Trustee Emeritus and class of 1916
Interviewed by J. Alfred Guest on January 23 and May 14, 1976
Tape 1, January 23, 1976:
Tape 2, May 14, 1976:
Rights and citation information
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and was edited heavily by Bixler, it varies significantly from the content of the recording.]
A Conversation with J. Seelye Bixler ‘16
Interviewer: J. Alfred Guest ‘33
Taped in Guest’s Office in Converse Hall
January 23, 1976 and May 14, 1976
Guest: This is something new, I guess, for both of us. But I thought it would be fine if you would review first of all what you said about your attending so many Amherst presidential inaugurations. I believe you said that you were brought to the home of Julius Seelye, now the Phi Psi House, when you were two weeks old. Was Julius Seelye then president or had he retired?
Bixler: This was 1894 and he had retired in 1890. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease-- they then called it “paralysis agitans”-- and one story is that when a friend asked him how he felt, he replied: “I feel fine, but the house I live in is a little shaky!” He was president of Amherst from 1877 till 1890. Then he was professor of philosophy at Amherst he built the red brick house at 10 College Street and he continued to use it while he was president. Then he stayed on in the house after his retirement until his death in 1895. Sometime in the ‘20s the house was sold to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and very considerably enlarged.
I was born in New London, Connecticut, April 4, 1894, but my mother died less than a week later. She was “Bessie” Seelye (Elizabeth James Seelye was her full name) and after her death I was taken to the Amherst house to be looked after by my mother’s two younger sisters, Anna (who became the second wife of Benjamin Kendall Emerson, the geologist) and Mabel who in September 1898 married my father and brought me back to New London where I lived until college.
So my grandfather lived for a year after I was brought to Amherst and one of my treasured possessions is a letter he wrote to be delivered to me “when the proper time shall come” telling me about my mother and giving me his blessing. Incidentally, the College Library now has the fascinating guest book kept by my father and mother in their New London home in 1892. It contains one of the clearest signatures extant from my grandfather with the sentiment: “Life is love and love is life.” And, most interestingly, on the top line of one page is the signature, “Mabel Loomis Todd,” with the quotation from Emily Dickinson beginning, “There is no frigate like a book.”
To come back to the house at 10 College Street-- I used to visit there often in the summer during my childhood. This brings me to my first Amherst inauguration. In the fall of 1899 I happened to be in Amherst when George Harris was inaugurated. My parents and aunt went up to College Hall and as they left told me not to leave the house. Of course I interpreted this liberally and I recall running out into the street just as the inaugural procession emerged from College Hall. So I saw the dignitaries in all their finery and this is the basis for my claim that my experience with Inaugurations goes back to George Harris in 1899.
Later I saw Harris from time to time. I recall his coming back when I was a freshman to talk in chapel, also his preaching in the college church, and when I was a graduate student in New York I remember seeing him when he came out to the Amherst-Columbia football game. He was a handsome man, urbane, cultivated, almost debonair, but-- in all honesty-- I don’t think he was truly an educational leader for Amherst. Many alumni, I know, had a sense that the College was drifting while he was here. I think it was the class of 1885 that drew up a manifesto suggesting that the College adopt a “classical” curriculum, with emphasis on Latin and Greek, and that more attention be paid to both the needs of the faculty and their teaching opportunities. I remember that Meiklejohn once said that before he was called to Amherst he picked this up somewhere and remarked to a friend: “Wouldn’t it be a great thing to be connected with a college that had ambitions like this and to see what direction it could be made to take!”
Then, of course Meiklejohn’s own inauguration came along in 1912.
Guest: Let’s see, didn’t we skip Gates? No, Gates came before Harris. Well, you didn’t attend that inaugural affair!
Bixler: No, I never knew Gates. He wasn’t supposed to have been a very successful president. Apparently the students didn’t respect him. But it is to his credit that he picked some very able faculty-- George Olds in mathematics, and Kimball in physics among them. A trivial story about Gates’s son has it that once when the boy was cutting capers in the Village Church the janitor bawled him out. “I guess you don’t know who I am,” said the boy. “I’m President Gates’s son.” Replied the janitor: “I don’t care if you’re John the Baptist’s son; you can’t behave like that around here!” Meiklejohn came, as I say, in 1912.
Guest: Where were you then?
Bixler: I was a freshman and I had a grandstand seat for the inauguration because I was playing in the college orchestra and we were placed up in the back gallery of College Hall with an excellent view of all the proceedings. The orchestra was conducted by “Biggy,” William Pingry Bigelow ‘89, Professor of Music. I remember that the chorus sang Nungie’s (John Franklin Genung’s) hymn. The music was from Mozart adapted by Biggy-- I believe the hymn is still sung on some occasions. There were of course other musical selections but I can’t remember the titles. I do remember looking down on the platform with Prexy Meiklejohn in the center and various delegates grouped around him and the main body of delegates in the center of the hall.
Prexy’s figure was short and slight, but even with the gown, obviously tough and wiry, and his face was one of the most expressive I have ever seen. As he listened to the speeches addressed to him, you could tell what was going on in his mind. By some he was pleased, by others puzzled, it even seemed as though by some he was repelled. Prexy had the reputation in some quarters of being a cold and distant intellectual but to watch him on this occasion was to see not only what a warm human being he was but how conspicuously he wore his heart on his sleeve.
The speaker-- aside from Prexy-- most clearly etched on my memory is “Doc” Merrill-- Randolph S. Merrill ‘13 who spoke for the students-- I think he was president of Scarab at the time. I don’t seem to remember who represented the faculty or the alumni or who came from other institutions, though Neilson-- who was to enter so prominently into my later life-- must have been there.
One story that Prexy Meiklejohn used to relish was of the alumnus who came up to him afterward and said: “What this college needs more than anything else is a new hall for inaugurations!” Of course it is true that the drama of the occasion was heightened by the fact that the room was too small and scores of alumni were left outside clamoring to get in.
I was swept up into Meiklejohn’s orbit then and I became almost a rabid fan. But, as you know, there were two opinions about him before I left college. I can remember spirited arguments on the subject with my father who was especially troubled by what he thought was Meiklejohn’s lack of a strong religious commitment. My father also criticized him as an administrator on the basis of the way Meiklejohn ran the meetings of the Overseers of the Charitable Fund, of which my father was a member. But I have expressed my feelings about Meiklejohn in some detail in the article in the Alumni News.
Guest: Yes, but is there more to say about Meiklejohn? He is the person who seems to have caught the imagination of undergraduates and faculty because of his drive and educational imagination.
Bixler: The great tragedy of Amherst’s history was, of course, the division over Meiklejohn and the time it took to get over the bitterness it brought. Meiklejohn had tremendous appeal for young men, at least for some young men, and the appeal was just the right sort for the head of an educational institution. We were fired up with enthusiasm for our work. It is hard to think of a more important quality in a college president than the ability to produce that kind of stimulus.
Meiklejohn had an uncanny knack for picking good teachers and he was a magnificent teacher himself. His sophomore logic course enrolled 100 or more. We used to sit in the rather dingy physics auditorium and watch and listen as Prexy, eyes gleaming and voice trembling from excitement, would carry the issue to us. There was nothing namby pamby about his use of the discussion method-- no easy going, “What do you think, Mr. Jones?,” or “How do you feel, Mr. Smith?” Instead it was: “What should you think? How ought you to feel? That conclusion have you reached-- and why?” It was a devastating experience because your own ideas seemed so paltry and trivial, but at the same time it was enormously stimulating. Meiklejohn had that quality-- possessed only by the great teacher-- of sensing the dramatic unity of the class hour. Before the end we would often feel that a certain incandescence descended on us and the embers of our argument were-- so to speak-- caught up in living flame. It was great teaching and I have never known another classroom like it-- in Amherst or elsewhere.
Guest: You speak of Meiklejohn as a teacher. Might this be the time to speak of Garman, whom you said you met once, another great Amherst classroom leader?
Bixler: Yes, I’d like to talk about Garman, but first just one more word about Meiklejohn. The whole tragedy was exacerbated by the fact that there was so much right on both sides. The trustees saw the College becoming bitterly divided against itself and they knew of course that this condition could not continue.
Why was it so divided? Part of the trouble came from the young, enthusiastic, able and articulate group that Meiklejohn brought to the faculty. They were a brilliant crowd, some of them were very good personal friends of mine and I could certainly understand their loyalty to their leader. But as a group they did foolish things, like caucusing conspicuously before faculty meeting, and a few of them were far too combative and intolerant, much too ready to let their older colleagues know that their time of usefulness had passed and that the sooner they were placed on the shelf the better off the College would be. Of course the whole situation was not helped by the fact that so many of the abler students agreed with the younger faculty completely.
As one thinks back one sees an extraordinary lack of tact and one can’t help sympathizing to some extent with the older men who felt they were being eased out and didn’t really understand what the fuss was all about. I think that in this way Meiklejohn was unnecessarily injured by his friends.
To come back, now, to Garman. In the old horse and buggy days I remember being driven as a child to see Garman who, because he had an inordinate fear of germs, lived in a house with whitewashed walls, and when he came to class always appeared swathed with mufflers and bundled up in a heavy coat. His idiosyncrasies contributed, I think, to the feeling on the students’ part that here was a prophet from another world whose message should be taken as a special revelation. Garman contributed to this feeling by handing out in class little pamphlets containing excerpts from writers like Darwin and Spencer and Bagehot. These he had printed himself on his press at home and each copy would bear the legend: “To be returned to the instructor at the end of the course and not to be allowed in the hands of anyone not taking the course.” The whole effect, naturally, was to give the students the feeling that they were being initiated into a cult with a particular esoteric message of which they were to be the honored guardians. Garman’s reason for doing this was that he was afraid the reading material would undermine the students’ religious faith. He didn’t wish it to be accessible to those outside the class because he wanted to be able to reassure the student at the end of the course and reaffirm the basic principles which might have been lost in the skeptical interlude.
But there were two results, one good and one bad, and I doubt if either was foreseen by Garman himself. The good result was that the feeling of membership in a cult brought a real stimulus and sense of pride to the student’s work so that the material itself took on great importance. The student worked harder and learned more than in other courses. What he was studying was “relevant” in the highest degree to his own personal interests. I remember so many alumni of the time who have said that Garman’s course was by far the most impressive of any they had and that Garman himself was a superlative teacher. William James, you know, is supposed to have testified that his best graduate students came from Amherst and had been under Garman’s influence.
He trained a surprising number of philosophical leaders of that generation including Woodbridge of Columbia and Woodworth of Columbia’s psychological department, also Wilcox of Cornell, Tufts of Chicago, Raub, Miss Cutler of Smith, Miss Calkins of Wellesley, and others. And, as I have suggested, his influence was just as great on the non-professionals-- Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Morrow among them.
It is interesting to note that his students felt they received from him two different kinds of benefits. Those who went into the ministry-- like my father-- felt that Garman confirmed and strengthened them in their basic religious beliefs. But the professional philosophers stressed rather Garman’s critical mind and the demonstration he gave of clear thinking.
It must be remembered that Amherst had at the time a very strong religious tradition and that to many of the more thoughtful students it seemed dogmatic and repressive. In Garman they found a teacher who though, obviously a believer, was not a dogmatist but a keen and original mind by whom their own critical faculties were sharpened. So much for his positive influence which, in these sophisticated days, it is easy to laugh at as having its base in a provincial tradition but which in itself does seem to me to be admirable. The trouble (or at least in my view it was “trouble”) came when the student found it difficult to maintain a balance between affirmative faith and critical judgment.
