All posts by Rick Teller '70

Rick Teller grew up on the Williston Academy campus and is a member of the illustrious Class of 1970. He studied music, religion, and history at Vassar College ('74) and librarianship and ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan (AMLS, '78). He is a librarian at Williston Northampton and, since 1995, the school's archivist.

William Brooks Cabot Writes Home

By Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

Recently, through the generosity of Mr. Eric Brothers, the Archives acquired two letters written by William Brooks Cabot, class of 1876, to his mother in Brattleboro, Vermont.  In August, 1874, Cabot had just arrived at Williston Seminary, and was enrolled in the Middle Class — the equivalent of the modern 11th grade — in Williston’s Scientific curriculum.   The following transcriptions retain William’s occasionally idiosynchratic punctuation and free-form sentence and paragraph structure.  He was, after all, just 16 years old and, in fairness, somewhat ahead of his peers (then and now) in matters of spelling.

Detail of Cabot’s first letter, Sunday, August 30, 1874, on school stationery (Click all images to enlarge)

It was a Sunday.  William had just moved out of a dormitory and into a boarding house where he had already arranged for his meals — the school had no dining hall of its own at this time.

Easthampton, Aug. 30th [1874]

Dear Mother

I am sorry father was not at home to decide what course I should take with regard to my studies.  I shall take Geometry, Drawing, Zoology, & German, though if possible I shall take Latin instead of Zoology.

We have changed our rooms & are now boarding where we take our meals.  I only pay $5 $6.00 per week in all, which is about twenty five cents more than I paid – or rather, was to pay at the Sem.  It’s much more convenient for meals & we have carpets & towels, & do not have to do our own chamber work, as we did at the Sem.  We paid our tuition yesterday.  My bill was $26.00.

We have to attend chapel at a little before nine in the morning.   We do all our studying in our rooms, which I like very much.  At 7:30 P.M. the chapel bell rings, and we must go to our rooms immediately.  Once in a while a Prof. will happen around after dark, to see if we are all in our rooms, but we have not been honored by a visit as yet.

We are living at a Mrs. Embury’s, where there are five of us.  One is from Moline, Ill. & another from Scranton, Pa.

William’s housemates can be identified as Frederick William Keator, class of 1876 Classical, from Moline, and Edwin Hunter Lynde ’76 Scientific, from Scranton.  For a newly-enrolled kid who had, to this point, grown up in southern Vermont, these may well have seemed like exotic places.  As he would no doubt later discover, while the majority of students hailed from the Northeast, in 1874 Williston enrolled students from as far away as Louisiana, Alabama, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

William continues,

The German Student Lamp, a kerosene-fueled desk lamp that produced a soft, non-flickering light. (Photo: eBay)

I have so far spent about ten dollars besides tuition, for R.R. Fare, books, &c.  I use a kerosene lamp to study by & think it better for my eyes than gas.  I have a lamp with a burner like the German Student lamp & it gives a very good light.

I guess we will both take the optional course, as then we will not be examined & I expect plenty of study even then.  The class is larger than usual this year – I mean the Junior – & I think the greater number take the Scientific course.  I don’t expect to use my rifle more than three or four times this term and perhaps not at all.  I have to get permission from one of the Profs. before I can take it out even to shoot at a mark.

Yesterday six of us went over to Mount Tom, which is only about two miles.  We walked over & came back in the cars.  Most of the boys were rather lame this morning but I didn’t feel it at all.  Tell Mollie I wish she would give W. E. Waite’s pistol to him.  It is in one of the drawers of my bureau.  I forgot it the morning I came away.

It seems astounding in 2019 that Williston would permit students to own firearms at all, or that William would be indignant over needing permission even for target practice, but in the mid-19th century, it was probably taken for granted.

I have been to church twice today.  We are all obliged to go to the same church, unless the parents expressly desire that they should attend some other.  Although it is against the rules some of the boys are out as late as they please, almost every night.  I do not know yet whether I can take Latin instead of Zoology or not but I hope I can.

With much love to all,


Captain Henry E. Alvord. No photograph of the egregious Captain Hill has been reliably identified.

William’s second letter, written on a Sunday three weeks later, introduces Captains David Hill and Henry Alvord.  Regular readers of this blog may have already met Captain Alvord; he was clearly, at best, stiff-necked over rules.  David Hill taught Physiology and Physical Education.  He had been wounded in the Civil War.  Everything written about him suggests that, frustrated by having missed the final two years of opportunity to inflict suffering upon rebels, he was a martinet who projected his resentment on his students.  Within days of his arrival at Williston he had instituted military drill, including marching and bayonet exercise, as the daily warm-up activity prior to gymnastic practice.   (Present day athletes might consider this the next time they complain about calisthenics.)

