The End of An Era

Christopher Wilkinson, Class of 1968

Delivered June 2018

Good morning and thank you for coming. During my remarks, someone may wonder how I became class president, let alone class annalist. The explanation is simple. In the course of the cocktail party preceding our 45th reunion class banquet, a dinner cruise upon the romantically named New York State Barge Canal, John Oates, then class president, and Hal Higby, then and now class gift chair, said they needed to discuss an important matter. We moved to the stern of the vessel from where we could see the canal receding to the west as the boat headed east, and John asked if I would accept appointment as class president through our 50th reunion.

I was dumbfounded. I had never aspired to a position of leadership of our class. I had come to the reunion with my spouse simply to visit the College and to meet former classmates. The occasion also provided an excuse to buy some new clothes: a sport coat and a couple of dress shirts. I said I needed to give this some thought.

John rejoined our classmates. Hal stayed behind. He looked at me. He looked at the canal. Again, he looked at me and then at the canal. He cleared his throat and said, “You know, Chris, that’s a nice blazer you have on; be a shame if anything happened to it.” And so here we are.

Because so much happened during our time on the Hill, preparing this letter has been a challenge. Thanks to coverage in The Spectator, memories shared by classmates, and in one instance the daughter of classmate Kenyon Field, two telephone conversations and several email exchanges with former College President John Wesley Chandler, and the invaluable assistance of the College’s archivist Katherine Collett, I have been able to put together a narrative inclusive of a number of our experiences.

To begin, 243 pea-green freshmen matriculated at Hamilton in September 1964, of whom 176 would graduate four years later. So large was the class that it exceeded Dunham’s capacity. Eleven resided in South Dorm. This was later somewhat inelegantly explained by the director of admissions Sidney Bennett: “We ended up with more than we wanted because more than we anticipated accepted our offers.” Happily, he did not go so far as to identify the “unwanteds.”

Not surprisingly, the majority came from New York State: 60%. New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Ohio combined added another 18%. The rest came in ones, twos, and threes from elsewhere in the United States, along with eight other countries: Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Iran, Malawi, Scotland, and Somalia. Whiteness predominated. Kenyon Field was the only African-American in our class, and regrettably he had to withdraw at the end of his first year due to a serious medical condition. We were nominally Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. We were straight, and we were gay. We appeared to be fairly bright, our average SAT scores being 630 Verbal and 658 Math. The Spectator later reported that we smoked less and drank more than the Class of 1960. Make of that what you will. 

Fall semester was devoted to acclimatizing to the world of Hamilton. To Saga Food Service’s incomparable cuisine. To the routines of dorm life, that in my case included discovering that one of my roommates talked in his sleep, not only in English but at times in French. I will say that his accent was much better when he was fully conscious. A Jewish classmate was startled but nonetheless acquiesced when a gentile asked if he could feel his head for the Devil’s horns that Jewish males purportedly possessed according to an old anti-Semitic trope with which that student had grown up.

Momentous was the adjustment to Hamilton’s academic standards. Unforgettable were the shocked expressions on the faces of classmates returning from taking the first hour exam in History 11 in the latter half of September. I was part of the second cohort to take that test. Their shock was fully justified. Those first exams were a turning point. As my advisor Austin Briggs later observed: “College does not really begin until you get your first exams back.” Few had any illusions about what to expect thereafter.

One highpoint of that fall was the spectacular fail by the Pep Band, of which I was a member, at a football game early in the season resulting from the trumpet player forgetting his part — the melody — for the National Anthem. Ever resourceful, the band proceeded to lead the crowd in song. Mox Weber, the athletic director, was not amused. Thereafter, the United States Marine Band performed The Star-Spangled Banner on a scratchy record played over the PA system. Also memorable was the come-from-behind upset of Wesleyan by our football team on October 31, when, having come back from a 21 to 6 deficit at the end of the third quarter, the Continentals won thanks to the only field goal of his college career kicked by Larry Pritchard ’66 after time had run out.

Tragedy struck our class over Thanksgiving weekend when an automobile accident took the life of our classmate Stuart Kanof and severely injured two others: John Farrar and Skip Conover. This was in the days before seat belts. 

Back then the fall semester extended into January. With the end of final exams and receipt of our grades, most sensed that they could succeed academically. Five classmates, however, did not return to campus.

We fully engaged with the social life of the College in the spring semester after 205 pledged one or another of the fraternities. Now, we came to know like-minded upperclassmen and enjoy the amenities of fraternity life, such as occasional beer kegs, however a particular house defined “occasional.” We had a place to socialize with our dates. Talking to older fraternity brothers, we learned more about the faculty and the courses they taught, with whom to study, and whom to avoid. Thoughts about possible majors became less abstract now that we could interact with those already immersed in a subject that might be, or might become, of interest to us.

