1962 Class Annalist's Letter
Ralph Oman Class of 1962
Delivered: June 2012
Almost every year since 1862, a member of the 50th reunion class has attempted to distill the essence of four years at Hamilton into the class annalist letter. I will try to uphold that tradition. Cleo, the muse of history, is watching over my shoulder to make sure I get it right. Some of that history will be politically incorrect. Some of it may sound a little weird to those of you who weren’t there, but it is a rich history, and I hope my letter brings back memories of our four years at Hamilton.
Most traces of our brief passage have disappeared, and only memories of us held by Don Potter, Ed Lee, Gene Long, Mr. Cratty, Austin Briggs, Jim Ring, Jay Williams and, of course, Ellie Wertimer bring a glow of remembrance. Students in the 19th century left behind small boulders half buried in the grass, with their class year chiseled onto them, to remind future generations of their tenure on College Hill.
This letter, this collection of our memories, is our stone in the grass, and it will mark our passage and tie the Class of 1962 to Hamilton for the next 200 years.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart told a biographer that when he had to decide a really hard case, he always reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out his beanie from his freshman year at Yale. He said that back then the answers to all questions, big and small, seemed simple and obvious. Wearing his beanie helped him think clearly.
Well, I wore mine when trying to write this letter, but it didn’t help. What did help was the generous support of Hamilton’s faculty and staff in opening up the archives and for hosting my visits back to the Hill. What helped most were my classmates, who generously shared their reflections on the years they spent here. They opened the floodgates of memory and turned a trickle into a mighty river.
In my letter to classmates soliciting materials, I told them that the statute of limitations had passed, and that I encouraged confessions, the juicier the better.
The most surprising confession came with a large and heavy box delivered to my house in Washington. In the box I found a white marble tombstone with the initials A-J-H-R on it. The accompanying letter told the story: During Hell Week our freshman year, an upperclassman ordered the unnamed sender to collect a grave marker from the Hamilton cemetery. And he did, and he kept it all these years. He now returns it, seeking peace of mind after 54 years of guilt. I will deliver it to the College Archives anonymously, in the hope that he is granted absolution in absentia.
And here we are, back on the Hill, where we first met almost 54 years ago. It was 1958, the year:
- The first U.S. satellite rocketed into orbit — only a few months after the Russians launched Sputnik
- Private Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army
- Fidel Castro attacked Havana
- Van Cliburn played in Moscow
- Alaska became a state
- The Marines landed in Lebanon
- Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was threatening massive retaliation
- The Beatles made their first recording, “That’ll Be the Day”
- And we, all 205 of us, arrived at Hamilton, the 150th class in Hamilton’s history and the largest freshman class in Hamilton’s history.
Who were we?
Seventy percent of us came from public high schools, and 30 percent from private schools. In the Class of 1960, just two years earlier, that ratio was 60 public and 40 private. Most of us had graduated in the top quarter of our high school class, and nearly half of us received financial aid. The tuition was $1,400, including room and board. Only a handful of us had cars, and the very few scholarship students who had cars had to surrender the keys to Dean Wertimer, who would give them back only for the trips home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Our first introduction to college life came when we met our roommates. With a few exceptions, the College made the assignments. Carl Wheeler was the assistant director of admissions, under Sid Bennett. He told me that he and Sid took great care in assigning roommates, much like a Hollywood studio casting a bomber crew for a World War II movie — one from a farm in the Midwest, one from Brooklyn, one from the South, one from a wealthy family in Boston and one from a working-class family in Detroit. Mr. Wheeler had taught at the Mid-Pacific Institute in Hawaii, Jim Honke’s high school, before returning to Hamilton as Mr. Bennett’s assistant. He said he took special pains in selecting roommates for Jim, his protégé from Mid-Pac. In the Tower of South with Jim, we had Harvey Bricker, Rolfe Ferguson, George Dechet, Jim Timourian, Harold von Brockdorff, Nevett Steele and me. Should we be flattered or puzzled by the make-up of that particular bomber crew?