Let me use my beloved father as an example. He had a good mind. (I’m sure you understand that I’m not saying this patronizingly.) He had a much better standing in class than I did in my day; his intellectual grasp was much quicker than mine, and I always respected it. But when religious faith was under discussion his mind always seemed to me to close in a way one would not have expected, and I couldn’t help thinking that for this German was partly responsible. My father felt he had hold of the truth once and for all delivered to the saints. He had been through a skeptical period and had left it behind. What he now believed was sure-- philosophers like Garman (and my grandfather) had shown that it could protect itself against all comers. The net result was that he just couldn’t help me with the skeptical problems that took up so much of my attention during my college days. I think he felt that Meiklejohn in a rather irresponsible way had cultivated the doubting part of the intellectual process and had been more successful in introducing students to the critical rather than what he would have called the “constructive” aspects of the life of inquiry.
So, as I say, I have been inclined to blame Garman in part for a certain obtuseness that it seemed to me my father’s generation showed toward what Meiklejohn was doing and a blindness to its possibilities for good. I should add that the fault may well have been on his students' part, not on Garman’s. In many instances they just weren’t able to see what he was up to. And, in any case, we should look back, I suppose, not to assess blame but to record the phases that Amherst went through. The Garman phase was undoubtedly a positive one and Garman himself was without question a great teacher.
To come back to just a word about that early visit with the horse and buggy-- I remember Mrs. German very well-- with her white hair and gracious manner. She was the one who used to drive her husband to class. In recent months, while looking over some correspondence of my mother’s that has come to light, I have come across many references to Mrs. Garman who seems to have been a close friend of hers and of the family’s. Garman himself was always spoken of in the highest terms by members of our family circle. My chief memory is of his burning eyes-- they looked right into you, but not in such a way as to bring fear because his manner was so friendly.
Just one word more about Garman before we leave him. As teacher and administrator I have of course constantly confronted the “Publish or Perish” slogan and have had to decide how much pressure should be brought on myself and others to write as well as teach. May I say parenthetically that while of course the teaching process is what is really important, and what goes on in the classroom is what determines whether or not a member of the faculty is valuable, it still does seem to me that unless a teacher does some writing and gets his ideas out in print for the criticism of his peers, he misses what should be one of the best aids to good teaching. To express one’s thoughts in writing is a somewhat different process from expressing them in class. In many ways it is harder; it requires discipline of a different sort. Unless he is very exceptional, I think a teacher cannot shirk this and be at his best.
But Garman took a different view. “I have often raised the question as to whether I would not let down my course and take a little rest and devote myself to publishing.” This quote, from page xi of Garman’s Studies in Philosophy and Psychology, should be balm to the soul of many a distracted teacher who can’t bring himself to write! “Take a little rest and devote myself to publishing”-- what a comforting doctrine! It’s teaching that is arduous-- writing is easy. Many a teacher would like to have his work judged in this way! And of course the fact is that Garman didn’t “let down” his course, but put his energies into his teaching and when he wrote it was-- as I believe the memorial tablet in the College Church noted-- “on other men’s hearts.” His former students published in 1906 the Studies in Philosophy and Psychology that I have referred to. Then, in 1909, Mrs. Garman, “with the cooperation of the Class of 1884,” published a memorial volume containing Garman’s Letters, Lectures, and Addresses.
Just one more word about Garman’s influence. Then I was in college, Dutch Newlin was teaching philosophy and Charlie Toll psychology and some philosophy as well. It is interesting to recall that Prexy Harris brought Dutch Newlin to the philosophy faculty specifically to maintain Garman’s influence. Newlin was a mathematician, but he had been a star pupil of Garman’s. Harris’s idea was that what Amherst needed was as much of Garman’s influence as possible and a person who had done outstanding work in Garman’s course would be able to continue the course. For what it is worth, my opinion is that this was a serious mistake. Newlin was a fine man whom I liked very much and I have no doubt he was a competent mathematician. His philosophy course to me was a disappointment and I always thought Amherst could have offered more and better philosophy teaching than it did while I was there. In fact I now recall a remark Prexy Meiklejohn made to me once in confidence when we were discussing these matters. He said (if I remember rightly) “Amherst owes its students an apology for not having better work in philosophy.” I felt the same way but I’d have preferred another course to an apology!
In fairness I should add that my criticisms of Newlin’s course were those of a callow undergraduate. Many of my comrades disagreed, including my much loved cousin Laurens Seelye who was to become a professional philosopher and who had nothing but admiration for Newlin’s course and all Newlin’s works.
Guest: You were talking about Meiklejohn. Were you in Amherst, after college, as alumnus or teacher or assistant or something? Didn’t you get an MA in 1920?
Bixler: That’s right. I graduated in 1916, went out to India for a year, then had a year at Union Seminary. On September 21, 1918, while I was doing a brief stint in the army, Mary and I got married and then after Christmas we settled down in what was then an apartment house, right back of the Phi Psi House on Seelye Street where the parking lot is now. I remember we had planned to go to Oxford but that possibility was cut off, so we came to Amherst and Prexy Meiklejohn in his generous way told me I could have the run of the library and take what courses I liked.
In the spring of 1919 he said: “Why don’t you stay here another year and work for your M.A.-- using credits from Union? As a half-time job you can take on the Directorship of Religious Activities.” So again we settled down in that dear old college town-- this time on the banks not of the “old Freshman” but of the idyllic little brook that ran back of the Phi Psi House. In my boyhood I had played in that brook which was just behind my grandfather’s barn., And this leads to a brief excursion into topography.
College Street was at times called “Faculty Street.” Right across what is now Seelye Street, from my grandfather’s house, was the house of Old Doc Hitchcock, now occupied by Kurt Herzfeld and his family. I remember Old Doc so well. When I was a small boy we used to go to the Hitchcocks’ for Sunday evening prayers. Miss Lucy Hitchcock would play the little melodeon and Old Doc would saw away at a bull fiddle, which was a sort of cross between a cello and a bass viol. How vividly I remember his fervent prayers! I can also remember his speech at the dedication of Pratt Natatorium-- even some of his phrases. “Swim hard boys, and spew the water out of your mouth when you want to.” One of the aphorisms of his hygiene lectures which was famous was “Trust in God and keep your bowels open.” When I was a sub-freshman, I remember attending the Grove exercises at Commencement when the Grove orator in the middle of his speech said: “As Old Doc used to abjure us: ‘Trust in God and ... !“ The audience gasped. This sort of thing wasn’t talked about out loud in those days. Then the speaker went on, “keep your windows open.” The roar of laughter showed how great the tension had been!
Continuing down the street toward the railroad, the next house was the Tuckermans’. Mr. Tuckerman was a well known figure, but I am inexcusably foggy about him. I believe he was a scientist. I remember his two daughters-- Margaret and Frieda. Mr. Jim Cooper lived with them at that time and Miss Annie Cooper. I was never sure about the relationship. On the other side of the railroad were the saw mill and the hat factory-- keeping up a perpetual humming sound. The hat factory was owned, I think, by the Burnetts.
Guest: Wasn’t the Hills family involved?
Bixler: Yes, I’m sure the Hills family had an interest in one or both factories. Across the street from the Tuckermans was a house I vaguely associate with the Fields family, the Montague family, and, I think, the Tuttles, as well as the Henry Preserved Smiths-- “Pickles” to the students! Then moving westward up the street, away from the railroad, was the house occupied long before my time by the Clark Seelyes, and in my time by the Grosvenors.
What I remember especially about them was their fascinating flock of pigeons which used to roost on the barn. The Grosvenor boys, including the one who became the famous Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic, were older than I and I knew them only as legends. Grovie himself I remember very well. He was teaching when I was in college and he and “Nungie,” John Franklin Genung (it was Edward Augustus Grosvenor) were famous for giving the two well known “gut” courses where you didn’t even have to go to class because someone else could answer when your name was called.
Across the little driveway, where the music building is now, was the Fairbank home. I believe that Fairbank was the college treasurer. Later the house was occupied by Harry DeForest (“Mike”) Smith. Next to the west-- toward Hamp-- was the Richardson house. Richardson was professor of German. Then, on the corner, was the old Boltwood house, which was I think the home of Phi Delta Theta.
Across the street, on the north side of the street, was Beta Theta Pi. Next came the home of Dr. Harry Seelye, a distant relative, whose son Seth Seelye was a great crony of mine. Then, working toward the railroad, the old Chi Phi house. In those days each fraternity had its tennis court and I was fascinated by the tennis of those Chi Phi boys. I remember what an honor it seemed to retrieve the balls which would go over the wire backstop. Then just separated by a path from my grandfather's was Nungie’s house. His daughter Eleanor and son John were my playmates in those days. The older daughter, Martha, was to marry Foster Stearns.
I have spoken of Nungie’s “gut” courses. I hardly knew Nungie when I was an undergraduate, but when Mary and I lived in Amherst we used to play quartets with him and Miss Annie Kidder, sister of Harry W. Kidder, the treasurer. Then when I went on into further graduate work, I read some of Nungie’s books-- his book on Job and the Guide Book to the Biblical Literature. I was interested and surprised to discover that they were excellent. The surprise caine because they showed the influence of a lively, aggressive mind, and the impression he had given to the boys who used to bamboozle him in his classes was of a mind anything but active and aggressive. Why did he let himself be thought of as so prosy and dull and ineffective? He didn’t do himself justice.
This brings us back to my grandfather’s house and its barn-- plastered inside with pictures of the famous pacer “Maud S.” We had a horse, “Black Beauty,” and a cow, and when I was a child carriage rides were often the order of the day. Incidentally, the other evening when I watched an installment of the “Adams Chronicles” on TV, I was shocked to see that the actor who played Adams sat in the left seat as he drove the horse! No one in the studio seemed to know enough to correct that. You always sat on the right with the right hand ready to grab the whip from the whip socket which was consistently on the right. The haymow was of course a wonderful place for a boy to play. Our man of all work was Alfred Ray and his son Frank was a good companion.
In the house, which was much smaller then, as Phi Psi has added to it conspicuously, I remember my grandfather’s study with the marble mantel over the fireplace and the Munkacsi picture “Christ Before Pilate” over the fire. On the east side, toward the Hitchcocks, was a comfortable porch and a small pine grove. In the cellar were the milk rooms where the cream would rise and then be scooped off either with a big spoon or a small perforated dish.
An iron pipe fence ran along College Street. The fine large side yard had a magnificent oak (I think it is still there), also a hickory tree and flower beds with peonies. These were the same beds which my grandmother (in a letter found recently) said had been trampled by the mob which invaded the lawn on the evening my grandfather was declared elected to Congress in the famous “postage stamp campaign.” When asked to list his expenses he replied: “One cent for the post card accepting the nomination.”
A memory of the railroad station at the end of College Street, or just a little north of the street (it is still there), should be put down. It has to do with the experience of seeing the boys go off to the Spanish-American War so it must have been in 1898 when I was four years old. I remember the trains-- several of them-- with the whistles blowing in great style and the boys leaning out the windows waving their hats. As one train stopped at the station we said goodbye to John Hitchcock (Amherst ‘89, this was Peggy Hitchcock’s father) who was in the medical corps and Albert Hitchcock who enlisted as a private. Albert was later to marry Charlotte Emerson, B.K. Emerson’s daughter. This was one of my earliest memories, and the connection with the war makes it a historic one.
