Hamilton Goes to War

John K. Backus, Class of 1946

Delivered: June 1, 1996

President Tobin, members of the Class of 1946, friends of Hamilton:

Almost 54 years ago, on October 1, 1, 1942, the members of the Class of 1946 — 128 of us — met for the first time in the Chapel. Not far behind the place where I stand, the fountain, which then marked the quadrangle, flowed peacefully and the row of poplars which then lined it displayed its golden fall colors. The roughly 400 male students were busy preparing for the fall term. To us, this was college life.

The impression was deceptive. The world — and Hamilton College — were in the midst of the upheavals that would forever change them. We who were born during the Roaring ’20s and began our education during the Great Depression, were to become the class most affected by World War II. We entered pre-war Hamilton with its traditions, practices and curricula largely intact.

We finished — either at Hamilton or at a long list of other colleges and universities — in a new world. The story of the Class of 1946 is, in many ways, the story of Hamilton College in World War II. We are the bridge class, the connection between the old Hamilton and the new. We have witnessed one of the great periods of change in the history of the College.

The 1930s were both a period of economic depression and of political upheaval and war. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and continued to attack China, extending its interest to French Indochina after France fell in 1940. The brutal Spanish Civil War between the Fascist and Communist supporters occupied 1936-39. Italy overcame Ethiopia in 1935-36. Germany occupied the Rhineland in 1936, Austria in 1938 and later that year, part of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, the Nazi armies completed their conquest of Czechoslovakia and, on September 1, invaded Poland. This time, Britain and France resisted, and World War I began.

Isolationist thinking was still strong in the United States, but the country had begun to stir. On September 16, 1940, Congress passed the Selective Service Act providing for a peacetime draft. A few days later, on September 27, Germany, Italy and Japan signed the tripartite agreement in Berlin. And on November 5, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term as president, promising that he would not send “our boys into any foreign war” but “we’ll fight if attacked.”

Material support from the U.S. became critical, particularly for Britain. Congress had enacted a cash-and-carry bill in 1939, and on March 8, 1941, it passed the Lend-Lease Act to deliver military equipment for self-defense against the Axis Powers. Into this unstable and dangerous situation came the Hamilton Class of 1946.

The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred as most of us were completing our college applications and preparing for Christmas, high school graduation and further education. We were aware of the war, but I doubt if we had any idea of the changes that it would make in our lives. We were able to come to the Hill only because the 1940 Selective Service Act did not include 18-year-olds, an omission that was corrected in a bill signed by President Roosevelt on November 13, 1942.

Headlines for The New York Times on September 30 and October 1, when we assembled on the Hill, were full of the war. Hitler’s armies were at the gates of Stalingrad. In the Pacific, the Japanese campaign against Port Moresby, New Guinea, was in progress, and, at home, we began to ration rubber boots — certainly a concern at Hamilton where the snow and the red clay paths were facts of life.

For one short period, we saw the old, prewar Hamilton, although the 1943 Hamiltonian claimed, in these words, that we were spoiled:

Hamilton’s babies, the Class of 1946, will never have the opportunity to grow up on the Hill, but at least they have had the opportunity to do many things that no other freshman has ever been able to do. Never before have freshman rules been so lenient; never before have freshmen been full-fledged members of varsity teams; and seldom have freshmen been able to live in their fraternity houses…But there has been a bad effect, too, as all upperclassmen will readily admit —the freshmen are spoiled.

In many ways, those words were true. The spirit and academic rigor would remain, but the old ways would never return.

The Class of 1946 was not a diverse group, coming mainly — 102 of us — from New York State. Six came from New Jersey, five from Maryland, four from Massachusetts, three from Illinois, two each from Ohio and Vermont, and one each from Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The distant members of the class were Bob Curry and John Pillsbury. Bob came from New Orleans, but his family owned a camp in the Adirondacks. John’s home is listed as Dayton, Ohio, where his father served in the Army. His family home, however, was in Berkeley, Calif.

We were mostly WASPs and included no African-Americans, no Hispanics and relatively few members from the Catholic and Jewish faiths. We are pleased to see the broader representation in today’s classes.

