The Colgate Scene
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|30 years ago: Class of '69 recall|
|by Raoul Bataller '69|
A discussion about the growing conflict in Vietnam filled the Quad in 1969.
With time comes fuller understanding of what real potential a liberal arts
education can bring out. But students are vulnerable; they don't know what they
don't know and it's hard for them to draw comparisons among themselves because
no two people are ever at the exact same point in development along the road to
Some of us had clear advantages in preparing to attend Colgate from 1965 to 1969, others of us merely put to use whatever skills we happen to have been given, and only later in life got to select those skills we would need to fulfill our potential. I guess I was as worthy as anyone of a Colgate education (odd that worthiness still crops up in the recesses of my mind). But it's only been after years of building on the qualities that I believe Colgate encouraged me to emphasize did I accept that.
You needed a lot of experience, character and fortitude for Colgate, and I wasn't ready for the kind of life going on up on The Hill from 1965 to 1969. All of us thought we had a head start in life in 1965, but discovered to our dismay that what impressed others back home often wasn't worth much up on The Hill. For a long time after, many years, I brooded that I had caused my own performance problems, and had never been good enough to go to Colgate to begin with.
Did the administration know what it was getting us into? Doubtful. They were doing what an excellent school does to cope with a student body, but in these years human nature itself was in the act of changing against a backdrop of intensifying horror in Vietnam. Like those who had lived through Shiloh or Bastogne a century or a quarter-century before, the times took on an intensity for us against the backdrop of a vividly perceived My Lai Massacre and the likely misery of expatriation to Canada if our hardhat WWII-victor fathers didn't get off our backs. And we internalized it all.
We were 1600 males on a snowbound hilltop where weather and distance restricted access to women. Our hilltop society retained an innocence that smothered the amount of attention that we could spare for the rising flood of issues that swirled around us then. Add to that the stress from a national drive to make students more knowledgeable, and don't forget that anyone could be sentenced to Vietnam as the consequence of flunking out. Socially, we suffered under some pretty offensive customs: the ostracizing of "turkeys" to a loser's "coop," grotesque hazing and subtle exclusionary elitism against each other which left cruel scars. This was back when the Beatles' songs were so new that their lyrics' contents were instructional and had news value -- that's how green we were.
The Class of '69 was large and strong and might have done more if we had stuck together as a group down through the years, but never had the skills to cope with the revolutionary '60s. With spring thaw, all broke away home, going our separate ways.
Now it hurts to see what those last looks back over my shoulder in 1969 have cost me across the years. A sermon by class of '49 minister Rev. James Davison of Utica, NY, about Sarah and Abraham and the binding control that memories can have upon your life, left me in tears all through church the last glorious spring morning of Reunion weekend in June. The chapel seemed more beautiful than I had ever recalled. He urged us to take control of memories. I've missed sharing in what Colgate's been up to all these years because of some memories.
We had a frank talk during Reunion about the feelings that had kept some of us alumni from returning. Bob Seaberg and class president Read McNamara conducted the session on Saturday morning and called it "The Big Thaw." Everybody talked. Out came the pain of the last all-men class, hidden three decades. Scars remained from the stuff that we went through as we bridged the innocence of '65 and turbulence of '69 in this beautiful place, gamely struggling to build a foundation for life so many years ago.
My guess would be that while most of us are in good shape today, a lot of us feel that we missed something during our years at Colgate, and curiously, for everybody it's a different something. I don't think that Colgate started its tremendous changes in the late '60s, the beautiful results of which we see today all over campus, because it knew that the Class of '69 was the best it had and feared it was becoming a trainwreck. But I do suspect that our behavior disorders constituted a flashpoint.
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller visited campus, where he met with student supporters, during Charter Day.
Arriving in 1965, our class thought we were pretty special. Raised on Disney and Roy Rogers, well-loved from two-parent families, we had been made to believe in ourselves, blessed by President Vincent Barnett as the special oversized Sesquicentennial Class. We weren't as good as Harvard or Yale but knew from the frosh handbook that 2,203 others had been rejected for admission to our 495 places. Averaging combined SAT scores of 1,234, two-thirds of us were top 10 percent graduates, 27 percent were from private schools, 10 percent were class or student council presidents, 10 percent were sons of alums, most had lettered twice in at least one sport, and our campus was a thing of beauty to behold, a kingdom.
