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When Hal Holbrook was named "Man of the Year" in 1967, the spring issue of the Alumnus that year devoted its cover story to the man from the class of `42 who had gained so much noteriety for his stage and television performances. Since then, of course, Holbrook's reputation has only grown, and he was one of two Culver alums to receive the Academy award nod, for his performance in 2007's "Into the Wild." Here we re-present the Alumnus feature on Holbrook from 1967 as well as a review of his "Mark Twain: Tonight!" from the same issue, and then-superintendent Delmar T. Spivey's comments on the occasion. Click any image to enlarge.

The Problem Is To Get Out From Under The Wig 

By Robert Reichley, Alumnus editor

IN New York in mid-April, there was a significant change in the cast of one of the season’s brightest Broadway shows. Alan Alda, playing one of the leads in The Apple Tree, was replaced by Hal Holbrook, ‘42. Alda’s part is a singing role. Holbrook is not a singer, or, at least he wasn’t until he began intensive rehear­sals for the show in March. 

It can be reasonably asked why Holbrook, non-singer, would take on a musical comedy. He has just won the greatest acclaim of his acting career portray­ing a 70-year-old American author. Holbrook himself hoped that 15 million television viewers would see him do his Mork Twoin Tonight! in March. The rat­ings said it was 30 million. And the critics called Mork Twoin Tonight!, a 90-minute CBS special, the best pro­gram of this, or perhaps any, television season. 

Furthermore, Hal Holbrook, Culver Man of the Year, has already won the Antoinette Perry Award—the theater’s version of the movies’ “Oscar”—for Mark Twain. For this and many years to come, Holbrook has struck a vein of gold. Why isn’t he mining it? Says he:

“Because I’ll never be able to satisfy myself until I prove myself without that wig on.”

THE GLASS MENAGERIE featured Holbrook with Shirley Booth and Barbara Loden. Holbrook played the role of the gentleman caller. “Once, in the middle of the night,” says Holbrook, “it occurred to me this guy was my age — he could be me. The next rehearsal I played the role straight and I commented on the lines rather than build a new character. It was a new field — and, God, it was fun.” 

For a man who has been inordinately successful in portraying old men, it is not easy to dispense with a good thing and learn to sing. Almost before the critics lavished praise on him for the Twain television special, Holbrook was offered a television series in which he would play an irascible old man who owns a television station in a small town in Maine. The old man would say witty things, just like Twain. Holbrook said no. He has said no before, and it is getting easier. When the decision was made to do the 90-minute TV special, the dialogue with some New York television people at one point went something like this:

“You see, it’s only one man, Hal-baby. And you got 90 minutes . . . and you know it’s different from the theater. I know you were big in Wahoo, Nebraska, but you got to understand this, Hal: on television, that knob is only inches away. And that hand will reach out and turn you off. Now what you need, Hal-baby, is steamboats going by in the background . . . see and I think we should take you outside on a bluff over-looking the Mississippi and, Hal, we’ll do some of the show from there.”

Hal said no.

Holbrook knew what he was doing with Mork Twoin Tonight! As he says, he has rehearsed it for 12 years. Not even he can say exactly how many times he’s played Twain, but it numbers in the Ihousands. He has brought the show to New York three times. This time he gave Broadway and television something he claims it doesn’t get often enough: a perfected, polished show. No steamboats or Mississippi River bluffs were needed, and Holbrook knew it.

While he claims he is not at ease in the New York rat race and is basically a shy and retiring person, Hol­brook is very definite about his career. He is not go­ing to bleed Mark Twain to death.

“As an actor, my problem is to put Mark Twain in the proper, personal perspective. I don’t want to de­vote myself year in and year out to doing Mark Twain. I’m happy about the show—I’d be an idiot not to be. But now I’ll be deluged with offers to squeeze every­thing I can out of the show. I’ve been through it be­fore and I’m going to spend a great deal of time ex­plaining to people why I don’t want to do a Twain television series or to do the show over and over again.

“My problem as an actor is to broaden myself, to get opportunities that will allow me to be what I started out to be—an actor. It’s taken me seven years since I first did Twain on Broadway to get out of those woods and to be thought of as more than just a guy who does Mark Twain.”

THOUGH he has never before done a 90-minute show before an audience of 30 million, Hal Hol­brook already is more than just a guy who does Mark Twain. Between the time he slipped unnoticed into an off-Broadway theater as Twain eight years ago and his TV success in March, Holbrook has appeared in 10 plays, the motion picture The Group, and on television in The Gloss Menogerie.

He has won the Vernon Rice Memorial Award as the best actor off-Broadway and also the Outer Circle Critics Award for an outstanding contribution to the theater in 1958-59. By Holbrook’s own admission, the honor he feels closest to is his 1965-66 Tony award for Mark Twain. He regards it highly because, like the motion picture Oscar, the Tony was given to him by his own kind within the theater.

Holbrook had a long apprenticeship on the road doing scenes from plays after his graduation from college. He opened Mark Twain in New York in 1959, and his Broadway debut was in Do You Know The Milky Woy? in 1961. A year later he joined the Amer­ican Shakespeare Company at Stratford, Conn., and appeared as Hotspur in Henry IV and John of Gaunt in Hichord II. He played the title role in the Phoenix Theatre’s 1963 revival of Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, then followed with a summer tryout for the Theater Guild of William McCleery’s comedy The Mockerol Plozo.

