Dreams and Fancies

W. Robert Connor, Class of 1956

Delivered: June 3, 2006

On Class & Charter Day in 1956, Professor Robert B. Rudd, 1909 – that’s nineteen o nine – reminisced about the Hamilton of his undergraduate years, trying to help us understand why old men would come back and walk “about the campus looking for old memories.” He told us seniors to “remember the year 2006. You should walk by the fountain … and you should walk in the graveyard. Perhaps you will find the golden dice with which we used to play.”

Now, here we are, 50 years later, just as “Bobo” predicted, old men, looking for old memories, and saying to Hamilton’s most recent graduates: “Remember the year 2056, perhaps you will find those golden dice, or things even more valuable, friends and memories, dreams and fancies.”

My classmates and I were in this chapel, on June 3, 1956, just before the College’s 146th Commencement. We sat here with our dreams and fancies, our dim imaginings of what we might achieve, stepping into a world of unpredictable change. Every class after 50 years, I suppose, feels that it has witnessed unprecedented change, but the classes of the mid-1950s encountered disruptions more intense than any since those a century before when our republic was veering into civil war.

We did not know it, we could not even dream it, but we were at a great cultural divide, as if we had been climbing mountain slopes, only belatedly to discover that the streams were running in a new direction, the terrain was far different from anything we had imagined or been prepared for. Profound changes were about to take place in attitudes toward government and authority, in gender roles and sexuality, racial relations, the pace of scientific discoveries and technological change. They would make much of our knowledge obsolete and result in exciting but often frightening transformations in the economy. There would be Vietnam, protests, freedom marches, sit-ins, rock music, the pill, drug culture, women’s liberation, AIDS, the dissolution of the East Bloc, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, then the emergence of new and more terrifying problems: Al-Quaeda, one war after another in the Middle East, the fragility of the environment, global climate instability — and not least among all these changes, the emergence of new media that could shape what we thought, or to turn us away from thinking altogether.

Some of those changes were already under way while we were at Hamilton, and we were not entirely unaware of them. For example, Channing Richardson came into his International Relations class and asked, “What would you think if you were told you were going to Saigon tomorrow?” It was an amazing question. We all knew that we might be drafted soon after graduation; once in uniform we might wake up in Berlin, Korea, the Formosa Strait or somewhere along the Iron Curtain – but Saigon? That was a long way from Hamilton, or so it seemed.

It was implausible in the superficially placid 1950s that much would change in relations between the sexes or among the races. But how long could things go on as they had? We were up to our necks in exams in December 1955 when Rosa Parks started the bus boycott that began a new demand for civil rights and brought a young clergyman named Martin Luther King into prominence.

Montgomery, Alabama, was a long way from Hamilton, or so it seemed. But change was in the air and on the airwaves. Elvis Presley was already at the top of the pop music charts with Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel; Rock Around the Clock was already rocking the tranquility of nice suburban homes; at a church supper in 1956, 14-year-old Paul McCartney met a sophisticated 16-year-old named John Lennon. But Liverpool was a long way from Hamilton, and this was not our music, at least not yet. We listened to some folk, rhythm and blues, some classical, big band dance music, but above all to jazz.

We didn’t just listen, we played jazz, or rather those of us with some talent did, brought together, inspired by determined classmates, including one of the most loyal alumni Hamilton has ever had, Emerson Brown, Class of 1956. It warms our hearts that his widow Cynthia is again with us this weekend, and that the Hamilton Jazz Archive is being developed in his memory.

We were not passive when it came to music or to other activities we thought important. There were no solicitous deans of student life, no generous subsidies, no well-appointed offices, no secretarial or support staff, just a few students in a basement room in Root Hall or wherever, staying up late to make it happen. If we wanted jazz, we played it; if we wanted Duke Ellington to perform at house parties, the student Social Committee had to negotiate the arrangements.

And if we wanted football or baseball or basketball, we didn’t surf a hundred and fifty channels, we went out and played — pick me up games, intramurals or intercollegiate competition. Not doing so badly at that — taking first place in the state track and field meet, the best basketball team up to that point in the College’s history, a 5-2 season in football and teams that trounced Union in baseball, golf and tennis, just to mention a few of the accomplishments of our senior year.

Oh, we wasted some time in front of TV. But we were still on the other side of a great cultural divide, occupying a space now compressed almost out of existence by rock concerts and similar mass gatherings on one side and the solipsism of the iPod on the other. If we watched televisions, it was not staring at wide screens of brilliant color in our individual rooms, but sitting together in a fraternity living room or similar setting, cheering, hooting and mocking the flickering black-and-white images purveyed to us by two or three channels. The few hours we spent watching TV were anything but passive.

