A Road (trip) to Wisdom

L. Vincent Strully, Jr., Class of 1969

Delivered June 2019

I’m honored to be here today, and to my classmates, welcome back. I spoke to many of you, and I thank you for your help. I thank the College for providing me with much support, particularly John Murphy. John arranged a visit to the College in mid-April, and I had an opportunity to spend time with President Wippman, History Professor Maurice Isserman, College Archivist Kathy Collett, and a number of students.

I also received editorial assistance from a previous class annalist who, unfortunately, after reading the final draft of this letter, and perhaps being concerned by some of the activities described, insisted on remaining anonymous.

The American philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book Men in Dark Times wrote: “Wisdom is a virtue of old age, and it seems to come only to those who, when young, were neither wise nor prudent.”

And speaking of unwise and imprudent, let me begin on a personal note. I’d like to apologize to all past, present, and future deans of the College for my participation in many of the events described in this letter. I take full responsibility for my behavior. And while it’s never an excuse, I want all of you to know, particularly the wives of my classmates who have heard denials for years, I never acted alone. Far from it.

Today, Hamilton is one of the finest undergraduate colleges in the country. Other than the Chapel and the uphill quads, the College is a vastly different place than it was in 1969. The biggest difference? 900 women. 900 women. Frankly, it’s a bit heartbreaking. We were the first in Hamilton history to graduate having attended classes with women — senior year only. I always felt that we were able to see the promised land, but never to dwell in it.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the campus is as beautiful as you remember, and there have been many impressive improvements and additions everywhere.

Over the years, the endowment has grown and a strong, effective Board of Trustees is in place. We note with gratitude the service and philanthropy provided by friends from our era, A.G. Lafley, Kevin Kennedy, Chet Siuda, Jack Withiam, Jeff Little, and Barry Seaman. Their board service helped generate a great surge in the College’s quality. We have excellent leadership in the person of President Wippman; he has worked hard to ensure that all points of view are presented on campus. As always, the faculty is very talented and filled with fine teachers. The College offers need-blind admission, and the student body is far more diverse. Hamilton is still small, very personal, and excellent.

The musical Hamilton is great — but as we all know, the College is greater.

And the Class of 1969 — how did we do?

There are more than 40 MDs and PhDs. Many of our class have been devoted to improving the lives of others and pursued careers that benefit humanity. We have produced many leaders across a variety of professions. Mac Abby, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has worked for eight relief agencies from Bangladesh to South Sudan, feeding and clothing children and adults in some of the most dangerous and impoverished places on earth. Bruce Dobkin, a distinguished professor of medicine for 40 years at UCLA, has pursued research that seeks to improve the treatment of post-stroke and spine-injured patients. Brooks McCuen became chief of retinal surgery at Duke. John Brendler became a therapist and wrote a well-received book offering a framework for therapy with families in crisis, and for 25+ years he traveled to Sweden and other countries training therapists in the model he developed.

Carl Danga worked for the State Department around the world his entire career. Phil Derfler worked in government service as a lawyer and administrator for the Department of Agriculture and the FDA. Rick Volp has been a public-school superintendent for many years and has also been involved in the training and mentoring of younger educators. William Kelley Brown became a successful designer/builder in Philadelphia, then spent 15 years working with inner-city students teaching them those skills. Bill Muller has been an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn for 40 years. Tom Frawley has been a Missouri circuit judge for his whole career and raised several foster children with his wife, Ann. Jim Randolph came from Philadelphia and went on to get his advanced degree at Syracuse and served in city government in his hometown.

Our authors have included Hank Hutson, Carl Waldman, Ernie Wood, and Frank Coffey. We’re thrilled that Frank is here today. A.G. Lafley became CEO of Procter & Gamble, presided over one of the largest mergers in American business history, and has used his success to generously support Hamilton. He has invested in education and scholarships for young students throughout his life. Gordon Webster, my Dunham roommate, became a Presbyterian minister and has led congregations focused on delivering assistance to those in need. Tomorrow morning, he will assist us here in the Chapel as we remember our classmates who have passed on.

Several of our classmates served in the military during the Vietnam era. We thank them for their service. These impressive achievements and many others that I wish I could have mentioned, have all helped make the world a better place.

As I think back on all of us as we were in 1965, perhaps with me as the poster boy, I have to ask, “How in the hell did this happen?”

