1957 Class Annalist’s Letter
Our Beagle of Discovery
Richard A. Feleppa, Class of 1957
Delivered: June 2, 2007
Gather close, ye boys and men,
And we’ll sing the praise again
of the College on the hilltop
Whose days will never end.
An impressive number from the Class of 1957 have gathered here on the hilltop. Time and happenstance have been our friends, during our years on the Hill and during the intervening 50. Experience has been our teacher. Responsibility, our obligation. Hard work, our commitment. Individuality, our common thread. Adaptability, our ace in the hole.
Let’s hear it for these mature gentlemen, these old dogs in the Class of ’57 who have had the fortitude and good fortune, the pluck and the luck, to make it back here today along with their young wives and dear friends. We are all joined in spirit by those who cannot be with us.
In the words of Yogi Berra, “I want to thank all the people who made this day necessary.” Special thanks to President Joan Stewart, Director of Alumni Relations Jon Hysell, Alumni Review Editor Emeritus Frank Lorenz. Faculty. Classmates. Dear friends of Hamilton. Thank you for giving me the honor of delivering what our class president Dave Tittle likes to call an oration on this occasion.
How old are we? How long ago was it? We grew up in a black-and-white world. To communicate, we used the pencil, the ink-bladder pen, the manual typewriter — bulky rotary dial phones at home, and black, coin-box pay-phones away from home. We were analog way before we knew what analog and digital even meant. We were part of the voracious consumer generation. Moms marveled at the new appliances: the recently invented dishwasher, the new Frigidaire. Dads loved the new cars with lots of chrome, wing-fins and wraparound windshields.
We grew up unpampered — way before tab-opened aluminum drink cans. We were the innocents who enjoyed prosperity. We had one foot in the peaceful yesterday that followed the Second World War and the other foot in the uncertain tomorrow of a new kind of world. We were before space exploration and the arms race. We were before Vietnam, before Woodstock, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, before the sit-ins and the love-ins. Way before CDs, DVDs, BVDs, MSGs and MSNBCs.
Yes, the mid-’50s! — when a loaf of bread cost 14 cents, FTD charged $7.50 to deliver flowers, a city subway token was 15 cents, and you paid for lunch at the Automat with a handful of nickels. A man’s three-piece grey flannel suit cost $90. And a first-rate, yes, a first-rate, education at Hamilton College meant investing $700 a year for tuition and another $750 for room and board.
Historians call us The Silent Generation. We were more like The Listening Generation — The Do What You’re Told Generation. Like a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, we sat on the stairs or behind the door listening to our parents and adults talking about how well things had progressed since the Depression and the end of World War II. We had heard snippets of the war on a Bakelite radio while our mother ironed or from war stories our dad or uncles brought back from Europe and Asia. Winning at war was an influence during our early years. Atomic bomb drills in grammar school had us crouched on the floor, under our desks or against the wall, as in a game, innocently covering our heads. We played with toy tanks and soldiers in the dirt — our sisters played with Barbie in the house. We all played with that new toy Silly-Putty.
We used our imaginations — often having to provide our own humor and entertainment. After all, we grew up with radio; we knew what The Shadow knew! To wile away hours we would scan the mail order “Johnson Smith Catalog” from Racine, Wisconsin — the book that Jean Shepherd called “the Rosetta stone of American culture.” We scoured it for “The Joy Buzzer,” “The Dribble Glass,” “The Squirt Ring” and the infamous “Whoopee Cushion.” It promised to fulfill the other American schoolboy dream, namely, “One Thousand Ways to Get Rich.” In high school, we learned to read the newspaper, seven major dailies in New York City alone. We read The New Yorker, Time and Life, as our parents had in the ’30s. Particularly Life’s April 27, 1953, issue, 20 cents on the newsstand, with an article titled “Pure Liberal Arts.” The cover featured a coronation photo of Queen Elizabeth II looking very much like a young Helen Mirren. Inside, eight pages extolled the virtues of a liberal arts education. Hamilton was the apple of Life magazine’s eye, and we were getting ready to bite.
