Does This Man Look Like a Grouch to You? An Alumna Remembers Hamilton Holt

While attending a reception in the Galloway Room recently, I was startled to hear someone point out this portrait of Pres. Hamilton Holt and say, “That guy looks like such a grouch!” Others at our table agreed.

I spoke up, saying that despite the stern expression in the painting, almost everything I’ve ever read about Pres. Holt has emphasized his charm, friendliness, and sense of humor.  The following memories, shared by Marita Stueve Stone Vandyck ’38, an alumna who became Director of Admissions, reflect some of the qualities that endeared “Prexy” to so many at Rollins. I hope that she would have enjoyed the images and descriptions I’ve added to her text.

~ D. Moore, Archival Specialist

*****

Hamilton Holt was a collector. For Rollins he col­lected stones from the birthplace or home of distinguished persons which he placed in a Walk of Fame on the campus.

Pres. Holt with the millstone heading the Rollins Walk of Fame. Mary Seymour ’80 wrote about the stone’s journey to the campus from Holt’s home in Connecticut: “Allen Stoddard ’36 and Franklin Wetherill ’34, two Rollins students heading to Florida to pick up citrus fruit, loaded the 3,325-pound stone on their truck—a feat that required four men, a tractor, and a team of horses. For their efforts, the students received a whopping $40 from Rollins.”

He collected antiques for himself and had a large number of Currier and Ives prints in his home in Woodstock, Conn. He loved to prowl through antique shops. When driving through New England on an admissions trip with him, it became quite a game to try to distract him so that he would not see an antique shop and demand to take time to visit it.  Once he seemed to be asleep riding along a back road going from one school to another.  Suddenly he said, “Stop! Stop! You’ve missed one!” Frightened, I stopped the car only to learn that he had noticed that I had passed an antique store. We went back.

If it was old, he loved it. Somewhere someone in­troduced him to childlike, formless figurines which were made of Pennsylvania chalk and were the product of early settlers for their primitive homes. He was enchanted and bought two or three to begin a new collection. They were stored for the winter in my parents’ home in New York until he could take them to Woodstock in the summer. He placed them on the mantle in their home with the remark, “Aren’t they ugly, and aren’t they wonderful.”

Hamilton Holt in the President’s Office, with figurines from his collections

Rituals and ceremonies delighted him.  He particularly enjoyed Convocations with the array of flags and the colorfully gowned procession moving sedately into the Chapel to POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE. It never occurred to him that the students grew tired of long citations and responses for honorary degrees or that they thought six in one day were about four too many.

Pres. Holt at Convocation, 1945

In keeping with his love of rituals and ceremonies was his delight in taking part in the wedding of one of his academic children. He invented a “Rollins blessing” which he pronounced at some point during the ceremony.  He loved standing beside the minister watching the bridal procession come down the aisle. . . I do not remember what the Rollins blessing con­sisted of nor at what point it came in the marriage ceremony. I wonder if it was ever written down.

Hamilton Holt’s wedding blessing, from the College Archives

One of my earliest experiences as an employee at Rollins came when a special meeting of all faculty and staff employees was called. It was late spring, right after college closed, and we gathered in the Annie Russell Theatre. Dr. Holt addressed the group somberly and directly. He admitted that he had failed to raise sufficient funds to balance the budget  and, for reasons I have forgotten, the College could not bor­row money. So he came to the faculty and staff for help. He asked us each to take a “retainer” in our salaries, which the College would repay when student tuitions were paid, or when he was successful in bringing in new money. The amount we each allowed the College to withhold from our salaries was determined by individual needs. I believe his appeal was successful and his fund raising effort the following year also successful.

Marita Stueve, pictured here in 1944, served as Director of Admissions from 1942 to 1945. Faculty and staff agreed to reductions in their salaries in the spring of 1942. Ten years earlier, during the Depression, faculty had 50 percent of their salaries withheld during the summer and then agreed to a 30 percent “donation” of their pay to the College for the academic year.

Dinners at the President’s home were formally served and the guests sat at a long table.  Dinner was interminable. No matter how many guests, there was only one servant to pass the platters of food. Consequently there could be no waiting for all to be served before you ate, else the food would be cold. So you ate what you had served and waited for the next.     Many times we ate meat, waited for the potato, ate potato and waited for vegetables.            At any one time some of the guests would be eating and the others waiting. It made for good conversation.

Pres. Holt’s dining room chairs, now used in the College Archives. Others have written of memorable meals with the President; Prof. Charles Mendell described a picnic at which “there were problems,” such as no beverages or flatware. Student Milford Davis ’35 wrote to his family, “I had lunch at Prexy’s yesterday and I am still hungry,” after dining on a small piece of “ice-cold meat,” “three stalks of very sickly asparagus, and a slice of tomato.”

After dinner there were parlor games. His favorite was, I think, a form of baseball. I am sure he himself had made up the questions for the game. It consisted of the Pitcher (always Hamilton Holt) who sat opposite the batter (a guest) and asked the batter a question from a typewritten card. According to the difficulty of the question, a correct answer earned the batter one, two or three bases (and even sometimes a home run). The questions ranged from sports to the arts, music, literature, people and places. Since Hamilton Holt knew all the questions, there was no doubt that he chose questions to fit the batter, and his eyes would crinkle with delight when he struck out [Metropolitan Opera star] Louise Homer with a question on operas or [Dean] Wendell Stone with an abstruse one in philosophy . . .

One of his private projects while President was to learn the secret grip of each fraternity and sorority. Whether he learned them all I never knew, but he did know a number. When he attended initiation banquets for those organ­izations he delighted in greeting each new initiate with the very secret handshake.

Hosting students at the President’s House

Raising money for the College did not come as easily for Hamilton Holt as most people seemed to think. He found  it grueling and depressing to ask friends for donations. He had many classmates at Yale whom he would repeatedly ask for contributions. I remember thinking once when I was making appointments for him in New York that Rollins might have had serious financial problems had it not been for the Yale Class of 1894.

Hamilton Holt (back row, right) with friends at Yale in 1894. Sitting in front of Holt is Howard Fox ’31H, who established The Fox Literary Prize at Rollins.

Once I drove him to Sarasota, Florida where he had an appointment with, if I remember correctly, Mrs. Mabel Ringling at her home. As we pulled up in front of her villa, Dr. Holt said, “We are too early. Drive around the block a time or two–we can’t be early.”

Later on our way home he confessed that we had not been early but that he had stalled because “I was nervous. I hated to go in.”

When I describe Hamilton Holt’s idiosyncrasies, I do not intend to picture him as a silly man — or that he  took these foibles seriously. They added fun and color to life. The same held for the atrocious verse and bad puns which he composed.

Below:  One of Pres. Holt’s “pomes” (as he called them) inviting the Rollins        community to a reunion at his summer home in Woodstock, CT.

His attitude was paternal  to students, yet he listened to them and respected their opinions. He treated employees, whether faculty  or staff, as colleagues and solicited their advice. When I was a very new and inexperienced Admissions Counselor in New York, I received a directive from him concerning the approach to take with preparatory schools. I disagreed with the approach and wrote him stating my reasons. By return mail I had a letter which said simply, “You are right. I am wrong.”

Pres. Holt in saddle shoes at the Student Center, 1946. As he left Rollins three years later, he told the students, “I shall miss you, my sons and daughters, in the coming days . . . I shall miss the quiet talks I have had in my home with you, whether singly or in groups. Write me sometimes and tell me of your trials and triumphs. May the latter far exceed the former.”

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