Words to Live By

A look back at the Class & Charter Day tradition

When Dick Couper '44 stepped to the podium to address the overflow crowd packing the pews of the Chapel last May, he earned the distinction of becoming the only person to present Class & Charter Day remarks for the third time.

"I do observe that I first recited on this platform in the fall of 1940 in a mandatory freshman-sophomore declamation class," he told the audience of students and members of the faculty and staff. "In those days my knees knocked in the key of C. Recently I had both knees replaced with the result that they now knock in the key of E flat. A new tone is welcome."

New knees or no, Couper received a warm ovation for his remarks, appropriately titled "The Third Time Around." In 1954, he presented his first Class & Charter Day address, and, 50 years later in 1994, he was invited back. Further adding to the Couper Class & Charter Day legacy, Couper's father, Edgar Couper '20, gave the address in 1962, and his mother, Esther Watrous Couper, shared her reflections in 1997 at the age of 97.

The first Class & Charter Day was held in 1950 at the suggestion of President Robert Ward McEwen, who sought to combine the traditional Class Day (originally the last Wednesday of classes when students sponsored athletic and singing contests and games) with commemoration of the anniversary of the granting of the College's charter on May 26, 1812. Noting that Class Day then fell close to the College's "birthday," McEwen conceived the idea of having a convocation featuring an address by a historian, trustee, alumnus or faculty member whose subject would be related to Hamilton's history and traditions. The occasion also came to include recognition of faculty members and students with honors and awards.

True to McEwen's vision, Couper this year focused on significant dates in the history of Hamilton and related those dates to what was happening throughout the country "to suggest that there was some nexus between the two; that we were not always in splendid isolation," he said.

Couper selected three years on which to expound:

  • 1820 — the year his great-great-great grandfather, Charles Avery, longtime professor of chemistry, graduated from the College. It was also the year of the Missouri Compromise and marked James Monroe's re-election as U.S. president.
  • 1892 — the year Hamilton's longest-serving president, Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, began his 25-year tenure. The year also saw the re-election of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, who incidentally spent part of his childhood living in Clinton.
  • 1968 — the year Kirkland College opened. Nationally, the year was marked by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., student protests and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

For Couper, 1968 also marked the end of his term as acting Hamilton president. He closed his Class & Charter Day remarks by giving students the same advice he did some 25 years earlier: "In 1968, in an address to the student body from this very platform, I observed, 'We live in hope. If you are diligent, search hard and fairly, you will find several people on this campus over 30 whom you can trust. My advice — 'circumspice.'"

Although Dick Couper has had the distinction of preparing more Class & Charter Day remarks than any other individual, he is just one in a long line of alumni, faculty members and Hamilton friends who have stepped to the Chapel podium over the years to share words of wisdom with the current generation of students. Here are excerpts from a few of these memorable presentations.

In the first Class & Charter Day in 1950, Willard Thorp '20, a professor at Princeton University, traced the beginnings of the College under Hamilton's first president, Azel Backus, who served from 1812-1816. Thorp described Backus as "a man in middle life whose face ... was strong and smiling ... a vigorous man ... firm and fair" a man known for "his witty words and actions, his humanity, his sensibility and his eloquence." Then, too, he added, "So fat indeed was President Backus that his sleigh had to have an unusually wide opening at the side so that the doctor could ease himself in and out without getting pinched anywhere." 

Thorp spoke of Backus' contributions to the physical plant, including the construction of a commons (Buttrick Hall), complete with "brick water-closets of simple architectural design," and improvements to the curriculum. "He believed, above all, and taught as pastor and president, that learning is worth nothing unless it nourishes the hearts and consciences of those who possess it."

"This September, I was taking a class attendance, and I suddenly heard myself, to my horror, saying '50 years ago today I entered this College,' and I suddenly realized that I'd begun to reckon by half centuries," recalled Robert "Bobo" Rudd '09, professor of English literature, in the 1956 Class & Charter Day address. Rudd went on to entertain the audience with anecdotes from his student days -- from taking the trolley to Utica and chaperoned dances, to descriptions of what the campus looked like a half century earlier.