In the mid-to-late '50s, we reflected two worlds: Yesterday’s tradition; Tomorrow’s change. Our world of yesterday was the world of our parents and grandparents! We were conservative. Most relatives were Republicans. You might say all we saw was red because Communism occupied most minds and thoughts. Folks believed that diligence and religion were the ways to combat the red tide, so “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments filled new Cinemascope screens.
Like our parents, we didn’t talk about homosexuality, nor use today’s “L” word. We knew that other proclivities existed. We certainly knew about prejudice and discrimination — yet fell in line and were too often silent. We were ready to take on new ideas, new issues and new ways to take care of those less fortunate, less educated, less equally regarded. We would do our military duty; those before us had. We would go to work right out of school, and marry young (following the national trend: men at 22, young women at 19, when divorce was only 10 percent). We would pursue our share of the post-war economic boom. We even had the audacity to talk about making $20,000 a year by the time we were 30 — and we had been told that a good education was the way to get there.
So when offered the opportunity, we jumped, or were gently pushed. Hamilton College was ideal for us. Small like our families. Secluded like our perception of all great asylums, a remote refuge from our folks. Celibate like our worst nightmares. English like our country’s forefathers. Protestant like the school’s founders. Latin and Greek like our ancients. Traditional like our values.
Khakis and white bucks were packed, along with corduroys and Harris tweeds, and a handful of ties (some striped, some knit, some very, very wide). Name tags were sewn into hems, in case, you know, God forbid! Our favorite garb was crammed into the two-strap metal laundry box mailers that later would serve as dirty-laundry shipping containers home. Like Darwin’s Beagle, Hamilton College was to be our vessel of discovery. A crew of dedicated teachers, mentors and friends were going to take us to that someplace else. As far as we were concerned, the outside world could take care of itself. We were off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.
So, shortly after Sen. John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier exchanged vows in Newport that brisk fall September day in 1953, we made our own kind of promise for the future. We climbed the Hill to learn and we learned to climb the Hill. We couldn’t believe how steep it was, 12 percent grade in places. Deep, stepped grooves (designed to give horses’ hooves a footing in ice and snow) gave car tires the shakes. For many of us, steepness, unexpected curves and being rattled were augurs of the days to come.
A total of 188 of us entered the 143rd academic year — mostly schoolboys and a few “real men” who had served in the military because of Korea. We were the second largest freshman class in the College’s history (10 fewer than the vet invasion of ’46). Our class brought the total student body to 580 men. Whether we knew it or not, we were special. For every one of us chosen to be here, three had been turned down: 752 applicants for the Class of 1957 compared to a record 4,909 this year for the Class of 2011.
Here it was: An 18-building campus set in a wooded park of 160 acres, overlooking the Oriskany and Mohawk valleys, along with the Root Wild Garden of more than 200 acres. Forty or so homes owned by the College were occupied by faculty and staff. Ten Greek fraternity houses along with two non-Greek houses owned by trustees were clustered up and down the Hill. Some were homey, some grand, some smacking of Frank Lloyd Wright, some very English Ivy.
Our dorms were impressive, of hand-hewn limestone quarried only a few miles from here: Middle, North, Carnegie and South built in that order between 1825 and 1906. The walls were thick, the window wells deep, and thin panes of glass welcomed the cold in, and once in, never quite allowed it to escape. Modernized and redecorated after the war, dorms were equipped with giant coils of water hoses on each floor that silently called out to us, “Try me! Put me to use!”
Six buildings devoted to instruction, Silliman, Benedict, Root, Truax, Chemistry and Science (built more than half a century before) added their own unique architectural charm — so rich in buildings for a college so small in numbers. Favorite follies were Silliman next to South and the Infirmary way outside the wind-blocking protection of the main quadrangle — where metal beds encircled the second floor allowing the visiting doctor to sweep through on his weekly visits.
