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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1930 Letter

John Niemeyer

Delivered: Oct. 11, 1980

When, last fall, I received a letter from Phil Rogers, our reunion chairman, asking me if I would serve as the annalist, I replied that I was wary of flaunting the gods by assuming that I would be alive in October 1980. Phil assured me that he had conferred with said gods and that a reprieve had been granted, so I accepted.

What a fun task it has been! In preparation, Phil had written to the living members of our class, inviting all to write me with suggestions of items that might be included in the annals. About 10 percent of those written to responded — a statistic obviously meant to obscure the fact that the number was small! But to all seven I say thank you, both for the inspiration to nostalgia and for various items, which will interlard my remarks.

In August I spent three days on the Hill, where Frank Lorenz, research librarian of the Burke Library, extended himself far beyond the call of duty to provide me with the documents and publications I wanted to explore. So… I wandered the campus, imagined at night I could hear the forlorn clanging of metal against the flagpole that used to be located somewhere between Chi Psi Lodge and the Chapel… dug out the moss obscuring the inscription on Professor Fancher's gravestone (feeling very virtuous and powerful in thus extending earthly immortality)… and sat for many pleasant hours in the library reading the letters of former annalists (begun as letters to the Alumni Association, by the way), Hamilton Life, The Hamilton Literary Review and various issues of the annual catalogue of the College.

Hamilton Life was a particularly vivid source of information about what we were like then and about at least the reportable life we led on the Hill. What were we like? I quote:

"Some… looked upon… studying… as a menial and degrading business, and proof positive of the deficiency of intellect… Some studied hard and couldn't learn; others studied not at all and didn't learn;… Some learned well in spite of obstacles; others learned but little and ever seemed afraid to engage in the battle of the human life, and were never happy."

Of the 135 men in the freshman class, 69 are alive. Ninety-three of the 135 were graduated in 1930. Obviously that was not written about us, the Class of 1930! No… that was the class of 1816 (all 23 of them) as described by David Jewett Baker in his annalist's letter of 1866! We, on the other hand, are described in different terms in an editorial in the Oct. 5, 1926, issue of Hamilton Life. The editorial begins by commenting upon the dormitory problems caused by the influx of 175 freshmen. (Hi Palmer attests to this fact that he and Walt Sherman slept the first two nights on a pool table, because no housing arrangements had been made for them.) But then the editorial continues with an enlightening — and enlightened — explanation. The Class of '30 had been more stringently selected that any preceding class. No one was admitted who had been in the lowest one third of his class. And furthermore, "certificates of character" were required. The editorial ends by warning the College not to raise the academic standards too high or else it might become a place for "spineless intellectuals!"

A reading of Hamilton Life for the four years we were here on the Hill yields many items for the "Do You Remember?" department. Here are a few — some serious, some trivial.

Item: Prexy Ferry riding down the hill on his wooden sled, winter coattails held up under his arms. (The faculty rule against throwing snowballs at the president had long since disappeared as unnecessary!)

Item: The boardwalk up the Hill — at least half way, I believe.

Item: Weekly advertisements in Hamilton Life: e.g. "When your spirits slip over into the minus column, just get out your jimmy-pipe and load up with Prince Albert tobacco."

Item: The Sept. 23, 1926, battle between the "rusties" (the sophomores, of course) and the "shiners" (naturally us, the freshmen) when — as a result of strategy planned and communicated in Paul Revere fashion the night before by some members of our class who probably later masterminded the invasion of Normandy — we took off our beanies during Chapel, daubed our faces with green paint, and the service over, rushed out to tackle the numerically inferior sophomores. In case you don't remember such an august event, the upperclassmen called a halt to the melee and we were declared the victors by decree of the Pentagon and the concession of the sophomores. Then the powerful Hazelton downed Bahr in the heavyweight wrestling, and we easily dragged the sophomores through the fountain (now but a memory) in the tug-of-war. We were victorious in everything except the event in which weight didn't count: we lost the relay. (A footnote to this account for the benefit of future generations who may wonder about such barbaric customs: to avoid the danger that would have been involved if the freshman and sophomore class had held the traditional class banquets — which each class using means both sensible and senseless to keep the other's banquet from taking place — our classes voted to discontinue the event, but only after the faculty threatened that if we didn't, the faculty itself would step in.)

Item: The new infirmary program. We were each assessed $10; there was a nurse on duty, a doctor on call, and each student was entitled to a week's free care in the infirmary — that is, the space below the fencing rooms.

Item: An editorial in Hamilton Life bemoaning the alarming replacement of rustic clothes with suits, plus-four knickers and even imported golf hose.

