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.
[Note: This post is an expansion of an article published in the Williston Bulletin in 2000. A few of the quoted documents have appeared elsewhere in this blog.]
Anyone pursuing the history of Williston Seminary’s first four decades might assume that the task involves the study of dry, formal documents, the records of austere men shaping the serious minds of New England’s youth under the benevolent gaze of a saintly founder. Fortunately, we have an antidote. At a time when telephones and email were not even a dream, students wrote long, lively, personal letters, dozens of which are preserved in the Williston Northampton Archives. Most we have in manuscript; a few are copies or transcriptions of documents in private hands.
While much was happening in the 19th century world, most students’ letters barely acknowledge events away from school and home. Their concerns were necessarily more local: classes, friends, money. These letters let them speak with their own voices, and provide a fascinating window into their daily lives.
Their writing was hardly that of finished scholars. Samuel Williston once admonished that “Bad orthography, bad penmanship, or bad grammar— bad habits in any of the rudiments— if they be not corrected in the preparatory school, will probably be carried through College and not unlikely extend themselves to other studies and pursuits.” Perhaps to prove his point, we have mostly left the writers’ syntax alone, making only minimal corrections. Indeed, as student Abner Austin wrote his family in 1856, in a sentence spectacularly devoid of any punctuation whatsoever, “Mr. Williston is not the teacher he has nothing to do with it no more than you have he is the founder of it therefore it is called the Williston Seminary.”
By mid-century many New England towns were connected by rail, but in 1854 the line had not yet reached Easthampton. That April, Charles Carpenter wrote his father,
I arrived safely at No. H. on Tuesday morning. On the way, met (in the cars) with a young fellow, like myself, Williston-bound. Had to wait in No. H. all day — crowds of students came up in the train — and several stages and teams were in readiness to convey them over. Ten of us got into a three seated wagon. It was most terrific going — mud and melted snow formed a horrible coalition — Could hardly get out of a walk, a single step. We suffered the greatest trouble, however, in fear that other students would get ahead of us and engage the rooms; but after two hours we arrived — “put” for the “Sem.” The Chief Boss of the Institution, Mr. Marsh, is absent, on account of dangerous family sickness — and everything went hurly-burly.Continue reading →
In the fall of 1876, a new Principal, James M. Whiton, arrived at Williston Seminary. One of his first acts was to hire an assistant, Dr. Robert Porter Keep (1844-1904), at 32 a rising star among classical scholars. The two of them announced their intention to modernize Williston’s innovative dual-track Classical and Scientific curricula. This attracted the attention of Keep’s friend, the critic, author, and editor Horace E. Scudder (1838-1902). Scudder was preparing a study of New England private schools, and must have visited Williston at about this time. In his article, “A Group of New England Classical Schools,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Volume 55, June to November, 1877, p. 562-570 and 704-716), he asserted that with some curricular tweaking, particularly in the Seminary’s unique Scientific Division, Williston could join the pantheon on what Scudder considered education’s Olympus: Andover, Exeter, Saint Paul’s, and Boston Latin.
Scudder advocated adding the study of English to the curriculum. It is hard to believe today, but Williston students of the time took only one literature class, plus weekly or monthly meetings in English fundamentals. Appreciation of literature was largely absent from the Scientific curriculum. The Classical scholars got plenty of it — but solely in the Greek and Latin classics.
Keep was clearly intrigued, and appears to have written to Scudder asking him to elaborate. One challenge would have been to create a framework that accommodated the different needs and backgrounds of Williston’s Classical and Scientific students. Scudder, in his long-delayed response of April, 1878, addressed this and more in the following letter. It is a remarkable document, presenting a surprisingly modern approach to the study of reading and writing.
[Note: In transcribing the manuscript, I have retained Scudder’s punctuation and included crossed-out text. Editorial additions are in [bracketed italics]. Where a word was unclear, I have placed it in [brackets?] with a question mark. – R.T.]
