Our Own Words
Spoken during Reunion '64
James T. Giles
Attorney, Federal Judge
You'll never know whose life you're going to touch by mentorship, by counseling, by being a teacher. No matter what you do with your Amherst education, you're first and foremost the teacher. You might call yourself something else but you're a teacher. If you're a lawyer, you're a teacher. If you're a doctor, you're also a teacher....
President Kennedy spoke about the dangers [to the democracy] of any society that tolerates or promotes inequality. Inequality in access to education, health care or participation in government. All those things will threaten the democracy. I happen to have that paragraph circled on a piece of paper in my pocket.
College football coach, Attorney, High School Principal, Environmental Activist
We were so fortunate. We came along when the United States was the dominant power... the country was extraordinarily prosperous. The division between the haves and have-nots didn't appear to exist then. We're leaving behind a lot of challenges ... The environment is one. Political gridlock is another. The education system is a mess. The divisions between the haves and the have-nots is terrible. The domination of wealth in our political system.
Having spent the last three or four years in activism on fossil fuel issues, I have become convinced that the way that the political gridlock is going to break is through grassroots efforts that eventually percolate up and force politicians to do what's appropriate.
Leadership Qualities? Passion. Energy. Conviction. Some courage. Willingness to stand up when you get pushed down. The really good leaders are also good at reading others and responding to them in a dispassionate way, that is to say, in a nonjudgmental way. They accept people more as they are and work with them to either help them understand or to find a way to persuade them.
Retired Airline Pilot
I love this place. It was the best of times and the worst of times. It’s like most things that are painful but rewarding. The difficulties go away and the sweet moments stay. Those moments are the people you meet. You reconnect with them and it’s priceless.
Today, sitting in the environmental seminar and discussing our environmental legacy, I looked down and here’s guys, the average age is probably 72 and they’re involved. They’re not just involved. They’re leading the way. I think that’s part of this school’s heritage and I’m proud of that.
National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council
I didn’t hear JFK's speech. I was one of about 20 or so students who were picketing his visit because of what he was not doing on Civil Rights. I’d been interested in that issue for quite some time. I’d gone down to Washington for some of the earlier marches in the late ‘50s...
I finished my dissertation and was interested in environmental issues but saw no connection between that and my brand new dissertation on social psychology ... Eventually I figured out, it sort of dawned on me reading Garrett Hardin’s paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that these environmental problems really were problems of human behavior in a way, and problems of coordination of human activity, and that I could actually simulate environmental degradation in the laboratory with a small group of people using things that amounted to resources. ..
When we started thinking about the environmental legacy, it became clear to us that the biggest issue for our generation is climate change. That climate change requires, if we’re going to keep it in reasonable check, a whole lot of human change on lots of different levels.
National Institute of Health, Cancer Institute
There were three experiences at Amherst that I certainly remember with some clarity. The first was President Plimpton on the David Susskind show saying Amherst was trying to educate the students to be able to go into fields that don't yet exist. The second was from Professor Ziegler who said, “We have classes… you could just go out to the hills and meditate or think,” he said, “but we think you will do a better job when you go out there if you have something to think about.”
The third was also from Professor Ziegler. What he excelled at doing was no matter which view we took he would take the opposite view and give you reasons for completely disagreeing with whatever it was you were saying. Then he would summarize and say the position that you have largely ends up depending on what your value system is, and that we take our value systems for granted, but it's just as important to analyze our value systems so that we understand first our positions and also the positions of other people who may not agree with them.
University of Illinois, Illinois Natural History Survey, Aquatic Ecologist
I heard JFK speak and it had a profound impact on me because he talked about privilege, how we were privileged attending this college, and that much was expected of us because of that. He also talked about the artists in society.
But for me, the most critical thing was the coming together of the whole college that evening after JFK was assassinated.
The Amherst president at that time, President Plimpton, talked to us for about 15 or 20 minutes. He told us little anecdotes about the day Kennedy was here. Just little things that made it personal like the fact they all took their jackets off, but the talk was about big, important things ... what he said at the end really influenced me. He said, "Let us stand a moment in silence to honor him, and then let us go do the things he couldn't complete." And that's when I decided to join the Peace Corps.
Charles (Smokey) Stover
Consultant on Medical Issues
I’d been involved … since President Kennedy’s inauguration I was very much taken and motivated by his speech. That was a message right from the beginning of freshman year. I was interested in various projects that related to Africa, and during freshman year helped organize a book drive for Liberia. After graduation, I went into the Peace Corps, I was two years there, initially managing a peanut export cooperative ...
I thought maybe we should look at the reunion from the perspective of the world we inherited and the world we're leaving behind. We had inherited a pretty solid economy and reasonably stable foreign relations, (although there was the Cuban Missile Crisis). I put the idea in the alumni journal. One of my daughters had suggested that theme when we were arguing over the mess we were leaving her generation.
Economics Professor, Columbia University
One of the things that was so striking about what Kennedy said at Amherst is how it resonates with the problems that our country is facing today. He talked about inequality, in a period when inequality was much lower than it is today.
One aspect of the optimism of that era was how we saw things as full of potential. There was optimism: that torch was being passed to a new generation. There were things like the Peace Corps. We were going to change the world. But the people graduating today don't have that same sense of optimism. I hope that we make the right decisions. I think we could make the corrections. Robert Frost is one of our heroes here at Amherst and one of his most famous poems is “Two Paths Diverged in the Woods.” I always think about that poem and about the fact that there are choices. I hope we choose the path that will lead us to greater equality, greater job opportunity for our young people, that we are able to harness our enormous strengths to serve not just those at the top but to serve our entire country and to create the kind of vibrant democracy, real democracy that is so deep in our system of values.
