“Tumultuous Times on College Hill”

John Pitarresi, Class of 1970

Delivered June 2022

I’d like to acknowledge how honored I am to have been selected to present this Annalist Letter for the Class of 1970.

Honored and intimidated.

So many of my predecessors were men of extreme distinction — millionaire abolitionist Gerrit Smith, for example, Class of 1818. Muckraker and Hamilton football founder Samuel Hopkins Adams, Class of 1891. Professor Jay Williams, Class of 1954, who taught many of us. In recent years, Barry Seaman ’67, Chris Wilkinson ’68, and Vin Strully ’69. There are others whose names we might not recognize, but who were incredibly accomplished in their professions and in the world at large.

The letters have been presented nearly every year since 1865. Some of them have been dry and boring. Some have been witty. Some have been hilarious. All have been valuable historical records. I will try to live up to the best of them.

And, so:

It was early September, early afternoon I think. A beautiful day. We were just about to begin our junior year. It was going to be a very different from our first two. Why? Because there would be women on the Hill. Not College staff. Not fraternity cooks. Not faculty wives. Not the occasional faculty daughter. No, after 156 years of institutionally imposed monasticism and supposed celibate scholarship — two, or three, I guess, doubtful propositions if you include scholarship — Hamilton College was about to become, if not coeducational, at least coordinately educational. Classes would soon begin at the spanking new bunkers of Kirkland College (America’s only school whose architecture was based on the Maginot Line) in the orchards and fields just across the road where some of us had not long before hunted rabbits, grouse, and deer.

Many of us didn’t know what to think, although some certainly did.

When we arrived, 239 of us, two years before, one of the very few women even close to our ages whom we saw on a regular basis was the young lady who clerked at the College bookstore, then located in the basement of the new Bristol Campus Center. Her name was Linda, and if she had a last name, I don’t believe any of us ever learned it. I didn’t. To show you how brilliantly creative we were, we christened her “Linda College Store.” Or maybe she already was known by that name. In my recollection, she was a pretty girl, maybe 22, perhaps younger. She was more alluring still given the lack of competition. She could have had a date seven nights a week, but apparently she was a woman of good taste and keen judgment with a knack for self-preservation, because, as far as I know, none of us ever succeeded in getting her to agree to such a thing.

With this as background, it can be seen that the creation of a women’s college much closer than, say, Skidmore or Wells or Elmira, was a wonderful thing for us.

On one of the first days of the new College’s existence, a group of us — several football players just out of practice and a few other louts of no particular persuasion — were informed that there was some kind of celebration over on the new campus. We — I mean they — piled into a unwashed maroon compact car — a Chevy II as I remember — piloted by a noted football player who would go on to a storied, or you might say notorious, career in criminal justice. There were five or six young men in the tiny vehicle and another half dozen hanging onto the roof, hood, and trunk.

The driver, unskilled at the task, careened around the drive that led to the picnic area. As the vehicle approached the group of several score of young women and their professors, the occupants cheered mightily, over and over again. There were women on the Hill! Women of their own age! Hallelujah! 

The cheering and celebration continued. It was more fevered and intense than it might have been for any great victory on the football field or basketball court. It was, really, a bit over the top. Had these lads never seen a woman before? Did they not have sisters and girl cousins and mothers and aunts? Hadn’t they gone to high school with girls? Well, some had not. Me? I had five sisters, but there was a distinction between sisters and women.

This incident, by the way, was recorded by The New York Times in its account of the first days of Kirkland. The future lawyer — his name was Bruce Cutler if you haven’t guessed — when shown the story, was mortified and fearful: “Oh, no!” he exclaimed. “That’s my mother’s car. She’s going to kill me!”

The coming of Kirkland and its eventual absorption changed Hamilton forever. In a good way, for sure, although single-gender education had its charms. You haven’t lived until you’ve sat on a case of beer in the wrecked front seat of an unheated MG all the way to Aurora, N.Y., on a cold January night just to have a couple of cheap drafts with a member of the opposite sex.

So, the arrival of squadrons of women was one of the many highlights of our Hamilton experience. There were so many others — the bizarre presentation of American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell; the making of the movie, The Sterile Cuckoo; some great athletic accomplishments; Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and, during our intense, nerve-wracking, divisive last couple of years, living through the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the first draft lottery, angry argumentation and protests over the shootings at Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia, and the Vietnam War in general.