In the fall of 1963, Holbrook joined the Lincoln Center Repertory Company in New York. In the two yeas of its embattled existence, Holbrook played the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s Morco Millions, replaced Jason Robards in After the Foil and played it a year in repertory, created the role of the high-strung Ger­man major in Arthur Miller’s Incident At Vichy, and finished the season as the bailiff in Tortoffe.

Since the original opening of Mark Twain in New York Holbrook has played the role 600 times. In 1960 he was chosen by the State Department as the first non-musical theater attraction to be sent to Europe under the auspices of the cultural exchange. There the show also was a hit, though he received the only bad review in 12 years of doing Mark Twain. The drama critic of a Communist newspaper in Copenhagen said Holbrook told too many jokes and didn’t get “into the soul of Mark Twain.” Holbrook allowed that “maybe he had a point, though I think the language problems hampered his understanding.”

But criticism is a rarity in Holbrook’s career. The critics, like the audiences, have liked him, a point for which Holbrook is grateful but one he is never in­clined to take too seriously.

“When you do a bad job in a play neither the public nor the critic knows enough about the theater to be able to separate a performance from the play it­self,” says Holbrook. “They are seldom wise enough to say: ‘This play is not as bad as it looks. This play was not given a good enough production. The actors were not good enough in their roles. The director had the wrong conception.”

“What they usually do is to leave the actors alone and say it’s a lousy play. When we did Morco Millions at Lincoln Center, we did not give it a good production. The point of view of the director—and therefore the actors—was wrong. It missed the point of the play, so it seemed heavy and monotonous. We should have given it a better production, and then the critics would have said: ‘O’Neill has written this obscure play and it’s not bad at all.' 

And it is here—when Holbrook begins to criticize himself—that you begin to understand a little more about the actor and why his success as Mark Twain has not brought him, in his own mind, to the pinnacle of success. When Holbrook was a student at Culver, he admits he was not strong academically and neither was he ecstatic about the military program. He “found” the theater in his senior year, and like Broadway di­rector Joshua Logan, ‘27, novelist Ernest Gann, ‘30, and some others, he credits the late Charles Mather, then director of theater at Culver, for his introduction to the performing arts. 

“I went to those cultural programs with a chip on my shoulder,” recalls Holbrook. “It wasn’t manly among our generation to show a sensitivity to music or drama. But I needed an extra hour of credit toward graduation and I found it in the theater. I was told Colonel Mather was a great guy. He was. He had a talent for just being human. He opened me up.

“I remember my first role as a 70-year-old care­taker in a play by George M. Cohan called Seven Keys to Boldpote. I was playing old men even then. I was pretty bad, but I thought I was a great hit. When I went off the stage that night I knew I had found some­thing I could do, that I could get to people and maybe get them to listen to me.

“It was a combination of suddenly finding some­thing you felt you could succeed at and at the same time finding a society of one person or a small group of people with whom you had some connection. I didn’t even mind having a minor role, because no one expected me to climb Mt. Everest to be associated with them.”

When Holbrook graduated from Culver, his grades made his entrance to college doubtful. But the presi­dent of Ohio’s Denison University had visited Culver and heard Holbrook read the Scriptures in chapel. He told Denison’s professor of theater Edward A. Wright about Holbrook, cautioning that he doubted Holbrook’s marks were good enough to be admitted to the uni­versity. Denison accepted him, and though he limped along for the first two years, he achieved what Pro­fessor Wright called “Phi Beta Kappa grades” the last two. When Holbrook graduated after the war, Denison President K. I. Brown gave him a special citation for his academic record. Recalls Professor Wright:

“Very soon he was recognized by students and faculty as a young man with much promise in the field of acting. His science teacher complained to me of his ‘Cavalierian attitude’ toward his work. This impressed me at the time and it has many times since. Hal did attack everything in this way: ‘I can and I will—and if it is something I like to do, I’ll do it as it has never been done before.’”

Holbrook was drafted during World War II. He was singled out as an outstanding soldier and given the chance to attend West Point. An uncle wrote Pro­fessor Wright and urged him to convince Holbrook to accept. Wright knew that it would mean an addi­tional four years in the Army after the war. He wrote Holbrook, pointing out the pros and cons, and con­cluded by advising him not to accept.

“During the war, his uncle never forgave me,” says Professor Wright. “I wonder now, in the light of what has happened, if he has.”

After the war Holbrook returned to Denison to finish his academic work in what Wright considered a blaze of glory. He also began a life-long friendship with Professor Wright, and it was Wright who intro­duced him to the idea of playing Mark Twain (see Pages 6-7). Holbrook was beginning a 12-year road to success, though it was not an easy one.

“No one who has ever known Hal well has envied a moment of his success,” says Wright. “He has drive, an insistence on perfection that absolutely ignores the clock. I have known him to work 20 hours a day, even making his own costumes, experimenting with make­up, and traveling long distances to research a role. When he played Abe Lincoln in New York, he went to Kentucky to the area where Lincoln lived just to catch something of the inflection in the voices of the people who live there.