We could be an obstreperous bunch, as our fair and long-suffering dean Winton Tolles knew all too well. He was relieved, I am sure, whenever we channeled our energy into athletics or any other constructive activity. Given firm guidelines and some (often-broken) prohibitions, students could arrange all that for themselves. That meant running clubs, activities and especially fraternities, managing their finances, keeping the houses in some semblance of repair, dealing with countless headaches, with minimal intrusion — or help — from the College. We may not have done all this terribly well, but it was a good preparation for “the real world,” a valuable “learning experience,” as they say today — except for one thing.

Hamilton, during the years we were undergraduates, was already making the long transition from a college focused on men from upper New York State to a coeducational liberal arts college of national distinction. That was the right thing to do, and the College was already winning new recognition and appreciation, at least among the readers of an April 1953 issue of LIFE magazine. But the transition was not easy for a college whose Presbyterian roots reached deep into the red clay of these rolling hills. Nor, I suspect, was it guided by anything like the “strategic plans” of which every self-respecting college today makes frequent boast.

Hamilton, as best I can tell, was built somewhat haltingly from the ground up; that is, it began by admitting more students of high academic promise, even if they were, as the euphemism of the day phrased it, disproportionately “from New York City” — we all knew what that meant — or if they were Catholics or African-Americans or Asians. That was, again, the right thing to do. But at the time it created a serious problem — our own small scale version of the struggles for fairness and equality that were surfacing throughout the nation. For while Hamilton’s admissions policy changed in some important ways, the social system did not. Despite the sporadic vigor of the Squires Club, the fraternities ruled the roost and could not, or would not, accommodate more than about 90 percent of the students. And at the end of Rush Week a few weeks into freshman year, it was clear that the other 10 percent, good Hamiltonians, loyal steadfast men, were not, by and large, Protestant kids from upstate New York.

Let me be blunt: This cut a great gash through our community, hurting and wounding as it split us one from another. But it was also an opportunity to rethink old stereotypes. Over time many of us began to dream of a system that was truly inclusive and genuinely welcoming to people who differed from us in race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. That was not an easy dream for the College to realize or for all alumni to accept. But step-by-step the College did the right thing, addressing the exclusions and inequities in its social system, and doing its part in what has been, I believe, the greatest of the many challenges confronting our generation – fair play for all people of this land. We had encountered that issue in microcosm during our first weeks at Hamilton, and over time we learned a lot from that experience.

But, even in the short run, we found ways to make things work. The College was too small, and I like to think we were too smart, to avoid one another, and besides we shared so much, including one amazing thing — the beauty of the place. Paul Carter says that he remembers most vividly ”the crisp air, brilliant sunshine, the Chapel tower standing out against the bluest sky that I have ever seen.”

What let that natural and architectural beauty stamp itself so indelibly within us was, I believe, its convergence with the isolation of the College. The isolation was like a magnifying lens concentrating the beauty we saw until it seared our souls. We could not escape it, any more than we could escape from one another. There we were at a college perched like some disoriented bird, on a hilltop overlooking the mighty Oriskany Creek, 10 miles from the blandishments of metropolitan Utica. Few of us had cars, and if we did, it was not easy to go very far. The New York State Thruway was not yet completed; the back roads were slow and frustrating. Those of us who came from any distance often disembarked at night at Utica station from the trains of the New York Central railway; we would share a taxi, packed in like circus clowns for the long drive to the Hill.

There were, of course, road trips, away games, choir tours and debate tournaments. But it could be a challenge even to get to the village of Clinton, hoofing it down, hoping some lucky upperclassman with a car would give a lift back. And if we walked beyond Root Glen, the fields and pastures, now overgrown, seemed endless, overwhelming the sense with the fragrance of spring flowers in meadows and the hum of bees in the glades.

When the snows came the isolation was complete. After a storm we might awaken to brilliant sun and unearthly silence. As we walked to breakfast work horses snorted, chuffing out tiny evanescent clouds as they drew plows to clear the paths. College Road was, of course, closed. No car would attempt it until trucks and sand and salt got around to their work. We became boys again; sleds or stolen dining trays appeared. We rolled great snowballs and blocked the entry to South Dorm, built snowmen, fought snowball fights, made snow angels, came in cold, wet, out of breath and happy.

