“Our First Week at Yale” by Bill Rees
On Wednesday, September 17, 1952 we came from the alfalfa fields of Iowa, the Palisades of Big Sur, the Shenandoah Valley, but mostly from the New York-New Haven-Hartford Railroad corridor. A line of that track drawn on a map together with another from Harkness Tower to Southampton on Long Island would form a Y. But there was no why in our minds about coming: for most the day the invitation arrived from New Haven to be a member of the Class of 1956 was one of our happiest days. Eight Smiths and Johnsons came, along with seven Anderson and Millers, to precarious weather, about which Mark Twain remarked from his Hartford home: “If you don’t like New England weather, wait a minute”. John was the most popular first name: there were seventy-five, followed by sixty Bills, fifty-two Bobs and forty-nine Jims, who came to the west side of the Green, to the square reserved for education in the nine square city plan of 1638, America’s first city plan. There were sixteen foreigners and six sets of twins to this two hundred and fifty one year old college. One hundred ten sported butch haircuts but no one with side burns, a beard or long hair; fifteen percent had alumni fathers, and ten percent had either no mother or father. All were born during the world’s worst economic breakdown with two thirds at its nadir, in the spring of 1934. We were the offspring of courageous parents. Sixty-six percent of the above ground spooks would come from the fifty nine percent from prep schools, while the same sixty-six percent of our phi bêtes would be from the forty-one percent from public schools: it was the difference between the short hair and the pompadours that appeared in the 1016 photos of handsome young men in our Old Campus Class Book, which would be similar to those in the succeeding sixteen. For most of us, after all our anxious fathers left and nervous mothers, we experienced the physical, if not the psychic, rite of passage: this was not a cozy camp or paternal prep school. Others, who came by train, had received their farewells a day or two before at hometown railroad stations. For the first time, many of us were quite alone. Although we had roommates, many of us felt like strangers.
The bell of the exquisite Center Church on the Green woke many of us on Thursday or the sirens of the many ambulances, which raced down College Street to the hospital, surprising us that so small a city could have so many sick. We rose to stand in a line for breakfast, which would not be the last line: there was one for books, for a physical, for a posture picture, and for our course schedules. Nearly half of us stood in line for bursary assignments. But we sat for tests: a reading test, a foreign language proficiency test, an aptitude test, and it rained appropriately. The weather was not “Madly for Adlai” either: precipitation fell on the Democratic candidate for President, portentously it seemed, as he delivered a peroration on the Green that afternoon, a few hundred feet away.
And then on Friday, thunder, a bona fide Nor’ Easter with its bolts of lightning washing out our Hammonasset outing. Some of us took shelter in the nearest movie house: the Paramount with the “Caribbean”, the Poli with “Affair in Trinidad”, or the Lincoln with “The Man in the White Suit”. Others used the time to learn the rules: we were not allowed to have an automobile, or an unregistered radio, or a lady in our room except in the afternoon when properly chaperoned. We learned either then or somewhat later that Smith and Vassar were about eighty miles away and Wellesley somewhat farther; that there were hamburgers at the Broadway, the Playland, and the United, which was open in the wee hours of the morning; that the booze was at George and Harry’s and at the Old Heidelberg, even though there were laws against underage drinking. There was beer just about everywhere, Rheingold Beer, and there were Rheingold Girls at WYBC and at the Yale Daily News.
Our first formal class gathering was on Saturday in Woolsey Hall, when Luther Noss played Bach fugues on its magnificent organ, followed by an invocation and at the end of the program a benediction of “Uncle” Sidney Lovett, when he addressed us as “men”, in his sincere and honest way, an appellation which many of us heard for the first time, although it might have been somewhat premature. President Whitney Griswold welcomed us but it was the address of August Heckscher of the New York Herald Tribune, of the Class of 1936, which most of us probably found more interesting.
“The best preparation for citizenship is the discipline of the mind and of the spirit that comes from finding facts impartially. It is the carefully inculcated habit of criticism, appraisal, judgment and interpretation.
