Happy and Useful

Stephen R. Rounds, Class of 1965

Delivered June 2015

Early in David Copperfield, when the orphaned protagonist has found a home with his aunt, they think about his education and go to a friend for advice. “What’s your motive in this?” he asks. The aunt shoots back, “Why, to make the child happy and useful.”

My role, standing here before you, is “class annalist.” I’m going to take this literally and try, in my chronicle of our four years here, to analyze how Hamilton went about preparing us for life — attempting to give us the tools to render ourselves “happy and useful.”

Like other class annalists before me, I prepared for this talk by coming back to the Hill last fall to look through The Spectator and other records of our time to clarify and correct the memories that I had unconsciously edited. This experience was partly dismaying. I found that there was much more going on at the College than I had remembered. It was also gratifying. The College had been more open than I had remembered in telling us what its plan for us was. Finally, I was on campus for two normal class days, and watching students stride along the campus paths with that “I have work to do” look that is the outward evidence of the Hamilton ethic, I concluded that today’s College shares this essential quality with ours, with the enormous advantage of vastly expanded diversity. Finally, reading The Spectator provided me with a structure for what I want to say. I will follow its coverage of the four years we spent here in offering my analysis.

On the front page of our first issue, Dean Tolles announced the current list of “underachievers,” including one student who had been suspended. Apparently, at Hamilton, academic standards had teeth.

The last page of the same issue featured a picture of the seven foreign students then attending the College. The paper did not note that there were no African-Americans in our class, or that Jewish premeds would be well advised to major in chemistry, because there was an anti-Semite in the Biology Department who could sabotage their prospects.

Of course, by the time our first Spectator came out, we’d been on campus for some time, and we’d been told of some of the hurdles the College had designed for us — and of its less-formal expectations. We knew that we would face some form of public speaking throughout our four years. This feature of Hamilton life has been widely and justly touted as one of the College’s particular strengths. We saw looming in the then-distant spring semester the dreaded “Yes" themes. Two years ago, when he delivered his annalist’s letter for the 1963 cohort, Sean Fitzpatrick identified these themes as the challenge that made us Hamilton men. Also, we’d heard about the honor system and knew that for the next four years, we would have to certify that every test and essay was “our own work.” And finally, we knew that the College expected us to behave like gentlemen.

After just over a month in class, 104 of us received 156 failure warnings, some as many as four. Perhaps these warnings helped to persuade us that work would be necessary to succeed here. As if ironically, the same issue of the paper that carried this ominous news published an article with the headline: “Freshman Board Scores Reach Highest Level,” which announced that “The Class of ’65 as a whole has the highest College Board scores in Hamilton’s history.” This story offered some other interesting facts about us. There had been 1,080 applicants to Hamilton in our year — 428 of them had been accepted, and 226 had matriculated. One hundred and twenty-five of us were from New York State; the rest from 22 other states and foreign countries. Thirty-four of us had been high school valedictorians, and 189 were receiving financial aid, including 98 New York Regents Scholars.

Upperclassmen were not noticeably impressed by our supreme board scores. Nor were we intimidated by our failure warnings. At the beginning of the spring semester, Austin Briggs reported to the newspaper that he had received a freshman composition written on a roll of toilet paper. The text followed. In this case, the medium was the message. The paper was an exercise in saying nothing. The subject was The Heart of Darkness, which we were all reading at about the same time. Toilet paper notwithstanding, the story entered our consciousness. My roommate, Dave Gould, had retrieved a stuffed duck from a biology storeroom give-away and installed it on a bookcase in our room. Shortly after its appearance, someone, presumably our suitemates Mike King and Al Cardona, hung a 3x5 card around the duck’s mangy neck with the message: “Mistah Duck. He dead.”  

In February we faced fraternity rush. (One of the earliest Hamilton shibboleths we absorbed, along with finger-clicks for applause in the Chapel, was that fraternities were “houses” never “frats.”) The rush procedure presented to us was a weekend in a machine: a round of visits to each house for each of the 12 sections of Dunham, followed by a series of open and closed receptions at the houses and periods when upperclassmen could visit Dunham. When the machine burped us forth, understandings presumably having been reached, we and the houses submitted our preference lists, and the two were matched. The Total Opportunity system meant that everyone who participated got a bid — 212 of us accepted them.

