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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1916 Letter

John H. Gardner, Jr.

Delivered: June 4, 1966

In a day when so many traditions on a college campus are either tenderly laid up on a high shelf, or raucously tossed into a dust bin, some of you may have come here wondering why the Alumni Association continues this particular practice of a 50-year class annalist’s letter. Some years as a listener I confess that I have had the same thought, especially at the conclusion of the effort. On the other hand, Hamilton has been exceedingly fortunate that some very gifted graduates who knew exactly what to say. It may be of interest to this meeting today to know that this custom of a 50-year annalist letter is now precisely one century old. The annalist of 1866 was reminiscent of the first four-year class that graduated from the newly chartered college. This may not excuse what I offer here today, but it is the reason that I am here.

In the early autumn of 1912, a group of assorted freshmen found their way to College Hill. In number they were not very impressive, some 61 men all told, especially if one judges by present day statistics. Indeed the entire student body then mustered somewhat less than one present day freshman class. Nor can I certify that this particular group, which would be named the Class of 1916, had any really noteworthy characteristics. They were a fairly well diversified gathering drawn out of the northeastern states of our country for the most part. Some came from prep schools with fine equipment for the rigors that lay ahead; some came with high hopes but without a very adequate preparation. There is no yardstick that I know about to rate them in intelligence, nor any indeed to measure how ardently they thirsted for an education.

These freshmen arrived on the Hill while still some of the glow of the centennial celebration was alive from the June 1912 Commencement. As American colleges were then, Hamilton could be justly proud of the record of its first century of existence. All told, the number of colleges and universities in the United States at that time was small, in the light of the vastly increased number of such institutions in our present day. But with a total student body in 1912 that could not even muster 200, it was even for that time a small college. The reputed threat of Prexy that he would send the 201st man home probably was very close to the truth.

Entrance requirements for the Class of 1916 indicated that they might expect to have a rather rigid discipline of study. Individual choices were quite few in number. To be admitted, one had to have had some acquaintance with several foreign languages and most particularly Latin. The policy of admissions, and all decisions thereto, lay exclusively in the hands of Prexy Stryker. The screening process for admission was rudimentary to say the least. With a rather wide open door for entrance, these same freshmen would make the unhappy discovery that the casualty lists at the end of the first semester were appalling in size. Woe betide the youth who failed to keep his work assignments in some reasonable shape or who exceeded the numbers of “cuts” allowed in each course.

The work of orienting the new men began at once. By appointment they gathered in the Chapel to meet the dean and the president and hear some sound advice. After a score of years in such a capacity, Prexy would add some real spice to his welcome. He issued a cordial invitation to all freshmen to a tea at the president’s mansion. Out of his mature experience of a score of such annual events, he thoughtfully added a few specifics, just in case any freshmen might not know how to conduct themselves at such a function, which was probably the case with some of us. He offered some advice about how to say farewell, “And when you are ready to leave, bid good-bye to your hostess and host and go. Don’t try to back down a long gang-plank of farewells.”

Along with the cordial welcome that the freshmen received from various College leaders, one must in all candor chronicle a somewhat different kind of welcoming ceremony thoughtfully arranged by the sophomores. Gathered in a large semicircle about the Chapel steps, they proceeded to make a careful, if somewhat brusque, inspection of each freshman to make certain that no part of his costume had anything of a red color, that being reserved for the use of sophomores exclusively. Some men reached sanctuary somewhat ruffled that day. This indeed was a kind of foretaste of a very hazardous number of weeks for any freshman so unfortunate as to be caught out of doors after dark. “Gym Shows” were a menace to the freshmen for a specified number of weeks. As a form of hazing they were supposed to be supervised by an upperclassman always, but any freshman unlucky enough to have been caught in one of these probably has some very vivid and unhappy recollections of the event. Fortunately the “Gym Shows” had about run their accepted course, and by common consent after our freshman year they passed into limbo along with some other equally questionable campus customs. But on that first afternoon near the Chapel, one circumstance really livened the show. Two zealous sophomores laid heavy hands on a very youthful appearing bystander who just happened to be no freshman, but a graduate of the Class of 1912. The tussle that ensued was worthy of any admission price. It also allowed several of us to slip past the barricade unobserved.

