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Half-Century Annalist Letters

A Rich and Exciting Adventure

Arnold M. Lerman, Class of 1950

Delivered: June 3, 2000

President Tobin, friends, we speak to you from the Hamilton of 50 years ago.

That Hamilton belongs uniquely to us. Today, the name remains, the place is constant and Pentagon still meets in Samuel Kirkland's house. But we, and the Hamilton we experienced, were stitched in the cloth of our own time.

Let me begin in 1946 with the sudden end of World War II. The college population was exploding. A jobless depression in the '30s had swelled high school attendance, and the GI Bill meant that higher education was newly affordable for many. In the fall of 1946, some 582 men arrived on the Hill. Most were veterans of varying age and experience; the remainder were boys just out of secondary school. We have an improbable mix. The College was not ready, and we were stuffed together in every possible space in the dorms, the wrestling room, the fencing room and the entire second floor of the infirmary. The dining hall fed us a daily supply of canned figs and other treasures hastily purchased, we suspected, from the army surplus. Together we endured, complained, laughed and came to know each other quickly as part of a shared Hamilton community.

We had come to a place of noble intentions. Hamilton, read the catalog, is a small residential "country college." Its goal is "to graduate broadly educated men with deep foundations in the cultural heritage of the race before they specialize in the learned professions or business." The Hamilton graduate, it said, should be an "intellectually disciplined and cultivated" man whose person was made "whole" by possession of "civilized attitudes, matured emotions, and sound character." Ladies and gentlemen, today I stand here before you to attest that every member of the Class of 1950 turned out precisely that way!

As we were preparing to be here, Winston Churchill spoke at a mid-century convocation at Westminster College in Missouri. That was the great speech, which told of the "iron curtain" descending in Europe and foretold events that were to dominate our lives in the decades that followed. His prescience and concern for the economic and political realities of our future were far removed from what we would experience at the College. But Mr. Churchill was a symbol of the century's first 50 years and a bridge to much of what we did find here.

The prime minister began his days when reality could still affect the governance of nations, and nation states were the way of the world. His was a society that accorded privilege by birth. Wealth staked its separate claim (although not of the same high order). It was a Christian male-dominated world: those men made laws, led wars, dictated thought and ethic and claimed all rights. The well-bred Englishman was raised in the bosom of a great Empire and viewed himself and his history through the lens of a white Western European culture whose apogee was marked by his arrival.

America was different, but the common pedigree showed. Deeply felt Christian beliefs were embedded in our law and custom. We, too, were a white-male dominated culture. Remember, in 1925, only 21 years before we reached the Hill, women's suffrage was a campaign, not a fact. African-Americans were not allowed substantial economic or political station. Ethnic groups from the "wrong part" of the world were somehow undesirable. To preserve America's purity the 1926 Congress had enacted one of the most rigid immigration statues in our history: we would admit little more than relatively small numbers of Western Europeans in the same proportions as were here. While Americans saw themselves as unique and tried to maintain political isolation from Europe, they still viewed Western Europe as the source of their heritage and of the great cultural accomplishments in man's history. Hamilton College was very much a child of this time.

Were we the students Hamilton expected? Let me paraphrase what some of our faculty said:

The typical entering freshmen were principally from middle-income families in New York and adjacent states. Their academic training was clearly deficient for higher learning. Most were not well-trained in English or social sciences; they had only a smattering of mathematics, natural science and foreign language; and their knowledge of classical languages was virtually nonexistent. They were pampered by a society whose accent on youth sometimes bordered on infantilism, and they were decidedly immature and reluctant to accept cold evaluation of their abilities. They possessed a share of the ordinary laziness, but they were agreeable to teach and by no means devoid of curiosity.

"What we have depicted" said the faculty committee, is a "good American boy, largely unformed, a fair challenge to the educator." (I should add that the committee report was labeled "confidential, not for circulation.") I suppose we were "good American boys." We grew up with nursery rhymes, went to school, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, played sports, discovered sex, felt our patriotism keenly as war approached and talked endlessly of whatever it was that guys talked about. We lived with the magic of movies and radio. Imagine, an entire generation raised on Bambi, Snow White and Frankenstein, or glued to the radio for the ball game with the announcer reading the ticker tape as the Foley artist sounded out the "whack" of the bat and cranked up the crowd noise for Joe DiMaggio's latest hit. As we grew older, we knew that Jack Benny always stayed 39, we listened to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, and we found out that Lucky Strike had gone to war.

Perhaps we did have our portion of innocence and certainly deficiencies in our knowledge. But we also lived through a searing depression and later a devastating war. At least some of us had been touched by difficult times; and we all had been exposed in varying degree to America's slow shift to greater social awareness at home and American hegemony abroad. I am not sure we realized it, but we were about to step into another world. Here at Hamilton time was measured not by society's events but by the sound of bells. We attended class six days a week during a long academic year. Cutting was not permitted, and our Student Handbook ominously warned that attendance would be taken and there would be no indulgence. Our preparation of themes, papers and examinations, or our use of the library, were "under the restraint of our own sense of honor." (Let me digress for a minute to say that it is wonderfully reassuring, in today's milieu of lies, spin and deceit, to know that it is possible to live within a system of honor.)