Item: Alexander Woollcott's lecture in chapel, which shocked many of us because of his humorous reference to a pregnancy.

Item: The pride with which we slid into the classroom at the final note of the Chapel bell, thus avoiding not just a lateness but exclusion from the class.

Item: The opening of the new Hall of Science and the new quadrangle.

And on and on — each of us could contribute item after item: Moving up Day, Class Day, the interclass sings, the Honor Code, the dinky decs (for future readers: the memorized declamations each freshman had to deliver in chapel as part one of required public speaking!), hockey games in the ice house known as the skating rink, the warning calls in a dormitory when a female was about to intrude, the plays by the Charlatans (I believe the first one for us was Hell Bent for Heaven), the glorious music by the Choir … nights on the first tee searching the heavens with Stink Saunders' telescope… the ELS House destroyed by fire… For all these, and many more, each of us can say, with Maurice Chevalier, "Ah yes, I remember it well."

For 10 years or so after our graduation, each time I thought back to my four years on the Hill I had the feeling that we, who in 1930, were about to face the Great Depression, had been to isolated, sheltered and unprepared for the realities with which we would have to deal. To my surprise, in reading the Dec. 14, 1926, issue of Hamilton Life, I found the following excerpt from an editorial by Winton Tolles (who later, as you know, became a beloved dean of the College): "We shall be graduated from this institution culturally able to stand with the great majority but practically ignorant of life itself. Hamilton College is not a 'house by the side of the road where the race of men go by' but rather a mountain house far, far away from which men are rudely and suddenly dropped onto the highway of life utterly ignorant of its problems and struggles."

In spite of the hyperbole, Win Tolles spoke accurately about what was to happen to us: We emerged from a peaceful, protected little "mountain house" to enter a big, turbulent world of international financial collapse, fascism and war, and, at home, mounting business and farm failures, foreclosures, unemployment, breadlines — people literally starving. Perhaps, as Al Bailey wrote to me, those years were in the long run strengthening for us. I know that they were shocking and disorienting for many. For me, it was a time of anguish over man's inhumanity to man, and of disbelief and anger that our own society was so inadequately organized that so much misery should be forced upon so many innocent people.

In more recent years I have often asked myself, did Hamilton truly fail to prepare me for "the highway of life" as much as I thought it once did? I suppose we could have been made more aware of what was happening in the world around us. I know that I have always been grateful that in Professor Walter Laves' "poli sci" I worked at the polls in a Utica municipal election. But in two ways I believe that those years on the Hill did prepare me to face the larger world of reality.

The period of age 18 to 22 was for many of us was — I know it was for me — a time of intense inner struggle in which all our beliefs, our values and our relation to parents and authority, were painfully scrutinized. I believe that in ways it was strengthening that at such a time we could live in an environment that permitted this process of self-evaluation to take place with a minimum of outside interference.

Looking back, I believe also that college strengthened us for the future by introducing us to samples of "the best of the past," even if that meant spending less time on the contemporary scene.

I believe that I personally have been stronger in the meeting of problems and dilemmas of life because of the immersion in the literature and music of the past, the glimpses of mathematics, science and language, and the inspiration to continue to study and learn, which I received at Hamilton. I know that what I am raising is simply the old argument in favor of the liberal arts as a basis for a sound education, as opposed to a more vocational approach, but I have to say to you that each year I live, the stronger I favor that position.

As I read those past issues of Hamilton Life, I sought especially evidence of our interests outside our academic work, social life, and sports. What about influences from the outside world? Were we in revolt over anything? The picture I found rather surprised me. There were many projects (George Barrere, the Musical Art Society, Iturbi on his first tour to the United States). Carl Sandburg came to lecture. There were overflowing student audiences for Professor Shepard's lecture on Proust; Bobbie Rudd's reading of a new anti-war play; A.P. Saunders' lecture on Bohr's atom. (It seems almost unbelievable that in the 1920s Bohr's concept of the atom that was a revolutionary novelty.)

True, no controversial topics were explored. There seems to be no evidence that we students were aware of the criticism of American culture led by such revolutionary magazines as Scribner's, Harper's and the new Mercury. Mencken was not invited to come as a lecturer, nor was Joseph Wood Crutch's new book The Modern Temper, a campus bestseller. Spencer Phillips tells an amusing story that suggests "the modern temper" at Hamilton at that moment in our history. The Hamilton debating team, in preparation for a debate with Williams, decided that the topic should be birth control and so informed Williams. Subsequently, Spence was called into President Ferry's office and was informed in no uncertain terms that this was no fit subject for public debate and it would not be tolerated. It wasn't. An interesting sequel: Spence, in righteous indignation, told this story to the editor of Hamilton Life (the late Dave Beetle of our class who went on to a distinguished career in the newspaper world). Dave wrote a Hamilton Life editorial, but also, as a contributing correspondent to the Utica Daily Press, sent a copy to that paper, where AP picked it up and the item made The New York Times. Letters supporting the debating team came in from some graduates, but Prexy's decree was not changed!