That first orientation session in the Chapel closed with a brief word of welcome from the chairman of the trustees, Senator Elihu Root. His distinguished lifetime of service to his country was matched by his loyal and generous service to his College. Some of his remarks that afternoon I have forgotten, but he closed with a comment that has often recurred in my mind. Speaking of the way the changing experience of life often brings us face to face with totally new sets of conditions, he used the simple illustration of one of the electric clocks, which were then in common use. The hands did not move continuously as with modern clocks, but at the end of each minute, they suddenly moved forward. Many times since then I have thought of his comment when a new combination of events suddenly changed the familiar pattern.

Within a few days the more or less regular routine of College life had become part of our freshman outlook, the green spot caps and the universal observance of the “Hello” rule. Morning chapel came at 8 on the six weekdays, and on Sunday Vespers at 4 o’ clock. Prexy presided at almost all of these services. He was also the Sunday afternoon preacher. The choir was also his special prerogative. Indeed, his choir rehearsals often turned out to be quite startling affairs. Perhaps I should hesitate in the light of recent history to say that attendance at all these services was not voluntary but a standard requirement. A limited number of absences were allowed under the “cut” system, but even here the penalty for non-attendance was doubled just before and after vacations. During these past few years I have followed the heated debates that occupied the center of campus interest, about the irreparable damage that would accrue to any student who had to attend any kind of religious service. Perhaps I have not yet quite caught up with the modern ideas of what constitutes freedom in today’s world. But looking back upon the disciplines we accepted in our time, I am not at all certain that the regularity of assembling the student body in our day did any visible harm to any man that I knew. Compulsory attendance was par for the course, either in the classroom or the Chapel; and I have some notion also that it contributed something to College life on the positive side.

The autumn season on the Hill was always a gracious time in my memory. The footpaths we used throughout the campus were regularly covered with red shale, which formed a sharp contrast with the vivid green of the grass. South, Carnegie and North were the campus dormitories, and housing for the rest of the student body depended upon the fraternities. A number of these fraternity houses were in our day far down the steep slopes of the Hill. The freshmen speedily learned that a new set of muscles had to be developed for such walking. “Shin-fever” was a familiar complaint for a few days. No smooth concrete paved neither the roadway nor the sidewalk don the Hill. When the first snows of winter came, the sleds had their day. If you heard the shout of Road, you moved off the sidewalk — or else.

But before winter, the autumn season was football time. The supply of athletes able to sustain an adequate squad was an extremely difficult if not a hazardous undertaking. Hamilton management fortunately had the good sense usually to enter into competition with colleges of somewhat similar size. Even then a few injuries to key players often spelled disaster. In keeping with the efforts of the team, the student body endeavored to spur them on by proper sidelines enthusiasm. All this would climax with the Union game. No matter how bad or good a season it was, if Hamilton could win that final game, the season was a success! Just once in our four years the athletic management in a singular lapse of judgment stepped out of its class and arranged a game with Syracuse University. For Syracuse it turned out to be nothing more than a track meet. With a final score so horrendous that it pains one even to mention it after all these years: Hamilton 0 – Syracuse 81!

More than everything else that might be recalled of Hamilton as it was 54 years ago, the memory of the faculty stands out sharp and clear. The intricate relationships that develop personality in any student always trace back to this basic fact. In colonial days, and since, an oft-quoted definition of a college was “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log, and a student on the other.” Ancient Chinese wisdom always placed this “teacher-pupil” relationship among the five greatest of all human relations. To an impressionable and probably somewhat callow group of freshmen, Hamilton’s faculty would mean more than anything else on the Hill. The finished product of senior year, such as it was, depended more upon these men than any other aspect of college.