We were an odd group of young men, or, maybe, more accurately, a group of odd young men. There were preppies, Upstaters, legacies, sons of immigrants, descendants of Mayflower families, a few who were the first in their families to go to college, almost all white, a few Jews, fewer Asians, a handful of foreign students, several African Americans. There was one guy who was remarkable for wearing just jeans and a T-shirt even in winter, and who sometimes walked to Commons barefoot — again, even in winter. He once found a deer hide that an upperclassman had left behind after skinning the animal in a Dunham bathroom, took it to his room, and slept on it. I believe he and his roommates found themselves infested with ticks the next day. He wasn’t with us for long, but I understand he did return and graduate a few years after we did.

This all was attended by a faculty unlike any other, or certainly unlike any you would find today. Some of these fellows — and they were all fellows with maybe one exception — had been teaching on the Hill since before the stock market crash of 1929. “Digger” Graves and George Nesbitt had been on duty for four decades. There was “Strange and Wonderful” Paul Parker, whose art history classes stayed with and influenced some students more than almost anything ever taught on the Hill, even if they were regarded as “gut” courses, supposedly not requiring a great deal of sweat. Asian Ed Lee (he was not Asian, but taught Asian history), David “Spoolie” Ellis, Professor Charles Adler and his riveting Rasputin lecture, Tom Colby making his way slowly across the main quad, wrapped in his caped storm coat, cane in hand, mustachioed, intimidatingly unsmiling. The singular John Mattingly, crash-helmeted polymath. Fearsome Ivan Marki, master of American literature, capable of bringing a failed scholar to tears and occasionally actually doing so, although he sometimes provoked nervous laughter. “Mr. Pitarresi,” he once told me after I gave a response that wasn’t quite up to his standards, “it is refreshing at a college such as Hamilton to meet someone as inarticulate as yourself.”

Legendary English Professor Robert “Bobo” Rudd, Hamilton Class of 1909, had retired by our time, but he frequently could be seen on campus, wearing Jodhpurs, boots, riding coat, and helmet, his dog Nipper Nap, a walking rug, at his side, his horse presumably tethered nearby. Bobo sometimes attended fraternity parties and was not always well behaved.

Some of us were lucky enough to take a speech course from Writer-in-Residence Alex Haley, who eventually garnered great fame as the author of Roots. Alex was an amiable man, prone to bumming cigarettes and having them bummed from him. His brand was Philip Morris Multifilters. Already notable thanks to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and his Playboy interviews — I think that’s why some of us subscribed to the magazine — he told us much of his African origin story long before it was published. Alex also was a good bet to issue A grades, for some of us the only A we would see in four years on the Hill. 

Indeed, most of the faculty had a 25-letter alphabet. “A” did not exist. They were not given to dispensing such marks or even high Bs easily — “dump trucks” was the term for those stingy with grades. Steve Katz remembers, as a freshman, overhearing a senior asking English Professor Edwin Barrett if he liked his 100-page thesis.

“There were a couple of good sentences,” Barrett replied.

Apparently it was always thus at Hamilton. The annalist for the Class of 1873, for example, told the tale of the young man who was given a zero by Dr. Ellicott Evans.

“Do you think I deserve that?” the student asked. 

“No,” Evans said, “but that is the lowest mark we have.” 

These guys were cold.

In truth, we regarded a few of our teachers as lazy and unfair, but they were, for the most part, distinguished scholars and demanding taskmasters who knew, even if we lamented it, that it wasn’t going to be easy if it was going to be any good. They, like Jimmy Dugan of A League of Their Own, knew the score: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” 

Most of us, probably all of us, thought we were pretty smart when we arrived that fall so long ago. The faculty, with its stringent, old-school standards, showed us that, other than a few truly gifted scholars, we were not. Many of us quickly became acquainted with academic humility for the very first time in our lives.

You sometimes hear that we — the Hamiltonians of long ago — could never get into the Hamilton of today. Perhaps, but that would have less to do with native intelligence and scholastic accomplishment than it would with a propensity for odd, aberrant, curious, and/or mindless behavior that generally stopped just short of criminality … but sometimes didn’t. I could go into detail, but I won’t. The movie Animal House? Amateurs! Didn’t even scratch the surface. That is the truth and everyone here knows it. For those who were churchgoing, big-family, wet-behind-the-ears kids, the culture was a shock. So shocking, some of us — them, I mean — eventually participated in some of the not-so-harmless activities. I don’t believe anyone in the class ever spent a night in jail, at least while in school, but we — I mean they — probably should have.