As far as political interests were concerned, neither my survey nor my memory indicates that we students were much aware of the national, state or local political scene. In October of 1928, a Hamilton Life poll showed that three-fourths of the students favored Hoover, but at the same time there was an active Al Smith-for-President Club on campus. As I recall our bull sessions, those of us who favored Smith were primarily interested in the religious issue. My guess at this point is that we were motivated not so much by political convictions as by our being in revolt against our own republican, religious upbringings.

When, today, we think of student revolt, we of course think of campus events over the past dozen years. Such protests were not our cup of tea, but let no one think that we didn't protest. In fact, our classmate, Vernon Ives, later to become an important publisher of children's books, wrote in one of his editorials as editor-in-chief of Hamilton Life: "We are tired of students complaining about everything."

The chief target was the required public-speaking course — not so much that it was required, as that portions of the course seemed of little or no value. Most of the student proposals were constructive. Finally, late in our sophomore year, Hamilton Life ran a front-page bold headline: "AGREEMENT REACHED." The one innovation I recall was a junior year course in extemporaneous speaking, which I believe most in us found interesting and of great service in later years. (By the way, the College, after many years without any requirement in public speaking, today requires public-speaking courses for any student who cannot pass a test in speaking effectively to an audience.)

The public-speaking campaign won, we went on to other practices that many students opposed: primarily, compulsory chapel and limited cuts. Another popular proposal was for honors courses for upperclassmen, or at least for seniors. Occasionally a voice was heard protesting the inadequate dining and socializing facilities for the "neutrals," those men not associated with any fraternity. But there seemed to be no expression of concern about the narrow ethnic, socio-economic and racial composition of the student body. We probably didn't conceive of coeducation as even possible, let alone desirable. Quite clearly, our protest was largely confined to those matters that directly impinged upon our individual lives on campus.

Again, over the years, I have asked myself: was this desirable preparation for the lives we were to lead after college? And again I have had to conclude that I think it was better preparation than if we had been protesting vast social ills over which we had absolutely no control. I regret our insularity and our insensitivity to certain human problems right on the Hill, but at least we learned that if you cared enough and acted intelligently, you could bring about change.

Let me turn, finally, to Hamilton College today. As some of you know, I have had the pleasure of serving as a trustee of the College since 1964, first as an alumnus, then charter and now emeritus trustee. I have, therefore, been close to the College in a period of great change, during which the College has experienced the impact of the civil rights movement; the Vietnam war; the initiation of a coordinate college, Kirkland; and most recently the combination of Kirkland with Hamilton.

The Hamilton our class knew had 450 students, all men. Today the student body consists of approximately 900 men and 700 women. The campus we loved is even more magnificent today; with physical facilities we couldn't have dreamed possible. I trust that during our reunion, everyone will tour the campus and see some of these tome wonders: the new Admissions Office in the Elihu Root homestead, the Burke Library, the Bristol Student Center, the Health Center, the new gymnasium and sports complex, the expanded and renovated Chemistry Building, the new Chapel organ (a gift of the late Lee H. Bristol '45, whose untimely death last year was a tragic loss for Hamilton) and, of course, the entire new Kirkland campus.

But more important than all these is the richness of the curriculum now available to students. Perhaps you remember the spoof of the College Bulletin that adorned our yearbook, published in our junior year. Making allowance for undergraduate humor (and at our age we might choose to put that word in quotation marks!), the three pages of course descriptions present an instructive index to the curriculum we knew. The Art Department offered three courses: history and appreciation of art and Choir. The art faculty consisted of the equivalent of less than one. Today, a faculty of five offers more than a two-year period 25 courses in studio art alone. We had no anthropology; now students can choose from 30 courses offered over the next two years. In economics, I believe that our Professor Patton taught three courses. Our yearbook's disrespectful appraisal read: "This is often the only way some students ever find out what capital or labor is." Today's 29 courses range from a Survey of Economics, to Money and Banking, to Methods of Quantitative Research. The Critical Languages Program offers students oral-proficiency courses in Arabic, Chinese, Modern Greek, Modern Hebrew, Italian, Japanese and Swahili. Time precludes giving more examples. I recommend the current College Bulletin for fascinating reading.

