Delivered June 2014
Let me begin by thanking Kathy Collett, the College archivist, for opening up her files for me and by thanking the many classmates who answered my call for help and opened up their memories. I suppose I should also thank the Office of the Registrar for honoring my request for a copy of my humiliating academic transcript.
But really, what were they thinking?
And having noticed the section on self-plagiarism in the current Honor Code, I should acknowledge that some of the stories I am about to tell have been told before. I am old and only have so much material.
My memory, totally untrustworthy, is that I drove myself to school for orientation at the beginning of my freshman year here in the late summer of 1960. My brother Ed, a junior and academic star at Hamilton who had spent the summer on campus doing science things, then took the car back to our home in Little Valley, the county seat of Cattaraugus County, in western New York.
As I said, that memory, like most of our recollections of life so long ago may be totally off, but I like it. It suggests I was a self-reliant sort at the beginning of my college career, a “hick from the sticks” who was “cruising for a bruising” he didn’t see coming. Hamilton soon shook away whatever confidence I had in myself, and, as happy as I often was that freshman year in Dunham dorm, I was scared a good deal of the time.
What was I afraid of?
Well, I was afraid of Professor McManus in biology, of Professor Mattingly in Latin. I think I was afraid of the Honor Code. So much trust, so much freedom and so much responsibility. And I was definitely afraid of Coach Don Jones, my J.V. basketball coach. Terrifying, sarcastic, funny, strange. A man whose real job was coaching the football team, he did not seem happy in his assignment.
It’s the last game of the season. I am now the seventh man on a seven-man squad, Coach Jones’ sharp tongue having reduced our numbers. Don Miller hurts his ankle; another player fouls out. There are four Continentals left on the floor. My day has come.
Jones paces the floor, hand on chin, silent, debating whether four players would be better than five if the fifth were me. Time passes. Finally, with a sneer and a shrug and a wave of his arm, he waves me onto the floor, disgusted with himself.
Don Jones was, I realize now, good for me. Like many of my classmates, I had come to Hamilton pretty pleased with myself. I had done well enough in high school. Hamilton had seemed to want me, or at least they had let me in.
Our class numbered 232, the second largest ever to have entered the school.
Size mattered, at least in the tug-of-war against the sophomore class, which we won. Alas, we suffered what The Spectator, always stressing the negative, called “a tradition-breaking defeat in the flag rush.”
Like the classes before us, ours was nearly all white, the only African-American being Tyrone Brown, who would go on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and then serve on the Federal Communications Commission. Politically, our class tilted Democratic, though narrowly. A poll showed that 46 percent of us voted for John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election; 41 percent for Richard Nixon. Each of the three classes above us went for Nixon.
The assassination of John Kennedy in November of our senior year would shake the campus, as it shook the world. It signaled the beginning of the turmoil and questioning that would mark the years to come. But early on in our time at Hamilton, we may have been less committed to political activism.
“This fall I attended a meeting of the Young Democrats,” wrote Robert Rockwell, a junior, in a letter to The Spectator. “The main order of business seemed to be a discussion of all the girls they hoped to meet at a Young Democrat Ball in Utica.” (Aside: I realize in saying it that the “Young Democrat Ball” may sound, well, ambiguous.)
By the end of our first semester, 10 freshmen had withdrawn — Hamilton was not for everyone — and at the end of four years, 184 of us would graduate on time. That gave us a four-year graduation rate of 80 percent, a little worse than today’s 85 percent. Tuition, room and board our freshman year totaled $2,100, that’s $16,270 in today’s dollars, far below the sticker price for a Hamilton education now.
Dean of Admission Sidney Bennett claimed to be proud of lads like me, teachers’ kids from little places who may have been overlooked by Hamilton’s perceived competition, Amherst, Williams and the always-despised Colgate. We represented a kind of geographic diversity, though the mileage was limited. There was John Elliott from Ogdensburg, Jim Hunt from Oneonta, Phil Hornburg from Olean. We got around.
The majority of our class was made up of public school kids, but a significant number had gone to private schools. Before reading Catcher in the Rye, I doubt that I even knew there were private boarding schools.
The prep school escapees in my class — Larry Rowland, David Snell, Alan McCullough, Peter Munson, I could go on — made me fearful, as well. They had already mastered the dress code. They knew about Bass Weejuns, khakis, button-down Oxford cloth shirts, striped ties, Brook Brothers blazers. Beyond that, they already seemed to have a year of college under their belts. Charles Dickens, calculus, been there, done that, which meant they were on a kind of autopilot, or at least seemed to be, for most of freshman year. Many of us, on the other hand, could not even get our planes onto the runway, much less up in the air.