Our class came from traditional households, and our mothers, for the most part, did our laundry, cooked our meals and made our beds. That didn’t change when we went off to Hamilton. Once a week, nameless local women — called harpies — came in to clean our rooms, mop the floors of the bathrooms, empty our trash baskets and change our bed linens. Talk about the good old days. But change was on the way, whether we liked it or not. A February 1960 headline in The Spectator announced: “Hamilton Harpies Unite Against Work Injustices.” The beginning of the end, guys. Our wives would later complete our painful transition to self-sufficiency, whether we liked it or not.
What did we find on the Hill?
As we arrived in the fall of 1958, Hamilton was in the middle of a 20-year transition — from the vanishing era when only children of the wealthy went to college, to the post-Great Depression/post-World War II era of equal opportunity and diversity. The Class of 1962 straddled both eras. President McEwen told us at a cocktail party that he would not let Hamilton become “a game preserve for the sons of alumni.” And he didn’t. The New York State Regents Scholarship made Hamilton possible for many of us. It covered half the cost of our Hamilton education, and we could earn the other half with a summer job.
Hamilton was an all-male bastion, with no females on the faculty, no curtains on the windows and very few bathrooms reserved for women. Many of us smoked — even the football coach. The term political correctness had not yet wormed its way into the lexicon. Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than three to one. With 271 students responding, a Spectator poll in the fall of 1958 showed that 184 of us were Republicans, 47 were Democrats, 31 were Independents, four were Socialists, four were Communists and one was States Rights. In the race for governor of New York, the respondents favored Nelson Rockefeller over Averell Harriman by 206 to 48. Rockefeller won the election in a landslide. Two years later, in the 1960 presidential race, a Spectator poll had Richard Nixon beating Kennedy 54 percent to 31 percent, with the rest undecided.
Grade inflation had not yet reached academia. Almost one-quarter of our classmates left Hamilton for academic reasons. In September of 1959, at the beginning of our sophomore year, President McEwen awarded Alpha Delt the President’s Cup for the fraternity that had increased its academic average by the greatest amount. With their mighty exertions, the Alpha Delt brothers had increased their house average from 73.3 to 75.1.
As our only act of civil disobedience, we burned our freshman beanies in the main quad. We demanded from the administration, quoting The Spectator story, a “reasoned justification” for the beanie tradition. Dean Tolles heard our demand with straight-lipped silence and a gimlet eye, but the beanies were gone shortly thereafter, never to return. From such modest acts great movements grow. Compulsory chapel suffered the same fate. In a 1961 Spectator poll, 68 percent opposed the requirement. The Class of ’62 led the pack with 76 percent opposed. It too would soon be gone. Later in the decade, having completed the transition to the new era, Hamilton students were protesting the Vietnam War, others were enjoying love-ins in Woodstock, and some were rioting on the streets of Chicago. And women were burning other articles of clothing, not beanies. With the beanies, we had stuck our toe in the cauldron of rebellion, and we didn’t get burned. A hundred years of tradition gone. Another nail in the coffin of the old order.
When John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president the summer between our sophomore and junior year, he said that America “stood on the edge of a new frontier.” We, too, stood on the edge of a more modest frontier at Hamilton. We saw the administration take the first steps of the 30-year evolution that eventually ended the fraternity system. We were the last class to be rushed the first week of school and pledged at the end of that week. In May of our freshman year, the administration announced major changes. For the Class of 1963, it wanted to build class solidarity and a “better integrated freshman class,” so it would delay the fraternity rush until January and wouldn’t allow pledging until the end of second semester. It also announced that it would mandate 100 percent opportunity, meaning everyone would get an invitation to join a fraternity. These changes marked the first time since the 1830s that the College had intervened directly in fraternity governance.
Whether we knew it or not, we were foot soldiers at the beginning of the long march to social equality at Hamilton. But we can’t help feel some nostalgia for the old system. Many Sigs, in their reunion bios, mentioned the pleasures of life in the Sig House, with all the comforts and privileges of a British men’s club, a way of life heavily subsidized by wealthy Sig alumni. That lifestyle is gone, swept away in our journey to an egalitarian community of scholars. Even so, today’s students all live a life of comfort and material prosperity that we could not have imagined 50 years ago. The only down side is that many of them will spend the next 20 years of their lives paying off the loans that make that comfort and prosperity possible. We were all lucky to graduate essentially debt free.
