As Colgate prepares to celebrate its bicentennial in 2018–19, we find ourselves with a wealth of beginnings. Howard D. Williams, history professor and author of A History of Colgate University, 1819–1969, lists multiple possible dates for celebration. The most significant was Sept. 24, 1817, the meeting of the 13 founders in the home of Jonathan Olmsted, who formed the Baptist Education Society of the State of New York with the goal of educating missionaries to spread the Gospel. Another critical date was March 5, 1819, when the New York State Legislature granted the charter to found the school that would become Madison University and, later, Colgate. Finally, on May 1, 1820, the very first class, conducted by Reverend Daniel Hascall (who also supervised the building of West Hall in 1827), marked the effective beginning of Colgate as an institution of higher learning.
And, of course, there were other noteworthy firsts. Nov. 10, 1819, saw the authorization to purchase the first library books. In 1825, the Society of Alumni and Friends was formed — the first alumni organization, with likely more “friends” than alumni. The Hamilton Student newspaper, begun in 1846, was to be an important chronicler of the abolitionist arguments that divided students and the administration. Our first intercollegiate football game was played in 1890, against rival Hamilton College.
Colgate began celebrating the milestones of its founding in 1869. The 50-year ceremony was a rather uneventful affair, described in the New York Times by a disgruntled reporter who devoted half his column to explaining the difficulties he had endured in traveling to Hamilton, and the rest complaining that the speeches were too long.
The centennial in 1919, coming just after World War I and the even-more–deadly influenza epidemic, was cast as a determinedly cheerful “birthday party.” The celebration’s motto, “Every living alumnus on the campus for the Centennial,” was almost too successful: out of more than 3,100 living alumni, 1,284 turned up for the events. (The problem was where to put them: the answer seemed to be lots of cots, lined up in every hallway and throughout the village.) Homage was paid to the more than 1,000 veterans of the recent Great War and the 22 who had been killed. Nearly every speaker, including board leader Sidney Colgate and President Elmer Bryan, expressed genuine humility in contemplating the contrast between the school’s modest beginnings and its extraordinary success.
At the first Founders’ Day Convocation 25 years later, when many students, faculty, and staff members were serving overseas or about to depart for World War II combat, the mood was considerably more somber. The speech deliberately invoked “The Faith of the Thirteen,” noting that they, too, were “global-minded men” who had ventured forth into the world — a deliberate use of the past as a solid anchor for a difficult present.
The sesquicentennial in 1969 was noteworthy for the publication of Howard Williams’s history, a performance by Lionel Hampton, and the Charter Day speech by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Internally, the celebration’s preparation marked a profound evaluation of the university and long-range planning that would see Colgate transformed in the 1970s.
The bicentennial will again offer us a chance to consider Colgate’s future; I would also ask for sufficient time to consider where we have been. I have long been fascinated by a boulder alongside the road to Chapel House that bears a plaque: “In this ravine was held Aug. 13 1843 a missionary meeting by Eugenio Kincaid ’22 and Alfred Bennett. An epochal event for this institution and the Baptists of New York.” The plaque, placed by the Class of 1900, indicates that the memory of that gathering had lasted at least 60 years; yet now, more than 100 years later, the inscription is more likely to mystify than enlighten. Why was it so meaningful to those who put it there?
The bicentennial will be a moment for thinking about our connections to those of the past, however remote they may seem, and for considering our long-standing commitment to the region and the world. We can highlight parts of our history that were obscured because, at the time, we preferred to tell a different sort of story. We should avoid idealizing our past, even as we also recognize moments of courage, generosity, and inspiration.
As my year as interim president comes to a close, I’m preparing to return to my Alumni Hall history office, overlooking both the century-old Memorial Chapel and West Hall, our oldest building. Bicentennial planning, which has occupied a part of my past year, has allowed me, or perhaps forced me, to be reflective about where we’re going and where we’ve been. I’m humbled to have had the opportunity to serve this extraordinary institution as interim president, and I’m eager to return to the classroom next fall as we welcome Brian Casey as Colgate’s 17th president.
[Citations from Colgate University Centennial Celebration (published by the university, 1920); archived notes from Howard D. Williams, and archived references to the Founders’ Day Convocation and the sesquicentennial; my thanks to Jason Petrulis, bicentennial fellow, for directing me to these resources.]