“Education is designed to give students a sight into inner meanings and values, not merely a sight of the bare fact and the practical objectives of power, popularity and success. At the same time the ideal of the liberal education is under attack from those who want the university to teach a positive or dogmatic code. But where values are authoritatively declared, facts are very soon authoritatively suppresses. We have the example of Russia to prove this, even if we did not have the convection born of the Western World’s long search for the nature of liberty. I am anxious not to be misunderstood on this point. The duties of citizenship should be expounded: and the glories of a nation’s history can certainly be communicated in a thousand subtle and persuasive ways. The lives of great men really do remind us that our own lives can become a good deal more sublime than they are. As for religion, I believe that a sense of the total dimension of life is essential to education, as it is essential to democracy. But the first thing to be said is that these should be taught as the greatest and most significant of all things are taught to be responsible human beings, with fullness, with candor, and with the divine touch of objectivity. The second thing to be said is that courses as intrinsically valuable as political science, or history, or comparative religion, should not be loaded down with a dogmatic and moralistic superstructure. You can teach citizenship: and so, if you please, you can teach sex. In either case, the facts are few, while the processes of life are endlessly varied and dazzlingly complex. The whole of a man’s education –no part of it, no single course -determines whether he shall attain the kind of virtue which is happiness. And so all of education is concerned with citizenship. To love freely in a free society: to keep one’s balance in the midst of flux and one’s will in the midst of inevitable frustration: to be tolerant: persevering for good and yet not expecting the millennium: to be detached without being indifferent and skeptical without being bitter -this is more than a course in civics ever taught the most industrious pupil. Yet nothing less than this -and actually a good deal more -is demanded of sane men and women in a democracy.”
The dessert that followed was the first season’s football game with UConn at the Yale Bowl, one of its few birthplaces, and the debut of Jordan Olivar as head coach. This was the place which, when built at the turn of the century, was one of the largest and finest stadiums on the globe and still is to this day. The first half was evenly matched with the score tied at seven all. At half time the Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, the second highest elected official after the Governor, pledged his allegiance to the flag, after which both the Stratford Drum Corps and the Yale Marching Band serenaded the crowd, the latter transitioning from the traditional square to E L I, then marching down the field while playing “Down the Field”, thus acting out its verse, a performance which would become all too familiar in the next four years and never boring. The Yale team, after catching its breath, came onto the field after halftime and, taking the exhortation to heart, marched down the field for four more scores to win 34 to 13, giving Coach Olivar an auspicious start. We then were bused to Hillhouse Avenue, the most beautiful street in America, according to Charles Dickens, to the President’s home and to another era, to sip tea with Mrs. Griswold in a garden fit for Gibson Girls, a style created 80 years earlier a block away. The GIs in West Korea were not sipping tea this day: they had just retaken a hill in heavy fighting. And Vice President Richard Nixon was not sipping tea either, as news that his wealthy friends had set up a slush fund for him hit the headlines. But all that seemed far away to us as we munched on briskets in a beautiful pre- fall afternoon.
On Sunday, there were religious services for the Christian faithful at Battell Chapel or at St. Thomas More Chapel. There was advice in the Yalie Daily, when it was still publishing on each of the seven days, from Dean Buck to a nonconformist to be self disciplined, and from the columnist of “Far from the Madding Crowd” in the Record, to separate the real McCoy from all the phonies, but neither told us how. We might have thought of home and of Sunday evenings listening to Jack Benny on the radio or watching Ed Sullivan on TV, before putting this day to rest. Any touch of nostalgia was probably excised by the anticipation of what was to happen in the days ahead.
On Monday, we were probably impressed to learn that Yale had been the center of a 22 year old project to revise the standard version of the Bible; that a LeRoy Anderson long playing album cost $1.89; that a pair of white bucks was on sale for 50 cents in a nearby shoe store; that we could rent a telephone for $2.80 per month; that next week Yale would celebrate the centennial of the engineering schools, those once famous institutions that had fallen on hard times; that Connecticut Hall was about to be restored, our oldest building would become our newest; and that the Griswold Plan was to be implemented with a two year directed study program, with sophomore seminars, and with Scholar of the House appointments. Although there were no formal activities planned, we did not squander our time: we got to know our roommates better; or we visited with other classmates who came with us from our home towns or secondary schools; or we played touch football in front of Farnam; or we wandered around the campus to get the hang of it, the time it took to get from here to there, from our room to the science laboratories, the legacy of Benjamin Silliman, the New World’s first major scientist, where many of us would soon meet terror. Some needed to complete necessary paperwork. Some met with counselors, whom we would see often for a spot of sherry and sometimes for a touch of sympathy.