Why Captain Hill could not, nearly a month into the fall term, find “time” to accommodate an earnest and talented student’s application to take his course remains an open question.  But documents indicate that he and Alvord largely occupied themselves in meddling with administrative matters, particularly when they could undermine colleagues who did not share their views.

Williston Sem. Sept. 20

Dear Mother

I was glad to receive yours of the 18th, also Mary’s of the 16th.  Capt. Hill did not get time to examine us in Physiology until yesterday.  He gave me three written questions which I had to answer upon paper, & when I finished these he asked me a few questions verbally & then said that he would look over my paper when he had time.  So I do not know whether I have passed or not as yet.

“Prex” – Principal Marshall Henshaw (served 1863-1876). Hill and Alvord would engineer his removal in favor of the wildly unsuccessful Principal James Morris Whiton.

I do not suppose that my report for the month will be very good, as I have had a good deal of extra studying to do, especially on my Physiology.  One of the Profs. – Capt. Alvord – has come here to room; so we will have to observe study hours rather more strictly than we have been in the habit of doing.

Yesterday Prex. gave notice that we must be in our rooms at 7 P.M. instead of 7:30 as before.  This is because the days are getting short, & they are afraid to have us out after dark.  The students use tobacco as much as they please, & even some of the little boys in the English Class strut around with cigarettes in their mouths.  Almost all the students who have been here any length of time, smoke.  The Faculty never say a word about it.

I have just sent two weeks washing (12 pieces) by the man who takes the other boys clothes.  His wife can do up shirts better than any I ever saw.

There seem to be more parties, etc. going on at B. than usual.  I wish I could be there to attend one or two.  We have been having a good time evenings after getting our lessons, but Capt. Alvord’s coming ends that, as it is considered just as bad to be out of your own room as out of the house after study hours.  One of the boys rooming here is from Illinois & is one of the best fellows I ever saw.  His name is Keator.  I believe he said he was about 18 years old.  Is a first rate scholar & neither smokes, drinks nor swears; which is rather remarkable for this place.  Yesterday I took a long walk out west of the village & might have shot three or four partridges if I had taken my gun.

It costs a great deal to get along, as there are so many little things to get, but I have enough money to meet my expenses for about two weeks longer.  How does Ranger get along?  There are hardly any dogs here.  Tell Mary to write when she has time.  With much love to all.  W.

William Cabot did not return to Williston for his senior year.  He enrolled in the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, but left before finishing there as well, eventually completing a Civil Engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1881.  He went on to a long career in mining and engineering out West and ultimately in Brooklyn, but he is primarily remembered as an important amateur explorer and anthropologist who worked primarily with Native Americans in Labrador and Northern Quebec.  There is a good biographical article at this link, including  a photograph — no images of William in his student days have come to hand.

Edwin Lynde returned to Scranton to build blast furnaces and had a long career in the steel industry.  The fastidious Frederick William Keator eventually became an Bishop in the Episcopal Church and a college president.  By the Spring of 1885 both he and Lynde had moved to other boarding houses, very possibly to escape the pernicious influence of Captain Alvord.


“Sammy, my Sammy . . .”

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Williston’s Song of Songs

It is sung, with varying degrees of solemnity and competence, at solemn events like graduations and hockey games.  If “Hail to Williston Northampton” is our recently adopted Alma Mater, then surely the much more venerable “Sammy” qualifies as our Alma Aviam.  (That’s “Beloved Grandmother.”  Don’t you regret not having taken Latin?  But I digress.)  At least one former Head of School thought the song and its associated traditions puerile and tried, without success, to suppress it.  “Sammy” remains the Song that Would Not Go Away.

Link: Listen to the 2012 Caterwaulers singing “Sammy!”

The music for “Sammy” — a broadside printed for Williston Academy’s centennial in 1941.

Link: A more rough-and-ready performance from Mem West, National Kazoo Day, 2019.

Venerable Williston Lore tells us that “Sammy,” our “stand-up song,” was written by Paul “Pitt” Johnson, class of 1905.  This appears to be accurate, although it seems that the memory briefly slipped Johnson’s mind after he graduated.  But in 1939, Alumni Secretary Howard Boardman asked for Johnson’s recollection.  Pitt wrote back,

Pitt Johnson to Howard Boardman, 1939

“Although  there might have been in my mind a slight doubt of the authorship, nevertheless, it was instantly removed after singing the first two measures.  I instantly recognized it as my work, which was one of the many songs I wrote during my years at the old school.”  [The full letter is reproduced at right; please click on the image to enlarge it.]