The full power of the fraternity system is, of course, gone now. Most of us probably think this is good. But for most of us also, fraternities were a central and happy part of our College lives. They were certainly the locus for a lot of pleasurable times. Still today, we most often congregate with fraternity brothers. The reminiscences shared for our soon-to-be-published 50th yearbook often cite the benefits we derived from living with self-selected and self-governing groups of young men.

In the spring of our freshman year, the “Yes” themes were upon us. Every other week, one of our English comp classes would be devoted to the writing of an in-class essay. I think there were eight of them. The challenge was to complete two without “definable grammatical errors” and have them returned to us with a large “YES” written on the top of the first page. The consequences of failure were undefined, but presumably dire. Of course we all knew where we stood, and, as the weeks went by, we picked up one and then a second “yes.” I don’t think any of us failed to do so. In fact, it wasn’t very hard. But it was an important rite of passage nonetheless. We had been given a challenge and had confronted it successfully. We had qualified as Hamilton students. There were two practical lessons here: that we were our own stewards and that a process as personal and mysterious as writing could be disciplined and controlled.

In October 1962, the fall of our sophomore year, we watched the Cuban missile crisis play out on TV. (I don’t remember seeing a TV in a dorm room in all our time at Hamilton. Also absent were private phones or any other electric appliances except radios and record players.) As we have all since realized, the United States came perilously close to war with the Soviet Union over that week. At the time, we were conscious of the danger, but it was abstract. That October week, as we clustered around the few TVs, the world threatened us, but we would not really confront the threat for another year.

Thirteen months later, on Nov. 22, 1963, my roommate, Gary Lepak, and I were walking from our room in Carnegie to Dwight Lindley’s Old English course in the seminar room on the top floor of Root Hall. Someone shouted from a window in Kirkland that the president had been shot. For a short time, we were in a numb limbo of unbelief. We started our work, haltingly translating the poem “The Battle of Malden,” a narrative of the defeat of an English militia force by attacking Vikings. The manuscript, as it comes down to us, has been damaged. The first surviving words are brocen wurde — “it was broken.” The 10 or so of us around the table were hunched over our text when the Chapel bell started to toll, and Mr. Lindley said, “The president must be dead.” We went back to work and finished the class. The thing you do in the face of tragedy is your job. Our job was to learn. Another of Hamilton’s great lessons.

Gary and I walked back to our room and listened to a requiem mass that a roommate was studying and then gave ourselves over to a weekend of sad black-and-white images on TV. The Spectator later reported that 40 Hamilton students had gone to Washington for the president’s funeral.

But the College went on. Over the ’63-’64 winter, the Spectator highlighted some more things that illustrate how Hamilton achieved its goals. Kinokunst Gesellschaft published its spring schedule with the explanation, “We are stressing Polish, Russian and German movies this year rather than tracing the development of the American film as has been the case sometimes in the past.” The Charlatans scheduled a production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, an English play known only to students of early drama. The significance I see in these announcements is that we students were doing these things for ourselves. There were no film courses; there was no theatre department. Kinokunst Gesellschaft and the Charlatans were both student organizations, and both consciously aimed at supplementing our classes. Hamilton had made us complicit in our own educations. Our education was our project. We wanted to learn what was being taught and more.

Our reaction to the death of President Kennedy had not involved much outward expression. But this was 1964, and that summer was the “Mississippi Summer.” Our classmate John Paul went to the Mississippi Delta and worked to register black voters. He wrote about his experiences in an article that appeared in the Alumni Review that fall. I was not aware of it then and did not read it until my time on campus last fall. I recommend it to anyone who doesn’t remember what the fuss is about.

