The Only Saloon in Town
Along with the usual complement of interlopers, the Fellows were engaged (as they so often were) in a less than immortal dialogue on one immortal topic or another when a secretary entered the conference room and handed Hutchins a note. He looked at it, indulged himself in the unusual antic of rapping on his waterglass with a spoon, and said, "President Kennedy has just been assassinated in Dallas," and then signaled the resumption of the discussion.
"He should have adjourned the discussion then and there," said one of the philosophical Fellows a week later. They were gathered around the luncheon table. (Hutchins was absent). "But," said one, "the dialogue was important, wasn't it?" "As important as the assassination of a President?" asked another.
"I should have supposed so, to a company of philosophers."
"Nonsense," said a third.
"His behavior was unspeakable," said a fourth.
"Did you all find it unspeakable?" (Three of the eleven Fellows present that day had found it unspeakable; they had got up and left the room immediately after Hutchins' announcement, and one of them had been crying before he reached the door.)
There was an unencouraging silence, and then one of the younger Fellows said, "I suppose he did the right thing. But it seemed somehow— incongruous. It still does. Maybe it won't a year from now."
The silence was a little stiff now. One of the Fellows got up and studied his watch and said, "Back to work." Others got up, and the group dissolved. One was left with senior Fellow Scott Buchanan, who had said nothing. The two were old friends. "It's the bathos," said the friend, "everywhere. Even here."
"I know," said Buchanan, "but you're in the wrong. So is Hutchins. You think that ritual is infantile. You want society to be above it, to be 'adult.' But it isn't adult to be above ritual. It's angelic, but it isn't adult. Ritual and ritual alone holds society together."
"Primitive society," said the other.
"All societies are primitive," said Buchanan.
The dialogue, then, was more sacred than ritual, even if, as it happened that November 22, 1963, the dialogue wasn't very good. "It's not a very good center, but it's the only one there is," Hutchins had said. Salty Vice-president W.H. "Ping" Ferry put it more pithily: "It's the only saloon in town." And it was. Its four-to-five-times-a-week dialogue sessions had no counterpart anywhere. Nobody anywhere else was trying to do what Hutchins was—however unsuccessfully—trying to do. The Center, said Hutchins in his presidential report in 1968, "receives no money from government and none from large foundations or corporations. It is not a think tank . . . neither is it a refuge for scholars who want to get away from it all to do their research and write their books. It is an organized group, rather than a collection of individuals. It is an organization of men who are free of any obligation except to join in the effort to understand the subjects they have selected to study. It is a community, and, since its members are trying to think together, it may be called, at least in potentiality, an intellectual community." But he added by way of understatement, "This description may be a little high-flown."
It was more than a little high-flown. Less than a year later, in February 1969, he was telling his friend and vice-president, Frank Kelly, "I'm going to quit. I can't see any way of making the place what it should be." The trouble was only in part that the Fellows were not up to the idea of the dialogue, and only in part due to the nature of the dialogue itself. The trouble was also in the ridiculous grandiosity of the program, which persistently bit off more than any program of investigation could possibly chew. In November of 1968 its then dean, John Seeley, presented to the board of directors what he called the Center Program of Studies and Projects adopted by the Fellows (including Fellow Hutchins). A study was defined as a topic deserving long and deep examination; a project was defined as a matter requiring "brief attention."
The studies already under way were "constitutionalization of the world . . . constitutionalization of the United States . . . constitutionalization of science and technology . . . constitutionalization of criminal justice administration . . . organization theory . . . and the civilization of the dialogue." Studies "preliminarily or well defined and in development" included "federalism . . . policing and policy . . . national service . . . corporate de-
velopment . . . potentials of the United States Constitution . . . the school (and education) . . . and the professions." (Fellow Edward Engberg, directing the study of the professions, resigned from the Center in the spring of 1969, informing Hutchins that the dialogue was "a shambles.")  Studies of religious institutions and the city were "not yet adequately defined but definitely to be explored." Projects on youth, the law of the sea, Africa, and dissent were to be "further defined and adopted only if definition is adequate and resources permit."
Said Seeley, "We have failed so far to develop a unifying view and statement as to what holds together each of the studies adopted severally, even though they were adopted on good grounds after lengthy reflection. We trust to coming experience to reveal the unity, and permit a statement of its nature. I look to this next year for some fruition from all this labor, and a happy issue out of some of our afflictions." Dean Seeley's report included the names of dozens of subjects and the assertion that more than a hundred papers had been read at the Center during a six-month period.
The board congratulated Seeley on his development of the program, and Hutchins did not express dissatisfaction with this megalomaniacal assortment of studies and projects. The program was expected to consume the energies of the Center for "several years ahead, subject only to alteration upon sufficiently weighty new considerations," said the dean. The weekly meeting of the Fellows, consultants in residence, and administrative and publications personnel had "ordered and routinized and settled a great many matters in a manner more satisfactory than heretofore. It has also served to draw together and strengthen the Fellowship, while at the same time better, more readily, and more surely coordinating the Center as a whole. It marks a true, good, and important advance into Collegiality." 
Within the year of all this rampant prose and poesy seven members of the fellowship—including Hutchins—would vote to fire the dean and several other Fellows and staff members with him, and to reorganize the Center. There was, however, nobody to fire Hutchins, who had so recently appeared to place much confidence in the dean; or the board of directors, who had been reported as having been impressed by the dean's Program of Studies and Projects. Nor was there anyone to fire the whole fellowship for its formulation and promulgation of an indigestible concoction of just about all the things in general that could possibly occur to the vagrant mind of man.