Guest: Let’s go back to the inaugurations. We had come to the departure of Meiklejohn.
Bixler: After Meiklejohn came George D. Olds. Out of the squabbling mess which accompanied Meiklejohn’s departure in 1923, Olds emerges with the cleanest record and the most admirable steadiness and loyalty to the College of all the disputants. I hope that history will do justice to the part Olds played in the whole affair and I hope this all the more devoutly because I wasn’t wholly aware at the time of just what a constructive influence Olds had been.
Olds was not an Amherst man-- he came to Amherst from Rochester and became an exceedingly popular teacher of mathematics and a much respected dean. He was one of the triumvirate who ruled the College between Gates’s reign and that of Meiklejohn-- the others were Old Doc Hitchcock and Tip Tyler. He was acting president of the College more than once, if my memory serves. When Gates left he was the candidate for the presidency of many, perhaps a majority, of the alumni. I can even remember an alumnus talking to me about it, way back in 1911 when I was in high school. Perhaps more important he was the candidate of the faculty, and the faculty communicated this fact to the trustees. But when Meiklejohn came, Olds showed not the slightest trace of disappointment or jealousy and became, on the contrary, Meiklejohn’s most effective interpreter both to faculty and alumni. I recall one instance vividly.
In the year 1919-20, although I didn’t have a teaching post I was officially a voting member of the faculty by virtue of my work with religious activities. By this time the faculty lines were drawn. Each item recommended by the administration could count on receiving the support of about a third of the faculty and the more or less active opposition of the others. At one meeting there was discussion of some administration proposal-- I forget what it was-- and Biggy of the music department got up to say that he really didn’t understand very well what it was all about and he thought the decision might be put off until everyone had been able to grasp the idea and see what it really was. Immediately Olds was on his feet, saying in effect that he was no more intelligent than the next man but he-- like the others-- had heard the president’s explanation. The proposal meant this and this and so and so. It was a perfectly clear suggestion and he felt it should be acted on at once. We should remember that in position and status and in terms of length of tenure, Olds was actually one of the “old guard” and he might well have been influenced by his affiliations with that group. Instead, his loyalty was unqualifiedly to the administration. At alumni meetings as well he was conspicuous as an effective interpreter of administration policy.
GUEST: He was Dean at the time?
Bixler: Yes, and, as I say, an extremely popular and successful teacher of mathematics. So far as I could see, Olds didn’t become at all disaffected until the very end, when he saw the College really falling to pieces and knew that something would have to be done. Then, as I understand it, Dwight Morrow, who had been the real leader of the trustees all through the dispute, came to Olds and said, in effect: “Here is the college, cut in two, you are the only person who can bind up the wounds and restore it.” And Olds, who, I believe, was 65 at the time and might well have been expecting retirement, agreed to take the presidency. He made a moving inaugural address ending with the expression (in effect): “I wish I had more to offer but I do offer my life.” He stayed four years and was able to bring to the faculty some very talented men.
I just said that Morrow was the trustee leader at the time Meiklejohn was removed, though Plimpton was chairman of the board, and what I meant was that by all reports Morrow was the person who was most active in arranging for meetings, interviews, collection of evidence, and things like that. Neilson told me once that Morrow had spent some time with him asking if Neilson couldn’t throw light on the tragic events, helping to explain what a president’s attitude would be and what should be expected of him. I get the strong impression that Morrow moved to the tragic end with great reluctance and real sadness and I must say I have also the impression that the same was not true of Stanley King who, from the record, seems to have been almost vindictive at times. Vindictive is too strong a word, but Stanley was sure that Meiklejohn was a menace and must be gotten rid of. Meiklejohn, I fear, had not treated him too tactfully at times (there is a story of Meiklejohn’s being “too Busy” to see Stanley once when he called).
The record seems to show that Morrow later felt, from 1923 on, that the whole affair could have been handled differently-- and better. One item that always should be remembered is that at the end the trustees suggested that Meiklejohn should remain on as professor of philosophy and someone else, perhaps Walter Stewart, Meiklejohn’s friend and appointee, should be made executive officer.
To come back to Olds. He stepped into this real mess and though of course he had strong support from many faculty and alumni as well as board members, he encountered many signs of opposition which must have been extremely unpleasant for him. One sign on a door, placed presumably by students, read: “We want Meiklejohn; to hell with Olds.” It took a long time for the wounds to heal and Olds had to face many obstacles in the way of the cure. But Morrow was right in believing Olds could do it and that presumably he was the only person the board could turn to.
I used to know the Olds family from way back, 1904 and thereafter. While visiting my aunt Mrs. Emerson on Northampton Road, I would go over to Orchard Street to see Leland and George Olds and play with them on Pratt Field. Clara was just my age and Marion was later a student of mine at Smith. When I was back on the staff at Amherst Mary and I used to go to the Orchard Street home to play trios with Mrs. Olds, a very fine pianist, and regularly she would invite us to stay for Sunday supper. This gave me a chance for many talks with Georgie Olds. My respect for him grew each time.
So Olds was inaugurated in 1924 and, as I noted, made a moving speech. By that time I was teaching in Smith and I came over for the inauguration in my colorful new Ph.D. gown, the first opportunity, I think, I had to wear it. Dwight Morrow had wanted to put on a good show for the inauguration so he arranged to pay the expenses of all alumni in academic work so that they could come back and display their finery and make the academic procession as colorful as possible.
The next inauguration was that of Pease in 1927. I have said that Olds served four years and that he was inaugurated in 1924. The apparent discrepancy stems from the fact that he served for a year as president (or acting president) before his inauguration. Pease was an appointee of Olds. At. Pease’s inauguration I can remember Olds saying: “I fished for a professor of classics and caught a college president.”
Pease was a botanist as well as a classicist, but so far as I know he didn’t teach botany. I can recall some distress among Meiklejohn’s followers at the time. I don’t want to misquote Ordway Tead, of sainted memory, but my recollection of a conversation with him has him commenting on Pease’s tastes-- for classics, for botany, also (how we got this notion I don’t know) for nineteenth century ideas in general. This seemed a far cry from Meiklejohn the activist and reformer. And in a way we were right. Pease was a nice man but lacking in charisma. He was steady, responsible, not one to stir up trouble. I recall that Neilson once said to me he thought the board had chosen a member of the faculty because they wanted in this somewhat subtle way to show their respect for Olds who also had been a member of the faculty and had done such a fine job.
So Pease was a scholar and a quiet man and I don’t think he enjoyed being president at all. He lasted for five years, then returned to Harvard and to teaching. Certainly there was no retrogression during his presidency. The wheels turned smoothly and quietly. Perhaps it was just as well to prolong the freedom from turmoil as long as possible. Later when I was teaching at Harvard, I became much better acquainted with Pease than I had been before and I found him also a happier man than he had seemed to be while president. We both had classes in Emerson Hall at nine o’clock and then in Radcliffe at ten, so we used to join forces regularly and make the walk to Radcliffe together. He had a quiet humor that was delightful and in such circumstances he was a charming companion.
The next inauguration was that of Stanley King in 1932. I was still at Smith and of course came over to walk in the academic procession. What I remember chiefly is the close of the inaugural address when Stanley took off his mortar board and waved it at Peg who was sitting in the balcony. Stanley was of course a very vigorous president. I think it was George Funnell who once in conversation said he thought Stanley was the greatest president in Amherst’s history. The remark surprised me at the time because-- looking in from the outside-- I had had the impression that Stanley was running the College as he would run a shoe factory and that the businessman’s view and attitude prevailed. I was glad to get testimony of a different sort from one much nearer the actual goings-on. The next inauguration was that of Charlie Cole. By this time I was at Colby and of course I came back. Charlie was a great help as a presidential colleague and I much enjoyed being on the board during his term of office. He did a lot for the College. By the way, I was amused at the way the College for a time seemed to turn to Mother Goose for its presidents. “Old Mr. Meiklejohn, had a leg of hickory on,” “Pease porridge hot,” and “Olds King Cole-(each)- a merry old soul!”
Then Cal Plimpton. His inauguration is the one I may be said to have had a small part in bringing about, since I was on the “search committee” and, ironically enough, it is the one I had to miss. We were on our way to Hawaii at the time. I was trying to get far away to leave [President] Bob Strider as free a hand as possible at Colby. So we deliberately put ourselves out of range for his inauguration and that meant we had to miss Cal’s as well.
Then came Bill Ward’s, which is recent history. So, having seen everything from Harris to Ward-- with the exception of the induction of good friend Cal-- I claim the record as an inauguration attender. Though the account at Commencement of Earl Ward’s long connection with the College may well present a challenge!
Guest: Well, there’s the capsule of your inauguration experiences, along with some further insights into the Meiklejohn affair. Now why don’t we turn to fraternities and your life at Alpha Delta Phi? At that time you had the house which was the predecessor of the present one-- was that the red stone building?
Bixler: No, the red brick building from 1912 on has been Psi U. Alpha Delt had a rather sallow yellowish gray building, looking somewhat like a chateau; it was popularly known as the “ice box on the hill.” How seriously we took that jibe and how hard we tried to correct it! And speaking of Psi U, I think it should go into the record that I remember the old wooden frame Psi U house that stood on the same lot but not on the corner. On the corner was the famed boarding house of Mrs. Davis. Baron Kanda speaks of this in his Reminiscences, and when I saw Baron Kanda in Tokyo in 1916 I remember he asked me what had happened to the old house. It was a somewhat squat yellow building presided over by Mrs. Davis whom I recall very well as an incredibly ancient person (probably much younger than I am now). My family took me there to lunch-- I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. By one of these funny tricks of memory I recall that she said-- equably, and not complainingly-- that she had just been robbed of $100 and that she kept thinking what she might have done with that sum if she had it. My family showed appropriate sympathy.
Now to come back to the fraternities. I suppose no one ever had a richer fraternity experience than mine. I was with a most congenial group of boys whom I loved and who did many, many things for me. But I must say that the experience was tainted by the nagging feeling-- all four years-- that the exclusiveness of the fraternity system was just intolerable. We used to try to justify it to ourselves by saying that ninety percent of the student body belonged to fraternities and of the remaining ten percent at least half didn’t want to join. But there was that five percent who were just plain excluded and could hardly have helped being bitter. After initiation, which came the night before the Williams game or the Wesleyan game, whichever was played at Amherst, we would go out and sing on the porch of the Alpha Delt house. We had just been through a long ceremony as well as a banquet. Our hearts were full and our voices strong and we used to bellow the familiar songs till all the welkins rang. Next door the Gammies would be caroling lustily and across the common were the Betas and the D.U.s singing their hearts out. It was a time of unrestrained brotherly feeling. But what of the boys up in the dormitories who were left out? How did they feel? I know that some of them made a habit of leaving town that night and a few never came back! My conscience has always bothered me that although I felt this way I did nothing in college to start a movement for 100% rushing. Though I understand that when that came it didn’t work too well-- is that true?
Guest: Well, it worked pretty well. There were still some who didn’t desire to join, but there were others who as a result of this policy did get into fraternities and wouldn’t have otherwise. I think it did some good. I remember one case particularly which is in line with what you were saying-- Stanley Marcus of the Class of 1925 from Dallas left after his first year because he felt so isolated, and I think he has made some comments in public about this. But, as you say, it was a rich life for you and perhaps the most interesting part of your college life.
