, as a conductor of boys.  Yes, perhaps, we may claim a greater honor, for lightening can take care of itself, but boys have not always had that ability. As we on that eventful night stood in that belfry, having performed our last duty as freshmen, and made sure that the bell was free from rust, and according to all ancestral usage, had proved ourselves worthy of the name of sophomore, we could have gone up a lightening-rod or down just as the emergency might require. In the present instance there were three important reasons why we decided to go down.  The first reason was that we were already as high as we cared to be.  There was nothing to be gained by a farther ascent and there was everything to be gained by a descent.  Our second reason was that it was then past our bedtime, most of us having been brought up in Puritan families, with the lullaby, “Early to bed and early to rise.” But our third, and indeed our strongest reason for going down rather than up, was to avoid the faculty. But why avoid the faculty when we were all after the honor of the College and they were waiting to receive us with open arms? That was just the difficulty — it was the open arms we were afraid of.  It was an instance of distrust of friendship. But to be brief in this description, we retired to our rooms that night just as usual, only we went by the way of the lightening-rod.

As to the subsequent movements of the faculty, of course their testimony is not admissible. Presumably they held the entire Chapel as long as the cold coffee and the other provisions lasted, and whether they then formed in procession and marched away with their lunch baskets on their arms, or one-by-one stole quietly to their homes, we shall never know. It is a pleasant reflection that was a night of victory all around. The faculty had its own way, kept up a show of authority, conquered the whole of the Chapel, held it as long as they cared to, and went home when they got ready. And the boys sustained the honored customs, lifted themselves into unquestioned sophomoric dignity, and proved themselves superior to the faculty in strategy. Wherever on the face of the earth a member of the Class of 1849 may see a lightening-rod, he can afford to take off his hat; for it always speaks hopefully, assuring him that however tight may be the place he is in, there is certainly a way out.

The other escapade, known as the Trenton Falls bolt, is not so easily explained. That was not a usage handed down from antiquity, and which must be kept.  It was unlike anything that had happened before or has happened since. As we stated, it was under no sense of obligation that we must go to Trenton Falls, for we did not know we were going there. The whole affair was cyclonic in its origin. We were simply hit, and away we went. Or we may say a series of cyclones, by which we were carried from one stage of the journey to another. We were juniors then — it was the month of October and all nature was arrayed in her most gorgeous robes. As the sun rendered the whole valley of the Oriskany enchanted ground, the lessons in conic sections, calculus, and Greek tragedy, but feebly competed with the lesson which nature then spread out before us.

I was once told by a girl who was sadly perplexed at the relation of the doctrine of fixed decrees to that of free agency, that she had many a time tried her best to see if she could not think of something she could do that God had never foreordained. A similar spirit must have possessed the Class of 1849, for on that bright October morning leaving the college campus, they started with no preparation whatever on that aimless excursion.

Trenton Falls was entirely an afterthought, proposed I know not by whom, but heartily adopted by all. This exuberance of feeling, however, soon abated and as it proved, it would have been foreordained. Trenton was farther than the most of us had supposed. Electricity is said to lose a large percentage of a force when conducted to remove points, but ours was entirely gone, long before we saw Trenton Falls. Nothing but pride then sustained our weakening resolutions. But what about the Falls? Well, we found them interesting, quite so, and we would recommend all tourists to visit them. Still, they had a tired look, and were not nearly as attractive as was the dining room of our hotel. That was brimful of consolation for weary bodies and empty stomachs.

It was there we met with our first surprise; as we were eating voraciously, the dining room door opened, and who should be ushered into our presence but Professor Avery! He looked glad to see us, and we certainly were glad to see him, greeting him with thunders of applause. There was a twinkle in his eye, which was hopeful.  He seemed to us like a dove with an olive leaf. Indeed, we all had learned not to be afraid of Professor Avery. It was true that his threat was terrific — overwhelming, but the blow was always softened by the tenderness which “tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” And he could not help knowing that we were badly shorn. I am not sure whether we paid for his dinner, but I am quite sure that that was the proper thing to do under the circumstances. It was the policy, which the patriarch Jacob so successfully adopted, in the instance of that unpleasantness with his brother Esau.

But we had another surprise there at Trenton, which was very sad.  The weather failed us, in fact the weather changed, and with it almost everything else changed. The sun hid his face, the clouds gathered blackness, the foliage lost its brilliancy, the rain poured, and the roads were covered with mud. It was the weather we had depended upon.  It lured us away from our home, and supposed it would stay of one mind, until it should get us back; and now it had simply changed. But the saddest part of this change of weather was the fact that then confronted us —  we had no corresponding change of wardrobe. The children of Israel did their borrowing before plunging in, and then did our borrowing —not jewels of silver and gold, but overcoats, shawls, umbrellas, blankets, overshoes — in fact anything to keep out the wind, the cold, and the rain.

We had reached a point where utility was everything, and appearance nothing. The farmers could make a few extra dollars by drawing us in their lumber wagons, and their teams were not needed in the fields. We were very quiet, and just let the horses draw us. Our return to Clinton and College Hill was not with banners, flags, brass bands and other worldly vanities of that sort. Our spirits were far more in sympathy with the very softest rendering of that beautiful hymn, Home, Sweet Home.

Faculty meetings in those days were the very strictest kind of secret societies.  Nothing leaked. No one knew either the grip or the password but as on our return, our fates were trembling in the balance.  There were two considerations that were adapted to cheer us, one was that we had a friend at court in the person of Professor Avery, and the other was, that if they should turn us all out, there would be very little of the College left.

As the result of their deliberations, the faculty reached a very wise conclusion, viz.: to charge our accounts such a number of warnings as would render our expulsion certain should we ever go again. But this threat was very harmless, for we did not want to go again — once was enough — at least until we could be reasonably assured that there would be no change of weather.

Had our class ever produced a John Bunyan, that Trenton Falls trip would have furnished suggestions for an allegory that would have rendered him renowned. The lights and shadows of real life were there most surprisingly brought into strongest contrast. Much as we were indebted to our professors for the lessons that they faithfully inculcated, it may well be doubted whether any of them were nearly as profitable as the one we studied and pondered while returning from Trenton Falls.

And this readily suggests the debt we owe each other as classmates in the matter of education. Education is not all books, or all in the classroom. We are helped by our fellow students when teachers fail to reach us. Boys have ways, sometimes indescribable, of relieving each other of self-conceit, and they also know how to bestow merited praise. The Class of 1849 was one that abounded in good feeling. It kept itself compact and zealous of its class honor, and it cultivated among its members not a little of that real discipline to which much of its future success can be attributed. If the 73 classmates who formed its entire membership were gathered together at this jubilee year, and each recount his experience, it would be a meeting of peculiar interest and large profit.

But it is too late for that; yes, it has long been too late; for death claimed one of us in our sophomore year, and another only a few weeks after our graduation, leaving others to follow during each decade, until those who have gone outnumber those who remain. Of those who remain, some are so far removed and others so feeble as to render it impossible for them to respond to the call which has summoned them here today.  

Levi Parsons, Class of 1849

“President North, Professors Avery, Mandeville, Catlin, Dwight, North and Upson were scholars, instructors and gentlemen. They knew how to manage boys, and have patience with their infirmities...  Those were not dull days — we managed to keep things lively and give the faculty something to do.”

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