Our professors — also an all-male cast — were originals, all of them brilliant and caring, and some of them eccentric, the result of Hamilton’s isolation, the tolerance of the College administration and the absence of the homogenizing impact of television. Some had distinctive accents and strange mannerisms. Mr. Nesbitt would pluck vigorously at the end of his nose when engaged in discussions in class, completely oblivious to what he was doing. And they were all over the board sartorially. Some were tweedy and preppy. Some were polyester before polyester was invented. Fall, winter and spring, “Digger” Graves would wear a seersucker jacket to class because, he explained, it didn’t show chalk dust. Some professors were unkempt and quirky. Some had independent wealth, like Professors Rodgers, Colby and Johnson. All had wonderful stories to tell and useful advice to share.
Sid Wertimer ranks high in our memories of our years at Hamilton. He was a constant presence — driving the fire engine, knowing our names, teaching his classes, policing our private lives. After an especially wild fall houseparty our senior year, he summoned John Randolph, the social chairman of Psi U, to his office. Angry, he ran through a long list of gross infractions, including men on the upper floors of the house, which were reserved for our dates. He threatened John with expulsion, or worse. But, in the end, in exchange for a promise to repent and reform, Sid said he wouldn’t take action this time, but if it happened again, John might want to be in contact with his local draft board. As John stepped out into the hall, he heard Sid shout after him: “And don’t think I don’t know about those back stairs at the Psi U House, Randolph!”
A minor fire in one of our rooms in South in our freshman year (which turned out to be a cigarette in a wastepaper basket) prompted a quick response from Dean Tolles and Sid Wertimer. While Sid scurried around the suite of rooms in his fireman’s hat, boots and raincoat, holding his axe at the ready, Dean Tolles was seen thumbing with great interest through an issue of Playboy that he had found in the smoky room.
Speaking of the Dean Tolles, in our junior year, Harvey Bricker and Rolfe Ferguson, from their Tower aerie, reportedly water-bombed the dean as he walked by South on the sidewalk below. They were amazed that an overweight, 55-year-old, three-packs-a-day man could make it up four flights of stairs in just under 30 seconds. He burst through the door but found an empty room. Harvey and Rolfe had made their escape out of the window and onto the tile roof, and from there up a ladder to the roof of the Tower itself, a secret sanctuary that neither the dean nor Sid Wertimer knew existed.
In our sophomore year, the harpies became known as “Sid’s spies.” A small refrigerator hidden in the back of a closet behind hanging clothes and under suitcases, intended to keep orange juice cool, was soon discovered and reported to Sid, and the order was given to get rid of it. Later that same year, one of the harpies complained to Sid that she thought it was “awful, just awful” that married Hamilton students and their wives had to share rooms with single men in Carnegie. Well, that was the end of that.
One of our classmates saw another side of Mr. Wertimer. This classmate, who shall go nameless, was walking across campus with an open beer can in his hand and crossed paths with Sid. This was not during a houseparty weekend. Sid didn’t say a word, but the next day he left a message in our classmate’s mailbox, telling him to come to his office. Sid asked if he knew why he was there, and the summonee said he had a pretty good idea. Sid then made the sign of the cross and told him to “just smarten up.” And that was the end of it. Later that semester the same classmate thought he could finesse Sid’s final exam in accounting. He couldn’t, and didn’t, and Sid flunked him cold. Our friend lost his scholarship, and he prepared to leave Hamilton. Out of the blue, Mox Weber asked him to come to his office. In his office, Mox introduced him to a Hamilton alumnus who on the spot offered to write a check for next semester’s tuition, which he did, and our friend could stay at Hamilton. Months later, Mox told our classmate that Sid had set up the meeting and made all the arrangements. “He cared above and beyond, and I will always be grateful,” says our classmate.
