My days at Dear Old Dartmouth began on a September morn 60 years ago with dad cruising confidently along Route 5 in his Buick super convertible and mom inhaling a pack of Camels for the five-and-a-half-hour drive from New Haven to Hanover.
It was on this the virgin voyage to New Hampshire that my father disclosed the convoluted history of Ivy League clothiers at Dartmouth. His father Jacobi Press originally traveled to the Hanover Inn during the early 1920s, taking bespoke orders from students he first sold to at boarding school. He carried all his merchandise in sample bags he took with him on the train to nearby White River Junction. The original Hanover Inn, remodeled several times since, remains owned and operated by Dartmouth College on the same corner of Wheelock and Main Street, facing the college green. Subsequent J.Press sales reps followed their founder, joining other clothing and haberdashery merchants selling their wares at the Inn. The roster included Brooks Brothers, Chipp, Arthur M. Rosenberg, Langrock, Rosenthal Maretz, Fenn-Feinstein and The Andover Shop.
James Campion was Hanover’s prominent menswear retail establishment located adjacent to the Main Street coffee shop entrance of the Hanover Inn. Campion’s featured a Georgian storefront with display windows stuffed to the gills with Shetland sweaters, challis ties, Harris Tweed sportcoats, Gant shirts, and Dartmouth paraphernalia. Jim Campion — “Big Jim” to the college cognoscenti — was an on-the-floor proprietor, a bombastic local celebrity, a mover and shaker. A testimonial James Campion Indoor Hockey Rink stands today near the campus.
Campion lobbied the Hanover town council to restrict any business in Hanover that did not own or lease a property in the town, convincing the Hanover Inn to discontinue permitting retail exhibits in guest rooms at the hotel.
Informed of the new restrictions, my father quickly leased a 450-square-foot, second-floor studio apartment upstairs from the Dartmouth co-op, enabling J. Press to continue monthly travel exhibits unhindered by Campion’s legal machinations. The Blazer Brawl occurred two years before I entered Dartmouth, when Gene Thorne, the J.Press traveling salesman, finagled a contract to outfit the class of 1953 in their blazers, a Dartmouth tradition consisting of green blazer with class numerals prominently sewn on the front breast pocket. Thorne was a Hollywood handsome fixture at J.Press in Cambridge, ingratiating himself with scores of collegians on roadtrips to Amherst, Williams, and providentially the upscale Psi Upsilon house at Dartmouth. His customers and contacts at Psi U were class officers who awarded him the blazer contract formerlythe province of Campion.
Jim Campion regarded the J.Press sneak attack a Hanoverian equivalent of Pearl Harbor.
The Ides of March was the appointed time set for Thorne to take blazer measurements, but Campion had other ideas, hiring two football bruisers to stand guard at the door in front of the J. Press stairway, steering everybody to his store across the street. Thorne immediately got wind of the crisis early in the morning, making an emergency call to my father in New Haven, who made a dash through the hills arriving at the dean’s office by late afternoon. Dean of the College Joe MacDonald was a six-foot-four ruddy outdoorsman with judicial affect befitting his stature. Listening carefully to both sides — with Campion spouting a Hitlerian rant against my Route-5-beleaguered dad — Dean MacDonald validated the original contract, warning Campion of punitive action if he did not cease and desist his activities against J.Press.
Gene Thorne and my dad spent the next three days completing blazer measurements with 700-plus members of the graduating class, but Jim Campion later got his revenge. The following year Campion got the contract back and Gene Thorne left J.Press for The Andover Shop, leasing a competing showroom down the hall from his former employer.
Pea-green freshman costumed with the required beanie and “Dick Press” name tag, I set forth with dormmates to Campion’s store to buy a standard Dartmouth pennant and fireplace beer mug. Big Jim Campion greeted my fellow classmates and spotting the “Dick Press” tag immediately escorted me out the door, telling me, expletives deleted, to take my business elsewhere.
When my parents returned to Hanover for graduation, the first order of business for Paul Press was a visit to the showroom he hadn’t seen in four years. I had made a deal with the J.Press road traveler to keep it between us that I refurbished the slender space with a bar, pull-out bed, poker table, and chairs. My exposure was imminent: dad gasped when he saw the place. “What hell’s going on here? It looks like a whorehouse.”
Dad’s pride in my Dartmouth degree overcame the showroom trauma, and he even forgave me the 1959 Class Blazer from Campion’s under my graduation robe. — RICHARD PRESS
Top image, Richard Press’ yearbook photo, 1959.