The Past is a Foreign Country

Good morning, all: President Wippman, classmates and alumni, family, friends, and faculty.

In 1952, not long after my classmates and I were born, a writer named L.P. Hartley began work on The Go-Between, a novel set during his boyhood in England half a century earlier. The book begins with this:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Today we travel back to the foreign country of our own past, to see a different Hamilton and how differently we did things there.

How to begin? Well, according to the Old Testament, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Sometime later the Board of Trustees said, “Let there be Dunham.” And there — unfortunately — was Dunham.

When 255 of us arrived on campus in September of ’69, a banner on the front of the building said: Aaron Burr Lucky Shot Memorial Dormitory. A good joke, perhaps, but a bad omen. Our first sight of those faceless halls and spartan living spaces was something like Freud’s primal scene: a traumatic event leading to neurosis curable only by death or dementia.

“There’s something about my room,” went a letter to a parent. “The walls are cinder block, the rug is spotted, and the curtain rods and shades are broken. And I’m surrounded by freshmen!”

It was true. Except for the lucky few housed in South, we’d all been sentenced to live in a ghetto of enforced familiarity with the members of our own class.

Despite the many epithets we hurled at Dunham, no one captured it as succinctly as one of our lit professors, Tom Johnston. He called the building “a triumph of economy over the imagination.”

So was it any surprise that the correctional-facility decor and the terrible proximity of our roommates conspired to produce a certain amount of antisocial behavior?

Peter Zicari still tells the story of how he filled up John Zaehringer’s room with wadded up newspapers. I know it’s true, because I helped him do it.

Stuart Hamilton ’73, presenter, and Roy Schecter ’73, author, make last-minute preparations before the reading of the half-century annalist letter.
Stuart Hamilton ’73, presenter, and Roy Schecter ’73, author, make last-minute preparations before the reading of the half-century annalist letter.

Steve Cotten, who came to Hamilton because “a Kirkland student smiled at me during my college tour,” was soon seen wielding a flaming hockey stick as he chased a naked classmate down the hall.

Ben Soule’s roommates gave him such a hard time that he borrowed a tent from the Outing Club and camped out for three nights in Kirkland Glen.

Tom Palmer says his roommate threatened to kill himself every single day, but wound up graduating with the rest of us. Naturally, he became a psychologist.

All of us felt we’d been incarcerated in a place where solitary confinement might have made a welcome change. Which maybe explains why the College’s motto is “Know Thyself,” not “Love Thy Neighbor.”  

Still, in the crucible of Dunham, a wonderful alchemy also took place. For if familiarity breeds contempt, it can also foster intimacy. We had the unrepeatable opportunity to form close friendships, many of which have lasted to this day.

Mine with Roy Schecter, who lived across the hall, is paying off right now: he agreed to write this letter if I would deliver it. We are both grateful to the classmates who shared their memories with us — of their friends, their teachers, and their misadventures at Hamilton.

Speaking of which …

On our first night here, we had dinner in Commons with our faculty advisors. In the middle of the meal at Sid Wertimer’s table, a classmate we shall not identify asked for a bowl of peas to be passed. With his voice unheard over the ambient clatter, he made several more requests of increasing volume and intensity, but to no avail. Finally, just as the noise level happened to dip, he shouted, “For Chrissake, pass the fucking peas!” A shocked and stony silence fell upon the table and everyone turned toward Mr. Wertimer. “Well, you heard him,” he said. “Pass the fucking peas.”

One witness to this incident, Eric Thorkilsen, said it felt like a welcome-to-college moment. We would be treated as if we were adults.

After Sid’s welcome surprise, we were treated to his surprising welcomes. Thanks to the funny-book photos and his phenomenal memory, he greeted each of us by name the first time we crossed paths on campus. Except, that is, when he ran into Michael Bennett, whose photo had been mistakenly swapped with David Behnke’s. “Sorry. Bennett, not Behnke,” Mike said. But to this day, his Hamilton friends still call him Behnke.

So what was the college we’d been welcomed to? Was it the tradition-bound, isolated isle of academia to which we had applied? Not exactly. For this was 1969, the aftermath of an ugly year in American history, marked by assassinations, riots, sit-ins, and divisive protests against the war in Vietnam. The election of Richard Nixon had widened the so-called generation gap, and the upstarts of our generation were making waves in American society. The College, though sequestered on its ivory hilltop, felt compelled to move with the tide.

As a result, we were the first entering class to be unburdened by distribution requirements, the first with no Saturday-morning classes, the first to take four courses a semester instead of five, and the first to undertake the Winter Study program in January.

With the sexual revolution well underway, we were also the first to enjoy the abolition of parietals — you could have a girl in your room, day or night. If only there’d been enough of them to go around! Kirkland had been invented, but not quite in the nick of time; it was only halfway to achieving critical mass. Tommy Thompson recalls that at our freshman mixer, a wave of upperclassmen swept through the crowd, and suddenly all the women were gone.

As classes got underway, we strolled from one to another along the red shale paths and became more aware of our surroundings. Some of the buildings were a century or two old; the sense of the past was palpable. All the Hamilton professors were men and preferred to be called “Mr.” All the dorms were single sex. The Bundy Residence Halls were under construction, and there was talk of replacing Truax with a new library. The Chapel bell rang 50 minutes after the hour to signal the end of classes — 10 minutes later to start the next. But good luck hearing it in the old Science Building, where every clock had its own time zone. We were wowed by the spectacular fall colors, but were unaware that the elm trees were dying, including the double-trunked one behind Bristol that had cradled Liza Minnelli a year earlier.

