My Thoughts Exactly
Interview with Frank Lorenz, editor emeritus, by Donald Challenger, outgoing college editor, in Frank's office, Jan. 22, 2013
“Intimations of mortality surround me,” Frank Lorenz puns on Wordsworth, and for good reason. The former editor of the Alumni Review — who has worked at Hamilton since 1972 after a semester on the Hill teaching history in 1965 — literally knows where the bodies are buried. He has composed “memorial biographies,” well over 3,000 by his estimate, for the magazine’s Necrology section since 1981. In addition, he conducts the popular Hamilton Cemetery tour during Reunion Weekend. A historian-turned-librarian, Lorenz eventually served for 20 years as editor of the Review, retiring in 2002 as editor emeritus — the only Hamilton editor to be so honored. Today, amid a thicket of books and files in his small office, he continues to write the magazine’s now-legendary Necrology section.
A transcript of the interview follows.
You manage to oversee a vast storehouse of Hamilton knowledge out of what may be the smallest office on campus. What’s in all the piles and files in this room?
FL: Most of them are files of recently deceased alumni. Intimations of mortality surround me. I have accumulated all this material in the process of sorting it out and winnowing out the biographical information in preparation for the memorial biographies that I plan to write. The sources of information vary. We have our own files here in Communication and Development, and the most valuable part of our files is the alumni questionnaires that were filled out. Unfortunately we have not had an alumni questionnaire distributed in quite a number of years, but the older ones are very valuable. Also we have the reunion yearbooks, and those are very important sources of biographical information on alumni.
In addition, I don’t think that many alumni know this, but we make an effort to collect and file any newspaper clipping, any press release, anything having to do with our alumni. Those are filed in the Archives in Burke Library alphabetically within each class year. In the event of the death of an alumna or alumnus, that material is gathered up, along with admission records and that sort of thing, and that is added to the material that I sort out with the help of a student assistant.
We also have the Alumni Review thoroughly indexed, beginning with its first issue in 1935. I don’t think most alumni realize that this is a source of information — that any time one of them is mentioned in the Alumni Review, that is recorded. Until recently, we did that the old-fashioned way, with index cards, and we would laboriously hand-write every entry and we would have a card — or more than one card — for each alumnus or alumna. That gradually now is being put online, and it is available through our website.
I do [also] have some other material in the office, usually resulting from questions that I’ve received from people about, oh, the history of the College or alumni. I make every effort to answer those.
You just mentioned the pieces in Necrology as “memorial biographies,” and Matt McCullough, in his 2002 profile of you to mark your retirement, noted that you’ve always referred to them in that way rather than as “obituaries.” What’s the difference, in your mind? When you began to write those biographies in 1981, did you consciously intend to resurrect that tradition started by Edward North in the 19th-century Hamilton Literary Review?
FL: Very definitely. When I first arrived in Hamilton in 1972, it was as head of reference at the Burke Library. The Burke Library had just been completed, and in fact my first job was moving the rare book collection from the James Library — its location there was called the “treasure room” — to the new Burke Library. So I found myself in charge not only of reference, but in effect of Archives and Special Collections — including the Hamilton Collection, the Alumni Collection, and all the manuscript materials that the College had accumulated over, at that time, about 160 years.
So then I began to get inquiries — from scholars interested in the history of the College, or from alumni. And also I would get inquiries from descendants of alumni. And so I found myself willy-nilly becoming acquainted with the history of the College. And that fit in nicely with my own interest, which happened to be history, although I was a specialist in modern European history rather than American. But I certainly learned a lot about Hamilton’s history by simply responding to these inquiries.
With regard to the Necrology specifically, in the process of doing research for people, I became acquainted with “Old Greek” North’s necrology, and this is the word he used. And given the classical emphasis of the curriculum at that time — both Latin and Greek, and of course Latin was very, very much emphasized, any college student knew Latin — and so “Old Greek” North, who taught classics, used the term “necrology,” and I sort of resurrected that when I began to write for the Alumni Review.
And also I look upon these “memorial biographies,” as I call them, not as news items, as you would find in a local paper, but as a record of a person’s life. If you look in most newspaper obituaries today, if they are detailed at all, they consist of a long list of survivors. There is more attention paid to a lengthy list of survivors than there is to the life and the accomplishments of the dearly departed.
And so emphasizing the life and achievements of the alumnus in these memorial biographies, I intend them to be a kind of permanent record. And in many cases, no obituary is available of people who die in recent years. So in a lot of instances, I think that in future generations, when descendants or scholars or anyone else might be interested in the life of an alumnus of Hamilton College, our Necrologies will contain more biographical information about them than will be available anywhere else. And so this is my intention in reviving the “Old Greek” North tradition.
