A view of the past with an Aggie perspective

Arnie Fischer, Jr., Ozzie Fischer, Gus Ben David, and Ray Houle: Photo courtesy of Daniel Warren
Stockbridge graduates stand, from left: Arnie Fischer, Jr., Ozzie Fischer, Gus Ben David, and sitting is Ray Houle. Photo courtesy of Daniel Warren

By Daniel Warren - June 22, 2006

Approximately 40 years after the University of Massachusetts at Stockbridge began issuing associates degrees, the school finally decided to grant honorary degrees to those who graduated from the two-year program before 1961. As an almost assuredly motley crew of farmers, landscapers, nurserymen, and other practitioners of resource management collected in Amherst on a recent Saturday during alumni weekend, a more intimate congregation of Stockbridge graduates took place in West Tisbury at the home of Ray Houle, known affectionately to me, his grandson, as Pop-Pop.

Deviously arranged by Penny Uhlendorf as a surprise celebration for my grandfather, it drew a veritable "who's who" of the down-home, salt-of-the-Earth subculture of Vineyarders. Guests of honor included Arnie Fischer Jr. (Landscape Management '77), Gus Ben David (Poultry '64), Ozzie Fischer (Poultry '36), and of course the unwitting host (Wildlife Management '39). Fellow agriculturists Rick Carney and Bob and son Andrew Woodruff were also in attendance.

After an hour and half of cake, coffee, and photographs, the guests left, as my family and I gathered around our patriarch and listened to him wax poetically about his younger days. The picture of a strong-chinned, strapping lad of the '30s watched patiently from the dining room table as we heard about a different time. A time when room, board, and tuition cost only $400 a year, a man got paid 50 cents an hour to milk cows, and a school of only 250 students could field a vast array of athletic teams. And in those days student-athletes were students first, athletes second. As a member of the Stockbridge football team, Ray competed against now defunct schools such as Salem, Framingham, and Hyannis Teacher Colleges.

As an agriculture student at the University of Connecticut myself, something that caught my attention was the different perspective from which natural resource management was taught in those days. Today, a degree in forestry from a New England university might mean learning how to preserve an endangered species' habitat or battling tent caterpillars. Seventy years ago forestry meant estimating board feet or managing pheasant populations for production purposes. The perspectives of productivity versus preservation illustrate a distinct generation gap.

But as the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Frats and cars were just as big on a college campus in the 1930s as they are today. When asked whether or not the men in Ray's fraternity (Alpha Tao Gamma) drank alcohol, Ray just chuckled and commented, "That frat was just like any other, a mess." As fraternity president, he was granted the use of a room that was off the side of the fraternity house, allowing Ray to avoid the noise as frat brothers stumbled in late at night. Automobiles were more a novelty in those days, and Ray described one of his epic journeys back home in a friend's model T Ford with burning candles acting as a defroster for the windshield. On this particular occasion, the boys had decided to go through Boston on their way back to Newbury. He recalled an anachronistic traffic nightmare as a beleaguered traffic officer simply threw up his hands in defeat and walked away from the surface streets of Haymarket Square packed solid with sputtering autos and impatient horses pulling delivery carts.

As the day drew on, the reminiscing soon progressed chronologically to the Second World War and the sudden realization that the Belmont Stakes began in five minutes. I thought about my grandfather's looking back on the past 70 years and seeing so much change in technology, the country, and the world. Being on the verge of college graduation myself, I closed my eyes for just a moment as tight as I could and tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been a young man in college right on the cusp of a war that would encompass the entire globe. It was the calm before a huge storm in American history.

Knowing this, a sly smile crept across my face. The only image I could possibly conjure up in my mind was Arnie Fischer Sr. screaming by in his touring convertible, top down, in a cloud of dust and gravel, stopping only long enough to pick up a couple of sweater-clad coeds with wavy brown hair and blood-red lips, leaving behind a dejected crew of stuffed-shirt business majors from the Amherst campus with their heads down, kicking rocks across the parking lot, saying "Aww shucks, just how do those Aggies do it?

Congratulations and God bless you, Aggies.