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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1915 Letter

Wallace B. Johnson

Delivered: June 1965

If any of you are like me, you can’t help but watch the slowly diminishing pages of script when a speaker reads his speech. For 40 years it was my duty, as secretary of the Society of Alumni of this College, to beseech the half-century annalist to “keep it short.” Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not, and sometimes I fear I irritated the speaker by my request. I promise you that there are 17 pages, triple spaced, before me, and that I shall leave this platform 21 minutes from now.

I think I have heard all of the half-century annalist’s letters for the past 40 years and have recently reread many of them. I have a very difficult task in following them — many professional writers – Clinton Scollard, whose paper was entirely in verse; Samuel Hopkins Adams; Paul Williams, newspaper editor; and last year, Carl Carmer. I am inclined to agree with a feeling expressed by Paul Williams that he saw no real purpose in such letters, and that Hamilton was the only college he knew of that had one. But they started at the time of the Civil War, when the first classes to graduate were holding their half-century reunions and have continued for a hundred years. So, being in favor of tradition — some tradition — here is another one!

Many of the annalists in their letters have gone into some detail about the advance in civilization that has gone on since their graduation. I am not going to undertake The History of Our Times. Personally, while I am sure that great advances have been made since 1915, not all of them seem to me to be of the utmost importance. For instance, I do not expect to live on the moon, and I don’t care particularly what the back side of Venus looks like.

I worked for the College for 40 years, and perhaps I was in the woods too long to see the trees. I grew up along with them. But I shall try to take a look at the woods as I entered them and again as I left them. Sitting with my classmates at dinner tonight we shall undoubtedly have a “do you remember” session, and since it has been intimated that the title of this letter was to be “Reminiscences of Life on the Hill during the last years of the Stryker Period,” we’ll add a “What do you suppose Prex would have done?” chapter. To those of you who are younger — some of you much younger — than the Class of 1915, I thank you for devoting 21 minutes of this busy afternoon coming to hear me.

Many former annalists in their letters have asked their classmates to “remember the time we put the cow in the Chapel, or the hen in the pipe organ, or the privy on the president’s porch.” I make no such requests, since I can’t recall that we ever did such things. Perhaps we were too unimaginative or too well-behaved. Other annalists have bent their knees to “the sainted professors” of their time. I think we had as worthy a lot as any time in the history of the College, and that we always remember them with affection. May they rest in peace.

So — classmates — do you remember when we entered Hamilton in the fall of 1911 we numbered 57 and that 27 of us – not all from the original 57 – were graduated 50 years ago? Tomorrow 181 seniors will be graduated in the Class of 1965, which entered with 227 men. What would Prex Stryker have said about that — he having proclaimed that he would send home the 201st in College? Do you remember that during the years we were here the tuition was $90 a year and that Dr. Stryker said that anyone who spent over $700 a year at college was being extravagant? Do you remember that Dr. Stryker served this College as president, and did it without an office, without a secretary, a telephone, a typewriter, and I am not sure that he owned a piece of carbon paper. What would he have done with two vice presidents? He, alone and without benefit of committees, did all that was done in the line of recruiting and admitting new men to Hamilton and arranged scholarships and such things. Do you remember that he preached in Chapel every Sunday afternoon, and conducted Chapel six weekday mornings every week and directed the College choir — such as it was? He edited the College Catalogue and other official College publications. He taught three courses — one for the freshmen in a multilingual version of the Book of James the Just from the Bible; one for the sophomores in Robert’s Rules of Order or parliamentary law; for the seniors (he skipped the juniors) a course in ethics and Christian evidences. The catalogue of the period describes this “the religious argument from the Natural Creation, and with Christ’s portrayal in Holy Scripture and His revelation in history as the Divine Redeemer of the world.” I’m afraid I didn’t get this idea of the content, for I thought his course in the second term of senior year was about the Wives of Henry VIII, their order, how they met their death; and about how many steps there are leading to the Chapel entrance; and who started the Chicago fire. I am not making this up as my classmates will aver — he did not teach us these things, but he expected us to know the answers when he asked the questions. I suspect that he wanted us to be “well-rounded men” — which was a later president’s goal — and that he wanted to see how we could squirm out of a difficulty.