Lafayette Todd, the scion of Upstate New York apple-growing aristocracy, with his Madison Avenue polish, taught us public speaking. In judging debates, Mr. Todd would position his chair next to the step up to the platform at the front of the room. After the debate, he would ascend the platform with his great poise, his perfect posture and his impeccable tailoring to deliver his critique. He also would time the debate, using his solid gold Cartier wristwatch, which he would remove from his wrist with great ceremony and place carefully on the step next to his chair. At critical moments, he would lean over and tap the watch to remind the speaker that his time was up. After a lively debate on the death penalty, he was so eager to deliver his critique that he jumped from his chair and stepped on and crushed his Cartier. He picked up the watch and held it at arm’s length like a small dead rodent between thumb and forefinger for several moments, examining it, his slight lifting of one eyebrow indicating his displeasure with the watch, before slipping the remnants casually into his jacket pocket and delivering his critique.
Herr Liedke announced in his first class of the semester that he intended to instill in his students “a test-oriented anxiety.” And he did. He ran a tight ship. He taught Elementary German every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 a.m. At 8:01 he would lock the door to the classroom and get down to business, latecomers be damned.
Professor Tom Johnston, tall, loose-framed and lean, like an elegant Ichabod Crane, taught English Literature, the good and the bad. We read The Rape of the Lock, Pope’s parody of Paradise Lost, where “men are like teapots.” Asked to explain, Mr. Johnston stood up to his full height, and, after a dramatic pause and a shaking of the arms, he put one hand on his hip, extended the other arm like the spout of a teapot and bowed like a courtier. “Do you get the picture?” he asked with his mischievous grin. He read us a poem by Tennyson: “A myriad of rivulets hurrying through the lawn, the moan of doves in immemorial elms, and the murmuring of innumerable bees.” And he looked up over his glasses perched on the end of his prominent nose and intoned, “Frankly, I prefer mine poured over pancakes.”
Most of us gathered every Sunday evening in the Chapel to hear the stirring sermons of Colin Miller. With the wind howling outside and the snow blowing against the windows and drifting over the paths, we sat together with a feeling of great camaraderie, flattered to be members of this mystic rite. We listened to the sermon, and we listened to the choir, and we sang the familiar hymns with John Baldwin at the organ. John taught music and led the choir, which rose to celestial eloquence. He had great energy and a brilliant smile, and he had a stride like Groucho Marx. He would emerge from the wings in a crouch, with arms straight down, and would run, knees bent, and then burst upon us in a dramatic leap to the podium. And then he brought forth that incredible music. And he worked wonders with the amazingly strong voice of our classmate Tim Greene, a rare countertenor. Alex Vaughn reminds us that Mr. Baldwin kept at the ready on top of the rehearsal piano what he called “the tenor tool.” It may actually have been a battery-powered cocktail mixer with sharp silver blades. John would brandish it with a devilish grin, and he would thrust it menacingly, with the blades whirring, in the direction of the tenor section, ready to perform castrato surgery if they failed to hit the high notes. When Hamilton went co-ed, John said he was able to remember most of the new words of “Carissima”, but when he came to the last stanza he would sing, without realizing it, the old words: “We still will be thy boys.” Then, realizing his mistake, he would defiantly repeat the error in the reprise with, in his words, “confident enthusiasm.”
"Spoolie" Ellis, too, was an original. In American History he told us that the South was poor and backward because nobody had shoes and everybody walked around barefoot, and they all suffered from hookworm as a result, which causes lethargy. Dan Parker, from a prominent Atlanta family, only went barefoot when he walked from his family’s oceanfront cottage in Florida down to the beach. He was too well mannered to contradict Mr. Ellis, but for the rest of us in class, Dan pointed at his feet, and, sure enough, he was wearing shoes. In 1960, as JFK moved toward the nomination, Mr. Ellis garnered headlines in The Spectator by observing that “Massachusetts politics is mainly tribal.” And, later in the year, The Spectator announced in another headline that Mr. Ellis had just published his three-volume history of the Utica to Binghamton Canal. It sounded so plausible that the reader didn’t immediately realize that he was reading the April Fools’ Day issue.