"You'll know it's 50 years when I start telling you about our dances because they were so formal. We had four. There was Freshman Frolic in early June, Sophomore Hop in the fall, Junior Prom in winter and Senior Ball in the spring. They were given in the old gymnasium. At the head of the room were Mrs. Stryker, Mrs. Brandt, Mrs. Squires and Mrs. Shepard. Each gentleman had to escort his lady over to this row of chaperones and introduce her to each one. It was quite an ordeal -- being mocked by your friends as you teetered across the floor in your unaccustomed dress. The dance began at 9:30 and was over at about 4:30 a.m. You must remember we danced -- everyone danced. If you'd like to see what a dance was, there's a book up in the Browsing Room called Women are Here to Stay. It has a picture of my dance card junior year. And you will see that all the girls are called Miss and all the men are called Mister. When you knew who was coming, you got a dance card and you filled it out. A girl knew when she came to a Hamilton dance exactly with whom she was going to dance and which dance and when. There was no sitting out, no wallflowers. If you were a very heavy suitor, you got as many dances as you could. Otherwise they were all carefully divided. You didn't get bored with her; you know that can happen."

Professor of Greek Herbert Long '39 reflected on "Hamilton's Classical Tradition" in the 1958 Class & Charter Day address: "On the same day that the board of trustees created the two original professorships (Aug. 25, 1812), they approved the prerequisites for admission. The student, they said, must be able to read, construe and parse Virgil's Aeneid, Cicero's select orations and the Greek Testament; and must know English grammar, as well as a subject the trustees chose to call 'vulgar' arithmetic. Quality of preparation, so they said, was more important than the quantity a student had read. Presumably they suspected that some candidates for admission in this wilderness had not read enough of Cicero's select orations."

In the 1960 Class & Charter Day Address, Wallace Johnson '15, secretary of the College, recalled the six Hamilton administrations he had witnessed during his tenure on the Hill.

"Dr. (Melancthon Woolsey) Stryker served as this College's president (1892-1917), and he did it without a secretary, an office, a telephone, a typewriter -- and I am not even sure that he owned a piece of carbon paper É Dr. Stryker did all that was done in the line of admitting new men to the College, and of recruiting them, arranging scholarship grants and such ... Dr. Stryker preached in the Chapel every Sunday and six mornings of each week ... Dr. Stryker edited the College Catalogue and other official College publications ... the then-president taught three courses in several sections -- the freshmen studied a course in Bible with him from a book which he edited himself ... And then there were jobs for which we have no one. Dr. Stryker edited at least two editions of the College Hymn Book, and wrote many of the hymns -- and Carissima."

Johnson went on to recount all of the changes at Hamilton with which Dr. Stryker did not have to cope -- a larger student enrollment, budget, payroll and faculty committees. "The administration that followed Dr. Stryker's was that of Dr. Ferry ... The first real crack in the dike might possibly have occurred when Dr. Ferry hired a then-young man -- during a golf game at the Yahnundasis Golf Club --Êto undertake a number of duties which came to include the admissions work, alumni affairs, editing of alumni registers and catalogues, management of various College ceremonies, some teaching, occasional administration pinch-hitting, sometimes duties of headwaiter and janitor. If you think I am referring to myself -- well I am."

Edgar Couper '20, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, presented the Class & Charter Day address in 1962 on the occasion of the College's 150th anniversary. He shared a survey of Hamilton history divided into three 50-year periods -- the first comprised the struggle to get started and to survive; the second marked progress, especially in the physical plant; and the third one of solid advance that made what "Hamilton is today, a first-rate college in its class."

Couper concluded his remarks by asking, "What of the next 50 years? The suggestion as to time leaves me little room for prophecy even if I should dare. During the last 50 years, in spite of the growth of the College, there has been no radical change. It is still the same kind of college. Today the pressure for change is greater because of the growth in college enrollments and the enormous expansion of knowledge, to mention only two reasons. It appears obvious that the publicly supported institutions will have to carry a bigger share of the total enrollment load. Here at Hamilton if there should be the same proportionate growth in the next 50 years as in the past 50 years, there would be a college of 3,000 on this hilltop, and that is hard to visualize. Our location, still relatively remote even today, will help resist radical transformation. Think how different an institution Hamilton probably would have been had it been removed to Utica as was so often proposed in the 19th century.