In the fall of 1964, we voted in our first national election, the famous confrontation between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. In a poll taken before the election, 75 percent of students and 94 percent of the faculty favored Johnson. These preferences can be compared with those revealed in a similar poll taken four years earlier, according to which 46 percent of the Class of 1964, who were not eligible to vote, said that they would have voted for Kennedy; 41 percent opted for Nixon. Of the respondents to the 1960 poll, 68 percent said that their fathers had voted Republican and 25 percent Democratic.

Enough numbers. How did we live? Maybe it’s impossible to be a 19-year-old boy on a comfortably fitted-out hilltop with a few hundred peers without having fun. In fact I think that if you’d asked us about our lives at the time, we would have mentioned our hijinks first. We had found ways to produce fun all four years, though fun was sometimes a mixed blessing. Mixed or otherwise, we embraced it at every opportunity. And the culmination, the apex, the flowering of all these aspirations for pleasure was the houseparty.

I have delayed any discussion of houseparties until our senior year for the perfectly good and totally selfish reason that winter houseparty, 1965, was the first one attended by the girl who is now my wife. There were cocktails before dinner on Friday night. There was a hockey game on Saturday, when we could vilify our opponents and watch the men in galoshes push the barrels of hot water around the rink. There were private moments. They were nice, too. There was dancing to what we in the TKE house regarded as “our” band, The Ratchets. This being the time of the British Invasion, they put on mop wigs and did a full set of Beatles covers. There was a keg full of Utica Club downstairs and a rank of empties outside the door. I read of a Smithie who described the men of our era as “dancing bears.” We wouldn’t have rejected the idea. We were delirious. And it all lasted through gin and juice at Theta Delt on Sunday morning.

This was the last spring of our College careers. Another poll had found that 93 percent of us said we had never cheated on tests or papers while at Hamilton. I was surprised at this. I had never been aware of any cheating. And I still think that the honor system was one of Hamilton’s most effective influences on us. I’m not sure it made us honorable, but it certainly accustomed us to doing our own work. We weren’t afraid of speaking in public; we could write coherent and grammatical prose. We could take on a task, make it our own, do the necessary work, and accomplish it. These were Hamilton’s lessons. We may even have become gentlemen, though during our College years we would probably have echoed Saint Augustine and said, “Lord, make me a gentleman, but not yet.”

I would completely miss the atmosphere of our time at Hamilton if I didn’t commend our teachers. I doubt there is one of us who thinks of his four years here without wishing he could go back to offer one or more professors personal thanks for thoughtful, beyond-the-call-of-duty help. These teachers added distinctly, and in ways that evade measurement, to our lives.

In our final semester we were saying goodbye to all the small things. The welcoming beauty of the campus. The drama of the seasons. The reading room on the second floor of the old library: Turkish rugs, deep leather chairs, oak seminar tables and footrests, and fires during cold months. This was Hamilton’s snuggest secret for a snowy afternoon. John Baldwin’s explosions of flamboyant organ virtuosity at the close of chapel on Sunday evenings. The Tuesday chapel news granny. Wednesday nights at the TKE house when Tom and Betty gave us spaghetti and meatballs with quart bottles of beer ranged along the tables. Gene Long demonstrating badminton by dropping the birdie in the most impossible square inch of the court. Singing in the Choir and being in the middle of all that glorious music. The pigeons Paul Parker drew on the heads of statues he didn’t like. Bobo Rudd’s annual reading of Journey of the Magi. The smell of melting snow at the moment when a frozen edge becomes transparent, drips to the ground and seeps toward College Hill Road with visions of Oriskany Creek, the Mohawk River and the world. 

In May, Bruce Lambert, the editor of The Spectator, published an interview with Sidney Wertimer, who was going on sabbatical and would not resume his duties as associate dean upon his return. This timing was a break for me, because it provides me with the Wertimer story without which no annalist’s letter of our era is complete. The dean said that the biggest problems came to him when his phone rang at night. Once, at 3 a.m., a worried student phoned to tell him that he was caged in a phone booth by another, very drunk, student who was threatening to kill him. Wertimer rescued him by authorizing him to tell the threatener that if he killed him, Wertimer would throw him out of College. It worked. The phone didn’t ring again, and there were no bodies littering campus when the sun came up.