Bixler: Yes, and it was rich because the boys were so congenial. We had a perfectly wonderful delegation. Two were lost in the first war, Tom Ashley at Belleau Wood and Bob Gillett in an airplane-training accident in this country. The memory of these boys haunts me and as the years go by I seem to think of them more rather than less. Why should they have been cut off from the chance the rest of us had for a home and family along with interesting work?
Bob, it is true, was married to Marjorie Root about a year before he was killed. Marjorie was a classmate and friend of Mary’s at Smith, also a classmate of Sue Chase whom Homer Lane married. Tom was the prodigy from Deerfield, a farmer’s boy, a bit crude and decidedly negative at first, who was won over by those geniuses, Mr. and Mrs. Boyden, and who had decided to give his life to the Academy. He was a star in athletics, an honest and congenial companion. There is a portrait of him at Deerfield and one here in the Alumni Gym. Bob’s background was the opposite in the sense that he came from a cultivated, sophisticated home (his father was Professor Arthur Gillett of Hartford Seminary, and his uncle, Senator Frederick Gillett). He and Homer Lane roomed across the hall from Chuck Weeden and me. He was original, charming, brilliant in his way.
The next to go was Billy Tow, from cancer. He was from New York’s East Side, reporter for the Tribune and, in college, football quarterback. Still living are Chuck Weeden, now in Weston, after a teaching career at Noble and Greenough’s; Homer Lane, in Hartford, after a long ministry in Congregational churches in Connecticut; and Charlie Brown, businessman in Chicago. These three were back for our 60th reunion. To name them and the others is to bring back so many memories so vividly.
Stu Rider and I became brothers-in-law — we married the Thayer sisters from Minneapolis. Lew Douglas was our most famous member — Director of the Budget and Ambassador to England. (His brother-in-law, Jack McCloy, by the way, a Beta, was of course the most famous member of the class). Bill Avirett was at Deerfield, then with the Herald Tribune, then the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hump Redfield went into money-raising, with John Price Jones Co. (known among us as “What Price Jones Co.!”). Bud Whetstone married my cousin Elizabeth Emerson and was headmaster at several schools before retiring to Jaffrey. Harry Balmos became a businessman in New Jersey.
Then there was the remarkable delegation of 1915, a year ahead of us. My closest friend there and certainly one of my closest in all life is Walter Agard, still living in Madison Wisconsin, after a brilliant career in classics. He, with John Gaus, followed Meiklejohn to Wisconsin from Amherst. Then there was Dick Pratt, later my colleague on the Amherst board, Tuffy Cutler, Ack Robinson, Artie Ralston, Les Webster (recently memorialized at Amherst), and Ted Cross. Ted’s brother Gorham was in 1918 — is it his son who is on the board now?
Guest: Gorham Cross had three sons, all at Amherst. Ted Cross ‘46 is now on the board, Gorham Cross ‘52 is in the printing business, and Red (Lamont) Cross is also one of the three brothers.
Bixler: 1918 was an interesting crowd. It included Stu Meiklejohn (Prexy’s nephew), Ed Morehouse, Andy Morehouse, Jim Warren, Allan Saunders (still living and visited by us annually in Honolulu), Henry Ladd, Baxter Evans. In 1917 was my very good friend Steve Raushenbush whom we saw recently in Florida. In 1914 was Walter (Beany) Greene, my boyhood friend from Jaffrey days with whom I roomed at Amherst in his senior and my sophomore year. And the 1913 delegation included Ted Greene, also a Jaffrey boyhood friend who married Dorothy Thayer, Mary’s cousin; also Jack Coates and Harry Wilder and that wonderful person Frank Babbott. Why shouldn’t that environment of human beings produce a happy time?
Two incidents are perhaps worth recalling. The first is an amusing one and has to do with Frank Babbott and Lew Douglas. It comes to mind because two aspiring authors are now writing biographies of Lew and as I fished in my memory for anecdotes for them this one popped up. During some of the very mild post-initiation hazing at Alpha Delt, we freshmen, although we had been initiated, were put through our paces after a Tuesday night meeting and forced to perform various stunts. At the end the upperclassmen formed a line and came marching in front of us singing the old hazing song: “The man who has no home to call his own must find a home somewhere.” We freshmen, grouped in a corner were apprehensive, a little sore, more than fed up with the whole process, aggrieved because after all we had been initiated. Then the line reached us and, unexpectedly, Frank Babbott the leader put out his hand for a friendly greeting, we rebelled. Instead of responding Lew shouted, “I won’t,” and withdrew his hand. Now, believe me, this took courage and is a reminder that Lew always had plenty of spunk. Frank was of course taken aback because he had meant the gesture in a friendly spirit and after a pause finally said: “I demand of you in the name of our Alpha Delta Phi brotherhood that you shake hands.” Well, of course there was no one with whom we’d have been more glad to shake hands than with Frank and it dawned on all of us, including Lew, that this was, after all, a peace-making overture, so all was settled amicably. But Lew was quite ready to put on the gloves or scrap barehanded with a senior or anyone else!
The high point of fraternity life for me was Tuesday evening with Goat and then the marvelous sociable hours with the solemn fraternity meeting behind us. We took Goat very seriously indeed-- always wearing dark suits and black shoes, NEVER cutting, and we were always most conscientious in our preparation for the literary exercises. Perhaps that was our greatest difference from the present generation.
Guest: It was the same in my time, and it continued until the war.
Bixler: As I recall the literary exercises, they produced very creditable papers and debates and discussions. When they were over we would have a business session. Then at the end we would come lockstep downstairs singing “Come and listen to me now all ye sons of A D Phi.” So uncomprehending was I that it took me three undergraduate years to catch on to the fact that it was written by the girls who were spoofing the secret society and all its mysteries!
By the way, I said a while back that there were two “incidents” about members of the delegation that I wanted put into the record and I forgot to tell about the second one, perhaps because it is a sad story, a story rather than an “incident.” It has to do with the last word we ever had from Tom Ashley. After his death a letter was received by his family from a member of his company, part of which said, as I recall it, “Lieutenant Ashley was always very bitter against the Germans. In the morning he would ask us ‘What are the targets for our bayonets, boys?,’ and we would reply ‘German bodies.’ Then he would say: “What will we wash our blades in?” and the reply was ‘German blood.’” The real poignancy of the story comes from the fact that Tom was far from a German hater. What he hated was war and this was his ironic jest at his own expense and that of his comrades, the point of which they missed entirely.
After the war Tom’s father used to come to Amherst to football games. As he stood beside me at one of them he said: “I can just see Tom in there, right in the middle of the fracas; he was always where the action was.”
I feel like making a confession about Tom. We had two or three differences of opinion during our four years together-- I remember one excursion to Holyoke to a traveling opera company which put on “The Bohemian Girl.” One of the horses got stuck in the stage shrubbery. I can remember how Tom and I laughed and laughed. But to return to the differences of opinion-- they were over matters like fraternity policy or procedures in rushing and the reason for recalling them is that as I think back I believe Tom was always right. I didn’t realize it at the time but Tom’s sense for human situations, especially those that impinged on ethical issues, was remarkably sure. I am really embarrassed to recall that on several occasions it was obviously surer than mine. His sense for what was honest was acute.
Now back to the sociable times after fraternity meetings. As I say, we would come downstairs lock step and do a sort of snake dance around the public rooms, then we’d sing “There’s beauty in you crescent moon,” give the grip, and make a bee line for the table with refreshments. The refreshments were only milk and sandwiches, but nothing ever tasted better! I am interested, as I look back, to realize that not only did we never have liquor but we seemed to feel no desire for liquor. All the houses had strict rules against drinking on the premises and so far as I know they were strictly observed. There really was very little liquor consumed by our college generation. The boys would go over to Dick Rahar’s at Hamp one or two evenings a week perhaps (many, of course, didn’t go at all) and the Saturday night 10:30 trolley from Hamp would be filled with song and good cheer, followed by the ritual around the Gammy tree, but most of what was drunk was beer and, by today’s standards I would say very little of that. I remember a keg party on Pratt Field as an annual event, but it wasn’t very raucous. So, as I say, we would have our sandwiches and milk, while on special occasions, such as the election of a house president, we adjourn to Bill McGrath’s drug store for sodas and ice cream.
At that time the Post Office was to the east (down hill) from Tommy Walsh’s store (which was there at the time) and Bill McGrath’s was just to the west of the House of Walsh. Deuel’s drug store, which was older, was over on Pleasant Street in the old Amherst House block. Bill’s place used to be advertised as “On the way to the Post Office.” In some clowning publication Deuel’s was advertised as “On the way to Bill’s.” Adams’s drug store, which was right on the east corner of Main and Pleasant (I believe there is a drug store there now), was neglected by the college crowd. I remember it from my boyhood days chiefly because it had overhead electric fans with long paddle-like arms to drive the flies away. In college days Deuel’s became the great center for phonographs and records. Bill’s relied on its feeling of camaraderie. Bill McGrath and Bob Curley, his partner, made a point of knowing the names of each boy and their place was always full of good fellowship. Bob Curley later opened a drug store in the Plymouth Inn on Green Street in Hemp. I used to stop in often when teaching at Smith. I think my Smith students were amused.
But to come back to fraternity night. For me studying was out of the question after fraternity meeting and the sandwiches; I would plan my week so that the time could be left free and would sit down either in the social room downstairs or in somebody’s room above for the best talk of the week with various pals. This was really the focal point for each week of my college existence. I enjoyed those convivial occasions hugely.
I shouldn’t give the impression that only fraternity brothers were my friends. I had close and dearly loved friends in other houses-- Burt Ames at Chi Psi (his sister, Kay, wife of Bob George ‘11, has for years been a Jaffrey neighbor); Al Washburn at D.U., later a well known pediatrician in Denver; Scott Buchanan at D.U., later dean of St. John’s; Gene Stinson at Phi Psi, who had a magnificent baritone voice and later became music critic for the Chicago Journal, were classmates of whom I was very fond indeed.
Speaking of Phi Kappa Psi, its house was then over on Amity Street. The move to College Street was made, I think, in the ‘20s. D.U. was down by the B. and M. railroad station on South Pleasant Street. It moved to the common while we were in college. Beta’s new house was also built while we were there. Psi U’s was completed in 1912, Chi Psi’s in about 1914, Chi Phi’s I think just after we graduated. Phi Delt’s must have been built in our time. A close friend there of course was Eralsey Ferguson who went with me to India right after college. Theta Delt’s new house must have been built during or just after our period, Deke’s as well. Phi Gam’s was, I think, a little later. It was a great time for fraternity building. I’ve wondered whether the other houses had weekly social times which were at all comparable in enjoyment to ours.
Guest: Faculty were not in on these?