Johnson continued, “It so clearly comes to mind now how Dr. Sawyer [Headmaster Joseph H. Sawyer], upon hearing the song on the campus, called me to his office and suggested that theretofore the name Samuel had never lost its dignity and couldn’t I rewrite the song using Samuel instead of Sammy.  I remember how three or four of us tried it out but it sounded a bit brummy and didn’t cut the mustard so the song continued to refer to the founder of Williston as Sammy and I cannot recall a single instance of where Samuel Williston haunted me from the tomb because of it.”

Headmaster Sawyer

It is perhaps ironic that Johnson knew “Sammy” as his own when he heard the first two measures, since that is the one portion of the tune that he most certainly did not write.  Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas will recognize the phrase as having been lifted, note for note, from the Bridesmaids’ Chorus in Trial by Jury, at the words “Wear the flowers ’til they fade.”   The show was wildly popular at the time Johnson “borrowed” the tune – and the cribbing was probably unconscious.  As for the lyrics that so bothered Joseph Sawyer, it is likely that having written “Sammy, my Sammy, my heart yearns for thee,” Johnson needed a rhyme, and settled on “and your old elm tree.”  Nothing we know of Samuel Williston suggests that he ever took an interest in trees, elm or otherwise.  Yet, as has been detailed elsewhere, from this bit of doggerel entire school traditions have risen.  (See “The Brand,” particularly toward the end of the article.) Continue reading

A William Rittase Sports Gallery

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
A typical William Rittase outdoor shot, with his signature dramatic clouds. (Please click all images to enlarge.)

Visitors to the lower level of Williston Northampton’s Sabina Cain Family Athletic Center may already be familiar with some of these photographs.  William Rittase (1894-1968) was an American photographer based in Philadelphia.   His work is now prized by collectors.  Rittase frequently specialized in railroad and industrial subjects, but on several occasions in the 1930s and ’40s, he was hired by both Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls to produce catalog photography, thereby giving a distinctive look to the schools’ marketing materials of the time.

Rittase’s work is often characterized by dramatic lighting and high contrast between light and shadow.   Billowing clouds are one of his signatures.  Most of the Archives’ Rittase photographs survive as gallery prints in which the image measures 13.75″ x 10.”

But Rittase was not above a measure of artistic chicanery.  Former Williston photography teacher Bob Couch ’50 has observed that the same clouds appear in multiple photographs.  And consider the preceding photograph — by any standard, a brilliant action shot.  But think about the vantage point.  To get this angle, Rittase would have had to to have been standing on a ladder in the infield.And no, Rittase wasn’t using a telephoto lens.  In fact, he favored a large-format camera, that used 4 x 5″ film or larger, had a fixed lens, and weighed many pounds.  So the wonderful photo above was, in fact, staged, even choreographed.  The photographer is apparently sitting on the ground just a few feet from the blockers’ knees. Continue reading

Dong Kingman Painting Comes Home

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

Dong Kingman (1911-2000) was a respected Chinese-American watercolorist, one of the leading figures in the “California Style” school of painting, and the father of Dong Kingman Jr., Williston Academy class of 1955.  In 1953 he and his wife Janice visited the campus.  While here, Kingman painted this picture of the east end of the Recreation Center, today’s Reed Campus Center, and presented it to Sarah and Headmaster Phillips Stevens.  It was hung in the Homestead (at that time, the Headmaster’s residence) and, according to Phillips Stevens Jr., went with them to every home.

Peter Stevens with Dong Kingman’s painting

Last year, on behalf of the Stevens family, Phillips Stevens Jr. presented Kingman’s painting to the school.  It has been conserved, re-framed, and added to Williston Northampton’s permanent art collection, and is displayed in the west end of the Reed Campus Center, which it depicts.

At right, another member of the Stevens family, Peter Stevens ’60, admires the Kingman painting in the Reed Campus Center, March 30, 2019.  Peter was visiting with his wife, painter Linn Bower, for the opening reception of her exhibit, The Passionate Hands of the Sun, in the Grubbs Gallery, just down the hall.

More information about the life and work of Dong Kingman may be found in a variety of online sources, and several books, including Dong Kingman: an American Master, by Monte James (Twenty-Second Century Film Corporation of America, 2000), and Kingman’s own Portraits of Cities (Twenty-Second Century, 1997) and Dong Kingman’s Watercolors (Watson-Guptil, 1980).