Evidence of the war was everywhere. The first of three military attachments — the Civilian Pilot Training Program, with about 50 men — drilled on the golf course. We were told that, in the event of an air raid — I still find it hard to consider Hamilton as a major military target — we would be alerted by an air raid defense organization of 35 wardens headed by Wally Johnson, Mox Weber, Asa McKinney and John Moore. The Chapel bell was an air raid alarm, ending a long tradition that it be rung after Hamilton football victories.

We entered Hamilton as many had entered in years past, wearing beanies, taking part in the Flag Rush — won, I’m afraid, by the Class of ’45 — and greeting more experienced students with deference. We were the first class to wear blue caps with buff class numerals — can they properly be called slimers? We were welcomed at two receptions by President Cowley and elected an executive committee of Ken Westlye, Kal Synakowski, Tony Kuolt and John Pillsbury. Our frosh stage show took place with a script written by Allen Bole, Chuck Brink, John Kellogg and Herb Jones.

We were spellbound, at our freshman banquet, by Lloyd Paul Stryker, son of Hamilton’s noted president and an attorney later known as “Chubby.” They cut me to pieces and taught me to be much more critical. In mathematics, I was taught by Boyd Crumrine Patterson, who not only knew calculus but was said to be one of a few people, who, at that time, understood the theory of relativity. He made it clear that we were there to learn, even opening the windows of our Root Hall classroom in the middle of winter when some of our minds were wandering. Later in the year, I had the temerity to ask for permission to cut a class to help run a track meet. His reply was essentially “no way;” academics are your job — athletics are a sideline.

My German teacher was Otto Liedke. He got my attention by throwing me out of class for not having my homework done. I still remember the exams in Tom LeDuc’s Modern European History. The questions always began with “Compare and Contrast.” Facts were fine but what counted was the meaning.

Public speaking, taught by the memorable Willard Bostwick “Swampy{ Marsh, is one of Hamilton’s most enduring contributions. I shall never forget walking down the aisle of this Chapel as a freshman while the sophomores hooted and stamped their feet. That short memorized speech was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I can hear Swampy saying, in his deep bass voice, “Mr. Backus, you need more vocal focus.” I can’t speak here today without feeling that Swampy’s spirit is present and will be ready to comment on my presentation when I pass through the gates to heaven.

I shall return to the faculty later, but this point must be made: They set high standards and taught us that learning was important. Many of us had trouble getting the message. The November 18 Hamiltonews noted that 71 freshmen — us — were failing or near failing: 54 percent of the class had warnings. We might be headed for the military but while we were at Hamilton, the faculty demanded that we learn. With the distraction of the war and adjustment to the College environment, our problems were understandable.

Hamilton College as we found it was very male: male students, male faculty and male administrators. We did accept female secretaries and were happy to have the daughters of the community wander the campus. We were well-served by a group of women from Clinton who, in those days, attempted to maintain some degree of order in our rooms. They deserve some high degree of sainthood for dealing with our male version of housekeeping.

In the fall of 1942, Hamilton’s fraternities were open and recruiting members. Following a Hamilton tradition, many of us pledged. A number of others joined the Squires Club, an organized formed several years before by President Cowley to balance the fraternity system, which even then was criticized by some persons. The fall houseparty was held, although it became the Fall War Houseparty and aimed to raise $1,000 for the Hamilton War Chest.

Sports continued on the Hill, though on a reduced schedule. From the Class of 1946, Bernie and Nick Burns, Bob Bauer, Matt Finn, Bob Hartshorne, Tony Kuolt, John Pillsbury, Bob Severance, Ralph Stranberg, Earle Wilson and Ken Westlye played more important roles than perhaps even their talents would have justified in normal times. The football team played seven games with a record of 2-3-2, less than we had been led to expect. The star of the team, Milt Jannone ’43, termed by Public Relations Director Dave Beetle “The Secret All-American” in an article in The New York Times Magazine, was injured in the second game, and we seldom saw the form he had shown in 1941. A basketball team hindered by lack of reserves nevertheless won half of 10 games. The hockey schedule fell to six games, which were split 3-3. The soccer team salvaged a five-game season by defeating Rochester 1-0 in its final game; an inexperienced fencing team lost both meets of a shortened season. I was a member of Hamilton’s first swimming team, which also included Bob Howard, Ted Taylor, Ed Slomka, Jim Kent, Don Freudenberger, Baldy Baldwin and Al Beale of our class. We were coached by Mark Randall, who later became swimming coach and athletic director at Colgate. In 1942-43, we beat Colgate twice for our only wins in six meets. Perhaps that helped him get the job.

