"LOOKING BACKWARDS, it seems almost tragic to Hershey, or perhaps comic, that he really has nothing worth reporting," says the entry. Fifty years after graduating from Harvard College, Omer Fenimore Hershey, a retired lawyer living in Florida, reflected on his life and told the class secretary there was well, not much of interest.
So wrote the secretary of the Class of '92, 50 years after Hershey had graduated. The year was 1942, and the 191 surviving members of Harvard's Class of 1892 were taking stock of their lives.
Most of which were framed by catastrophe. They marched out of Harvard Yard into the Depression of 1893. They met for their 25th reunion three months after America's entry in the Great War, and they returned for their Golden Anniversary with the Battle of Midway in progress.
We recently bought a copy of the Fiftieth Anniversary Report of the Harvard College Class of 1892 in a used bookstore. We paid a dollar for the book, a compilation of 191 autobiographical sketches, called "Class Lives," which are each about two pages long. We feel a tenuous connection with these men, perhaps like you'd feel with a dead great aunt. Or a major league baseball player who went to your high school. Or maybe the guy buried next to your mother's grave. It's kind of morbid.
THE BOOK IS basically the record of 200 old men trying to justify their lives to other men they had known 50 years earlier. Some of them tackled this task with the pomposity you would expect. Richard Walden Hale "finds that the best hobby is owning plenty of New England land." Ernest Blaney Dane wrote that "although his collection [of fine jade and crystal] is not as large as the one in the Metropolitan Museum, he believes it is finer."
But for the most part, they affect a pleasing modesty. Everett John Lake lists his profession as manufacturer and makes only passing reference, in a list under public service, that he was the governor of Connecticut.
Talbot Bailey Aldrich "shoots a few ducks, and misses many, on the rice fields." Willard Dalrymple Brown listed his hobby as "home gardening: specializing in weeds."
William Joseph Long replied to the secretary that he had never held public office. "He doesn't like or trust political reformers, and has not sufficiently reformed himself to pose as the reformer of a community."
William Hutchinson Pyncon Oliver, a lawyer, told the secretary that "he has received no honorary degree, and has deserved none." Ross Perry said he "is still practicing law, but in a very cursory way, and does not want troublesome clients."
"Class" figured strongly in their vocabulary. For Mithcell Davis Follansbee, "nothing was too much trouble as long as it was for the Class." Benner "gave everything he had for the Class." Franklin Newell wrote that the deceased secretary did "much to weld the Class together as a unit."
After all, the Class had been good to them. In 1892, no student journalists complained about the preferential admissions treatment of legacies. Harvard was a family institution--more than half of their sons would attend the College. Richard Walden Hale knew "the character and careers of his ancestors who graduated in 1701, 1745, 1787, 1844, and 1880."
Of course there were exceptions to the general pattern: the poor Canadian who came on a scholarship, and the occasional Jew. But the Saltonstalls and Greenoughs and their brethren predominated.
With their crisp English names, they joined family firms, city clubs and the Republican Party. They became physicians, lawyers, teachers and bankers. One of the bankers, John Harsen Rhoades, wrote mournfully, "I am not a business man, nor ever have I been. I believe, instead, I should have been a poet-artist." Another, Hugh McKennan Landon, wished he had been an engineer or an architect. But for the most part, there were few agonized choices about careers.
Consider William Cameron Forbes. He drifted after graduation, travelled for a while, then volunteered for two years in a broker's office. After that, he coached the Harvard football team to an undefeated season in 1898. That was his big break.
Decades later, he reflected, "I have no doubt at all that my later achievement as coach of the winning Harvard Varsity, after many years of defeat, was the controlling factor in getting me favorable consideration on the part of President Roosevelt, an ardent Harvard and football enthusiast, for the high appointment he gave me to the Philippines."