Bixler: Ordinarily they did not come to the Tuesday evening meetings or the social affairs afterward. But they did often come to our Sunday evening sings. We had these regularly each week. At the occasions early in the fall, the freshmen would be forced to stand up-- individually-- and recite the words of the songs they had supposedly learned during the week. It was not a very serious ordeal and was one of the few things required of freshmen by the fraternity. But I remember how I used to stumble and stutter and how I admired Bill Avirett who sailed through them all with the greatest of ease. I recall how pleased and amused Georgie Olds was on one of these occasions when Bill spouted his song letter perfect. Georgie chuckled and slapped his thigh and whispered to his neighbor, obviously saying: “What a boy!” Georgie came once in a while to these Sunday evening gatherings; so did Billy Baxter, another faculty brother. The third Alpha Delt on the faculty was Emmie and I can’t remember his attending, but he did come to initiations. I remember Prexy’s attending at least one Sunday evening sing, and other faculty members and wives came from time to time. There were Smith girls on occasions also. Emmie at initiation was quite a figure. Of course the ceremony was all very secret, but do you think I might be allowed to imitate Emmie’s words and voice?
Guest: I think you would be forgiven.
Bixler: Well, Emmie used to sit there, kindly but formidable with his white beard and awesome presence. At the proper moment he would say, in his deep guttural voice, “Are they worthy to receive them?”
Guest: I remember that because I was in the last delegation initiated by Emmie who was well along in 1929 but with an unforgettable voice.
Bixler: Tom Ashley used to think that Emmie had the funniest voice he’d ever heard. As he walked to class in the morning Emmie-- when he met you-- would say, “Good Moooorning,” in this basso profundo and it was impressive! Emmie was one of the real characters on the faculty. I knew him very well because my aunt Anna Seelye was his second wife and I was at their house a great deal before college, during college, and later with my family when I was teaching at Smith. Emmie was very fond of children. He was mighty good to me as a child and he continued to be good to my children when they came along. All the stories about absent-minded profs used to be told about him-- how he put one of the Morse children to bed, thinking it was his own (Professor Anson D. Morse, the historian, lived right across the street); how he left the horse tied to a tree in Sunderland during a geological trip and forgot all about him, how he looked at his infant daughter Elizabeth in her crib and murmured: “Elizabeth, Elizabeth, that’s a very nice name. Why didn’t we think of that for one of our children?” One story that I enjoyed when as a boy I read it in the Olio was of Emmie’s riding in the trolley car and being approached for his fare by the conductor just as Old Doc Hitchcock boarded the car. Emmie, so the story ran, shook hands with the conductor and gave the fare to Old Doc. I told this to Emmie with great glee. “Well,” he said with his deep laugh, “I’ll bet Hitchcock kept the nickel!”
Emmie was of course a real scholar, a distinguished geologist who trained other distinguished geologists. He had strong feelings, almost amounting to contempt, for shabby scholarship. I remember his making fun of Old Doc himself (whom he liked personally, and who was of course the head of the first physical education department in the country) because he thought Old Doc wasn’t very learned. Hitchcock tried to write a book, I remember his once saying, but he got his facts all wrong. Emmie also had little respect for Grovie who, I fear, was a bit of a windbag. The old college song ran:
The gentleman calls for Grovie
A man of fluent speech.
We wish we had more like him
He surely is a peach.
But he was a peach to the undergraduates because he offered a course sweet to the taste in that it required no work. The legend was that Emmie always opposed Grovie at faculty meetings. On one occasion-- the legend continues-- Emmie fell asleep. Then his vote was called for he is supposed to have asked: “How did Grosvenor vote?” “He voted ‘aye,’” was the response “Then I vote No” was all Emmie answered.
Another character was David Todd. I didn’t realize until I read the recent life of Emily Dickinson by Richard Sewall what a tragic character he was. Certainly he did some work in astronomy that brought him acclaim from the outside world, but at Amherst he was known for his “gut” course and the fact that he worked at night made the students believe he didn’t work in the daytime. In the days of Prexy Harris, Henry Preserved Smith was the professor of Biblical Literature and was naturally called “Pickles.” Parodying the song “Everybody works but father,” the Amherst boys used to sing:
Everybody works but Davy and he sits round all day.
Prexy works for money and Pickles works for God
And everybody works in Amherst but Davy Todd -- a damned old loafer!
One other little memory of Emmie has just occurred to me. He used to take Amherst people on geology trips-- I remember one to the cave at Sunderland and there was another to the dinosaur tracks on the river. As I think back it does seem that he was awfully good to include a small boy like me. We took the trolley to Hamp, then got on the train for Holyoke. A little while after passing Mt. Tom, Emmie signalled the conductor. The conductor reached up for the cord and stopped the train so we could disembark. The impression made on me was much greater than the impression made by the dinosaur tracks. Emmie-- my uncle-- could actually stop the train! That was something! Another character was Tip Tyler-- John Mason Tyler.
Guest: He taught what-- Biology?
Bixler: Yes, Tip, he with the flaming red beard-- tinged with gray when I knew him-- was the teacher of our freshman Biology class, part of our science requirement as I recall it. I was inexcusably dumb in his class. The class itself wasn’t too brilliant. I remember his once laying his head down on the desk and groaning at our infelicitous replies. I have just left in the library a letter he wrote me in 1926 and which I found the other day in my files. I was teaching at Smith and had published my first book. After my undistinguished performance in his class, Tip must have been surprised to find that he could approve the book as much as he did and he wrote me a most cordial letter. It was so expressive of the generous side of Tip’s nature that I thought the library might like to have it. Tip came of course from the old Amherst Tyler family and one of the things he did for us was to give us a link with the past.
The College misses this today, I think. Perhaps all colleges do. The past is rebelled against instead of regarded with “natural piety” (Hume’s phrase). The story is that Tip’s father wanted him to be a minister and sent him to Union Seminary. After a while Tip wrote back: “They say here that Socrates is in hell.” His father replied; “You take the next train home.” He went to Göttingen and Leipzig and was one of the group of 19th century scientists trained in Germany who added so much to the life of American colleges at the time. He was very much of an individual with his own way of walking, talking, and teaching. Once his pupil and protege Julius Eggleston (I think class of ‘98) drew on the board, at Tip’s request, an insect. “Well Brother Eggleston,” said Tip (they were both Psi U’s), “that’s a very fine bug. But suppose you draw it as the Lord Almighty made it and not as you think it ought to be!” Tip was deeply religious and his books on evolution always brought in the religious interpretation. I think (though this is a surmise) that he finally turned against Meiklejohn because he thought the latter was undermining the boys’ religious beliefs. Emmie’s opposition was to Meiklejohn’s arbitrariness in hiring and firing and what Emmie thought was a neglect of science in the curriculum.
Tip’s younger colleague was “Mudpuppy” Loomis whose discovery somewhere in the west of dinosaur eggs several thousand years old was widely noticed in the newspapers, prompting many editorials to the effect that the eggs eaten that morning for breakfast seemed about that age! Mudpuppy was, I believe, a first class scientist. He was one of the leaders in the revolt against Meiklejohn and I think influenced Emmie to come over to that side. Tip and Emmie and Mudpuppy had each his share of greatness but, in all fairness and great affection, I don’t think ours was a very distinguished faculty as a whole. Churchill was a little too pompous really to be an effective teacher. Gallinger was a bit slow, though his discussions of history were interesting. I will say also that he and Mrs. Gallinger were very good about having the entire history class for Sunday night supper in groups of a few at a time.
May I also interject that I think the unwillingness to have students at their houses today on the part of faculty is unfortunate? Some of course do play host often and well but the record as a whole is not good. I think it is all right for me to speak of this because my own conviction (unhappily not shared by many) is that this is one of the most important parts of the teaching situation. I’m not patting myself on the back but simply trying to state a point of view when I say that Mary and I always set apart Friday evening for students both at Smith and at Harvard and did quite a bit of entertaining beside. At Colby of course our house was open practically all the time.
But to return to the faculty of my day. “Sniff” (Clarence) Andrews brought stimulus to his class in freshman English. His friend Charlie Cobb in mathematics was a puzzle. I liked him personally very much, but his class and his book on calculus brought esoteric mysteries never fully resolved. Tom Esty in math was clear and if I didn’t do too well in his class I’m sure it was my fault rather than his. But I do think he should have gone on for a Ph.D. Mike Smith (Harry DeForest Smith) in Greek had read everything and knew everything. I liked his class but at the risk of being misunderstood I would say it was undisciplined. I mean that his thought was not presented in a systematic way and as undergraduates we needed a certain amount of system. He would have been better for graduate students. Levi Elwell, the other Greek teacher, was pedestrian in class. A story about Levi really should be perpetuated. When he left for a sabbatical leave, a party was given for him and the toastmaster opened the evening with these words: “This meeting has its Genesis in the Exodus of Leviticus from our Numbers!” Did ever a toastmaster do better? Charlie Bennett in freshman Latin was agreeable, Manthey Zorn in German was very good, but I always thought his colleague Eastman was stuffy. Croc Thompson, as I listened to him in chapel, seemed to combine a jovial soul with a sluggish mind. But Bob George and Sid Packard, who as professional historians themselves ought to know, said his course was good. Georgie Olds must have been a most inspiring mathematics teacher. Prexy was head and shoulders above the others whose courses I took.
The priceless asset a small college possesses is its chance for a purposeful community life. I think Amherst lacks this today. Perhaps all colleges do. Today’s students are of course sunk in their extreme introspectivism which leaves little feeling for the community. The students are nervously self-conscious about their own freedom: “Am I really free, or is someone pushing me around?,” they keep asking. I think the faculty, similarly, are nervously self-conscious about their own authority. Do I know enough and have the right, some are now asking, to formulate a requirement for students to follow? What an attitude! Any fool should know that the immature mind looks and must look to the mature mind for guidance as to what to read, what guidelines are necessary for one’s intellectual attention, what problems are significant and essential. But see the changing mood of the Amherst faculty! It had a perfectly good core curriculum, then threw it to the winds. How could it do this? Now it is beginning to return to its senses but only with great anguish and self doubt. I get the impression that we have a faculty of brilliant individualists who don’t really know how to work together or plan together for the College or put up a unified front when students ask significant questions about the life of the mind. This is reflected, I feel, in a lack of loyalty to the institution itself. In the old days, and even in my day, not so old, a young Ph.D. came to the College with the idea of spending his life there. This brought a mood of dedication which was most valuable. Today of course conditions have greatly changed and a young faculty member can hardly be blamed for a lack of dedication when his graduate school mentors have themselves advised him to use the College as a stepping stone to an appointment at Yale or Harvard, and when he himself has the tenure judgment hanging over him. The older faculty members are potential judges and in a way opponents, while the younger colleagues are competitors. This makes impossible the former feeling of common loyalty to a common cause.
I feel also that loyalty to the community of the present could be stimulated by loyalty to the community of the past. Too often have I seen utterances of the present Amherst faculty which lacked any sense of what Amherst’s past was like or wherein its greatness lay. In our day I had the impression that the faculty knew about Amherst’s past and were proud of it. This may have been in part because so many of them were Amherst graduates and I’m almost inclined to plead for a greater representation of Amherst men on the faculty today, though I can well see the many pitfalls and collisions such a policy would bring. But it seems to me undoubtedly true that appreciation for the past contributes to loyalty to the Amherst community.
Obviously Meiklejobn, in our day, was changing the College’s opinion about the worth of the older ideals. But it is to his credit that the goals he put before us seemed not out of line, different though they were from those the College had known. The area of conflict was, of course, religious. The College had kept, through my grandfather’s time, its feeling for the tremendous sense of mission contributed by Calvinism. Meiklejohn was trying to make us see that devotion to the truth could bring the same sort of dynamic. I think I would myself have felt the conflict more acutely if I had not kept emphasizing to myself the intellectual goals implicit in the older faith. It cheered me to think that one of my grandfather’s favorite quotations was the saying from Coleridge: “He who places Christianity above the truth will end by placing the church above Christianity and himself above the church!” I wish the sense of communal purpose could be regained. It seems to me that Amherst’s record shows that it has made the greatest forward strides when it was animated by such a purpose. Perhaps the times are just too pluralistic to allow this attitude.