When President Roosevelt signed the 18-year-old-draft bill on November 13, it was clear that our introduction to higher education was to be short. On Thanksgiving weekend, a time when most freshmen return home for a first serious vacation, 92 Hamilton men enlisted in military reserve programs offered by representatives who visited the Hill. Among there were a large part of the Class of ’46.

We went home to a wartime Christmas and returned to a College where change had become the pattern. The arrival in January of the first 200 Air Force pre-meteorological students required that North, South and Carnegie dormitories be vacated by civilians, whose numbers, in the second semester, had dropped from 415 to 229. We who remained moved to fraternity houses.

The military contingents grew to over 600 with the addition of an Army foreign language program. Civilian students continued to leave and, when College opened in the fall of 1943, only 66 remained, 18 from the Class of ’46. The bottom occurred in the spring of 1944 when 34 civilians enrolled. The Class of ’46 fell to four in that term, my last before leaving for the Army.

Academic standards for civilians were as high as ever but focused on the war effort, allowing some of us to take more science and math than would have been permitted before the war. In our first semester, Hamilton offered 89 courses to the 415 students. In the spring of 1943, the 61 courses offered to 229 civilian students included new courses “designed for practical war duty.” We changed to an all-year, four-quarter schedule. The faculty grew to meet the needs of the combined student body; mathematics and physics from six to 24 and Romance languages from five to 13. A new group of four persons taught the economics, politics and geography of Central Europe. In the first break in a 130-year male tradition, women joined the faculty. Some members of the regular faculty taught new subjects — Otto Liedke, for example, taught math. We were exposed to military-style physical education programs. Jean Marie Gélas, the fencing and soccer coach, was recruited to help Mox Weber teach hand-to-hand combat. He must have been good. While in Utica one evening, he was reported to have been attacked by a mugger who must have thought this meek-appearing person was an easy victim. Coach Gélas broke his attacker’s arm. Coach Randall taught us how to escape burning oil when leaving a sinking ship. We ran an obstacle course and tried to get in shape for expected military service. Most of us experienced just that while Hamilton continued to educate a mix of military and a few civilian students.

The war ended in 1945, the military programs completed their work, and Hamilton veterans began to return. By 1946 the return became a flood. Enrollment reached 582 in that fall, including many of us who were older, more experienced and ready to get on with our lives. Some were married, some brought children, requiring that Carnegie be converted to family apartments and that temporary housing known as North, G.I. or Dewey Village, be constructed behind the DU house.

Most of the Class of ’46 grew up in the Armed Forces or in accelerated educational programs. A few remained at Hamilton to graduate as early as 1945 or to move directly into graduate schools. The majority of us, however, left, served and returned. The first Hamilton graduates of the class were John Douglass and Clyde Simpson, in June 1945. Ken Westlye and Oscar Verlain followed in June 1946 and Pete DePalma in September 1946. Then came the main body of the class, 17 in 1947, 26 in 1948, 17 in 1949 and three in 1950.

Many received degrees from other universities during those years. At least seven or our medical and dental graduates moved directly to professional schools without a Hamilton degree, something that was permitted and encouraged by the military. Among there were Jack Jaenicke, Ros Daniels, Gordon Davenport, Frank Chanatry, Bob Massonneau, Jim Roberts, Chuck Jurka and Bob Knapp. Paul Reid’s law degree from the University of Chicago was the only one he received.