Which, by the way, was carried on for some time by Edward Fitch, who was called “Little Greek” — he also taught classics and was also the first editor of the Alumni Review. And it was further carried on by Wally Johnson, a name that is very familiar to older alumni. But when Wally passed from the scene — this would have been the early ’60s — there was something of a gap until I took it over in 1981.
Do you have a favorite Necrology biography? A favorite feature from among the many you wrote as editor of the magazine over the course of 20 years?
FL: Well, I do better remember the memorial biographies I’ve prepared on people that I knew. Because over the years, I’ve become acquainted with a lot of alumni. I attended reunions faithfully for many years, and then of course as editor of the Alumni Review had constant communication with any number of class correspondents. And many of those correspondents whom I appointed I got to know very well. At times I traveled and visited them, and it was a very satisfying experience. Unfortunately, many of them have passed away since then. So since I knew them personally, I was able to add a little greater insight into what I had written.
Now, the job of editing the Alumni Review was only part of the entire job, because I was in charge of all College publications. And in addition to the editorial work, copy editing and proofreading of the Alumni Review — which in itself is a substantial job — I copy edited and proofread virtually everything that was published by the College for some 20 years. For example, the catalogue alone, back in the days before we streamlined it technologically, would take up just about all summer.
Anyway, I did find time to do some articles for the Review. Virtually all of them dealt with the history of the College in one way or another. And I take a certain amount of pride in them, particularly the pieces I did on colorful alumni such as Ezra Pound and Alexander Woollcott. Unfortunately I would have liked to spend more time writing, but I did sort of commission a number of pieces which also dealt with Hamilton alumni and the College history. For example, Samuel Hopkins Adams, we had a piece that was done by gentleman from Syracuse University who did a dissertation on Adams, and another on B.F. Skinner by a gentleman who published a book on Skinner. And so on.
Before we get too far away from the topic of memorial biographies, I wonder if you can shed some light on the actual number you have written. Matt observed when he wrote — now nearly 11 years ago — that you had written 1,677 Necrology biographies. Can you clarify an approximate number as of 2013? Or should I go back and start counting?
FL: I never really counted them, but I can give you a pretty good guesstimate. I think I’ve done an average of more than 100 a year, and of course the number has increased over the years as our alumni body has expanded. But generally speaking, I think the Alumni Review publishes more than 100 in any given year, and since I’ve been doing it for 32 years at this point, then I would say well over 3,000 of them. That would be my rough estimate.
Your academic training in both history and library science are perfectly combined in your career at Hamilton. But what is the road not taken for you? What if you had completed your Ph.D. in modern European history at Cornell? Would you be professor emeritus today instead of editor emeritus?
FL: Probably, because I had a tenure-track position in the SUNY system, in the college up at Potsdam. And if I had completed the Ph.D. I’m fairly confident that I would have received tenure. But as far as not having the Ph.D., it was the all-too-familiar story in graduate school of a clash of personalities, if you want to call it that. But at any rate, I re-treaded myself, and a good friend of mine, whom I’d met in graduate school at Cornell, happened to be teaching at Hamilton College. His name was Dave Millar, and I got to know both Dave and his wife. Many alumni may remember Mary Lou Millar, because she was for many years the very hospitable and gracious receptionist in the Admission Office. By the way, she still lives up on Griffin Road.
So my first encounter with Hamilton was as a faculty member for a semester in 1965, filling in for Professor Charles Adler in the History Department. He happened to have a last-minute opportunity to go to the Soviet Union, and they needed someone to fill in on short notice. I had just come back from graduate study in Germany, and through Dave Millar, the contact was made and I filled in. That was my introduction to Hamilton.
Years later, after I had taught for some years, I finished library school and Dave again put in a good word for me with Walter Pilkington, who was then librarian of the College. I came for an interview, it seemed to go very well, and he offered me the job. He offered me $8500 dollars a year. And I held out for $9000. I was very proud of myself, getting that extra $500.
If he had offered you $9000, would you have held out for $9500?
FL: Possibly, yeah, possibly (laughter). But that gives you some indication of how times and salaries have changed. So anyway, what was the question again? I got off track here.
Well, we started out talking about the Ph.D. and the possibility of a teaching career in history.
FL: Yeah. Actually, as it turned out, that was one of the best moves I made — to come to Hamilton, initially as a librarian. I had some self-doubt about my abilities as a teacher, even though I had plenty of students signing up for my courses. I don’t think I would have been entirely satisfied with my own performance, let’s put it that way. That was one reason I didn’t regret re-treading myself.
