Class and Charter Day 1996

Women on the Hill -- Veni, Vidi, Vici

by Eleanor Wertimer

If you are surprised to see ME here, it's nothing to how surprised I am to be here. Still, as we have reason to know, Gene Tobin is a gutsy guy. My assignment today is analogous to an invitation I received a few years ago to deliver the homily at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Clinton. Having been born into a church where laity were expected to be seen regularly in church on Sunday but NEVER heard, and where females (unless you were the Virgin Mary) were regarded as a lesser breed, I found that assignment mind-boggling.

Thinking back to the fall of 1952 on the Wertimers coming to Hamilton College, that male bastion on the hill (600 male students, 60 male faculty members, six male administrators), where faculty wives were rarely expected to be seen at all and never expected to be heard, one marvels at the courage of the man and the foolhardiness of the woman. I find this assignment mind-boggling!

Since the inception of the Class & Charter Day speech in 1950 by President Robert Ward McEwen, it has been delivered by 43 men (Dave Ellis and Dick Couper gave two) and by five intrepid and yes, formidable, women: Sylvia Saunders in 1974, Elizabeth McCormack in 1979, Julia Dietz in 1980, Marjorie McEwen in 1983 and Barbara Gold in 1993. The quality of the five almost compensates for the lack of quantity in the selection process. I trust I will not let down the side.

Sidney was hired by trans-Atlantic telephone to be an assistant professor of economics at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, beginning in the fall of 1952. Neither of us had ever been there. We were in London, England, where he was studying at the London School of Economics to get his Ph.D., a requisite for teaching at a good college. He had submitted job applications to several prestigious liberal arts colleges in the eastern part of the U.S., where the emphasis was on teaching undergraduates, which was where Sidney's talent and interest lay. From what we could discern, Hamilton seemed tailor-made for him.

We arrived on the Hill in September 1952 with our two redheads, Peter, age 3 years, and Sheila, age 3 months. The College, which provided faculty housing, had just renovated the Root farmhouse for three families. We had been allotted the second floor apartment. The first floor flat was to be inhabited by Channing Richardson, his wife Comfort, and their two daughters, Meg, 2 1/2, and Ann, 6 months. Channing, a product of Columbia graduate school and a protégée of Hamilton's famous alumnus Phillip Jessup, had been hired by the government department to teach international relations. The duplex had been assigned to Walter Pilkington, the new college librarian, his wife, Betty, and their 10-year-old daughter, Maud. The Root farmhouse had just provided six new Democrats to a College community that was about 75 percent Republican on our arrival.

We beat the Richardsons to the Hill, which permitted us to spec out their pad below ours. We liked the furniture and the wallpaper, which made us hopeful about the owners. They drove in that afternoon in their brand new Plymouth station wagon, decreed by Consumer Reports to be the best buy in wagons for that year. We soon learned that next to the good book itself, the Richardson bibles were Consumer Reports and the Montgomery Ward (always pronounced Monkey Ward) catalogue.

It was a case of love at first sight, on our part at least. Thus began a friendship that has united our two families from that moment to now and, Deo volente, well beyond. We learned from each other. We introduced them to the pleasures of social drinking, what our dear friend, Lee Bristol, used to refer to as "the attitude-adjustment hour." They showed us the power of Quaker silence. I rather suspect that we were more successful with them than they were with us.

We lived happily together in the Root farmhouse until David and Stephen, born just two days apart in 1955, were 2-years-old, when we moved up the hill and lived side-by-side in two houses we each built under the College scheme to solve the faculty housing problem, thus causing Chan to remark, "We used to hear everything; now we can see everything."

From the start we babysat for each other and never kept track. The kids were interchangeable. I remember once Channing asked Comf, "Why is the Wertimers' house always neater than ours?" Whereupon she countered, with some understandable acerbity, "Probably because the Wertimers' kids are always down here."

Three years after we moved into our houses, Comfort and I produced Eric and Tom in 1960, just two months apart. Pat Tolles, the wife of the legendary Dean Tolles (Pat was pretty legendary in her own right), called me to ask "Do you and Comfort decide these things, or is it Sid and Chan?" A small college is a dangerous place.