Don’t get me wrong. There were a goodly amount of straight-arrow, serious, play-it-by-the-book students who did what they were supposed to and never got out of line, but the rest of us — I mean, you — you know the truth of what I say.

Food fights in Commons, which served freshmen, their dorm advisors, and independents in our day, were … yes, common. And they sometimes were real fights, with the occasional flipped tables, flying plates, broken windows, defaced portraits of distinguished alumni, and, sometimes, a punch or two. Do you remember the dinner rolls? Like a baseball cut in half and easy to throw with great velocity and accuracy.

In any case, the professors knew, if we didn’t, that their demands and our proper responses would all pay off in the end.

And they cared, sometimes perhaps more than we did. Sidney Wertimer seemed to know the name, hometown, genealogy, SAT score, and political affiliation of every kid on campus, and he wanted you to succeed. Kevin Kennedy, one of our more creative miscreants before going on to a very successful career in finance and serving as chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees, did succeed, largely because of the elfin Wertimer.

“Sidney Wertimer saved me from expulsion, forced me to get my act together, wrote my business school recommendations, and was my North Star and life mentor as long as he lived. I was one of many for Sidney,” Kevin said.

And then there was “The Dean.” Tie askew and pants sagging at the end of the cocktail hour. Attired in those same baggy pants and a stained undershirt as he drove down the Hill on Sunday mornings, when he sometimes would pick up the rare early-rising student headed to the village for whatever reason, including services at St. Mary’s or St. James. I remember running beside him through knee-deep snow along with hundreds of students at the Oneida County Airport to greet the hockey team after it qualified for the ECAC playoffs. He wanted you to succeed, too. The Dean, Winton Tolles, Hamilton Class of 1928. How much rope did he give to how many mindless rabble rousers? How many final warnings did he hand out to the same short-falling students who just couldn’t get it done in the classroom? How many lost and hidden credits did he find for those coming up short as graduation approached? How many recommendations did he make — written, by phone, in person — to help a guy get into graduate school? How many of us owed him, big time, in terms of careers or otherwise? 

There was no one else anywhere ever like The Dean and never will be again. But then, it was a different day in so many ways.

Michael Lordi remembers all his textbooks costing a total of about $50 and recalls writing to his parents to assure them that $5 a week would be an adequate allowance. Really, some of us never saw $5 at any one time, but it wasn’t a problem. With a small draft beer costing a quarter, two or three bucks could get you through a Saturday night at The Rok downtown or The Shoe out on Route 5, although if you had a date it could get complicated. Girls who drank beer were preferred, but the prettier the girl, the more she rated a $1.25 gin and tonic or sloe gin fizz or two. Sloe gin fizz! Who has heard those words in the last 50 years? In that case you drank your draft very slowly and hoped your date didn’t want more than one drink. Two at the most. 

Houseparties, three of them a year, were the highlights of on-campus entertainment. Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday night, Sunday morning. Each fraternity had its specialty, but every party had one thing in common — oceans of alcohol, usually consumed with little care. Entertainment at the houses featured some top Central New York bands — Otis and the All-Night Workers, the Electric Elves, Willie and the New Yorkers.

And the big show on Saturday nights? Popular national acts such as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Sam & Dave, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Laura Nyro, Sly and the Family Stone, The Box Tops, and, perhaps most memorably, the Four Tops. How did they show up here? You couldn’t book acts like that today at any price.

It wasn’t all struggling to do well academically and partying mightily to make up for it when we didn’t. There was tragedy to deal with. Whit Ferguson ’68, a lacrosse teammate of some of us, was killed in Vietnam. Our classmate, easygoing Bob Bankert, outstanding golfer and basketball player, son of a Hamilton graduate, was killed in an auto accident. We learned of that in the middle of a Saturday night, Parents Weekend, 1968. It was a severe kick in the teeth, and for some of us, maybe most of us, our first brush with death involving a person so close to us. We haven’t forgotten it to this day.

The next year, basketball coach Ken Patrick, “The Silver Fox,” died right on the court, falling into the laps of several of his players early in the season-opening game. Whit and Bob were gone not long out of their teens. We thought Coach Patrick was old. He was 63 when he died. How does that sound now? By the time we graduated, with all that and a war playing out in the headlines and on TV, we repeatedly had been shocked into seeing what the real world was like. 

