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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1895 Letter

William A. Aiken

Delivered: June 1945

He is a bold mariner who would set out on a voyage of reminiscence at such a time as this. The cross-currents of economic and political strife, the crashing of falling political systems, the thunder of war, the violence of human passions unleashed over the world, all combine to drown out the call that summons up the memories of calmer days; to prevent the contemplative soul from recreating those scenes which are arrived at by sailing a calm course to the “hallowed quiet of the past.”

If the annalist finds it difficult to make this chronicle fit into the contemporary scene he is in no case different from many others, of various occupation, seeking to carry on “as usual.” It is because the remembrance of old days at Hamilton is so kindly, so heart-warming, that in spite of the pressure of immediate events, it is possible to review, with some satisfaction, those happier times of a half-century ago which no storm of stress can ever blot out.

Half-century annalists are inevitably drawn to make comparison between the old days and the present times. The annalists of Class of 1891 and and 1898 adverted to that age-old discussion of the Good Old Days versus Modern progress in a friendly but inconclusive tilting. Taking a suggestion from the Scriptures we might very well be guided by the warning to Job the Patient: “Sayest thou not ‘what is the cause that the former days were better than these; for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this,’ and leave the question open. In reality, there is no certain criterion by which our opinion may be tested.” The whirling wheels of Change, that which all Mortal things doth sway alter the bases of comparison from age to age. Except in one particular; each generation of youth regards the preceding generation as hopelessly incompetent and untrustworthy, if not something worse.

On a sunny September day, in 1891, 48 ambitious but apprehensive freshmen entered Hamilton to join that distinguished line of students that stretched back to 1813, and if we include the record of Hamilton Oneida Academy, back to 1794. Trolley and bus service from Utica to Clinton was still in the future. The mile and a half walk from the old New York, Ontario and Western station to the College Hill campus was the first test, and no mean one. The Hill had to be negotiated, to the benefit of flabby leg muscles. This as an advantage also for those men who thought of engaging in that new college game called football. Road traffic was assisted by conveniently placed thank-ye-moms, and the pedestrian could pause to rest in the old arbor, halfway up the Hill, predecessor of the present stone memorial to Jack Beach, 1894.

The Old Lady on the Hill had a warm welcome. In this she was assisted, we were soon to learn, by an ardent group known as sophomores of the Class of 1894. The campus displayed its perennial beauty and the cut-spread panorama of the Mohawk Valley was enchanting.

But if the external prospect was inviting, the internal affairs of the College, administratively and financially, were not so fair. But of this we had little knowledge then.

There had been friction between students and the College administration a few years previously, and the outlook in 1891 was critical from several angles. In the short space of three months had occurred the death of President Darling, eighth head of the College, and of Professor Ambrose Kelsey of the Department of Natural History. Then came the resignation of Professor Albert H. Chester, after 30 years in the Department of Chemistry and Mineralogy, to accept a call to Rutgers University. The College was thus left without a permanent head and without an instructor in the natural sciences.

Professor Morrill made the old chemical lab attractive to all the scientifically inclined students; as a special favor to Joe Franco a door-key was issued to “Bugs” to him paid his nightly solitary explorations in the field of research.

The Geology class, which coasted the keenest intellects, gave Professor Smyth some difficult moments when on field work. Unexpected incidents such as encounters with an infuriated bull and a hornet’s next were some of the “faults” met with, to the dismay of Palmer and Buell.

We have seen, over the half-century, the library developing from a sort of appendix to becoming the very heart of the college—a laboratory instead of a museum—with an increase from 30,000 volumes to 200,000 volumes. It reflects, in no small degree, the devoted work of Professor Ibbotson.

It is not within the scope of this letter to detail the march of progress. The Class of 1895 would have approved unanimously of the installation of the water system. In a financial way the picture has been vastly improved. Dr. Stryker reported in his inaugural address, January 17, 1693, that the productive aspect of the College was $340,000, with an “expectancy of income from all sources, a little less than $30,000. In 1938 the Treasurer reported receipts of $350,00 and endowment funds of approximately $4,600,000. The College Catalogue listed 131 regular and special students enrolled in 1893-94; in 1935 the student body stood at 468.