On the seventh day we attended a compulsory prayer service at chapel. Everything was governed by rules neatly laid out in our own version of Deuteronomy, the Student Handbook. There were, as well, the unwritten informal rules of custom and ritual. "You will greet everyone on campus," we were told, as befits men in a shared community. We would express approval by snapping fingers (no crude clapping of raw hands) and disapproval by hisses. We can run the gamut of freshmen rites of passage: flag day, the tug of war, the class sing. We novices lost all despite our larger numbers, and even a divine intervention that produced rolling thunder as we sang the Field Artillery Song. I suppose we heeded the rules, but we drew the line in one place: most of us would not then, nor ever, wear the fetching blue Hamilton freshman beanie with the little buff button on the top.

We started "training" immediately for command of the spoken word. "Training" was Hamilton's word for four years of public speaking in every conceivable way: declamation, impromptu, extempore, debate, exposition and whatever else anyone could name. Many will remember the pounds lost, the cold sweats and the peach brandy consumed before the first declamation. Or how Professor Willard Bostwick Marsh, in stentorian tones, told us to "accent our nouns and verbs." Of course, we called him "Swampy," and he sounded funny, and he regaled us with tales of Alexander Woollcott, Alexander Hamilton, the College and most of all, about Ambrose Bierce, a minor literary figure whom we would never run across again. We all survived to become magnificent orators.

We also began our journey through the mysteries of the English language. It started with compositions. They were returned to us with scrawls around every word, sentence and punctuation mark. We were told that clarity and elegance of thought were worthless without the ability to communicate simply and well. Reading assignments, we soon learned, meant that we were to understand the definition, usage and nuance of every word in the text. Professor Nesbitt was the master of this measured form of torture, but others gleefully joined in. Were we intimidated? Certainly. Even the wily veterans among us. To this day, some of my classmates speak of it. But there were wonderful moments to come when we reached beyond the richness of our literature or heard poetry read by "Bobo" Rudd. We learned that words could sing and dance and create worlds of their own with thunder or sensuous quiet.

Our curriculum was vintage liberal arts of the day: natural sciences, mathematics, English, classical Greek and Latin, German and romance languages and literature, philosophy, history, political science, and a small measure of music and art. Beyond the natural sciences, our lessons were shaped principally by the flow in Western Europe of 2000 years of thought, literature and history beginning with the Greek and Roman cultures and culminating in the nation-states of the 20th century. Five continents and most of the peoples of the world were not within our sights, and we learned little of great societies that had flourished elsewhere. (It was, for example, as if India had existed principally as a site for an E.M. Forster novel, or the Ottoman Empire to help us find on the map where Europe ended.)

The College had made a few changes following the war. Latin and Greek studies were no longer compulsory. With the introduction of anthropology, we could begin to understand ourselves and the history of the human race before the written word, i.e. virtually all human history. Psychology and economics were given limited stature in their own right; and political science enlarged. Some faculty members grumbled that these latter subjects were hardly worthy of the name "science" or had little endearing value. In any event, the new offerings were few, and, in most instances, their content meager. What we studied at Hamilton was, with limited exception, what generations of Hamiltonians had studied before us.

As in earlier days, the College also regarded "divine worship" as a "regular part of the life of its students." Attendance at a Sunday evening prayer service was mandatory. This was not study; rather, it was insistence that we all participate in Christian prayer. Many students, Christian and non-Christian alike, found the coercion offensive, and student discussion on campus was spirited and concerned. Should we not recognize that there are many ways to spirituality? Did we have an obligation to respect the sensitivity and dignity of an individual's own highly personal choice? Was the College right to force Christian prayer, or any particular form of prayer, upon an unwilling student? (These questions are familiar to you and oft repeated in different contexts today.) The faculty dodged the issue and, at first, the administration remained silent. Then talk of a chapel strike arose and the administration joined the discussion. Ultimately it removed most of the attendance requirements for upperclassmen, improved the chapel service, and brought us, on rare occasion, outstanding persons such as Norman Thomas or Reinhold Niebuhr. But the compulsory Christian prayer service remained. In the College's view, it was a necessary recognition of Hamilton's "historic debt to the Christian faith and to the devotion of its founders."

Outside the classroom Hamilton life was thriving. We plunged into every kind of athletic activity: intercollegiate teams, intramural contests and individual sports. The Charlatans revived to bring us The Imaginary Invalid and Joan of Arc. The Hamilton Marching Band reappeared (with the occasional assist from Clinton High) and reached a high point when there were enough Hamiltonians to form a marching "H," five on either side and two in the middle. There was a vibrant Christian Student Association and other religious groups. Debate programs grew with intercollegiate teams, training for novices and speakers for local radio stations. John Baldwin took us in hand with his inordinate gift of music. The sound of men's voices resonated everywhere and the choir became an outstanding musical experience for choristers and listeners alike. Toward the end of our residence we celebrated the emergence of the Continental, our literary magazine, and our poets, some of whom were published in the annual anthologies of the best college poetry, finally had a forum of their own.