At the head of the list of course was Prexy Stryker. His 25-year tenure of office would come to an end just one year after the Class of 1916 graduated, and he was, therefore, at the very zenith of his career in our day. I hasten to protect the memory of our class by stating that there is no evidence whatever to indicate that we made his retirement seem necessary. Prexy has been a product of Hamilton in 1872 and after 20 years as a pastor, left a church in Chicago to assume his new duties on the Hill. His selection, by the way, broke a long prevailing habit of the trustees to turn to Yale for its chief executive officer. From the time he arrived on the Hill, things began to happen. Years later when our student body would quite irreverently chant the faculty scruff songs, he rated a genuine tribute to his recognized abilities: “O, here’s to Prexy Stryker, O, the man that makes the whole thing go—.” No truer words have ever been sung. He was a man of his own ideas, of utter sincerity, and woe betide any student who tried to bluff his way out of a non-prepared recitation. Complete frankness characterized his every relationship with students and faculty alike, and that frankness would be devastating upon occasion. But he also wanted a student to stand up for his own opinions and not be a trimmer. His administrative methods were quite his own. The telephone he disliked and refused to have one in his house for a long time. When finally he bowed to scientific progress, he had one installed in the back of the president’s house, out of sight and sound. If a student dared to call him on the telephone, it is safe to say that he tried it only once. Electricity for the household was also an innovation in his lifetime, and he was converted to it only tardily. He designed the College dining hall in the confident expectation that it would be lit by candlelight. And as for his own house, the old-fashioned oil lamps long served for light. Popular lore has it that he was only rather suddenly converted to the new way when a smoky lamp ruined his newly decorated front hall. Thereupon he routed an electrician out of bed to give orders to wire his house. Like wise, the typewriter in his opinion was an invention of the Evil One. What need was there for an office when he had a study? Letters he answered in handwriting and promptly (if they were important enough), and the rest went into the “round file.” Just how he managed to ignore the typewriter completely, a machine that had created a large fortune for one of his trustees, Henry Harper Benedict, and yet could induce Mr. Benedict to present the Hall of Languages to his alma mater is something to ponder over.

His word was law as to all policies of admissions, and sometimes his opinions about the quality of student were rather scathing. When someone asked how many scholars he had in the student body, he replied at once, “about twenty.” It is also asserted by some that he stated that if the student body ever exceeded 200 he would send the 201st man home! But we must also point out that he was always approachable by any student who had a problem, and the well being of the College (as he saw it, of course) was always close to his heart. He was an individual of individuals, and not born to live in a computer age. Education in his view did not depend on devising any new teaching machines, but upon people. He was, of course, pastor of the College Church, compiler of the College hymnal, master of the College choir and editor of the Record. And by no means was it his least achievement to have written our college song Carissima. Generations of alumni will always thank him for that. Again it was Prexy who also managed to secure many of the buildings that still adorn the quadrangle, and thus gave new impetus to the educated life on the Hill. He also saw the endowment funds of the College grow to sizeable proportions, as college endowments were thought of in that simpler day; and in our time he had gathered and developed the excellent faculty that we knew so well. To start freshmen on the right road, he taught a class in English Bible, required of everyone, of course. The Epistle of James the Just was the subject of this study. The small multilingual textbook we used carried with it the absolute obligation to learn the Epistle of James by heart in Latin. Alas for the luckless lad who failed to respond when his name was called. For sophomores, Prexy gave a course in Roberts Rules of Order and for seniors a series of lectures in Christian ethics. Quite possibly many of us missed a great deal of the content of those lectures. We were simply not up to his maturity of thought. But as a stalwart man of deep conviction, none of us ever mistook his integrity. He was Prexy — and a great man.

