Fraternity honors Hiss for 'outstanding' public service

August 14, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Not many people are still alive who remember Alger Hiss as a brilliant lawyer voted the most popular man in his graduating class at the Johns Hopkins University in 1926.

Most have heard of Mr. Hiss as a suspected spy who was imprisoned for perjury after he was accused of being a Communist in a case that polarized Baltimore in 1948 and helped Richard M. Nixon -- who served on the House Un-American Activities Committee -- rise to political prominence.

Last night at Hopkins, the Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity honored Mr. Hiss, 89, at its 162nd international convention with its annual Samuel Eells distinguished public service award. "I am not here tonight to debate the issue surrounding Alger Hiss' trials or whether or not he was a Communist spy," Mark E. Larson, the awards chairman, told the 300 guests. "His accomplishments as a young man through 1945 are nothing short of outstanding."

Mr. Hiss, who has suffered three strokes and is bedridden in New York, could not attend the ceremony. But the Baltimore native sent a handwritten two-page letter that was read at the banquet.

"As the oldest alumnus of the host chapter, I send my warm greetings to the gathering of my fellow Alpha Delts," he wrote. "My years as an active member of the fraternity are among my happiest memories."

Ed Donahue, the alumni adviser to the undergraduate fraternity chapter at Hopkins and past national president who lives in Annapolis, said the national board decided to give Mr. Hiss the award "not to stir up old controversies, but to honor him for the things he did that have never been disputed."

It is another colorful episode in the storied history of the fraternity, which started at Hopkins in 1889 and boasts among its 16,000 alumni former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, John D. Rockefeller, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and author Robert Ludlum.

The raucous movie "Animal House" was based on the Alpha Delta Phi chapter at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Mr. Hiss is the son of a well-to-do dry-goods merchant who committed suicide. He grew up on Linden Avenue in Bolton Hill, played in Druid Hill Park, worshiped at Memorial Episcopal Church and attended City College.

After graduating from Hopkins, he attended Harvard Law School, was a pupil of the future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, served as law secretary to Justice Holmes and worked in the Agriculture Administration.

He later became a distinguished State Department official who worked on the Yalta Conference and was secretary-general of the United Nations Conference in San Francisco, where the charter of the new organization was drafted.

But in 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a Communist secret agent and spy, accused Mr. Hiss of passing him secret government documents in the late 1930s for delivery to the Soviet Union. Years of congressional committee hearings and two trials ended in his perjury conviction in 1950. He served 3 1/2 years in prison.

Mr. Hiss has proclaimed his innocence for 46 years. In 1992, he released a videotaped interview with Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov, a respected Soviet historian who said a search of Soviet intelligence archives showed that Mr. Hiss was no spy.

He still has his supporters today.

Edward M. Passano of Baltimore, who has known Mr. Hiss for 70 years and went to Hopkins with him, has defended his friend for decades.

"I'm sure there are some old [people] around Hopkins who remember Alger and think he's a crook," said Mr. Passano, who himself was honored for his contributions to libraries.

"There will be some who resent it and others who think, 'It's about time he gets the award.' "

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