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Predestinate Grooves

May 2024
4min read

For some people Yale is as inevitable as income tax—and a great deal more fun

As the only Yale man among the founding trio of this magazine (outnumbered by Harvard), I have been asked to offer a few personal thoughts on the subject. Carte blanche! Start, perhaps, with why I picked Yale. Propinquity was a reason; my parents lived only fifty-two miles away in New London. Paternity also, for my father (Class of 1907) and his father (Class of 1889) had gone there too in the dark ages, although they seemed to remember them with gusto. Even more likely was the fact that I had prepared at Andover, the old Massachusetts school that seemed to specialize in sending her sons to Yale. More than sixty of my Andover Class of ’32 went on to pack Yale ’36, a source of reassurance in the perilous waters of a huge university.

There is a British limerick that rather well applies to such choices: “There once was a man who said, ‘Damn! / It is borne in upon me I am / An engine that moves / In predestinate grooves / I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.’ ”

I found out years later, when editing my fiftieth-reunion class book for Yale, that I was indeed in a well-traveled groove, for 29.6 percent of 1936 were sons of alumni. My father, who kept a little file about me in college, preserved a letter from his friend the late dean Clarence W. Mendell, assuring him, way back in 1928, that he need not worry about my getting in, as long as I passed the examinations. “The sons of Yale graduates are guaranteed admission when they qualify. We will not include them in those rejected because of limitation of numbers.”

There is the old policy, baldly stated, but times change. Working on the reunion class book, I heard from disappointed, often angry classmates who complained that their sons—able, qualified, even one valedictorian—had been turned down. Yale was once a kind of brotherhood, family names reappearing generation after generation. I remember in my first few days at college studying the statues of past worthies around the Old Campus and spotting the Reverend Theodore Dwight Woolsey, Praeses (president), 1846 to 1871—and I was sitting in class with an affable man of the same name. This groove, or track, into the charmed circle is closed, one hears, although a few trams still slip by. I am glad that I am not part of the policy group that is still seeking the formula that will combine the new égalité with Yale’s venerable fraternité .

Revolution of one sort or another has rocked Yale since 1722, when the rector, Timothy Cutler, and one tutor, Daniel Browne, declared themselves “episcopacy”—that is, the Church of England- and were immediately dismissed by the Congregational Establishment. The college was regularly troubled by such intrusions as revivalists, rationalists in the Age of Enlightenment, disestablishment, wars, the elective system in the course of study (pioneered by Harvard), and in general by any change in American society. The sensation of 1935 was a spoof issue of the Yale Daily News , which announced in screaming headlines, “YALE SEETHING WITH COMMUNISM; 73% RED, ‘NEWS’ PROBE SHOWS. ” “PROFESSORS FLOOD CLASSROOMS WITH COMMUNISM,” said another, and readers were told that 97 percent of the students believed that capitalism was doomed. Sixty-two percent, the paper noted, had been born in Russia.

This was all picked up with good humor by the press; Yale and Harvard were bigger news then, I think, than they are in present times. Yale football teams still provided Ail-Americans in our day, and the Harvard-Yale events, in football and crew, made the front pages. Father’s file reminds me that even the dean’s list, regularly and in toto , was printed in The New York Times . When I was one of fourteen in the class who won in an examination a week’s free trip to be shown around the government in Washington, we all were listed not only in the Times but, on arrival, in the Washington Star .

The significant revolution of our era at Yale was the debut of the College Plan, eight new residential colleges (with more still to come), filling the old skyline with Gothic towers and Colonial cupolas, each with its own quadrangle, dining hall, library—and a Master and distinguished “Fellows.” Seals, ancient-seeming banners, and “traditions” were invented overnight, to the secret amusement of many. The colleges were modeled on Oxford and Cambridge and intended to end the vast impersonality of a single undergraduate body. Each accommodated two hundred men or more, manageable groups that could form closer friendships and loyalties and grow in wisdom together. Yale did not, however, import the British tutorial system, which makes a profound difference.

My roommate and I moved into spanking clean, new Davenport College, which was Georgian, or Colonial. Our big living room was flooded with sunlight and had two separate bedroom/studies. I felt sorry for chaps in the equally new Gothic buildings, with their stained-glass elegance, to be sure, but with deep-cut slits for windows. They were better prepared to withstand assaults by archers, I suppose, but they often had to keep the electric lights on in order to see anything. Maids cleaned and tidied up after the young masters, and waitresses served us on real china in the gleaming, high-ceilinged dining hall. Visiting old grads must have thought us living in almost sinful luxury, too good to be true.

It was. The war, and then the return of brigades of veterans to pick up their interrupted (or never started) college careers, crowded the campus. Quonset-hut colonies housed married veterans, like George H. W. Bush, Yale 1948. Our old rooms to this day now accommodate four instead of two. The closets no longer hold the suits and the tweed jackets with leather-patched elbows, t he saddle shoes and rows of neckties of my day, but piles of denim and ragged shirts.

While you can be anything you want, or anything you can manage, as an undergraduate at Yale—scholar, athlete, Glee Club songster, Dramatic Club actor, newspaperman, clubman, politician, recluse—you wind up back in a single groove: alumnus, or, nowadays, alumna. And Yale’s economics depend on you. The first salvos from the Alumni Fund land before you have rolled up the diploma, and they follow you to the grave. The average giving has been extraordinary for years, and the superextraordinary givers have built the campus.

The giant gymnasium, where I sweated away in the crew’s practice tanks (you are motionless and water moves by you) was the gift of the Whitneys; the Beineckes built the spectacular Rare Book Library, with its translucent marble walls; Paul Mellon most recently gave Yale his matchless collection of British art and a building to house it.

There is no end to it; it makes a visit to New Haven well worth the time. I will finish with one little story about Edward Stephen Harkness, the Standard Oil heir of the Class of 1897 who gave his alma mater the College Plan after having bestowed a similar enormous benefaction on Harvard. George W. Pierson, who was one of my history professors in college and is Yale’s eminent biographer, relates in one of his books how Harkness, as an undergraduate, had been shy and lonely for his first several years. He lived alone in a rooming house, as many then had to, and ate in dreary restaurants; he was floundering in the then-compulsory Greek and Latin. The dean finally noticed and sent help, as is a dean’s job, but although his last year or two were much happier, Harkness worried thereafter about the fate of quiet or “average” men in the huge mass of Yale. And that is what he set out to cure with all those millions of hard Hoover dollars, with spectacular success. He lived until 1940, shy as ever, heavily laden with honorary degrees.

I didn’t know him, but I wish I had written him a thank-you letter to say how fine it was.

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