Maid service in Dunham was performed by women we called harpies; they came and went like the gusts of wind in Greek mythology. Smith’s Laundry Service washed our sheets and towels, which we slung over our shoulders, marching in a weekly caravan between Dunham and the pickup in Bristol. Doug Jones says it looked like a hobo parade.

We occasionally hitched rides into Clinton, and, with the little money we had, opened savings accounts at the Hayes National Bank and visited Don’s Rok, the favored alternative to the pub. On weekends at 1 a.m., we could catch the aroma of Jake’s fresh-baked raisin bread, and when our parents visited, they took us to dinner at the Alexander Hamilton Inn and bought us toothpaste or whatever at the drugstore on Park Row. It was housed in the original location of the Clinton Pharmaceutical Co., founded in 1887 by two guys named Bristol and Myers.

Early on, we learned about Hamilton traditions. First and foremost: the fraternity system. If you wanted good food, a desirable room, and a place to party, you joined a house, and 70 percent of upperclassmen did. Fraternity rushing was more strictly regulated than the banking industry. Which tribe would you choose and which would choose you? The process was like a well-organized cattle auction. Hazing was outlawed, though perhaps more in theory than in practice. Frat houses were the sites of houseparty weekends, where feral conduct was fueled by huge quantities of alcohol. When years later the film Animal House was released, we all thought it was a documentary.

A more sober tradition was the Hamilton Cool, an attitude combining nonchalance with steely critical reserve. In lieu of applauding a fine performance, we snapped our fingers.

Then there was the Roll, the venturing forth on weekends in search of female companionship that Kirkland could not yet fully supply. Wells and Skidmore were among the favored destinations, and Bob Rooney recalled that on one expedition, the DKEs brought two Ryder trucks filled with mattresses and stacked cases of beer; it looked like the Marines had landed at Cazenovia.

As the leaves began to fall and the October air turned bitter, we recalled Yogi Berra’s remark about left field at Yankee Stadium: “It gets late early out here.” And so the winter arrived, alarmingly ahead of schedule. The snow piled up well before Thanksgiving, and the polar wind that swept across the hilltop made even the guys from Chicago look forward to the holiday break. Then, like The Man Who Came To Dinner, winter overstayed its welcome. (When we were seniors, it snowed 4 inches on my birthday: May 17.)

As the big chill set in, we suffered from overheating in the dorms. If Al Gore knew how much oil and gas the College consumed back then, he’d have a heart attack. For more bracing indoor temperatures, we spent evenings in the clammy and somber stacks of the old James Library. It was private: just you and the books. It was easy to imagine the ghost of Melancthon Woolsey Stryker haunting the aisles, and if you died up there, nobody would find you for three days.

For indoor exercise, however, the options were extremely limited. The Sage Rink track was even colder than the one outside. There were no treadmills, stationary bikes, or Nautilus machines. The basketball court in Alumni Gym was an ode to claustrophobia. The pool resembled the one in a famous scene in the 1942 horror film, Cat People. The squash courts were like a padded cell without the padding, and the locker rooms had an air of purgatorial gloom. Five years after we graduated, a senior was amazed by the brand new fieldhouse. “It’s like you’re not at Hamilton anymore,” he said. The Hamilton he was referring to was the Hamilton we were at. (Apologies, by the way, for repeating my name so often.)

We found ourselves living in the land of the dreaded Yes papers, the boot camp that trained raw recruits to do battle with the English language. One grammatical error on an essay, one slip of the typewritten tongue, could be fatal. Those of us armed with AP credits skipped English 11 and wrestled instead with Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and the critiques of our professors. Anyone who thought of himself as a good writer abruptly learned that he wasn’t.

One of the teachers who made that fact witheringly clear was the notorious Ivan Marki. For him, freshmen were like goats trapped in tiger country. Many were the victims of his soul-crushing commentary. Facing a fractured piece of prose, he would ask: “Is English your native language?” Or, on an essay he almost liked: “This is OK as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.” When Arthur Rosenfeld caveated an opinion as “Just my two cents,” Marki said, “Tell me, young man, is that legal tender?”

Since Professor Marki’s own native language was Hungarian, it was a wonderful irony that he bullied us into appreciating our own. The way he pronounced certain words — like recreation instead of recreation — cut to the bone of their original meaning. Still, it was gratifying to learn, later on, that his French wife intimidated him as much as he intimidated us.

John Ulreich, a young English teacher, seemed to model himself on Ivan the Terrible. When Peter Bernstein asked, “Professor, would it be correct to say that this work could be thought of as a masque? As in M-A-S-Q-U-E?” Ulreich responded, “No. As in “N-O.”

We soon discovered that the insistence on effective written and oral expression extended well beyond the English Department; it was a campus-wide conspiracy. Other professors who had no business worrying about sentence structure and semicolons got into the act of correcting our mistakes. Eventually, however, we understood that writing was not our fundamental challenge; it was thinking. Because to write or speak clearly, you had to think clearly. And that is what our teachers taught us to do.