Our class was hailed, like every other freshman class, as the best and the brightest in College history. The archives state that there were 242 of us, including six foreign students from Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Argentina, Sweden, and Scotland. The number was originally thought to be seven, but a few weeks later we realized that Lewis Lawson was not speaking a foreign language but was in fact from West Virginia. And in one of life’s great ironies, Lewis went on to teach English literature and public speaking for 40 years at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va. We came from 36 states, more than half of us were from New York state, and a big majority were from the Northeast. One-third of us received some financial aid. Twenty-five of us were sons of alumni. Our SATs, which were the highest ever at the time, were solid. Tuition plus room and board that year was $2,800. The total student body was 831 men.

The College administrators of 1965 would not be surprised to learn of all the achievements of the Class of 1969. They knew they had recruited a special group. As irrefutable proof of that fact, I offer the following statement given to The Spectator early in our freshman year from the aptly named Hadley Depuy, associate dean. And I quote:

“This gross immaturity, demonstrated by the freshman class, represents what one would expect to find in a kindergarten. No riot whatsoever is justified. The whole purpose of a Liberal Arts Education is to teach young men to solve their problems rationally.”

I’d like to offer a few memories to demonstrate that possibly, and it pains me greatly to say this, he wasn’t entirely wrong.

Our year of incarceration in Hamilton’s San Quentin (with an Alcatraz location), the collection of cellblocks known as Dunham Dormitory, was under way. Here’s a recipe: Take 242 hormonal 18-year-old men, pack them like sardines in concrete cell-like rooms, and put those rooms together in a long cell block designed to amplify the slightest sound. Feed them poorly, deprive them of any hope of conjugal rights, force them to take five courses, of which several are required and in which they have little or no interest, torture them by requiring three perfect “yes” papers in order to pass out of freshman English, and top it off by placing a brand new pub 25 yards away from their front door (charging only 25 cents a beer and a dollar a pitcher). You don’t have to be B.F. Skinner to predict the results.

Many of you remember events that occurred during that year. There was a record fee charged for window breakage at the end of the year. With our free time, a large number of us organized a simultaneous flushing of every toilet and faucet in Dunham, which caused a flood in the basement of Commons. There was a lot of softball batting practice facing the dorm, adding to the record window breakage. After the monumental snowstorm in early January, with classes canceled for the first time in history, there was snowdrift diving from the windows that led to at least one broken arm.

Famously, on the evening of Sunday, January 23, the lights went off in Commons and the place was quickly demolished. It was during Sunday night supper, known as the “food of the week in review” and when the lights went out, people expressed their dissatisfaction with the cuisine and the food service manager, who Bill Muller reports was nicknamed “embryo.” All of us were fined (again) and had to discuss these fines with inquisitive parents when the bills came at the end of the year. We’ve talked about this epic food fight before. Not one of you has ever expressed remorse for his behavior that night.

Right from the start, amidst a highly charged national political atmosphere, we demonstrated our own political acumen. It took us three weeks to elect a class president, requiring multiple runoffs. Conrad Francis faced off against John Effinger, John Phillips, and Bill Kinner. Most candidates offered thoughtful proposals. At last, Bill Kinner of Colorado emerged as the winner. Believe it or not, he offered only one absurd proposal: to establish a freshman class talent show. We all know that at that time, three weeks into our College careers, the only place we could have shown any talent at all would’ve been at Don’s Rok.

Immediately upon being elected, Bill returned to the card game that he and roommate Mac Abbey had been hosting ever since arriving at Hamilton. It ran continuously until the end of first semester. In that cell block of Dunham, the game was widely known, and inmates would come in during study breaks to play a few hands. By semester’s end, however, Bill went back to Colorado never to return. Mac Abbey limped forward, played football, and the class moved on.

Needless to say, there was no further mention of a freshman talent show.

Meanwhile, we were involved all over the school in all sorts of activities. There was a lot more to do than we might remember, from sports, to Choir, to The Spectator, to Root Jessup, and to theatre and music. John Suplee was regularly painting cows. Keith Daniels was performing in the Choir. Jim Randolph joined TKE, eventually becoming president, and founded the Black Student Union that exists to this day. Langdon Brown starred regularly on the Hamilton stage. Rick Volp began a record-breaking swim career, never losing a dual meet. Our freshman team would carry Hamilton football for the next three years. Steve Kenny, Chuck Zellmer, Howie Hodes, Eric Seibert, Tom Kondryk, Lee Iwanski, and John Effinger all provided size and skill. Coach Don Jones confided to John Brendler on a recruiting trip, “If we get a really good football player here, it’s by accident.”