Dr. Stryker edited at least two editions of the College Hymn Book and wrote many of the hymns — including Carissima. He served as associate architect on all the buildings constructed during his administration and they numbered, I think, nine. They are all standing — some more or less altered. We have recently passed through a second Stone Age — the Edward D. Stone Age, that is.

Do you remember the day the Lusitania was sunk by the Germans in World War I? It happened that same morning that the janitors at the College had gone on strike, which the students knew. We did not know about the Lusitania at Chapel time, but Prex did. We were somewhat bewildered when he refused to let the Choir into the choir stalls, ordered the organist not to play any music, and said that the flag would not be flown on the College flagpole until this wrong had been righted. We thought this a little extreme for a janitors’ strike but we learned later that he was talking about the Lusitania and the death therein of many neutral and innocent people.

Do you remember that at the Commencement in 1912, Dr. Stryker proposed to exclude the parents of seniors in order to make more room for alumni and other guests? The seniors resented this vocally and the trustees refused to accept the suggestion. The question was settled by holding the Commencement outdoors. The weather was good so this turned out well. But do you remember that at this Commencement Governor Dix was the speaker? Probably like most busy men, many of his speeches were written by a speechwriter. Unfortunately Governor Dix picked up the wrong speech – one that was intended to be delivered at an insurance adjusters’ convention. He discovered it in time to make a few remarks suitable to the occasion. Do you remember that the honor court was established in our day and perhaps some of you — the less young among you — will be surprised to know it still functions now as it did at its inception?

Do you remember that at our Commencement in 1915 Prex handed out the A.B. diplomas in person to the recipients; but when he came to the Ph.D.s he tossed the bundle, done up in a rubberband, in the general direction of the recipients and let us sort them out as best we might? This may have been his way — on the spur of the moment — of displaying preference for the A.B. boys who had taken Greek. We all had 5 1/2 years of Latin — which made the only difference.

Our class saw the last of some unpleasant and unnecessary foolishness — gym shows, paint nights, trots. Even the words that we used in our days would mean nothing to the current generation: gym shows were not Charlatans’ performances held in the gymnasium, but a rather painful and embarrassing treatment of a lone freshman or sophomore who might have fallen into the hands of the opposite class. Paint night was not an evening spent in the Root Art Center, but was the night before College opened when the freshmen and sophomores painted almost anything especially the bodies of any member of the opposite class they could catch with generous dabs of red or green paint — depending on who was doing the painting — the freshmen were painted green. The suitcase row had nothing to do with a dispute over traveling bags, but it had to do with acquiring the suitcases of freshmen or sophomores just before Christmas and pasting disparaging posters on them.

A shout of “road” on a winter night had no reference to the road but to the sidewalk, to warn pedestrians of the approach of a sled charging down the Hill — on the sidewalk. Trots had nothing to do with Vernon Downs Racetrack, which is seven miles east of here, but were illicit translations used as aids in foreign languages. They were done away with during our sophomore year following a big bonfire of such material — and won the nickname of “Trots” for Professor Chase, the then new Latin professor who prevailed upon us to give them up. Set-ups were not callisthenic exercises but a “treat” — such as a chocolate sundae or a piece of pie — bought at the west end of the Hall of Commons which was the ancient version of the Pub — for a friend of friends, usually in recognition of some favor they had done us.

Do you remember when the Hamilton football team played Columbia, Colgate and Syracuse? I do remember attending a Syracuse-Hamilton game when Syracuse won by a score of 81 to 0.