Guest: A word about the musical life at Amherst and your part in it. You’ve been musically participating in it everywhere you’ve been, including Colby. Biggy, I guess, was the sole music man at Amherst at that time, wasn’t he?
Bixler: Yes, he was.
Guest: And did he conduct both the glee club and other musical groups, string groups?
Bixler: No, he conducted the orchestra but not the glee club. That shows one of the great differences between our day and the present. The glee club was a completely undergraduate affair-- conducted, coached, managed by undergraduates. The music was entirely commonplace, in no way comparable to the superb music sung today. Ros Young was the leader-- I think for two years. He wanted me to be accompanist, so I used to tinkle away on the piano while the boys sang and what they sang was only very popular stuff, nothing of any real worth. We also had a mandolin club and we also used to put on a cello duo which we were too lazy to work at and which therefore didn’t amount to much. The boys went out for the musical clubs not-- as now-- to advance their musical education but to have a good time and some good trips.
The clubs went annually to the Academy of Music in Brooklyn and the Amherst people in Brooklyn would turn out. I remember going to Elmira, New York, and also to Bainbridge, New York, a little town with a small opera house that had a trap door in the stage floor. The boys discovered it and did some vanishing acts during the performance. We thought it was awfully funny but the audience hardly cracked a smile. Probably the falling act had been used by all the traveling companies that came! The trip would be taken during spring vacation and it was pretty good fun. We would be put up in the homes of Amherst alumni and after the concert there would be a dance and general jollification. I remember once we went to my home town, New London. My mother combed the town for girls and put on a big supper and we had a hilarious time. One thing I enjoyed about the concerts was accompanying Gene Stinson when he was soloist. As I remarked, he had an excellent baritone voice and used it well. He used to sing the armorer’s song, about how much greater is the man who makes the sword than the man who shakes it; also a sentimental but rather taking song written for Louise Homer by Sidney Homer-- “I plays de banjo better now.”
Then for at least one season Gene was soloist for the oratorio given by the combined Amherst and Smith orchestras and choruses in John M. Greene Hall. On one occasion, I think it was a performance of the Messiah, we in the orchestra were getting tuned up on the stage, the Smith girls in the chorus had settled themselves and were giggling away, while the Amherst boys were trying to maintain an air of calm decorum when all of a sudden Gene, who bad been sitting up in front with the other soloists, stood up and with perfect aplomb and poise, a gracious smile on his lips, walked slowly back through the orchestra and out the door, holding up the beginning of the concert. We stared and wondered, then Biggy, with the pleased look of a conspirator, and putting his hand to the side of his mouth, said in a loud stage whisper: “Stinson forgot his vest.” Nothing could have pleased Biggy more. Gene returned and the concert won great acclaim.
The oratorios were one of Biggy’s finest contributions to the community. He used to conduct them in alternate years with Henry Dike Sleeper of Smith. As I recall it, beside the Messiah we gave the “Creation,” the “Elijah,” and “The Seasons.” It meant a lot of rehearsing. We would take the 6:30 trolley to Hamp every Monday night and the ten o’clock trolley back. Unhappily for me my freshman schedule called for a math class at 4:00 Monday afternoon and Latin and Math at nine and ten respectively Tuesday morning. A seasoned scholar could have managed this, but some faculty advisor should have seen that a freshman was spared such an order of events! The rehearsals themselves, with the Smith girls sitting all around us, were rather exciting.
Believe it or not, in the viola section a little to the right and in front of where Alan Marks and I sat, was Mary Thayer ‘17. And, incredibile dictu, although these positions were maintained for three years, we didn’t meet until I went to Minneapolis October 6, 1917 to be best man at Stu Rider’s wedding where her sister Elsie was the bride. What missed opportunities! But in the 58 years since September 21, 1918 we have tried to make it up!
Biggy, as I have said, was choral and orchestra conductor, also the teacher of such music courses as the College offered. In the Octagon he reigned supreme. There he had his office, classroom, and place for rehearsals. The Octagon contained an instrument I find it hard to describe. It was like an old fashioned pianola, with records that were paper scrolls, perforated and unwinding before the player. But it was an organ, not a piano, with stops and thus with sounds that were modifiable. I think it was run by electricity, though it was possible that we had to do the pedalling. Anyway, it was satisfactory for our purposes.
When I was taking Biggy’s course in Wagner, I used to get out the recordings not only for “Meistersinger,” which I loved so much, but for “The Ring” and. “Lohengrin” and play them at all hours. One evening Charlie Houston ‘15, later to become Dean of the Law School at Howard University, spent a long and delectable evening with me at the old machine. I used to have doubts about Biggy as a teacher but he did introduce me to “Meistersinger” which has ever since been one of my chief loves. As a matter of fact, I have several times lectured on it to college audiences, pointing out the subtle way in which Wagner accomplished the synthesis of romantic and classic.
Biggy later became one of Meiklejohn’s chief opponents. Part of the trouble came over his jealousy of Albert Parker Fitch’s influence in determining the music policy of the College, especially Fitch’s insistence that Howard Hinners be brought to Amherst as college organist. Biggy thought that if there was to be an organist (aside from students and visitors), he should be the one to do the appointing. Harry Kidder, college treasurer, used to be concertmaster of our orchestra. After the rehearsals in the Octagon, Biggy and Kidder used to retire to the office for beer. But we were never invited in!
Speaking of Gene Stinson, it was he, I think, who took me to my first afternoon at the home of Mme. Martha Gilbert Dickinson Bianchi. He used to sing for her on occasions. She had of course known the Seelyes and used to have my cousin Laurens in for tea. Then, after that call with Gene, she would invite me. I remember some of the young English faculty-- Sniff Andrews was one of them-- used to go. Once I heard George Harris, Jr. (1906), who had a fine tenor voice, sing there, with a young composer whose name I have forgotten. Mme. Bianchi was formidable but friendly. Later, when Mary and I were living in Amherst, she came to call and it was a brief and strange encounter. During the winter of 1919-20, Howard Bliss from Beirut visited Amherst and made a tremendous impression on students and townspeople by his talks and sermons in the College Church and the Village Church. Mme. Bianchi had of course known him because his mother was Abby Wood who was a friend of Emily Dickinson and classmate at Mount Holyoke. I remember that she got so worked up over his appearances that she went through a regular conversion experience and that to describe her state of mind she used similar expressions to those ascribed to Mrs. Jack Gardiner of Boston at a similar time-- something about being willing to go out and wash the steps of the church if that would show the genuineness of her repentance. Dr. Bliss died in May 1920 and Mme. Bianchi with Prexy Meiklejohn-- what a strange duo!-- occupied the back seat of our minuscule Chevrolet as we drove to Jaffrey for the funeral. My father, who had been a close friend of Dr. Bliss in the class of 1882, was one of those who officiated. His death confirmed the feeling Mary and I had had after conversations with him in the spring that we should go to Beirut and we sailed for the Near East that fall.
Guest: You have made some comments on required chapel. We had that when I was an undergraduate, too. But Cal was forced to give it up in 1967. Were your chapels pretty much run by the President?
Guest: Not faculty?
Bizler: My memory is that the President took a majority of the services. The Dean would lead also and other faculty members once in a while. But mostly it was the President who sat up there with a small choir in back of him and the few faculty members who attended sitting in the floor seats on either side. Freshmen were in the balcony, sophomores on the left side (facing the pulpit) of the main floor, juniors on the right side, seniors in the middle. All seats of course were assigned. Occasionally, after the opening doxology, the meeting would be turned over to students. The usual procedure was doxology, Lord’s Prayer, a reading, announcements and then, a talk. Prexy scandalized some alumni by reading from Epictetus or Robert Burns instead of the Bible. Woodbridge was one of those who disapproved of this. At the close, Prexy would walk down to the left (sophomore) side aisle, join forces with Georgie Olds, and the two would walk together down the aisle followed by such faculty as were present. Chapel was Prexy’s best channel of communication with the students and he made the most of it.
I used to love to hear him and would leave feeling that we had listened to a great president of a great college who had given us a great mission to carry out. Almost always he would talk about the obligation of the thinking man to himself and to society. He had his own way of injecting humor into the proceedings. One morning he said: “I’m appalled when I realize all the digesting going on in front of me!” And of course we did bolt our breakfasts and dash up the hill quickening the pace as the pace of the bell strokes quickened, between 8:10 and 8:15. I don’t know how a college could maintain required chapel in these days, but it does seem to me that the loss is immeasurable. At Colby we used to observe Arbor Day in the spring, calling it Johnson Day in honor of my predecessor. A few years ago the students complained, saying this is just too corny-- we don’t want to go out and police the campus and plant trees any more. Then someone had the bright idea of calling it “Earth Day” or “Ecology Day.” All objections vanished. The students came out and had a wonderful time. I wish we could think of a new name for chapel that would inspire students to enjoy it. As you know, I am a great believer in the uses of community feeling and certainly chapel is one of the ways of developing it.
Guest: It was effective because it was required. I’m sure that no matter what you called it, if you had it three or four times a week there wouldn’t be much attendance on a voluntary basis.
Bixler: With us it met six days a week and then we had required church on Sunday in Stearns Church of which only the steeple remains. After the church service, Beany Greene and I used to go over to conduct Sunday School at the Zion Afro-American Methodist Church. The building was in back of the Alpha Delt house and it was sort of a tradition that an Alpha Delt should be in charge of the Sunday School. But speaking of daily chapel, some of the services I remember most vividly were held in the winter of 1914-15 when we had speakers telling the aims of the various countries that were at war. The war came of course in the summer of 1914, just before my junior year and it is an interesting comment on the communications of the times that I didn’t know about it until I heard the announcement in the Jaffrey Center church that August Sunday morning. Of course there was no radio and Jaffrey had no Sunday papers. So when we came back to college in the fall the war was on. Prexy arranged to have speakers from the different countries appear in chapel and the chapel period was extended from fifteen minutes to an hour or so. I don’t remember the names except for the one who defended Germany. That was Thomas Cummings Hall, professor at Union Seminary, whose wife was a German. I recall being much impressed, but when I described the speech to my father his comment was: “Do you call that argument?” The speaker for Austria was a charming person-- I remember that much. I can’t recall the one that defended France, but I do remember the cynical scornful journalist who spoke for England. He roused Prexy’s Scottish ire. One point he made was that Germany had done something unworthy in aligning itself with Turkey-- “Turkey-- the stench of civilization!” Afterward someone remarked that England had done its own part in cultivating that stench.