We and Cornell were the Capital of Hubris in upstate New York. Hell, we were peerless. Like Lucille Ball on the chocolate factory assembly line, we gorged down books wholeheartedly with no notions of what lay ahead. We worked flat out, kept our mouths shut, put our heads down and kept competing. Many thrived and were able to get some fun out of it, while for many others of us it was just a winter workhouse. But a few lost it, didn't come back after holidays, trailed off disaffected, distant, lagging.
Cooped up with nothing but bright guys, everyone was in your face all the time with the same stuff. You never got the kind of relief afforded elsewhere by retreat into society's segregated cubbyholes of class and income, male and female, racial, religious or other distinctions. We overdosed on unrelenting redundant male behavior and internalized its psychological stresses. We didn't hug, get "closure," or "share" in those days. This was before the thought ever even occurred to us that we'd "get by with a little help from my friends; I just need somebody to love," which was a line not yet in common usage. When our numbers diminished, we did the arithmetic subtraction, and shrugged it off.
I struggled with a reading disorder throughout those four years. I was reading everything over and over, and didn't know that there might be something wrong with that. I had been a pleasure-reader in high school. Now that everything was staked on voluminous reading, I was simply incapable of sustained concentration, struggling along at about 40 percent effectiveness, my grade point average dipping year after year to horrifying levels while I stubbornly kept signing up for tough courses, resolved to at least get a good education if not a GPA, despite knowing that flunking out meant going to Vietnam.
I repeated things at summer school, getting only one "F" the entire four years but in the end taking History 308 pass-fail and getting a B with no credit and thereby being waived off mercilessly by Dean Griffith to graduate with the next class. I stoically swallowed that, without complaint, but then didn't bother returning to pick up the "sheepskin" at all, which wounded my mother for the rest of her life. My reading problems vanished completely a few years after graduation, which has led me to wonder. What was going on there?
We became what we became because of how we were treated, and we treated each other the way we treated faculty: they were there to serve us. It was a courageous, correct and probably productive position to take. Professors who showed weakness at the podium risked being ripped into by assertive, remorseless questioners. Those who would last 33 years-plus -- Balmuth, Aveni and Oostenink -- developed their authoritative presence in the teeth of our penchant for sticking the tough question to the prof who didn't live up to our expectations. Associate philosophy professor Balmuth eyeballed us back, rigorously shaping our ability to question, relentlessly challenging us to ask why things are as they are. Before him, we had been mere brutes indulging in subtle elitism, fraternity exclusiveness, self-centered all-male interpersonal, ingrown camaraderie and friendships. Of course, because of Professor Balmuth, our surrogate father, we raised hell, too. But thank you, Jerry, for elevating our lives beyond testosterone. I love you because Colgate is my foundation and you are its. Oddly, as I recall, rather few of us had the guts to go out on a limb on the controversial issues of the period, and I suspect that we ourselves never had the courage to stand up to our own demonstrated skill in questioning. Some were probably content to prepare for careers in which there was safety in shying away from controversy. I didn't happen to think that that was what Colgate was all about, but there you have it. I don't remember deciding what to do about Vietnam until after college when a Long Island Press editorial page editor I worked for said he considered himself a "citizen of the world," and my dear friend Joe Mansfield '68, a fearless philosophy major who had quit Phi Delt, arranged for me to get out of the war. Illegally, I might add.
No safety net
Party weekends were deliciously grotesque, like Animal House. Belushi could have filmed at Colgate; the movie was probably modeled upon our unhealthy, disturbing fun involving puke and three inches of beer on the floor, to the endless wailing of Eric Burden's "House of the Rising Sun." You got caught up irresistibly in the excesses at first and just lied about what you couldn't handle; in later years you learned to keep it all at arm's length.