The Hamilton we came to in 1952 was an excellent college. The faculty was extremely well credentialed, most teachers had Ph.D.s, the majority of them from Ivy League universities with the largest number from Columbia. The emphasis was on good teaching, although even then there were a number of scholar-teachers among the ranks. Classes were small, even intimate, and there was a good deal of interaction between faculty and students on many levels, both educational and social.

The college maintained a low profile and most of the old guard seemed to prefer it that way. The administration favored a do-it-yourself approach to running the college. It was minuscule by today's standards: public relations was non-existent. (Things remained this way until Joe Anderson took over at C&D in 1974, when all hell broke loose and the budget burgeoned).

The College appeared to thrive because of its good reputation among eastern secondary schools and the loyalty of its alumni who courted able candidates on its behalf. Most of the students came from the eastern states, with about 60 percent from New York. Some of the best were christened "Cherry Valley nuggets" by someone in the admission office. These golden boys were the valedictorians and the salutatorians from nearby rural high schools.

The College was very strong in the humanities and physical sciences. (Hamilton had a reputation for its pre-med program and its success in getting graduates into medical schools.) Social sciences had come late to the Hill, and President McEwen was assiduously augmenting those disciplines both quantitatively and qualitatively. The College was noted for its four-year public speaking requirement for all students. The arts were given short shift.

College Hill was a great spot for families and a good place to raise children. (Bachelor faculty members did not fare so well and usually did not remain here very long.) All of the College's cultural and athletic facilities were available to us. My brother once remarked, "You and your children have everything here that we have to join a country club to find." One of the favorite ways for faculty wives with young children to entertain the kids and to visit with each other in our early days on the Hill was to attend the practices of the various athletic teams in addition, of course, to attending the games and supporting the teams. Faculty kids and dogs were given the run of the Hill.

We frequently entertained students in our homes and went often to the fraternities -- which encompassed over 85 percent of the student body -- for dinner or to parties. The Dekes hosted a Halloween party and the Sigs a Christmas party annually for faculty children. The Alpha Delts produced a play in which the members satirized the Hill scene, including taking some pot shots at the faculty and administration. Faculty wives were not spared. I can remember being the object of well-aimed barbs. I can tell you that the chairman of the Board of Trustees appeared in a couple of these productions. I have to say, for his sake and ours, I am glad he decided to go into investment banking.

Many of us played tennis, squash and bridge with students. Several of us hired them as babysitters, partly because they were in such demand by our kids. As Sidney and I have gone out on the alumni circuit for the College, it has amused me to note the incredulity of a Hamilton wife when informed that her husband was one of our favorite babysitters as a student at the College. It obviously had not been a carryover sport.

A command activity for faculty wives was membership in the Faculty Wives Club. In reality it was a service organization for the College and took on any assignments that the president's wife asked it to do. When we first came to the College, I had the temerity to ask "Bobo" Rudd, an alumnus of Hamilton Class of 1909 and a member of the English department, his opinion of President McEwen. He waited a moment and replied, "We have always been very fortunate in our presidents' wives." He was right; we have. As my mother once said of her six children's spouses, "There wasn't a lemon in the bunch."

Faculty wives cheerfully provided refreshments for most of the College functions (Pat Tolles threatened to write a book titled Cookies for the President's Tea). We supplied and arranged tons of flowers, poured gallons of tea, corrected freshman placement exams, welcomed and indoctrinated newcomers to the Hill, visited and ministered to the sick. Faculty wives assumed the female roles in the Charlatan plays. Cynthia Ellis, one of the faculty club members, made wonderful costumes for several of their productions. When the Minor Theater came into being, the faculty wives sponsored three fund-raising events to help pay for its furnishings. In addition to providing tea and sympathy for students, we often supplied beds for students' dates. Some of us even had the courage to act as chaperons at house parties. Some of us have scars to prove it.

After we had been here for about four years, Sidney was appointed associate dean of the College. His duties were relatively comparable to those that Jan Coates performs so ably today. He was known as the mean dean, the one you went to if the answer was "no." Win Tolles was the dean who said "yes." In the third grade at the time, our son, Stephen, wrote the following description of his father's new job: "My father is a nice black-haired man. He is associate dean at Hamilton College. He teaches many students there. The associate dean means he keeps the students out of trouble." I think that Jan would probably settle for that. After Sidney assumed this post, even though he still taught half-time, his role changed vis-a-vis both the faculty and the student body. By and large, faculty take a dim view of administration, and hence those who sell out by joining it.