In biology, Steve Pribut remembers that Duncan Chiquoine “always made you think about the reasons that make nature what it is.” He wanted us to know our material well, be observant, and think clearly about what we observed — a lesson we could apply to other disciplines.   

In public speaking, Warren Wright, Lafe Todd, and Bob “Mumbles” Carson helped us to order our thoughts, consolidate our ideas, and deliver them forcefully and persuasively.

Asian Ed Lee, so-called because he taught Asian history, was a mentor of sheltering kindness. Generous with his time, he was always available to talk with us about Japan or China or, in confidence, everything the College administration was doing wrong.

Phil Pearle was famous for his course The Physicist’s View of Nature, better known as Physics for Poets — poets being a euphemism for idiots. It gave humanities majors a chance to tell their parents they’d actually taken a science class. Pearle was also known as 59-minute Phil, because, as we all know, when you’re teaching relativity, time does not really exist.

Russell Blackwood, chair of the Philosophy Department, taught Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist thought, and his course on the history of western philosophy was among the toughest this side of organic chemistry. In it, we encountered the paradox of his grandfather’s ax, whose handle and blade had been replaced years after Grandpa bought the farm. Russell taught us that the real is the rational and the rational is the real, though recent American history seems to call that into question.

David Ellis, universally known as “Spoolie,” was as vivid a personality as any character actor in Hollywood. His lectures, punctuated with the hand motions that made him famous, turned the melting pot of America into a salad bowl. He knew everything about the history of New York State, except, apparently, the Battle of Saratoga, claiming that nothing “historical” had ever happened north of the Mohawk River.

In the Math Department, John Anderson could write theorems across three blackboards in under three minutes. His group oral exams played out like a round of Jeopardy!, where, lacking a buzzer, you raised your hand if you knew the answer.

Edwin Barrett offered a puzzler on the first day of his Comedy course, presenting a poem by Robert Graves called “Down, Wanton, Down.” We finally figured out it was about a man trying to get his member to behave. Now, there was a problem we could identify with! These days it’s more like “Up, Wanton, Up!”

In his Shakespeare course, Ed helped us interpret the text by acting out key scenes. One day he was King Lear; the next, Lady MacBeth. His lectures were a trove of psychological insight, some of it, perhaps, lost on us at the time. When Marvin Kwartler asked “Why doesn’t Othello just ask Desdemona to explain about the handkerchief?” Ed said, “Well, I guess we just don’t ask those kinds of questions, do we?”

You have to be married, I think, to understand what he meant.

Robin Kinnel started out teaching in the old Chemistry Building, where the basement looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Robin urged his students to check out its store of ancient books, all of which turned out to be in German. He was the master of the monster commonly known as Orgo. The course left Steve Pribut with permanent PTSD. Like much of the faculty, Robin was allergic to giving out A’s, even to his best students. Bob Nickerson was thrilled to get a D, because, as he explained, “a D is not an F.”

We had many brave pre-meds in our class. Because of persistent grade deflation, a disease peculiar to Clinton, N.Y., only half of them were admitted to American medical schools. But almost all ultimately made it in. Steve Weisman, one of the undaunted rejects, went to Perugia to learn Italian, then to medical school in Rome, and after transferring to a U.S. school made a distinguished career in pediatric medicine.

Don Potter was fascinated by rocks and had a talent for conveying his enthusiasm to his students. He took them on field trips in the Adirondacks and won grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation. Don gave Peter Schloerb his first chance to do scientific research, launching a career in which he literally took aim at the stars. For the last 20 years, Peter has been teaching computational physics at UMASS, thanks in part to Peter Millet, who encouraged him to use computers in research. Of course the only computer on campus back then was a teletype machine connected to a mainframe at nearby Griffiss Air Force Base.

During our time here, there was a schism in the Psychology Department, with the Skinnerians — a hometown favorite, you might say — vs. the Freud-Jung contingent, led by the venerable Charles Godcharles. His lectures consisted of long, complex, slowly unwinding sentences booby-trapped with dependent clauses and digressions, yet grammatically unassailable. In Psych 11, though, he was stuck with the rats and the Skinner Boxes used to demonstrate B.F’s theory of stimulus and response. In a humor issue of The Spectator, Professor Godcharles was parodied as Chuck Godchuck, a Josef Mengele-type figure who got a charge out of tormenting the rodentia.

Here we pause for a true crime story. Each student in Psych 11 was assigned his own rat, and if your rat died, you flunked the course. Jeff Gorrin and Ken Givens were in the class with Chuck Cutolo, whom they knew to be the most exacting and conscientious student alive. So it was a shock to them when Chuck’s rat kicked the bucket. Except it wasn’t Chuck’s; it belonged to another student who had pulled a switcheroo. Alas, he’d chosen the wrong guy’s rat to mess with. Because Chuck, being Chuck, could prove the corpse was an impostor and that his red-eyed protege was in the full bloom of health. The ruse was discovered, and so was the perpetrator, who could not truthfully point to the live rat and say, “This is my own work unless otherwise indicated.” Which made him a dead duck.

Incidentally, the Honor Code came in handy in other, unexpected ways. Richie Kavesh remembers an intramural softball game in which a runner, trying to score on a sacrifice fly, left third base too soon. When an appeal was made, the umpire said, “I didn’t see it, but I’m taking your word for it under the Honor Code and am calling him out.”

