Williston Northampton and Local History . . . Your History!

Founders’ Day

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
The cover to a Founder’s Day invitation, 1895

According to most evidence, Williston Seminary began to celebrate Founders’ Day shortly after Samuel Williston’s death in 1874.  The original tradition was to commemorate the Founder on or close to his birthday, June 17.  Typically it was one element of Senior Week, which culminated with graduation exercises.  It was a major event.  The oldest surviving program, from 1895, presents a full afternoon of wreath-laying and speeches.

The Founders’ Day program, 1895.

Some form of the event survived into the 1970s.   By mid-century, it had been moved to a date earlier in the spring.  The school assembled at the Williston gravesite in the Main Street Cemetery, where either the Headmaster or Dean A. L. Hepworth would talk about the Willistons, and typically many of the other former heads and faculty interred nearby.

At the gravesite, probably 1970. Headmaster Phillips Stevens and Chaplain Roger A. Barnett.
May, 1966. Teacher Peter Rowe lays a wreath on Emily Williston’s grave. Other identifiable faculty include, from left, Frank Putnam, Yves Couderc (center, behind Mr. Rowe), Daniel Carpenter, A. L. Hepworth, Wilmot Babcock (partially obscured), and Alan Shaler (on the right margin).

In 2016, during Williston Northampton’s 175th Anniversary celebration, Founders’ Day was revived, now as a February event celebrating the tradition of giving that was so much a part of who Samuel and Emily Williston were.  It has become a major element in the School’s annual Advancement effort.  On February 20, 2019, our goal was to inspire 1,178 donors — for Williston’s 178th year.  Achieving that participation target triggered an additional $75,000 challenge grant, while several classes and the Williston Parents created incentives of their own.  By the end of the day we had vastly exceeded expectations, as nearly 1,400 alumni, parents, faculty, students, and friends realized almost $400,000.

Joesph Sawyer, ca. 1909.

For Headmaster Joseph Henry Sawyer, who joined the faculty in 1866 and led the school from 1884-1886 and 1895-1919, Founders’ Day was especially meaningful.  After all, he had known Emily and Samuel Williston personally, as well as most of the other major figures from the school’s early years.  In 1911 his friend Herbert M. Plimpton, class of 1878, published several of Sawyer’s Founders’ Day addresses.

June 17, 1909, fell on the same day as Commencement, so much of the traditional Founders’ Day speechifying was curtailed.  But Sawyer, in his graduation remarks to the senior class, included a few words —actually, more than a few — about Samuel Williston.  While the religious element Sawyer evokes is de-emphasized in 21st-century Williston Northampton, much of what Sawyer had to say seems especially relevant for students and alumni today.  The text, from Plimpton’s compilation, is reproduced below.  (Please click the images to enlarge them.)x

Northampton School, 1926

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Northampton School students on the steps of Montgomery House, 1926. Jean Bigelow is in the 3rd row, third from right. (Please click images to enlarge.

Recently the Archives acquired a photo album kept by Jean M. Bigelow, who attended Northampton School for Girls in 1925-26.  Since Northampton School had just opened a year earlier, in 1924, the contents of the album represent some of the earliest images we have.

We don’t know much about Jean Bigelow — in fact, her identification in the photograph above is based on an ambiguous caption on another copy of this photo given us by Elva Minuse, class of 1927 (that’s Elva in the second row, second from right), and comparison with uncaptioned family photos elsewhere in Jean’s album.  Beyond her academic transcript, she left no paper trail in our alumnae records.  According to Social Security records, she was born in 1907 and died, aged 78, in 1986.  She attended Vassar College, class of 1930, and lived in Worcester, Mass.

Some of Jean’s friends. Elva Minuse is at the bottom.

And that’s about all we know.  But the photos capture Northampton School for Girls at its very beginning, so this is a significant addition to the Archives.

Commencement, 1926. Jean is in the back row, center.

Continue reading

The Confessions of Harlan Mendenhall

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
The Rev. Dr. Harlan G. Mendenhall

In the fall of 1931 the Reverend Dr. Harlan G. Mendenhall, Williston Seminary class of 1870 (Classical), visited the campus.  Aged 80, Mendenhall was considered the “grand old man” of American Presbyterianism, having served in parishes all over the U.S., risen to the highest levels of the New York Presbytery, and was, in 1931, still not retired.    Dr. Mendenhall brought with him a variety of documents from his student days, including a copy of the 1869 Salmagundi, Williston’s first senior yearbook, which he had co-edited, and a scrapbook of his student writings as a member of Adelphi, the school’s literary and debating society.  He also sat down with The Willistonian for an extended interview, reproduced at length in the issue of October 21.  Conversation focused on how the school had changed in more than five decades – and took a surprising turn.

North and Middle Halls in the 1930s. When Mendenhall was a student, North Hall was new. (Click all images to enlarge.)

