Harold W. Thompson

Delivered: June 1962

As Nahum Pratt reminded me, 50 years ago President Stryker told the senior class of 1912, “In 50 years a few of you will come back here, a few little old men.” But Prex did not tell us, as Carl J. Carmer ’14 recently said in print about one of us, that no one ever enjoyed his College days more. Or as our classmate “Dunder” Thomas says in a recent class letter, “1912 is a class; it is also a fraternity.” It is therefore my duty to give you an idea of the spirit, which has remained evermore, and also in a sort of memoir to give examples of the faculty and students who started on a half-century of fraternal class friendship.

To assist me in this task I have not used a formal story for which Mr. Pilkington has superior records, but scores of old letters that I wrote home between 1908 and 1912. If more statistics are demanded, I refer you to an article that I wrote for our Alumni Review in 1937 to summarize the deeds of 42 classmates then still in physical vigor. Twenty-five years later there are about half that number left with their evergreen memories.

Most of the class came from small towns in Upstate New York. On a golden June day of senior year I did research in “Bib’s” old library, and found that I was the 46th Hamilton man from the Village of Westfield in Chautauqua County. In numbers, 1912 started with a few over 60 in a college of 200. (Prex once said, “Woe to the 201st man!”) When I returned to the Hill a year after graduation, Prex asked me, “Thompson, how many students do you think we have here now?” I guessed 201. “No,” he said, “twenty-five students.” Anyway, our class graduated about four dozen. In their list I count 16 names that I identify as belonging to Hamilton families.

Ours was called an unusual class in scholarship. Inasmuch as the Alumni Register no longer lists scholastic honors, I must apologize for departing from Hamilton’s intellectual way of life by mentioning the fact that 1912 took about a dozen Phi Beta Kappa keys. At any rate it is still safe, I believe, for faculty members to be learned, and I state with confidence that our faculty was the most learned the College has ever had. At least a dozen of them — the great majority — were themselves graduates of Hamilton, so carefully trained in public speaking that they acted as judges for the Clark Prize. Many of them had studied abroad: four had German doctors’ degrees; seven had doctors’ degrees from American institutions of high rank. We of 1912 have collected 13 doctors’ degrees ourselves (only three of them medical); three honorary degrees from Hamilton. Walker’s Doctor of Engineering is the rarest, I suppose. Ten of us have partly paid back the cost of our fine education by being teachers, five in colleges and universities. One man, W.B. Marsh, has had the supreme honor of being a professor of speaking at Hamilton. Our most distinguished member and senior president, James Stuart Plant, though he is best known as a psychiatrist and author of a great book on personality, taught for some time at Harvard Medical College, and gave a whole series of lectures at Yale, Columbia and other important institutions.

To make up for boasting a little about our scholarship, let me try to recall the wording of a letter from a generous uncle back in 1912:

Dear Nephew:
I was pleased to hear that you have received a prize for speaking which I am glad to double by enclosing a check for fifty dollars. Let me remind you that a man might be valedictorian of his class and a damn fool.
Affy. Yrs.,
W.J.T. ’78

There are less hazardous ways of showing gratitude to Hamilton than by becoming teachers. I am sure that practically all of the alumni are aware of the possession by 1912 of what a Dartmouth friend calls “Hamilton’s fanatical loyalty.” He means loyalty to the College, of course; our loyalty to classmates is as strong. For a long time we had three reunions a year: at Commencement, at the Union game, at the New York City dinner. One year we could not wait until Commencement but had a reunion breakfast at Dunder’s house in Syracuse — no wonder he thinks we are a fraternity. As for our devotion to the College, Clancy Connell keeps reminding us that for the record, there are seven Hamilton trustees from our class. Clancy himself is a trustee emeritus, so we don’t let him vote, but he is permitted to give money. Presidency of the Alumni Council will sometimes come our way as in the case of Ed Drummond, earlier our freshman president and still an unforgotten friend. We had a thrill one year when our secretary, Harry Bates, said he would give $10,000 for the Alumni Fund. A few years later, Bob Bagg, now our president gave us a bigger thrill when he reported that under his direction the fund totaled $10,000 for only two war-years (1944-1945). There were others such as Wenigman and DuBois who had collected dollars for Hamilton. It is not unusual for 100 percent of the class to contribute.