Do you remember when we came up the Hill from the end of the trolley line in Mrs. Robinson’s or Mr. Welch’s hacks, and when the freshmen used to ride around on the box with the driver of these same hacks to collect the faculty wives who were to be chaperones at Junior Prom or some other dance? Chuck Hudson and I had the first two student cars at Hamilton. Chuck rented his from George Tunbridge, mine was a Model T Ford, with a bulb horn, acetylene gas lights and no self-starter. At the College dinner after our acquisition of these monsters, Chuck and I were roundly criticized by my lifelong friend who sits in front of me now — Fritz Lee — who thought we were putting on too many airs with our cars.

Do you remember when everybody said “hello” to everyone he met on the campus? Of course we knew everyone we met.

Do you remember when our musical clubs as well as the Charlatans went on tour to such places as Astabula and Warren, Ohio; Leroy, New York; Clinton and Utica, and New York City, every man wearing a full dress suit, white tie, white kid gloves and a few with silk hats? “Shorty” Evans, a New Haven tailor, used to come up every month to sell $75 suits to some of the less than 200 boys on the campus — and Frank Brothers sold $18 shoes often enough to come back to sell more. But we were not always things of beauty as a glance at some old photographs will convince you. Remember the high leather boots we wore all winter to keep the snow out of our trouser-legs as we slid down the Hill? And the mackinaws? Of course we looked pretty fine in the spring in our blazers. We didn’t boast of any Beatle hairdos but we might occasionally — but rarely — let a beard get a short start. The juniors and seniors were permitted to and sometimes did carry canes and had their class hats.

When I was on the staff of the College, I was several times asked by members of the public speaking department to be present at a panel discussion, to be asked about the “earlier days of the College.” I sometimes got the feeling that the current crop of boys were rather sorry for us and felt we did not have the opportunities for fun that they have. I earnestly urged them not to waste their sympathy — I felt rather sorry for them. To be sure, we did not have the joys of skateboards, nor Frisbees, nor in fact automobiles on the scale that they now exist. But we enjoyed lots of things we found around us — not the least of these being “sliding the Hill” in winter. That was not only fun, but it got us where we were going or part way. We could go to Utica almost any evening on the trolley to see such stage stars as Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Russell, Anna Held, John Drew, Raymond Hitchcock and scores of others at the Majestic Theatre. (I read part of this paper to one of the seniors a day or so ago and asked him if he had ever heard of these people — he hadn’t.) Or we could go to the Shubert Theatre any afternoon or evening to vaudeville — a great institution to those who liked it — and who didn’t? Or we could even sneak over to the Lumberg to burlesque.

We enjoyed each others’ company — at College dinners about once a month when the whole College body ate dinner together in Commons, and to attend to College and class matters — elections and such. There were class dinners, too, sometimes involving a little trickery in the case of the freshmen or the sophomores, who tried to prevent the other class from holding the dinner — or at least to cut down on the attendance by a mild form of kidnapping.

To show you what a delightful time we had in College, I quote from an issue of Hamilton Life, precursor of The Spectator, in 1915: “A pleasant surprise was afforded at the President’s party last week as faculty and seniors heard Mrs. Gilbert of Utica read a paper on Florida. At no time in their college course have the seniors mingled so enjoyably with the professors and their wives.” Now, really, what more could one ask?

In leaving the woods, I find many changes around the College as well as some things that are not so changed. The campus editors between 1911 and 1915 complained then, even as The Spectator and Continental writers do today, of the non-support of athletic teams on the part of some students, of poor student-faculty relations outside the classroom. (Actually, I don’t remember them as so poor.) There were then, as there are now, complaints about the management of affairs at the College and I suspect only less severe then because there were only a quarter as many students to complain.

Not long ago at a dinner party in California, I sat next to the chancellor of the Riverside campus of the University of California. I had been told that this was one of the better of the university’s campuses and I said so to the chancellor. He replied that he hoped this was true and he said he thought it might remain so because “it is a small campus and never intends to get big — never over 10,000 students.” So perhaps we shouldn’t worry about Hamilton’s leap over the 800 fence. Alex Woollcott used to say that Hamilton was the most beautiful campus in the world except Uppsala in Sweden. I met a Swedish gentleman traveling in Europe recently who seemed surprised that anybody was impressed by Uppsala. Perhaps Alex wanted to boast of his College by admitting only one to be superior in beauty, and that one unlikely to be visited by any of his acquaintances.