In biology, I sat in the large lecture hall and tried to take notes, which should have been easy, as Professor McManus talked very, very, loud. Indeed, he screamed. I froze. I thanked God when I got a “D” first semester and was allowed to keep my scholarship.
In Latin, Professor Mattingly, a world-class eccentric, barked, often at me. “Mr. Memmott,” he would say, “classify the ablative.”
“Absolute,” I would respond, naming perhaps the first of the 17 or 81 or 1,032 classifications of the ablative. And then I would pause, mute, unassisted by anything I had learned in required Public Speaking. The ablative remained unclassified by me.
Finally, one day, I took one of my allowed absences. Seeing my empty seat, Professor Mattingly took the class into his confidence. “I don’t think Mr. Memmott is trying very hard,” he said. Lloyd Paradiso came to my rescue. “It’s not that Mr. Memmott isn’t trying hard. He really is,” Lloyd told Professor Mattingly. “It’s just that he’s not very smart.”
“Oh,” Professor Mattingly is said to have said, nodding his head and accepting this new explanation of my inability to go beyond the ablative absolute. From then on, Professor Mattingly wrote “C” in his grade book beside my name. My tests — which he didn’t always read, but that’s another story — were Cs. My final grade each semester was C, a perfect Hamilton grade for someone who tried hard but just wasn’t very smart.
I wasn’t all that smart in English either, though I had lucked into English 13-14, a six-days-a-week seminar in which we read the great books and wrote lots of papers. I was in fast company in that course, Jim Hunt, Dave Morris, Peter Christensen, Peter Welter, John Anderson, etc. But the course had a bonus; we all avoided English 11-12. That was the course in which students had to write those grammatically perfect “Yes” themes in order to pass.
“Yes” themes tend to be a theme of these annual exercises. Mostly, the speakers say “Yes” themes were a torture that in the end made them better human beings. That could be the Stockholm syndrome speaking, but let me quote my classmate Dick Hall: “I was young and ill-prepared for the rigorous academic expectations when I arrived at Hamilton and spent most of my time working to survive, especially the first two years,” he wrote to me. “I recall the near panic I experienced when approaching the end of the second semester in freshman English still needing a second ‘Yes’ theme.”
Dick got that yes. He survived.
In English 13-14, I was pretty much convinced that I had knocked my first paper out of the park until I read Professor Crossett’s comment: “Your essay demonstrates all the worst attributes of high school journalism,” he wrote. I got his drift even though I had never practiced journalism in high school.
Lesson learned. Hamilton was hard.
If Hamilton was hard for many of us, it may have been hard for our teachers as well. Professor Thomas Pinney taught the second semester of my English course. He is retired now, having been for years at Pomona College where he established his reputation as a Kipling scholar and an expert on wine. (Yes, he is that Thomas Pinney, the one who wrote A History of Wine in America.)
Hamilton was where he began his teaching career. He was a newbie just like the rest of us. And it would seem that he was in the lifeboat with Dick Hall and me and many of the rest of us. “I can tell you that I have never since worked as hard as I did at Hamilton,” he wrote me. “Every class was a fresh crisis. I somehow managed to survive.”
Professor Pinney continued: “I can say, though, that there was a good spirit among the undergraduates — they were not hostile or indifferent, but were willing to assume that their professors knew something or could show them something.”
I’m not sure Professor Pinney set the bar all that high when he describes us as “not hostile or indifferent.” Picture the bold-letter bumper sticker: CLASS of ’64, NOT HOSTILE OR INDIFFERENT.
But, remember, we were post-war, Eisenhower-era kids, not used to storming the barricades.
In his annalist’s letter last June, Sean Fitzpatrick of the Class of 1963 noted that he and his fellow freshmen were the first residents of Dunham dormitory, the building that would be our class’ place of residence the next year. Sean’s memories of the Dunham are not warm. “It looked like the earth had vomited up a huge stone prison,” he intoned, his classmates from 1963 nodding their heads in agreement.
Gee. I kinda liked the place, the building that united us as a class. We had it in common, just as we had Dean Sidney Wertimer in common — good heavens he knew our names, first, last and nick — just as we had Dean Winton Tolles in common.