The senior member of the faculty in our day was Dr. Brandt, and if all the students remembered to translate the German word “Deutsch” by its proper equivalent, and not “Dutch,” one could live and learn happily under him. Quite a few of the faculty were veteran members of the staff in our time. One could hardly fail to learn Greek under the meticulous guidance of Little Greek and the similar precision of Trot Chase in Latin. Our dean, A.P. Saunders, was far more than dean of the faculty and professor of chemistry. He was a fine musician and many of us remember with great pleasure the recitals in chamber music that he regularly held. Perhaps some of us were not generally aware of his other hobby, the growing of peonies, in which he also attained national reputation. In other fields of study, we had the very real advantage of regular contact with “Bugs” Morrill, who started generations of undergraduates on their way to further studies. The intimacy of a small college made itself felt in the many contacts we had with such men. The patience of Baldy Wood never seemed to be exhausted either in the classroom or in his home. Nor could one hardly fail to mention the careful scholarship of Bill Shep in French, a joy to any student who wanted to learn, but a terror to some of the students who at first boasted that they “never cracked a book.” Public speaking was an advertised offering of the College. I would guess that there is not a class member here today who could not recall some of the really exciting incidents that occurred in the regular declamation chapels under Cal Lewis. Some of the newer members of the faculty had quite recently come to the campus about the time that we arrived. All in all, they were men who patiently and carefully did their best to straighten out many of the quirks in us.

Up until our time in college, Hamilton had followed a curriculum pattern that left little elective choice to the student. As a new venture with which to begin the second century, the trustees decided to modify the rigid rules and permit more freedom of choice. In light of the rapid changes that have taken place since our day, these changes may seem to have been very cautious indeed. The emphasis upon the classical languages was hardly altered and this was to continue at Hamilton for a long time. Looking back upon it all, I have an increasing conviction that the four years we spent here on our somewhat isolated hilltop with faculty who wisely and patiently worked with us somehow carried the real meaning of college training. With the brashness of youth, we invented nicknames for them, and seized upon every quirk or habit that we observed, to use or abuse unsparingly. They bore up well through it all, and at last saw us scatter in all directions after Commencement in 1916. It may well be that their patience with us was something they had already learned out of their previous experience. Some time ago I saw a remark made by a British educator which sums up such a philosophy very well indeed. He said, “Every new generation of youth is a fresh invasion of savages.”

College life, apart from the classroom, has altered greatly since our time. Where today all freshmen live in one dormitory, in our time the fraternities absorbed almost the entire student body. The living quarters were divided between the various society houses and the three dormitories: South, North and Carnegie. One excellent feature that was possible to carry out with a small student body was the assignment of each freshman to the general oversight of an upperclassman. Granted that sometimes the system failed completely, but there were many freshmen that profited greatly by that plan. With the present day method of rushing, the function of the fraternity has altered in some respects. In our upperclassman period, the continent of Europe burst into flame. In time the pressures and opinions about the course that our nation should follow became part of the discussions on the Hill. None of us, I am sure, who went to Chapel on that May morning in 1915, the day after the news of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat, will ever forget that particular morning. By Prexy’s order the organ was silent, no choir to lead the music, and we filed in wondering what was to take place. He occupied the period with an impassioned denunciation of the neutral policy that President Wilson has pursued until that time in our national affairs. At the end of his address, he stated that the flag on the campus would not be flown again until this policy was set right. We were a very thoughtful group as we left the Chapel that morning with Prexy’s prophecy fresh on our minds, that many of us would be involved in the war before long.

At the risk of letting my typewriter become garrulous, may I evoke one further memory, which also involved Prexy. One cold winter day when sliding was fast, our class v aledictorian was about to start down the Hill alone; Prexy hailed and asked for a ride down as far as his mansion. When it came time to apply the breaks, Jud put his galoshes down and lifted the front of the sled. Prexy had no galoshes on so he kept his feet up. The result was a sudden stop with the sled facing up the hill instead of down. Those of us who were part way down saw Prexy do the neatest backspin ever. No gymnast could have done better.

Fortunately no damage occurred other than a liberal coating of snow, except that to his dignity. But he was a perfectly good sport about it, and so all’s well that ends well.

So, having in mind the advice that Prexy himself once gave, I say to the members of the Class of 1916 from the gank-plank: goodbye and God bless you all.