“There is no monkey-business in the dressing room. It is dead seriousness in the theater and on the stage. Hal can be the merriest, the happiest, the most witty—after the show.” 

Holbrook has been criticized for this sense of per­fection. He is too particular about lights, his costumes, the makeup (which, for Mark Twain, takes five hours preparation). There are those, says Wright, who com­plain that with Holbrook, there is never a point where it is “good-enough.”

Surprisingly, Holbrook sees this in himself. He pleads guilty to the charge and says that an actor can become too perfect.

“You can be too much of a perfectionist at being a plumber. Because the society we live in does not allow people to take too much time to complete a job. The danger of being a perfectionist is that you will work too long at something to perfect it, perfect it, and perfect it. You’ve got to know when it’s good enough, and then keep your hands off it.”

Yet it is questionable whether or not Holbrook really believes what he says about becoming too per­fect. Knowing ,when something is good enough and then keeping hands-off is on a collision course with his views of the theater and much of the entertain­ment business today. Holbrook says the same thing about the theater, television, the movies, and other forms of entertainment: too much of what is done is done in haste.

“All of the entertainment media today is in the same sick condition for the same reason. The material one is given to deal with is material done in haste because of the public’s tremendous appetite for en­tertainment. It is material put together without enough thought and enough time to mature.

“The actor’s job,” says Holbrook, “frequently is not one to discover real truth in dramatic material. An actor’s job is one in which he often uses his craft to cover up or to compensate for the shortages of the material he must deal with. You have ‘to use your talents and techniques to make it look better than it really is. And this can be very discouraging.”

As Holbrook moves into the musical The Apple Tree, a role he will play only until July, he forecasts an uncertain future though it is one for which he has set a definite goal. He wants to do roles he can bring “a special kind of juice to,” and this can be in almost any part of the entertainment media.

He will not discard Mark Twain. He claims he won’t give it up until he dies. But he adds he doesn’t know a crueler way for an actor to die, professionally speaking, than to let his acting muscles atrophy. He wants to do a movie, but not just any movie. He is pleased with the overwhelming success of Mark Twain because he says television has discovered there is a new vista for shows of this type. But he is committed to being part of the new vista, not a situation comedy series set in Maine. 

Professor Wright says he’ll accomplish it:

“There is no doubt in my mind that Hal was given a certain talent for acting at birth. Nevertheless, I have had many students with greater native talent. I have never had one with a greater determination to succeed, a greater capacity for work, and a greater passion for perfection, as long a~ what he is trying to do is in the theater.

“The theater is his religion and his life. As such, it deserves only the best he can do. This was evident since my first meeting with him in 1942. The world has recognized it only in Mark Twain. They have ac­cepted it because they have recognized sincerity, truth, imagination, and originality in action. They would find the same ingredients in any role that Hal Holbrook attempted, to do.”

Cover pictures of Hal Holbrook, Man of the Year, are by Buddy Bolton, ‘63

Mark Twain Tonight!

Written for The Alumnus by Norman Nadel, Drama Critic, New York World Journal Tribune

If Hal Holbrook were a one-role actor — which he certainly isn’t — that one role still would be enough to earn him a stature which few actors ever achieve in the American thea­ter. His portrayal of Mark Twain has no counterpart on the stage today, either in thorough­ness of preparation, insight or detail. Even those of us who have seen it not once but several times are astonished anew at each exposure to this virtuoso piece of characterization.

It was just 20 years ago that Edward A. Wright, professor of theater at Denison Uni­versity in Granville, Ohio, assigned Holbrook a Mark Twain scene. The student actor wasn’t enthusiastic about the project, possibly because he underestimated his own ability to play it.        

Wright, however, knew his pupil’s potential and kept at him about it. So Holbrook worked up the episode and the character, played Mark Twain at a few gatherings in Central Ohio, and discovered, to his own surprise, that audiences were not only attentive but enthusiastic.

Following graduation he toured the country for a few years doing an amiable pnd in­formal evening of theater, which included Twain being interviewed by a girl reporter (Ruby Holbrook). It was inevitable that the Holbrooks would settle eventually in New York, and that “Mark Twain Tonight” would find its way to a local stage and into the glad hearts of Holbrook’s audience.

This happened at a little off-Broadway theater several years ago, and by that time, Twain had been enriched, as a characterization, to what seemed the ultimate point. But Hal wasn’t finished. He continued to research the American humorist’s life, to assemble new details, and to work them into his presentation, even if they were as unimportant, seem­ingly, as the way Twain tugged at his sleeve while talking.

When Holbrook’s Mark Twain finally arrived at a Broadway theater — the Longacre — in March of last year, the actor had more than six hours of material prepared, though he used only a third of it. It was immediately evident that through two decades he has re­fined and enriched his portrayal of Twain beyond anything we ordinarily encounter in the theater. As Holbrook’s acting instinct has sharpened with experience and maturity, he has, I think, simplified the role more than he has added to it.

Whatever the process, it has become pure Twain, totally free of any inappropriate gesture, any vocal inflection not native to the man, or any embellishment the least hit theatri­cal, not that these were problems in the past.