“Williston in my day was a great deal different than your Williston of today.  North Hall was but a few years old and was all partitioned off into three sections by thick fire walls.  There were no bathrooms nor any central heating system, and in the winter we all had to buy our own coal for our stoves.  We had no school dining room either and had to eat either at fraternity eating places or at the old “Hash Factory” which stood at the corner of Union and High Streets.  It was possible to eat for two dollars a week then.”

“Students were then a great deal older than the fellows at Williston are now.  There was one fellow named Redington who had already graduated from Yale and had come to Williston to study English.   As the boys were older, they were more independent and often used to have revolutions and uprisings of all sorts.”

Lyman W. Redington, class of 1866 and again, 1869. We have found no evidence of anyone else ever completing both the Classical and Scientific curricula, with a year of college separating them.

[Lyman William Redington of Waddington, N.Y. graduated Williston’s Classical Department in 1866.  He completed a year at Yale, left because of eye problems, but returned to Williston and enrolled in the Scientific, a.k.a. English Department, graduating in 1869.  He and Harlan Mendenhall were the founding co-editors of the yearbook Salmagundi in 1869.  He became a newspaper editor in Rutland, Vt., ran unsuccessfully for Governor, took up law, and ultimately became Asst. Corporate Counsel for the City of New York, and a Tammany Hall member of the State Assembly.]

“There was a fellow in school then who had received a check for one hundred dollars from home, and instead of depositing it in the bank, he took it across to Putnam’s Book Store and established a checking account.”

“There came a time when Ballance, that was the boy, [William Henry Ballance, class of 1870] said that he had ten more dollars coming, and Old Put claimed that he had drawn his entire account.  Then Ballance started an association of most of the boys in school swearing not to trade with Put until the ten dollars should be paid.  They formed a big parade and marched down in front of Put’s store and read the constitution and by-laws of the association to him.  Some of the boys carried big banners inscribed ‘No More Trade for Old Put’ and ‘False Weights Against True Ballance.’  The parade then marched over to the gym steps and had its picture taken.” Continue reading

An Intersession Gallery

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Alan Shaler’s cooking class, with Gwen Pullman and Barbara Sloan, 1979. (Click all images to enlarge.)

For twenty-one years, beginning in 1975, Williston Northampton culture was partially defined by the Winter Session, later called Intersession, program.  It was modeled on the January Term programs then popular in many colleges.  The “statement of purpose” in the prospectus for the first year read,

“During most of the academic year, the Williston Northampton School is primarily concerned with the very important task of giving its students the best in college preparatory academics.   This should and must be our primary task, but often this leaves little or no time for experimentation with new programs and different approaches to learning.  Thus, during the school year 1974-75, Williston Northampton has lengthened its overall school year and set aside 25 days in January during which the whole school community will concentrate on programs which tend to be extra-curricular during the bulk of the school year.”

A quilting workshop, 1991

“The emphasis during the Winter Session is on learning by doing.  The student will not just read about the Navajo Indians but he will actually go and live among them.  He will not just speak French in class but will speak it with and among Frenchmen in Cannes.  He will perform in a play; or sing in a chorus; or build a table; or learn to type; or serve senior citizens in the community; or work each day with mental patients; or observe criminal court proceedings; or … the list goes on and on.  Student and teacher will be active and involved.  The student will not be graded but will be expected to evaluate his own accomplishments at the end of the session, which evaluation together with a verbal evaluation of his work  by the teacher will be placed in his permanent file.”

Students at the Ming Tombs, Nanjing, China, 1982

One observes, alas, the use of gender-specific pronouns to describe a program at a school then in its fourth year of full coeducation.  But let us overlook that, for the moment; it is symptomatic of a cultural issue endemic to the school for more than a decade after the merger with Northampton School.  This has been discussed elsewhere.  (See the last part of “Northampton School for Girls – and After.”)  Better we should consider the ambitious nature of this fledgling program which, remarkably, achieved most of its goals and established a high standard in that very first year.

Bob Bagley assisting with wooden toy-making, 1991

Over the next few years the program would grow and evolve.  The range of some of the offerings is hinted at in excerpts from the annual catalog, reproduced at the bottom of this article.  Students were encouraged to try new things, new approaches to learning — and by the second decade, students were teaching some of the courses.  Faculty frequently taught their avocations, rather than their academic specialties: some of the offerings over the years included fine cooking with Alan Shaler (English), carpentry and toymaking from Bob Bagley (Math), wood carving with Ann Vanderburg (Math), home renovation with Stephen Seybolt (English) and Bob Couch (Math and Photography), music and architectural appreciation from Elizabeth Esler (Librarian), “Developing a Comic Character” with Stan Samuelson (Math),  investment from Robert Blanchette (French), figure skating with Harriet Tatro (Science). Continue reading

Williston Northampton and Local History . . . Your History!