"I suggest that you take note of all the prophecies and come back to check them in 2012 at the 200th anniversary celebration. No matter what changes may have taken place, I hope and believe you will find the essential Hamilton spirit the same. In Mr. Root's historical address of 1912, he [wrote]: ... 'Great endowments, stately buildings, public favor and prosperity cannot produce or take the place of that indefinable and mysterious quality which has been transmitted from a remote past, which has persisted through many changing years and many passing lives, and which gives to the institution a personality of its own, a continuance of the life breathed into it at the moment of its birth.'"

David Beetle '30, special correspondent for The Gannett News Service and former Hamilton public relations director, spoke at the 1967 Class & Charter Day. Reminiscing about Hamilton's alumni body, he concluded that he had found it to be "a no-nonsense group who gave little trouble to a public relations director trying to tell the world about a no-nonsense college." Just as he was convinced that Milt Jannone '43, whom he termed Hamilton's best athlete, had come to Hamilton for a "good, solid A.B. in history" rather than a solid national gridiron fame, he was certain that "most Hamilton men had originally climbed the Hill in search of an education -- not a happening."

By popular conception a dean is supposed to be an awesome, fearsome person by whom students are struck with something close to terror when called to his office or encounter him on the campus. I have never had much success in creating that image, but on one occasion I really just about made it," said Winton Tolles '28, who presented the Class & Charter Day address in 1972 on the occasion of his retirement after 25 years as dean.

"It was a Sunday morning of spring houseparty. I have always had some dread of Sunday morning because it comes so close to Saturday night. On this party the Sigs had had a dance on Saturday, which was open to the entire campus. On Sunday the DUs had a party, which was closed. That they were not admitted to the party miffed some of the Sigs, and they set about with a Machiavellian scheme of revenge. Getting on the phone they ordered delivered to the DU house 20 dozen roses, 16 taxi cabs to take a group to the airport and two tons of gravel -- among other things. Confusion reigned as these began to arrive. There was something of a scuffle as one taxi driver claimed he was assaulted and had the hood of his cab slammed on his hand. The state police arrived and stopped at my house before proceeding further. They described the suspected culprit. I recognized him and suggested that we go pick him up and return to my house where we would not attract attention and could talk quietly. This was agreed to, and I drove with my car and the police in theirs. I spotted the young man and said as severely as I could, 'The state police and I want to talk to you at my house. Will you ride with me or with the police?' He looked at me and at the police to determine the less awesome party, turned back to me and said, 'If you don't mind, I will ride with the police.'"

In 1973, the Class & Charter Day address by George Nesbitt '24, who retired that spring after 43 years as a professor of English literature, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the English department. A portion of his remarks paid tribute to Frank Ristine, who served the College from 1912-53 in several capacities, including dean of the faculty, dean of students and professor of English literature.

"Like all proper Ph.D.s he was a specialist -- in Elizabethan drama -- but he got up and taught, by alternating and intermitting, every course necessary to provide a proper undergraduate education in English literature. In 1921 he decided that a course in American literature was needed, and so he got it up and taught it. By the rigorous standards by which a professional views his former teachers, it was, I am sure, a good course. His lectures (written out and read without particular verve) were models of lucid and graceful exposition. Though he read annually from the same yellow manuscripts, he kept them up-to-date -- as I know from having seen them, committed to me by his son -- in their final and almost indecipherable annotated form. His innocence was so great -- and his greatness was so innocent -- that his students were never quite sure whether he knew exactly what he was saying. I want to pass on to you, and I hope to posterity, the most famous of the ambiguous Ristinisms. Lecturing on Walt Whitman, speaking of Whitman's morality, he remarked, "... but as far as women were concerned, Walt's skirts were clean."

Phillip Jessup '18, retired judge on the International Court of Justice, delighted the audience with stories about Elihu Root on Class & Charter Day 1977. Among them: "In a Hamilton board meeting, Chairman Root, in a discussion of the compulsory retirement age for faculty, was asked, 'Have we anyone approaching that age?' Root replied, 'We haven't any going in the opposite direction.'"