Mr. Mattingly taught Latin, and, to us, he seemed a hundred years old. Small animals lived in his walrus mustache and cliff swallows nested in the bags under his eyes. Horse hair covered his overcoat, and when he set off across campus after class in his vague and sleepy-eyed way, we never knew if we would ever see him again. It was a shock to learn that during our years at Hamilton, Mr. Mattingly was only in his early fifties — 20 years younger than we are today. I guess 70 is the new 50.
Paul Parker gave the gloss of culture to many of us with his introduction to art and architecture, known to us as “Slides.” It was a gut course, meaning it was easy, but we remembered everything he taught us, even the location of the neat café around the corner from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. A sample question from his final exam: “Which of the following pertained to El Greco? (1) Cleveland, (2) Akron, (3) Shaker Heights or (4) Toledo. Mr. Parker also insisted that we pronounce it “toe-lay-dough.”
Mr. Starnes taught us Russian history. He was part of the battleship row of the history department — Graves, Ellis, Starnes and Lee, and then Adler. Mr. Starnes told us with great seriousness about the untimely demise of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia. She had had a series of 12 lovers, including John Paul Jones. In her sixties, Mr. Starnes told us, nothing but a stallion could satisfy her sexual appetite. Her engineers devised a massive scaffold with an elaborate rope-and-pulley system that lowered the stallion over her bed. She was tragically killed at age 67 when the rope broke and she was crushed beneath the horse. At least that was the Starnes version of history. After a long search, I have not been able to confirm his account. The story tells us more about Hamilton than about history. How an all-male college in the middle of nowhere became raunchy and ribald, without the civilizing influence of women to dampen the animal spirits and lead us back to polite society.
Another eccentric was “Bobo” Rudd, who would sally forth from his cottage next to the Psi U House and stride up to the stables to ride his horse, dressed in jodhpurs, turtleneck sweater, tweed jacket and long scarf, his poodle leading the way. He technically retired in 1958, but he taught a one-credit poetry seminar at least until our senior year. Bobo liked to guest lecture at Saturday classes during houseparty weekends, when we would bring our dates to class. He would always begin those lectures with the same request. He would ask our dates to cross their legs. Then he would say: “Now that the gates of hell have been closed, we can begin.”
For us, the gates of hell were an easy drive if you were lucky enough to have a car or catch a ride. Wells, Cazenovia, Middlebury, Green Mountain, Cornell, Cortland, Elmira, Skidmore, Oneonta, Vassar. Back then, we knew the distance in miles, feet and inches. And the Limberlost Motel, immortalized by John Nichols in The Sterile Cuckoo, was just down the road in New Hartford. More than limber was lost at the Limberlost.
In New York, the drinking age at the time was 18, and most of us took full advantage. According to a scientific study by The Spectator, bourbon was the preferred libation of 17 percent of us, followed by gin at 15 percent. Beer and rye were tied at 12 percent. Only 8 percent preferred wine, and only 2 percent preferred scotch. Interestingly, 15 percent indicated “none.” I’m not sure whether that meant that they didn’t drink at all or that they had no preferences and would drink anything. Someone calculated that the average Hamilton man walked or ran 889 miles a year. Another study found that we drank an average of 22 gallons of beer per man per year. That means we got 41 miles to the gallon. Were we green, or what?
We ate in Commons or in the fraternity houses, and all of the kitchens had slop buckets, large galvanized garbage cans that we would fill with table scraps and uneaten food. Every night a crusty old unshaven pig farmer would come by to empty the buckets of wasted food into a tub in the back of his flatbed truck, which he would then feed to his pigs. The smell of pigs announced his arrival, and, on one occasion, one of us dumped a glass of Old Spice after-shave lotion on him from an upstairs window as he carried the slop bucket out the back door of a fraternity house. The next day he reported that his wife had beat him up when he came home “all perfumed up,” accusing him of cavorting with the fancy ladies down in Utica.
