We were standing on the steps in the early evening brightness, waiting for our picture to be taken on a glorious New England Saturday in June. Someone started singing, others joined, then all of us with verve and force, most of us reaching back half a century to find the words:
"Strangers once we came to dwell together/Born of a mother wise and true,/Now we're bound by ties that cannot sever/All our whole life through . . ."
Fully 61 of 120 survivors of the Amherst College class of 1933 were back for the great nostalgia bath of our 50th reunion.
When 203 of us had arrived in September 1929, all seemed right with the world, or with what most of us took to be our world. Herbert Hoover was in the White House and Amherst's best-known son, Calvin Coolidge '95, was the patriarch of both college and nation.
As editor of The Student, I had tried to interview Coolidge when he journeyed to Amherst for a trustees' meeting. I can still hear his nasal twang: "I have nothing to say." By June 1933, Hoover was in disgrace, Coolidge was dead and Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. The most prominent Amherst man in public life, the new speaker of the House, Henry T. Rainey, was a Democrat. Then back for his 50th, Rainey twitted the college for its Republican cast and conservative bent.
I put together our 50th reunion book --old photos and clippings, but most of all biographies from 106 of our 120 survivors. We've lost seven classmates in the past year. A few among us attained wealth, many reached highly responsible positions in business, education (two college presidents survive), law, medicine, journalism (a former managing editor of this newspaper), thechurch, or otherwise. None attained lasting fame save perhaps the author and illustrator of "Are You My Mother?" and "Go, Dog, Go," enduring children's books.
The man we voted "most likely to succeed," son of a senator and Morgan partner and brother of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, died at 67 after an erratic academic career. The man voted "most likely to be hanged" is alive but was too crippled by arthritis to make reunion. "Most conceited" didn't come. "Class grind" did; he had a distinguished academic career as a historian and now finds it "easy to be tempted out of history when current events speak so urgently." "Most gentlemanly" was, alas, murdered. "Best natured," a retired marble company executive, and "most popular," a former Episcopal bishop of St. Louis, both came and both still deserve those accolades. "Former member of the class most missed"--the Depression forced him and many others to leave--was back.
There was a darker side to this 50th anniversary. One of our graduates, a doctor who didn't return, bared in his class book biography a wound so deep I think it shocked us all. He wrote that "the thing that sticks in my craw the most is the interview I had with Professor Doughty when I was applying for med school. He asked me where I wanted to go, and I told him Johns Hopkins, Harvard, or Yale. He replied point- blank to forget the first two, and then added that my chances for Yale depended on how many of my 'variety' they had applying." His "variety" was the Jewish faith, and whatever one may think of current-day religious or racial quotas, back in 1933 they usually were rigid. This classmate added a question to make most us shudder: "Do you know that in my four years at Amherst, I never set foot in, or was invited to any fraternity house?"
I myself pledged the first Jewish boy ever in my fraternity; in later years the fraternity's national office revoked its charter for pledging a black. The one black graduate in '33 died three years ago after serving in the New Jersey legislature and as a director of that state's Urban League.
A brilliant graduate was killed by a Japanese shell while covering the Pacific war; another survived a Japanese prison; many served in World War II; one died in training camp. Another classmate's son was killed in Vietnam; the father has been perhaps the class's most ardent worker for world peace. One classmate now finds himself "more comfortable with the professed social philosophy of Rev. Jerry Fallwell . . . than with the output of liberal judges, many writers, professors, movie and TV producers, the media, advertisers and other influencers of the public mind." Another returnee wrote that since college "I have been a Republican and have considered myself a liberal, occasionally voting for a Democrat. Very recently I think that 'non-violent anarchist' best fits my position . . ."
Loyalty to Amherst has long been a tradition, and over half a century there has been a lot of '33 visiting back and forth. My own two best friends, classmates, both were back. Our class this June won the loving cup for highest "reuning" class percentage of contributors to the alumni fund, over 92 percent, and since then boosted a notch or two. Twenty-five of our 120 sent 29 sons and, so far, one grandson to Amherst.
Some alumni have broken ties to Amherst because, in the era of Vietnam upheavals, the then college president took part in a sit-down at a nearby military establishment. In the era of male consciousness-raising, the college went coeducational, also to much alumni objection. Some alumni contributions stopped altogether; others halted but resumed.
To glimpse the college today is to be excited. We had a chance to quiz some students, hear some faculty. Amherst's acting head told us its function remains as Robert Frost had described it: to ask students "who do you think you are?" and then to furnish them "with some of the terms to find out."
Some students described Amherst today as "a fiercely competitiveeschool" and "a very, very positive place." Others saw too much striving to "get a good job at Merrill Lynch" and not enough "delving into intellectualism." What one graduating senior wrote reflected much of my own memory of college years: "Amherst's strongest point is by far its professors and the level of the education that it offers in general . . . An amazing Amherst emphasis on homogeneity is definitely its weakest point . . . It is paradoxical, and it sounds contradictory, but Amherst did teach me how to be open-minded and how to listen, simply by providing a chance to be with those that I got frustrated at because they did not listen."
Reunion is over. The Class of 1933 now rates as part of Amherst's "Old Guard." As the senior song put it:
Gather closer, hand to hand/The time draws near when we must part./Still the love of college days will linger/Ever in each heart."