Benjamin Hale Dinner
John E. Norvell '66 P'99 P'02
Benjamin Hale Dinner Address
April 20, 2016
President Gearan, Dean Baer, Faculty Members, Alumni, friends, and gentlemen of the College, especially the members of the class of 2016 – please stand – well done on all your accomplishments and hard work at Hobart.
And to my good friend Jared – many thanks for your kind words about my years after leaving Hobart.
More than 50 years ago, in 1962, I arrived here in Geneva.
In many ways, in my mind, that doesn’t seem so long ago.
Now admit it some of you may be thinking – oh great, another old guy talking about ancient history at Hobart.
And you know what, I probably thought the same thing in 1962 when they trotted out an old geezer from the class of 1912 to speak to our class at matriculation, and I suspect in 1912 that guy thought the same thing about someone from 1862 who talked about how his family knew Bishop Hobart.
The welcoming speech to my class in 1962 is long gone.
In fact, I tried then to remember who gave my Hobart commencement address in 1966, not a clue, and I might add not a clue to every other commencement including both of my daughters’ graduations from William Smith - not a clue!!
So the keep this in mind: sooner or later you won't have a clue about who spoke here tonight. Probably within the next two hours.
And that’s OK, its not important who speaks here tonight.
What is important is that a Hobart man does it, just as one spoke to me when I arrived here more than 50 years ago. It’s not me speaking then but the connections I represent that is really the key to my talk tonight.
So back to the past.
When I arrived here in 1962, it was a common practice for the Colleges to place you with a roommate with whom you had very little in common.
I suspect now there was actually a plan to see who would survive the freshman year – without killing his roommate – but I digress – I am sure it was part of the educational experience. Freshman roommates are like a blind date - you never know what you will get.
My freshman roommate was Bob Gale from the Bronx. Bob was my exact opposite.
I went to bed early, Bob stayed up late.
I was neat, Bob was less than neat.
Bob knew the ins and outs of New York, the biggest city I had ever been to was Syracuse, and I can assure you that Syracuse in 1962 was not Gotham City.
I suspect that the idea was that some of his New York City ways would rub off on me,
although for the life of me I can not tell you what they expected Bob to learn from me. Hmm – I really am not sure – perhaps how to milk a cow!
When we left Hobart in 1966, Bob went off to medical school. Then 20 years later, something happened. In 1986, my old Hobart roommate, now Dr. Robert Peter Gale, led American medical recovery efforts when the Chernobyl nuclear plant melted down in the Soviet Union. When I lived with him at Hobart College in 1962, I would have never pictured this New York City kid as being a world renowned cancer specialist and humanitarian.
Just as I never would have guessed in 1962 that someday I would fly F4 Fighter combat missions in South East Asia.
This last statement is even more telling for when I came to Hobart, in addition to being a rural kid, I had a really tough first year – almost to the point of there not being a second year at Hobart.
When I was a high school student, I did well academically. I was the type of student that always had his hand up – by the way – you know who you are out there! But when I got to Hobart, I was overwhelmed.
I was a very shy kid from rural upstate New York. It seemed to me that everyone was a lot smarter and better prepared than I was in my small high school, so that first year I really struggled.
But I did come back and even more amazing thing happened. The second year it all came together. I began a new academic path and I connected with my College – I found my place here, so much so that by my senior year I was doing really well.
And that is the great thing about Hobart, this is a place that when people connect here,
a transformation does occur
So I too left Hobart in 1966 – for a career in the Air Force.
Well, my initial entry into the Air Force was not without some bumps. While I was waiting to go to flying training, the Air Force assigned me to a Security Police Squadron in Washington, D.C. This to my surprise turned out to be the Air Force Honor Guard.
The Guard serves at the White House, Arlington, the Pentagon, and at all major U.S. ceremonial events. I am sure President Gearan saw them in Washington on many occasions in the past.
So I was assigned to the Air Force Honor Guard for about .....15 minutes.
Why, you may ask. Well, members of the honor guard are very, very tall –
I am not. Secondly, they wore sunglasses to look cool, I wear glasses so I don’t trip over things. So I had my 15 minutes of fame and then became a planner on the base. Which I assume had to do with my background as a historian.
After a couple of years writing operations plans, it was time to move on – I had come to Hobart for ROTC so that I could fly, but when I went to graduate school my vision changed – hence my brief but illustrious career with the Honor Guard.
But by 1970, the Vietnam War was needing more and more aircrews and I found that the door to flying was open again. For me that meant going to Air Force Navigator Flight School.
Now you may wonder: How can a history major from Hobart be able to navigate a jet aircraft? Doesn’t it require complicated math skills? Well the answer is no – it doesn’t.
What it requires is a disciplined, logical, detail oriented mind, able to plan and deal with a great deal of information – precisely the skills I learned doing Honors in history at Hobart.
But even in the Air Force – Hobart was not far from me.
My final check ride in flight training was given to me by of all things – Capt. Bill Maroon, Hobart class of 1963. I continually ran into guys I knew from Hobart in SEA, California, and in Alaska. When I was teaching at the Air Force Academy – Hobart played lacrosse there. When I lived in Washington, Hobart played Navy in Annapolis. Wherever I was – there were many alum events and opportunities to connect with the Colleges.
In 1993 I returned to Geneva as Hobart alumni director and began a new series of connections.
And one of the first truly distinguished Hobart grads I met was the late Dr. Robert Funseth, who spoke at Charter Day in 1994. Bob was a former assistant under- secretary of state, whose achievements included pioneer work on behalf of refugee women, improving refugee mental health and negotiating the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners after the Vietnam War.
Bob had come to Hobart in 1943 during World War II as part of the U.S. Navy V-12 officer training program. After his commissioning as an Ensign, he served with the Pacific fleet. But during his short time here in Geneva he connected with this place so much that he returned to Hobart to earn his degree, graduating in 1948.
In his 1994 Charter Day address Bob quoted the late Dean Walter Heatherington Durfee. The Dean told the Hobart men in his charge to make the most of their time here
as they only had four falls and springs in Geneva. That really struck me at the time as so true, but the more I think about it – what Dean Durfee said was only partially true, because you don’t connect with this place only this way, you connect with it many ways throughout your life as a Hobart man.
And to prove my point I want to introduce two of my professors at Hobart, Dr. Kenneth Carle, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Dr. Maynard Smith, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and who are here tonight.
Professor Carle and Professor Smith please stand.
I met Dr. Carle when I first arrived at Hobart, and he made such an impact on me that I can honestly say he is the only one of my Hobart professors I actually remember meeting.
Dr. Smith was the adviser of Phi Gamma Mu, the National Social Science Honor Society that I belonged to at Hobart. One of my last events here in 1966 was an honor society dinner at the Belhurst with Dr. Smith and we discussed the prospects for war in South East Asia. At that dinner, I learned that he was a pilot in WWII and in recent years we often discussed his flying career and mine.
These men have been recognized by alumni and alumnae as among the most distinguished faculty of the Colleges. And these men I consider to be friends nearly 50 years after I graduated. I am so pleased that they are here tonight.
In June my class will gather here to celebrate our 50th Reunion.
And I know these two men will be there also, renewing old friendships and greeting their former students as if nothing had ever separated them. These are connections that never fade.
And that in the end is what I want you to remember, when you have long forgotten who spoke here tonight, I didn’t tell you about ancient history, I told you about three Hobart men who came here, had challenges in their lives and went on to succeed.
Their stories in many ways are really like your stories that are now being written.
They were and are – like you are now – Hobart men.
So as I close tonight, I can honestly say “well done” for these and all the men whose lives were changed by Hobart.
Well done, indeed.