Athletics played a big part in our lives. With the carry-over sports program, we all sampled badminton, squash, swimming, tennis, golf or, for some, all of the above, and we got pretty good at two or three. Intramural sports involved many of us and generated great group solidarity. Dave Kleinbaum still has vivid memories of pitching a 3-0 shutout against the Sigs on the softball diamond.
Our freshman year, the football team, including Gary Mahood, Jay Welsh, Norm Boggs, John Messersmith, Tim Gow, Harvey Singer and Frank Hamilton, went undefeated for the first time in Hamilton’s history. In 1960-61 the basketball team, under soon-to-be co-captains Jack Moore and Gary Ferraro, with an able assist from sophomores Warren Palmer, John Fredenburg and Carl Hayden, set a new College record for consecutive victories. Until the last two games — against Alfred and Hobart — Hamilton was one of only four undefeated college teams in the country. And the swim team ended the season with a 7-1 record, the best in College history.
Hamilton’s geographical isolation gave us time and space to grow. But Hamilton was no provincial backwater. The larger world came to us, as the College brought to campus prominent speakers from all walks of life and all political stripes.
The poet Mark Van Doren read his poems in the Chapel, to Dave Espy’s critical acclaim. Van Doren made no mention of his son Charles, who had just admitted to cheating on the television quiz show Twenty-One. Kenneth Keating, the Republican senator from New York, delivered the commencement speech in 1960. He would lose his seat to Bobby Kennedy four years later. Oswald Johnson, a senior member of the Communist Party of the United States, spoke in the Chapel. The Spectator reported that 600 of us crowded in to hear him deliver a talk on the nuclear arms race, which he found “substantially devoid of common sense.” He also was reported to have resented our finger snapping, which he found rude and condescending, very tender feelings for a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the government by force.
Headliners like Lionel Hampton, Les Elgart, Glen Miller and Dave Brubeck made music at our winter carnivals. At intermission of the Brubeck gig, half of us, with our dates, got up and left. After the break, Brubeck said, “Now that all of the rock ‘n’ rollers have left, we can get serious about the music.” Dave thought the departees didn’t like his music, but what they all had in mind had nothing to do with music, except maybe as background music.
Dave Shepard ran the film program and introduced us to movies as an art form. By special arrangement with a Berlin movie studio, he showed The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, in the Chemistry Auditorium, where we sat in stunned silence. B.F. Skinner, a Hamilton alumnus, lectured on the use of his teaching machines, a concept he had developed after studying the behavior of rats. As Hamilton students, we would soon become the human phase of his experiments, thanks to a grant of $240,000 from the Ford Foundation.
Dr. Tom Dooley, celebrated in a Kingston Trio lyric and a staunch anti-communist, reported to us on his medical missionary work in Southeast Asia and on his efforts to build hospitals in Vietnam. He built many of them, but they were all burned to the ground by the Vietcong, along with the patients in them. He warned us “not to be stolid and bland, [sheltered] within the isolated confines of [your] campus or country, but listen to the voices of the outside world, ... assemble [your] tools in college and ... learn how to use them in serving others.” In that exhortation, we hear the first tentative footsteps into the jungles of Vietnam.
And we had our own amusements. Our class president, Sam Crowl, ran the Charlatans as a personal fiefdom and as a fully owned Chi Psi subsidiary. He starred in eight productions during our four years, mostly to favorable reviews, even for his portrayal of a caterpillar in The Jew of Malta. Critic Sean Fitzpatrick came down a little hard on Sam, Mike Kaiser and Ned Walker, the leads in My Three Angels, thinking the production a cross between The Three Musketeers and the Three Stooges, but that was a mild rebuke by Hamilton standards. Earlier this year I read a Spectator review of a performance by the Hamilton ballet. It began by saying, “Well, at least nobody fell down.”