The expert on religious codes was Jay Williams. According to Bob Aiello, the professor opened his eyes to mystical thinking. His lectures on Chartres Cathedral immersed us in the faith and culture of the medieval world. One day, in his course on Chinese philosophy and religion, he announced that he’d soon be discussing the Tao, which, he said, “was ineffable and not noetic;” i.e., inexpressible via words or the intellect. Phil O’Neill raised his hand. “If the Tao is ineffable and not noetic,” he said, “then what are you going to talk about?” On the last day of Religion 11 class, a few of us sat in the front row and tried to levitate Mr. Williams. But even in spiritual matters, he was a true Hamiltonian — Class of ’54 — and kept his feet on the ground.

On the other hand, when Austin Briggs really got going, he seemed to take wing; his lectures had a heightened, almost hypnotic quality. At the close of his classes in Gothic lit, he urged us to “Go forth, and wrap your cloaks tightly around you,” as if the jitney made stops in Transylvania. But British lit — Conrad, Yeats, Joyce, and Woolf — was Austin’s true love. He made us feel the emotional resonance of literature and left us with more questions than answers. Ray Tillett says he’s still thinking about some of them.

Sometimes it’s a teacher’s voice we remember. Dave Millar’s was soothing, with a hint of smoke that came from the pack of cigarettes he was never without. A consummate lecturer on American colonial and diplomatic history, he was not above practicing a little stagecraft. One day he entered the classroom flourishing a stack of notes. He set them down on the lectern, then walked away and spent the next 50 minutes speaking from the other side of the room! His Vietnam lecture turned out to be about the Boer War in disguise, two entries in what Barbara Tuchman called “The March of Folly.”

Like the Sword of Damocles, Vietnam hung over our heads during our time at Hamilton. So did the Phys Ed requirement, which, frankly, was more immediately concerning. But there was hope even for the non-aquatics among us. Swim Coach Eric MacDonald told Fred Gitner that he didn’t care what stroke he used as long as he got from one end of the pool to the other.

We were safe from combat in Vietnam if we remained in college, so it’s no surprise that the dropout rate for our class was historically low. But our future was in the hands of the draft lotteries. The postings of the numbers were tension-filled occasions. Peter Brophy remembers a night when the pub was filled with two cohorts of heavy drinkers: one celebrating lottery numbers above 300; the other, with numbers under 100, drowning their fears in pitchers of Utica Club.

Our first spring at Hamilton was disrupted by the bombing of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings. Students voted to boycott classes and marched downtown to protest on the village green. Final exams became mostly optional. President Chandler was openly sympathetic to the anti-war effort and so were many of our professors. Congressman Al Lowenstein, who’d led the dump LBJ movement, made his first visit to campus to warn us about the administration he unwittingly helped bring into power.

No violence occurred on campus that May, but feelings ran hot. Mark Richard criticized the movie M*A*S*H because it failed, he said, to address the tragedy of Vietnam. Ralph Stocker remembers “one Monday morning in Chapel when I thought that Mark would never stop talking.” But wouldn’t you know it: Ralph and Mark have been talking to each other ever since.

The late spring protests coincided with the opening of the Afro-American Culture Center on campus. Members of the Black Student Union drew parallels between racism in America and what they called military genocide against their brothers and sisters in Southeast Asia. Discrimination and minority rights continued to be topics of discussion and contention during our time at Hamilton and so did voting rights and student voter-registration. Bill Delaney and nine other students did some poll-watching in Mississippi, where many Black people were prevented from voting while some white people voted twice.

In our first spring at Hamilton, the first Earth Day was celebrated when the chief worry was merely water pollution. Another important issue was abortion. Kirkland’s first lady Natalie Babbitt said the issue “should be taken out of the hands of the government and be left entirely between woman and doctor.” As if in response, New York State legalized the practice.           

The volume of intercollegiate sex no doubt increased as Kirkland reached its full enrollment. A group called the Population Center sold condoms and contraceptive foam at six campus locations, and Planned Parenthood also had a foothold on campus.

The proliferation of drugs was another problematic issue. In our freshman year, a portion of Dunham was known as the flight deck — and not just because it was on the top floor. As you walked down the hallways, you caught the odor of Right Guard deodorant spray used to mask the sweet smell of pot. Now, smoking was one thing, but dealing it was another. A few students were suspended or expelled. Ted Guglin, who was asked to leave after our junior year, says that at Hamilton he “discovered sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” and later found out there was nothing else left to discover.

Meanwhile, the enterprising Dennis Oakes dealt in the world’s most powerful drug: music. He sold records out of his room, and his ads, announced in Chapel, were pithily effective: “The White Album, available now in limited supply.”

The Beatles didn’t come to Hamilton, but other popular groups did. Reviews of their concerts were mixed. Sly and the Family Stone — who showed up two hours late, played for 45 minutes, and walked out — was either the best or the worst. John Stroebel said it was both. Ron Kochman took an ecumenical view, saying “There were no bad concerts.” Wes Morosco agreed, wondering “Why would there be a bad concert?” Tim Hogeboom says that after his favorite concert, “I kind of lost my hearing for three days.”

