As lone survivor, I celebrate the Union College class of 1934.
We came together 81 years ago, not long after the stock market crash on Black Friday. Even as we approached the campus on opening day, the families lined up outside the soup kitchen in downtown Schenectady were stark reminders of the nation’s economic woes.
We hardly needed reminders because many of us were from families that struggled to make ends meet and scrimped to put together the $400 tuition fee, plus room and board for those lucky enough to live on campus.
Many of us were commuters. To save trolley car fare, some of us hitchhiked 15 or 20 miles in this upstate New York snow belt. I brought healthy brown bag lunches; my friend Jack ate beans on white bread day after day. A downtown restaurant served a bowl of soup and two hard rolls for 15 cents, perfect on days I had to stay late.
Passport to future
We didn’t complain. In 1930, only 30 percent of students finished high school. We were fortunate to be given a passport to the intellectual and social adventure that college offered. More than that, we hoped in those grim times that a college diploma would boost our prospects of employment or of winning a scholarship for graduate or professional school study.
One morning after required chapel our class met outdoors, not far from the early 19th century Round Building, from which paths radiate in every direction. I can picture this clearly: about a hundred of us, less than half our number, were standing there, late teenagers, tall and short, the future college scholars, athletes, debaters, actors, a bit ruddy-cheeked and hair-tousled in the crisp and windy autumn air. The agenda was simple: elect a class president. We chose Alex Turner, the tallest amongst us.
We were not the rah-rah boys of the 1920s, wearing raccoon coats at football games. Sure, we cheered our teams, played sports, talked about girls, girls, girls, dated and did some zany things like swarming into Proctors theater, past the ticket taker and under the benign smileof the manager who seemed to prefer an unpaid audience to none at all. But with all the fun, under the ominous shadow of the Depression, we were very serious about making a success of college.
Our professors did their part. In my senior year, several courses had a powerful influence on me: Stanley’s year-long seminar on the history of philosophy, Larabee’s seminar on social and political philosophy, Gottshalk’s course on international relations, and Cummins’ — whose gray pallor was a mark of his coal mining experience in his young years — on labor economics. Together, they helped me develop a world outlook, as well as adeptness in the use of the analytic tools of those respective fields to make sense of the ever-shifting national and global scenes.
Wordsworth, after all, had warned us of the destructive effects of change, in particular, the industrialization that changed his beloved England: “The world is too much with us . . . getting and spending we lay waste our powers . . .” In courses in many fields at Union, we learned to cope with the changes.
Those were some of the intellectual benefits of college. On a more emotional plane, occasionally the vivid picture of my spirited classmates on that autumn day in September 1930 flashes through my mind, accompanied now by the painful thought that they are all gone.
But what a life they led. Hardened by circumstances, intellectually disciplined in college, socialized to work together in class, in sport, orchestra, or college theater, they were prepared to join the “greatest generation” during World War II and aid the nation at large in producing its postwar prosperity.
Hope for today
Does the happy fate of the class of ’34 offer hope to college students today? It’s too early to say. In the early ’30s, millions of the unemployed as well as workers uncertain of their future banded together with farmers and veterans and demanded jobs. They swept Roosevelt into the White House. Within months after taking office, he and Congress gave the people what they wanted in programs like the WPA and CCC, pick and shovel but also white-collar jobs, even employment for actors, artists and historians.
After five years of deprivation and despair, the effects on the nation’s morale were a joy to behold. Instead of the haunting melody of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” the class of ’34 — and many millions more — were singing “Happy Days are Here Again.” Will the class of 2014 do the same?
Milton Schwebel, a Troy native and graduate of Union College, lives in Arizona. He was a professor, department chair and associate dean for graduate studies at New York University’s School of Education, and dean of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.