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Half-Century Annalist Letters

The Way We Were – And Are

Vincent S. Jones, Class of 1928

Delivered: Reunions 1978

We are here this morning to perpetuate a special Hamilton College tribal rite known as The Reading of the Half-Century Annalist's Letter. A quaint custom, it dates back to the 1860s when the first Hamilton classes had been out of college for 50 years.

Of course this isn't a letter. Nor is it a declamation since I am reading it, which is against the laws of Hamilton Public Speaking. It may be unique as the only record of the College presented from the point of view of one class.

George T. Link, the annalist of 1918, was told by a classmate that "the Letter should take the form of an outlandish, but of course truthful, boast that 1918 was the best damn class ever to enter Hamilton College, and to support that boast with the buttery facts and figures not necessarily truthful."

The Class of 1928 may, or may not, have been the "best damn class ever to enter Hamilton College," but, indisputably, we were the largest class up to that time. The 154 freshmen who arrived in September 1924 brought Hamilton's enrollment up from its expansion goal of 400. Most of us came from New York State. All but a few were graduates of public schools.

From the first days we showed both vigor and solidarity. Combining boldness with sheer weight of numbers, we walked off the Hill unchallenged in a body on the way to our Freshman Class banquet. Somehow this brilliant stroke put an end to Byzantine and violent maneuvers which had become traditional for those affairs.

In 1924, the College was moving ahead under the firm hand of President Frederick Carlos Ferry, a mathematician who had been dean of Williams College. Hamilton's most famous alumnus, Elihu Root, was chairman of the Board of Trustees. He had been a trustee since 1889.

The faculty numbered 37, including the president; Dr. A.P. Saunders, who was the dean as well as professor of chemistry, and Dr. Ibbotson, the librarian. The bursar, superintendent of buildings and grounds, the manager of Commons, the president's secretary and three stenographers, and Wally Johnson, who as field secretary ran the College's low-pressure recruiting system, completed the modest administrative bureaucracy.

The modern Hamilton faculty numbers more than 100 plus 10 part-timers. The academic hierarchy is headed by the president, the provost, the dean, the associate dean, the director of admissions and the dean of students. The supporting cast includes the vice president for development, who has a staff of five; an assistant to the president; an even dozen who report to the provost, six aides for the dean and two for admissions; a librarian, and a director of the Minor Theater, and the head of the Health Center, who has a staff of seven.

Incidentally, not until a student died in the Flu Epidemic of 1917-18 had the need for an infirmary been apparent. Then the old library was converted into a makeshift clinic. Our sometime classmate, the late Max Wylie, has given us a hilarious, but scary, account of the quality of medical care provided there.

The real Old Timers love to tell how that superman, President Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, did the work that later it took a dozen men and two dozen women to perform. But in our day, Wally Johnson was no mean one-man band. Over four decades he kept adding to his duties until they included, besides admissions, secretary of the College, secretary of the Alumni Council, secretary of the faculty, assistant secretary of the Board of Trustees, necrologist for the Alumni Review and a member of its editorial board, chairman of the Commencement and Parents Day committees, registrar, compiler of the weekly and monthly college calendars, editing the Alumni Register and the College Catalogue, a bit of teaching, and as he put it, "occasional administrative pinch-hitting, and sometimes head waiter and janitor." When Wally retired in 1962, all of these functions had to be parceled out to others.

Tuition was $150. There was a $20 student fee and board at the Commons cost $7 a week. Dormitory room rents ran from $55 to $75 at North, $115 to $145 in South, and $125 to $155 in Carnegie, the ritziest of the three. You could furnish a room for $40 to $80 and your light bill would be about $10. Lab fees ran from $4 to $25. So, a student could get by on a basic budget of around $750. Few noticed a line of the fine print: "Graduation fee, $10," something of a rip-off in comparison. Many a senior forgot to pay it in the excitement of his final days. It was Wally Johnson's kindly custom to drop in at the bursar's office and cover for the delinquents.

