A Clouded Era's Silver Lining
"When you make it to the 50th, you feel almost like you've won a lottery--completely undeserved luck, but there you are," says James E. Downes '35, one of about 300 members of his class who will be at Harvard today to celebrate their "golden" reunion.
"It will be interesting to go back," Downes says. "We lived in a different world."
Indeed to hear the Class of 1935 tell it, today's undergrads would be astounded at the luxury and inexpensive of the accommodations of the 1930s, the severity of the rules regarding the opposite sex, the newness of the now-traditional House system, and--perhaps most of all--the Great Depression's lack of effect on College life.
"At Harvard, it wasn't very much like a depression," says Townsend W. Thorndike '35, a retired teacher in Exeter N. H. "Some fellows had to drop out, but Harvard was just a school, isolated from the world, living its own life."
"We were in a very sheltered Harvard, not much aware of or concerned about the wicked world outside," says James W. Tower '35, of Mystic Ct.
"People were very conscious of the Depression, but somehow we got through it. It monopolized the conversation of the day," says Norman E. Vuilleumier '35, professor of English emeritus at Boston University, who now lives in Manchester. N H "I never knew anyone who had to leave."
Others remember the situation differently
Elmer Harp Jr. '35, now professor of Anthropology emeritus at Dartmouth, was one such student. He took a leave of absence after his freshman year and eventually graduated in 1938. "A whole year could be done comfortably for $1200, but I didn't have a lot of money to throw around," Harp recalls.
"There were very few fellows who did have a lot of money to fool around with," he adds.
"We couldn't take out girls very well--we counted every plug nickel," says Walter W. Birge '35 of Kingston. Mass, who had used to represent Ohio's interests in Europe. "And I'll never forget watching men well apples for five cents on Park Avenue."
"I remember one guy had a chauffeur freshman year, no chauffeur the next year, and lived at home senior year," says Tower. "There was a lot of that."
"We didn't travel much for vacation, but the setting at the college was so comfortable and interesting I don't think anyone felt deprived at being penniless," says Edward W. Fox '35, professor of History emeritus at Cornell.
"At that time Harvard was as good a school as any for a poor boy to go to," says John V. Hallet '35, a retired chemist who now resides in Glens Falls, N.Y. "The accommodations were great, and the cost was relatively modest."
"It's harder to get in now, both financially and scholastically," says George Ehrenfried, a retired photographic physicist who live in Cambridge.
Even during the Depression, of course, there were those who did not have to worry much about where their next term bill payment was coming from.
"I was very lucky in that my family was not seriously affected," says Richard S. Salant '35, former president of CBS News, now living in New Canaan, Ct. "Except for the headlines, and the fact that fathers of friends of mine jumped out of windows, I wasn't much affected."
Once within the Ivy walls, students lived in a luxury which makes today's accommodations pale in comparison. Every Harvard undergrad had his own bedroom, daily maid service, and waitresses to serve him as he selected his meal from printed menus in College dining halls--and all this for a tuition of $400, a room fee averaging $240 a year, and $9,50 a week for meals, according to the Harvard Archives records for 1930.
Instead of dorm crew, in the '30s College maids--called "goodies"--should make beds, empty wastebaskets, and tidy rooms up. "It was very plush living," Harp remembers.
"I didn't make my bed in all my years of college, and I never dusted, or swept a rug," says Downes, retired from a lumber company which bears his name. "We lived so well, it's incredible."
The atmosphere in the dining halls, as might be expected, was also quite different from today's, with formality and serenity instead of loud announcements from chairtops.
"It was very quiet and orderly at mealtimes," Vuilleumier says. "No one went to meals without jacket and tie, and we were served by a waitresses," he says. "You were seated by a maitred," Tower remembers.
"The food was better then, too" adds Vuilleumier, who says he has been back to eat a number of times since graduating.
The formal tone hardly ended at dining hall exits hat," "We never went to class without wearing a felt hat," Downes says. "That seems funny to me now What everyone wore--gabardine jackets, grey flannel trousers, and brown-and-white saddle shoes--was almost a costume."
"Today, people wear a shirt and jeans, and; never went to class without a neck tie," Downes adds.
If the Radcliffe Quadrangle seems far away now, it was even farther away in the '30s, both geographically and socially.
"I hardly knew a Radcliffe woman the whole time I was there," says Birge.
"I didn't mix much with the Radcliffe girls--they weren't around much," says W. Dudley Cotton Jr. '35 of Boston, a retired travel agent. "I had other girls, from Smith and Wellesley."
"You almost never saw a woman walking around Harvard Yard," Harp says.
The absence of women extended, naturally, to the dorms.
"We still needed permission to have a female guest, and sign a registration list," says Harp. "Women had to be out of our rooms around the dinner hour, except on weekends when it was a bit later."
"These were very strict rules--you just didn't fool around with them," Harp adds.
But didn't students resent these rules' infringing on their freedom?
"We were all full of middle-class morals--we didn't question the rules at all." Harp says.
"I don't think the (parietal) rules were questioned at all," says Downes. "We lived in that type of world--people didn't question authority like they to now."
They did like to pull the occasional prank, though, like the time a missing bell clapper off student riots.
The bell stop Memorial Hall--in the spire that has since burned down--used to ring on the hour, as Memorial Church's bell does now, signifying the end of class periods.
Then, one day in April 1932, the Class of '35's freshman year, the bell failed to ring.
"It turned out that someone had cut the bell clapper loose--and this thing weighted 300 pounds," Ehrenfried says. "As far as I know, no one ever figured out how the thing disappeared in broad daylight."
"Someone said a station wagon was going to come by with the clapper in it." Ehrenfried says. "Since it was a nice spring night, we started raising Cain."
Understandably, more than 50 Aprils later, some recall the riot's origins differently.
"An enterprising classmate of mine went to a local blacksmith and had another clapper made," Fox says. "Then he said it (the original clapper) would appear outside Hollis South, where he lived." That, Fox says, is what started the riot.
Some students, though, didn't know about either the station wagon rumor or the Hollis resident's announcement--and rioted anyway.
"Someone in the Yard said, 'Riot,'" Birge remembers, Then he says, student ran out and stopped cars in Harvard Square. "It was the idea of leaving a limit."
The Class of 1935, at some of the at least. "broke into the Radcliffe dormitories and rushed though the halls in search of the missing "We want our bell-clapper and we want liver." The Crimson reported at the time. "By this time [in Brattle Square] eggs were flying merrily."
"There were groups, racking our and buses, trying to tip them over, Harp says, adding that he limited was hit by some police tear gas.
Although 2000 participated in the melee, and not just students, Downes says. "I don't think there was any real vandalism in that riot." Eight students were arrested.
The Class of 1935's freshman yes was also memorable for the inauguration of the now-families pattern of spending freshman year it Harvard Yard, then living at a House for the next three years.
Most students welcomed the inceptions of the Houses, which were, it Hallett's words, "spanking new."
"Apart from the dormitories," says Downes, "the only other meeting place was the Freshman Union. The House dining balls were a very good way to exchange ideas and meet people."
"The contact I had with Harvard professors was mostly over mealtime at Dunster House," says Birge.
But others found the Harvard Houses to be less tight-knit than the English ones on which they were based.
"Houses weren't really a close thing," Downes says. "I think the [final] clubs interfered with the House plan a great deal."
Still others felt the pioneer spirit.
"A bunch of as were invited to join a fraternity after we moved into Lowell House," says Dower "But we didn't--we felt we had an obligation to make the House system work.