The four undergraduate presidents of 1912 would make an interesting subject for this letter: Drummond, Walker, Connell and Plant, all striking illustrations of Plant’s favorite subject of personality. But two of them are still alive — to us they all are, of course. My senior roommate, who has the wisdom of the serpent and the suavity of the salesman, had advised me not to mention those physically alive. So I shall take the easy path and recall the most eminent of our members who have passed over Jordan. The first man of 1912 who received an honorary degree from the College, the incomparable “Buddh” Plant. Yes, at the very opening of freshman year he announced to an audience of the brethren at his house that he was Buddhist. There were present some incipient clergymen who seemed to wonder whether the Slimer with the watchful eyes should be cancelled or converted. His eyes did not waver, and he actually owned books about Buddhism. Most of us had never before seen a Buddhist. Perhaps this one should be left to President Stryker.

Fate and Prex taught the freshman course in what Prex called “The Letter of James the Just.” We were relieved to discover that the famous Epistle contains only five chapters, but we were alarmed to learn that each young gentleman in class was to memorize the same text either in Greek or in Latin. Part of the time Prex was merely trying to plumb our ignorance, or our mental ability, or perhaps our general characters and vocabularies. One day he began by calling upon the oldest man in the class, my English roommate from Barbados:

“West, up. West, tell me the names of Henry VIII’s wives with the dates of their decease.”

“Of course I could not do that, sir.”

“And you an Englishman! West, down. Plant, up. Give us the dates of Demosthenes.”

“355 or 402, sir. B.C. of course.”

A pause…Two power faces…Prex blinked but Buddh didn’t.

Prex said, “Good, Deux.” At least half of us, including Prex, knew how many centuries a Buddh had been. Probably deliberately.

Some of us were waiting a day in second-term freshman when Buddh would collide with Professor Harry Barnes Ward, Benjamin Bates Professor of Latin, age about 35. I for one thought that Buddh had brought to the College from Washington school a so-called thesis, which he had written on “Uses of the Ablative Virgil.” This work deeply impressed dear old “Dribbles,” a German who taught us his Latin in the first term. I dare say that Wardie had heard rumor of the Virginian’s precocious learning, of which the witty professor would have clear-eyed distrust.

That day Wardie leaned out of the window in the Hall of Languages, listening to the lush harmonies of a number of Sigs. Then he returned to his desk and sighed, “The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea. Drummond, your memory has betrayed you. Mr. Plant, I understand you are an authority on the tongues. Enlighten Mr. Drummond.”

Plant played a deuce as though it were an ace.

Wardie’s eyes became rounder; Plant’s kind and pleased. Wardie drawled, “Oh, come now, Mr. Plant. You are not doing yourself justice.” Plant did not need to be told to sit.

In sophomore year, Plant stayed at his house to nurse students (some of other fraternities), unfortunates quarantined with an epidemic of diphtheria. In junior year he had what was pronounced “nervous collapse” from overwork. He was one of the men always protesting that he had not “cracked a book.” While he was at the hospital, he was elected editor of the junior yearbook. In senior year, besides his Pentagon and class presidency, he was given the Class Square, as “squarest man” in 1912.

How “square” he was I saw again in 1924 when I took my turn at collapsing from overwork. By fast express Jim came from his Essex County Clinic at Newark, across New York State to Chautauqua County. “What you need,” he said to me, “is a fishing trip with some good Hamilton men. How about McClelland, ’86?” Before nightfall Plant was on the way back to Newark and a courtroom of what we now called disturbed children, what Plant called personalities.

Jim’s last surprise for us was his own departure from the sun after a happy holiday in Maine, but it was Curt Knox who had what the class still regards as the perfect symbolic end. Curt was our captain of football, a baseball player and a K.P. speaker. He had the sweetest singing voice in the class: he was baritone soloist and member of the quartet in senior year. One June he attended reunion, went down to “Ute” to catch a train for Rochester, collapsed in the railroad station, and called it a day.

Possibly the Class of 1912 today could not agree on names of its members to be mentioned after Plant and Knox, but there are certain faculty members who were so intimately our friends that at this point I move on to them, beginning with Wardie.

When we visit the Hill, some of us go to salute the grave of Wardie; Plant and I always did. Wardie was College organist in our freshman year until Prex decided that it was safe to put me on the console. We of 1912 remember the song, but some of the younger alumni may hear for the first time: Wardie’s stanza of the Faculty “scurf”:

Here’s to Harry Barnesey Ward.
He plays the organ for his board.
He bangs the keys and trusts the Lord—
Lord preserve the organ!

Wardie and I used to tune that beautiful organ, which was then at the other end of the C
Chapel. One of my letters home says “Wardie broke an organ pipe but says he’s going to blame it on the janitor, and “of course, Thompson, he may have done it.”

