The Colgate Scene
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It was with great pleasure and tremendous pride that I read the item announcing the recognition of Colgate's Phi Kappa Tau chapter by the national fraternity (Around the college, Jan. 2008). This achievement symbolizes the culmination of roughly a decade of diligent effort by the undergraduate brothers and alumni of Delta Pi Sigma, Phi Kappa Tau, and Phi Tau to secure the fraternity's place on campus as an institution committed to the ideals of scholarship and brotherhood. While many people have had a hand in this effort, one individual warrants specific recognition for his tireless efforts to secure the legacy of DPS, PKT, and PT at Colgate: my friend and pledge brother, Eric Hirsch '94.
Eric recognized early on the need for active alumni support and involvement if the fraternity (known then as Phi Tau) was to survive a time of significant financial distress. Despite actively pursuing his own career, Eric spent considerable time and energy mobilizing recent and distant alumni in the cause of preserving an organization that had profoundly shaped the Colgate experience of thousands of young men since its founding in the 1930s. It was only through the diligence and tenacity of DPS, PKT, and PT undergraduate brothers and alumni, in the face of daunting obstacles, focused and led by Eric, that national recognition by Phi Kappa Tau was even a possibility, let alone finally secured.
My friend's efforts to fight for an institution in which he fiercely believes embody the spirit and character Colgate seeks to instill in its students. I wish to thank and commend him.
Just before Thanksgiving, I received a phone call asking if I was the John Dow from Cobleskill. I replied that I was. The caller identified herself as Jean Griffith Schomber, daughter of Dean Griffith of Colgate. She related the sad news that her father had just passed away. My family and I have a long history with Dean Griffith. Bill Griffith and my father were classmates and fraternity brothers at Colgate and had remained friends through the years.
My own experience with Dean Griffith was as a first-semester Colgate freshman. Apparently it was typical of the incalculable magic he worked for and with many students. I was in academic trouble and somehow — supposedly because I was "eager" and didn't cut classes — the dean convinced Dr. Stanley to tweak (much to my parents' undying gratitude) my Botany grade. That and some advice were all it took to get me going on a successful and pleasant Colgate path. William Griffith believed that everyone who was accepted by Colgate should be encouraged and guided to graduate. Many would not have made it without his personal creative intervention.
I remember how he knew everyone by name. When he shook your hand, it was not like some busy politician. He took your hand in his both of his warm hands and looked you in the eyes when he greeted you. Typical of their unpretentious warmth, Dean and Mrs. Griffith tried to entertain every freshman at dinner in their red house on the Hill. When my turn came, they had just received an electric carving knife for Christmas. It was plugged into an outlet in the kitchen adjacent to the dining room. Because of the extension cord through the doorway, Mrs. Griffith had to climb over the cord to get in and out of the kitchen to serve. They hadn't worked out the kinks of that new appliance and there was a lot of laughing about it.
Bill and Dorothy Griffith seemed to have a very close relationship, which began romantically with a wedding at the side of Taylor Lake. Whenever they would make an appearance at some social occasion where the Thirteen was present, the men would honor them with their special song, "Lida Rose."
Dean Griffith was like a pebble dropped in Taylor Lake; he sent waves of Colgate students into the world and their impact was felt around the globe. His name should be as revered in Colgate legend as was Kendrick, Payne, Cutten, or Case.
Having just read the January 2008 Scene, in particular, Remembering "the Griff" by Alan Glos and Tony Aveni, I am moved to reflect in a very personal way about the impact of Bill Griffith. He made a tremendous difference in my life, too — an impact for which I will be forever grateful.
During the turbulent, yet morally rich times of student activism at Colgate (and virtually all universities nationwide) in the late '60s and early '70s, I made a career decision to enter higher education administration — a career decision I cherish to this day. As I was headed to law school or an MBA program, I asked Dean Griffith how one might pursue a lifetime career in the collegiate environment. I should note that my adviser, the late Warren Ramshaw, also had a profound influence through his Sociology of Education course.
Immediately, Dean Griffith depicted how I might someday become a Dean of Students, although I doubted I could know all the students on a college campus as he did. He even knew about a little, green Austin Healy British racing car I had stowed away in a distance relative's garage in Norwich! But that did not deter him from writing a very supportive letter of recommendation for graduate studies or encouraging me to pursue graduate work at two Big Ten research universities. He also facilitated a graduate internship through an on-site interview at the University or Rochester; ironically, my career has taken me from Boston to the Pacific Northwest, to Maine and Pennsylvania, and back to my roots in upstate New York.
First and foremost, he kindled my love of learning in the fields of student personnel and higher education by creating a variety of internships for me in the Dean of Students' Office, Dean of Freshmen Office, Placement/Career Services, and, most memorably, the Office of Admissions with Dean Guy Martin, helping to admit the first class of women to Colgate.
Secondly, even after my graduation, Dean Griffith followed my career in Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, Washington, and Maine as I served as vice president for 18 years at Gonzaga University and the University of Maine, but always thinking "Dean" was the quintessential role and epitomized by Bill Griffith. Now — even in my second presidency — I give all due credit to Dean Griffith for believing in me and providing strong mentoring.
I would be remiss if I did not mention an ongoing Colgate connection — actually, several. I reside in the Rochester area, where Scott Turner '70 is my college council chair, and we serve on the Unity Health Board along with Jeff Mapstone '70; plus, I see John McQueen '70, also a partner at Nixon-Peabody, frequently. Back on campus, I noted Lyle Roelofs' message in the latest Scene as well as Bev Low's creative "13 Realities." The provost was kind enough to represent Colgate at my SUNY Brockport inauguration, and Bev was part of my team at the University of Maine. To come full circle, my first Brockport Student Government president, J.J. Brice, is a member of the residential education staff at Colgate.
To this day, I credit the legacy of Dean Griffith for all of us who have ended up in higher education. His mentorship and deep caring sustains all of us dedicated to student success.
Bill Griffith's recent passing brought both a sad and happy moment of reflection about his impact on Colgate people across decades. Colgate has been blessed with venerable faculty icons for many generations — giants like Kistler, Thurner, Hartshorne, and Reading, to name a few. Bill was principally an administrator, but in that class, too. Most of us who got to know him started out on the wrong foot, called to an appearance to explain some transgression. Some of us received — and deserved — consequential penalties. Despite his reputation for toughness, he was fair, thoughtful, and uncommonly good at guiding so many to life-changing outcomes, even when we didn't often realize it. There are hundreds of us who were Bill's reclamation projects. I am one who will remember him with respect and admiration. Colgate has lost another giant.
Editor's note:You can post your tribute to Dean Griffith.
Be careful, I thought, that you don't set the bar too high like Harvard — when they banished Dr. Larry Summers for posing a legitimate question deserving research; or too low like Hamilton College — when they invited poseur Ward Churchill to spin his malarkey. The problem with UC Berkeley, where Jann is no doubt engaged in important work, is that concerned people sometimes preemptively ban an idea before its proper hearing, or interrupt it with theater — so not to have to deal with it at all.
Considering the scope of his expertise, Ben Stein offers insight more often than he does not. Even when mistaken, Stein is worth listening to because students need to hone the skills necessary to make judgments, and to defend against arguments that, taken at face value, would seem to undermine the foundations of liberal arts education.
Aveni relates Dean Griffith's observation, "whose job doesn't involve one or two things that make little sense?" I am obliged to trust my Colgate education to defend me against ideas that make little sense. Bring Mr. Stein on. We of the Colgate community are skilled enough not to have to put our fingers in our ears and exclaim, "La, la, la! We can't hear you!"
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