We were to enjoy the “First Modern Classroom at Hamilton.” A newly renovated room in Benedict Hall featured just for us: Picasso-shaped desks, the relatively new invention of florescent lighting and the relatively old invention of Venetian blinds! There were new granite steps at Buttrick, shiny new gold leaf on the Chapel tower, and the College Reservoir had been cleaned. Modest enough, but enough for us — the beneficence of President McEwen on a spending spree! However, it’s worth noting that during our freshman year, the Alumni Fund only garnered slightly more than $48,000. It was the most successful drive ever!
We couldn’t help but notice the beautiful towering trees. The majestic Lombardy Poplar, Populus nigra. The giant White Elm, Ulmus americana. The spreading Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum. It was right to be here. We felt as planted as those great trees. Secure, and yet a bit insecure. Nervy, yet naïve.
Within weeks, fraternity rushing was upon us. Parties were held. Invitations carefully doled out. We were courted and cajoled. Heated discussions regarding whom to pledge ensued amongst upperclassmen. Pledge week was our first taste of “acceptance or not.” We understood the traditional role of the fraternities, on campus since 1831, but silently questioned some of the inequities regarding acceptance and membership. Our class profile included more second-generation European- and Eastern-European-Americans. The College had logically grouped us by background, ethnicity or faith when assigning rooms, and unfortunately that grouping sometimes led to profiling.
Once the initial shock of acceptance-rejection was over, we filtered into our appropriate places and fell into the pattern of fraternity life. The individual houses fed us, boarded us, entertained us. Intramural teams, snow sculptures and parties gave us a reason to compete with one another. We learned the songs. We memorized the Greek chapter house names, inane poems or home addresses of “brothers” that we might have to recite upon demand. We served as living alarm clocks for seniors. We lit the candles, donned the robes and chanted the chants. We kept secret the secret handshake and the secret Goat Room for secret meetings hidden within the bowels of the house. When we experienced or doled out Hell Week, it was more like Hell Fun.
The fraternity houses were our refuge. Between classes, we played bridge or hearts, entered the football pool or fiddled with the piano. We’d sit in the kitchen making our own snacks, and it was there that we got to know formidable cooks and matrons like Frau Schmidt of Alpha Delta Phi who gathered up heads of cabbage for her famous coleslaw, one under each armpit and three in her ample bosom. We made new friends: Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, pages and pages of them. Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus and the other Greeks parodied in college bathroom humor, “Euripides pants, Eumenides pants.”
Latin and Greek still prevailed here. The College seal featured the words Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth) and the motto Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself). In class, 17 studied Latin, 13 studied Greek. Stone markers scattered among the grounds, the gifts of earlier classes, featured mottos in Greek.
Like the East Berliners who that year stood up to Communist rule, we lowly freshmen stood up to the sophomores, winning some respect, but later losing the day. We undid the sophomores by winning the traditional Tug of War; and yet, they showed us the value of experience in the Flag Rush. We hoped to capture the flag suspended from a rope, hung 12 feet high between two trees near Middle Dorm, but we discovered the slippery slopes of defeat at the hands of the savvy sophomores, for they had ignominiously greased the trees! This meant that we had to wear those embarrassing “dinks” or beanies, which declared our lowly freshman-ness until Christmas.
The Flag Rush was followed by a new tradition: That freshman who failed to comply with wearing his beanie or who did not adhere to the path and cut across the grass must endure the “Famous Ringing,” in this case, the ringing of one of our very best who was compelled to wear an all too familiar white horseshoe-shaped seat around his head, which read “Bill Scoones, I’m Great,” on campus and to the next football game.
When most of us were seniors in high school, a new publication had caught the attention of our inquisitive minds, something called Playboy. So, of course, we eagerly anticipated the freshman Exchange Dance in the Hall of Commons with the women from Wells — yet the buses were loaded with schoolgirls, young ruddy-cheeked innocents like us with bright lips and short cropped hair. Although they had arrived at nine, the young women had to return promptly to their buses at 12. They came in pinch-waisted dresses and crinolines, armored in that new post-war invention, the girdle. It was not far from the Gleditsia triacanthos, the Horny — pardon me! — Honey Locust trees outside in the cold that we stood straight, held each other close and danced the slow dance. The event helped create the illusion of women on campus — an illusion that started its engines and promptly sped away just after midnight. Reality during those celibate years had us traveling far and wide for companionship. Those of us on the quest found out all too well that Cazenovia was a 25-mile hitchhike away. Oneonta, 44 miles. Syracuse, 62 miles. Wells 90, Skidmore 100, and Vassar and Smith could have been on the moon for all we knew!
