Ellie Wertimer: ‘Things change, and you’ve got to let them change’

By Kate Moore '12

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 15, 2011 issue of The Spectator. We are publishing it again to honor the memory of Ellie Wertimer, who passed away on January 18, 2014.

Ellie Wertimer describes her 57-year marriage to Professor of Economics Sidney Wertimer as a relationship in which there were “two chiefs and no Indians.” Each a Hamilton legend in his or her own right, the Wertimers have long been admired for their dedication not only to the College, but to their beliefs and convictions. It was Sidney’s ideals that brought them to Hamilton in the first place, and it is Ellie who now reflects on the state of the College almost 60 years later.

After graduating from Wharton in 1942, Sidney joined the Navy and saw a great deal of combat as a lieutenant in World War II. Following his release, Ellie said, “He thought he’d like to get involved in teaching and bringing up young people, so we wouldn’t have to go through another war like that one.”

After receiving his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, Sidney knew he wanted to teach at a small liberal arts school where teaching was valued above publishing, a desire that led him to Hamilton in 1952. Sidney labored as a much-lauded, and much-adored, professor in the economics department for several decades, until he retired in 1991. He passed away in the winter of  2005, but his influence remains strong on campus, from the Wertimer House dormitory to the coveted Sidney Wertimer teaching award.

At the time of her family’s arrival, Ellie Wertimer recalls that Hamilton had a good reputation, although it did not yet have a national appeal. “One of the directors of admission called [the students] the ‘Cherry Valley nuggets.’ They were the valedictorians and salutatorians of the high schools right around here,” said Wertimer.

Initially residing in the Root Farmhouse, Wertimer appreciated the hospitable atmosphere and noted the lack of departmental social divisions and professional hierarchy. She recalls that her husband enjoyed learning along with his students, especially when he was asked to teach accounting with no prior knowledge of the subject. Wertimer was equally involved in student life, inviting students to her house for dinner, providing costumes for plays, refreshments for functions and even serving as a nurse or chaperon when necessary.

Over the years, Wertimer has formed strong bonds with multiple students. She considers Mary McLean Evans ’82 her “adopted” daughter, and has fond memory of Bob Moses ’56 as one of her children’s favorite babysitters. Though she sings Hamilton’s praises as a great place to bring up her four kids, Wertimer was by no means the traditional housewife of the 1950s and ’60s. After attending Smith College as an undergraduate and receiving her law degree from the University of Buffalo, Wertimer worked as a law clerk for a New York State judge. Once her children were grown, she served as an attorney for the Oneida County Department of Social Services and later as executive director of Family Services of Greater Utica. Finally, Wertimer was elected Kirkland town justice, a position she held for 20 years.

While Sidney Wertimer advanced through the positions of professor, associate dean, provost and college marshall, Hamilton College advanced along with him. One change to the  College’s campus that Ellie Wertimer has always felt strongly about is the merger between Hamilton, an all-male school, and Kirkland College, an all-female school, in 1978.

At that time, many of the Ivy League schools had become co-ed, and Hamilton was prepared to keep up with its peers.

In Wertimer’s opinion, “Hamilton is better with Kirkland.” Though she describes the merger as incredibly bitter, particularly in the case of tenured Kirkland faculty who were denied that status upon merging with Hamilton, Wertimer has been excited to see what she calls “the return of the Kirkland women.” Many Kirkland graduates did not feel positively toward the merger or their time at Hamilton, but at the same time, many have gone on to send their children here. Wertimer praises recent Hamilton administrations for attempting to recruit Kirkland women to attend College events, setting up Kirkland alumni meetings, and encouraging more dialogue about the merger and any enduring bitterness.

The one aspect of the College’s recent history that leaves a bitter taste in Wertimer’s mouth is what she perceives to be the dominance of Greek life on campus. Her husband was an avid proponent of “total opportunity,” meaning that any student who wanted to be in a fraternity could join. This provision was intended to rectify the common exclusion of campus minorities, including students with Jewish, Italian and African-American identities.

“It was a sad time,” said Wertimer. What made it worse, she said, is that while these students were able to get into fraternities thanks to “total opportunity,” they were still ignored, ridiculed or harassed by their brothers. The fraternities finally had their on-campus houses taken away in 1995; the former DKE house has since been converted into the Wertimer House dormitory. Fifteen years later, Hamilton’s Greek life still alarms Wertimer.

“This is not the time; the culture is so different!” said Wertimer. “And I certainly never thought there would be sororities at Hamilton College.” Though Wertimer has several nieces and nephews who belong to Greek societies, and has heard their reasons why, she maintains that they have no place at Hamilton, and claims that many faculty members have felt the same for decades.

Wertimer is not shy about sharing her opinions. At the same time, she hesitates to hold current students to the standards of those with whom she played tennis or ate dinner some 50 years ago. She praises a speech in which Jay Williams reminisced fondly of his own years as a Hamilton student, but also warned current students against expecting future classes to enjoy the same traditions and uphold the same values as they have.

“Things change,” said Wertimer. “And you’ve got to let them change.”


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