It was all duly reported in The Spectator (or its predecessor Hamilton Life), our student-run weekly news. There we read of the exploits and sorrows of our intercollegiate teams. We followed the life of our radio station WHC; its joyous birth and the thrill of the first Hamilton football broadcast (where frozen subscribers, perched on the roof of the pool, saw the fog roll in and broadcast the game by intuition). Two years later the station was silenced by its death from an incurable disease: sclerosis of electronics and wires. We read the sad stories of the sea of mud and plumbing problems at North Village, our luxury quonset housing for married veterans. We tracked the news of our own Dixieland Fallacious Five, the activities of the student and interfraternity councils, notices from a multiplicity of clubs for every interest, and just plain gossip, as well as truly momentous events like the anniversary of October 6, 1948. On that day, to the astonishment of the College, the junior class assembled at the call of a mid-morning Chapel bell and marched down the Hill to Clinton, reenacting an event 100 years earlier when the junior class bolted for an outing to Trenton Falls.

While The Spectator relished "hi jinx," all campus life did not make the news. The press did not pursue the rumor of a lady inhabitant in the student bell ringers' quarters on the upper floor of the Chapel. Nor did it ferret out the news from our equivalent of the police blotter: the appointment book in Dean Tolles' office. We will never know what happened with the exchanges of rifle fire between a South Dorm veteran and his buddy across the green or with the conspirators who removed all of the furniture from Truax the night before a scheduled exam. Nor, fortunately, will we ever examine the daily judgments made by Win Tolles to contain rambunctious students with his own special pragmatism. Poor, wonderful Win Tolles. It was no wonder, as H.L. Mencken would have said that "his face looked as if he slept in it." His suit did too.

The residential fraternities provided a framework for the organization of activities on the Hill; individually they afforded a smaller community for fellowship. Many students found a special warmth and camaraderie in the fraternity house. But fraternity membership was by invitation only and, in our time, religious and racial restrictions barred membership to African-Americans, Jews and perhaps others. While there as discussion among students and an occasional irate letter or editorial in The Spectator, little else happened until our junior year when a group of campus leaders created an anti-discrimination committee chartered by the Student Council. The committee believed that the College should be presented with an appropriate policy resolution.
Let me read it to you:

We pledge ourselves to combat racial and religious discrimination in any of its manifest forms and to work for the abolition of all discriminatory practices, both in thought and action, which may associate themselves with College or fraternity activities.

The student committee also suggested ways the College might implement the policy, e.g. forums, lectures, invitations for alumni participation, adoption of a faculty policy and fraternity statements against prejudice. I wish I could say that Hamilton College took an open and firm stand against prejudice. It did not. It turned its back. From today's vantage point, the College position may be difficult to understand, but 50 years ago racial and religious prejudices coursed strongly through the country, and Hamilton simply lived in and mirrored its environment. The College had neither the vision nor the courage to break free.

When you view the Hamilton of our time, realize that the College was just beginning the renewal of its academic and campus life. The doors had opened hastily. The student body was aberrational. Because of illness, there was no president able to assume a permanent strong leadership role, and we would not see one until we were about to leave. Yet the rebuilding process took place and continued during our stay. It is a tribute, I think, to the strong tradition and direction that previously existed at Hamilton, the dedication and effort of the faculty, and the good fortune that our students were an extraordinary mix of youths and seasoned men who gave so much to each other and to the College.

We cannot pretend that there were no limitations. The College was small, it tended to draw its students from a single limited geographic area, and its isolation forced it to rely almost entirely upon its internal resources. With rare exception, this was an all-white provincial community. It was very much self-absorbed and far removed from the social and political events of our society. Neither the College nor most of the students seemed ready to look outside the campus or to embrace political or social activism as a vehicle for education and growth.

In perspective, I nevertheless see a remarkable institution dedicated to its mission. Its standards were high. It believed without qualification that its students should strive for eloquence in speech and writing, for clear thought, and — above all — for a strong sense of values in the conduct of their lives. The chosen path was through a liberal arts education drawn heavily from the past, a past the College guarded ferociously. We were led by a strong, able faculty. A few were gifted scholars and all were educators who cared deeply about us and about the quality of education we received. We remember them with affection and respect. Education here was a rich and exciting adventure.

Let me leave you with a homily from the teachings of Professor Edgar B. Graves, a stern wise friend and counselor to many of us. "Digger" (what else could we have called him?) would ply us with armloads of contradictory materials written about some particular moment in history: documents, journals, biographies, critical works, speeches and newspapers. Then he would ask that we tell him what really happened. It was a life's lesson that what we see depends on who we are, where we stand and where we look. So I give you the Hamilton of our time seen today through the eyes of one who has always been deeply grateful for each day here a half-century ago.