Vincent Strully ’69Still, our biggest concern was the absence of women. We ranged like preppy Vikings across the dark frozen tundra of Upstate New York and Western Massachusetts. To Cazenovia, to Skidmore, to Wells and Elmira, down to Vassar, and over to Mt. Holyoke and Smith. Relentless and desperate, we clashed occasionally with other equally desperate men from Dartmouth and Colgate.

We remember close calls driving home late at night on the New York State thruway with one awake driver and a group of sleeping classmates. Bruce Dobkin told me about one night driving back to campus from Vassar and nodding off for a second or two, suddenly realizing the front hood of his car was now partly underneath the four-wheeler tractor-trailer in front of him. Fortunately, he eased on the brakes and survived. We all agree we’re lucky that nothing tragic happened on those nights.

We were united by our love of the three houseparty weekends per year. We had amazing music: Simon and Garfunkel, The Four Tops, Smokey and the Miracles, Mary Wells, Jive Five, Patty Labelle, The Chiffons, Richie Havens, and an epic concert in the hockey rink starring Chuck Berry with the King Curtis Band behind him. Jim Randolph went backstage that night and met the amazing guitarist in the band. He told Jim that he was moving to London and changing his name to Jimi Hendrix.

When the aforementioned Dean Hadley Depuy threatened to cancel houseparties during Tuesday morning meeting junior year, right here in the Chapel, mayhem ensued, and he was booed and hissed relentlessly. The placard waved by one group of students read “Hands Off Houseparties.” The dean was also very unhappy with our Sunday morning party tradition, a decadent event that started at 11 a.m. with live bands such as Otis and the All Night Workers, with enormous vats of gin and juice. No garnishes, just gin and juice. We remember them fondly, if vaguely, as the climax of consecutive days and nights of partying running from Thursday late into Sunday. In speaking with many of you, independents and members of every fraternity uphill and down, some of you whom I’ve always thought of as mild- mannered, hardworking, and well behaved, I learned that you were engaged in the same aberrant behavior as the rest of us. Even some members of the Choir shared stories of behavior that could only be called borderline horrific. Our choir boys were far from angelic.

When we, the members of this shockingly accomplished class, finally meet the great dean in the sky, not one of us will regret that he didn’t get enough to drink in college.

Because of the existence of a so-called “alien subculture,” the Sig house was formally closed and the Sigs ousted and removed to the dorms. Fifteen outstanding independent students replaced them. One former Sig was very concerned about what would happen to these good students once they moved into the Sig house. He told The Spectator, “Their hair will grow long, their grades will drop, that house just eats scholars.”

Phil Montegut purchased a pig for $10 at a nearby farm on his way back from a road trip. The pig, named Eeyore, moved into the Gryphon house and lived in splendor for the remainder of its days. Eeyore also appeared as a fraternity member in the annual composite photo of the brothers. The fate of the pig is unknown but easily imagined.

On the evening of March 6, 1968, the entire College gathered around radios tuned into WHCL and listened to the Hamilton-Colby hockey game broadcast live from Maine thanks to station manager Bob Tupper. A victory would send our team to the ECAC division finals. As the third period began, we trailed 3-1. The Spectator sent the young Vin Strully to cover the aftermath on campus. Here’s what I wrote:

“As the Chapel bell tolled for no other reason than victory Wednesday night, over 300 students, some crammed 10 in a car, swarmed to the Utica airport. The winningest Hamilton hockey team in history, fresh from a 6-3 comeback over Colby, was coming home. Storming out of closets, fraternities, and bars, students crowded the main terminal well before midnight. New arrivals were greeted with cheers, mixed with disbelief, as clearly many of the students hadn’t seen one another since Dunham. Now past midnight, the crowd was bigger and wilder and growing all the time. Hamilton men guzzled beer, demanded in loud fashion that the airport bar be re-opened, threw firecrackers and taunted a sheriff who was trying desperately to keep the onslaught away from the runway. When the plane did land it was waved away from the terminal to the maintenance building a half mile away. President Chandler was seen running knee deep in snow, and somehow, Dean Tolles made it from the terminal to the maintenance building. Their heroes were home and surrounded. Kevin and Pete Kennedy were hoisted on ready shoulders. Students here have never seen anything like it. They had a winner and they loved it. It was like Ohio State welcoming back its team after winning the Rose Bowl.”