To make life on campus more bearable for 1,600 outwardly similar young men (our class numbered a mere seven blacks, the whole foot-ball squad rostered even fewer) and less irritating, we -- like classes before us -- adopted a style of dress and a posture all our own, a stand-out phenomenon recognizable in crowds on the New York Central down in The City -- tight-fitting pants, sweater, clean-cut, utterly self-possessed. Philosophical peculiarities would get you rehoused, beads and bellbottoms got you ostracized. Winters at Colgate were too long, shadowy, cold and isolated to go through that.
You explored unconventional things at Colgate in the '60s mostly via the media; there simply wasn't much on campus that could provoke you to action. While America's social order dissolved in the '60s, the social order of our small class seemed outwardly hardly to notice. I never sensed a militant wind blow across campus, don't recall anyone riding from house to house like Paul Revere. Communication was nil between houses in a fraternity system owned and operated by nostalgic alums.
A contingent of Colgate men joined Gene McCarthy's grassroots student army busy in New Hampshire with the novelty of being born, the rest of us being content to examine popular causes intellectually from a distance. All those feelings would be bottled up inside with unspeakable passion when you went home for the holidays -- Vietnam overwhelmingly -- where confrontation would begin with, "Just don't talk!" Hardly ever smoking grass in my little circle (I managed to get through the '60s without making a drug buy), we were like a very uptight sect worshipping notions of a Colgate style that probably nobody really lived up to -- clear-thinking and fairly organized but either conservative or too busy struggling academically and emotionally to spare the time or energy to matters elsewhere.
We were into us more by virtue of geography, and were into matters elsewhere less because there was already enough stress. Others could come to us if they wanted us in.
The late Ford Saunders '21 of the music department demonstrates the chapel organ for a class.
The intensity of fear at 20
Until Martin Luther King's assassination in April, 1968 set off ghetto powderkegs everywhere, you wondered whether we were capable of protest. Then four days later some Sigma Nu fired a starter pistol that affronted black students walking nearby, and the campus chapter of the Association of Black Collegians, in tears over King, aroused itself. From our class, Greg Threatte and Bob Seaberg, clumsy but determined, mustered the nerve and intransigence to straggle into the Administration Building, round up support, and hold it in one of the nation's first sit-ins for black equality. There was no plan, no conspiracy. The black guys never had that kind of nerve. If they'd given it any thought there would have been a panic among them, certain they'd never get off campus alive. Their fear must have been excruciating.
(When it settled on me the Tuesday before Reunion weekend that I was actually coming back for the first time in 30 years, I suffered an anxiety attack. I had been trying to attend reunions for 10 years, this year determined I was coming hell-or-high-water, and was looking forward to it. Suddenly I admitted to people in my office that going back was causing me emotional problems. That night I couldn't eat, barely got down a half a cup of soup, downed Rolaids and Alka Seltzer, and snapped at everyone. My blood pressure felt like it was going through the roof, but it wasn't. Fitfully dozing off, I certainly wasn't feeling what 51-year-olds feel, and realized that the last time I'd felt this way was at Colgate. I was reliving the fear of flunking out, of blowing one's best chance in life and ruining the whole future stretching out in front of me, fear of going to Vietnam. Nothing exceeds the intensity of the fears you have at age 20. I never dreamed these things remain bottled up inside this way, capable of being reexperienced with the full neurological discharge as accompanied the original perception.)
These guys at the sit-in, too, elevated us, and I was proud of them. I wanted Colgate to be part of what the rest of the country was doing. A few hundred joined the sit-in.
The nation's radio was wiring the country together so that someday soon a key deejay might pass a word prompting hundreds of thousands to hit the road thumbs up, ad hoc logis-tics predictably sound, to moratoriums in Washington D.C. But Kent State and that was in the future.
The sit-in washed across campus and unfortunately added to the tension, apparently. Under our veneer there was only a thin homogenized layer of views holding us together and it fell apart under that kind of tension. Our class was always fractionalized, composed of people of widely differing views.
