"Turning 50 in 1950: Harvard Men Reflect on Lives Between the Wars"
from The Wall Street Journal
Monday, November 6, 1995
By ELLEN GRAHAM
It was a time to exhale, a hard-won breather between history's worst war and the full-blown perils of the nuclear age. And for the men of Harvard, class of 1921, to be 50 years old in midcentury America was above all a time to take stock.
Their entries in the now-dusty pages of their 25th and 30th class reunion books, published in 1946 and 1951, include the usual curricula vitae. But these volumes also capture with surprising candor their yearnings, their griefs and triumphs, false starts and wrong turns.
They were bankers and lawyers and captains of industry -- but also missionaries, miners, headmasters and social workers. They wore scratchy wool suits and fedoras, drank Cutty Sark and sailed to Europe on the French Line. With their "fine helpmates," as one described his wife, they raised broods of children who in turn would spawn the baby-boom generation. Most of the 655 members of the class were born in 1900, and by 1950, 89 had died. However, most had cheated the odds: At birth, their life expectancy was a mere 46.6 years. One had succumbed while still at Harvard to "the terrible influenza epidemic which reached Cambridge in the last month of the first World War and was responsible for many deaths at the Stillman Infirmary."
Some saw action in both world wars, but only four died in combat. Businessman Sidney Matz of New York, confiding in 1946 that he'd been "bitten by the flying bug," died later that year when the plane he was piloting crashed near Seattle. Marlin Olmstead had died of heart failure at age 31 while strolling out to exercise his polo ponies.
Together, their stories offer a snapshot of a generation steeped in the 19th century values of duty, thrift and hard work. They were enterprising can-doers more than Organization Men, and their early careers were full of Depression-hastened business reversals. "Gradually from office boy without pay I did work up to be a full-fledged vice president and director of the company," recalls Sherman Damon of Chestnut Hill, Mass. "But in 1933, the boss announced we were no more."
Yet by 1950, most were securely established -- "just rolling along," as one puts it -- giving scant thought to retirement and savoring what then seemed to be America's boundless and God-given progress and prosperity. During a posting in Paris after the liberation, Alden MacIntyre of Boston got a firsthand look at the French bureaucracy, "and an appalling sight it was," he reports. In America, by contrast, he is "overwhelmed ... by the energy, imagination and resourcefulness which abound on every hand ..." Opportunity was such that many had felt no rush to settle into humdrum adult obligations. After college, Norman Hatch was a hobo in the Dakota wheat country, where, he says, "one joined the I.W.W. or got thrown off the freights." He wound up teaching Latin at Phillips Exeter Academy, and notes, "It is sometimes difficult to remain a good Republican, but one can always try."
In their day, on-the-job seasoning was as important as a Harvard diploma. Serge Daniloff counted his cum laude degree "quite useless," in that it landed him a machine-shop apprenticeship at $18.60 a week. Another man, the head of a wool and hide business, learned it "from the ground up ... I went down into our cellars and worked for about a year before I was allowed to set foot in the office." Birthright, however, swiftly wafted some to the top. Alan Kirschbaum of Elkins Park, Pa., attributed his rise in nine years to the presidency of a $5 million company "100% to one factor -- it was my father's business."
Warren Goodell's entry into the farm-loan business in Urbana, Ill., coincided with "a long and heartbreaking downward slide for middle-western agriculture," when corn sold for 12 cents a bushel and was burned for fuel. After his father's bank failed in 1931, he writes, "my duty seemed to be to stay on to salvage what we could for our clients." He figured that in five years he'd "be free and still young enough to start again." But it took 15 years before the war restored agricultural prosperity to the point where liquidation could be completed, and the bank "repaid its depositors 100%."
By middle age, others were grumbling about routine jobs, however remunerative. A government engineer reports, "I am now in the Miscellaneous Section ... whatever someone else doesn't care to do." A plant manager regrets abandoning "belles-lettres," saying that instead he'd "dug himself in a deep rut ... trying to amass a million bucks." Another, recalling how alluring his chosen field once seemed, now confesses, "My job seems endless."
Not everyone buckled under to the conformity of the times. Powers Hapgood worked as a coal miner and organizer for the United Mine Workers and the CIO. He and his writer wife, Mary, were once jailed in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for inciting a riot, but were found not guilty. Of Mr. Hapgood, who was the Socialist candidate for governor of Indiana in 1932 and who died in 1949, the class secretary writes: "Controversy was his forte almost to the end." Mr. Hapgood's widow later ran several times as the Socialist candidate for vice president of the U.S.