Actually, none of us knows as much about Twain as Holbrook does, so we’d have to accept his interpretation out of deference to the thoroughness of his research. But our ap­preciation of the man on stage is far more than intellectual; it is instinctive. We can neither deny nor resist his exuberant humor, his priceless timing of a line, or the Satanic benevo­lence of his smile. This is the real Mark Twain; we are convinced that anything else would not do.

There are many small wonders to Holbrook’s portrayal — such as his use of silence. His Twain can lose, temporarily, the thread of a story, forget about a lighted match in his hand, and even fall almost asleep with such serene naturalness and charm that audience in­terest never flags. Watch the way he places one foot ahead of the other, as he walks about the stage, as if he hadn’t decided whether to trust the floor.

You wonder that such an old voice could be spoken by a relatively young man, or that the physical transformation could be so complete. Actually, however, it is hard to listen to or look at details, because the interpretation is so exquisitely integrated. Actors and critics tend to scrutinize the technique; audiences generally take their pleasure from the overall result.

Through these 20 years, Hal Holbrook has played many other characters beside Mark Twaif~. He has a reputation as a versatile and dependable actor, with the voice, the tech­nique and the stage presence to command respect in an exacting profession. But I think his appearance will continue to generate the greatest excitement when the theater marquee reads: “Mark Twain Tonight.”

Twain on Congress:

“WHEN I WAS PUTTING together my first book I did a stretch in Washington as a newspaper correspondent. And every day I went over to the Congress—that grand, old, benevolent national asylum for the helpless—and I reported on the inmates there. Well, it was very entertaining; and I had never seen a body of men with tongues so handy . . . and information so uncertain. They could talk for a week without ever getting rid of an idea. If one of those men had been President when the diety was at the point of saying ‘let there be light’—we never would have had it.”

Twain on brotherhood:

“OH, MAN IS A MARVEL, he is. He’s invented himself a heaven and emptied into it all of the nations of the earth in one common jumble—and all of them on an equality absolute. They have to be brothers! They have to mix together and pray together and harp and Hosanna together—whites, Negroes, Jews . . . everybody. There’s no distinction. And yet down here on earth all the nations hate each other. Everyone of them persecutes the Jew. And yet every pious person adores that heaven and wants to get into it . . . I wonder if God invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.”

Selection of Hal Holbrook as Man of the Year Marks the Beginning of New Alumni Awards

I am pleased to announce in this is­sue of The Alumnus the selection of dis­tinguished actor Hal Holbrook, ‘42, as the first recipient of the Academy’s new Man of the Year Award.

Mr. Holbrook’s nation-wide fame for his recent portrayal of Mark Twain be­fore an audience of 30 million television viewers makes him familiar to all of you, but his selection as Man of the Year — and especially the first one in Culver’s history — is for more than his success in this role. It reflects, I think, the Acad­emy’s long and deep interest in the cul­tural aspects of life, and this interest has resulted in many other distinguished actors, writers, and musicians, within our alumni organizations.

I must confess that I am particularly delighted with Mr. Holbrook’s selection. We are going through an era in which many of the performing arts seem to be led by writers, musicians, and artists who do their best ‘to be unnecessarily vague, ponderous, and, in some cases, in questionable taste. At a time when we are deluged with the “far-out” school of theater, I believe it is a tribute to Mr. Holbrook’s ability as an actor that with material written at the turn of the cen­tury, he can in this age captivate a na­tion for 90 minutes.

It is also a tribute to the television that it pre-empted this prime time for a cultural program of this type. 

The committee under Dean Ernest B. Benson went to great pains to make the right choice in this first year of the Man of the Year Award. The committee worked with presidents of the alumni associations to pick an alumnus, who, according to the Man of the Year crite­rion, “through personal achievement has brought honor to himself and to Culver.”

Because of its distinguished alumni in many fields, I know Culver will make varied selections in future years. To pro­vide us with the names of distinguished alumni, we asked for nominations from alumni and parents. We will ask again. You can help make this a tradition by sending to the Academy your’ nomina­tion in future years. Also, I hope those of you living near the Academy can be with us when Mr. Holbrook receives his award at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 21.

The Man of the Year Award is one of a new series of awards in which the Academy is honoring alumni and par­ents. During June Week, we will pay tribute to a group of up to 10 alumni and parents who will receive Culver Service Awards for outstanding service rendered the school. These will be announced al­so in the June issue of the publication Culver . . . In Brief. Here again, there is a wide field to choose from because of the many who have helped us.

All of these awards — the Man of the Year and the Culver Service Awards — are part of our program to create closer ties between the Academy and its alumni and parents. They are one way of ex­pressing our appreciation for the contin­uing and invaluable contributions of time and effort made in behalf of Culver.

I have recently returned from many months of traveling to many cities in the nation on what is my last round of Cul­ver Club meetings as your Superinten­dent. As I near retirement in August, I am certain that my evaluation of our alumni and parents made 11 years ago was a correct one. Everywhere I’ve trav­eled this fall and winter, I sense an in­creased interest and pride in what the Academy is accomplishing.

Culver needs this sense of interest and pride in the Academy. In a small way, our new awards are an expression of the Academy’s interest and pride in a dis­tinguished and intensely dedicated group of alumni and parents.