Only one member of our class, Dick Butler, died in the war. You will find his plaque on the sixth pew from the rear on the left side of the center aisle as you look forward. We have dedicated our 50th reunion yearbook to him. Dick enlisted in the Army on December 3, 1943, and served at Fort Benning, Ga., and then at Camp Van Doren, Miss., where he became a medical aide. In November 1944, he went to France as a member of the 63rd Regiment of the 254th Division assigned to General Patch’s 7th Army. He was killed by sniper fire on January 14, 1945, while going forward to give aid to another soldier, an action for which he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

While the Hamilton student body had been fighting the war, a battle of another kind had taken place on the Hill. President Cowley had come to Hamilton committed to modernizing the curriculum. His aggressive promotion of change split the faculty, leading to deep disagreements with those who thought that Hamilton was just fine. Cowley’s leadership during the war must be credited with bringing the military programs to Hamilton and preventing serious financial problems for the College, but the internal conflicts were not resolved. For reasons which are unclear, Cowley resigned on August 28, 1944, and finished his career as a professor of higher education at Stanford.

The trustees must have been happy to see the war end and the civilian students begin to return. They were, however, challenged by important programs. One was the presidency. When Cowley resigned, Hamilton was fortunate to have been able to call on Controller Tom Rudd to serve as acting president until the inauguration of David Worcester in 1945. When Worcester died of a brain tumor in June 1947, Rudd returned, this time as president, and served until Bob McEwen began his long and productive tenure in 1949.

By 1945, the College had changed. The circumstances demanded it. Not only was the student body larger, it was older and anything but traditional. Bob Cook reminded me that even the new Hamilton seemed monastic to men who had experienced the wider world and the horrors of war. What subjects were first in the minds of those several hundred early 20-year-old men who had spent two or more years in the military? These veterans were serious about academics, but also I must reply, women and beer. The theme of that group should have been that World War I song, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree” or perhaps “There is nothing like a dame” from South Pacific. Cars full of Hamilton students left regularly for Skidmore, Rochester and other female-populated campuses. Lea McLean, Kris Cook and a number of other wives joined the class as a result of these excursions. At the College, the Clinton watering holes did a thriving business, and the Clinton taxi made frequent runs bringing beer to our thirsty veterans.

The Hamilton students of the postwar years were not all veterans. Younger men of the Classes of 1947, ’48 and ’49 had come to the Hill while the veterans were away, then were inundated by the returning flood. As told to me by Lowell Swarts ’49, the division between veterans and the younger non-veterans was never completely bridged. The differences in age and experience were simply too great.

Less than half of the postwar faculty had pre-war Hamilton experience. With a younger faculty and a larger, older student body, many of the ideas advanced by President Cowley — some of them used in the military programs — were adopted. Tom Rudd, his administration, the trustees and the faculty must be congratulated for dealing with a new situation and starting Hamilton in the direction it has taken for the past 50 years.

One interesting problem of those postwar years concerned the desire of some student wives to attend Hamilton classes with their husbands. In April 1946, President Worcester issued a “G.I. Wives Bill of Rights,” which included permission to “vagabond” classes but receive no credit. Colgate, with a similar situation, gave credit but required that it be transferred to an institution that grated degrees to women. I can only imagine my wife and three daughters responding to this effort to protect the male Hamilton.

The 582 persons who came to Hamilton in the fall of 1946 came from a broad range of classes: one each from ’36 and ’38, two from ’39, three each from ’41 and ’42, and six from ’43. We had larger groups from the Classes of ’44 and ’45, 63 of us from ’46, and smaller numbers from ’47, ’48 and ’49. Then came the Class of 1950, numbering 262, much larger than a normal prewar class. Hamilton enrollments grew to 597 in fall 1947, 611 in fall 1948, 607 in fall 1949, and 620 in fall 1950.

Much of the student increase at Hamilton and other colleges was supported by the G.I. Bill. On June 22, 1994, the 50th anniversary of its enactment, The New York Times published a lead editorial from which I quote:

Not all the great victories in World War II took place on the battlefield. What proved a landmark triumph for America and its fighting forces had its start in the White House 50 ears ago today when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill of Rights. Few laws have done so much for so many … Americans who never dared dream of attending college joined a flood that crested in 1946-47, when 2.5 million veterans qualified for $500 or more in annual tuition, plus monthly allowances of $65 for single students, $90 for married … In a stroke, the legislation kept a demobilizing army from engulfing the labor force, threw open cloistered academic doors and offered energizing plasma to schools of every kind, public or private … It is useful to be reminded periodically that Federal spending is not always wasteful and that taxes, to paraphrase Mr. Justice Holmes, can be the agent of civilization.