Undoubtedly many of the Class of 1895 came to Hamilton because of the influence of loyal alumni who, in many widely scattered communities, bore living witness to the worth of Hamilton training. In time, they too, came to acquire that lasting love for Alma Mater. As freshmen the class was no greener than its predecessors. From the first it manifested a strong class spirit which even dared, and at times unsuccessfully, to raise the question as to who was running the College.

Of the changes in political and industrial relations, dormant but ready to break forth, the class was as unaware that Carnegie regarded the era as very satisfactory to himself and the other “robber barons.” With $850 million  received from his steel properties he proceeded to preach the blessings of poverty, and declared: “There is not one shred of privilege to be met with anywhere in all the laws. The flag is the guarantor and symbol of equality.” It would seem to have been, also, an age of blindness.

A man named Hearst was introducing a new type of journalism which carried, with other media or publicity, the announcement that “No other discovery in the world has proved so useful as Dr. Greene’s Narvura.” Reruns disputed the claim. A Mr. Ford was fashioning a horseless carriage destined to supplant the surrey with or without the fringe on top.

Internationally there was more shaking of diplomatic fists over Turkish atrocities and the Venezuelan boundary dispute, but we had to wait to see the United States forced out of continental isolation into the maelstrom of international politics.

Undergraduate days of 1895 saw the beginnings of the changes on College Hill. Ninety-one had left the Hill leaving a heritage of athletic prowess and class loyalty. Despite the low enrollment, extracurricular activities flourished. To the original 48 we added two by transfer. However, when we stood in June 1895 to receive our diplomas from Dr. Stryker there were but 30. Of all the 50 men enrolled with the class there remain today but eight living graduates and four who did not complete their courses at Hamilton — a mortality rate of 76 percent. Truly, the scythe of Father Time has cut into the ranks of 1895. At its half-centenary, the Class of 1891 showed 39 percent mortality; the Class of 1892 about 60 percent.

With the first swig from the bucket of the old well—now but a memory—began that affection for the college that has grown with the years. The period of class rows with ’94 has grown over the years. The period of class rows with the Class of 1894 was successfully passed. If a few bloody noses and torn garments result from these classes it was strictly in accordance with college tradition. Still remains vividly in the memory of surviving undergraduates of those days of Sullivan, standing on the campus like the legendary Horatius before the embattled Class of 1894, shouting cold defiance on behalf of the Class of 1895; “Me and Scoop (Scovel) and Mitchell can lick this whole [censored] gang of you.”

The exuberance of freshman and sophomore years gave place to upperclassmen gravity and the serious business of getting an education. Social life broadened, as the doors of Houghton and Cottage Seminaries swung open more often to us. Fraternity dances, house parties, theatricals, glee and banjo clubs broke the monotony of study. At one time the college quartet—a good one it was, too—was comprised solely of the Class of 1895 singers. The annual sophomore hop was initiated at this time by the Class of 1895. The old dormitories, inadequate as they were according to modern standards, resounded with songs, banter and plans for passing the periodic tests. Peter Kelly, affectionately known as head of the department of Dust and Ashes, moved quietly from floor to floor, dropping a hint of things on the tapis or to come.

We enjoyed the sunset years of Dr. North, Old Greek. His presence was like a benediction. But in his classes it was advisable to have your Greek text and pony pull together. Deftly moistening his index finger he drew a slip bearing the student’s name from the table before him. If this act followed a glance about the room the suspicion was current that Old Greek could see through the back of the slip.

Latin translation was made easier by the encouraging nod of Professor Hopkins, “Hops” to all the boys, accompanied by a wave of the hand and the words, “certainly, certainly,” leading the halting translator to hope that his mark for the day would not fall into the sub-credit classification.

“Square” Root’s defective hearing was sometimes relied upon in Math tests for motto voce communication between the dullards and the “sharks,” but not very affectively after “Square” broke in the one cold night some insurgent classmates tossed a chunk of firewood through the window of the study in the presidential mansion, taking this means of registering disapproval of some administrative action. Undismayed, a stranger sat wrapped in an overcoat at his desk in the study the following morning, while Superintendent DeReght summoned suspects one by one to appear before him at the violated seat of authority. Voila un homme! Yet, at graduation, his parting words were unusually affectionate.