While national unemployment freshman year dropped to 2.9 percent, employment on the campus soared. Jerry Van Dijk and his faithful companion Woofer made their daily rounds delivering mail. Don Seyba plied the old-fashioned plugs of the telephone switchboard Saturdays in Buttrick Hall. In the basement of the same building, the very birthplace of Elihu Root, Tom Bleezarde typed away at hometown news releases. Students shelved books and distributed The New York Times. Many held jobs washing dishes, waiting tables, serving food and working in the kitchens of Commons and the fraternity houses to help defray the cost of room and board. Our Catalog devoted eight pages to scholarships and assistance — and special thanks are also due those silent benefactors who financially helped our classmates.
Issues of The Spectator, our weekly newspaper, reminded us of the advertising market we represented: For gourmands seeking an alternative dining experience it was Alteri’s and Zaza’s. For discriminating drinkers, it was Utica Club and Genesee. For the almost effete, it was Vitalis and Old Spice. For the futurists, it was Brooklyn Law School and The U.S. Air Force. For the smokers, it was Fatima Cork Tips, L&M Filters, Marlboros and Ben Hogan’s Chesterfields, “My steady smoke for seven years!”
For the hip new rock ’n rollers who gravitated to Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis, for the traditionalists who wanted Perry or Dinah or Frank, and for the lovesick pining along with Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel” or Frankie Lyman’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”, it was the Melody House in Utica. Of course, drinking establishments hardly had to advertise, word of mouth did it all, as long as it was nearby, had 10-cent draft beers, a good juke box at 10 cents a play and a shuffleboard-style bowling machine at a dime a game.
For those who might be ready to throw in the towel, the INS advertised Border Patrol jobs at a starting annual salary of $4,525. However, as Joe Heller put it, “There was a catch!” The applicant must weigh at least 140 lbs. (without clothing), test 20/20 (without glasses), have at least 14 natural teeth and be free of disfiguring scars, blemishes or deformities.
Soon we were to write in our blue books, “I have neither given nor received aid in this examination.” The Honor Code was an important part of our world. It trusted us — allowing us to take a break in the middle of an exam, leave the room or the building, go for a smoke or a coffee, even go to our dorm, and return to complete the test. It was that simple, a written pledge to seal a personal commitment of trust and obligation. It was only once or twice during our four years that a violation required that solemn announcement here in Chapel, “The Honor Court regrets to announce that this member of our student body be expelled from Hamilton College for fraud in an examination.” The silence that followed said it all.
During our early years, confrontations prevailed off the Hill: The Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision as the Ku Klux Klan was growing in the South; the Navy and Senate facing off against Senator Joe McCarthy. Whereas on the Hill, we settled into the idea that we had freshmen pledges to browbeat. I’ll pass quickly over the fact that as sophomores, it was our turn to lose both the Flag Rush and Tug of War.
Despite a new Bell & Howell 16mm projector with two speakers (bought to replace the outmoded one in the Chemistry auditorium, and God only knows how old that one was!), we were drawn to other projectors. We’d share a ride to Utica to see James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront or Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Most of us passed up the offer of a free dinner plate at the Uptown movie house.
We learned quickly that the world of entertainment on the Hill was even richer. The Charlatans rehearsed upstairs in the Infirmary and presented classic theatre in Commons: Melville’s Billy Budd, Shakespeare’s Henry the IV Part 1, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
We had home-grown entertainments as well: Some students held a mustache-growing contest. Roger Pisani wrote his epic poem for The Continental titled “Poor Man’s Winter.” It read: “No hose, Cold toes.” Gary Tischler’s survey found that bearded men were dissatisfied with the world in general. To say nothing about our dissatisfaction when we filled this building to capacity to watch four of our best compete against Mt. Holyoke on the NBC Radio Network’s live broadcast of College Quiz Bowl. Our brave men squeaked out a loss, 160 to 185, against very aggressive women. Perhaps another augur of days to come!