Big college men though we thought ourselves, we quickly regressed, not just to boyhood, but to some antediluvian state, before the sons of Noah had divided into separate tribes. Perhaps more than that – it sometimes seemed as if we had gone back to some prelapsarian world. With silence all around us, unclouded in our innocence, under the dazzling winter sun, we experienced, perhaps, some foretaste of the simple clarity of paradise.

In class there was a different kind of clarity — no escaping it. There was no room for obfuscation, jargon, prolixity, sloppy thinking or expression. Not with teachers like — oh dear, “such as” — George Nesbitt, John Blyth, Walter Hess, Otto Liedke, “Digger” Graves, “Shifty” Gere, even in his own way “Swampy” Marsh.

Ignorance was not to be tolerated. John Mattingly, surely the most learned, the most eccentric, and at the time I thought the worst teacher on that faculty, once asked me what the Latin phrase communis locus meant. When I replied, “A common place, a trite saying,” he became irate. He threw me out of class and would not readmit me until I finally learned that it was a technical term in ancient rhetoric and could adequately explain its meaning.

Or try absenting yourself from class, if you dared. Professor Herbert Long’s first-year Greek was one of those courses that included a class on Saturday morning — at 8 a.m. A few weeks before one house party, the spring of our freshman year, I believe, Mr. C., I will call him, one of the upperclassmen in our tiny class in beginning Greek, made bold to ask if class might be suspended on the forthcoming Saturday morning. “Certainly not,” Mr. Long replied. “I will be especially looking forward to your presence, Mr. C., since your attendance to date has been so unsatisfactory.” The threat worked, but in an unexpected way. When we arrived at class that Saturday morning, there was Mr. C., somewhat disheveled, but in black tie and, if I am not mistaken, with a martini glass in hand, ready to slur his way through the assigned paradigms.

In class it was impossible to hide if you were ill-prepared and dangerous to try to bluff. George Nesbitt once cut off someone in class saying, “Mr. B., we are interested in those features of this Dickens novel that were not in the movie version.” We got the idea. Most of us studied pretty intensely, out of fear at first and then sometimes, to our surprise, out of a nascent love of learning. I remember leaving the old library late one night, after some pretty intense studying, and as I cut over to South Dorm, I felt the spray from the fountain on my cheek. Somehow it made me realize that I loved this learning, yes, even the horrors of the Greek verb, and that it might be worth spending a lifetime on it.

Those habits of clarity of thought and expression, and that love of learning, were the greatest gifts the College could give us and the best preparation, I am convinced, for the world of unpredictable change we were about to enter. For all their austerity, these faculty members did not hurry away when we met them on campus, or cut short chats in their offices, or curtail their support for us when we aimed for graduate school or a job. These taskmasters could metamorphose into lifelong friends, as Sid and Ellie Wertimer repeatedly did. In preparing this talk, I came across a dozen letters from Herbert Long written in the year or so after I left Hamilton, encouraging this aspiring classicist to stick with it and do it well. Years later John Mattingly turned up in Princeton when I was teaching there; my wife Callie and I will never forget a breakfast conversation with him — the wit, the sardonic joviality of the man, his love of art. Requiescat.

These faculty members cared about us, invited us to their homes for dinner and tolerated the thin conversation gruel when they sat with us over food at a fraternity or coffee shop. And shortly before we graduated they put on a series of skits for us that included the singing of a couplet worthy of literary immortality (Tom Johnston, I believe, was the author):

Culture like a sweet perfume
Lingers in our locker room.

They were an amazing faculty, but let us not romanticize them. They were not all totally dedicated to the life of the mind. Certainly Bobo Rudd showed equal devotion to wine, women and song. But was there ever anyone who loved poetry the way he did, or could help us distracted 20-year-olds feel the chill run down our spines when he read John Donne or Andrew Marvell to us?

Poetry! We read it, we wrote it, we begged to have the modern poets added to our freshman seminar — Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and, of course, Ezra Pound, Class of 1905. Since we were such a feisty bunch, it does not surprise me that Hamilton fielded teams vigorous enough to take on any college in the region, even Army in hockey. Nor is it surprising that debate flourished with eloquent lawyers-to-be of the firm Granof, Green and Sheerer among us. Nor that choirmaster John Baldwin could shape a heavenly chorus out of our raw voices.