Not surprisingly, the loudest cheer of the night by far was for the stewardess as she exited the plane.

John Chandler was inaugurated as president of the College in a beautiful ceremony. Sometime later, Bill Muller remembers walking across campus with the new president on the Monday morning after houseparty weekend. Bill reports they passed a few downed lampposts, and there was quite a bit of trash scattered around. Chandler said to him, “This would never happen at Williams,” and back he went a few years later, though he made some important changes in the curriculum before he fled. We are every bit as good as Williams; we just have more attitude.

If you really want to understand our lives at Hamilton College from 1965 to 1969, I recommend you watch the important classic American film Animal House. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a documentary.

It’s impossible to tell the story of our time at Hamilton without the context of what was going on around us. In early September 1965, as we arrived here, the entire 1st Air Cavalry Division of the United States Army arrived in Vietnam bringing the total of our troops to nearly 200,000 men. The U.S. was bombing in the North. A compulsory military draft was organized — Uncle Sam wanted us. The Watts Riots were just cooling down. From 1964 to 1971, 750 riots took place in American cities, 228 were killed, thousands were injured. There were 16,000 separate incidents of arson, and many African American communities were devastated. SDS and the free speech movement was under way from Columbia to Berkeley. All this turmoil steadily penetrated our awareness with each passing year. Our four years were arguably one of the greatest periods of civil unrest and cultural change in American history.

We watched the national news many nights in our fraternities. At Psi U heated arguments would often break out after Walter Cronkite ended his broadcast. In the fall of 1965, a Spectator poll found a majority of faculty and students favored expanding the war and said that they would fight in it even if they didn’t think the war was a good idea. Those views would change permanently after the Tet Offensive in January of 1968. By graduation, 200,000 men were being drafted annually, and an anxiety-inducing draft lottery system controlled our fate. There were 500,000 troops in Vietnam. Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown became leaders in the Black Power Movement. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated during our junior year. To quote Jefferson Airplane, “It was a wild time.”

In the middle of all of this, in January of ’67, George Lincoln Rockwell, president of the American Nazi Party, delivered a hate-filled address in a packed Chapel. At the suggestion of The Spectator, he was greeted in silence and students filed out in silence, although one student applauded in the balcony. I’ve come to agree with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” I’m Jewish and I still regret my silence that night.

Far more influential was an earlier appearance by Bobby Kennedy, who called upon those of us who had been given much to make a difference for others and to help those less fortunate. We all remember it. And I remember with pride the first front-page editorial in the history of The Spectator endorsing Robert Kennedy for president.

In November of 1967, a violent clash took place between protesters who were blocking the vehicle of a military recruiter on College Hill Road and a group of upperclassmen who forcibly removed them. To this day, there are people on both sides who express bitterness about the events of that day, which brought to our campus for the first time a small version of the violent anti-war clashes that were a regular occurrence across the country.

Alex Haley, who helped Malcolm X write his autobiography, taught a public speaking class and was writer-in-residence while finishing his famous book Roots. It’s ironic that Hamilton College played a role in helping everyone to understand the astonishing and persistent cruelty of American slavery given the role of our namesake who, as quoted in the musical Hamilton, “was in the room where it happened” at the formation of our country when slavery, our original sin, was allowed to continue.

In September, the year of our Lord, 1968, 171 women moved into the so-called “dark side.” Kirkland was born, and Hamilton would never be the same — hallelujah.

If you’re not a member of the Class of ’69, one question is probably bothering you: Did these guys ever have classes? Absolutely, and some of them were amazingly well taught.

The faculty was led by the legendary, slightly unkempt, hardworking Dean Winton Tolles, Class of 1928, who presided over the College with a skill and affection impossible to overestimate. During that time of upheaval with the departure of many young faculty and three different presidents, Dean Tolles and a group of senior faculty carried Hamilton. Tolles and others had great connections with graduate programs all over the country and used their influence repeatedly on our behalf. Dean Tolles stayed on top of those who were not doing well, who might need a push, or in my case, a kick in the ass.