The notorious "red scares" were then in full swing. Lyman Bradley Jr. was chairman of the German department at New York University when, in 1948, he states, "I was suspended from the faculty having been found guilty of contempt of Congress as board member of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee." That offense earned him three months in prison during 1950. His reports to the class ceased thereafter.
For most, however, work proceeded at a stately pace. Business in 1950 was still largely transacted by letter, and vacuum-tube "electronic brains" were just laboratory marvels. Coast-to-coast television broadcasts would not come until 1951; it would be a few years before the American people would be transformed into a mass consumer market subject to Madison Avenue's sophisticated wiles.
At Union Trust Co. in Pittsburgh, Leland Barry found time to organize and conduct "a chorale group composed of about 60 employees." Another banker, John Baldwin of Baltimore, talks about co-workers who play golf in the afternoon and "who can if they wish come late to the office or leave early without upsetting the wheels of progress."
There was ample time for diversion. Their hobbies included tropical fish, stamp collecting, woodworking, fishing, card tricks, table tennis, skeet shooting and curling. A dentist was "obsessed" with popular-magazine writing; he'd published 250 articles. One man set off for Costa Rica to collect rare birds, while others retreated to their workshops. "I can tear my automobile down and put it together again, repair my clocks, shingle my roof ... and do all the myriad jobs necessary to keep my home in good running order," writes Edward Allen Jr. of Merck & Co. Bicycling for sport was such an oddity that Hiram Hunn of Des Moines, Iowa, felt compelled to tout its pleasures to his classmates. And a Massachusetts physician fond of candlepin bowling writes: "Father Time precludes the more strenuous sports."
No wonder, then, that several mention long, unexplained periods of ill health and trips to Saranac Lake or Tucson for recuperations. Or that Charles Irvine could boast: "I'll bet the boys that I'm the biggest man in the class -- five foot, eleven-and-a-half inches and 309 pounds. Any takers?" He died in 1951.
It was a man's world, but hearth and home spurred them on. William Baldwin of Sea Girt, N.J., observes that on behalf of his wife and son, "our daily tasks are worth doing and the wars are worth winning." Some extol their wives as "saints" or "civilizing" influences. Yet in a number of families, divorce mars the vaunted "togetherness" of the era.
Their wives were of a class and a generation to have chosen homemaking over the office (though by 1950, 34% of women were in the work force). A few took jobs during the war, or resumed artistic pursuits once children were off at school. And some couples were way ahead of the times: "Possibly Toni Frissel is known to some of you," writes Francis McNeil Bacon III of his wife, whose photographic career "has taken her to distant parts of the globe, including two trips to the European theatre during the war, while the old man took care of the children."
The class was not spared heartbreak. "Our marital venture has been tested and proved," Alan Kirschbaum writes. "We lost our little boy (at age nine) six years ago." A New York banker reveals that his eldest son's submarine had failed to return from patrol in Japanese waters. And Theodore Greene, a medical missionary in China whose young son died of encephalitis in 1941, would still recall him 30 years later in the 50th reunion book as "a promising lad."
The class, which included only a handful of blacks, is mum about a still-segregated society. In their anti-New Deal fulminations, some sound almost contemporary. "Unless some way can be found to stop this ever-increasing governmental scramble for more power ... strangulation is bound to ensue!" warns one businessman. A court clerk in Indiana talks of having "run the gamut of viciousness" in his work; but elsewhere, crime isn't deemed noteworthy. Many by 1950 had begun to feel their age. One tells of his shock at being called "Pop" by a stranger. Another had retired to California to tend an organic garden and promote a "truly natural nutritional supplement." He says he is free of lordosis and wishes the same for his classmates. He died in 1952.
Serge Daniloff, writing in 1951 after the sudden death of his wife, bitterly recalls his 1946 report, when, he says, "I felt my road was pretty well marked and that all I had to do was follow it to the end." He has lost all such certainty.
"Interesting and worthwhile people are getting more and more difficult to find," he writes, adding that "a good book is better than bad company." Mr. Daniloff, who spent his career with Packard Motor Co., would outlive a second wife and marry a third time. He gave up sports-car racing in 1964 and riding to the hounds five years after that. He lived to be 86.
But in 1951, he consoles himself with an assertion that few of his contemporaries would dispute: "In the final analysis, all a man is really supposed to do is to do his own job well."
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