As for the students, he was now the campus heavy. He did work closely with student leaders on many campus projects and, with them, instituted an era of total opportunity rushing for fraternity membership. As you might imagine, this move generated a good deal of angst among the brethren. In fact, it was my observation that the role of fraternities was the only issue on campus that could seriously undermine the "Hamilton Cool." Sound familiar? Deja vu all over again.

Toward the end of Sidney's stint as associate dean, he was waited on by one of the College trustees who remonstrated with him concerning the appearance, the manners and the morals, or perceived lack thereof, of the current student body. The trustee's remedy -- the addition of women to the Hill as a civilizing influence.

At about the same time, President McEwen was also seriously pondering the future of Hamilton and was reaching the conclusion that the cluster concept, as personified by the Claremont Colleges in California, spoke to the condition of this men's college. Hamilton had 800 men and didn't want to get bigger, but had a plethora of land available and needed to do something to assure its future in a volatile time for higher education. On March 5, 1965, after a unanimous vote by the Board of Trustees, Hamilton applied for a charter to found a coordinating college for women on College Hill. Despite President McEwen's dream of several colleges here, it was the feeling of most in the know that the women's college would be "Cluster's Last Stand."

The Hamilton Faculty had also voted unanimously for the founding, many with the expectation that it would be in its image and likeness and would complement the curriculum of Hamilton, not duplicate it. Some even dubbed it "Hamilton's Rib." WRONG!

The trustees of Hamilton had deeded to Kirkland 70 acres of land across the road from the men's college and authorized an interest-free loan of one million dollars. Except for being able to appoint three members to the Kirkland Board, neither the trustees nor the faculty of Hamilton had anything to do with the planning of Kirkland.

The game plan for Kirkland evolved from the discussions which took place within the McIntosh Committee. Headed by Millicent McIntosh, retired President of Barnard College, it was an independent committee of outside experts selected to advise the College, and subsequently with the individuals who were chosen to head the new institution. From the beginning, Kirkland marched to its own bagpiper with little regard for the wishes of its Hamilton brother.

Inez Nelback was hired as dean before Samuel Fisher Babbitt was recruited in February 1966 to be its first president. Nell, a bright, warm, sensitive woman was a graduate of Barnard who came to Kirkland from Vassar, where she had been dean of studies. She accepted the job because she was intrigued with the opportunity to help establish a brand-new college. She felt a man should be president. Sam Babbitt, the assistant dean of Yale Graduate School, had charisma in spades. Young, self-assured, handsome, articulate and witty, he snowed everyone he met. (He certainly snowed me.) He expressed his reaction to his appointment as follows: "A once in a lifetime chance. I will not be weighed down by precedent or tied to an educational philosophy other than quality. That's hard to beat. We seek the best of both worlds."

The College was to open in September 1968. The president and the dean had a year-and-a-half to formulate plans, recruit faculty and staff, and attract students to what was to be the first women's college to be founded since 1926. Sam and Nell made a good team. They liked and respected one another. They believed profoundly in what they were pledged to do, to craft a women's college that would make a difference. They worked well together and enjoyed what they were doing.

Kirkland was to grow in four years to a college of 600. It needed 150 students for its first class. It was to be national in scope, with students recruited from across the country. The organization was to be based on divisions, not departments. For the first two years, students would be required to take core courses in each one of the four divisions: humanities, science, social studies and arts. Classes were to be no larger than 20 students. The women would be permitted to take elective courses at Hamilton. Hamilton students could enroll in Kirkland classes providing they had not reached the 20-student limit. Kirkland faculty would be expected to give written evaluations in place of grades.

The founders saw Kirkland as a great opportunity for students and faculty to start their own institution. They were committed to the idea that jointly these two groups would be encouraged to make policy within limits set by the president and trustees. The concept underlying the establishment of Kirkland was community. It was agreed that the institution would be governed from the start by an assembly to be composed of every member of the College community: administration, faculty, students, support staff. Each member was to have the right to participate equally in the governance of the College, permitted to speak to and vote on every issue that came before the assembly. Accordingly, Sam decreed that there were to be no rules or regulations promulgated for the College until the assembly met after the convocation. Once, when Sidney was head of the committee on academic policy, he told Sam, "We may be buried in a mountain of paper, but you will go down in a torrent of words."