All of you cited different professors from every department who had reached out to you, with whom you’d developed productive personal relationships. The faculty in those years cared far more about us than we may have realized. They were very lenient in cases of discipline that in previous years might have led to suspension or expulsion. They did everything they could to ensure that no one went to Vietnam unless they chose to do so. They canceled comprehensive exams for the first time in history in response to a restive senior class that had had enough.

There were great courses and great teachers. To name just a few: Russell Blackwood, who taught philosophy and religion. Anything he taught was excellent and he was beloved by his students. The same can be said for Professor Ed Lee and his courses in Asian history. Eugene Lewis taught an eye-opening course in urban politics. Langdon Rockwell prepared generations of future lawyers with his constitutional law class. Likewise, Sidney Wertimer taught modern economics to a generation of future investment bankers. Paul Parker’s art history course, fondly renamed “art slides,” was very popular. Robin Kinnel and Lawrence Yourtee were cited by many premed students for getting them through dreaded courses in chemistry. And there was nothing quite like the eccentric John Mattingly’s course in ancient civilization.

Phil Derfler remembers Edgar “Digger” Graves’ final history lecture in a standing-room-only packed hall as the epitome of great instruction by a legendary professor. I would need a long postscript to do justice to all the faculty whose excellence we appreciated.

Thirty-five years ago, on this day in 1984, I first learned of our unique class annalist tradition. I was sitting here with my father Vincent Strully, Sr., Class of 1934, at his 50th reunion. It was our last time on campus together. The class annalist for 1934 was Daniel Kennedy, an attorney from Rochester, and he described how their generation at Hamilton had been formed during the Great Depression and their lives had been forever altered shortly thereafter by the Second World War.

In his letter, he wrote:

“There’s probably nothing like a war to pick people up, shuffle them around, and then drop them in the most remote, improbable places. And thus, it came to pass that in January 1945, Vin Strully found himself chief medical officer in a flotilla of LSTs ferrying men and supplies across the English Channel in a hasty reinforcement operation following the Battle of the Bulge. A nearby troopship carrying the 12th Army headquarters detachment took a torpedo amidships and sank, and Vin’s ship circled to pick up the survivors. Vin was on deck when up the side ladder and over the rail came Captain Duncan Edwards, Hamilton ’34. There was instant recognition and Vin, with a spare bunk in his cabin, was able to provide Dunc with dry clothes, cigarettes, and a bottle of bourbon before putting him ashore in France next morning.”

Kennedy finished by saying:Duncan Edwards has passed on, but if he were here this morning, I’m sure this would only be the second happiest Hamilton reunion of his experience. But Vin is present, and we thank him for being there in 1945 and here in 1984 — along with Vin Jr., Hamilton ’69.”

My father was a great guy. He loved Hamilton passionately his entire life. He graduated with his brother Ken Strully ’33 and both went to medical school and became successful surgeons.

Hamilton College has run through the lives of the Strully family for nearly 100 years. It’s been a part of my life since my earliest days. I was raised to go here and never once thought about going somewhere else. I’ve grown to love it for the beauty of the place. I love it for the memory of professors Russell Blackwood, Eugene Lewis, and Thomas Colby, who banded together to save me senior year. I always feel at home here. I love being with my classmates once again.

Hamilton is personal, and I love it most of all because it always reminds me of my father.

I’m proud to represent the great Class of 1969.

L. Vincent Strully, Jr. ’69 is the chief executive officer and founder of The New England Center for Children, a global leader in autism education and research headquartered in Massachusetts and Abu Dhabi. He directs all aspects of clinical and financial administration, program development, fundraising, facility design, and strategic planning for NECC, whose programs directly benefit more than 6,000 students with autism in 25 states and 18 countries.

NECC is one of the largest employers of Hamilton alumni and for 20 years has hosted an internship program for psychology students.  

In 2007, Strully was named Ernst & Young’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year for New England. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Western New England University in 2009 and received the Nonprofit Business Leader of the Year award from Worcester Business Journal in 2017.

“Vinnie” Strully is the son of L. Vincent Strully, Sr., Class of 1934, and nephew of Kenneth J. Strully, Class of 1933. At Hamilton, he spent three years on The Spectator staff serving as news editor and managing editor.

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