Interpreting an Imprint

As a class nears extinction, a moment of reflection.

January/February 2013

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Interpreting an Imprint

Photo: Stanford Historical Photograph Collection

How do we define a legacy? When we stand at a distance and view the lasting impact of a person or group, what image appears?

Those questions animated my thinking as I worked on the story in this issue about the Class of 1933 and its remaining member, Ephraim Engleman.

The story has been on our planning sheet for years. We wanted to explore the notion of a class's gradual diminishment; to convey the poignant and painful losses alongside the many celebratory moments that compose a collective biography.

Class years provide a convenient vessel for capturing a generational moment; a temporal housing for a shared history. A cohort of young people arrives and passes through the school together, forever bound by a common set of experiences. And they enter the world en masse, like an overnight call-up of reinforcements to a weary army of workers. Here we are! (In 1933, however, graduates joining the work force were less likely to be viewed as fresh troops delivering relief: Their entry into the Depression-era economy may have felt like adding extra mouths to feed in an overextended family.)

In most respects, the Class of '33 is like any other class, populated by people who faced hardship and heartache, experienced triumphs, raised kids, built communities, advanced professions, helped others. But the class was unique in one important way: They completed their studies during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. Their years on the Farm perfectly bracketed the Great Depression. Weeks before the class entered as freshmen, the stock market climbed to an all-time high, the product of a decade-long run- up fueled by speculation and irrational exuberance. By the end of the class's first quarter, the market had tanked, the country was reeling and the dark years were under way.

We can still refer to the class in the present tense. Engleman, a practicing physician at age 101, is the final flame-keeper. As such, his story is the last lens through which to view his class. He recalls with relish the Gaieties performances he helped create, and speaks almost reverently of the men and women who engraved themselves into his life.

I also interviewed Engleman's classmate Clyde Smith a few months before his death last August at age 100. A chemical engineer, Smith described colorful student pranks (one of which featured a recalcitrant cow) and experiments gone awry with his lab partner and future captain of industry William Hewlett, '34. Smith was a stalwart at his San Mateo church, lived in Paris while overseeing a project in Sweden, was passionate about sports cars, and wore a Stanford belt buckle for more than 75 years. I glimpsed only a faint outline of his life, but was grateful for the chance. So many stories go untold.

The individual lives, the cherished moments that were meaningful to the members of the Class of '33 exist now only as a ghostly whisper. What lives on are the countless contributions its members made and the people they touched.

It's premature to write an epitaph for this class in any case. Ephraim Engleman is still shaping the narrative. I'm glad we were able to share it.

Kevin Cool is the former executive editor of StanfordEmail him at 

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