The key to the success of Kirkland hinged on being able to attract students and faculty who would buy into creating a college. In a sense, the very nature of the College assured that this would happen. Obviously only adventurous, imaginative, self-confident young women, not hung up on grades or obsessed with graduate school, would sign on to a college that could not even be accredited until it graduated a student generation. Other adjectives used to describe those 10 early classes were bright, highly motivated, mature, creative, innovative. From my own observation, all of them were true. Furthermore, everyone who taught these women from both sides of the Hill said that they were the ablest, most motivated students they had ever encountered.

The faculty members, too, deserve great credit. Except for the division heads, they tended to be young, two-thirds of them just out of graduate school. For most of them, this was their first academic post. Many of them would live in the dorms with the students and would take on the role of mentor, advisor and confessor, in addition to that of teacher. This was important because Kirkland was not only non-denominational as it purported to be, it was non-God bothering. At Kirkland functions, the deity was never invoked, not even to pray "to whom it may concern." Despite its secular persona, at one point Father Paul Drobin, everyone's favorite Catholic and the Newman chaplain at Hamilton, lived as a dorm advisor in one of the Kirkland facilities. During that period, several Kirkland women attended his masses on the Hill. Incidentally, no fewer than 10 graduates of those early classes became clergy persons after graduation.

If the word for Sam was charisma, the word for Kirkland was panache; all of its functions from beginning to end reflected it. Kirkland opened as scheduled in September 1968. The incipient campus was a sea of mud with the three dormitories barely finished and McEwen under construction until spring. Since it was to contain the dining facilities and classrooms, Kirkland would have to depend on the kindness of its male counterpart for several months. Making the best of the inevitable, as was his wont, Sam presented a green hard hat to each of the entering women. They wore them proudly

Everybody on both sides of the Hill was swept up in the festivities surrounding the opening. It began with a convocation in the Hamilton Chapel where Millicent Mcintosh, then chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, spoke. The theme was that Kirkland College was committed to giving the students major responsibility for their own education. The College consisted of 171 students, 22 faculty members and four administrators. From day one they were tight. Afterward, everyone present fell in line behind the bagpiper and marched, balloons in hand, to eat lunch and dedicate the three existent dorms, Major, Minor and McIntosh. All were welcome, faculty and staff from both sides, faculty wives, children and dogs, friends from the Clinton and the greater Utica community. And when it grew dark there were fireworks. It was a blast!

Meanwhile, after a luncheon, the Kirkland community assembled to establish parietal rules for the students to live by. The decision: there would be none. Males could be guests in the dorms at all hours of the day and night. So much for the idea that women on the Hill would have a good influence on the morals of Hamilton students. So much for parietal rules at Hamilton.

Thus Kirkland began on the Hill with great promise for the future. And so it continued for several years attracting able students and remaining financially viable. With some notable exceptions little effort was made by either faculty to engage the other. The Hamilton faculty's view of their Kirkland counterparts was pretty much like the British reaction to the American G.I.s in England in World War II: "They are overpaid, oversexed and over here." (Kirkland's salary schedule was slightly higher because it did not provide subsidized housing for faculty as Hamilton did.)

My observation is that the students also, with some notable exceptions, got along much better. In the fall there was a debate held between the two colleges. Proposition: "Women should be kept barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen." It was attended by a large number of enthusiastic students from both sides. The two women speaking against the proposition won handily. Women infiltrated the choir and The Spectator early on, and by 1972 a woman was editor. When the College was planned, there apparently was no expectation that the women would be interested in any kind of sports activity, either individual or team. Once again the Kirkland ingenuity came to the fore. The women organized their own teams, negotiated with Hamilton for the use of sports facilities and secured the services of Comfort Richardson as the coordinator of sports at Kirkland. What a good move that was.

Kirkland's influence made Hamilton males more socially responsible as was borne out by the mature, responsible response to the Vietnam War years, and to the needs of the less fortunate in the greater Clinton community, eventually giving rise to HAVOC, which has reflected so favorably on the way the College is viewed by the outside world today.