Easier on the ear was the singing of the College Choir. Under the leadership of Jim Fankhauser, it remained all-male until more reinforcements arrived at Kirkland. The choir’s spring tours were always a triumph, and the Buffers, singing ditties from the College songbook, were immensely popular.

The speakers who came to campus were generally well received, but Timothy Leary, the prophet of the psychedelic movement, gave what The Spectator called “a wandering and tediously prolonged” address in a “stoned, stream-of-consciousness” style. Most of the speakers held forth in the Chapel, but the biggest draws, like the basketball great Bill Russell, were stuck in the gym with its larger seating capacity. The symphony orchestras were marooned there, too, in an acoustical cul-de-sac. A typical Spectator review read, “Music Marred By Gym.”

The gym was also the site of a shocking tragedy in our freshman year. At the first home basketball game, the coach, Ken Patrick, collapsed on the court and died. When his young replacement died that summer, it seemed like the gods had put a curse on the program. Tom Murphy, whose high school teams had won 55 consecutive games, took over and lost 25 of his first 26. During one of them, when a dog wandered in and sat down in the middle of the court, the ref instructed Murph to remove it or forfeit the game. “What’s the score of a forfeit?” Murph asked. “Two to nothing,” the ref said. “Let him sit there,” said Murph. “That’s as close as we’ll get all year.”

Not that any of us came here expecting our sports teams to be juggernauts. The administration eyed any hint of immoderate success with suspicion. Sure, it was gratifying to win, but losing was educational. Adversity, like the Clinton weather, built character.

Our football team had character to spare. After losing 50-0 to Alfred, Mark Rice, the quarterback, was drafted to write The Spectator article about the game! His coach, Don Jones, when excited, would forget Mark’s name, often defaulting to “Get in there, Blondie.” In one game after an early pick-six by Andy Sopchak, RPI scored the last 48 points. But in the final contest that season, Andy blocked two punts in an upset win at Union. Coach Jones, the father of our classmate Tim, was a realist: “Our opponents are mobile, agile, and hostile,” he would say in his pregame speeches. “Now go out there and beat them.” Thanks to Mark and Andy, and the stellar play of John Graveley and Joe Reagan, they sometimes did.

Soccer coach Manfred Von Schiller, also known as Coach Von Coach, was a spectacle unto himself. A typical pre-season headline read: “Coach Von Schiller Not Optimistic.” He foresaw disaster around every corner — and every corner kick. In one game, when Hamilton scored in the opening minute, he asked his manager, “How much time is left?”    

It’s said that soccer is a game of geometry, but when it came to math, Von Schiller’s specialty was numbers. One day in practice he told his team, “Pair off in threes.” During games he urged them to “keep one eye on the field, one eye on the opponent, and one eye on the ball.”

They say there’s no “I” in team, but for Coach Von Coach there were three.

The Sage Rink was more than a venue for intercollegiate competition. Mid-day jungle hockey was immensely popular, and intramural games were fought fiercely there. When Coach Greg Batt’s team took the ice, the place was packed with raucous fans, even in sub-zero temperatures. We bellowed and stamped our feet to cheer them on, partly to keep our blood flowing; the freezing cold was no place for the Hamilton cool. (Try snapping your fingers in there and your thumb could fall off.) We sometimes threw inanimate objects at the opposing players — and animate ones, too. The team was always fun to watch, and when we were juniors, Doug Janes, Bob O’Connor, Rick Santa, and goalie Greg Root helped to beat Colgate for the first time since 1925.

In the warmer clime of the Bristol Pool, the swim team was hugely successful. At one point Eric MacDonald’s squad won 19 meets in a row and went 36-4 during our four years. Peter Schloerb set school and pool records, and Bruce Rinker and Ed Roston made key contributions.

The winter spectator sports provided a much-needed respite from our studies. On certain Saturdays, you could go to a swim meet at 1, a hockey game at 4, and a basketball game at 8. “Just what we need,” Dave McKay used to say, “a whole day without thinking.”

The Charlatans entertained us in the old Minor Theater, mounting productions of classic and contemporary plays. Sandy Faison, one of the stars from Kirkland’s charter class, went on to play Daddy Warbucks’s secretary in the original Broadway production of Annie. The show’s book was written by Tom Meehan, who graduated from Hamilton the year most of us were born.

In the fall of our senior year, the Alexander Hamilton Players presented the musical 1776 in the Chapel, then took it on tour to great acclaim. David Behnke — the real David Behnke — stopped the show with the powerful “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” number. It’s worth noting that 1776 opened in the same Broadway theatre that now houses Hamilton, that promising little show written by a Wesleyan grad. But as a setting for the Continental Congress, nothing could match the space we’re in right now, which a Spectator review praised for its “superb colonial atmosphere.”

When we weren’t going to plays or concerts or sporting events, we went to the movies. Two campus film societies showed recent films and masterpieces by Hitchcock, Welles, Bergman, and others. Just before the end of senior year, Mark Richard and Steve Weisman rented a print of John Waters’s transgressive comedy Pink Flamingos. Though afraid it might be too much for a Hamilton crowd, they had to show it to earn back the money they spent. So at a Saturday-night screening of Woody Allen’s Bananas, they made a strategic announcement: saying that Pink Flamingos would be on tap the following week, that it was very funny and was bound to gross out any normal person. But there would be no refunds under any conditions.