What of the caliber of the students? Perhaps my view is an old man's idealization of youth; but I believe that most of the students at Hamilton today are stronger students than we were, meeting much more rigorous standards. They are more knowledgeable, more aware of the world, more sensitive to social issues and their individual responsibilities. I gained this impression in part because as chairman of the Trustee Committee on Student Affairs, I was close to some students over a number of years. Another bit of evidence is that a significant number of students today are involved in many types of community service, ranging from working as volunteers in hospitals to operating a community adult school in Clinton.

Another observation based upon my 15 years experience on the board I feel I should report to the Class of '30 and to all alumni. Our College is strong today and promises to grow in strength in the future, because of the extraordinary ability of the presidents I have known and the chairmen of theb under whom I have served. President Robert McEwen was a giant of educational vision without whom we would never have created Kirkland. He unfortunately was forced to retire because of illness not long after I became a trustee. An interim period was covered by Acting President Richard Couper '44 (later to become the distinguished president of the New York Public Library and still an active Hamilton charter trustee), who for two years provided invaluable leadership at a time when the waves of unrest were beginning to touch college campuses. He was followed by President John Chandler (now president of Williams), who, because of his sensitivity and responsiveness to student feelings, and his uncanny capacity for anticipating problems and initiating sensible action to deal with causes, was largely responsible for the fact that the irrational extremes of the student revolt found no foothold on the Hamilton campus. He was followed by the incumbent, President Martin J. Carovano, formerly professor of economics at Hamilton. President Carovano is, for me, the master builder, guiding the College with consummate administrative skill and vision through a period of expansion resulting from the combination of Kirkland and Hamilton. His genius is to foresee and prepare to meet Hamilton's needs 10 years hence just as he acts to strengthen every aspect of the institution in the present. Assuredly, under his leadership, Hamilton will continue to build strength upon strength — financially, academically, and as a human and humane community.

At this point, I should like to comment briefly upon the merger, primarily because the rumor still exists that Hamilton forced Kirkland into a state of financial collapse simply by refusing to lend Kirkland $600,000 a year for five years. That, indeed, was the request which the Board of Trustees would not grant, but only because a realistic examination of Kirkland's financial picture convinced the Hamilton trustees, and the majority of the Kirkland trustees, that the financial problem was unsolvable as long as Kirkland remained a separate institution. Most, perhaps all, of the Hamilton and Kirkland trustees were committed in principle to the coordinate-college concept and voted for coeducation with heavy hearts. Events were to prove that we were wrong in our misgivings. Quickly, the students of the new institution went to work to build a congenial college community; within a year, the applications for admission from women, which had been dropping drastically for several years, soared to unprecedented numbers. Some of the older undergraduates and the alumnae understandably regret the change, but I have the strong hope that the outstanding success of the joined institutions will soon convince them that the merger decision was both necessary and wise, and that coeducational Hamilton is worthy of their support.

I said earlier that I have been fortunate in serving not only under strong presidents, but under equally strong and effective board chairmen: Grant Keehn '21, Coleman Burke '34 and William M. Bristol III '43. I suspect that most alumni do not know of the selfless devotion with which these three men have served, and continue to serve, the College. Each has been truly a chief executive officer; each has worked with the president as a team, while at the same time observing meticulously their differentiated roles. Mac Bristol, the incumbent, is a wise, hardheaded and bighearted business executive who is giving full time to building Hamilton so that it will continue to be strong even after 20 more years of inflation. His message to us, the alumni, is clear: if we want Hamilton to grow in strength, we need to write Hamilton generously into our wills!

Now, in conclusion: what a period in history we have been privileged to live in! Think only of the 50 years since we graduated! A great depression; a world war; a consolidation of dictatorships; the rise and fall of satanic Hitlerism; an ongoing revolution in science and technology; the exploration of space; the first reappraisal, since the appearance of Homo sapiens, of the role of women; a vast, if still incomplete, movement toward equal opportunity for all people; the buildup of destructive power — soon to be available to any fanatical nation — able to obliterate human life: all these we have known. Some of these, both good and bad, we leave for our children and their children. We leave them, fortunately, a country which, in spite of problems, is still blessed, as few countries in history have been. If future generations are to solve these problems, which are global and not just national, they will have to be more knowledgeable than we were and at least equally dedicated to serve the common good. Hope for the future, therefore, rests upon the development or ever more effective communication. In that development, our beloved Hamilton can and, I believe, will play a role of which we would be very proud.