Sports? We had our successes. Hockey had a very long and proud tradition, and had an especially great season when we were sophomores with classmates Kevin Kennedy and Peter Kennedy playing key roles. Football had some really outstanding teams now and then. The coaching staff was presided over by the Lincolnesque, extremely proper athletic director — and, unknown to us, terrific former college athlete — Mox Weber. There was the dashing Don Jones, still Hamilton’s winningest football coach, by far, with 97 wins. Trainer and track coach Gene Long, taskmaster of the football team’s preseason workouts. Coach Patrick had been a legendary athlete at Ithaca College. The mercurial swimming coach Eric MacDonald, sometimes outrageous, who had a heart of gold and more than a little coaching genius. Hockey coach Greg Batt, beyond amiable, a legendary player in his day, and still able to make his players look silly on the ice when we were in school. Soccer and lacrosse coach Manfred Von Schiller, sometimes mocked for his supposed malaprops — in four years playing for him, I never actually heard him say any of the things he supposedly said — but one of the toughest guys and finest people you’d ever meet. He had all the players, class by class, over to his house for dinner one year. The experience was beyond memorable — platters with huge steaks falling over the edges, enormous salads, mounds of potatoes, endless rounds of … ginger ale. What a generous man he was and remains working on his farm in Sodus as he closes in on age 92.

And, of course, there was Lyle Jeffris, the stingy equipment manager. You could never get an extra shirt or pair of socks out of Lyle, but he did his job well, and if you got to know him, you discovered he was a sweetheart. I got to be friends with him, and I can assure you he would help anyone out, any time. We were friendly until the day he died a few years ago.

Aside from the early days of college football, when Hamilton was ranked among the powers of the game, and outstanding hockey and basketball teams on occasion, athletic success on the Hill was a sometime thing. It’s a fact, however, that members of the Class of 1970 contributed to some truly outstanding sports teams during their time here. 

MacDonald’s swim teams? Who but Eric could get fans to jam into the old pool and go wild over shaved-up guys splashing water all over the place? The Class of 1970 swimmers went 35-4-1 during their time, and they were fun to watch, a strange thing to say about swimmers.

Numerous members of our class contributed heavily to the 1967 football team, which went 6-1, was ranked sixth in the Lambert Bowl competition for small college schools, and scored an epic, highly unlikely, come-from-way-behind victory over St. Lawrence University that every team member remembers to this day. The basketball team was very competitive every year and especially during the 1968-69 season, going 15-3 for the best record in the College’s history up to that time. It might be that that team — Bob Voss was the wheelhorse and won the Gelas Award as the College’s top athlete the next year, with 1970’s Jerry Pisanelli and Mike Grieco also playing significant roles — set the stage for Hamilton becoming known as a “basketball school” in the coming years under Tom Murphy and being thought of that way athletically ever since.

Soccer, track, cross country all had their successes during our time, as did golf and tennis — two sports that you might have called Hamilton specialties in the ’50s and ’60s.

Some of us had big successes as fans, too. The New York Jets’ shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts helped launch the NFL’s dominance of the American sports world, and they were a part of a triumphant 1969 for Hamiltonians from Metropolitan New York, with the Miracle Mets and the New York Knicks also winning championships.

Some Hamiltonians had a brush with fame — and at least one Kirklander, Sandra Faison ’72, began a long and successful theatrical career — when part of The Sterile Cuckoo, adapted from a book by Hamilton graduate John Nichols ’62, was shot on campus in 1968.

Our Bob Linder was not one of them. 

Linder had been in a couple of plays on campus, and, like at least a few other students, was hopeful that he might somehow luck into a small role in the movie and perhaps launch a great cinematic career. He saw a chance one day when a shoot was going on near the Alexander Hamilton statue

“I walked by on the fringes of the crowd, a bright red sweater my mom had given me tied around my neck,” he recalled. “Suddenly, Alan Pakula, who was directing his first film, stopped the shoot. He motioned me over to him. ‘This is it!’ I thought. ‘Welcome to Hollywood!’

“‘You, you, come here!’ Pakula said.

“‘Yes, sir, how can I help?’”

Bob, who I remember as being always well-groomed, trim, well-dressed, and, I guess, handsome enough — I haven’t seen him in quite a while so I have no idea if that is still the case — was thinking, of course, that his future and fortune were made. However … “Your sweater,” Pakula said. “We need your sweater in this shoot ... could you please?”

Bob sighed. “Sure. Okay.”

The film came out in 1969. Leonard Maltin gave it three stars. “My sweater never got a mention,”
Bob said.

There are many Sterile Cuckoo stories. That might be the best one.

