John Erskine, longtime Columbia professor and founder of the Core Curriculum, attended the College when its campus was still at what is now the site of Rockefeller Center. In this excerpt from his book, The Memory of Certain Persons, he reflects upon Columbia College Dean John Howard Van Amringe (1836–1915), best known for his monument between John Jay and Hamilton Hall. For our modern-day update—an interview with present Dean, James J. Valentini (and his director of communications, Sydney Gross)—see The Greatest Dean in the Greatest College.
In the late summer of 1896 I received a notice to appear at the College within certain dates, and register for the freshman class […]
Shortly after the term opened I made the acquaintance of the Dean John Howard Van Amringe, a figure in Columbia history. Van Am was a gentleman of fine presence, who looked taller than he was. His white beard, parted at the chin, lengthened him out. The beard had once been red. He took almost military care to walk erect, and on occasion he literally leaned backward. He had a high voice, which in spite of huskiness and a natural squeak, was penetrating. When dealing with a mere student who was not an athlete, he assumed a fierce manner, straightened up, and glared down through his glasses, which because of the heavy chain or cord attached to them, always slanted across his nose. Theoretically he held that teacher and student are and should be natural enemies. As I have implied, he favored athletes. It would be misleading to say that he wasted no attention on the studious, but he certainly had something like scorn for a grind. He was credited with saving the college from coeducation. His argument was simple. “You can’t teach a boy mathematics if there’s a girl in the room, or if you can, he isn’t worth teaching.” To conscience-stricken youths who wished a private word with him, he snapped, “Put it in writing!” It was remarkable how many of our petitions, when spread on paper, evaporated. He seemed a master hand at disposing of bluffs, but in fact he was oversoft. For those who cared to study his moods and wait for the right one, it was ridiculously easy to pull his leg.
He had an office boy, named, as I recall, Willie. Whether Willie had been trained by Van Am or whether he was the spontaneous product of nature, is not for me to say. If you knocked at the Dean’s door, Willie opened it an inch or so and told you to put it in writing. According to widely circulating rumor he was not above suggesting that a package of cigarettes would help your case. He favored Sweet Caporals.
Van Am was perhaps a histrionic character, as many a man is without knowing it. His great popularity among the students may be explained by the fact that he gave an admirable performance of the part which undergraduates in those days thought a dean should play. Students like myself, ambitious to write or practice any of the fine arts, were a new type just beginning to appear in numbers on the American campus, and Van Am, who cared little for innovations, endured this one philosophically. Whatever the limitations of his interests, for me and hundreds of other boys he was a human and reassuring institution. Some of his casual remarks, thrown off with blustering emphasis, stuck in our memory like bits of folklore. “Don’t eat crow unless you have to; but if you have to, say you like it!”