For me, Colgate wasn't really fun, and I'm not sure at those prices it was supposed to be fun. I had no plans other than to get through this winter workhouse, but for others Colgate was their ticket to the "club," or to a bank vice presidency, or a professional sports career. So given such diverse personalities in our class, the Colgate spirit meant a lot of contradictory things to different members. In my mind it came to signify a defiantly independent tradition curiously juxtaposing the Balmuth philosophy dialogues and a spartan, spunky Red Raider sports elan from those celebrated teams capable of rising up and smiting an Army, a Rutgers or a Syracuse. Why those two elements stand out in my mind I don't know, but they do.
But there was a waffling on issues that you encountered that puzzled me during this time when the country's very national culture began unraveling. I looked for a sharp edge in views expressed by both us and our faculty, in developing views at that crossroads period of the '60s that defined our lives. It may well have been that the demographics of our class alone somehow made it difficult for anyone to get up on the soapbox and unify everybody. Maybe the alumni liked it that way, I'm not sure. Perhaps it pleased those others of us looking forward to careers in corporations or small towns where you have to watch carefully what you say.
Years later when it no longer mattered, the ones in the thick of the sit-in would recall bitterly those mates who didn't back them, and for them the sit-in may have begun the parting of the ways for the Class of '69. After graduation many of us would hit the road, "Speaking words of wisdom, Let it be. " Enough said. Not too many would come back to Colgate. We just let it be.
Charles A. Dana, whom I remember remarking in 1969, "It's sure going to be nice having women around here," failed to impress me at the time. I thought he was just an old man who liked coeds. But he was wiser than that. Administration and no doubt its benefactors brought women in and made Colgate coed because they perceived problems to exist with the old way. The occasion of the school's 150th (Sesquicentennial) birthday in 1969 was a godsend, providing an excuse for a great building program doubling the floor space on The Hill. Both happened too late for us.
Seeing Colgate's new architectural glories for the first time, I admit I felt some deep stirrings. You and all your people are absolutely the best now, Colgate. It could be said that if the Blue Ridge are beautiful, the Adirondacks great, and the Rockies magnificent, then Colgate, which was beautiful in my day, is magnificent now. A more breathtaking place could not be found this June. Everything about you is beautiful. You've spared no expense since the Sesquicentennial year when you began selecting fine, loving architects and building materials for miraculous edifices along the lines of the 19th century Quad. I admire your uncompromising art and form, absolute fidelity to principle, utility and purpose. I love your organic nest of hillside perches along twisting trails rising to the Quad where founders implanted residences and classrooms in the first and only application of right angle to pavement on The Hill. A few years back our alumni magazine was named best in the nation; the campus itself now merits the title. The best in professors and staff, happy students who have a well-adjusted look about them, men and women alike, coexist in harmony here. Maybe you can stop building now, before the architects start using your last remaining lots as vitae fodder. You don't need them. You're beautiful, Colgate.
The question that concerns me is whether memories of the '60s remain an impediment for alumni. And if they do, what to do about that. Not for nostalgia's sake or for those like me who are coming back to Colgate, but to get others to come back for their own sakes. We're too strong for this, everyone. All of us can benefit from revitalizing the foundations of our lives in a great place like this. For while we weren't looking, Colgate has been doing something forthright and constructive about its needs and become a splendor to behold. We can at least get over it and do something about our need to keep in touch and say, "Thank you, alma mater" for three decades of being true to yourself and to your principles and to each other.
Then came quite a few years in university public relations, ad agency account management, investment partnership communications, real estate sales and Macintosh design jobs that at the time didn't seem to be leading anywhere -- plus graduate school in communications at Fairfield University, which caused me to reevaluate all my journalistic notions.
After designing and launching the Hendry-Glades Sunday News in Clewiston, Florida, where this piece first appeared, and building it up for three years, I concluded that news-papering may be in the business of selling sizzle, but it's a business that businessmen have no business in. My brand of journalism is mine alone, and borrows from no one except Edward R. Murrow. Unquestioned accuracy and willingness to stand up against United States Sugar Corp. or a group of county commissioners are their own reward. -- Raoul Bataller '69
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