Wardie always defended me to Prex:

Prex says I don’t play the hymns as well as Wardie, though Wardie acknowledged that he couldn’t have done it nearly as well in reading at sight. “I’m deciding that, Professor Ward,” says Prex, sticking out his chest. I told Prex how much I needed the money, but he says that makes absolutely no difference. The pay is $50 per annum.

By the middle of the year I was College organist. In sophomore year I was paid $60 and $100 in senior year. Board at my house was $4 per week, and ultimately the Stone Church downtown paid me $4 a week for training and directing its choir, a job which I considered a privilege in the pastorate of the beloved “Hank” White, a splendid preacher who sometimes taught Bible on the Hill.

A letter to my little brother gives another glimpse of Wardie and of another very good friend in freshman year, Horace Seely Brown, assistant professor of mathematics and honorary member of our class:

The freshmen carried cornstalks and all kinds of things and put them on the Chapel steps and put a little cart on the Hall of Languages. Then they went down to Clinton and tore things up in general. Wardie was visiting Professor Brown, and the freshmen piled up Brown’s front stoop and shouted for Wardie to come out and make a speech. Wardie came out and make a speech. Wardie came out and blew ‘em up for fair, but all the fellows like Wardie so much that they didn’t care but gave him a good cheer. Then they yelled for Brown. Brown came to the door and said in a genial way, “Want some cider, boys?” Of course they all yelled, “Yes! Sure!” Brown gave a grin and said, “I’m sorry I haven’t got enough to go around,” and he ran in, banging the door.

Banging of the door and laughing were typical actions of a young assistant professor whose favorite book was Pecks Bad Boy. He called us “stewed-cats” and tried to use our slang. When I failed a test in math, he would chuckle and explain, “Horned again, Thompy!”

But Brownie and his wife were most hospitable. The owner of a noble Guarnerius violin, she taught me as much about music as ever her husband did about math, and of course I was useful as an accompanist to faculty wives who were musicians. Mrs. Brown was the most charming hostess in a galaxy that included Mrs. Ibbotson, Mrs. Fitch, Mrs. Davenport, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Chase. They were admired by boys who have probably never expressed their thanks adequately. As sincere as I have heard was the remark of a classmate, who said, “Nobody could dislike Cal Lewis who had ever seen Cal at home with his wife.” (Cal was really an admirable family man.)

Years after Mrs. Brown’s death, Brownie seemed lost to the Class of 1912 until one of us reported that he was living at the Colgate Inn and did not have a radio. Dunder bought a radio and sped to see good old Brownie. Long before that time, indeed in our senior year, members of our class had borne Wardie to the place that Prex called our “green dormitory.” All that I could do for Wardie and the class was to play a dirge for him and write an article about him for the Hamilton Literary Magazine.

A close neighbor of Brownie was Prof. J.D. Ibbotson, “Bib.” When he had to teach English Romantic Literature to the young barbarians of 1912, I fear that most of us treated him with little respect; pennies rolled in the aisles and BB shots flew through the air. Fortunately “Bib” was shifted to the job of being “the best librarian of the best small-college library in America” — I quote from a Cornell administrator. In senior year he was permitted to teach a course in Anglo-Saxon. “Bib” helped break a Hamilton record: a student asked him to double the assignment.

After the death of his wife “Bib” moved to a room in Carnegie directly over No. 14, a retreat visited by many members of the class daily. Now it happened that in the fall of 1912 the most admired of popular songs was Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Whatever its strong merits, this piece was well suited to such stomping and yelling as the class liked best. One night after dinner President Plant dropped into Carnegie, seated himself at the lid of my upright piano, and led an interminable performance of Mr. Berlin’s new nocturne. Jim must have had about 20 seniors in his improvised choir; he rehearsed them on and without mitigation of a voice that could breakthrough 10 inches of steel. At about 1 a.m. “Bib’s” door banged upstairs, and we heard him descend and depart into the autumn night. Early the next morning, “Bib” appeared at our door with a box of cigars under his arm. “Thompson,” he said, “I thought I heard a piano last night — and perhaps singing. Will you be good enough to play me some Schumann Lieder, and your roommate might like to join me in a cigar.”

“Bib” was the first faculty member whom I helped to elect to honorary membership to Square. He and Brownie backed a proposal that Square sponsor is now known as the honor system. But we are not to forget that Professor Davenport showed the way to Square in leaving his own examinations unproctored, as I now testify.

One day in senior year “Davvy” told me after class that my grade in law was so faulty that he was going to give me a special examination at his house to see whether I should be permitted to continue in the course. I was ushered into “Davvy’s” handsome big living room, along with a bowl of apples and a Swiss carved bear and the examination questions. Nobody was embarrassed unless it was “Davvy’s” son out in the hall — I gave piano lessons to the very pleasant boy. It would not have occurred to any member of the Class of 1912 to cheat. As you have guessed, I passed the examination and voted for the honor system.