-Delmar T. Spivey, Superintendent

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Dr. Charles E. Bayless (02-01-2008)


Culver has always been blessed with “characters” that, in some unique capacity, impact on the faculty and student body and bring flavor to the daily life of the community.  Proclaiming someone a “character” is best left to the beholder’s imagination since  one man’s favorite may be someone else’s dunce. In any small community, the preservation of a friendship demands a fair measure of circumspection. My short list from comes from those who have been here and are now entrenched in our memories. Their bona fides have passed the test.

          Charlie Bayless won his reputation as a very demanding teacher at Culver. “Don’t compromise with the King’s English” became his mantra and  more than three decades of his students post a litany of praises of the man himself, and their learning experience under his demanding guidance. Charlie subconsciously believed that the English language rested on grammar, grammar, and grammar.   

          Like many demanding teachers, Charlie didn’t suffer fools well or appreciate the laggards. The “Bayless stare” sent shivers up the backs of the careless - or the malingerers – and after a few “looks” his students got the message. Those who tried to dodge an assignment by heading for the infirmary were in for a rude shock. Charlie read each Daily Bulletin and noted the All-Duty list. If one of his students was posted, Charlie was sure to make an afternoon call to the infirmary to check on assignments.   

          Bayless grew up in Marion, Indiana and earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Purdue University, his Master’s in journalism and English at Indiana University, and his Doctorate in English education from Duke University. 

          He started teaching at the Culver Summer School program in 1957 and the following fall joined three other newcomers, Fred Lane, Gerald Thomas, and Bob Hartman as junior members of the winter school faculty. “John Edgell, the academic dean of the summer school, hired me” for my first summer” he recalls. “I taught all kinds of English classes and was advisor for the school’s newspaper,

Vedette “All bachelor faculty were housed in the barrack and I lived in Main during my early years. I enjoyed the Academy because the students were challenging and wanted to be challenged, and that was what I liked. They had great sports programs and I, like most Hoosiers, was a big fan of basketball, particularly of the Purdue Boilermakers.”  

          “The association with other instructors in the English Department was a big, big thing for me. I worked with some true giants. Men like Art Hughes, Tom Walker, Dick Gimbel, Pat Hodgkin, Bud Roberts, Mac MacQuillan, and Norm Wagner were true giants and I believe made up the strongest academic department on the campus.” 

          In 1976, Bayless was appointed chairman of the English Department, a position he held for the next 13 years. He retired from the Academy in 1991. 

          Unable to adjust to retirement, Charlie shifted allegiance a few miles north of Culver and accepted a position as an adjunct professor at Ancilla, a newly formed junior college in Donaldson, Indiana. “My home was in Culver and I didn’t want to go too far away. When “Sister Joel, Ancilla’s first president, hired me it was the beginning of a new academic career.” 

          Charlie carried the Academy’s standards with him to Ancilla and, not surprisingly, was appointed to the position of chair of the division of humanities. His versatility was evident and soon he was teaching drama, writing, literature, and linguistics classes and advising the Scripta, the school’s literary magazine.  

          Over the years, the Good Doctor Bayless has received numerous accolades and awards, including the Hoosier English Teacher of the Year (awarded by the Indiana Council of English), a Roundtable Honor (awarded by Peabody College and Vanderbilt University for contributing to education and human development), the Culver Academies’ Kaser scholarship medal for outstanding instruction, and in May, 2007, he was named Cambridge ??? Who’s Who Professional of the Year in English Education, a distinction awarded to only one “Who’s Who Registry” member – a national group – per year.  

Perhaps closer to Bayless’ heart was his winning of Ancilla College’s annual Educator of the Year award, determined by popular student vote, an amazing accomplishment for a professor known for his strict expectations of students. 

Meantime, if Bayless is a venerable figure at Ancilla College, the same is true of his presence in Culver, where he quietly enjoys the landscape with his small, beloved dog, Prince.  

          “Lake Maxinkuckee is a great attraction,” he says. “For a small town, (Culver is) doing very well. The Academy has contributed to that, particularly James Dicke. He’s done a lot for the town. When you live in a place, sometimes you take it for granted. Others come visit me and say, ‘do you really appreciate this place?’ (It’s) the kind of an atmosphere that maybe you’d be driving thousands of miles to visit…I used to think big cities are the answer, but it’s not for me.”  

          He has no plans to leave, either Culver or the world of education. “I’d like to continue in this profession as long as I’m physically and mentally capable…If I retire and do nothing, disintegration would set in. Unless you have some incentive, life can become boring if you let it. This is an excellent time for me to be doing something more special for education because it’s not in its best time right now.” 

          He chuckles. “Most people would say, ‘I’m looking forward to writing a book.’ I’m not going to say that. It seems to me we’re getting to the last stage there!”

Portions of this article were originally published in the Culver Citizen newspaper.


Coffee with Holbrook (01-28-2008)

A JOURNAL INTO OUR HISTORY reminds Culver alumni of the up-coming Academy Awards presentations on February 24. For the first time in our school’s history, an alumnus/actor has been nominated.  Hal Holbrook, CMA ’42, known to millions for his remarkable portrayals of Mark Twain, is high in the running as Best Supporting Actor for “Into the Wild” (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment).  