Dr. Stryker, often accused of having an edifice complex, had not planned a major expansion. So when the enrollment doubled in the early 1920s some of the fraternities had to provide much of the additional housing. This saved the College money but left too much of the responsibility for supervising and counseling the young to some dubious custodians.            

The Psi U House was the largest of the new ones. Painfully new (and painfully unpaid for) it was supposed to have caused Elihu Root to exclaim that while God might forgive the Psi Us for that vivid shade of orange, he certainly would not. Time and weather have mellowed all that stucco.

Not until 1950 did the trustees agree with Dr. Ferry's earlier contention that a concept of senior supervision of the freshmen, long cited as one of the chief merits of the fraternity system, no longer was valid. Starting in the fall of 1951, all freshmen were required to live in dormitories for their first year.

Nearly a century of trial and error by trustees, administration, faculty and students resulted in the 1959-60 year in adoption of a plan that gives every student an opportunity to join a fraternity. Even before that the deferral of rushing and the growth of the college's general programs made the students less dependent upon fraternities and blunted some of their divisive and clannish effects. Still later on, the administration would deal sternly with chapters that got out of line.

Hamilton's curriculum had been liberalized a bit in 1924, but our freshmen studies were pretty much a rerun of senior year in high school — only much, much tougher. We took Latin or Greek, a live foreign language, mathematics and a solitary elective. English Composition and Public Speaking were compulsory.

Most of us view our educational experience here in terms of a few great teachers. For me, there were:

"Bobo" Rudd, who made English literature a joy.

"Chubby" Ristine, methodical and beautifully organized.

The iron-bottomed discipline of advanced French under "Bill Shep," who taught me how to read the language, but not how to speak it or how to understand those who do.

Paul Fancher, aloof but dazzling with his slick classroom gimmicks and his wicked wit (he called the library "New England farmhouse Gothic" and urged the freshmen to stone out those ghastly stained glass memorial windows in the Chapel).

Gentle "Rocksy" Dale, whose geology courses, supposedly a snap, were eye-opening and about as much science as I was prepared to absorb.

Others speak fondly of "Stink" Saunders, who maintained the community's link with the great world of music and letters; of "Trot" Chase, "Little Greek" and of "Bugs" Morrill, who tested the tree identification skills of his students by scattering horse chestnuts or acorns across the elms. "Digger" Graves and Boyd Patterson came to the Hill too late to do most of us any good. Mox Weber, showing survival quality rare in coaches, became director of athletics. Two popular stars in earlier classes, Peter Daymont and George Nesbitt, toiled in the labor-intensive instructorships of public speaking and English composition.

Rose-colored spectacles have been standard equipment for half-century annalists. But two recent annalists took them off long enough to observe that a few things in the Hamilton of those "good old days" were somewhat short of perfection. Harvey Gorslee of the Class of 1924 suggested that the College should have charged higher fees and hired better help. John K. Hutchens of the Class of 1926, paused in the midst of some elegant nostalgia to assert flatly that "Hamilton wasn't then altogether so good as it should have been, or as it has become." Example: Half a dozen departments were one-man shows. Heresy? Not at all! A few of our professors looked, and were, dull and uninspiring.

Few older alumni seem to have fond memories of public speaking. The ability to speak effectively is a valuable, even saleable asset. But the archaic, artificial technology foisted upon us with such fanatical zeal over four long years did most of us little good. Indeed, having to face captive, bored audiences of classmates may have engendered a lifelong distaste for this form of communication. Recently I read in The Book of Lists that when 3,000 Americans were asked "what are you most afraid of?", speaking before a group topped the list. Fear of death was a distant sixth, just ahead of fear of flying. The public speaking requirement was the favorite target of editorials in Hamilton Life calling for curriculum reform. In those days such protests were about as effective as attacking a tiger tank with a pea shooter.

We did not seem to realize that the College's uncritical admissions policy (high school diploma and a cashable check) was a serious flaw. Attrition averaged 20 percent a year. Often only half of an entering class wound up with diplomas. We did a little better — 89 out of 154, or 58 percent. Those who flunked out found it hard to get into any other reputable institution.