Music was a big part of our lives here: The singing of College and fraternity songs, military anthems and football fight songs. The a cappella Buffers serenaded us. The home-grown, newly formed Catatonic Five jazzed it up for us. The musicianship and the Music Department were phenomenal. The Hamilton Choir headed by John Baldwin and the Hunter College Choir performed Bach’s Magnificat in D Christmas Eve over the Mutual Broadcasting System (one of many joint concerts on the road that John would arrange with Smith, Vassar, Syracuse and Columbia — and with organizations like the Buffalo Symphony). The Hamilton Choir also produced its second commercial 33-1/3 disc on the Camden Records label of RCA Victor.
A most memorable musical event was when the Budapest String Quartet played to standing-room-only at a memorial service for Edward Root here in the Chapel. Wil Alger and his Salt City Five used jazz to drown out the sounds of kegs being tapped behind the Chi Psi house. But the coup of coups was when we convinced Edward Kennedy Ellington, considered at the time America’s foremost composer of modern music, to play at our Winter Carnival. Bill Scoones reminds us that we and our dates, formally dressed for the occasion, all sat down on the dance floor just to listen to Duke and his orchestra play. What a performance. We could have used the maestro’s expression when great talent was in evidence, “Duke was beyond category!”
The Spectator reported that the College, “which has always valued fire protection,” doubled the number of fire engines on campus, going from one to two. Our new engine was vintage 1930s, old enough to be discarded by the Clinton Fire Department and good enough for us. No doubt, classmate Landy Horning benefited most; he bought the College’s oldest engine, a 1919 Brockway, in good working order, for $120 —and immediately put it to greater use! It was Aristophanes who said, “When men drink, then they are rich and successful and win lawsuits and are happy and help their friends. Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine,” he said,
“so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.” I’m not sure how clever we were, how many lawsuits we’d won, but I do know that we lifted a beaker or two, made friends and were happy. Drinking was a big part of life. We drank socially with fellow students and with faculty members and their wives. The legal drinking age in New York was 18, and we took full advantage of the law. We drank not to get smashed, but to have fun — to develop our skills, for it made us better singers, better dancers, better buffoons.
Mornings on the Hill, our non-alcoholic beverage lady was Lois of the Glorious Profile who served cups of java in the Hall of Commons Coffee Shop where the vignette mural of Hamilton filled one wall. Evenings off the Hill, our best blender was Mike Zaccarro of the Glorious Whiskey Sour, down the stairs and behind the bar at the Alexander Hamilton Inn. Our drinks bordered on the exotic, with a touch of the profane. Juniper gin and canned Concord grape juice became a “Purple Jesus.” Fraternities had their cocktail parties and Chi Psi their Friday afternoon champagne affairs, all well attended by faculty and staff. Members of Nous Onze (“We Eleven”), a fledgling organization, pledged that neither sleet nor rain nor dark of night would prevent its members from successfully making their accustomed rounds. Earle Schemerhorn recalls a perfect recipe for house party Sunday mornings: “Nous Onze Milk Punch,” only the freshest of milk, freezing ice cream and lots of brandy in a five-gallon milk tin — to be stirred gingerly with a broom handle and enjoyed heavenly.
Borrowing from Hemingway, “We had such a damn good time together.” But we didn’t come here just to eat and drink, be entertained and get dolled up, although we tried our hand at all that. We came here “to celebrate intellectual activity.”
If the weave during our years was wine, women and song — then the warp was learning how to write, to speak and to think for yourself. It was expected of us then, and we treasure these skills today. Many aspects were compulsory (four years of public speaking for example), but for a very good reason. Writing was important in every field of study. Here, every professor was a writing professor.
We also learned that a variety of learning mattered. We were offered a wide range of electives, the ability to choose up to 50 percent of our courses, and the opportunity for lots of independent study — and, for the first time in Hamilton history, a chance to study junior year in France.