Hamilton was back from the war. The major sports reorganized, and so did the Choir and other organizations. I was fortunate to be at our first postwar football game, played against Rochester on its field. Hamilton’s first offensive play was a screen pass from Bobby Hartshorne ’48 to “Ants” DiGregorio ’49, which went 63 yards for a touchdown. We lost 41-14 but what a beginning!

I promised to return to the faculty. In our first year, 1942-43, it numbered 48. Four years later, for 1946-47, it had grown to 66 to handle the larger student body. But this was not the same faculty: 30 persons had left and 39 joined during those war years. The athletic department was particularly changed. One notable loss was A.I. Prettyman, the hockey coach known as the “Great Stone Face.” He had come to Hamilton in 1917 and had built the athletic program, coaching, at times, football and basketball in addition to hockey. He was known as the father of American college hockey. He served for 18 years on the national rules committee and was a coach of the 1936 Olympic team.

Gone also from the department were Mark Randall, Art Winters, Lloyd Sanford and Edgar Laux. The football coach had been Campbell Dickson, who also served as dean. He was replaced, in 1946, by Bud Svendsen, a University of Minnesota graduate who had played for the Green Bay Packers. In a press release before the Union game of ’46, I wrote of the rivalry between Svendsen and the Union coach, Mel Hein, who had played for the New York Giants. The two teams had played for the 1939 NFL championship when Hein and Svendsen were active. Svendsen’s Packers had defeated Hein’s Giants in the NFL game and underdog Hamilton defeated Union 7-6, led by Bob Hartshorne as well as Bernie Burns and Bob Curry of the Class of ’46.

Among the academic faculty, Bunny Carruth and Horace Brown had retired, and Tom LeDuc and Dick Sutherland had left. Joining the faculty by 1946 were Win Tolles and Dave Ellis, names you will remember. Earl Count came to head a new anthropology department. Paul Fancher — known as “Smut” — had retired but was called back to direct the Choir during our freshman year when Berrian Shute suffered a heart attack. We sang for Fancher in ’42 — the last class to do so — but Shute was in charge when we returned in 1946. John Baldwin, who ultimately replaced Shute and will conduct an alumni choir here tomorrow, was a member of the 1946 faculty. So was Dick Couper ’44, who later became acting president of the College.

What has become of those 128 men who came here in 1942, were scattered by World War II and were graduated (many of them) from other schools and other Hamilton classes? According to College records, 25 have passed on. Another 33 cannot be found. The 65 active members of the class chose many fields: 25 areas of business, three science, 10 education. Fourteen became physicians or dentists, nine attorneys and two joined the clergy. One stayed in the Marines until retirement and another became a farmer after a first career in law.

I can’t end without commenting on the economic changes that have taken place in 54 years. My first-semester bill in 1942-43 shows tuition of $200 each semester and a total of about $850 for the year. Today, the tuition, room and board is about $27,000, an increase of almost 32 times. For comparison, my economist son David ’75 tells me that, from 1947 to 1995, the Consumer Price Index has increased 6.6 times. On the other hand, the S&P 500 Index increased by over 42 times during the same years. Members of the Class of 1946 unanimously feel that the $850 was a wonderful investment. I am confident that those cost-shocked members of the Class of 1996 will feel the same way when they assemble 50 years from now.

The Class of 1946 assembles again this weekend, drawing back men or whom some spent less than a year on the Hill. Seasoned and humbled by the events of more than 50 years, we come to share memories and witness to Hamilton, the College on the hilltop whose days will never end.

Like most members of the Class of 1946, Hamilton’s World War II “bridge class,” John Backus had his College days interrupted by military service. He left College Hill for the Army in 1944 and, after two years on active duty, returned to complete his studies and obtain his diploma in 1947.

John K. Backus, Class of 1946

After obtaining his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cornell University in 1952, John spent his working life in the world of corporate research and development, mostly related to plastics. Following stints with Procter & Gamble and General Mills, he moved with Marge and their four children to the Pittsburgh area, where he joined the Mobay Corp., a subsidiary of Bayer AG. He retired as Mobay’s manager of laboratory services in 1990.

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