Wally Johnson brought the wider world — and a touch of class — to campus. Friend of Alexander Woollcott, Maurice Chevalier and the French boxing great Georges Carpentier, he was secretary of the College and one of several Hamilton dollar-a-year men. They would otherwise have spent their inherited fortunes breathing the desert air of Paris or Rome without the sense of purpose that Hamilton gave them. Wally played the piano exuberantly and gave masterful after-dinner speeches. At a stag dinner at the Psi U house, which ended with cigars and cognac, Wally stood up with his cigar, lit it dramatically and puffed out a great cloud of smoke. “Normally,“ he said, “I light up a cigarette at the beginning of my talks, and I sit down when I’ve smoked the cigarette, usually about 10 minutes. Well, I’ve just lit my cigar, so all of you get comfortable. This may take some time.”
John Dobrasz took two years off after his freshman year. When he returned to Hamilton after the hiatus, he was unpacking the car in front of Carnegie, and Wally happened by and said, “Welcome back, John. We’ve been looking forward to your return.” John says he’d never really met Wally before that moment, and that encounter made him especially happy to be back in the Hamilton family.
Those of us lucky enough to go on Hamilton’s Junior Year in France program did not experience the same Paris that Wally knew, but it was a terrific awakening experience for all of us — a learning experience, as well. Before our departure, Henry Yager remembers Mr. Piano, our French professor, teaching him over coffee in the snack bar the French words for various sexual acts, which, at the time, Henry couldn’t imagine actually being performed by human beings.
The faculty and the visiting lecturers and our home-grown amusements were terrific, but, for many of us, our classmates were the best part of Hamilton. They moved with grace and purpose across the Mr. Chips world of wit, good manners, intelligence and athleticism, against the backdrop of the towering elms and stone buildings. On a crisp fall Saturday afternoon, with the smell of burning leaves, the sounds of the choir practicing in the Chapel and an occasional muffled cheer drifting in from the football field, Hamilton was just short of paradise. It had the predictable rhythms of a Benedictine monastery, a well-ordered communion of muted voices, idealism and merit. We were honest and hardworking, and we took the business of education very seriously, and our professors held us to a very high standard.
Who better captured the essence of Hamilton than our classmate John Nichols, the author of The Sterile Cuckoo. Dashing and brilliant, an athlete with a ready smile, darling of the faculty, confidant of Sylvia Saunders, a genuine All-American hero, John helped put us on the map. Like Alexander Woollcott in the 1930s, John presented us to the world at large, and he gave us another reason to be proud of our alma mater.
Enough. Bob Dylan told us, “The times they are a-changin’.” And the winds of change were already buffeting our leafy enclave. Our years at Hamilton coincided with a remarkable U.S. intellectual ferment, despite the conventional wisdom that the Eisenhower years were dull and uninspired. John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society in 1958. He criticized the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States — still a subject of debate. William Whyte published The Organization Man shortly before, and many of us couldn’t wait to join the organization and get our fair share of that affluence. Some did, and became highly respected captains of industry, creating jobs and wealth for thousands of Americans.
We witnessed the first stirrings of the conservative movement. William F. Buckley published Up from Liberalism in 1959. A group of government majors — including Jack Watters, Neal Goldman, Lyon Fisher, Frank Sachs, Stef Nadzo, Ueli Schaub and Denny Schmidt — visited Washington and met at the White House with Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary. Salinger invited them to the second press conference of the newly inaugurated president. Then they went to Capitol Hill and met with Senator Barry Goldwater.
We also witnessed — and played a modest role in — the nascent civil rights movement. In March 1960, 96 Hamilton students, including Ron Stone, picketed the Woolworth store in Utica to show solidarity with African-Americans in the South and their sit-ins at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counters. During our freshman year, Lambda Chi Alpha voted to disaffiliate from the national fraternity because of its exclusionary bylaws. And Gary Ferraro, president of the Psi U House in his sophomore year, led the fight to pledge the first African-American brother in the 120-year history of the national Psi Upsilon fraternity. In defiance of the strict whites-only eligibility requirements in the charter, we pledged Del Spurlock, an African-American from Ohio, and the national booted us out. We held firm, and the national reconsidered, and we were reinstated and the charter changed. A small victory in a long battle. Thank you Gary.