On the other hand, top grades were doled out grudgingly. In recent years, when other colleges were relaxing their grading standards, Hamilton men occasionally found themselves at a disadvantage when applying for the scarce openings in the best law and medical schools.

For many a young Hamiltonian the moment of truth about the College's rugged academic standards came very early — usually in freshmen English Composition. A single misspelling in a 300-word theme cut your grade to a bare pass. Two misspelled words automatically flunked you — no matter how good the paper might be otherwise. One alumnus is still shaking his head over a theme that was returned with the cryptic comment: "Well-written. Shows promise. F."

I misspelled the word "roommate" not once, but twice, on my first theme. The resultant "F" was a rude shock. Spelling had been just about my only good subject in school up to then. I got the message. The dictionary became my favorite book.

In contrast to the flamboyant Dr. Stryker, who had been all over the lot, Dr. Ferry seemed a remote, austere figure. Dignified and courtly, he certainly looked like a college president, or like a man Central Casting would hope to provide for such a role. He was highly respected throughout the world of higher education. I was in his office just once. The class, or perhaps it was the Interfraternity Council, chose me to negotiate some improvement in the rigid rules governing the Thanksgiving recess. I was no match for that Olympian figure. The settlement, which had appeared to be generous when he outlined it, seemed microscopic when I reported back to my colleagues.

Some of you may recall a late winter afternoon when a few students, possibly suffering from the Hamilton variety of cabin fever, began slinging snowballs

at the windows of South Dorm. Suddenly a majestic figure loomed out of the gathering dusk and issued a command in Jovian tones: "Stop that. You're behaving like children." It was Dr. Ferry. We slunk away like a pack of mangy mongrels with their tails between their legs.

And can you imagine any student, or group of students, brash enough even to think of invading Dr. Ferry's office?

In our day Hamilton had a full program of sports. But the College resolutely refused to grant athletic scholarships. As proof of the purity of our amateurism I remind you that not until our senior year did we see a touchdown scored against Union. Meanwhile, our traditional foe had run up the horrendous total of 98 points against us. Incredible to relate, there were two ties, one scoreless, one in four years.

Hockey was something else. The Soper Gymnasium even then was a museum piece, but the brand new Sage Rink was the envy of all of our opponents. It was a Spartan structure, but the roof and the walls kept out the snow and the sun, and merely opening the windows to the brutal Clinton climate produced ice of diamond smoothless overnight.

Albert Ira Prettyman's coaching bordered on the miraculous. Only a quarter of each freshman class had ever even been on skates and only a handful of those had played hockey, but Prettyman's teams dominated our league. Many who starred as seniors had been developed literally from scratch.

Other teams had their great days. The fencers came within one touch of immortality and the baseball team once won seven of nine, including a victory over Colgate. Eventually hockey fell upon some lean times, but the gridders achieved an undefeated season. Today swimming and basketball are sources of pride.

Another miracle was being wrought here in the Chapel. Paul Fancher always had had a yen to direct a chorus. He got his chance when "Trot" Chase who had taken over for Dr. Stryker, went on sabbatical. At a time when most college singing consisted of a pack of leather-lunged young hounds bellowing the praises of nut-brown ale and blue-eyed maidens, the Hamilton College Choir became nationally famous for its rendition of the finest sacred music. Professor Fancher had equal success in building up Charlatans into a top-drawer amateur theatrical group.

In retrospect the mid-20s seem to be something out of another age. Radio was in its infancy; television far in the future. Movies were silent, black and white, and X-rated films were only seen at stag smokers. The automobile was catching on. The road up the Hill had just been paved in a washboard pattern, with horses in mind. Increased traffic meant the end of the spectacular sledding. Most streets and main roads were not plowed in the winter.