What follows is an article from the 1962 Vedette by staff writer David R. Dawdy (as pictured in the Roll Call, left), `62, today a civil and architectural engineer in Lee, Massachusetts.     




Coffee With Holbrook - Samuel Clemens On Stage Here; Culver Grad, A Rebel With A Cause

BY DAVID R. DAWDY, Features Editor (Culver Vedette - January 26, 1962) 

Hal Holbrook doesn’t like to be told what to do. He stays up late at nights purposely and rises late in the morning—something he couldn’t do when he was a student here (Class ‘42).

He disliked strict regulations and hated to go to the compuls­ory assemblies.

“You couldn’t even go into town until you were a first class-man and an NCO,” he said. “And oh, the assemblies: I hated those things with a passion. Until one night the Indianapolis Symphony was here. There were over 100 men in it and the sound was sim­ply thrilling. I hated to see it end, and at that time I began to ap­preciate the arts a little more.”

Below: Holbrook onstage at Eppley auditorium in 1962.

Strangely enough, and despite Holbrook’s dislike for regimenta­tion, it is discipline that made him a success in “Mark Tonight!”, which he performed ­here Saturday night. Over a cup of coffee in the Shack, Mr. Holbrook is a nice-looking, sincere­ young man. Surrounding him is the atmosphere of a rebel with a cause. But the stage is something else. When he brought thundering applause forth from the Corps for his portrayal of one America’s great humorists, his act depended upon this discipline that he dislikes so much.

There are three hours of makeup before each show—certainly more ding than any cleanup before ­inspection when he was a cadet here. Then there is the toughest job of all: strict ad­herence to the role of Mark Twain. Mr. Holbrook has mas­tered all the mannerisms of an old man, and even when he did the excerpts from Huckleberry Finn, it was clearly an old man—not Holbrook at age 37—who was impersonating a young man.

Mr. Holbrook on stage was never once a boy who attended Culver. He was Mark Twain, and not for a second did he step out of character despite the tempta­tion. This is discipline in its purest form—self discipline. Yet as he wandered through campus Satur­day afternoon before the per­formance and chatted over cof­fee in the Shack, there was no mistaking inward independence: vital, eager, enthusiastic, and with a twinkle in the eye that showed even through the Mark Twain disguise. But independence, nevertheless.

His fight against mandatory formations was displayed in many ways. One night after taps Mr. Holbrook climbed in the venti­lating system in South and made his way down the hall pausing at several rooms to moan noises and scare the daylights out of some sleepy cadets. There was a faculty member waiting for him when he crawled out.

“Without athletics a guy would go buggy around here,” he remin­isced. “I loved track and really tried, but there always seemed to be some joker who was a little bit faster.” After his Culver graduation Mr. Holbrook went on to Denison where he graduated with honors.

His career has taken this Mark Twain II many places on the globe as did the original Mark Twain’s career. He recently spent three months in Europe on a tour of 12 countries for the State De­partment. He was the first Amer­ican actor in Warsaw, Poland, since the end of World War II and his reception there exploded the myth that humor isn’t uni­versal.

“There wasn’t a language bar­rier anywhere. I performed in one city where no one laughed or said anything throughout the whole show. I was mad and did everything I could to get them mad. But at the curtain they clapped and clapped. I never had such an ovation.”

Mr. Holbrook ended his per­formance with the story by Mark Twain that, “I came in with Haley’s Comet in 1835 and I’d be awfully disappointed if I didn’t go out with it next year (1910!).” He did.



          Writing about a legend is always risky business. Writing about a legend known to virtually every cadet from 1927 to 1963 is downright dangerous. There are too many memories, too many stories, and too much admiration for me to escape a measure of criticism for missing some essential ingredient of this giant’s greatness.

          Yet recalling Clarence A.Whitney is essential when defining the characteristics of a “legend in his own time.” I know of no one who addressed him by his given name of Clarence, and surely never heard it uttered in any conversation. To me, even after a friendship of a decade and a half, he remained “Colonel” Whitney. Others knew him as Jerry, or indirectly, Jug Butt, within the cadet corps a sobriquet describing a certain anatomical feature having to do with his masculine demeanor.

          On my arrival at Culver in September of 1958, I was assigned to bachelor quarters on the third floor of East Barrack. Col. Estey, my mentor and chairman of the History Department, told me of a Col. Whitney who lived on the second floor of North and described him in rather general terms. The following morning I was seated in the Shack when Whitney arrived for breakfast. The Academy was not yet in session and he was in his summer “uniform”—a LaCoste polo shirt, tan shorts, penny loafers, no socks, and a sport coat. His gray hair was close cut, his jaw extended, and he wore a gold ring on his left little finger. He was jovial, but it was obvious that he was a man in charge of himself and a man among men.

          Years earlier, during the summer of 1940, Whitney was driving the Motorized Infantry’s command car and did a quick turn through Main Gate from Indiana 10. Coming from the other direction was a cab from Jack’s Taxi. The two vehicles met with a crash, and troopers poured from their tents to see a red-faced Major Whitney
reviewing the damage. Later, he was censured by Col. Allen Elliott, the Executive Officer of the Academy. “Damn it, Jerry. You walk too fast, you talk too fast, and you drive too fast.” But, that was the way Jerry lived—always in the fast lane.