In 1983, Marjorie McEwen, wife of the late former president Robert McEwen, shared memories of the time she spent on the Hill with her husband. "[Houseparties] were very gala occasions and were so infrequent that they often developed into wild parties," she told the audience. "Presumably the men moved out of their quarters, and their feminine guests moved in. Where the men went, I never knew."

Mrs. McEwen also remembered fondly the president's party for the senior class, dating back to 1934, at which time the entertainment consisted of skits written and produced by members of the faculty. "The songs," she said, "were gems, and have been preserved to become a part of the archives of the College ... I hope that sometime you can hear some of [them]." Ten minutes later, the audience did. Called to the podium by President Carovano, Professor Emeritus Thomas McNaughton Johnston turned back the clock with a performance of The Culture Song, sung to the tune of Bye, Bye, Blackbird, whose lyrics had been penned by Johnston himself. Faithfully, if not always tunefully, joining in on the refrain, "Rah, rah, culture," were professors Otto Liedke, Donald Potter, Edwin Lee and David Ellis. Save possibly for the music professors, who might have ventured a criticism or two regarding style and delivery, the faculty returned with a mighty response -- no doubt under the impression that where Shakespeare, Kant and Bach had failed, Johnston had triumphed.

Professor of English Literature Dwight Lindley '42 concluded more than three decades of teaching at his alma mater when he retired in 1986. In his Class & Charter Day address, he shared reflections from his student days.

" ... After the trauma of the first term in public speaking, my closest brush with disaster came during the sophomore year, when I fulfilled the requirement in laboratory science. In first-year biology, the lectures, especially those by Earl Butcher, were marvels of clarity, but I found the laboratory to be a place fraught with evil stenches, that of formaldehyde being the most nauseating, and with menacing instruments. Philip Rogers, who had the misfortune to find me in his laboratory section, barely kept his patience as he dissected a dogfish's ear for me, after I had mangled two dogfish beyond recognition, much less the possibility of representing the ear in a drawing. His irritation reached its height one day when he stopped at my table, snatched the slide from under my microscope (I believe that it was a slide of blood corpuscles, perhaps my own) and turned it over. He said, 'You have been drawing a reflection of your own eye.'"

Professor of Classics Barbara Gold used her 1993 Class & Charter Day speech to "look to a figure from the past to find a lesson for the future." Among those she chose was George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, or Quakers.

" ... George Fox was interested in both our inward and our outward states, in urging people to work on transforming themselves and society. First, he thought, we must focus on ourselves, on understanding who we are, who we want to be, and what we want to do for our society and our world. That, of course, can easily take our whole lifetime. But after we have thought this over for a while and begin to have an inkling of an answer, we can let these drops of understanding spread in an ever-widening circle to encompass other worlds beyond ours. To walk cheerfully over the world, as George Fox suggests, seems a tall order, particularly with the world in the condition that it is in now, but we can be patterns and examples if we can clean up our own acts and start thinking outside of ourselves ...

"You want to make a change in your life? In more people's lives? In society as a whole? Make a phone call -- to your congressperson, your senator, even to President Clinton (or to Dean Tobin, Dean Coates or President Payne for a local complaint). Or send a postcard. I have read that every call or card sent is assumed by the politician receiving it to represent 200 other calls or cards never made or sent. So just by this one five-minute (or less) act, you have the force of 200 people behind your complaint or suggestion. If you get 10 friends each to spend five minutes, you now have represented 2,000 voices. I call this the power of the ordinary."

In 1996, Eleanor Wertimer, wife of Economics Professor Emeritus Sidney Wertimer, reflected on the role of women on College Hill, devoting a large portion of her Class & Charter Day remarks to the impact of Kirkland College.

" ... If the word for [Kirkland President] Sam Babbitt was charisma, the word for Kirkland was panache; all of its functions from beginning to end reflected it. Kirkland opened as scheduled in September 1968 . . . The incipient campus was a sea of mud with the three dormitories barely finished and McEwen under construction until spring. Since it was to contain the dining facilities and classrooms, Kirkland would have to depend on the kindness of its male counterpart for several months. Making the best of the inevitable, as was his wont, Sam presented a green hard hat to each of the entering women. They wore them proudly.

