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.

“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).

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