Amherst is justly proud of its Black alumni, several of whom are featured in the Bicentennial issue (Fall 2021), and its commitment to integrated education. But we don’t always acknowledge how badly some Black students were treated at Amherst. Genna Rae McNeil describes a common experience in her biography of Charles Hamilton Houston, class of 1915: “Occasionally there were professors who simply could not believe that a black student could be worthy of a better-than-average grade.”
Similarly, the magazine describes Clyde Fitch, class of 1886, as a forgotten playwright and includes a photo of him in makeup and a dress, but does not acknowledge that queer men at Amherst were harassed and erased. In his 1946 memoir, Alfred Stearns, class of 1894 (for whose family Stearns Hall was named), wrote about harassing Fitch while growing up in Amherst: “His immaculate clothes, his gloves and cane, his spats and gaudy vests, and above all his ‘dinky’ little mustache, seemed to us pure and inexcusable affectations. We branded him a ‘sissy,’ and our common ambition was to find some way, if this could be done with reasonable assurance of safety to ourselves, to muss up those clothes and bring discomfort or worse to the wearer. … In these later years it is hard to define the feeling shared by us all, but it was very real and seems to have had its origin in our youthful belief that here was somebody or something that could not properly measure up to the accepted standards demanded of a ‘he-man.’”
I lived in Stearns Hall as a freshman and joined the rugby team, where the upperclassmen taught us a whole bunch of sexist and homophobic drinking songs. Beyond singing these songs, I don’t know whether any of us harbored ill will toward women or gay men. I don’t know if any of us was gay.
To me, the entire Bicentennial issue felt a little too proud of Amherst’s support for civil rights. We’ve had our moments, but we could have done better.
Dan Levinson Wilk ’95
“The Moderna Era” (Summer 2021) article in Amherst is a good account of how science is transformed into technology that benefits society. However, Stephen Hoge ’98 is quoted with tendentious claims, for example, that Pfizer “basically copied [Moderna’s] approach.” Pfizer’s know-how in mRNA stems from its partnership with BioNTech, a pioneering German firm in immunotherapy launched in 2008, whose CEO has been in mRNA-related research since the late 1990s. Both Moderna and BioNTech base key parts of their vaccines on the groundbreaking work of Karikó and Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s.
The take-home message is that success in developing COVID vaccines has involved the pairing of international scientific innovation with the financial backing of large companies and governments. This has been the case not just in the United States and Europe, but in Russia (Sputnik), China (Sinovac) and India (Covaxin) as well.
I refer Amherst readers seeking balanced accounts of the race to develop an mRNA vaccine to Nature (2021, v. 597, pp. 318–324) and The Boston Globe (Nov. 10, 2020).
Mark Handy ’80
Berlin and Edinburgh
I would like to address two matters in the article “Dentes Elevent!” (Winter 2022), about the Latin translation of the phrase “Tusks Up!” First, why is it necessary to translate the Latin levate into the English “levitate”? The verb levo levare can be perfectly well translated as “raise up,” thereby eliminating the here nonsensical transitive use of “levitate.” Second, the phrase Dentibus elevates is labeled and translated in the article as an ablative absolute. While Dentibus here is indeed in the ablative case, the participle should be spelled elevatis, not elevates.
Jay M. Freyman ’64
Freyman is an associate professor emeritus of ancient studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The “levitate your teeth” phrasing in the story was in good fun; it wasn’t meant to be a proper translation. “Elevatis” is indeed the right spelling. The misspelling seems to have been an autocorrect error. –Editor
In the Fall 2021 Bicentennial issue, we asked readers to suggest additional entries for our College timeline. Dean Heitler ’62 offered an entry on Phi Gamma Delta, and Reuben Clay ’60 provided the details. –Editor
Phi Gamma Delta was a national, indeed international, fraternity with approximately 144 member chapters in 1957, including at Amherst. The five stated values of the fraternity were friendship, knowledge, service, morality and excellence. Phi Gamma Delta emphasized scholastic achievement, and the Amherst chapter was one of, if not the, highest-ranking throughout the 1950s. In 1958, the Amherst fraternity was renamed Phi Gamma Chi after its suspension from membership in the national/international organization over issues of “racial discrimination.” On information and belief, the suspension occurred when and because Phi Gam chose to pledge a Black Amherst student, Reuben Clay ’60, and refused to remove him as a pledge. Phi Gamma Chi survived and prospered as long as Amherst fraternities were allowed.
Dean J. Heitler ’62
New York City
I entered Amherst in 1956 from Richmond, Va., citadel of the South, capital of the Old Dominion, site of the government of the Confederate States of America.
New England was the place for college for me, from what I had read. Getting away from Jim Crow had a lot to do with it.
Once I arrived at Amherst I felt free. I could go to restaurants and the movies, sit in any seat of an arena or concert. But there were other discriminations. The Amherst Student reported that certain fraternities had clauses that would restrict membership. The fraternities at Amherst were unfamiliar; I was aware of the African American fraternities, none of which existed at Amherst. When rush came in spring 1957, several fraternities seemed interested in me, one of which was Phi Gamma Delta.
Phi Gamma Delta had a restricted clause. Harold Haizlip ’57 told me that they were interested in me not as a cause, but for me. So I pledged Phi Gamma Delta. My fellow pledges were a good group, and the fraternity members welcomed me.
The national body that controls the fraternity halted the Amherst chapter from initiating our pledge group, announcing that Amherst College was not conducive to fraternity life. One of the seniors had a connection with a national news magazine and wanted the public to know of the incident. I agreed to be interviewed, with the caveat that my name not be used. This was about the cause, not about me, and my request was honored.
Amherst created a local fraternity, Phi Gamma Chi, that replaced the national, and life went on as if nothing had happened on campus. During that year, some Phi Gamma Deltas from other colleges came to Amherst, and they all wanted to meet me.
In the summer of 1958, the national of Phi Gamma Delta had a convention, at which they discussed the Amherst chapter and mentioned me publicly.
My time at Amherst was pivotal. It changed the way I thought and how I wanted to live. My experience at Phi Gamma Chi had a lot to do with that.
Reuben A. Clay Jr. ’60, M.D.
I learned of the passing of Professor Gordon from Amherst magazine (In Memory, Winter 2022). I was a physics major at Amherst, and he was my thesis adviser as well as a cherished teacher. Professor Gordon was energetic and engaging in the classroom and universally kind and supportive as a mentor. At one point he allowed me to borrow his car to pick up crucial supplies for my thesis project from out of town. He knew I was on scholarship, and he hired me to babysit for his two sons on a Saturday night, my only venture into that arena. He always made his lectures informative and entertaining. One in particular demonstrated the topic of projectile motion using a falling teddy bear and a cart traveling across the stage in perfect synchronization. Years later, when I became a teacher myself, I tried to capture the same spirit of wonder and imagination for my own classes. Whenever I think of Professor Gordon, I picture his face with a wide grin and a twinkle in his eye.
Roger Turton ’71