It sold out four nights in a row.

Students discussed the films they saw and wrote about them in The Spectator. Mike Murphy published a series of articles about “the deep, mysterious symbols hidden within Flash Gordon,” thus paving the way for similar treatises on the Star Wars films.

We have ample testimony that at the showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, many of the patrons were indeed very odd. Under the influence of cannabis, they couldn’t tell one trip from another: the one on the screen or the one in their heads.

Don Williamson says it wasn’t about the movie you saw; it was the girl you were with. That was certainly true for David Rausher, who had his first date with Kirkland’s Judy Steinlauf at a screening of — wait for it — Rosemary’s Baby! Together, they eventually produced three children, and as far as we know none is the spawn of Satan.

As movie-goers go, we were a tough crowd. At the now-classic Night of the Living Dead, we learned that a sure way to kill zombies was to set them on fire. During one screening, a student fainted and had to be carried out by his friends. As they did, the audience spontaneously chanted: “Burn him, burn him.” As I said, a tough crowd.

Now in that last story, it may be hard to separate the apocalyptic from the apocryphal. But on the theory that truth is stranger than fiction, here are some weird things that definitely happened back when:

Freshman year, just prior to Thanksgiving, we had a holiday dinner in Commons, where Robby Brewer’s roommate worked. Borrowing a few white jackets from his closet, Robby and two henchmen entered the dining hall, approached the buffet table, scooped up a half-carved turkey, head-faked toward the kitchen, slipped out the side door, and hustled back to Dunham, accompanied by a scrum of accessories after the fact. After devouring the remains of the turkey, they tucked the carcass under the bedcovers of Mitch Denker, their resident advisor. Fortunately, Denker was the kind of guy who knew how to dispose of incriminating evidence.

Tim Hogeboom had toured the campus on a dreary day and, frankly, was not impressed. But Hamilton was the only college that accepted him, so he came. Making the most of it, he went on to become president of the Hamilton-Kirkland Bumper Sliding Club, whose members enjoyed easing on down the road while holding onto the back bumpers of cars. “It wasn’t really a club,” Tim says, “More like a bunch of inebriated idiots with a death wish.”

The unforgettable Harold Fogg, who didn’t make it to Commencement, possibly had a death wish of his own. On a foggy night, in front of witnesses, he climbed the stairs to the top of the Chapel, then shimmied down the metal lightning rod from the steeple to the ground.

Harold also distinguished himself in other ways. Every morning of freshman year, he played “Born to Be Wild” at maximum volume on the stereo; fortunately for his roommates, he was not an early riser. When Harold ran out of clothes, he wore Ray Tillett’s and hid drugs in Ray’s dresser. “You’re so straight,” Harold told Ray, “that, if they were found, no one would believe they were yours.” This was a fair trade, Ray says, “because every day with Harold was an adventure.”

Another classmate who didn’t make it to Commencement was Chris Rudner, a provocateur who trafficked in illegal substances and traveled in upper-class circles. One day, while visiting a friend in her parents’ opulent home, he asked, “Do you have a bidet in the bathroom?” “No,” she replied, “But there’s a Monet in the dining room.”

Peter Brown used to fly a large biplane glider on the golf course. After graduation he flew off to Alaska and forgot to come back — until now. Though mostly anchored in Anchorage for 50 years, he made the long trip to be with us this weekend.

Brian Cavanagh says that John “Clancy” Covino, the proprietor and sole employee of Clancy’s Midnight Typing Service, was an unsung hero of our class. As word of Clancy’s skills spread around campus, business boomed. Desperate classmates, day and night, formed a queue outside his room, bearing sheets of their handwritten scrawl, trusting that John and his Royal typewriter — a manual — would turn them into something presentable. Brian and John’s roommate, Steve Sadove, would come back from the library asking, “Clancy, don’t you have your own work to do?” He did, and did that, too, without fail.

Art Domby remembers falling badly behind in Spanish class. On many a night in Benedict Hall, he talked to the walls while the steam radiators hissed a response. He behaved wildly on houseparty weekends while a girl he liked was dating one of his fellow TKEs. Unconvinced that Art was a certified lunatic, she later agreed to marry him. If not for Hamilton and Kirkland, he says, “I’d have missed my life.”

Kurt Marfurt was a French major known to discuss Kant and Schopenhauer at 3 a.m. in the pole vault pit. So of course he became an oil exploration geophysicist. He worked for Big Oil, and thanks to his Hamilton education, survived numerous rightsizings, downsizings, re-engineerings, outsourcings, strategic partnerings, co-sourcings, alliancings, and just plain layoffs. Whether Big Oil will survive as well as Kurt did remains to be seen.

Steve Gebo recalls the suspense-filled aftermath of a Chi Psi party. Several of the brothers, feeling that Skidmore and Cazenovia weren’t far enough, elected to drive to Canada. It’s possible that alcohol was a factor in their decision. They had no problem crossing the border; getting back was considerably more difficult. U.S. customs officials took a dim view of their appearance, probably because they seemed to be headed to a casting call for drug dealers. The boys were pulled over, questioned, and searched — in ways intensely personal. Nothing was found. When they finally got back to Chi Psi, they announced their return with an air horn. It was 5 a.m., and the brothers voted to send them back to Ottawa.