Amid today's frustrations and deep dissatisfaction with the quality of life it is almost impossible to describe the euphoria that prevailed in our time here. The United States had saved the world, or at least Europe, for Democracy, and while our refusal to join had doomed the League of Nations, various treaties seemed to guarantee peace. Actually, the Germans, who were supposed to be paying bills for the last war, were rearming for the next one. An ex-corporal named Hitler was about to be sprung from prison for his role in a comic opera type of revolt and was putting the finishing touches on an unlikely best-selling autobiography. Others who would play stellar roles in our lifetime were in comparative obscurity: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who failed to be elected vice president, was recovering from polio; Harry Truman, paying off the debts of his venture into haberdashery was a minor official in Missouri; Winston Churchill was making another of his many comebacks; Stalin had just taken charge of Red Russia. With Cal Coolidge in the White House we had a minimum of federal government. Herbert Hoover was the star of his cabinet, headed for brief glory followed by undeserved obloquy.

Stock prices soared without benefit of economic justification and the times reflected boundless optimism. I recall (was it in Dr. Ferry's Baccalaureate sermon?) such cheeky challenges as "got any bridges to be built?" and it was taken for granted that Americans could do just about anything.

The real challenge, of course, was just around the corner. Reflecting on what has happened since our graduation leads me to conclude that we have been under the spell of that sardonic Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Interesting indeed! Who would have predicted:

  • That a president of the United States would be elected four times in a row; that another would be driven from office because of an unpopular war which we managed to lose; that a president re-elected by an overwhelming margin would resign rather than face certain impeachment and that his successor would be appointed to office but unable to get himself elected to it.
  • That we would put men on the moon and bring them back.
  • That students would have rights — legally enforceable rights — and that their "input" on courses and operations would be sought by trustees, administrators and faculty.
  • That the King of England would abdicate to marry an American divorcee.
  • That simple medicines would eliminate tuberculosis, polio and unwanted pregnancies.
  • That every bank in the country would close — and some of them would never reopen.
  • That we would run out of oil and run short of money to buy it from the Arabs.
  • That we would fight the Germans all over again, plus the Japanese, whose nickname, "The Yellow Peril," had proved to be prophetic, and that we would wind up sharing with Russia the awesome power to wipe out civilization.
  • That the Egyptians, of all people, would prepare to give "our canal" to, of all people, the Panamanians.
It is equally difficult to tell anyone who did not live through it about the sheer terror of the Great Depression. It fed upon itself, getting steadily worse. Despite the bold experiments, the major reforms, and the lavish spending of the New Deal, the greatest economic disaster of modern times hung on until another world war put America's vast industrial machine back to work.

While many members of our class went on to graduate schools in 1928, the rest had a full year in which to establish a precarious economic beachhead in business or industry before the grand collapse. We did not clutter up the relief rolls. By the time of our 20th reunion, 74 of the men who replied to a questionnaire were gainfully employed in fewer than 19 lines of honest endeavor — an impressive testimonial to the good old liberal arts diploma. Educators led the pack with 12, followed by nine in manufacturing, nine in business, seven in sales, seven in the law, five in banking, four in engineering, four in medicine, the others in accounting, real estate, hotel management, social service, research, insurance, meteorology, journalism, the clergy, ranching and the Army.

Today most of the survivors have retired. Half of them live in New York State. Several have retreated to Florida. The rest are scattered over 13 other states — mostly in the East and Midwest. Our love for Hamilton and our interest in our college did not end with Commencement. We have been in on the first efforts to organize alumni support. The Alumni Review, started in the mid-1830s by Dr. Fitch, who had just retired, has enabled us to keep track of our contemporaries through its copious class notes.

The Alumni Fund was started in 1931. In the depth of the Depression, 75 men managed to scrape up $2,222.60. The fund grew slowly. By 1939, the gifts of 728 totaled only $7,646. Dr. Cowley set out to build it up and within two years the number of contributors had doubled and their donations quadrupled. The 1,609 donors represented 62 percent of alumni, a showing second only to Dartmouth, where Dr. Cowley had learned about this goldmine. The current campaign raised a third of a million dollars. That came from half of our 7,000 alumni. Without his money, equivalent to the income from a $50 million fund (which we don't have), Hamilton would be deep in the red.

The great pragmatic philosopher Ann Landers likes to remind us that "life is tough for everybody." Starting with our founder the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, the most abused and least honored man in Hamilton history, the College has seen some hard times. Often it seemed to be on the verge of slowly sinking out of sight.

