Not your typical college
Morgenthau graduated from Amherst during a time of great global strife and uncertainty as World War II threatened democracy throughout the world. The Amherst that Morgenthau attended was very different from the college that exists today. During that time, there were about 850 students, all male, and there was no common eating place, since Valentine Hall did not yet exist. Nevertheless, the spirit of Amherst has not changed much. In his first column as chairman of The Amherst Student on Jan. 22, 1940, Morgenthau wrote, “The only education worth having is that gained through the efforts of the student, and not by having it rammed down his throat. Amherst must not be thought of primarily in terms of the present and past, but in terms of the future.” Indeed, these statements are just as pertinent to the College today as they were 65 years ago.
Morgenthau recollects many of the professors who taught him in his favorite subjects, including Professors Karl Lowenstein and Lawrence Packard.. “Lowenstein was a German refugee [from the war] and he was an interesting guy,” said Morgenthau. “Lawrence Packard taught modern European history. His specialty was the Battle of Jutland. It was kind of a famous course.”
Morgenthau was very active in campus life. During his first year, he joined the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and stayed on as a member for the next three years. He played on the freshman soccer and tennis teams, and later became the secretary of his class.
In addition, Morgenthau was chairman of The Student for two years. This position is the equivalent of today’s editor-in-chief. Morgenthau described how he won the position of chairman: “[First], I went down to a local antique store and bought a pewter cup that had ‘Zephaniah Swift Moore’ engraved on it and I wrote a story about how this beer mug had been discovered.” For those of you who haven’t learned your Amherst history, Zephaniah Swift Moore was the founder and first president of what became Amherst College.
“Then, I got Professor Lowenstein and Professor Glazer, who was head of the biology department, to agree to referee a beer drinking contest on the Amherst commons for the fastest single drinker and the fastest team,” he said. “Since I organized it, I had exclusive rights to write a story on it.” The story that Morgenthau wrote about this earned him the position of chairman.
Morgenthau was later disappointed to learn that his annual contest was discontinued. “After the war, I asked [the alumni office] about the contest and they wrote me a letter saying that they had to discontinue it when the D12 military unit was staying in town. The townspeople objected to having people in uniform drinking beer on the commons,” said Morgenthau.
As the main law enforcer of Manhattan, Morgenthau easily recalls the nature of student-police relations at Amherst. “In those days, there were only four Amherst policemen. There was the chief, his deputy, and the number three guy was Frank Hart-he kept a lot of Amherst students out of trouble,” he said. “There was only one campus cop and his name was O’Brien, we called him Obie.”
Morgenthau remembers an adventure involving Richard Wilbur ’42, who succeeded Morgenthau as chairman of The Student and went on to become poet laureate of the U.S. in 1987. “[Wilbur] figured out how long it took to get from one lawn to the next. We started out at the library-he dragged me along with him-and we went along all the dorms, staying just ahead of O’Brien. We ended up back in front of the library and Wilbur was hanging from a tree. And O’Brien comes up to him and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And Wilbur says, ‘Obie, I’m hanging from a tree.”
Morgenthau further commented, “There was an adversary relationship between the police and the students. [But] everyone was extremely collegial and friendly. And there was never talk of dorm damage like there is today.”
On the road to the Big Apple
In the summer of 1940,, after his junior year at Amherst, Morgenthau entered the U.S. Navy. “I joined what was called the V-7 program. We were called the 90 Day Wonders. The training was at Prairie State in Illinois,” he said. The College held an early graduation because of the dozen or so students who were entering naval training. “Graduation ended at 10:00 that night and we had to be at Prairie State the next morning at 6:00 a.m. So we had to drive through the night,” said Morgenthau.
“We went on a cruise, and guess where we went? We went to Guantanamo Bay,” said Morgenthau. “I spent my 21st birthday on the battleship Wyoming in Guantanamo Bay.” Next, Morgenthau was on the destroyer, the USS Lansdale, which was torpedoed by a German aircraft off the coast of Algeria.”That destroyer blew up. One of my classmates on board was killed,” said Morgenthau. After serving in the Navy, and earning a Bronze Star and a Gold Star, Morgenthau returned for his last year at Amherst.
After graduation, Morgenthau went to Yale Law School, where he finished in two years. He was in private practice until President John F. Kennedy appointed him U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “I was with Bobby Kennedy out in Virginia when he got word that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas,” said Morgenthau. After JFK’s assassination, Morgenthau was reappointed by President Lyndon Johnson and later fired when Richard Nixon became president.
As a result, he went back to private practice for a few years before being elected the D.A. of New York County. Morgenthau has held that position since 1975, being re-elected seven times so far. Throughout his time in office, Morgenthau has focused on prosecuting organized crime and white-collar crime in Manhattan. “We have something like 115,000 cases a year. That’s a lot of cases,” said Morgenthau. He gives much credit to his hardworking staff for his success. “I have a good staff. I can give them responsibility and let them do their jobs,” he said.
Morgenthau’s TV legacy
Morgenthau’s influence as District Attorney has extended beyond New York politics to television. His office in downtown Manhattan was the model for the one in the “Law & Order,” and the original D.A. on the show, Adam Schiff, was based on Morgenthau himself.
Furthermore, the show deals with many of the cases that Morgenthau’s office has had. “[The people who work on ‘Law & Order’] have been down to the office. Quite a few of the cases they have are from our own,” said Morgenthau.”I wanted to see Adam Schiff. I understand that he [earned] $25,000 an episode and I wanted them to let me know when he’s going to retire because I want his job!” Morgenthau sadly noted that the Adam Schiff character left the show.
Despite his huge responsibilities as D.A., Morgenthau is also very active in the New York community. For the past 40 years, he has been the Chairman of the Board of the Police Athletic League, which serves 70,000 boys and girls. In addition, Morgenthau is the chairman of the Board of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in Battery Park. Morgenthau has seven children, two of whom attended the College as well.
As secretary of his1941 class, Morgenthau wrote the class history for “The Olio”. In his conclusion, Morgenthau wrote, “In this outcropping of a sturdy devotion to democratic institutions, it has, perhaps, been impressed upon us that we above others should have an abiding faith in democracy. And we shall always remember Amherst as more than a place filled with the pungent memories of youth.”
Though Morgenthau graduated from Amherst to face the world during a very different era, the values of education remain just as important today.