Rabbi, New York City
Whatever your intellectual commitments, nothing will happen until you yourselves are aligned with some passion that arises from what you feel is your mission, the purpose for which you were placed in this creation.
We left this place, we in the class of 1964, with expectations and assumptions, a type of life plan. For education, for career, for family, in fact for our well-being. For some of us, well-being was entwined with the well-being of society and selfless acts and decisions that took us forcibly forward to correct society, bring justice for humanity, advocate and sacrifice for the disenfranchised.
But quite honestly, others of us even when we embodied those altruistic inclinations within, move forward with a much more distinct concern for our own well-being and success. In gross terms, we were on the make, not in social sense though that might have been part of it but more so driven by ambition. We sought glory in our own disciplines and to be known so that when we showed up at these reunions we would have tales of accomplishment to tell and answer to what was often the very first question we ask each other, "so what are you doing?"
We would ask now something more: what are the touchstones we presently use to give direction to our lives? How are they different from the anchors upon which we depended when we left this campus? Where did our life veer?What were the unexpected unpredictable, unplanned, unexplainable, irrational, uncertain and often uncontrollable moments that emanated from passion rather than from logic?
The thing that was really attractive was the core curriculum. First two years, everybody studied almost the same thing. You had your choice of language, but everyone studied physics, calculus, ancient civilizations, an English course for two credits in which you had to turn in three papers every week and then be excoriated in the middle of class. And it was tough, but it also provided common ground for people to discuss things other than who wants to join what fraternity, people would be in line in lunchroom and would be discussing Greek philosophers or the latest physics problem ... It was a unique experience that I have not had since then.
Securities Lawyer, Publisher, Entrepreneur
There are a number of guys in our class who embody that kind of spirit. Kennedy was always saying 'you have to do it yourself -- you can't rely on others.'
There are many of us who are self-motivated doers and we came from a generation that thought we could do anything to improve things and should do a lot because we really feel and care about our legacy.
What's been beautiful about this weekend is the lead-up to it. So many of us have not just been re-acquainting ourselves but acquainting ourselves with guys we didn't know as much about then as we do now because guys are baring their souls on the Listserv providing information that we never knew about. It makes this occasion so much more meaningful.
I have read Frost's poems over a lifetime and was at his open readings and his memorial at Amherst as well as an attendee at the Kennedy speech there. I also attended Kennedy’s inauguration and witnessed the Frost presentation on the steps of the Capitol during a very cold, but clear morning.
Frost thought civic engagement was not for everyone, but those who have the gift to lead should grasp it just as those who are poets should pursue their calling. Frost seems to be arguing for leaders who strike balances between extremes. He champions the natural leader even if he wants at times to refuse his responsibilities.
Frost was drawn to Amherst in part because the students were able and were blessed with an individual spirit. He, like Kennedy, wanted those with such talents to succeed in the arts and in statecraft. He saw such hardheaded visionaries as the only hope for the future. They needed a broad education and “real life” experience to arm them appropriately and to allow competition to bring the best to the top. This was his life experience and Frost would have others follow his lead.
Retired Investment Banker
We've concluded that democracy, as a form of government, is a fragile gift. The sacred core of that gift is the single vote of each citizen. The value of the single vote of the citizens of the United States is being undermined. The process leads inevitably, in some of our views, from democracy to oligarchy over an extended period of time when an individual vote counts less and a smaller and smaller group determine who we, the people, are.
Counselor, Retired Head Master
At our age, how will each of us channel our vitality, skills, life experience, and compassion to continue contributing to society? And how did and does our particular educational experience at Amherst influence this decision to give back? JFK's speech in the fall of '63 was a rallying cry.
Our professors encouraged and, in many cases, demanded keen insights from study and action and from a compelling need to deepen understanding, to shape our own opinions first, and then use these convictions to shape opinions and provoke commitment in a larger circle. As undergraduates, we were focused on preparing for successful careers. However, I'm quite sure this reunion is confirming that commitment. In the intervening years we have learned what Winston Churchill once said: "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."
Philanthropist, Retired Investment Banker
What I tend to do is help to architect and build or shape and fund a variety of not-for-profit organizations. Why do I do this work? It's like JFK said when he's here. It's my responsibility to do it, but I also do it because I believe that education is the engine of social mobility, and I think social mobility is good for our economy and our democracy, so I think it's a smart thing to do and the right thing to do.
My work is not entirely altruistic. As my wife Penny Sebring was told when she joined the Peace Corps that if you're here for totally altruistic reasons and there's no self-interest involved, you will not last. It has to be a combination of the two. Her self-interest was to travel and learn Spanish, which she continues to use today.
The other reason I do this stuff is I'm trying to remain relevant, which I find is a big task. I simply don't want to become a cute little man in the corner. I'm trying to stay in the game.
"So what we’ve created in the United States… has been a system where those at the bottom are likely to stay in the bottom. Those at the top are likely to stay there. We have to try to create a better system of politics. And from that we’re going to have to also create a better understanding of a common ground, the basis of evidence. How do we know what we know? How do we come to believe what we believe? How do we think about the foundations of our values? Those were the kinds of basic issues that we studied at Amherst... Society would be much better off if more people have the kind of opportunity that we had when we were at Amherst 50 years ago."
-Joseph Stiglitz, Keynote Address, Amherst Reunion 2014