The End of an Era

A Celebration of the Benson-Stark Years

By Ward Elliott, April 12, 1999

1999 doesn’t just mark the end of the Twentieth Century. It marks the end of CMC’s eras of founding and early development. The great movers of the Stark years, Jack, Jil, and Jack’s secretary, Barbara Condit, are all tidying up their desks, going to one goodbye dinner after another, and winding down their affairs after 45 CMC years, in Jack’s case, 29 of them as president. The great movers of the Benson years, George and Katharine themselves, Donald and Bernice McKenna, even Eva Ballard, George’s longtime secretary, have all left the stage within a few months of each other, after 50-odd active CMC years, in George’s case, 23 as president. His nearest rival for years in CMC service, dining-hall server Cheva Garcia, retired two years ago after 46 years of service, but she is still often seen in Collins Hall. Out of CMC’s 111 permanent faculty, 20 are left who were hired in the Benson years, most of these, like me, personally recruited by Benson. The youngest members of this group all turn 60 this year.

Reasonable people may differ as to what years may be considered CMC’s bleakest. If poverty is the measure, an argument could be made for the college’s very first year, 1946-47, when we started out with Story House, a few acres of rocky ground and quonset huts, $80,000 in gifts and pledges, a five-person pickup faculty, and 86 scrounged-up students. If financial distress and wobbly academic credentials are the measure, the early 1950’s were probably our low point, the years when Jack Stark entered as a freshman. Student enrollments were reeling from the Korean War; our SAT median, had we dared to calculate it, would probably have been in three digits, not four, somewhere between where Slippery Rock and Samford Universities were in 1996, the last year before the SAT’s were "renormed" to today’s inflated levels. Bankruptcy loomed. Half the faculty had been warned of impending layoffs. How strange that our graduates from those dire years, the ones who picked up the rocks on Parents Field, are our most cheerful, devoted, optimistic, and successful, the ones who would tell you that their years were not CMC’s bleakest but its greatest! Could being asked to pick up the rocks – to say nothing of winning World War II -- have had something to do with it?

But the years since have been anything but bleak. By the time he brought me to CMC, Benson had not only staved off bankruptcy but prospered and hired a faculty with some true heavyweights – Marty Diamond, Harry Jaffa, even the aged Leo Strauss himself. He had also raised the SAT median an astonishing 200 points, more and faster than any other college that I know of. When I recall him expounding on his vision for the college, while kicking olives off the patio behind Pitzer Hall, I have the notion that he talked and kicked us to the door of greatness. Jack Stark was hardly a talker compared to Benson; no one was. But no one could touch Jack as a kicker. He got the SAT median raised yet another 100 points, ranking us fifth among small, liberal-arts colleges, abreast of Columbia and Johns Hopkins, with an endowment per student exceeded only by Swarthmore, Grinnell, and Pomona.

By CMC’s 50th year, in 1996, its students were competitive with the best by every available measure, ranked fourth in the nation in Division III all-sports comparison, victors in soccer, tennis, water polo and rugby over Division I heavyweight powers Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Dartmouth, and Brown. Since the early 1980’s, Claremont debaters had been 16-5 against Harvard, 16-7 against Stanford, 3-0 against Oxford.

I was raised in a Harvard family and was always told that Harvard was next thing to the gold standard in education. But I have also become CMC’s Truman Scholarship representative, and I couldn’t help but notice that CMC had more Truman Scholars last year from a class of 250 than Harvard got from a class of 900. On a per-capita basis, CMC has had more Truman Scholars than Harvard, indeed, more than anyone, for the last fifteen years. The same is probably true of Watson fellowships, though Harvard is still a step ahead of us in per-capita Rhodes and Marshall Scholars. Benson/Stark-Era CMC professors had a hand in creating the Reapportionment Revolution, and a big hand in controlling its effects. They helped rescue the Electoral College from ill-considered reform, decontaminated the blood supply, redrew the Clean Air Act, and cut smog alerts in the Los Angeles Basin by 99%. Benson/Stark-Era CMC graduates have become captains of industry and finance, architects of giant international oil consortia, shock troops in the war on fibrotic diseases, counselors to governors and presidents, deciders at every level of business and government. But for the work of these high-impact CMC people, brought here by Stark, Benson, and taught by the many that they hired and inspired, the world would be a bleaker, lesser place.

Eras come, eras go. Some are glorious, some terrifying, some humdrum. The Benson and Stark eras were anything but humdrum. For CMC they have been years of Promethean, world-bending creativity. I hate to say goodbye to them and am sometimes tempted, like an old grad, not only to say "Those were the days," but to add "This was our finest hour." Benson and Stark might have grudgingly acknowledged the first proposition, but the second never. CMC’s finest hours, they told us, are yet to come. They are right, no doubt. But what surpassingly fine days they were! We were lucky among mortals to have shared them and won’t soon see the like of them.