The college doctor was Hadley Roe, inevitably known to us as Death Roe. One January my freshman roommate, O.J. Burns, entered the health center with a minor medical problem. Under the doc’s supervision, his condition grew worse and worse. We began to wonder if O.J. would make it out of the health center alive. Then we realized the truth: Doing away with O.J. was Doc Roe’s Winter Study project! Fortunately, he failed, and O.J. went on to teach English for 34 years at a school where his students valued him as highly as he valued Austin Briggs and his other teachers at Hamilton.

One of them was Fred Wagner, who started here when we did. He believed, as Oscar Hammerstein put it, “that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” He loved Melville, James, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams — but hated to lecture. He worked 10 extra hours each week by breaking his classes into small discussion groups. Bruce Rinker remembers him as a man “with eyes that always smiled, a cigarette in his mouth, and another waiting in his hand.” Fred didn’t drink, but advised Eric Allen to do so more often because it seemed to be improving the quality of his insights.

Fred’s warmth and infectious laugh masked a sharp wit. In later years, he wrote biting comments in the page corners of blue books, then went back and ripped them off, leaving his students only to imagine what horrors they had perpetrated. Just to find all your corners intact was a triumph.

Fred encouraged contrarian opinions, but when a student said something grossly outlandish, he would look around and ask, “Do we all agree with this?” After a class in which someone called The Scarlet Letter “a load of garbage,” a classmate asked Fred why he didn’t straighten him out. To which Fred replied, “Why didn’t you?” That summed up his approach to teaching. He was more interested in the inside of our heads than in his own.

The other teacher who fit that description was Bob Simon. Even students who never took a course with him knew that Bob was a human of rare qualities. Remarkably accessible and humble, he was serious about philosophy but not about himself. He treated us as equals — in class he called us Mr. — but that was the only formality he observed. His passion for sports figured mightily in his exploration of knotty ethical problems. He taught us that learning to ask the right questions was as important as finding the right answers — though he never stopped searching for those answers.

Bob’s fallibility was part of his charm. If he said there were three important points to remember, he could always remember only two of them. Rehearsing a lecture at home for his wife, Joy, he mispronounced the name of Galileo. “For God’s sake, Bob,” Joy said, “whatever you do tomorrow, don’t call him Ga-LIL-e-o.” But sure enough, the next day Ga-LIL-e-o reared its ugly head. When he was done, the mortified Bob tried to flee the room, but was intercepted by a Kirkland student. “Great lecture, Mr. Simon,” she said. “You know, I never realized Ga-LIL-e-o’s name was pronounced that way.”

You can’t help loving a guy like that — one of the many reasons we’ve named our class scholarship in Bob’s honor.

This look back at the foreign country of our past would not be complete without a word about Winton Tolles, who was dean of the college from 1947 until he retired at the end of our junior year. Today, it seems, there are deans everywhere at Hamilton — swarms and legions of them. But back then, aside from Hadley DePuy — who, as dean of students, functioned more like a parole officer — there was only one dean, and Dean Tolles was it: the unlikeliest-looking dean in the history of American education.

At the end of a meal in Commons for freshmen and parents, when a portly, middle-aged man with a cigarette dangling from his lips and ash on his tie got up to talk, Ralph Stocker’s father asked him if this guy “was the head of the dining hall.” Alan Fisher remembers him standing in the middle of the quad, unzipping his fly and dropping his trousers so he could tuck in his shirt. Though he was known to return from lunch with cheeks flushed and the faint odor of alcohol on his breath, it never dimmed his mental acuity or impaired his common sense. The bulletin board announcements he authored were masterpieces of brevity, clarity, and occasional wit. On the Roots LP that served as a humor issue of The Spectator, he explained that “a dean is to a college ... what a tree is to a dog.” But at Hamilton, he was the top dog.

In his farewell address — delivered from this very spot — he concluded with the story of an old professor who slips during an icy walk down College Hill and turns into a human sled. He takes on a passenger by running into a portly woman who lands on his stomach. Down the hill they go, picking up speed, crossing Route 233, and stopping in the flatland beyond Oriskany Creek, at which point the professor looks up at his passenger, tips his hat, and says, “Pardon me, madam, but this is as far as I go.” No Hamilton dean has ever gone farther.

By our senior year, some things had begun to change. It was big news when Hamilton hired two female teachers. Cross-enrollment in courses between the colleges increased. Students voted to establish coed dorms, and two were set aside for the purpose. The Burke Library opened and so did Kirner-Johnson. Steve Kurtz took over as dean, and economics professor Martin Carovano became the College provost.

Despite receiving miniscule support from our student body, Richard Nixon was reelected, and Al Lowenstein returned to tell us about the dirty tricks that eventually led to the Watergate scandal. On May 5, 1973, a horse named Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in record time, reaching the finish line three weeks before we did.

Fifty years later, much has changed. Even Sid Wertimer probably couldn’t remember all 481 names and faces in last year’s freshman class, which was far more diverse than ours in every way. So is the faculty, about half of whom are women. Students call their teachers “professor” these days, not Mr. or Ms. Most of the dorms are coed. Some are designated as substance-free, and all are heated more efficiently.

