As Commencement draws near, we often think and speak of the many accomplishments of the past year here on the Hilltop. These accomplishments become a legacy for future generations as well as for the graduates, who take them along as their lives open to the future – new friends, new places, new freedoms and new responsibilities.
For the nine members of the class of 1817 who graduated 200 years ago this June, I imagine their legacy to future students was simply studying and living in a new Academy with very few amenities. For eight of the nine who received diplomas, college was in their immediate future: five were bound for Dartmouth, two for Middlebury, and one for Brown. Five of these men became clergymen, one a doctor, another a lawyer. In a class of thirteen, two didn’t graduate simply because they were women although, presumably, they had finished their courses. I don’t know what the future brought them; all that is written in the 1816-1880 General Catalogue is, they were married and they both died in 1861.
Memories of a favorite teacher stay with us forever – a teacher’s legacy. For example, Converse J. Smith, class of 1866, who wrote an article, An Electrical Experiment in the ‘60s, for the August 1917 Kimball Union Bulletin. He told of an incident in the lecture room with a favorite substitute teacher that left a lifetime impression on him. By the mid-1860s, Principal Cyrus Richards was in his 30th year at KUA and had led the Academy to great success; there were now over 300 students and KUA’s reputation was well known throughout the Northeast. Richards’ son Charles, class of 1854, had come home to Meriden to fill in for a teacher who was serving in the Civil War. Smith wrote that he had just graduated from Yale and was about to become a minister; he “was in the prime of manhood, and then as now, honored and loved by everyone.”
“I see him standing in front of the plain table with samples and articles of various kinds for use in his lecture, before the classes. A weak spark of electricity is displayed, and the big class joins hands making a circuit into the Chapel, receiving a slight electric shock. This exhibition was considered something remarkable, if not wonderful. Dr. [Charles] Richards looked wise, but had he been asked then, or certainly if he had been asked later on, no doubt would have disclaimed much knowledge of electricity.
“It is interesting to remember that at one of these lectures he remarked that some of the class might live to see wonderful strides in electricity, but who would have been so bold as to predict that the teacher himself and many of the class would actually witness such great changes and the use made thereof?”
Smith observed evidence of some of those developments at the time of his writing in 1917: “The quiet, but charming Village of Meriden is electrically lighted, with telephone service at home and connecting with the outside world…so many times I remembered my first experience with that feeble little spark in the lecture room, now almost forgotten…” He alluded to predictions of further developments that might be in store for electricity: “For instance, it is said that the Principal of Kimball Union Academy may be walking along some street in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco and wish to advise Mr. Alfred S. Hall, 24 Milk St., Boston, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the results of a banquet of the Alumni the evening before by which $100,000 was raised for the Academy, and with the proposed improvements in electricity it will not be necessary to follow the slow methods of today, the looking up of some telephone station, but he himself will be able to forward and receive answer from the street corner where he happens to be standing.” I doubt even Converse Smith imagined the ubiquitous handheld devices that have become our constant companions.
Commencement is and has always been a very important week in the life of the Academy as we celebrate the accomplishments of each class, but especially the senior class. Many of today’s celebrations take place as they have over the centuries, possibly under different names and held in different places, such as Baccalaureate, Senior Performances and the Awards Ceremony. In countless ways, each class leaves its own legacy. Congratulations to the Class of 2017 – we look forward to following your future lives.