My dear Dr. Keep,
I have two pleasant letters from you unanswered, but I have been taking a little journey, and that has broken up my regular life. I had not forgotten my intention of writing to you on the matter of teaching English, but the more I have considered it the more difficult I find it to make any practical suggestions. It is a harder question I think at Easthampton than elsewhere because of the two classes of students. English literature as part of a liberal training would be taken differently when the students was ending his special studies and when he was beginning them. The boys who go to college not only will have opportunity later, but the very character of their early grammatical study in Latin & Greek would modify the study of English. The boy who ends his studies at Easthampton – and I suppose the great Scientific schools by no means stand to your scientific side, as the colleges do to the classical side – ought to make of English literature a substitute, in a degree, of classical literature, and to obtain from his training some of the liberalizing influences which follow from a classical course, though his age and previous studies do not give him any advantage for this over the classical student. His only advantage I conceive is that he can and ought to give more time to the study and to its cognate study of modern history.
Still, with this complication, I think there might be a method which would be better than a mere desultory study with reference to college examinations, or than the somewhat haphazard method which prevails largely in our academies and high schools.
First of all I would lay down the principle that literature itself should be studied and not books about literature, and in that I am sure you will agree with me as the course sketched by you indicates. Now there are three sides which literature presents, the philosophic, the historic, the aesthetic, and I conceive that each should be carried on, but that greatest weight should be given first and last to the philosophic, that the historic should be of more [regard?] midway, and that the aesthetic should be deferred as much as possible until the close of the course.
The philosophic side I conceive to begin with the analysis of sentences and with philosophic grammar; the historic to begin with the history of words and with the political and social connexions of literature; the aesthetic to begin with a discrimination of forms of literature and end with conceptions of its art, in harmony with other forms of creative work.Continue reading →
Though not a Williston alumnus, arguably Lewis Miller (1919-2008) headed a Williston Northampton dynasty. He and his bride, Jean Douglas Miller ’36 (1918-2005), sent five children to Northampton School for Girls or Williston Academy. Two generations of descendants have attended since. Jean’s brother Richard Douglas ’41 (1923-2007) was the unwilling hero of the following memoir.
Playwright, actor, and journalist, Lew Miller knew how to tell a story. He penned this one for his children and grandchildren in 1992. Recently Elizabeth Miller Grasty ’66 shared it with David Werner of the Williston Office of Advancement, who passed it on to the Archives. It is reproduced here, with some editing, with the kind permission of Ms. Grasty. — RLT
The Poet and the Dribble Glass by Lewis W. Miller
As Robert Frost approached Easthampton, Massachusetts, one evening in 1938, he would not have been in the mood for jokes. Certainly he was not expecting to be the butt of a practical joke. Elinor White Frost, his wife of 43 years, had died suddenly only two months before. Further, he had decided to resign his long held position at Amherst College. Frost, at age 64, had entered a bleak period of his life which seemed to him without hope.
His reason for visiting Easthampton, that Tuesday, May 27, was to fulfill a long-standing commitment to an old friend, Archibald Galbraith, Headmaster of Williston Academy. Each spring for many years, Frost had given – at Galbraith’s invitiation – a reading of his poems for the students.
The student who was destined to confront this world-famous Pulitzer Prize winner was Richard Knowles Douglas. He was a diffident 15 year old unlikely to indulge in practical jokes – especially on an adult. Richard (nicknamed “Red” at school) had a busy life ahead: Amherst College, Albany Medical School, U.S. Navy M.D. with the Marine Corps, followed by a long, fruitful, still-continuing career in the practice of surgery in his home town of Westfield, Mass.
1938 was the year in which Adolf Hitler forcibly annexed Austria. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his second term as President of the United States with “Cactus Jack” Garner of Texas as his Vice President. Charles Hurley, Democrat, was serving his only term as Governor of Massachusetts. Williston Academy, in its 97th year, was planning to celebrate its centennial in 1941. Red Douglas may possibly have forgotten such highlights of the year. But he never quite forgot the trauma of the evening ahead.