The curriculum of our day had two major components. First, classes to satisfy “six attainments essential to a liberal arts education.” Second, courses required for, as the College Catalogue termed it, a particular “concentration.” Characteristic of the times, the curriculum was Eurocentric, a point I will return to shortly.

The College aspired to create sound bodies even as it sought to create sound minds. We had to swim a certain distance, run a certain distance, and thereafter develop a minimal proficiency in two individual sports, one indoor, the other outdoor, that we could, in theory, “carry over” into the real world: a very sensible approach to PE.

We were required to attend chapel services on Sunday evenings, a cause of significant dissatisfaction. But early that November, we learned that a committee of the Board of Trustees was reviewing this policy. Five months later, it announced that Sunday chapel attendance would no longer be required starting in the fall of 1966.

By the end of sophomore year, we had satisfied most of the distribution requirements and declared our majors, the coursework of which constituted the academic agenda of our final two years. During this period, we began to identify the most inspiring faculty members. Professors Adler, Barrett, Blackwood, Caravano, Ellis, Endy, Graves, Kinnel, Lee, Long, Mattingly, Moraud, Nesbitt, Potter, Richardson, Rockwell, Wertimer, and Yourtee, among others, were instructors that my classmates and I recall with gratitude for their engagement with their subjects and with us.

Not only were we the last class in an all-male academic community, we were the last to complete this curriculum. At the beginning of his tenure as president of the College, John Chandler initiated a review of the academic program with which he and leading members of the board were dissatisfied. Among the subsequent reforms was the elimination of distribution requirements. Thereafter, breadth of study would result from close interactions between students and their advisors.

That new curriculum was intended to encourage an expanded worldview, reflecting President Chandler’s criticism of “too much emphasis on Western Civilization resulting in educational parochialism,” his characterization of the curriculum I previously described as “Eurocentric.” But I am getting ahead of myself.

Many of us wanted as normal a social life at Hamilton as possible despite its isolation. In fact, given the distance from women’s colleges, at times it imposed a seemingly monastic existence against which students pushed back.

The principal social events were the three “houseparty weekends” that took place in October, January, and April, during which women in considerable numbers came to campus, typically arriving Friday afternoon and departing Sunday.

For some, the run-up to these weekends was emotionally fraught, the result, as one classmate put it, of “the anxiety of making sure that I wasn’t dateless for houseparty weekend.” This was but a small manifestation of the larger challenge posed by Hamilton’s location. How to meet someone with whom you would like to spend a couple of days? A blind date? In no more than five minutes you knew whether that was going to work out well. Usually not. Mixers? We had one early in freshman year with the women of Wells College. Very awkward. We and they were herded into a large room in the basement of Dunham and were expected to pair off for the afternoon and evening within a matter of minutes. For many, a recipe for disappointment.

But miracles could happen, and some did connect with contemporaries. But what to do when that person attended a college two, three, or more hours away? Find a Hamilton student who had a friend at the same school, had a car, and was departing the Hill at a time that would work for you, taking into account the fact that many had Saturday morning classes. Your friend faced comparable obstacles when planning to come to the Hill.

Those weekends were loaded with expectations: for 36 to 48 hours, you had a whole different social experience from that of day-to-day life on the Hill. The popular music of our time gave voice to the attendant emotions.

Imagine rolling to Wells or Skidmore or Elmira or elsewhere in hopes of meeting someone with whom you might feel a bond. How did it feel when you did connect with someone? [Beatles: “Got to Get You Into My Life”]. After that came the feelings of anticipation that you will see her again on another weekend, feelings gathering strength as that weekend approached [Beatles: “It Won’t Be Long”]. But Sunday always came, along with the inevitable separation. [Beatles: “All My Loving”].

Sustaining such relationships through the intervening weeks was not always easy. Communication was either by letters that could take two or three days to arrive or by pay phone. [Turtles: “Happy Together”]. “Call You Up; Invest a Dime?” Hell. A dime got you the long-distance operator. Quarters were required, and what if there had been a misunderstanding that you were trying to sort out and you ran out of change? Where was Skype when we needed it?

And what if your friend’s hometown was hundreds of miles from yours? How to cope with the separation that summer inevitably brought? [The Happenings: “See You in September”].

