Happy Bottom Quarter Boys

This story is the result of what I hope The Pundificator will increasingly become.

Interaction with readers is wonderful because, as my political writing mentor, Andy Glass, a 60-year veteran who has forgotten more about the field  than I will ever know, has always advised, “don’t worry about the numbers; you don’t need to make money; you are not a newspaper; you are a club.”

A comment on My Grandfather’s Shoes led to republishing We Still Don’t Want You and a comment on that story has led to this one.

The comment, from Dulany Howland, a school and college mate, went like this: “Haven, if you want to know why Fred admitted you (the same reason he admitted me), read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. There’s a two-page reference to his Admissions Philosophy!”

My reply – “Thank you Dulany, I will look for it” — sounded at best anodyne and at worst dismissive. It was none of those things.

Yesterday, I ventured to the library of a downtown club in Washington, found the book in the computer; sought guidance as to its whereabouts; located it on a high shelf; fetched a rolling step ladder; climbed it (to the dismay of onlookers); retrieved the book; took iPhone pictures; and put everything back in its proper place, including the rolling ladder.

By the way, if you are curious about the best room in any club, it is often the library.

At the end of this story are pictures of the three pages I found. I had forgotten “happy bottom quarter boys,” but I did once know about the idea.

In an after-dinner group session before the one-on-one interviews the next day (see We Still Don’t Want You), Fred Glimp talked about Harvard and asked those assembled, “which of you would be happy bottom quarter boys?”

Apparently, many St. Paul’s to Harvard applicants were already confirmed opportunists, and hands shot up, not the least of them mine. Given my enthusiasm for admission, I was at least waving if not raising both hands.

The “hard to get” thing has never been a strength.

Description is much to be favored in stories so I should tell you that the dining room in question bares a strong resemblance to Hogwarts. Hogwarts at the top; St. Paul’s below.


Even then, Harvard boasted that it could fill its class with (a) only those who ranked number 1 in their high school class or (b) only those who had twin 800s (perfect scores) on the SATs. Each standard would yield a separate class that could be admitted each year, and each would fill every available slot.

Fred Glimp’s concern was for those who had never been anything other than the best and their reaction to discovering that others were better or, worse, that at least three quarters of the others were better.

He needed some number of people with sufficient resilience to happily inhabit the bottom quartile lest the college psychiatric service be overwhelmed.

Today we think of college admissions as a problem of allocating scarce resources to which there is but one perfect answer. As long as my kid gets in the system is fine or, for those given to advocacy on behalf of others, as long as enough of my favored cohort of “others” is sufficiently represented, the system is fine.

If either goal is missed, unhappiness ensues. Unresolvable unhappiness. And, of course, since there are more “my kids” and “my favored cohorts” than admission slots unresolvable unhappiness always ensues.

If the college admissions officers are no longer allowed to be concerned about “happy bottom quarter boys,” will parents or the boys (and now girls) be smart enough to ask the question themselves? Or to give it an honest answer?





12 Responses to “Happy Bottom Quarter Boys”

Peter W Bragdon, November 22, 2019 at 11:13 pm said:

I do not think students were hit hard by discovering their own inadequacy in the academic area: I think it hit when coming up short in athletic competition. Back in ’55 I encountered a fellow freshman who seemed completely adrift at Harvard because he discovered that he was 7th from the top at the QB position of the freshman football team. He was a hero in some small midwestern high school and came to Harvard expecting to be a star — he was not even close. He felt he had been set up by some smooth talking coach. When I talked to him early in the autumn he was still in shock — clearly, not yet a candidate to be in Glimp’s “happy bottom quarter.”
My guess he ended up playing chess in the Square — and maybe taking nine years to complete the necessary courses to graduate — maybe is still hanging around there now.


Haven Pell, November 23, 2019 at 7:36 am said:

The realization that I was at best a D-III athlete was difficult, but I suppose it forced me to think about other tracks. Some superstars, especially in sports with no subsequent opportunities, ran out of runway and got stuck in the mud when college sports ended. There were no “feel good” support services then as there are now, and that might well have been the better approach to “getting on with it. Today is the 56th anniversary of your LBJ class.