Let me pose a question about your role as a historian in another way. You have been a sort of de facto historian at Hamilton — certainly the foremost authority on College history between Walter Pilkington’s 150th-anniversary book and Maurice Isserman’s recent bicentennial history. But your tenure fell in between those two milestones, so we’ve never seen a full Frank Lorenz history of the College. Do you ever wish you’d had the opportunity to write such a book? Or do you prefer having documented the history of the Hill in more episodic — but perhaps more detailed — fashion, through your Alumni Review features and biographies over the decades?
FL: When the bicentennial was looming, it was suggested that I take on the history of the College, and I gave it some thought. I came to the conclusion that at my age, it would be difficult to devote the requisite time — and I envisioned that it would be several years — to prepare an adequate history, something to supersede Pilkington. I didn’t envision the sort of book that Maurice Isserman has done. It’s a beautiful book; it’s not only handsomely illustrated, but also it has meaty content. I simply couldn’t see investing that amount of time in that sort of project at my age.
And, to be quite candid, another reason was that I felt that in looking at the history of the College in recent years — let’s say the last 40 years or so, since I arrived — my view of the College and its development in those years may have been at odds with what is generally accepted. That was a consideration, too.
Then let me extend that question by asking you what, during your 40 years on the Hill, are the most fundamental changes you’ve seen? There is obviously the merger with Kirkland College, the physical expansion of the campus and so forth — but what at the foundational level, beyond those?
FL: There have been a number of them. There has been a sea change in the atmosphere of the College. When I arrived, it was still the era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which was a very unusual time in American social history. Kirkland College of course was a product of that era. There was a growing distrust, a lack of respect for institutions, for authority, for tradition. And I think students and to an extent faculty — the younger faculty at least — reflected this.
I might also add that at that time and for many years thereafter — I would say through the ’70s and into the ’80s — there was a mood of self-deprecation at Hamilton. It was almost as if the institution and its students had an inferiority complex. And this was reflected in their attitudes toward the College. And that has changed significantly, enormously, since then. Today, of course, we have established ourselves as a first-rate liberal arts college; we have extended ourselves nationally, we are no longer strictly regional; we’ve gotten away from parochialism to a great extent. We have much more self-confidence, and this is reflected in the students. I can see that. And of course the students themselves, as a body, are much better academically. And their attitude toward the College is a very positive one. And I think that the faculty also senses this — that student attitudes are much more positive than they used to be. It’s because Hamilton has made great strides in elevating its image, its standing among its peers. That’s probably the most significant change that I have seen in that 40-year period.
Of course, I think that we’ve gotten away from that era of distrust and lack of respect, shall we say, for tradition. The students are more receptive to tradition today than they were at that time.
Apart from writing Necrology, you are today perhaps most noted for giving the cemetery tours during Reunion Weekend. When and how did that tradition start? Do you find that it’s a bit different each time out, or are you on autopilot by this point?
FL: To tell you the truth, I can’t quite remember how they began. I think that a number of years ago, someone might have suggested that I give this tour. It was part of the various offerings during Reunion Weekend. And so I gave the tour, and a lot of people showed up. Then I was asked to give it again, and more people showed up. I thought that it would be temporary, but people keep showing up — somewhat to my surprise.
My approach is strictly off the cuff. I do a little reviewing, but as I conduct the tour, it’s all sort of ad lib; things will come to mind and I’ll talk about this or that. So I don’t think the tours are very similar to one another except in broad outline.
So perhaps the same people keep coming back each year for a new take.
FL: There may be a little of that. (Laughs)
Let me ask about a bit of biography that I once heard somewhere — that you dropped out of high school as a young man and took equivalency courses to finish high school, including some when you were already at the University of Illinois. Could you tell us that story?
FL: It is true. I was a high school dropout. In fact I went to high school for only about three months, until Christmas time. Of course I couldn’t get a job at the age of 14; I had a paper route, which brought in about $12 a week, pretty good money for a kid in those days. I did that until I was 17 and I could get a full-time job as first a mail clerk and then a junior clerk in the office of Standard Oil of Indiana in Chicago. I would commute on the bus every morning and then come back in the evening. By the time I got home and had supper, I’d go to bed, and then I’d get up in the morning and go back to work.
But in the meantime, I was taking equivalency courses at a commercial school, and I was able to complete I think 12 of the 15 units required for the high school diploma. But then I was drafted into the Army when I was 19. And that was a fortunate thing in my life because it gave me the wherewithal financially to go to college once I got out of the Army. While in the Army I did take more GED tests.