          For Jerry, retirement in 1956 was nothing more than a chronological blip in his 83-year life span. When Academy regulations mandated he step down from regular duties with the Black Horse Troop, he simply moved to the Commandant’s Office under Col. Ed Stephenson and took responsibility for the order and decorum of the Mess Hall. He believed that cadets should rise above mundane dining habits, and woe be anyone who stepped beyond the boundary lines. He had a reserved seat at the faculty table, and one day, Gerald Thomas, his assistant and several bachelor colleagues, painted his chair gold and equipped it with a purple cushion. Trappings as befitting a king! He was as pleased as a child at Christmas.

          Whitney’s demeanor could change in an instant if his eagle eyes focused on a cadet slipping into the Mess Hall before his unit or had failed to button his shirt or who had a loose tie. He would rise, shoot his cuffs (I’ve tried unsuccessfully for almost 50 years to emulate his action), check his own tie, and head straight for the culprit. The poor cadet could not hide and, like a bird facing a serpent, seemed frozen in place. He knew he was dead meat.

          He had, by the late ‘40s, developed a fairly severe hearing problem and tended to cock his head to hear the miscreant’s response. If the answer was indistinct, we, at the Faculty Table, could hear his machine gun-like staccato “What, what, what” and watch the cadet shaking as he tried to find some way to extricate himself from the dilemma. Later, Jerry would return to the table, chuckle, slap tight the cover of the sugar bowl and continue his meal - the subject forgotten, but a lesson from the “legend” taught and his mystique enhanced.

          He enjoyed the thrill of the game, be it polo, jumping, football, or a round of golf. In the early 1960s, Colin Stetson, Gerald Thomas, Ray Walmoth, and Whitney would rendezvous in the Faculty Lounge for bitterly contested bridge games. Whitney would make a bid, and be told that such a response was improper. “What, what, what?” he would bark. It worked with cadets, and it worked with his bridge partners! When the bidding lagged, he would simply fall asleep. Stetson and Walmoth, both excellent players, were driven to near-distraction by his failure to adhere to conventions, but looked forward to each evening’s contests.

          Many of my Sunday afternoons as a fledgling golfer were spent with Jerry, Capt. Bob Bolton, USN (Ret) and Col. Don Marshall, chairman of the Language Department, on the Maxinkuckee Golf Course, about a mile south of the Academy layout. Off limits to cadets, the venue allowed them to smoke, curse a bit, or duck hook a drive without being observed by ogling cadets. For reasons that to this day I don’t comprehend, they adopted me. I had no family and they treated me as a son. Unwilling to part with their dimes willingly, each took me as a partner for six holes. Somehow their losses were mitigated by this strategy.

          Whatever I missed in the art of shot-making or lost in dimes was more than compensated by the camaraderie and the memories of the day. Whitney, always in shorts and carrying a yellowing canvas Sunday bag, set a fast pace for the rest of us and was prepared to hit even when it wasn’t his turn. Sometimes I felt it was part of his competitive gamesmanship to rattle the opposition. On reflection, however, it’s clear that it was simply a reaffirmation of Elliott’s earlier censure – he also played golf too fast!

          His romance with Culver began two years before his actual arrival on the campus. On Aug. 15, 1925, while on summer reserve duty with the 5th Infantry at Fort McKinley, Maine, he wrote to Col. Cal Chambers, the Executive Officer of the Academy, inquiring about a staff opening. Whitney noted that he was a major in the infantry reserves and taught history and geography at the Freehold Military School in New Jersey, as well as its commandant of cadets. Chambers responded promptly, asking for credentials, but noted no opening were available at that time.

          However, in April 1927 Whitney’s file was reactivated, and the vetting process began in earnest. In seeking references, Chambers noted that Whitney was being considered for a position as a tactical officer and described the position as requiring men “who are sympathetic with youngsters between the ages of 14 and 20 and have the knack of inspiring confidence and affectionate respect from them. Enthusiasm and conscientious attention to detailed duty and ability to get along tactfully with parents and other officers of the faculty are the essential qualifications.”

          Had Chambers been writing an endorsement rather than a job description, he could not have come much closer to identifying the lasting character of Col. Clarence Alden Whitney; L.L.B., University of Maine ‘15, an honest-to-goodness “down easterner” until the day he died on Jan. 18, 1974.

          Arriving on campus with his wife and 8-year-old son, Alden, the new tactical officer of F Company made an immediate impact on the organization. The 1928 Roll Call notes that “not only did he prove to be an efficient T.O., but his untiring efforts brought [the unit] to the front as an outstanding company.” Such praise for an infantry officer brought him closer to General Gignilliat’s and, when Col. Greiner suffered a fatal heart attack in 1926, the superintendent was forced to reorganize his inner circle. Col. Robert Rossow, head of the Black Horse Troop, had established his credentials as head of the Troop, and it was logical to appointment him as the new commandant. The big question was who had the élan to replace him and lead the Black Horse Troop?