"Everybody on both sides of the Hill was swept up in the festivities surrounding the opening. It began with a convocation in the Hamilton Chapel where Millicent McIntosh, then chairwoman of the board of trustees, spoke. The theme was that Kirkland College was committed to giving the students major responsibility for their own education. The college consisted of 171 students, 22 faculty members and four administrators. From day one they were tight. Afterward, everyone present fell in line behind the bagpiper and marched, balloons in hand, to eat lunch and dedicate the three existent dorms, Major, Minor and McIntosh. All were welcome, faculty and staff from both sides, faculty wives, children and dogs, friends from the Clinton and greater Utica communities. And when it grew dark there were fireworks. It was a blast!

"Meanwhile, after a luncheon, the Kirkland community assembled to establish parietal rules for the students to live by. The decision: there would be none. Males could be guests in the dorms at all hours of the day and night. So much for the idea that women on the Hill would have a good influence on the morals of Hamilton students. So much for parietal rules at Hamilton ..."

At age 97, Esther Watrous Couper shared her remembrances of two of Hamilton's most devoted families -- the Bristols and the Coupers -- in the 1997 Class & Charter Day presentation.

"My mother and my mother-in-law for several years, when they were in their late teens and early 20s, lived across the street from each other on the corner of Elm and College streets across from the Kirkland Town Library. It was the custom for small groups of Hamilton students to call on friends in the village, especially where there were young ladies of suitable age. When they went to my mother's home, she rang the dinner bell out the window and her friend, Ruth Williams, came across the street. My grandmother played for the young people to dance -- waltzes and two-steps. My grandmother was a fine musician, a church organist and a wonderful touch on the piano, which she retained until late in life ..."

Patricia Tolles Smalley P'93, daughter of Dean Winton Tolles, delivered the 2000 Class & Charter Day remarks reflecting on her experience growing up on College Hill.

"... If you were a Tolles you went to almost every single football game -- at home and away -- rain or shine. Terry [her brother] and I remember getting up very early to drive to Schenectady, Haverford and even Earlham and Kenyon in Ohio. Daddy paced the sidelines, mother sat in the stands drinking hot coffee, and we roamed and shouted and never really understood how anyone else could win. Later our father decided some of the trips were pretty far away, so if he didn't take the whole family he rode the team bus; something Terry has been known to do, too. We lived in a community where education was valued and important. There were not philosophical discussions about cognitive and experiential learnng -- it simply happened around you and you absorbed ...

"Stories of my father, the dean, are many, including that he was one of the best at cleaning up, with a pail and rolled up pants, the water fights in South dorm. [After one such incident] the young man was called into the dean's office and thoroughly berated for his bad grades and poor social behavior. Daddy thought he made the point well when he summed it up. 'Young man,' he said, 'it is simply clear that there is too much wine, women and song in your life. What are you going to do about it?' The young man thought. He looked penitent, and he said, 'Dean, you are absolutely right. I need to make some changes. I'll quit the choir.'"

Russel Bantham '63 offered words of advice in his 2001 Class & Charter Day address titled "Moving Up, Moving On: The Hamilton Connection." He described three Hamilton individuals who impacted his life including Jack Hastings '44.

"... Jack was a lawyer in Syracuse, New York, when I first met him. I was looking for a job and just about ready to graduate from law school. I had come back to Central New York at Christmastime for interviews, and spent the morning at a law firm having a really bad day. I knew in my heart that I wasn't going to be getting an offer from this firm. On the way out the door, the fellow who had last interviewed me remembered that the firm had a Hamilton graduate, one Jack Hastings. So we stopped by Jack's office and he volunteered to take me to lunch simply because we had one thing in common -- four years on this hill. We had a great lunch and we hit it off. I told him the morning had been a disaster, and after lunch he took me back to the firm. I met a whole new set of lawyers, and a week or so later I had my first real job offer. The benefit of the Hamilton connection here is obvious. The lesson -- you never know when your Hamilton education will be helpful."

Many of these speeches and supplementary background were taken from previous editions of the Alumni Review.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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