Wertimer also characterized Hamilton students: “They’re smart. Intelligent, top-notch kids. There’s no substitute for brains, you know. The biggest problem is immaturity. That’s part of the fun and challenge of going from 17 to 21, to see what happens.” 

Dean Tolles offered a parallel analysis in the Class & Charter Day speech he gave prior to his retirement in 1971. “A typical Hamilton student is an earnest, hard-working, relatively eager student who, given the proper stimulus, is ready and more than willing to learn. He may be a little uncertain of himself, coming, as he often does, from a somewhat sheltered background. But he is more than willing to tackle the problems of this campus and of society.”

Did we ever really think we could fool these men?

When I first imagined this presentation, I thought I would find two of us to cite as describing the spectrum of the paths we took upon graduation. One would be John Foreman, who died in Vietnam. The other, a man who chose a quieter option. But Scott Macdonough told me at our last reunion that Foreman had been a Peace Corps volunteer with him in India. So my task is much simpler. John was both. He had served with the Peace Corps, and when he was killed, on Dec. 28, 1969, along with seven other members of his unit, he was an Army 2nd lieutenant at Lai Khê, just north of Saigon.

My wife, the erstwhile houseparty date, and I went to Vietnam in 2012 to see whether, at Lai Khê, we could get some sense of John’s death. In Ho Chi Minh City, we hired a cab to take us there. The driver had never heard of the place. I had to show him a map. We drove between rows of the one-story, open-fronted shops that are characteristic of Southeast Asian retail. Butchers next to motorcycle repair shops, next to restaurants or hairdressers beside funeral parlors.

There was no sign for Lai Khê. We didn’t know we were there until the driver noticed the name on an address plaque. How to find the base? Could such a thing simply be ignored? Ultimately, we told the driver to stop and poked back between the houses beside the road, walking on a narrow path. Nothing was as I had imagined it. There were no rice paddies, no line of distant hills where the enemy could lurk. Nothing. No billboards with caricature American running dogs. Nobody asking us what we were looking for or casting hostile glances at the former enemy. We were in a grove of trees, a rubber plantation. As we skirted puddles on the path between the rows of trees, we began to see traces: crumbling patches of tarmac, 6' -high square concrete fence posts with twigs of rusting barbed wire sagging from their sides. And we realized that we had found what we came for. We were on the site of an old American Army base. And I found something else. I found that it is not the facts of John’s last hours that matter, but the fact that he was one of us. Hamilton. 1965. And that he put on our nation’s uniform and died in Vietnam.

I have no words with which to end John’s story. But I found some with the help of Ed Barrett and William Shakespeare.

            Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
            Nor the furious winter’s rages;
            Thou thy worldly task hast done,
            Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
            Golden lads and girls all must,
            As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

            Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
            Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
            Care no more to clothe and eat;
            To thee the reed is as the oak:
            The scepter, learning, physic, must
            All follow this, and come to dust.          

            Golden lads and girls all must,
            As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Golden lads. We came out of Hamilton with propitious DNA, strong sets of skills and the knowledge that we had to work hard and know things. We had received what David Copperfield’s aunt thought an education should be. We had learned how to be useful and had furnished our heads with interests that could make us happy. As Tony Woodin put it very succinctly in a letter to the Alumni Review last fall, we had been given the tools to succeed by “living by our wits.”

Gathering this weekend we can look back on careers in which we profited from the skills and attitudes acquired in this place. Perhaps we learned to behave like gentlemen. Still, in the 50th year after our graduation, in our early 70s, we have shown again this weekend that, to adapt the last line of the old version of Carissima, we still can be her boys.

Stephen R. Rounds, Class of 1965

Steve Rounds ’65 grew up in Oneonta, N.Y. After Hamilton, he studied English literature at Indiana University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1970. He and Sam McOsker were married in 1967. They have four children, two of whom are Hamilton graduates. Steve taught college English until joining the Foreign Service in 1977. Over the course of 28 years, the family enjoyed seven overseas tours in five countries. The original pair retired to New Hampshire in 2005. Steve’s current concerns include apple trees, birds, Victorian novels, trail maintenance and Thucydides.

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