Before we knew it, we were seniors, fledglings ready to test our wings in the wider world — for which Hamilton had prepared us well. We could write. We could give a speech without getting a knot in the pit of the stomach. We had a passing familiarity with a foreign language. We had a nodding acquaintance with at least three recreational sports that we could pursue in later life.
We all started our journey to maturity on the Hill, and we helped one another grow and learn and succeed, and we had a lot of fun along the way. According to our majors, we were prepared to calculate, educate, legislate, sell, manage, experiment, design, research, minister to the sick, minister to the healthy, communicate and create.
The prophet Isaiah told us to “look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were digged.” We don’t have to look very far. The rock and the quarry surround us today on the Hill — in the stone buildings that have housed and hewn generations of Hamiltonians, in the antique stone Japanese pagoda in Root Glen that Paul Parker gave us, in the stone sculpture that Rolfe Ferguson created for the front of the new science building, in the memorial stones in the grass that the 19th-century classes left behind, and in the granite and marble headstones in the Hamilton cemetery.
Wander through and look at the graves of our professors and our illustrious forebears. Hamilton’s founder, Samuel Kirkland, is buried in the cemetery next to his devoted friend Chief Skenandoah of the Oneidas. With apologies to Stephen Vincent Benet and his The Devil and Daniel Webster, rumor has it that on a dark night, if you visit Kirkland’s grave and call out his name twice — “Samuel Kirkland! Samuel Kirkland!” — you will hear his deep voice rise from under the earth and ask the question: “Neighbor, how stands Hamilton?”
And you’d better answer “Hamilton … ‘stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed!’”
The College has seen changes that Kirkland and Skenandoah never dreamed of. Women. Student debt. Good food. The towering elms — gone. The fraternity houses — gone. The red shale paths — gone. Compulsory chapel — gone. Three times the size, five times more expensive, and no one ever flunks out. Diversity is the rule, and admissions are need blind.
But “Carissima” is still the sweetest school song on earth. The professors still enthrall. The choir still sings. The campus is more beautiful than ever. The students have never been brighter or more eager to learn. The Chapel bell still tolls the hour. The snow still falls. And Ellie Wertimer is still going strong.
Hamilton is not locked into the habits of 1812, or even 1962. For 200 years, the College has changed, as we’ve changed, and as our country and the world have changed, but we can still tell the Reverend Kirkland, with strong voices, that Hamilton “... stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed!”
Carissima, “we still will be thy boys.”
Ralph Oman, Class of 1962
Ralph Oman came to the Hill from the east end of Long Island, where his father was a commercial fisherman. After majoring in history at Hamilton and spending his junior year in Paris, he joined the Foreign Service and served a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia — “the vast edges drear/And naked shingles of the world.” Then the Navy and the bounding main beckoned, and he spent five years on active duty as a naval flight officer, with two tours of duty in Vietnam.
After military service, Ralph entered Georgetown Law School where he became executive editor of itsInternational Law Journal. After graduation, he clerked for a federal district court judge and then joined the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice as a trial lawyer. Soon thereafter, Senator Scott of Pennsylvania hired Ralph as his judiciary committee counsel, and he helped enact major antitrust, civil rights and copyright legislation. When Scott retired in 1977, Senator Mathias of Maryland hired Ralph to staff him on the judiciary committee, and, in 1980, he became chief counsel of the subcommittee on patents, copyrights and trademarks.
In 1985, Ralph was named U.S. register of copyrights. He served in that position for eight years before retiring from government service and joining the international law firm Dechert Price and Rhoads. In 2008, he moved full-time to the George Washington University Law School, where he had been an adjunct professor for 15 years, teaching copyright law and seminars on international law and the legislative process. In his free time, he enjoys gardening, woodworking, fishing, reading and volunteering for Hamilton.
Ralph is always eager to give Hamilton credit for his career opportunities. His professors taught him how to write, give a speech, think with precision, listen carefully and work hard. Without those skills, Ralph says that his life would have been very different.