The biggest story in our history on the Hill, however, undoubtedly was the one toward the end — the war in Vietnam and the tumultuous effect it had on our lives then and forever after. The first draft lottery was held on Dec. 1, 1969, a day that still fills those subjected to the finger of fate with dread. Brad Townley pulled a 9 and eventually was inducted. He almost had to go through basic training twice after failing physical training, but an Army clerk with a Hamilton degree from a year or two before finagled him out of it. Phil Rossbach went to Utica and joined the Amy Reserves the morning after the lottery, delaying law school for a year. Still, he somewhat resented his friend Gary Clark, who drew number 366 … and was 4-F with a bad knee.

There had been increasing debate on college campuses across the country regarding American involvement in Vietnam and the widening of the war there during our time in school. There were those who felt Hamiltonians simply didn’t care about the world around them, but the truth is more likely that there was not widespread opposition to the war for our first couple of years on the Hill. 

Chris Wilkinson, half-century annalist for the Class of 1968, reported that a November 1965 poll showed that more than half the student body and nearly half the faculty supported the war, and — this is what some would call scarcely credible — that 26 percent of the faculty reportedly favored the use of nuclear weapons. The numbers would change dramatically over the next four years, especially after the U.S. bombings of Cambodia in the spring of 1970 and the Kent State shootings on May 4 of that year.

I have approached this topic with a good deal of trepidation. A divisive issue to be sure, but we are used to such things by now. The war was an increasing matter of hot debate throughout our college careers. The “discussion” only grew in intensity as time went by and reached a crescendo in the final months of our senior year with marches and gatherings in Clinton and meeting upon meeting on campus. 

Finals were delayed or not administered, tensions were high, accusations were made. High principle was involved, and everyone was convinced of his or her righteousness. Not so different from today, and perhaps not so different from times before, but it might have been the most obvious indication that the nation was of two minds, and two minds that weren’t going to agree on much of anything.

Stew Herman remembers, after fighting environmental battles in the Utica area in preparation for the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), attending strike meetings on campus, and classes grinding to a halt after the Kent State shootings.

One upshot was a determination by some students to not wear robes at graduation, but, eventually, all but six seniors — Percy Luney was one, protesting what he felt was American imperialism abroad and oppressive racial policies at home — wore them, although the money for them, or at least part of it, was donated to the strike fund.

The scars of that time are still with us. They undoubtedly never will fade away completely. I’m not sure our time was quite so different than earlier eras, even if we felt ours was special. There was plenty to worry about in the fifties, as a quick scan of any newspaper from that era will tell you.

“The old world was changing, as it always does; Hamilton College was changing, as it always will,” Professor Williams wrote in his annalist letter for the Class of 1954.

True. Changing, but always the same, in a way.

For some, college is a practical matter, a way station on the path to a career, a good life, and not necessarily anything to be recalled with great emotion. I’ve spoken to more than one classmate who felt that way. For others, maybe for most, certainly for those of us who are here now, who have supported the College in numerous ways, over more than five decades, it is something much more — something spiritual, perhaps. I can’t put a word on it. Friendship, hardship, memories made, egos bruised, senses sharpened, old rivalries forgotten.

Again, I will steal from a previous annalist, Carl Carmer, a distinguished author and folklorist, Class of 1914:

“Dorothy Parker said Alexander Woollcott, Class of 1909, believed if he were a good boy that when he died he would go to Hamilton College. (He did. He is buried in the College Cemetery.) To use the poetic imagery of the Indian tribes for whose education this institution was founded [this is still Carmer], we calculate that when we saunter the Milky Way, tasting strawberries that grow beside it, we will not insist on going to Hamilton College. Wherever we may go, Hamilton College — the state of mind, the remembered dwelling place of beauty, the rendezvous of our youthful fellowship — will be going with us.

Thank you, boys.

John Pitarresi ’70 arrived at Hamilton College from LaSalle High School in Niagara Falls, N.Y. He majored in history, loved his courses in English, art, and speech, struggled in the sciences and languages, and misbehaved a bit. He wrote for The Spectator, earned four letters in football and three in lacrosse, and served as a captain of both sports. After a brief teaching career, he joined the Utica Newspapers and spent more than four decades covering sports at every level, along with other topics. He continues to write the newspaper’s outdoor column, as he has since 1980. He bleeds buff and blue and feels extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to attend Hamilton College. He is proud that his brothers, Jerry ’71 and Charlie ’80, and nephews Matt ’08 and Marc ’10, also are Hamilton graduates.

*Note: Presentation of the Half-Century Class Annalist Letter of the Class of 1970 was postponed from 2020 until 2022 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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