We were of course terribly wrought up over the war. All the old arguments and debates which now are threadbare were then fresh-- is war ever justifiable? When is violence justified? What about the robber who invades your home and threatens your mother? When is deceit justified? Should one contribute to the Red Cross, or is that just a way of continuing the war? What was Jesus’s teaching? That did he mean by “not peace but a sword?” What about the money changers? These questions really agitated us and we argued them far into the night. At first we were all neutral, then the tide of opinion swung slowly toward the allies. There was a lot of sympathy for Belgium and admiration for King Albert-- “Every inch a King!” How well I remember George Washburn’s spouting a piece with that title in Johnny Corsa’s public speaking class! There was also horror at the atrocities in Belgium. Early in the war Manthey Zorn wrote an article (I think in the Springfield Republican) in defense of Germany. People were outraged; then, later, Manthey reversed his stand and acknowledged it publicly. I think a good many of us, finding the tide running more and more strongly toward the Allies, out of sheer cussedness spoke up for Germany.
But more important was the issue of pacifism. Could a sane person be anything else than a pacifist? We weren’t absolutely sure where Prexy stood. He was obviously not a war-monger, but we weren’t certain he was a pacifist. As it turned out he was not. But-- later on-- he never (as I knew him) urged boys to go off to war, always maintaining that the draft was the expression of democratic will and that students should do their job-- which was to study-- until the government let them know they were needed.
So, from the summer of 1914 on, the war was always in the background dominating our thoughts more and more. At our Commencement in 1916, our Hyde “orations,” as they were called-- that is speeches made in competition for the Hyde prize-- were all on the subject of pacifism. As I remember it, the Bond speeches, on the commencement platform, were on the subject of religion. By the way, speeches and declamations and debates were a prominent part of our academic life in those days-- a great deal was made of them.
Guest: I’ve seen some of the schedules and they were very lengthy.
Bixler: We had the Kellogg prize-speaking-- this was a declamation contest-- in freshman and sophomore year. Then there were the Hardy debates and the intercollegiate debates-- I remember going to Wesleyan and Williams for these-- (we won at Wesleyan and lost at Williams!) and then senior year there were the Hyde and Bond contests as noted. I think this emphasis on speaking stemmed from the interest in the older days when so many went into the ministry. In my father’s class of 1882 one third became ministers.
Guest: You were going to say something about the freshmen and sophomores and their little imbroglios-- like the flag rush.
Bixler: Yes we had the flag rush and the cane rush. For the flag rush the sophomores put a flag on a pole, the pole was padded, then the sophomores stood arm in arm in front of the pole while the freshmen rushed in and tried to push someone high enough to grab the flag. When we were freshmen we got Tom Ashley high enough so he almost grabbed it. Shorty McTernan, a sophomore, was sitting on the heads of sophomores and he kicked Tom in the face again and again keeping the flag inviolate. It was a brutal affair and could have brought serious injury. I can’t say we really enjoyed it, and I seem to remember a recent speech by Jack McCloy in which he remarked that he also protested inwardly, wondering if this was what we came to college for. I recall that we had to be goaded into the thing by the juniors.
Guest: The same thing happened in my time and then of course we had that tragic cap-burning with the gasoline being thrown on us by the sophomore class which resulted in a couple of boys, my classmates, being burned, permanently disfigured, and damaged. That was the end of the cap-burning. We gathered around on the corner in front of Converse and they came over the hill by the Octagon and by the Henry Ward Beecher statue. We were supposed to protect a pile of wood which we had gathered from being lighted. If we could protect it for five minutes, we would get rid of our freshman hats.
Bixler: I remember some much more innocent things which yet required real courage, such as putting the 1916 placard on the top of the flagpole in the center of town. Bill Averitt showed a lot of daring in climbing that high pole which was in the square in front of the old Amherst House.
Guest: Right where the bank is now.
Bixler: Yes, on Pleasant Street. Bill went up the pole with a rope and he also climbed the tower of the Town Hall and put the 1916 placard inside of the face of the clock. The clock was illuminated so when anyone glanced up at the time in the evening, he received greetings from 1916. Bill was a very skillful and courageous climber. I remember during one of the “rushes” freshman year, a rumor went round that Tom Ashley had picked up a sophomore and thrown him through a glass door. I asked Tom about it. “Oh,” he said, “I gave him a little shove and he went through the door.” These affairs were supposed to bring the class together and I suppose they did, but I have always felt that this sort of thing and the hazing presented obstacles to the freshman trying to get started and I’m glad they are no more.
I just saw the snow plow go past outside and it made me think of the fact that a few weeks ago the Boston Globe actually had an article explaining what a sleigh was! Sleighs meant a lot to us and they didn’t always suffer the fate of Paige’s horse. The tinkling of the bells was really music to our ears.
And sleighs make me think of trolleys. I can remember the old trolley line which went only up to North Amherst and down to South Amherst. In about 1905 it was extended to South Hadley, and the ride through the notch was a great experience. The Northampton line must have come in at about 1900. The fare was ten cents, then it became twelve, and then a reduction if you bought a book of tickets. This side of Hadley the cars had to stop for the railroad grade crossing. The conductor would walk in front, spy out the land, see no trains, and wave the motorman on. Then an underpass was put in, but the angle was so bad that when automobiles came there were serious accidents.
Guest: That’s right, and then they had to change that.
[END OF TAPE.
Second Conversation with J. Seelye Bixier and J. Alfred Guest. Taped in Guest’s Office in Converse May 14, 1976, 2:30 p.m.]
Bixler: There are stories of Robert Frost which should go into the annals-- one, in particular, which has to do with his way of giving grades. I can’t claim to have known Frost intimately. He was our guest on two different occasions at Colby when he spoke once at Commencement and once to a literary group. A vivid memory is of his occupying a chair in the center of our living room one evening with adoring students taking up all available floor space.
The Commencement speech was given, I recall, on a cold day, with the wind coming from the North Pole and bringing the temperature of snow a thousand summers old. Frost was nearly blown off the platform but he stood up there, gown flying, hair ruffled, notes fluttering. It made me think of Scotty Reston’s remark of how, when Frost visited the nation’s capital, the Washington monument stood up a little straighter! I used to see Frost when he would come to Amherst to meet trustees after a Board session and I can recall a statement he made over luncheon coffee when I asked him what really went wrong in the Meiklejohn affair. The answer came, without hesitation: “He didn’t pay his bills!”
But the story I had in mind was about an incident in the early ‘20s, I believe, when Sardy Child took his course. Frost gave an exam that consisted of one question. Under the protection of the honor system Sardy took the paper to his room to work on. He was just finishing when some boys came by and shouted through the window that they had a car, were going to Hamp to pick up some girls for a trip to New York, and that Sardy should join them. So he quickly finished the paper, grabbed a bag, and embarked.
The second day in New York a chilling realization came over him-- in his hurry he hadn’t handed the paper in! What to do? Well, nothing. It was past the time for doing. So he had as good a time as possible in the remaining hours and in a sombre mood drove back to Amherst. As he came into town his father (Sargent Child the artist) was on the curb at the Psi U corner and he called out: “The marks for Frost’s course are posted in Walker Hall and you have an “A!” Well, well, what to believe? Sure enough, there was the “A” on the bulletin board. A mystery, but a pleasant one, and Sardy didn’t probe it too deeply. Years later Sardy went to an alumni meeting where Frost spoke and introduced the subject of marks. “Giving marks is a strange process,” Frost said. “Once the final exam in my course consisted of a single question. It was a meaningless question. One of the boys saw this and refused to hand in a paper. So I gave him an “A!”
The story of Frost’s relationship with the College some day ought to be written up in detail. Walt Hendricks over at Putney is now writing a life of Frost and perhaps his book will give us what we want. He was well acquainted with Frost. Of course the standard biography published a couple of years ago (I just can’t recall the author’s name) tells a good deal about Frost’s side and how he felt about the College and about Meiklejohn. I remember a conversation with Meiklejohn just after Frost pulled up stakes and left Amherst for the first time-- wasn’t it in the late ‘20s? Meiklejohn was saying that he hoped too much wouldn’t be made of Frost’s severing his connection. It was only a tenuous one anyway, Meiklejohn said. But I’m inclined to think that Frost’s going was not casual at all and that his dissatisfaction had been growing for some time. I’m sure Frost did say that there wasn’t room at Amherst for him and Stark Young at the same time. Of course Frost came back later. Was it Stanley or Charlie Cole who brought him? Probably each had a hand in it. Unquestionably Frost contributed a great deal besides prestige to the College. As I read the biography I had the feeling that he wasn’t as far from Meiklejohn in his thinking as he supposed.
There is a Henry James story-- slight in itself but characteristic. In 1903 or 1904, when James had come to America for a lecture tour, my Aunt Anna (Mrs. Benjamin K. Emerson) who, after all, was distantly related to James, asked him to come over to Amherst to dinner during his visit at Smith. She told him to get off the trolley car at Orchard Street but the car carried him one stop beyond. As he walked back down Northampton Road he spied a student and said: “Could you direct me to Orchard Street, if perchance there be such a street?” The student (or in one version of the story it was John Erskine) needed no further cue and replied: “Yes, Mr. James, it is right down there and the Emerson’s house is just across the way!” The continuation of the story is that when he was taken upstairs to see the baby, about a year old, lying in her crib, he bent down and said: “Elizabeth, did you know that I came all the way across the Atlantic Ocean just to see you!”
I used to see Calvin Coolidge in Northampton after his retirement from the presidency. He was a member of the Clarke School Board and, sitting across the table I would watch him. He sat by himself, though I don’t think it meant a conscious attempt to withdraw. But we were a little afraid of a former president, one didn’t feel like cracking him on the back and saying: “Hi, Cal, old sport-- how’re you doing?” So he would be a sort of detached Presence, and Neilson, then chairman of the Board, had the habit of turning to him first for comment after a measure had been submitted. I remember that when one proposition came up everyone was quiet, looking at Coolidge. Coolidge said: “Move it be accepted.” The second item, similarly, was received in silence while people looked at Coolidge. Coolidge said: “Move it be adopted.” When the third proposal came I was betting with myself whether he would say “accepted” or “adopted.” What he said was: “Move it be approved.” Imagine Silent Cal’s gift for language!
Bob Barstow, president of Hartford Seminary, was for a time the supply preacher at Edwards Church which Coolidge attended. After the benediction, Bob had the habit of rushing down to the cellar, scooting to the front of the church, and greeting the audience as they left the building. On the first Sunday, Coolidge passed him by without a flicker of recognition. The second Sunday, Coolidge made one step toward him then continued impassively. On the third Sunday Coolidge shook hands. On the fourth he said: “Come to dinner?” When they reached the house Coolidge said: “Have a cigar?” Bob allowed as how he’d rather have a cigarette. Coolidge said: “Don’t know as I’ve got any.” Then he went to the next room and brought back a humidor. It was locked and he took a key out of his pocket, unlocked it, found a package of cigarettes, gave one to Bob, returned it, locked it up again, put the key back in his pocket, and returned the humidor to the other room.
Another story was of Coolidge’s meeting the shoemaker-- was it Lucey?-- after he had moved from Massasoit Street to the ample quarters he and Mrs. Coolidge occupied on the southeast edge of the town. Lucey was quite effusive and kept asking how the new house was working out-- “Fine view, Mr. Coolidge; lots of room, Mrs. Coolidge; Good place for the dogs to run, Mr. Coolidge? How do you like it?” “Well,” said Coolidge finally: “It keeps out the weather!”
Another story is about Coolidge and Dr. Brown in the barber shop. This Dr. Brown in Hamp was of course the father of our Dr. Steve Brown in Amherst. Coolidge and Dr. Brown found they were finishing their haircuts at the same time and as they walked out together Dr. Brown said, “By the way, Mr. Coolidge, have you used up all those pills I gave you yet?” “No,” said Coolidge, and that’s all he said. When he reached the door he remembered he hadn’t paid the barber so he went back: “Oh,” he said to the barber, “Sorry I forgot to pay you. I got engaged in conversation with Dr. Brown here and forgot all about it!”