What surprises me is that our tiny crew in this remote place sustained a vigorous but unpretentious literary culture — acting in plays by Shaw, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and some of my ancient Greek friends, writing and producing our own one-act plays, reviewing them in The Spectator, and arguing about every critical judgment. We even produced a somewhat sporadic literary journal, The Continental. We loved literature, wrestled with it, parodied it, relished it.

And we sang:
On key and off
Drunk and sober
In the shower and on the steps
Class sings, inter-fraternity sings,
just-for-the-hell-of-it sings
Buffers and Glee Club and Choir

On the Hill and on the road, with John Baldwin in the great churches of New York City and State, with recording mics for a vinyl record in the modern 33 rpm mode. By day and by night, it didn’t take a party to set us off. We would gather around the piano, Ben Carroll laughing as he played,

Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal
Aura Leigh

And after we warmed up, we sang the limericks of the eternally waltzing Willie with the young monk from Algeria and the unfortunate young maiden named Alice.

On those rare occasions when females bestowed their blessed company upon us, we serenaded them, one by one, telling the girl from Vassar that none could surpass her, praising the one from Holyoke who knew a dirty joke and taught me how to smoke (but I already knew), and of course the girl from Smith who talked like thi-ith, and taught me how to kith (but I already knew). We assured each of them that in our future life she was going to be our wife, as indeed sometimes was the case.

And we sang at assemblies in this Chapel: “Gather close ye boys and men,” as we phrased it in those days, and Carissima, sometimes with a little gulp in the throat at those now extinct words, “We still shall be thy boys.”

I want to ask my classmates if they remember the first time they sang “Where oh where are the pea green freshmen,” each verse marking another step toward graduation. And do you remember how you felt when you sang the final verse:

Where oh where are the staid alumni?
Where oh where are the staid alumni?
They’ve gone out from their dreams and fancies.
They’ve gone out from their dreams and fancies.
Out, out in the cold, cold world?

I hope you swore to yourself that you would never let that happen to you — that you would never abandon your dreams and fancies. Did you?

We dreamed those dreams and fancies, under the crystal-clear skies, with music in our ears and poetry in our hearts. Yet there was a shadow we did not wish to acknowledge. None of us, I think, was distracted by fear of atomic warfare, but if you asked, most of us would have said that there would be an atomic war sometime in our lifetime. (We may yet turn out to have been correct.) It seemed inevitable.

Inevitability put us at risk, I fear, of underestimating our capacity to effect change. We didn’t decide, as we might have, to eat, drink and be merry, but to live a decent life, find a decent job, raise a family in the best way we knew, try to treat our fellow human beings as decently as we could. Our classmate Barry Carson, the best commentator of and about our generation, has suggested that our generation abjured greatness and settled for too little. Perhaps, but that makes me appreciate all the more what some of our classmates did, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves. I am thinking, of course, especially of Bob Moses, who put his life on the line in the delta of Mississippi for his dream of a country where people of all races could live together in fairness and be treated with decency. That was perhaps not so far from Hamilton, after all.

At Baccalaureate, exactly 50 years ago, we came together again in this building. I don’t remember a word that was said, either here or a few hours later at Commencement, but I remember one hymn we sang, Psalm 90, as Isaac Watts set it not long before this College was founded. One verse of O God Our Help in Ages Past still rings in my ears:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away.
They fly, forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

The Hebrew psalmist was right, I think, and so was the ancient Greek poet who said a human being is but the dream of a shadow. Skias onar anthropos, evanescent, swept away by the inexorable flow of time. “A dream of a shadow.” But even such a dream is not to be despised or lightly abandoned. My classmates, my friends, let us not go out from our dreams and fancies — not yet, not quite yet.

W. Robert Connor, Class of 1956

Fifty years ago, W. Robert Connor was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hamilton, after carrying off virtually every prize in Greek and Latin the College had to offer. He went on to a Ph.D. from Princeton University, where he stayed on for 25 years as a professor of classics, gaining great distinction as a teacher and scholar of Greek and Roman history and historiography. Chosen as president of the American Philological Association by his peers, he also chaired Princeton’s Council of the Humanities.

In 1989, Bob Connor left academe to become president and director of the National Humanities Center, a haven for advanced liberal studies located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. During his 13 years in that post, he became one of our country’s most prominent and eloquent proponents of humane learning. He retired in 2002, only to begin a third career as president of the New York-based philanthropic Teagle Foundation, which focuses on the strengthening of liberal education. His intense devotion to that cause, by the way, was “derived in large measure from my years at Hamilton,” as he recalled recently.

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