          Whitney’s success and leadership style made him Rossow’s logical replacement – but a severe impediment existed. He was an infantry officer! Gignilliat’s Rolodex, if there had been such a device in 1926, was filled with names of important War Department contacts. Somehow he wrangled an appointment for Whitney to attend the U.S. Army’s Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas.

          In the spring of 1927, Whitney was relieved of his counseling duties and sent to Cavalry School at Fort Riley, where he began a rigorous training regimen. He was thrown into contact with some of the U.S. Army’s finest cavalry officers and the competition was intense. If there was discussion of the neophyte officer from the Culver Military Academy trying to become a cavalryman in just three months, there is no record. What is known is that he shrunk from no challenges and returned to Culver, no longer a Plattsburgh-trained infantryman, but a convert to the traditions and spirit of those who rode through history to the strains of “Garryowen.”

          Replacing the legendary Robert Rossow could have been a difficult transition, but Whitney began a long and collegial association with Rossow and there were few difficulties with the first giant of the Black Horse Troop. He was always on the move and found life at its fullest when he was with his Troopers or as a coach. The stories which surround him are legend, many nurtured and exaggerated by barrack room bull sessions and alumni gatherings.

          Whitney’s company football teams were so tough to beat that, when Russ Oliver became head coach in 1936, he tapped Jerry to be his line coach. He performed with admirable style and the old Black Bear all-conference center from the University of Maine was an integral part of an undefeated football season and a team that surrendered only six points while scoring 223!

          There were times when the Academic Department was visibly frustrated over his tardy habits with scheduled letters to parents and his student evaluations. Rarely did he score high with the guidance services. Yet, when he buckled down, he communicated well with parents. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the troop suffered significantly lower attrition than any of the other units. Somehow, the proof was in the pudding!

          When World War II broke out, Whitney, a reserve officer, received orders to appear in Indianapolis for a physical examination. If qualified, he was to report to the Army Air Corps Replacement Pool at Lowry Field in Denver for an active duty assignment. This almost anachronistic order failed to develop. Instead, he was activated and sent to the Mechanized Cavalry School. Unconfirmed reports tell the story of a young officer “short-sheeting” him and then being laid out with a right-cross from the 52-year old Troop commander.

          With Culver in great need of trained officers, Whitney was assigned to the ROTC staff at the Academy. He was forever agitated because he was not sent overseas. Born in 1890, he was a newly commissioned lieutenant in 1917 and spent the war training new recruits at Fort McKinley. By the attack on Pearl Harbor he was 51 and, with an invalid wife, the Culver duty was his war.

          When it concluded, he remained a member of the military staff when Col. Isaacs Kitts was appointed the new Horsemanship Director. Following Kitts’ death in 1953, Whitney was reappointed as Director of Horsemanship and, always the good soldier, served until 1956. It was an assignment he embraced with enthusiasm.

          In 1954, Mrs. Whitney died, and Jerry moved into bachelor quarters on the second floor of North Barrack. Grayson Hanahan ‘55, wrote in a Vedette article that, “His horse is still charging strong . . . and shooting a wicked game of golf, he is able to overcome most of the Troopers who play with him. During the week, the Colonel is as tough as nails and you begin to wonder if he has any heart at all. But when holidays roll around, such as dances, you can find Colonel Whitney where most of the fun is.” Recognized as a lady’s man, Hanahan concluded: “He is a typical old Trooper, although sometimes not so typical.”

          In the mid-1950s he drove his yellow Ford convertible over one of the rocks separating the roadway from the Oval. Stuck there until help came, he was forced to explain to a host of cadets what happened. “A bee stung me and I lost control.” Unwilling to accept such a human frailty from a hero, word spread that “Colonel Whitney was ogling at a blond and missed the turn.” This, of course, won a headline and a new drink: “Whitney on the Rocks.” He was great copy and always good for a story!

          In 1963, at the age of 73, Jerry Whitney made a career move that took him from uniform to mufti and brought him into direct contact with the Legion constituency. He became the resident host at the Alumni House, across from Logansport Gate, where he entertained graciously. Graduates from across the decades found great delight in his company and saw a side of Whitney they had missed when cadets.

          Few of Culver giants are better remembered and alumni even named their children “Whitney” after him (not Clarence, to our knowledge). A summer trooper once wrote, “he’s as tough as the back of an elephant…but New England kindness underlines the veneer of toughness. You’ll want to be like him. You’ll copy his stuff”

          Copy is all that one could ever accomplish, for there was only one “Jug” Whitney, and it was the Academy’s good fortune to have him part of our lives for over four decades. He died on Jan. 18, 1974 and was interred in the family cemetery in the Mount Hope Cemetery, Bangor, Maine.

          Author’s note: It was my great pleasure to be mentored in Culver traditions by Colonel Whitney. As historian for the Academy I have, over the years, collected dozens of photographs of this great man and can attest that he was the most photogenic individual I’ve ever known. Once I told him that he could have been a Hollywood star if he had spoken English.  He knew it was referring to his distinct “Downeaster” accent. It was a remark made in jest and he simply smiled. He knew I was correct! His son, Alden ’36 graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served with distinction in the Navy until retiring to become director of the Culver Summer Schools. Grandson Peter B. Whitney ’72 is a retired Navy commander and Vice President Operations, International Telecom USA.



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