Respect and camaraderie with our elders nurtured in this intimate environment were very special then, as they are now. “Older men of deeper knowledge and riper wisdom,” as President McEwen labeled them, quickly became our friends and mentors. We carried on the tradition of applying nicknames. Following in the footsteps of those who first called Professor Oren Root “Square” Root, we gave the ministerial Robert Ward McEwen the moniker “Sandy,” as in “Sandy don’t ’llow no jazz on Sunday!” We had “Digger” Graves, “Bobo” Rudd and “Swampy” Marsh, along with “Shifty” Gere, “Mumbles” Carson and “Spooley” Ellis. Dr. Earl W. became “Noah” Count. And perhaps out of respect or fear, or just being ahead of our times, George L. Nesbitt, Ph.D., professor of English, became “The Nez.” Zealous and sarcastic sure, but so respected and admired, so intolerant of carelessness and laziness, George Lyman Nesbitt, as tough as the Black Walnut trees that towered outside, celebrated his 25th year at Hamilton while we were here.
During our term, The Chicago Tribune ranked Hamilton fifth nationally in academic excellence among all-male colleges (ahead of Washington & Lee, Williams and Union) — yet the statistic pales in comparison to the experience we had with our professors. The ratio of faculty to students was one to 10. Half the classes had fewer than 17 men. They knew us and we knew them. These were close, rewarding relationships. Each one of our professors became a personal advisor. How fondly we remember them — the caring, the knowledge, the chutzpah: Biology Professor Hess, carving up a kitten before our very eyes to show the wonders of peristalsis … The gifted John Baldwin, making full use of the newly installed organ with its 42 stops and 2,428 pipes … The voice of Paul Parker in the dark as he advanced us through centuries of great art or in the Chapel talking about Rodin … History Professor Bill Starnes bringing to life the dead Tsars of Russia or the deadly documents of diplomatic history … That great Scot and ex-Rugby-player, the Reverend Colin F. Miller, dean of the Chapel, expanding our knowledge of religion or presenting a standing-room-only reading of Robert Burns’ poetry. Some of the best minds were right here on campus, and these men found time to share their knowledge in class, in the Chapel, in their offices, in their homes and on the run.
We celebrated each other’s victories. When the much-liked, young, crew-cut Sid Wertimer, at Hamilton since ’52, was made associate dean, we were very, very pleased. When “Digger” was appointed editor-in-chief of the six-volume standard bibliography of Medieval English history from prehistoric times to 1485, we were very impressed. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time to honor each and every one for their contributions and for making a difference in our lives.
Suffice it to say: There is not one amongst us who has forgotten the time and place of that “A”— or when a professor asked to keep a “labor of love” paper — or when his suggestions put us on the right path. The number of students in our class with honors increased each year, culminating senior year when 89 men were on the Honors Roll.
Mention of team performance was always a sensitive topic at Hamilton, that is, until our class arrived and began to turn things around. We had been told that sports were not the only thing at Hamilton, but when a goat was secured to serve as mascot for the football team, it gave us pause. At the traditional Freshman Bonfire, we gathered wood and led the march, elegantly clad in pajamas, to the Alexander Hamilton Inn — but it was our athletes who were the real leaders of the parade. Our talented players and their gifted, never-say-never coaches helped turn the page in the College’s record book. Spectator headlines began to use the phrase “Best in the History of the College.”
There were proud, exhilarating moments: First place in the State Conference track meet ahead of RPI, Alfred, Rochester, Union and eight others. We cheered our players on, and it was the individual performers whom we remember most. Bill Regan’s hockey team battles an exhausting schedule. Bill Scoones, 25 goals for the season. Al Shaler sets new state record in cross country. Pete Eld sets two new records in high and low hurdles. Paul McGiffin, undefeated four years in the javelin throw, sets new distance record. Joe Nuccio sets a high jumping record. Kevin Keogh earns seven first places during one match in grueling 220- and 440-freestyle events. Quarterback Al McGann completes 31 of 44 passes. Fullback Carl Hansen leads the team in rushing with 456 yards. These and others gave us their greatest effort, great thrills — and for that we applaud them. It’s worth noting that many of our deserving Block H sweater athletes went on to study medicine, finance and law.