A few weeks ago I walked across the Berkeley campus of the University of California while a reported 2,400 students — or perhaps not all students — listened to an advocate of the Free Speech movement rail against the authorities for dismissing four students for disseminating pornography on the campus. I think most of us will agree that it is a saddening experience to find that a group of young people — in the case of the Berkely campus of 28,000 — is apt to resent any attempt at discipline; and that College administrations today in some places have to spend valuable time intended for better purposes, to cope with hoodlumism. But a few days later I heard the dean of the University of California at Berkeley speak at a luncheon on the “War at Cal.” He told his audience that it was the first meeting he had attended in some time that had not been picketed; and while he admitted that his recent months had been a form of Hell, he still believed in the fundamental integrity of the present generation of students. I suspect that 90 percent of the students today have higher I.Q.s and better preparatory training and grades than we of the Class of 1915 had. My good friend Sid Bennett, who succeeded me here as director of admission, has confided in me — as has Win Tolles, the dean — that he probably couldn’t get into Hamilton today. I do not subscribe to their fears, for I was the director of admission who admitted both of them to the Class of 1928.

As I sat in this room last June on an occasion similar to this, Lafe Todd, who sat with me, asked me if any of the Class of 1915 had become distinguished. Who knows? We are all probably distinguished in one way or another although not all of us are known nationally or internationally. I shall mention some of the possible candidates, even at the risk of hurting some of your feelings by omission. Probably Jack Erhardt, once ambassador to Austria and later to the Union of South Africa, was distinguished; perhaps Jack Keddy, once director of the budget in Washington and later a head of the Smithsonian Institute; Fritz Lee, once legislative drafting counsel to the House of Representatives and later to the Senate, president of the Washington Arboretum, author and until his recent retirement, a distinguished Washington lawyer; Jack Bissell was a general in the Army; and, more localized Erwin Goodenough, Yale professor and author; Jack Jessup, bank president and civic leader in Wilmington, Delaware; Ive Ingersoll, head of the American Express Banking Division in Paris. George Potter may be known as the Madame Tussaud of Florida for the Potter Wax Works of St. Augustine is a parallel of the famous Tussaud Wax Works of London. There is Hank Holt who, with his wife, has devoted years of service without pay to teaching poor Mexicans at Puerto Vallarta (their students, I believe, did not include Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who spent some time in nature studies in Puerto Vallarta. They were not poor enough).

College students of today are not, we must agree, exactly like those of 50 years ago — and they shouldn’t be. Perhaps to us ancients, their manners and morals and sometimes their appearances jar us a bit. I don’t know what Prex Stryker would have done if one of his students had answered a call to his presence without shoes or socks. I think “going formal” today does not mean, as it did to us, a dress suit or a tuxedo, but perhaps a concession to a coat and tie. These habits are not unique to Hamilton. I attended an inauguration at Princeton a while ago, and as the distinguished guests, including many ladies, were lining up outside for the procession, a Princeton student wandered by in nothing but a pair of short shorts. I wonder what Prex Stryker would have said! I am sure that lots of things of today would have shocked him and yet, come to think of it, we got away with gym shows, paint nights and ringing-the-rust-off-the-bell!

The lines with which I bring this rambling account to a close are not my own, nor are they by Keats, or Shelley, or Robert Frost; but they were written by Frederic P. Lee of the Class of 1915 and were published in the Hamilton Literary Magazine.

“Fairest Days of Life are times which now enthrall us
Bordered with the mists of golden student dreams
Joyous are the songs and laughter, which recall us
To the Hill whose nest in splendor ever gleams.
Dearer the paths we know by heart than those of the world’s dim ways
Leading past hall and road to start through garden and dim ravine.
And sweetest fruit of friendship’s art is love of college days.”