Tolles played good cop to Wertimer’s bad, though sometimes it was the other way around. Always smoking, always disheveled, Dean Tolles only set his office on fire once while we were at Hamilton. The alarm went off, the fire department arrived, led by Dean Wertimer. “Don’t worry, Mr. Dean, I’m here,” he yelled, the subordinate officer finally getting to save the general’s life.
The weather? What of the weather? It would seem that it was eternally winter our freshman year in Dunham. “Growing up in South Jersey, I did not experience many big snowfalls,” my classmate Denny Terrell remembered. “In November of our freshman year it snowed almost three feet one night and the next day guys were jumping off the lobby roof into the snow piles.”
Another classmate, Mark Evans, pushed the story forward: “The following day, a note from Wertimer was found posted in the Dunham lobby. As I recall, it stated, in crisp, authoritative prose: ‘Effective immediately, jumping into snow drifts from Dunham dormitory is forbidden without the express written permission of the student’s parents.’”
Horace Underwood cited another occasion later in our college careers when Dean Wertimer had to again create a rule to fit a violation. “It has been noticed that there is some inattention to attire at dinner,” the dean proclaimed. “This is unfortunate; ‘coat and tie’ is a symbol of civilized dining and gentlemanly behavior. ‘Coat and tie,’ it should be pointed out, implies the wearing of a shirt. Trousers are also implied, as is underwear.”
I shared Dunham 122 with Ron Ungerer, a tennis player much better than I from Syracuse. On the other side of the suite were Chuck Olney from Amsterdam and Jack Klett, also from Syracuse. Three of us would graduate on time from Hamilton. Jack would transfer. I wonder if we were to blame. We quickly gave him a dumb nickname. If teachers could be “Swampy” Marsh, “Digger” Graves and “Mumbles” Carson, certainly Jack could be “Rack-a-Dack” Klett.
Woody Walls, who lived next door, suggests that today most of us would be thrown into an anti-bullying program. But, let’s face it. We were works in progress, not as charming, as funny or as cool as we thought we were.
Indeed, the Class of 1964 may look reputable now, salted as it is with bankers and lawyers, judges, CEOs and only one East Coast county executive found guilty of misconduct. But truth in reminiscing requires me to note that some of these exemplars neglected hygiene while they were students here. And they drank too much, traveled in packs, joined secret societies, sang sweet songs.
Speaking of songs, Jeff Ginman, tall, duck-tailed, Bronx born, was with us our freshman year. “In the evening, on warm nights, Jeff and his cohorts would serenade Dunham, gliding through do-wop tunes,” I once wrote. “The simple wonderful lyrics would float through the dorm, pushed along by Jeff’s Bronx bass as he did the echoes, the repeated ‘each step’ in ‘To the Aisle,’ the steady ‘I remember’ from ‘In the Still of the Night.’”
It may not have been a coincidence that Dean Tolles instituted his Underachiever Program a month after my class had arrived. The goal of the program was to smoke out the slackers, those students “who, without getting into real academic difficulty, should be doing much better work than (they are).” These ne’er-do-wells were, in the administration’s opinion, “A source of annoyance to the instructor and a misuse of space at the College.”
If the underachievers didn’t straighten out, they were sent home, perhaps never to return. Not surprisingly, they became heroes to the rest of us. Peter Christensen, already a celebrity for his pig calls and for the fact that he was the first member of our class to acquire the gout, was tapped for the program. What greater honor, indeed.
For me and for many of my classmates, things got better as we moved into our sophomore year and began to decide what it was we could do and what we couldn’t do. Our teachers, having broken us down in the freshman year, began to build us up. I know that as the fear began to ease, my enjoyment of college increased, though, God forbid, that I or anyone else let it show. We had been mentored by the upperclassmen to be cool, to be self-contained, even to be cynical.
I sat in this beautiful chapel 50 years ago, a member of a graduation panel asked to consider whether our time at Hamilton amounted to the best four years of our lives. My answer had to be a snarky “no,” as we had spent all of those four years piling up proof of the fact that these were the worst four years of our lives.
I am always happily surprised when current students say they like it here. For most of us, Hamilton had to be, at best, a secret crush. To say we liked the place was to lose quad cred. Our heroes from the upper classes, such as John Nichols, the future novelist who spent time in Spain on summer break learning to bullfight, were guys who wore their learning lightly, who never seemed to sweat.