And we were surrounded by several of the world’s leading artists, of whom few of us had heard.
Robert Penn Warren, the haemoglobin of the Southern Renaissance, coauthor with Cleanth Brooks, of “Understanding Poetry”, which dramatically transformed the way we read poetry, and now a Professor of Poetry, had just left his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard for the Elm City with Sirocco pent up in his pocket:
“To a place of ruined stone we brought you, and sea-reaches.
Rocca: fortress, hawk-heel, lion-paw, clamped on a hill.
A hill, no. On a sea cliff, and crag-cocked, the embrasures
commanding the beaches,
Range easy, with most fastidious mathematic and skill.
Philipus me fecit: he of Spain, the black-browed, the anguished,
For whom nothing prospered, though he loved God.
His arms, a great scutcheon of stone, once over the drawbridge,
Now long in the moat, under the garbage; at moat-brink, rosemary
with blue, thistle with gold bloom, nod.
Sun blaze and cloud tatter, now the sirocco, the dust swirl is swirled
Over the bay face, mounts air like gold gauze whirled; it traverses
the blaze-blue of water.
We have brought you where geometry of a military rigor survives
its own ruined world,
And sun regilds your gilt hair, in the midst of your laughter.
Rosemary, thistle, clutch stone. Far hangs Giannutri in blue air.
Far to that blueness the heart aches,
And on the exposed approaches the last gold of gorse bloom, in the
As we were settling in our rooms or breaking bread with our new found friends, Paul Hindemith , a celebrated composer, who was the first to create a musical piece for every instrument, was sailing to Connecticut, to the land of steady habits to resume his teaching duties at the Yale Music School. He spent our freshman week translating into English an address on Bach that he had just given at Hamburg:
“We know he had to struggle against adverse circumstances which a creator of the rank of Bach should have been spared: sorrow and misfortune in his family; the not too satisfactory life of lower middle-class people; unceasing quarrels with differently minded superiors; lack of recognition of his essential talents -how many human beings succumb in each generation, feeling themselves unable to cope with such adversities. But it was not only local and domestic difficulties that had to be overcome; the whole musical situation at that period would put one who did not wish to follow the general trend in a disagreeable position.
“Recognition of human excellence in its highest form, knowledge of the path that leads to it, the necessary done with dutifulness and driven to that point of perfection where it outgrows all necessity -this knowledge is the most precious inheritance given to us in Bach’s music.
“If music has the power to direct our entire existence toward nobleness, this music is great. If a composer dominated his music to this point of greatness, he has achieved the utmost.
“This Bach has achieved.”
Josef Albers of the Bauhaus, with a detour through Black Mountain College, was now the design director at the Yale Art School. He would become well known for his squares within squares, inspired by seeing the shape of an Aztec pyramid as he flew over it in a plane, and for his color of those squares, which he presented in unique contrast. While we were hanging posters and banners to decorate our rooms, he had just begun to write an article for “Art in Modern Architecture”:
“I believe that any design organically connected with an architectural structure should be related to that structure, no matter whether this design is to emphasize or to complete, to change or to correct the appearance of the function of the building or the space concerned. Consequently, to me most of the wall paintings of recent years are not murals. In many cases they merely present a story, illustration, or decorative nicely or the wall area is treated as a landscape for private or political disclosures and extravagancies. Too often they are enlarged easel paintings which can hang anywhere else and which add or subtract little to or from the structure of space.
“As for my brick wall at Harvard Graduate Center, I had not done anything of this type before. I decided to make a real mural in which the murus (Latin for ‘wall’) was respected and preserved to the last degree possible.
“To me the composition represents growth-maybe structural growth. I gave it the name ‘America’”
Many of us spent the day exploring the exciting campus, the Sterling Memorial Library in its ersatz medieval mantle with its very real Guttenberg Bible near the front door; the Payne Whitney Gym; the Peabody Museum and its many bones; Mory’s, with a Louie still in attendance; the Alumni War Memorial Rotunda, with the names of the deceased members of the Yale family, who died serving in various wars, etched into its white marble walls, that would no doubt inspire Maya Ying Lin, who, as a Yale senior several years hence, proposed for the Viet Nam Memorial a long chevron-shaped polished black granite wall on which would be inscribed the names of the deceased and missing American service men and women, to be cut into a bluff on The Mall in Washington, a proposal that was accepted and has resulted in one of the most powerful and popular memorials in the world. Some of us would be lucky enough to be directed to Pepe’s, Sally’s or the Spot.
