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Depression, Prohibition, and a Different World

Harvard '35

By Francis H. Burr

Fifty years. It depends on how you look at it. To the prisoner in the dock when the judge says, "Fifty years," it is forever. To Harvard preparing for its 350th Anniversary, it is a respectable but not particularly imposing period of time. To the Class of 1935 celebrating its 50th Reunion, it is somewhere in between.

The Titanic sank a couple of years before we came along in spite of Marconi's invention of wireless a few years earlier. I entered the world just before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo, triggering the Guns of August. The Model T Ford was slowly replacing the horse and electric refrigeration and oil heat were unknown in the household. The New York Central Railroad ran from New York to Albany and the Boston & Maine from Boston to Lowell in less time than they take

Francis Hardon Burr '35, a senior partner with the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray, is chairman of the trustees of Massachusetts General and McLean Hospitals. In 1982, he retired his position as Senior Fellow of the governing Harvard Corporation, which he served on for 28 years. Burr now sits on the steering committee for Harvard's 350th Anniversary Celebration, and will receive a Harvard Medal this week for his service to the University. today. Between Boston and New York the preferred method of travel was by steamer--either for the entire distance through the Cape Cod Canal, which had not been open for long, or more quickly by train to Fall River and thence by water.

The 1921-22 post-war depression of our grade school years was followed by a roaring boom which lasted until our junior year in high school. About that time, the first feeble attempts at air conditioning--with blocks of ice and fans circulating air--came along. As a Northerner, I often wondered how people in Houston and New Orleans and Mobile survived the summer; even New York could be frightful and Washington was worse. In the fall of 1929 everything collapsed and the United States and the world plunged into economic disaster.

We entered Harvard in the fall of 1931 in the depths of the Depression, the first class to live as freshmen in the Yard. We were, I should guess, about half the size of the Class of 1985. There were no women among us--women were students at Radcliffe, not Harvard, where they were taught by most of the same professors but, except for some Fine Arts courses, in segregated classes.

We were also not nearly as diverse either geographically or ethnically as the Class of 1985; not many of us had scholarship assistance--money was very limited--but still enough of us came from sufficiently different backgrounds for us to learn a lot from one another. I admire the magnificent diversity of the Harvard classes of today; I also admire the range of sports and extracurricular activities, much broader than was ours. I also believe that since the adoption of the Core Curriculum and more importantly, the serious implementation of it by senior faculty, instruction in many fields is on a more personal basis than it was in our time, recollections of some classmates to the contrary notwithstanding.

But the Harvard of 50 years ago was nowhere near as different from the Harvard of today as the outside world then was from that of today. At Harvard we learned the history of Western Europe from Frisky Merriman, always impeccably dressed with a carnation in his button-hole and a billiard cue in his hand serving as a pointer. We learned about paintings from George Edgell of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and we produced foul-smelling compounds in the Mallinckrodt Laboratory. In fact, we learned a great many things from many professors but possibly more from our friends and classmates.

We moved to the Houses sophomore year and selected our fields of concentration. I was lucky enough to stumble on History and Literature. It was there that I found the 17th century, that yeasty and tumultuous period with more than a superficial resemblance to our own times. Times B. Conant '14 succeeded A. Lawrence Lowell as Harvard's President in our junior year, but I regret to say most of us didn't notice the difference. Our lives and digestions were probably more affected by the repeal of Prohibition at approximately the same time.

The government was for a short while ignorant of the enormous potential tax revenues from liquor, so that martinis flourished briefly at two for a quarter. When we graduated, the Depression was slowly ending and jobs were still in short supply. Many of us took what we could get. Another large group went to graduate school, most to learn a profession, some few to postpone the evil day of trying to earn a living.

Three years later Hitler marched into the Rhineland and started World War II. By the time the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 our lives had become increasingly affected by the war, and many of us wound up in one or another of the armed forces for the duration. Some were killed and wounded in the service of their country; I remain convinced that many more would have died, including thousands of other Americans and Japanese, had not President Truman approved the dropping of the atom bomb which brought the war to a half.

Be that as it may, the rest of us returned home and were "demobbed." One cannot generalize about our experiences: some had a tough war and some an easy war. A few were psychologically scarred for life but most happily refocused their lives along civilian lines.

Fortunately, the hard times that followed World War I did not materialize after World War II, despite the gloomy prophecies of some noted economists. As a result, we were able to establish ourselves in our trades, professions and callings with reasonable success. Some of us, but not many, were recalled for service during the Korean War--we were getting a bit too long in the tooth for combat at the time, of the deeply tragic and mistaken enterprise, the war in Vietnam.

In spite of many personal tragedies, the world has, on average, been very good to the Class of 1935. Certainly if one looks at people of our generation in other countries around the world, we are extraordinarily fortunate to be graduates of Harvard and citizens of these United States. There are many things wrong with this country, it is true: evils that occur and injustices that cry out for remedy. They are on TV and radio and in the newspapers every day and our noses are rubbed in them as they should be.

But let us not forget the other side of the picture. There are more people productively at work in America earning a decent living with adequate food, shelter and with real freedom of choice about the way they lead their lives than there are or ever have been in any major country in the world. Furthermore, this country remains a republic and a democracy and has made a decent and encouraging start at erasing the racism and other forms of discrimination that have so long made a mockery of our pretensions to equal opportunity. I firmly believe that, with goodwill and a bit of luck, we shall keep on progressing--in fits and starts and with occasional setbacks--in the right direction.Credit 1935 Harvard YearbookThe author's yearbook picture, and the 1935 graduation message from the president.

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