Don Gleason, November 23, 2019 at 11:17 am said:

My earliest Harvard experience brought Fred Glimp’s concern about resilience and readiness quickly into focus. One of my two freshman roommates arrived having been first in his class of twelve from a rural town in the midwest. Some combination of Student Union cooking and meeting the foreign language requirement through 8:00 AM French sessions apparently did him in. On our third or fourth evening at Matthews Hall, our resident proctor knocked on our door and explained that Don was in the infirmary. Two days later his mother showed up, collected his belongings, and we never saw him again. This kind of experience, together with Haven’s essay makes one reflect on not just how/why one was accepted at Harvard, but on why one picks Harvard in the first place. Is it the opportunity to study under a Nobel laureate? Family “legacy”? The Label? I went to a small (80 in my class) private day school in North Jersey, which was a “feeder” for Princeton— fifteen or so percent of each graduating class went. So that kind of tradition mattered, as well as geography, apparently. Three of us ended up in Cambridge. That had never happened before. I remain curious about how many entering college anywhere, but especially an “elite” one, really truly know what they want, where they want to be when they come out the other end. Something that clearly happens on any sorting out process, whether academics, sports, or,life generally, is that we gravitate to things where we can succeed, and with luck, be happy. Getting that right most of the time is surely a terrific talent.


Haven Pell, November 23, 2019 at 11:34 am said:

Don, I did not know about the departure of your roommate, but I did interview a boy from the panhandle of Nebraska. He really impressed me and I wrote a strong letter. He did not last there.

As to choices, one of the NESCAC (D-III) schools came to an all boys school near Washington in the hope of drawing some full-pay applicants. The college placement guy made a big effort and even had him address the parent student college process night.

Result: 0 applications

Reason: a rumor went around the the girls at that college were not attractive.


Marc L, November 23, 2019 at 12:23 pm said:

I could go on for hours with my thoughts on this, but I’ll spare you until our next bike ride or drive through the French countryside and let this note serve to inform that you’ve sparked engagement.


Haven Pell, November 23, 2019 at 12:44 pm said:

Thank you Marc. I doubt I would hear much of what you had to say if I was trailing miles behind on a bike ride. But we could try the upcoming dinner in New York.


David Barry, November 23, 2019 at 4:16 pm said:

Gee. Now I’m thinking, maybe I was admitted to help fill the bottom quarter, instead of being the . . . whatever special person I thought I was. True, I was a legacy. I was varsity soccer (though very undistinguished). I have posted here before about what I thought was a coup. Quick replay: I told the admissions guy who visited my modest eastern Pennsylvania boarding school I wasn’t good at math and was considering ditching it for senior year. He told me not to worry about it because, he said, “we don’t use the math AP in our admissions criteria. This was 1959. I took him seriously, and answered only the math questions I could do Without thinking hard. I turned in my results in maybe 30 minutes. I expected that I had gotten the lowest math score at Harvard ever. I went to the dean’s office in the fall to find out. Sorry, the dean told me, someone scored lower than you. Not as good a story as Haven’s but it’s what I’ve got.


Haven Pell, November 23, 2019 at 6:49 pm said:

Thank you for your contribution, Dave. They should have asked you about music or writing. Or the musicians and singers you would come to know.


Keith, November 25, 2019 at 12:29 pm said:

Haven, thanks for the memories of being a member of the happy bottom quarter. It probably helped that I was interviewed by Jack Reardon, who I was told favored athletes. Was I also a legacy admit? Perhaps, as my grandfather graduated in 1898. My father, however, dropped out of Antioch college after three years, so……..


Haven Pell, November 27, 2019 at 9:17 am said:

we were the better for your presence in our class, Keith


Peter Pell, November 26, 2019 at 1:07 pm said:

Q: Is page 92 excluded on purpose?

I thought it was quite interesting… I’ve never thought of that as the reason that the Harvards of the world take on athletes. I thought maybe it was so they could beat Yale and Princeton more often, creating more school pride and helping tip the scales in the admission contest for the elitest of the elite to select Harvard, when they get into all 3.

Re. Affirmative action, I’ve always felt that schools should be able to assign merit to whatever they need/ want to round out/ make the overall school what they want. If a school wants an oboe player to round out the band, the admissions bar for oboesmen that year might well be a bit lower. That’s OK. Lucky for the Oboesman. The applicants have no “rights” to admission based on anything.


Haven Pell, November 27, 2019 at 9:02 am said:

I am not sure there was a 100% correlation between “happy bottom quarter boys” and athletes. For example, I was quite good at the former, less so at the latter. The athletes were there for the reasons you describe.

Nobody has a right to admission. I doubt the courts will do a better job of creating entering classes of Freshmen than the admissions offices do. This view puts me in an un-woke minority.


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