A lot of time was spent working out the logistics required to be with one another, time better spent on one’s studies. Beyond the vital intellectual contributions to the academic community that Kirkland College would provide, I believe that it also began to create a more conventional and emotionally mature social environment on the Hill.

But what was the place of our gay classmates in all this? One can only imagine the options for a houseparty weekend. Leave campus until it was over? Pass as straight? Carrying on as if nothing was out of the ordinary, save for the fact that you did not have a date? Memories of the gay experiences of members of the Class of 1968 confirm these options along with those of clandestine liaisons with other gay students. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently summarized the world that gay men had to negotiate: “Back then…gay stereotypes went unchallenged, gay jokes drew hearty laughter, and exponentially more Americans were closeted than out” (“I am a White Man. Can I Continue?” NY Times, Aug. 13, 2017). Far more so than is true today, to come out could mean being ostracized by peers, and Heaven knows what by parents.

Those houseparty weekends were among the occasions when some of the most important popular musicians of the time came to campus: Odetta, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, and Richie Havens. Who didn’t come? Otis Redding, scheduled to play for fall Houseparty Weekend in 1967, canceled after losing his voice a week or so beforehand.

From the world of jazz came trumpeter Art Farmer, pianist and songwriter Mose Allison, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, tenor saxophonists, Toshiko Akioshi and Charlie Mariano, pianist and saxophonist respectively, and pianist/composer Horace Silver, at the time promoting what would become an iconic recording of mid-1960s jazz: A Song for my Father.

On other occasions, performers of classical music came as well, among them pianist Charles Rosen and harpsichordist Albert Fuller. The Creative Associates from SUNY Buffalo presented a concert of avant-garde music here in the Chapel of which one highlight was a composition for piano so long, so slow, and so quiet that snoring could be heard coming from a member of the audience. For many of us, among the most memorable performances were those of the Paul Kuentz Chamber Orchestra from Paris, accompanied in two instances by trumpeter Adolph Scherbaum and in the third by harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.

But two performances surely stand out for many. On Feb. 25, 1966, two young white guys from the City took the stage here in the Chapel along with a small backup band. To your left stood Art Garfunkel, on your right, Paul Simon. Their recently released single “Sounds of Silence” had been Number 1 on the Billboard Top 100 for two weeks in January. Within a couple of months, the film The Graduate would introduce them to the rest of the world thanks to Simon’s song “Mrs. Robinson.” We heard them when they stood on the threshold of fame.

On April 30 of that same year, Chuck Berry brought a band to the hockey rink for spring Houseparty Weekend. His style was rhythm & blues, and the songs that he performed were his standards. But among those in his band was a young guitarist who attracted attention not only for his virtuosity but also because here and there during his solos he played the guitar with his teeth. Not until our 40th reunion would I learn that that young performer was Jimi Hendrix. It seems fair to say that if we heard Simon and Garfunkel at the point they were becoming Simon and Garfunkel, we heard Jimi Hendrix before he was Jimi Hendrix.

As early as spring semester freshman year, the Vietnam War was attracting the attention of students and faculty. The Spectator’s issue of March 5, 1965, included an interview concerning Vietnam with Professors Blackwood, Richardson, Rockwell, Millar, and Kang. On April 17, four Hamilton students, including our classmate Ken Casanova, joined approximately 20,000 others in a march in Washington, D.C., to protest the war. 

During sophomore year the Bristol Campus Center opened. Now we had clothes washers and dryers on campus: civilization as we came to know it had arrived. The war continued to be a subject of interest. How could it be otherwise when it was the lead story on all three nightly television newscasts? We certainly paid attention when General Lewis Hershey, head of the Selective Service, announced that henceforth student deferments were contingent upon one being in the top two-thirds of one’s class while achieving an acceptable score on an as-yet-to-be-administered standardized test. A poll conducted in November ’65 reported that more than half the student body and nearly half the faculty supported the war. Twenty-six percent of the faculty reportedly favored the use of nuclear weapons.

Early in February 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke to a standing-room-only audience in the Chapel; his remarks were broadcast over WHCL as well. New York’s senior senator, Jacob Javits, came two weeks later, advocating peace talks with the North Vietnamese.

In April, the College’s president, Robert McEwen, suffered a major heart attack and by September had tendered his resignation. Vice President Richard Couper took over leadership of the College, and a search committee of faculty and trustees took up the task of finding McEwen’s successor.

During our junior year, the matter of the draft and the war itself became increasingly prominent. In September 1966, we learned that one student was reclassified 1-A, meaning eligible for immediate induction into the military.

