With the name Byron Satterlee Hurlbut, he had to have a sense of humor. Hurlbut served as the Dean of Harvard College from 1902 to 1916 and during his term maintained a collection of anecdotes, jokes and crank mail called the “Fun Drawer.” FM poked about in the University Archives, poring over Hurlbut’s illegible handwriting to recover the most amusing contents of the Fun Drawer.
This tale from 1912 speaks to the sharpness of Harvard students:
Terry says that a student from the class of 1913 put down Greek 10 on his study card. He then went to Latin 10 all the first half, thinking it was Greek 10.
Hurlbut, in an effort to emphasize the importance of scholarship, became infamous for putting many students on academic probation. The Fun Drawer contains numerous angry letters from the distraught parents of these boys, such as one in the 1909 file from the mother of a student who was put on probation for leaving before the appointed time at winter break. His mom wrote to Hurlbut:
I am grieved and indignant beyond measure over your action in regard to my son. But I cannot say that I am disappointed or surprised for I expect so little from Harvard in the way of justice—to say nothing of mercy…Oh, I so regret his persistence and ambition to go to Harvard, when all of the sons of our best friends now go to Yale or Princeton… I have one more son—an intellectual, sensitive child, and I hope and pray that he may never go to Harvard.
Another student identified only as Francis was also put on probation in 1909. He was a suave chap, as evidenced by a letter he wrote home to his father:
I have something to tell you which I know will not be pleasing to you. Dean Hurlbut called me over and after a long talk told me that the rules required that I be on probation… Dad, I know you will look on this as pretty poor and I agree with you, but to tell you the truth I think it is a blessing in disguise. Now I have to work and I will… Please don’t let this upset you. I’ll come out okay. Trust me once more and I will not fail… P.S. After this I hate to ask for my allowance but I need it.
Hurlbut received his share of eccentric letters, including this one from D. Blake in Murchison, Texas, in 1915:
Dear Sir—I was told by another party that your institution conducted an egg laying contest with the result that the leading hen in the contest (a big white hen) made the phenomenal record of 337 eggs in 365 days. If this be true please let me know and if the party to whom this hen belongs will sell eggs from her.
Hurlbut diplomatically replied:
I beg to acknowledge your letter of December 6 in regard to the hen which has made such an astounding record as a layer. The contest to which you refer was not conducted by the university. I should think that probably you could get full information in regard to the history of this hen, and also the name of her owner, by addressing the National Poultry Association.
Hurlbut’s Fun Drawer file from 1907 contains a letter from Francis Call Woodman to a Mr. Greene concerning a conversation Woodman had with a fifteen year-old boy on his college prospects.
“Well, Fred, where are you going to college?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Haven’t you any leanings?”
“I should think you would be beginning to think about it.”
“What have you thought?”
“I have decided where I am not going.”
“Where are you not going?”
“Well, sir, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am not going to Harvard.”
“That’s interesting. But you needn’t be afraid of hurting my feelings; you doubtless have perfectly good reasons and they are exactly what I want to find out. Why have you decided against Harvard?”
“I don’t like the buildings.”
“Neither do I. But, come now, give me a better reason.”
“Well, sir, I don’t think they’ve got a very good river.”
“Yes, they have—the best of rivers, and it’s going to be better every year. Come now, Fred. Give me the real reason. Don’t be afraid of me.”
“Well, sir, I don’t like the Harvard spirit.”
“What’s the matter with the Harvard spirit?”
“It doesn’t win games. It’s too timid and easy-going. There’s no fight in it.”
“Did it ever occur to you that many of our college games are won through trickery and brutality, and that it may be better to win a few games honestly than many at any cost?”
“Yes, I think Yale are micks and win games any old way so long as they get the winning score—but I think Harvard goes too far the other way. Then—I don’t like Harvard men or Harvard boys.”
“They’re too polite.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, they are soft and girlish and ladylike and misnancyfied and snobbish. I don’t like them. I don’t think they’re manly and the kind to succeed.”
Despite these flaws, Harvard still managed to attract applicants. This letter, perhaps the collection’s finest, was sent to “Mr. Deen” of “Harverd College” in 1916. Hurlbut does not indicate whether or not it was a prank.
I am a poor boie what wud lik to hav a education an it iz for this reson that I am riting to you at this time. As I have stated above i am a poor boie and wud like to no how i kin ern my way thru skul. Is Harverd very far from the rail road stashion? What is the karfere out there? What are the wages at harverd? If a fella shud not live very hi would they be suffishent for a fellas simple needs?
A man told me thay gave extra to footbal plaers at Harverd an i always was a skrub on the home team an was hert once an had to be stitched fer rupture uv tha brain. Never tha less that waz a lon tim ago an i am in shap agen to play. Dos Harved play Dartmuth any more. They usta when my old man wuz at Harverd.
…Mi friend has a Harverd banner on his flor and it is grate to wip on so if yuv got any for 35 cents or mebbe fifte send me won by Marshal post.
Let me no if yu need me ther to help in tha skul.