One such catastrophe was averted with the coming of Dr. Stryker, whose 25-year reign (no other word will do) is regarded as Hamilton's Golden Age. Dr. Ferry continued the success story, raising salaries, expanding the enrollment, and adding more bricks and mortar. But in the late 1930s, just before his retirement, again the College began to run out of steam and out of money.

In our day we were told that the College's endowment fund worked at around $10,000 per student. It was considered very funny to announce that you were ready to take your share right then. Even in the Depression most alumni assumed that the College had ample reserves and that any deficits would be taken care of by certain wealthy graduates (not otherwise identified).

Into this vacuum stormed the new president. William Harold Cowley soon had the Hill in an uproar. He quickly reversed the financial picture by raising tuition and reinvesting funds in more fruitful ventures. Although he restored half of the salary cuts and started to provide office space, he was viewed with suspicion by many faculty members. And why not? He was a youngish president, a psychologist and an educational technician no less, after a long line of Presbyterian clergymen and one mathematician.

Dr. Cowley charged forward on all front simultaneously. He abolished the freshmen mathematics requirements, changed the foreign language requirement to proficiency in one from work in two, started freshmen orientation, hired a dean of students, wooed alumni interest and dollars, and initiated a vigorous publicity program. He wanted an auditorium, an infirmary, an arts building, restoration of the Chapel to its classic beauty, a new dormitory, and modernization of Carnegie and South, a solution to the fraternity problem, wide geographical distribution, and a wholesale revision of the program of studies in line with a complicated and demanding educational concept which he called "Holoism."

Few, if any of these ideas were exactly original. Many of them had been put aside awaiting a new regime. But through his frenetic exertions, Dr. Cowley in just three years changed nearly everything in the college. In the process he left a trail of lacerated feelings and fractured egos and created a corps of dedicated enemies. And right in the middle of this hectic new ball game he received an offer to become president of the huge University of Minnesota. He turned this down, but only after exacting a promise of complete support from the trustees.

Then came World War II. In contrast to sunny Florida and Texas, the Hamilton campus seemed unsuited for any training program but a replay of Valley Forge. But Dr. Cowley was a superb lobbyist. He wangled one special program after another out of the Pentagon so that while civilian enrollment went down to 35, Hamilton became an army camp of 800 with faculty members recycled to teach unfamiliar, or half-forgotten subjects.

Dr. Cowley's subjects finally slipped around left end. They persuaded the trustees that he was spending too much time feuding with other educators and running around the country instead of minding the store. He resigned in 1944. He had gone too far, too fast, and had ignored tradition. He died last summer after a distinguished career on the Stanford faculty.

Almost a quarter of a century later, Bill Helmer, news editor of The Spectator, in an article titled "War on the Home Front," argued that the College, as so rudely and so hastily remodeled by Dr. Cowley, had remained largely intact to this day.

The tragic death of David Worcester, who was able to serve only six months of the year he was president, interrupted a promising fresh start. To fill this and other gaps we had the good fortune to be served by dedicated alumni — Tom Rudd as controller, acting president and president, followed by Dick Couper as acting president. Bob McEwen had to pick up the pieces. He said he doubted whether he could have been president if Cowley had not preceded him and broken down resistance to change. Dr. McEwen, a personable mid-Westerner, was an excellent speaker and writer. He tackled the explosive fraternity problem and worked out a solution. He carried on the cautious expansion. Increasingly, however, he became involved in the Great Experiment — a coordinate college.

His successor, John Chandler, also served well but all too soon was lured back to Williams College. This set the stage for the incredible fiasco which saw Dr. Joseph Sisco first accept, then decline, the presidency. This unhappy affair did inspire an incident, which assured me that undergraduate humor was back to normal after a decade of tasteless outrage. A student grabbed the microscope and announced to a college gathering: "I have a message from Dr. Sisco. He says 'I'm enjoying life in the Middle East, but I sure miss that good Genesee beer."

Two of our classmates have played distinguished roles in the administration of the College:

Sid Bennett returned to the Hill in 1939 as assistant to Dr. Cowley. He was hired as a recruiter but soon enjoyed the luxury of being a highly selective director of admissions. By 1947 there were 1,500 applicants for the 135 places in the freshman class.

