The Button Speech

Each fall Archivist Rick Teller ’70 speaks to the assembled School on some aspect of Williston Northampton history.  The event, popularly known as “the button speech,” only occasionally concerns buttons at all.  But this year it did.  These remarks were delivered on Friday, September 20, 2013.

The Williston Birthplace, ca. 1880. Note the kid on the tricycle! (Click images to enlarge.)

Good morning.  At solemn occasions … like hockey games … we sing about someone named “Sammy.”  Our hearts yearn for him … for his campus and geriatric elm.  But, you might well ask, about whom do we sing?  Just who was “Sammy?”

Samuel Williston was born across the street, in a house located where the Homestead now stands.  The house, where Mr. Swanson lives and which we now call “The Birthplace,” was moved across Park Street in 1843.  It is much grander now than it was when Sam arrived.

That was in 1795.  George Washington was President.  Easthampton was a small farm village.  Samuel’s father, Payson Williston, was the minister in Easthampton’s only church.  Payson was a stern, old-fashioned New England preacher, with strong Calvinist leanings.  We will get to Calvinism in a minute.  The Reverend Mr. Williston’s salary was tiny, and he had a house full of children.  He added to his income by planting a few acres of mediocre farmland.  That farm is now the heart of our magnificent campus.

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Thou shalt not . . .

A new school year is upon us, with all the annual rituals that accompany it: friends to be made, rooms decorated, class schedules to figure out.  An essential opening-of-school tradition is our attempt to instill into all our students’ consciousnesses the concept of “A Certain Minimally Consistent Standard of Behavior,” also known as “The Rules.”  Yes, friends, this is when Alma Mater actually asserts her rights in loco parentis.

When I began to compile this essay, it occurred to me that it was a great topic for alumni input.  A brief and wildly unscientific sampling of Facebook friends elicited many responses, some of which are reproduced here.  But Amy Goodwillie Lipkin ’77 noted, “what I thought was ridiculous in my mind as a 16-year-old, I may not see as ridiculous now as an adult.”  It’s a good point, one with which most parents or deans, if not every teenager, might concur.  On the other hand, alumni recollections suggest that sometimes, even after many years, passions, or at least the memories of outrage, run high.  It is also a reminder of the essential conflict between common sense and regulatory detail.  Even today, the idea of having, say, a simple conceptual dress code of “neat, clean, and appropriate” is utterly impractical in a community of approximately 700 students and adults, who will voice as many opinions over exactly what that means.

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