In the middle of October 1966, Alex Haley, author of the recently published Autobiography of Malcolm X, came to speak. Ultimately of greater significance than Haley’s presentation was his meeting our classmate Ebou Manga. Haley was at that point at work on a history of his family. One of his goals was to learn of the origins of at least one of his African ancestors. Manga recognized the few isolated words and phrases in a language unknown to Haley that his family had passed down for generations. They were words in the Manding language spoken by people residing in what is now the west African nation of Gambia. A visit to Manga’s country and meetings with his father and uncles, all Manding oral historians, enabled Haley to reconstruct a plausible account of his ancestor’s enslavement and transport to America, a crucial early chapter in his family history Roots. The televised dramatization of Haley’s work in 1976 captured America’s attention. It was one of a number of developments in that period that would encourage broader engagement with African-American history and culture.

Social life on campus continued to be problematic. After Associate Dean Hadley DePuy threatened to cancel the 1967 Winter Carnival Weekend, the Social Committee undertook a study of the problems he had identified. It concluded that four issues were disrupting campus life: academic pressures intensified by uncertainties about one’s draft status, easy access to alcohol leading to abuse, scarcity of women impeding social life, and Hamilton’s geographical isolation. Its report also expressed hope that the opening of Kirkland College would address at least partially some of the social issues.

The war continued to add to a growing unease about life on campus. Ken Casanova and Phil Sayre organized a teach-in about Viet Nam in February that included Professors Richardson, Adler, Ring, and Berek. Concerns about the draft were increasing. Dean Tolles informed The Spectator in March that students should not worry about recent proposals by President Johnson that all of draft age should be tested physically and mentally to determine their fitness to serve. He advised us “to relax and breathe deeply” — not very helpful.

It also did not help that we learned of the departure of younger faculty for other institutions, some among the most interesting academicians on the Hill. One stated that at his new institution he would be better paid, be able to teach a greater variety of courses, and have more time for research. Others would follow.

On April 14, 1967, it was announced that John Wesley Chandler, dean of Williams College, would succeed Robert McEwan as Hamilton’s president. While this might have constituted a turning point for the College, that announcement also revealed that he would not assume his duties until Feb. 1, 1968. Richard Couper would continue in office. The changes that a new administration seemed to promise were to be deferred for at least nine months, taking our class into its final semester.

The 1967-68 academic year — our senior year — began quietly. The football team, with John Freedman as quarterback and Bill Pomeroy as running back, would have a great season, going 6-1 —  the best record since 1963. While I am on the subject of sports, Bruce Mohl, a three-time All-American swimmer in the NCAA Division III, would by his senior year have a distinguished season. He established a new record time for the 400-meter individual medley in the Division III Swimming and Diving Championship, while the swim team was undefeated. The hockey team surprised everyone at the end of its season by upsetting Colby and going to the ECAC Division II playoffs. Three members of the team, including our own Tom Wheeler, made up the ECAC Division II all-star team. With Stephen Fuchs as its captain, the tennis team was 9-1 overall.

Not a word of the draft or the Vietnam War is to be found in the first five issues of The Spectator in the Fall of 1967 except for the announcement that a Marines recruiter would be on campus late in September and that representatives of the U.S. Navy would be visiting early the following month. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary about these visits, though that would change four weeks later.

It is fair to say that the tumultuous year of 1968 began on the Hill on Nov. 1, 1967. On that day, members of the College’s SDS chapter tried to prevent a Marines recruiter from coming onto the campus by blocking College Hill Road. They would be forcibly restrained by members of Alpha Delta Phi. Suddenly, the College confronted issues associated with the war: the draft, free speech, and policies announced by the head of the Selective Service to punish anti-war dissent among those of draft age. No longer were we sheltered by Hamilton’s seeming remoteness from political and social conflict; that conflict had come to campus.

From Williamstown, President Chandler consulted with Richard Couper and trustees about what position to take regarding the presence of military recruiters. Activism was better than apathy he told those attending Parents Weekend, but all ideas should be welcomed and debated on campus, including voluntary military service. 

In December, the College chapter of the American Association of University Professors announced its opposition to the presence of military recruiters on campus as long as Hershey’s threats to resisters remained in effect. Lest anyone think that either the leaders of the student protest or those of the AAUP chapter were disaffected radicals, I would point out that Ken Casanova and Randolph Splitter, among the founders of the SDS chapter, had been admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in September. Charles Adler, scholar of Russian history, was the president of the AAUP chapter; its secretary was Martin Caravano, who would later lead the College as president.