Sid and his colleagues carried out a deceptively simple directive from the Board of Trustees: "No one should be admitted to Hamilton College who does not give evidence of ability to do the work." The Admissions Office announced proudly that admission was "not by IBM; the candidate is a person." Despite brave talk about "late bloomers" the office soon learned that the best way to predict what a student would do academically was to see what he had done — not what he might have done, or should have done.

Sid's office also wrestled with the new problem of "ghosts" — men who applied, were accepted, paid their fees and didn't come.  The College had 1,129 applications for places in the Class of 1962. Of 329 accepted 205 came. Most of the successful aspirants came, as we did, from public schools, but, unlike so many of us, were in the upper quarter of their classes. They were chosen on the basis of their secondary school record, the recommendations of the school, evidence of a wide range of interests, and interviews with our admissions staff. Alumni sons were not discriminated against. Actually, they tended to rank better than average. In one two-year period 26 of 31 alumni sons were accepted. Six chose to go elsewhere.

Another stalwart of  the Class of 1928, Win Tolles had made a great success of establishing the Utica College branch of Syracuse University. He came back to Hamilton and for 25 years was the unflappable and immensely popular dean of the College. Dean Tolles took dead aim at another problem — the underachievers and those he called "early wilters." These men, for a variety of reasons, were not operating at anywhere near their full horsepower. They were just hanging on but were told to shape up or they would be dropped.

With Sid's admissions people skimming the cream of the crop, and Win and the faculty ruthlessly weeding out any misfits who managed to slip through, the results were gratifying. Whereas attrition had run around 20 percent a year the college now could count on 80 percent of those admitted earning a degree. Four members of our class — Don Bradley, Bob Reed, Ken Watters and I — have served on the Board of Trustees. It's a privilege and an education. The trustees face an endless list of difficult problems. Their decisions are never easy or cheap.

My most memorable experience as a trustee was to serve on the Committee on Instruction. Over a six-year period we interviewed every member of the faculty and spent many hours with faculty committees discussing the curriculum and how it should be taught. We got to know the faculty as individuals and they, in turn, seldom missed an opportunity to sound off very frankly.

The extent and depth of alumni opposition to the Kirkland College experiment surprised me. I was on the board when this project was undertaken. Obviously it seemed to be a good idea. Higher education was booming. Many all-male and all-female institutions were going coeducational. Hamilton had lots of land and the coordinate, or cluster, plan appeared to be a better way. There was concern, of course, about Hamilton putting both its reputation and its cash on the line. We winced when the wits suggested naming the new college after Aaron Burr.

Well, it didn't work out, despite heroic efforts and some solid achievements. In its brief and expansive history as a semi-independent college, Kirkland inspired fierce pride and loyalty. Alumnae and students fought the merger to the bitter end under the saucy mod slogan that "Living Together is Better Than Marriage." The shotgun wedding was accomplished with tears but a minimum of bloodshed. It seems to be off to a good start. And so, from the bleak monasticism of old days Hamilton has "progressed" all the way to the co-ed dormitory.

Today we have a charismatic president. He got his training on the job here, first as provost and then as acting president. He has a team of top-notch specialists to help him in the increasingly complex job of running our vastly expanded college. Thanks to the Jet-Age, Martin Carovano has visited every corner of the country and has met an unusually large number of alumni. Their response to the Priorities Campaign has been heartening.

Our beautiful campus has been enhanced by a magnificent new library, without, alas, much of the special Clinton stone that turns such a lovely shade of brown. Red shale paths are found only in Root Glen, for which all housekeepers are grateful. The athletic complex to be dedicated today will round out our facilities in superb style.

Hamilton College goes into the closing years of this, our century, admirably equipped to maintain its place as one of the finest small colleges in America. To remain in that select group, as competition to attract the best of a declining number of young people grows ever stiffer, the College needs the active support of all alumni.

Hamilton, "the mother of loyal, steadfast men," is confident that "we still will be thy boys."