The draconian Yes papers have faded into history. The Chapel bell no longer rings at 50 minutes past the hour; students have the time of day at their fingertips and computers on their wrists. The Hamilton Cool has warmed up, one proof of which is the astounding roar of approval that greets today’s a cappella concerts. A recent Spectator article noted that the students “couldn’t imagine going to a college without any decent coffee options.” I don’t recall that being a major priority for us.

Essential documents are no longer printed. Everything is online, including the catalogue and student directory. Students register for courses online, and announcements are made that way, too. The film societies are defunct, replaced by a Hamilton-hosted web channel where students can watch movies on their laptops or — good grief, Mr. Spielberg — their phones!

The students are swamped with emails and texts from all corners of the earth and are tethered to their parents more closely than we were. More parents may have bidets now, though Monets are still hard to come by.

Many of the older buildings have been repurposed for other uses. Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory looks like it was remodeled by Jack LaLanne. There are dorm parties instead of houseparties, though students still have Greek life — and Greek yogurt now, too. Which, by the way, we need more than they do.

There’s plenty of space for indoor exercise, and the athletic teams are unapologetically winning championships. Heat was installed in Sage Rink, though whether it works or not is up for debate.

If you don’t want to do your laundry, you can pay other students to do it for you. For a fee, you can send a singing Buffergram to the special someone of your choice. Or, for an extra fee, the boys will show up at 6 a.m. on the doorstep of the guy who stole your girlfriend.

All the elms are gone and so are the red shale paths. Although it still snows here more than in most other places, you can sometimes see the ground between November and April.

Economics is the most popular major. Students are much more focused than we were about getting a good job right after graduation. They don’t have to worry about the military draft, but they do have to worry about getting shot by some nut with a gun. When government professor Gene Lewis told us that our cinder block walls were no barrier to 50-caliber machine-gun fire, or when The Spectator ran a hoax about a shoot-out in McEwen over a meal-card dispute, we laughed. Nobody’s laughing now.

At Hamilton today, the men are outnumbered by the fairer sex. That fact, and a look around the campus at the field house and the fitness center, at the concert hall and the art museum and the Kennedy Center; at the breadth and quality of the food in the dining halls, the variety of options in the residence halls, the well-equipped classrooms, and the Science Center that seems like science fiction — all these could make us feel that, if we’d come too late to be extras in The Sterile Cuckoo, we had also been born way too soon. Maybe L.P. Hartley was wrong. For us, it isn’t the past that’s the foreign country; it’s the present. They do things differently here.

And yet, much is the same. The Phys Ed requirement remains and so does the Honor Code. The fall colors are still glorious, and students still complain about the weather. The vinyl LP has made a comeback. The blue books are eternally blue. Members of the entering class are officially known as first-year students, but everyone still calls them freshmen.

Some of the big issues from 50 years ago continue to be hotly debated and discussed: abortion, racism, drugs, free speech, voter suppression, the fate of the earth. They remind us, as Faulkner did, that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.

As we were, today’s Hamilton students are trained for nothing but prepared for everything. They get to know their teachers and hold some of them in awe. They develop the skills that will serve them in ways they can’t anticipate, in jobs and careers and lives they can’t imagine having. Learning to think clearly and express yourself cogently: this is the best of all carryover sports, whether your game is law, business, medicine, science, finance, journalism, education, technology, or others yet to be invented.

Speaking of our years at Hamilton, Tim Jones seemed to express the majority opinion of our class. “It was the bedrock,” he said, “for everything good that followed.” Peter Spellane recalled “the affable seriousness of the place, the intelligence and wit, the calmness of the society, the pleasure of learning, the general goodness of the people here.” Perhaps that tells us as much about Peter as it does about the College. But that is the Hamilton we like to remember.

For each returning alumnus, Sid Wertimer always had two words of greeting: “Welcome home.” It still feels like home, even if they’ve rearranged some of the furniture.

It’s good to be back.

Stuart Hamilton ’73 continued his education after Hamilton by studying for a year at a university in Switzerland and then receiving an MBA from Dartmouth College. After nine years at large corporations and eight years of running a small consulting business, he decided to go to law school for his midlife crisis. Graduating from Boston College Law School in 1997, he spent a year as a law clerk for a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, then worked as an associate in the estate planning practices of two Boston law firms. In 2004, he established his own practice, where he concentrates on estate planning and probate matters. He is also an adjunct professor at Boston College Law School. He works and lives in Sudbury, Mass., (the town in which he grew up) with his wife, Betty. They have one child, who currently is working toward a Ph.D. in medieval studies.

Roy Schecter ’73 began his professional career at Hamilton when he returned to the Hill in 1976 to edit the College’s publications and write the case statement for its first major capital campaign, Priorities for Hamilton. While spending 25 years at IBM as a speechwriter and advertising producer, he moonlighted for the College, writing materials and producing films for several more campaigns. At IBM, he oversaw the production of hundreds of commercials and, after “retiring,” worked with award-winning directors on a series of films for the company’s centennial celebration. After failing again to actually retire, he helped raise funds for a number of nonprofits, then spent eight years as a consulting producer on ads and films for Citi. He lives in Woodstock, N.Y., with his wife, Karen, his stepson, and two horses. He has lately been trying his hand at autofiction and is not entirely sure which parts of the stories are true and which are made up.

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