The trustees agreed with Chandler that recruiters would be welcome on campus, but that General Hershey’s policy to seek induction of draft resisters must end. In the middle of February, members of the SDS chapter occupied the President’s Office for several hours. He discussed their complaints while reaffirming the policy of open access for recruiters. Chandler recently told me that one thing he feared was the presence of police on campus, noting that the Oneida County Sheriff had expressed willingness to act should the need arise.

On Feb. 26, he spoke to students at the weekly Tuesday chapel. Reflecting on Hamilton’s troubled environment and prompted by word that some were contemplating transferring to other colleges, he argued that while the academic grass might seem greener elsewhere, he saw no evidence of that. He did call for reforms to the curriculum and to the academic calendar, which came about the following year. His remarks were a breath of fresh air, suggesting new possibilities for academic life on the Hill.

We returned on Sunday, March 31, from spring break in time to hear Lyndon Johnson tell America that he would not seek a second term as president. Just four days later, Walter Cronkite did not end his newscast with his usual valedictory: “And that’s the way it is, Thursday, April 4, 1968. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News. Goodnight.” Instead, in the closing seconds of his program, he announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Things were spinning out of control.

All this time, we were immersed in the work of completing our programs, including senior theses and comprehensive examinations. Some were receiving orders to report for the Selective Service’s physical examination.

And then we were done. Sunday, June 2, 1968, was the day of our Commencement. As Commencement speaker, Daniel Patrick Moynihan called for awareness and flexibility as tactics needed to confront the conflict between the extreme left and extreme right and admonished us to “do a man’s work in the world but cherish a world of your own and give into it on occasion.” In his Baccalaureate sermon, theologian Robert McAfee Brown wasted no time in confronting us with the necessity of taking risks to confront the challenges of the day, particularly the Vietnam War. “If you cannot fight in it without destroying your conscience and in the process destroying your fellow men, then you will have to take the risk of an educated man of informed conscience and refuse to do so. And that might mean five years of your life,” an allusion to the maximum prison sentence for refusing induction into the military.

I wish to remind you of Hamilton men whose conscience and sense of duty led them to serve and ultimately to die in service to the country. Our classmate, Private First-Class Whitney T. Ferguson III, United States Army, was killed in action in Viet Nam on March 11, 1969, nine months after he graduated. Second Lieutenant John Foreman, Class of ’65, United States Army, and Lance Corporal Kenneth L. Hirst, United States Marine Corps, Class of ’67, also died in Viet Nam. War touched our class again when 1st Lieutenant Michael Cleary, United States Marine Corps, member of the Class of 2003 and son of our classmate Pat Cleary and his wife, Marianne, was killed by a roadside bomb during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. 


In honor of these four men and in honor of all of the other Hamilton men who died in America’s wars and whose names are listed on the back wall of the Chapel, I ask for one minute of silence.

Thank you.

During the year following graduation, I believe we began to take full measure of our educations here. Working with contemporaries who had gone to other colleges, there were no doubt occasions that revealed we had a combination of skills, knowledge, and experiences that set us apart. There would have been times when we drew upon knowledge acquired on the Hill that we did not recall until the situation required it. Most surely took oral presentations in stride because of our experience with public speaking here.

Here we learned to read critically, think critically, and communicate both orally and in writing in a manner that was articulate and therefore persuasive. What we discovered we did not already know was compensated for by having acquired the skill to teach ourselves: the main purpose of a liberal arts education.

The College we knew is gone; the curriculum we knew is gone; its demographic homogeneity likewise. The College as we know it now continues the tradition of great teaching thus providing opportunities for great learning. Its faculty is to be admired; its students respected. For all these reasons may its days never end. Carissima.

Christopher Wilkinson, a native of the South Side of Chicago, came to Hamilton from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Following graduation, he devoted two years to alternate service as a conscientious objector in Louisville, Ky.

After earning a Ph.D. in musicology (music history by another name) at Rutgers University and a one-year appointment at the University of Illinois, he served on the faculty of the School of Music at West Virginia University from 1976 to 2013. Beginning in 1988, he devoted himself to the study of African-American musical culture with particular attention to jazz before World War II. His work resulted in several articles, presentations at scholarly conferences, and two books.

Since retiring, he has devoted himself to the presidency of the Class of 1968, the study of the clarinet, the ensemble The Allegheny Chamber Players of which he is the founder and director, and to co-authoring the forthcoming book Roadside Geology of West Virginia.

He married Carroll Wetzel in 1968, whom he met on a blind date during spring houseparty weekend in 1966. They have one son, one daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren (who at his request call him Zadie).

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