There was a strong patriotic note in President Stryker’s utterances. In vivid contrast to the pallid pacifism, paddled by campus pulpiteers in the recent years, which showed its effect in a College poll at Hamilton, 1938, therein 77 percent of the students declared that they could not participate in any war abroad and only 23 percent said that they would be willing to fight in any war abroad and only 23 percent said that they would have invoked the memory of Major Buttrick at Concord Bridge, of Alexander Hamilton at Valley Forge of Steuben at Yorktown, of Commodore Melancthon Woolsey at Sackets Harbor, the men who left the College in 1861 at the call of Lincoln, to point out as became evident soon after, that something more than a pious prayer or a student “strike” was necessary to halt organized evil. How different in the tone of one of these college preachers, in 1943: “I am glad to be growing old. To be young again in such a world as this… is a state for which I have no envy. I would hate to be 19 today and going to my first war.” It is conceivable that there are Hamilton graduates today who can, and do, preach a more virile doctrine.

Grave and revered seniors! No Hamilton man has ever approached the end of his college days without a haunting feeling of regret that the days of intimate companionship, of fun and frolic, are over. Came Commencement, not a two-day affair as now but a pilgrimage to the old shrine. The senior ball, mirable dictu, made a financial profit. Goodbyes were said. Despite hopeful promise the class would never, in any considerable strength, meet again. Enteuthen Exelaunei!

Far afield they went. England, Puerto Rico, Arabia claimed one each; Four located in the far West, three south of the Mason-Dixon line; and one, in military service, served beyond two oceans. The effect of this wide dispersal was felt at stated reunions. At the 25th anniversary there were 13 present; at the 40th reunion seven men reported; at the 45th, only two — Thorp and Aiken — returned.

Of the 10 men who entered the Christian ministry were honored with the doctorate. Six entered the teaching profession, one of them to become a college Dean. Three chose medicine, one was an editor. Nine followed a business career. Two were in Federal service, one of them in the State Department. At least six were accepted for inclusion in Who’s Who. It may be said of all of them that they were a credit to Hamilton College and played what Senator Root once referred to in the College Chapel “The part of usefulness said, I think also, the part of wisdom.”

For the third time the College had a graduation in the senior legislative branch of the government in the person of Joseph L. France, Senator from Maryland, 1917-23. It is recalled how he opposed unsuccessfully Mr. Hoover for Presidential nomination in 1928 and again in 1932. As he left the platform of the Republican National Committee, the latter year, urged by the Sergeant-at-arms but smiling as he used to place Mr. Coolidge in nomination. The irony of politics is that France’s career broke on the question of recognition of Russia, which he staunchly favored. If alive, he would be smiling today.

Gone are the days when the well-dressed student could wear the billboard dollar and black derby without exciting comment; some well-remembered places of refreshment, where credit was good until the demand came to “pay, settle or be good,” are gone; those toilet conveniences standing behind the dormitories, of fragrant memory, that require the pen of a Ohio Sales to aptly describe. The sonorous four-syllable word, common in oral and written communication, has given way largely to the pungent four-letter word; the ladies’ seminaries, providing occasion and excuse for night-shattering serenades, are history. It is no longer necessary at time arrival at morning chapel to the split-second with the college bell, before the monitor closed his record.

Turn the page and a fairer picture appears: Hamilton facing the future, despite the interruption of war, with confidence. We close the book with a hearty second to the sentiment of the Roman writer: Hoc est vivere bis vita posse priore frui.

A few years back I strolled out on the campus one lovely June morning. Glancing toward the flagstaff I observed the national standard flashing at the peak, but inverted — the blue field at the bottom. Only an error in the hoisting, but a half-century ago it might have been symbolic — the sign of distress. The colors were lowered and run up again, to symbolize the spirit of today — mute challenge to all the world that:

Our castle’s strength
Will laugh a siege to scorn.