Hamilton after the advent of Kirkland became less of a weekend college. Women began to be perceived by many men as friends and not just as girlfriend fodder. Eighty-five percent of Hamilton men belonged to fraternities in 1968. This figure dropped to 70 percent in 1969 and 50 percent in 1970 and eventually to 40 percent where it now stands. The most dramatic statistic to support my contention that the students on both sides adjusted to coordination is the fact that 123 Kirkland women married Hamilton College men.

One-hundred-sixteen members of the Class of 1968 graduated in May 1972. What a production. No one who experienced them will forget the Kirkland graduations held in a huge tent, full of balloons, the women attired not in cap and gown but as they wanted to be remembered, in whatever they felt represented them, the open mike where graduates could express satisfaction or more likely dissatisfaction with anyone or anything, the ubiquitous bagpipes, the expressions of affection for Sam. To my knowledge it never rained on Kirkland's parade and everybody came.

Early in 1973 the Middle States granted full accreditation to Kirkland, shortly after its first class graduated, a real tribute to the quality of the institution. Coincidently, Hamilton adopted a long overdue policy of hiring women to its faculty.

In the spring of 1977, Kirkland acknowledged that it needed financial help. It wasn't that Sam had not raised money over the years. He had raised $14 million, but it all was needed to run Kirkland. There was yet no endowment to see them through a shortfall. Kirkland asked Hamilton for a $3-million gift plus a guarantee of financial security for five years while Kirkland pursued a 10-year capital campaign to raise $20 million (which had already been launched in the fall of 1976). Hamilton, for reasons it deemed sufficient, said "No."

The only recourse, according to Kirkland, was consolidation, and, according to Hamilton, was merger. Hamilton, which called the shots, agreed to accept Kirkland students and to hire non-tenured Kirkland faculty on two- or four-year contracts. The sticking point was the tenured Kirkland faculty. After some movement in the direction of granting tenure, the president and the dean of Hamilton ultimately refused to grant tenure to any tenured Kirkland faculty, saying they, too, would have to accept four-year contracts and go through Hamilton's tenure procedure.

I felt Hamilton was wrong then and I still do. This action caused enormous and understandable hard feelings at the time which has resonated into the present. Kirkland was a success if only for the salubrious effect it had on Hamilton. I think even Kirkland's detractors would admit that Hamilton is a much better college today because of the influence of Kirkland.

Although Kirkland faculty members were not granted tenure at Hamilton, a good many remained and subsequently gained tenure here. The truth is that many of these men and women have become players and have had considerable influence on what happens here. Once the dust had settled, a Hamilton old-timer was heard to say, "They got the college. They left us the name." I believe that the merged college encompasses the best of both institutions, an amalgamation of Hamilton's rib and Kirkland's backbone.

We should all take pride in the legacy of the Kirkland Wonder Women. To bring her close to home, her prototype for me is Jennifer Potter Hayes, the daughter of a Hamilton faculty member and a graduate of the Class of 1973 at Kirkland. A product of the arts division, Jennie took the job of assistant to the president at Hamilton, went on to become the registrar of the College and has just been made director of alumni affairs. Along the way, she has served on or headed a multiplicity of crucial committees which have benefited from her sense of humor and bags of common sense.  Jennie possesses that unbeatable combination, a hard head and a warm heart, which seems to me to be the hallmark of the Kirkland woman and her legacy to the Hamilton of today.

I am sure, considering the speaker, you didn't expect to escape without a word of admonition -- so here goes. When Dean-Professor Dwight Lindley was an undergraduate at Hamilton, Class of 1942, he made one of his many notable astute pronouncements remarking that Smith was the best large college and Hamilton the best small college in the country. He was right-on then, and he still is. You are fortunate to be here among a talented faculty and an enlightened administration at a College which knows you as a person and cares about you. So even if you are a disappointed Yale or a Williams reject, consider yourself blessed. You are better off here.

I have known six presidents at Hamilton, all good men who did well by the College. It is my considered judgment that President Tobin will be the best of the lot. Our president, as we all have cause to know, is a good listener. He has made himself readily available to the College community, especially to the student body, and has encouraged you to share your views with him. He's heard what you said, and he knows what you mean. Now he needs to move on. He has articulated a vision and suggested a game plan to take your college into the 21st century. He needs you all. So get off the bench and join him; the College you serve will be your own.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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