So I was admitted to the University of Illinois because most of the equivalency exams I’d taken were sponsored by the university. And chances are that was the only college I could have gotten into. I entered under probation in a sense because I had never had a course in high school geometry. And that was a lack. I didn’t have a foreign language, either, but I could take care of that while I was in college, no problem. High school geometry sort of plagued me through my college days, but that’s an aside.
So I graduated from Illinois; that would have been 1959. At that time we had several valedictorians and salutatorians, and I was one of the salutatorians. And after that I went to Cornell. And as I like to say, I’ve been stuck in New York State ever since.
In some ways the grand irony is that, after dropping out of high school, you have devoted your life to scholarship. I’m sure you wouldn’t have seen that coming at age 14.
FL: No, I give credit to Uncle Sam. If it hadn’t been for me being dragged away from my happy home by the draft, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. Fortunately the [Korean] armistice was signed while I was still in basic training, so my timing was good.
Outside the office, you are known to enjoy the occasional trip to Atlantic City. Do you have a favorite game there, or a particular casino you like to visit?
FL: Well, let me give you some background. I had never indulged in gambling until after I retired. And it all came about because I was curious to know what Las Vegas might be like. I heard about all the glitz and glitter, and I thought, well, why don’t I check it out? So I arranged to make a trip out there, and I was there for five days. Took me a little while to get oriented, but I found just tramping around the Strip to be rather interesting. And I never touched a slot machine while I was there — until I got back to the airport. My flight was cancelled, and it had to be rescheduled, and I had several hours to kill in the Las Vegas airport. And there was literally no place to sit except in front of a slot machine. And there I am sitting and staring at this machine, and finally I stuck some money in it. And that was the beginning of my interest in playing the slots.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am extremely conservative and cautious. And consequently I budget myself very carefully, and I mostly play penny slot machines. I look upon it as relaxation and diversion. Fortunately, when I go to Atlantic City, it’s on a junket that covers the hotel room and the transportation and most of the meals, so my out-of-pocket expenditures are simply what I put in the machine, and that I limit. So it turns out to be a cheap vacation for me…..
We stay regularly at the Taj Mahal.
I don’t believe many alumni are aware that you work regularly with student research assistants. With the constant turnover in those ranks, you’re essentially working with someone new every year or so. Does that give you a chance to do some of the teaching that you left behind decades ago? And do you learn anything from them? Is that relationship a way of keeping up with campus news and trends, for instance?
FL: I’m sure it’s a two-way street. I’ve not counted up the student assistants I’ve had, beginning in the library, but it must be well over 100 — probably more like 200 — who have worked for me. I’ve been very fortunate that the vast majority of them have been extremely conscientious and capable, and that’s been especially true in recent years. I think partly because this kind of work attracts students who take an interest in history and biography.
Now as far as my taking on an instructive role, I suppose that becomes part of it. It isn’t a conscious role. I don’t consider myself a mentor, but I do take pride when they wind up working in the media or publications, as some of them do. I don’t know to what extent their experience here has contributed to that, but it’s a matter of some pride. But my student assistants have gone into every field imaginable, from Wall Street to law to — well, one is even a Jesuit priest. Now, I don’t take any credit for that career decision.
After 40 years, and still facing the stress of deadlines, fact-checking and the daily cascade of email, do you give any thought to retiring?
FL: I feel that I retired back in 2002, and what I do here now is part of my leisure activity. I feel that I have some sort of obligation to continue the Necrology as long as I’m capable of doing it and as long as I’m permitted the space in the magazine. A labor of love? That’s an odd thing to say about writing obituaries, and I hesitate to say that I ‘enjoy’ it, but I feel something of an obligation to do it.
Is there one Hamilton story, alumnus or alumna that every Hamiltonian should know about and probably doesn’t?
FL: Well, I think that the history of Hamilton is instructive as a kind of “Perils of Pauline” story, in that it was touch-and-go for a time, and this is well-reflected in Maurice Isserman’s recent history of the College: The College has survived for 200 years because at crucial times a few very key people have devoted themselves to its interests, to its well-being. This sometimes took the form of financial assistance; we have benefited enormously from benevolence. In virtually every generation at crucial times people have come forward to enhance and perpetuate the life of this institution. It has seen the ups and downs reflective of the era, but in the long run it has survived because particularly alumni have contributed so mightily to its preservation and, today, its success in American higher education.
At the same time, preserving the core mission of the College from the very beginning. Now the curriculum and virtually every other aspect of the College have changed enormously over the years, but you still have that strong sense of mission to preserve the liberal arts education, which is under constant threat by vocationalism and many other sources. But still, after 200 years, here we are — thriving.