Our last year at Hamilton was historic. The student body grew to a record 633, the largest ever. Clearly it was the end of an era: Bus boycotts were occurring in Alabama — and the much-ignored 18 trip-a-day bus shuttle from the Clinton Green to the College Maintenance Shop was shut down. Khrushchev was demolishing the Hungarian Revolution — and the frail and unsightly North Village barracks for married vets and faculty called by some “The Vile Edge” were to be dismantled and sold. The U.S. population topped 170 million — and there were signs that the moat which had kept women separated from us for so long was drying up, for 350 young women could arrive as our overnight guests during Spring House Party. Republicans opened a campaign office in Clinton. “Re-Elect Ike & Dick” banners were unfurled. Sure the country liked Ike, but we had had Harvey Katz, Pete O’Hara, Jerry Van Dijk and Dave Tittle as our presidents. And we had one great secretary of defense during our four years here, and that was Winton Tolles. When we honor the dean in our memories, pranks always seem to come to mind.
Our pranks combined ingenuity with great effort and a degree of simplemindedness. They were fairly tame compared to days of old when students would reset the position of the pipes in the Chapel to throw off well-known hymns — or when nine students in 1823 carried a cannon up four flights in one of the dorms, took careful aim and fired at a tutor’s room — missing the tutor, obliterating his coat and shattering the cannon which fell to the basement below.
Our shenanigans were definitely less lethal. One young man tape-recorded the sound of quarters dropping in the fraternity house pay phone so he could play them back when making a long distance call to his girl friend. Or the students who attempted but failed to silence the loudspeakers of the evangelical flying preacher who would fly over the campus in his Piper Cub — one would reach for his rifle and fire off a few hapless rounds — another would use a mirror to try to bring the preacher down. And, of course, there were the footprints in snow or paint that invariably led from the statue of Alexander Hamilton — or to the urinals in South.
Best of all was the combined effort hatched during a class meeting in the Chemistry Building. A giant flagpole which had towered over the campus near Sigma Phi had come down in a storm. Our plan was to lift and lug it to a new location. Some say it was our finest hour working together as a group. In pitch dark, we carried this long ungainly spear of wood across the campus and around the tricky bend near Commons to College Hill Road where the horseshoe-shaped driveway of Dean Tolles cried out for attention. Silence was not our virtue. Shortly after depositing our prize, the dean appeared, like a grizzly from the shadows, and our class scattered. The immense flagpole now blocked the driveway in two places, and we could foresee days, perhaps weeks, pointing to our handiwork, retelling the story, laughing the laughs. Yet within hours, Grounds Department equipment effortlessly scooped it up and returned it to its rightful place.
So fondly we remember him. Dean Tolles who rolled up his already-wrinkled suit pants late at night and slogged into South in the middle of a water fight. Dean Tolles, with cigarette dangling from his lips, who dodged water balloons hurled from the upper floors of Carnegie. Dean Tolles, who might on a Sunday night drop into Dick Hall’s dorm room for some good strong coffee and conversation. It was a sure bet that it was the very same man, with his hat pulled down and his overcoat lapels pulled up, who was one-third of the nearly-nefarious triumvirate of Winton Tolles, Mike Zaccarro and Wally Johnson attending the races at Vernon Downs — a sight to behold!
Dean Tolles was the ultimate manager who personally and single-handedly managed dicey situations on the Hill — which meant we were never visited by the village police or fire department. Dean Tolles knew each and every one of us, our flaws, our foibles, our strengths and weaknesses. He counseled us on the pros and cons of our continued existence on the campus. He knew how to push our buttons: “Let’s not bring your mom and dad into this.” “Let’s not talk about the draft.” And almost in celebration of what he had done for each and every one us, Dean Winton Tolles, that legendary sandlot slugger, in the same suit pants and rolled-up dress shirt that he pretty much wore every day, that mighty Casey, he slammed one against us at the faculty-senior softball game on Class & Charter Day in early May — and we all responded with a cheer!