Louis Kahn was not eating pizza at Pepe’s this week. He was in town trying to persuade the New Haven Building Inspector that his unusual tetrahedron ceiling, inspired by the pyramids in Egypt, for the Yale Art Gallery was not a giant waffle iron about to suddenly close on the visitors below. He calmly sat beneath the highly imaginative ceiling during a construction session to drink tea. This together with other information he provided persuaded the Inspector to issue the necessary permit. This was his first important commission which enabled him to establish a firm in Philadelphia to design and create several other buildings, including the British Art Museum across the street, which have been so greatly acclaimed that he is now ranked as one of the major masterbuilders not only of his generation but of his century. When the elegant brick and glass curtained four story Art Gallery was completed in 1953, it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. With this building, the Yale architectural revival had begun. Whitney Griswold, to his great credit, would approve commissions for several other internationally known architects to add many beautiful buildings to its already magnificent campus.
And so we came to Tuesday, to the end of Freshman Week, to our matriculation dinner that evening in Commons, and to the after dinner speeches on the course of study in the arts and sciences. The keynote speaker was Gordon Haight, the Master of Pearson College, who took the opportunity to give us more advice:
“You will never have it so good. The words ‘school’ and ‘scholar’ come from the Greek, ‘schole’, meaning leisure. During the next four years some of you will doubtless make it your business to take this meaning literally. There are always a few in every class for whom scholarship means loafing -goofing off, majoring in Accy-Deucey, the World’s Series, or Marilyn Monroe. There are never many of them, and their way of life, like exaggerated behavior of any kind, is usually an unrelated symptom of some deeper disorder. There are always a few grinds, too, the High Marks Brothers, who confuse education with grades. Like machines they study without real interest just to pile up an average. This rarely produces a well-educated man, and those who carry away from Yale nothing but a high average might have spent their time almost as profitably building up a score at pin-ball. I worry more about the ‘joiners’, the ‘operators’, the ‘wheels’, who fill 18 hours a day with feverish activity in the extra-curriculum. Here too the fault is not in the activity, but in the lack of proportion. These men -often the best minds we have -are too busy to get an education; and, since it is avoidable, their plight is perhaps sadder than that of those to whom scholarship means loafing. A scholar is one who has the leisure to study.
“In the broadest sense all that anyone can teach you is to read and to write. Reading, of course, includes many languages, in the literature of any one of which a scholar may spend a lifetime. But there are also languages of music and art; languages of philosophy and history and the sciences. About all we can hope to teach you in four years is to read with understanding the language of some of these disciplines.
“The most important reason for the existence of a college is to give opportunity for conference -for the interchange of ideas, the debate which weeds out the false, which strengthens the true. The basic fact about a scholar is that he can read and write. Writing makes an exact man. The uneducated man is commonly inaccurate. Writing is a kind of preliminary recording that gives you a chance to decide what you mean before you go on the air.
“Your parents are not only the ones paying for your education. On it you are going to spend four years of your youth, four of the best years of your life. The very days are numbered. Freshman year will run to 225; your whole college course will not fill 900 days. Be sure to give things their true price. Spend each day for all it is worth.”
Although we found Commons so noisy that we had trouble hearing what was said from the other side of the table, most of us heard everything that was said that evening and found it thought provoking.
This day was worth it. No doubt we all agreed that the entire week was worth it, that we were no longer strangers, that we were belonged to something grand. We retired with satisfaction and, perhaps, with a bit of trepidation. Then Wednesday came, September 23, 1952, when the Brooklyn “Bums” became top bananas in the National League; when Rocky Marciano KOed Jersey Joe in the City of Brotherly Love; when the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose; when Richard Nixon, the consummate poker player, gambled with Checkers in one of the first major national television events; and when we, the Yale Class of 1956, began our first day college classes, the first for most of nearly 900.
Sept. 28, 2007