Dinner was served as usual in Payson Hall to students living in South and North Halls. A master and eight students were waited on at round tables by “scholarship boys.” Latin Master Lincoln DePew Grannis (“Granny”) usually said the grace before meals. The food was described as “bullet-proof – everything but tasty.” The Saturday night menu never varied: one boiled hot dog, one slice of Boston brown bread, baked beans, milk, and water. Presumably the food served at Ford Hall, a new dormitory on the New Campus, was more appealing. The cost of boarding there was higher.
Soon after dinner the hundred or so boys attending Frost’s reading gathered in the Dodge Room. Most of them were seated on the floor of this handsomely paneled room in the New Gymnasium. The poet referred to his readings at schools and universities as “Barding Around.” Years later, when asked which poems were presented that evening, Douglas replied, “All of them – no explanation or discussion, he just read – seemed on an ego trip.”
When Frost had been reading for one and a half hours, a student broke wind. This occasioned embarrassed laughter among his fellows, to which the poet responded, “Would you like me to go on?” Hearing no answer, “Very well, I will continue.” This he did, for another half hour!
At the close of the evening some two dozen especially invited boys joined Frost in the Headmaster’s House for refreshments. Mr. Galbraith inquired of Frost his choice of beverage. A glass of milk was requested. “Gally,” as he was called by the students behind his back, turned to young Douglas nearby, asking him to bring a glass of milk for the famous guest. In the kitchen a maid (“She never liked me,” recalled Douglas years later) poured the glass of milk, placed it on a tray, and handed it to Red, who served it to Robert Frost. Frost took a drink and spilled milk down his tie and shirt. “How clumsy of me,” he murmured, as he wiped the spill with his handkerchief.
A second drink resulted in an even greater spill. Seeing this from across the room, Galbraith “came down like a locomotive” heading for the hapless Red. “Was this done on purpose?” Galbraith demanded angrily.
“No, sir,” the student answered – fully expecting to be thrown out of school. The Headmaster’s response was not complimentary. Red returned the dribble glass to the kitchen. There, the Headmaster filled a fresh glass while the shaken student attempted to exonerate himself. “This is not my fault. I have never even heard of a dribble glass!”
Red’s explanation may have been believed, but most likely he was allowed to remain in school because Archibald Galbraith held the boy’s father, Archibald Douglas, in high regard. Robert Frost graciously accepted the apology required of Red, who was then permitted to depart for his dormitory room.
Holding no grudge, Robert Frost returned to Williston each spring for more “Barding Around,” at least until Red Douglas graduated in 1941. The record does not state whether Red continued to attend the readings.
Skeptical? Oddly, I’m not. The story is, of course, really by Richard Douglas, merely transmitted by Lew Miller. There is substantial detail, but at no point does the narrator make the extravagant claims of the sort alumni indulge in when they reminisce about “good old days” — that stuff, I tend to take at about 50% (unless I’m telling the story). No one, more than 50 years after the event, claims or is given credit for the joke. And who might it have been? It would be easy to blame the maid, who actually produced the glass and poured the milk, except that it is unlikely she would have dared. Can it be that Frost was never the intended victim, rather that someone had spirited the glass into Galbraith’s kitchen, hoping to catch the Head himself?
Frost’s visit was duly reported in The Willistonian of June 3. There is no mention of anything untoward, but a rather nice irony in his chosen theme.
1967: Williston Academy’s Literary Society had, for many years, published an oh-so-serious magazine called The Scribe. Imagine, then, the excitement when the Society announced that they would depart from venerable tradition and attempt a humor magazine. The first, and only issue of The Jester appeared in the winter of 1967. Almost immediately, certain elements in the administrative hierarchy objected to the cover on grounds of taste, until it was pointed out that the navel in question, which belonged to our champion diver, was on display in the pool every afternoon.
51 years later, this seems relatively innocuous. Tasteless, yes, but hardly provocative. But our plan to republish substantial excerpts here was somewhat modified when we realized that by 2018 standards, the magazine was so replete with trademark violations, potential libel suits, and what are now called “trigger warnings,” that we had to be very selective. Plus: some of it was too insider-obscure to resonate today, or just wasn’t very funny.
But much of it was funny, or clever, and still is. Perhaps against our better judgment, here are excerpts, beginning with a parody of that prep-school classic, The Catcher in the Rye.