My chief ambition — at times almost my only one — was to learn how to be a good speaker. Professor Lewis (“Captain Cal of the good ship Capsidor”) was the Upson Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and, as many here know, was a skillful and severe drillmaster. He was also a pitiless analyst of character, as had probably been necessary when he taught at the Brooklyn Boys’ High School. He told me I wrote music, not declamations; I knew this charge to be true. He said that I always sounded condescending or bulldozing. You can see why I wrote home that I was learning to think more highly of others and less of myself. (This lesson, however, may have been taught by my peers, as it always is at Hamilton.) When I went to the Harvard Graduate School, Captain Cal wrote me a serious, almost affectionate letter urging me not to look down upon Hamilton as a “freshwater” college — a warning that no Hamilton man ever needed or deserved.

In the four years during which Captain Cal revealed our faults and made us better speakers. I saw only one man get the better of him in class: you have guessed it — Jim Plant. When Cal tried to train his freshmen in the use of reference works, the Buddh seemed to be skillfully avoiding the library. When Cal called upon him in class for a bibliography, Jim gave an elaborate list, including magazine articles, pages and all. His most important book title was Smithfield’s History of the Boers — which of course no one has had the privilege of seeing. I suppose that Harry Bates of Washington may have smiled at the word “Smithfield,” home of Virginia’s famous hams. One of our two future clergymen gave a delighted snort, which raised my opinion of his intelligence but of course put Jim in jeopardy. I keep wondering how much Cal was deceived.

If I seem to praise the faculty too emphatically, let me quote a few lines from a letter that was written in 1936 by the most influential poet of the 20th century, Ezra Pound, 1905:

I might record that the CANTOS started as a talk with Bib…At Hamilton in my time was Schnitz Brandt [1872, Department of German], who was pleased I did NOT want to be bothered with German prose and skipped me to the poetry courses. And Bill Shep gave me the provençal. There was no provençal of course, and I couldn’t have paid him. I mean GAVE! I think it was two hours a week for a term.

My favorite amusement of 1903-1905 was lighting M. Woolsey Stryker’s fuse; for the fun of watching him explode. I still recall that purposeful walk of the Prexy as he exsurged toward the Commons on the question of the third breakfast biscuit.

You see, we all between 1892 and 1917 keep coming back to Prex. Of course I have hoarded many more scenes and sayings, including two times when he apologized to me for intruding upon what I considered fraternity affairs. But I prefer to turn a letter I wrote to my little brother while I was in my sophomore year at Hamilton, recovering from a sickbed in South College, the dormitory which should be named for Prex:

Five or six fellows were in my bedroom telling me about lessons, when a loud stamp was heard in the study, and in sailed the Prex. The ginks gave me one look and all fled...but the old squeedunk sat down in a Spanish rocker without a back, and gave me some fine gestures and considerable sage advice. Then he wanted to go, but unfortunately the chair was a wee bit tight and he had some difficulty in rising. Then I sent my regards to Miss Evelyn [Stryker] and he streamed out after ordering a couple young gentlemen to move my bed so the light wouldn’t shine in my eyes…

Two years later I came upon a half-line in Beowulf that described Prex as I knew him: thaet waes god cyning (That was a good king.)

Classmates: This is the first time that you have elected me to an office, and I have let you down. But my doctor says that I may attend reunion if I carefully avoid emotion. If I am emotional about anything, it is about the Class of 1912. I have no remaining Hamilton oratory, not even the voice that Cal tried so hard to train. But 50 years ago the faculty elected me to say the valedictory oration upon which Prex drilled me severely. I am not going to use his gestures, but I shall try to recite the final lines which I have remembered for 50 years…

Farewell until tomorrow.

Harold Thompson, Class of 1912

A native of Buffalo, Harold Thompson was a member of Emerson Literary Society and was graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He obtained his M.A. from Harvard in 1915, and in 1925 he was named one of the first 15 Guggenheim Fellows. In 1929, he received a D.Litt from the University of Edinburgh. Harold taught at the State University College at Albany for 25 years before joining the faculty at Cornell in 1940. A folklore authority, he is best known for the bestseller Body, Boots and Britches: Tales and Ballads of Up Country America. He served on the Hamilton Alumni Review board of editors from 1936 to 1955. A recipient of an honorary degree from Hamilton in 1947, he had also served on the Board of Trustees.

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