Then it happened. That sunny, incredibly hot, second-Sunday in June was our graduation day. It was over. Four years in a flash. June 9, 1957. Our mothers donned their new hat finery, our fathers, their fedoras, our girlfriends and wives, their summer frocks. Black-robed and wearing our tassel-bobbing mortarboards, we filed into the Sage hockey building with its ribbed ceiling and giant banner in the colors of the Continental army that said all it had to say, “Hamilton.” International law and responsible citizenship were urged upon us by Attorney General Brownell. Classmate commencement speaker Dick Hall paid tribute to Hamilton for offering students freedom of choice, bringing up his old friend Aristotle who said that character is revealed only through the individual’s choices. Bob Kraunz was valedictorian; Hurd Baruch, salutatorian. And on the lawn beside the Chapel, John Baldwin led his exceptional choir in a stirring rendition of Laudate nomen Domini (Praise the name of the Lord) and ended with “Fair Hamilton, Thy sons will ne’er forget.”
A total of 158 of us received our bachelor of arts degrees at the 147th Commencement at 2:30 in the afternoon. Did any of us think of those who had climbed this hill, walked this walk and accomplished this achievement before us? Elihu Root. Alexander Woollcott. Ezra Pound. Probably not. The eyes of our parents and families and girlfriends were on us, and our eyes were on the future. We stepped from one small world into another, much larger one. The antithesis of Jack Kerouac on the road, we hit the road to work, and the work world was waiting for us with open arms. We carried with us the confidence that had been nurtured here by our dear professor friends and by our comrades in arms. For a Silent Generation, we did pretty well. We fulfilled our military obligations, a few rising to very high rank. We went directly to work or to graduate school. We made our mark. We were the managers of the large workforce of Baby Boomers who were coming along behind us. An incredibly high percentage of us became professional men, doctors, scientists, lawyers, teachers. We ran businesses, created new companies and new opportunities. We married early and saw our families grow.
So for us, these schoolboys who came here in the early 1950s, this beautiful, ever-changing place of higher and deeper learning, this was our island on the Hill, our playground, our Beagle of discovery, and for that reason and a lot more, including the mentors, the friendships, the morals, the memories, the awakenings, for all this, Dear Hamilton, “Thy Boys Will Ne’er Forget Thee.”
When we leave the massive walls
That enclose her classic halls,
We will not fail to answer boys,
When our mother calls.
It was only yesterday when we were young boys here. Today we are 50 years older and wiser. Winston Churchill said it best, “The young sow wild oats, the old grow sage.” Speaking for the sage old dogs in the Class of 1957, “Hamilton, Thy sons will ne’er forget thee!” For all who came before, and for all who will come after, “Hamilton, Thy sons and daughters will ne’er forget thee!”
Richard A. Feleppa, Class of 1957
Richard A. Feleppa came to Hamilton from the Garden State of New Jersey and honed his thespian skills by trouping with the Charlatans while on the Hill. However, after his graduation in 1957 and a year at the Yale University School of Drama, he opted for a somewhat more secure future as a writer for radio and television advertising. In that field he advanced from research clerk to sales promotion and advertising manager at stations WOR, WNBC and WQXR in New York City. In 1967, he formed his own Madison Avenue ad agency, which became KFO, Inc. The “F” was for Feleppa. But having never entirely turned his back on the stage, he also produced and directed a theatre-in-the-round for several summers.
After nearly 40 years of creating ad copy, Rich Feleppa turned to a new and very different line of work. He began importing fine art and craft products from Italy, which he sold in his own store, Florence & Son, named for his mother. In 2003, when the dollar went on the skids, he shuttered the shop and retired. Since then, he has been keeping up on his Italian, doing figure-drawing and photography and traveling as much as possible.
In June, Rich Feleppa traveled to College Hill from his home in East Hampton on Long Island to share his reminiscences of Hamilton and the world as it was 50 and more years ago. His half-century annalist’s letter abundantly demonstrates how well, during his days at the College, he had “learned how to listen, observe, make notes and dig deep in research,” as he recently recalled.