In the first column I wrote for The Spectator at the end of our junior year, I celebrated Jon Sheeser, who was a year ahead of us, not for his accomplishments in the classroom or on the golf course but for his brief, romantic flight from college. “Jon Sheeser, a member of the senior class and Phi Beta Kappa, was watching a movie in Chemistry 10 and the following evening he was in Paris,” I wrote.
“His sudden trip to France was unreasonable, expensive, foolish and upsetting. It was the kind of thing everyone dreams of doing.”
“It almost seemed as if he were going to stay,” I continued. “Thoughtful friends gave his belongs to the needy. The Spectator’s hard-nosed golf reporter called an end to his athletic career. But Sheeser came back, and it really doesn’t matter that he did; the great thing is that he broke out, that he went.”
He went, of course, to see a woman. A woman? Oh dear. Plans for what would become Kirkland College were announced our senior year, but I don’t remember much interest on the part of our class. At an earlier point The Spectator did invite professors (all men, of course) to debate the question of whether women — alas, they kept saying “girls” — should be admitted to Hamilton. They all agreed that girls were smarter than boys, better students and probably better people. But it’s risky to educate them, one professor suggested. If you don’t do it right they might be dissatisfied in their lives as homemakers. (Heaven only knows what was going on in his house.)
A debate over compulsory chapel — should it stay, should it go? — did dominate our senior year. Future lawyer Jim Hunt of our class was a member of the Student Senate and worked with the freshman representatives to adopt a resolution calling for the abolition of required chapel. “Compulsory chapel certainly needed some shaking up,” he recalled, though he’s not convinced that the eventual ending of the requirement, something that didn’t happen during our time at the College, was entirely for the good. I, and most of the Catholic students on campus, didn’t really have a dog in that fight. Our attendance at Sunday Mass in Clinton — a Vatican requirement — fulfilled the chapel requirement; the Pope trumped Winton Tolles.
Hamilton, perhaps a little like Don Jones waving us into the game, sent us off in June 1964 to a world we weren’t quite prepared for, a world that would take us by surprise as it changed at warp speed. In light of those changes, our time at Hamilton seems strange, anachronistic. Who outside of a prison official would ever create a school for 800 or so boys in transition to become men?
Jack Zulack of our class, the breakout star of the Charlatans’ production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle who went on to become a lawyer, remembers his days here as limiting and painful, given the all-male environment and other factors. And he finds the Hamilton of today “much more enriching and just than the Hamilton environment” we knew 50 years ago. I agree with him, but, nonetheless, the College I knew holds a place in my heart. I think of the faculty, formal and quirky, but kind and patience as well.
On a dark and foggy night I was walking from Dunham to the gym. I saw a hooded figure on horseback coming toward me out of the gloom. It was not, as I feared, death. No, it was Professor Emeritus Robert Barnes “Bobo” Rudd, out for a ride. As he was almost upon me, a dog came out of nowhere and crossed the horse’s path. Professor Rudd reined in his steed, and then looked down at me.
“Don’t ever tell a dog to go f… itself,” he croaked. And then he added, with emphasis, “BECAUSE IT WON’T.” For better or for worse, Professor Rudd’s words of wisdom are the only bit of advice I remember from my four years at Hamilton. That’s it.
In the still of the night and the light of day, I also think of the friends I made here. Some of them, too many of them, are gone. Cam Meyers, Kit Miner before we graduated; afterward Don Sweeney, Steve Johnson, well, this list could go on. I cheer myself up by thinking of my classmates who remain. They continue to be themselves, cynical, funny, generous.
We gather now to raise a glass to ourselves and to this lovely college on a hill. Our time here was hard and strange, but it somehow worked. Not hostile or indifferent, we survived. Thank you professors. Thank you classmates. Thank you Hamilton.
An English major at Hamilton, Jim Memmott went on to receive a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota. He taught English and American literature for nine years at St. Lawrence University before leaving and becoming a reporter at the Times-Union in Rochester, N.Y. He later served as executive city editor and then managing editor of the Times-Union before becoming managing editor and then a senior editor of the Democrat and Chronicle, also in Rochester. He has also been a columnist at the Democrat and Chronicle for 20 years, continuing in that capacity since his retirement in 2007. He has taught journalism at the University of Rochester since 1995. A native of Little Valley in western New York, he lives in Geneseo, N.Y., with his wife, Cindy, and has two sons, one stepdaughter and five grandchildren.