There’s a story about Matthew Arnold’s visit at my grandfather's home during Arnold’s American lecture tour-- it must have been in the 1880s. Arnold describes sitting down to Sunday supper with the Seelye family. The menu, he says, was “hash, toast, tea to wash it down with. NOTHING ELSE!” Then he goes on to say that the previous week he had had dinner with Phillips Brooks who served a gourmet feast with venison and champagne. The contrast was painful. My mother used to describe the embarrassment of the family on this occasion. It seems that for some reason they hadn’t understood that Arnold was staying for the meal. It was Sunday and they couldn’t rush out to supplement the very meagre fare that had been planned for that evening. As I recall it, Arnold also described the people around the board-- the president, his daughters, and a student who was “probably a suitor to one of the daughters.” My mother used to say she recalled the student’s name (though I have forgotten it) and that he was one of those hangers-on who sometimes do not know when it is time to go and was far from a suitor. I remember my mother’s telling in another connection of one student who never could bring himself to leave. At supper time my grandfather would say: “Well, X, you’d better stay to supper”-- hoping the hint would take. The reply would be: “Yes, President Seelye, if you insist, if you insist,” so another place was added on the table.
A few years ago I deposited in the archives of the Robert Frost Library some correspondence of my grandfather’s which I found in a trunk here in Jaffrey and which only goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun and that student rebellions were as familiar in 1849 as in the 1960s and ‘70s. It concerns four members of the class of 1849 and their fraternity membership. My grandfather, William G. Hammond, and Henry Lobdell were Psi Us. John Emerson was Alpha Delt. William G. Hammond is the one who wrote the journal of his college years which George Whicher edited-- a delightful book. His daughter, Miss Juliet Hammond, was a friend of my mother’s and frequent visitor at our house. Henry Lobdell later became a missionary to Mesopotamia and brought back to Amherst the Nineveh tablets. He died very young and there is some touching correspondence between my grandfather and his widow containing the suggestion that the young Lobdell son, named Julius apparently for my grandfather, should be brought up in the Seelye family-- an offer which finally was not accepted.
Well, what happened was that Emerson, the Alpha Delt, was appointed valedictorian for the Commencement exercises of 1849 and the Psi Us were outraged, believing that the choice should have fallen on Hammond. Furthermore, they believed it was a matter of fraternity politics as the decisive vote in the faculty committee meeting that made the choice was cast by an Alpha Delt! As I say, the consternation was great, the scorn felt for the faculty unmeasured, the rebellious spirit high. It was decided to refuse to accept diplomas on the Amherst platform and to graduate as some other college! Because my grandfather had connections with Union College in Schenectady, he was asked to write there to see if arrangements could not be made for graduation! Others were writing to Yale with a similar inquiry. In those days Commencement exercises weren’t held till July and very serious threats were made in these letters-- written in the spring-- proclaiming that anything would be preferable to attendance at a July ceremony in Amherst! How it was all patched up the correspondence doesn’t show, but apparently an amicable solution was finally reached.
Fred Griffin went for two years to Amherst, then graduated from Bates-- I think in 1896-- and became a well known Unitarian minister in Philadelphia. On one of his preaching trips to Harvard, he told me of his experience in getting into Amherst. Before college opened he went to spend a night at the Amherst House where he found a number of sub-freshmen who imparted the unwelcome news that he would have to take an entrance examination next day in English history. Fred said he hadn’t expected anything like this. But the boys were very sure and Fred faced the future with apprehensiveness as in English history he wasn’t well prepared at all. He went upstairs for the night and found on the bedside table a book on Good Roads. With nothing better to do he read snatches of it, then turned in. Next day at Walker Hall, sure enough the exam in English history confronted him. The first question read: “Describe the changing conditions in England at the time of Henry VIII.” Fred began his answer: “It is usually supposed that these changes took place because of Henry’s marital troubles and difficulties with the church. Actually the underlying cause was the introduction of good roads.” He went on to explain that when a country has good roads the level of education is raised, trade is increased, government is able to do more-- and so on. The next morning on campus he was accosted by a professor who said: “Are you Freshman Griffin?” “Yes, sir.” “Well,” said the professor, “I didn’t know whether you wrote the whole period on “good roads” because you didn’t know the answers to the various questions, but, as it happens, you expressed a theory I’ve always held, and I was glad to give you an “A!”
The other day I read an editorial in the Student which made a plea for better community life. I couldn’t help feeling that the writer had put his finger on the great issue, but that the issue extended a good deal further than he in the editorial seemed to realize. As I’ve said so often, the priceless asset possessed by a small college is the possibility it has of developing a rich community experience. The sense of a common intellectual purpose is the best dynamic a college can have. As I’ve also said, I think that in the old Calvinistic days this sense was much nearer the surface of things. You can criticize the Calvinistic evangelical ideal for being fatuous and unrealistic, for having the possibility of becoming superior and snobbish, for lending itself to imperialistic ideas. But one thing you can’t say about it: you can’t call it trivial. And much of what we hear on college campuses today does strike me as trivial. “Who am I?” “What am I here for?” “How can I be free?” “Leave me alone to do my own thing!” That kind of talk is this? One feels like saying: “You’ll find out who you are when you know more about what God is-- that is when you understand the demands made on you as a member of the human race.” And again, “The aim isn’t to do your own thing but to make your own the thing that must be done.” This slough of subjectivism into which we have fallen is so sticky.
Speaking not of college but of the human predicament, Kierkegaard once said: “We live in a sea of isolation where no man calls to another.” That’s just the trouble. Each is so sunk in introspection that he isn’t aware of the other. Kierkegaard was a good spokesman for that view because he was the one who said, “Subjectivity is the truth.” The remark gave him away and his books show that he knew a lot about subjectivity, but about the truth he knew very little indeed. He was the great individualist who tried to get away from the influence of the universal instead of cultivating it.
And that exposes the other side of the coin. Not only do we need the common purpose of kindred minds to light up the path to truth, we need the search for truth to show what really is common. Socrates understood this and based his whole philosophy on it. If you want to meet the relativism of the sophists, he said in effect, and to make clear the weakness of the view that says each man has a right to his own opinion on matters both of fact and value, then look for help to the knowledge situation. We do have knowledge and we can have more and this is the case because agreement is possible and agreement comes when we get our conceptions clear. The other day, at Colby, I gave a talk on “The Metaphysician as Physician” in which I tried to show that ever since Socrates and Plato, philosophers have found that the way to combat an overly individualistic approach to the question of values is to make values objects of knowledge instead of leaving them just in the realm of feeling. So-- the thinker needs the community and the community needs the methods and goals of the thinker if education is to be at its best.
My grandson was telling me that when he was in Amherst he was troubled by the bitterness of the competition. It was to me a new and illuminating idea. But the more I think about it the more it does seem that whereas the present generation has rebelled against economic competition and the selfishness of capitalism, it has developed an individualistic competition of its own. Look at the feverish race for grades. Look at the failure of the honor system. Look at the vandalism, the destruction of library property, the actual sabotaging, I’ve been told, of other students’ work. I suppose the student senses a kind of bitter competition in the outside world and that we have been blind to it just because in our student days it didn’t exist. Today’s student feels he must “succeed” by getting into the best graduate school and he can get there only by having top grades-- by whatever means attained. I’m not surprised that some of the more high-minded of our students have thrown it all aside, saying, “This is not for us.” They feel they can lead the cooperative life by retreating to communes, or to the country, or to the simpler life of the artisan rather than the professional man. It is society, I suppose, that has brought this about, but I wish that the student’s attitude could be an eagerness to join society and reform it rather than to avoid its problems, and I feel that in college to go off into one’s lone burrow is a kind of avoidance. Don’t you think I’m right in saying that the result shows in lack of loyalty to the College as an institution? I lamented earlier the lack of faculty feeling for Amherst. With this example of division, it’s not surprising that students have little feeling for what the college expects in the way of loyalty. It shows not only in the unwillingness to follow the rules of the game but in refusal to take responsibility for the good name of the College.
Look at the recent issues of the Student. Can student editors really think that some of the things published show good taste? And why are they indifferent to good taste? Does the reputation of the College mean nothing to them? Here, you see, is the old-timer, back for his 60th reunion, showing that all he can think of is complaints and criticism, just as if the College wasn’t a far better place than the one he attended. Because of course it is far better today. The faculty are superior-- at least in intellectual attainment. The teaching is better. The students are far more advanced. And, where values are concerned, on the moral side, the students are unquestionably way ahead of our day. The social conscience-- in spite of all this individualism-- is much more sensitive and the passion for social justice is much more keen. So, if I am a critic of some things it is perhaps because other things are so fine that they make one wish everything were rosy!
But in trying to think about this problem, I keep coming back to the great difference between saying, “I like it,” and saying, “This is good.” One is psychology, the other metaphysics. One expresses my mood, the other my judgment. One gives us Kierkegaard, the other, Plato. One fits too easily the subjective feeling of the student today, the other the point of view that education ought to present. The whole trick, it seems to me, is to get away from the purely individual to the patterned and formal-- in a word, the universal. A teacher can explain this in many ways.
Meiklejohn, with his extraordinary sense for the possibilities of the discussion method, used to do it-- in Socratic fashion-- by appealing to our ideas, getting us to test them, and showing us that we should keep them only if they met the demands of logic. Macintosh at Yale could never have used the discussion method, but he was as convincing in his own way. His treatment of the old philosophical problems was so transparently clear that both our minds and our hearts leaped within us to meet him on his own terms. “This is IT!,” we said to ourselves. This is what we have been cudgelling our brains to understand and now that we see it our hearts can’t help being touched. Macintosh’s power was in his clarity. Yet of course Whitehead said: “Seek clarity and distrust it.” Parts of what is real aren’t clear at all. Wasn’t it Haldane who observed: “The world is not only more mysterious than we know but more mysterious than we can know!”
So the good teacher must give a feeling for the significance of the hidden. I think Woodbridge did this in his graduate courses at Columbia. He would lead us to the edge of the abyss and invite us to peer in. l.A. Richards had an intriguing way of lecturing. Instead of stating what he was doing at the start, he would hitch up to his subject, back into it, move obliquely like a bishop, and leave his audience wondering what in the world it was all about. Then when illumination came it was all the more effective because of the earlier darkness.
On the other hand, Cassirer at Hamburg impressed us by the orderliness and at the same time the far-reaching quality of his insights. He would take examples from art, astronomy, archaeology, and so on down the line, and weave them into a comprehensive web, so that our impression was that we were watching Reason at work, collecting its data, and putting them into the pattern. The great lecturer, I think, should do something like this and it is the chance of doing it that justifies the lecture method. I’ve always wished I could have attended one of Garman’s classes. I’m sure he knew all the tricks of the trade!
Well, Al, what an earful this has been, and what fun-- for me!
[END OF SECOND INTERVIEW
Final typing July 1978]
The interviewer and interviewee place no restrictions -- other than standard literary credit -- on the use of this transcript.
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Oral history interview with J. Seelye Bixler, 1976 January 23, May 14, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 4), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/seelye-bixler-1976>
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