Category Archives: Sports History

“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

A Brief History of Williston Northampton Basketball

By Douglas Stark '90

This is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the January 1999 Williston Northampton Bulletin.  At that time Doug Stark was Librarian and Archivist at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Today he is Museum Director at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.  He is the author of The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) and coauthor of Tennis and the Newport Casino (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).

From The Willistonian, January 2, 1898.
From The Willistonian, January 2, 1898.

On a cold, wintery northeast night in 1898, a group of five Williston Seminary students “lined up for the first time . . . in a regular game, and defeated their opponents, the Y.M.C.A. of Northampton, by a score of 12-10.”  The Jan. 29, 1898 Willistonian reported that Williston’s first basketball game “excited much interest in the school.  The fellows turned out to a man, also several members of the faculty were present, as well as a representation of townspeople” to witness first hand this “new and intriguing game.”

In 1898, basketball was still in its infancy, having been created just seven years earlier at the School for Christian Workers (now Springfield College) in Springfield, MA.  In the winter of 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a recent graduate of McGill University, enrolled as a student-instructor in a school that trained YMCA general secretaries and physical education instructors.  Asked to create a game to occupy a class of “incorrigibles” between the football and baseball seasons, Naismith invented basketball.  After hanging two peach baskets at both ends of the gymnasium balcony and dividing the 18-man class into two nine-man teams, Naismith put the first ball, a soccer ball, into play.  Legend has it that only one basket was scored in that game.

Almost immediately, the game took off and spread quickly through the YMCAs.  Within a few years, the game was being played in 15 different countries and in colleges from the East to West Coasts.  Due to the rough play associated with the early game and the growing need for more court time, the YMCA banned basketball from its gyms in 1898.  Later that year, basketball was introduced at Williston Seminary, one of the first high schools in the country to embrace the game. Continue reading

Joseph Lynch and Williston Basketball

by Richard Teller '70, Archivist
Joseph Lynch '10 (1910 Log)
Joseph Lynch ’10 (1910 Log)

This is presented as an addendum to Doug Stark’s article on the History of Williston Basketball.  Without question, our first “great” player was Joe Lynch, class of 1910, who was inducted into the Williston Northampton Athletic Hall of Fame on June 7, 2014.  These remarks were delivered at that event.

I’m here to present Joseph Lynch, Williston Seminary class of 1910, for the Athletic Hall of Fame.  Joe was an Irish kid from Holyoke, who attended Holyoke High School before enrolling in the Middle Class — what we would now call the 10th grade — at Williston.  Other than that, we don’t know much about him.  I’d like to say that he presented the prep school ideal of the scholar-athlete, but I’m afraid that his grades don’t bear that out.  The archives actually have a paper that he wrote, about the financier Edward Harriman, that is reasonably literate and shows some insight.  Other than that, there’s not much.  His 1910 classmates elected him “Best Athlete,” as well as “Merriest,” “Biggest Rough-Houser,” and “Biggest Bluffer.”  His yearbook notes that he was “a lover of nature,” and a member of the F. C. Fraternity, about which we know little, and something called the Vigilance Committee, about which our ignorance is probably a blessing.

Joseph Lynch excelled in sports.  He played right guard on an intramural football team, but he was in his element in baseball and basketball.  Joe was the first baseman on the Williston Nine for three reasonably successful years — although interestingly, Holy Cross turned him into a pitcher.  And there is a suggestion that he struck out more often than his friends and teammates might have liked.

But in basketball, Joe Lynch was unstoppable.  Standing six-foot-one, towering over his teammates in an era when kids were simply shorter than today, he was an ideal center.  His long arms and quick feet made him a defensive monster.  And he was a scoring machine.  Over his career, he scored 394 points in 28 games.  Before you exclaim, “but that’s nothing!”, remember that the game of basketball, invented only 17 years before Lynch arrived at Williston, was very different.  Dribbling, for example, was rare; players moved the ball primarily by passing.  Players thus tended to spread out more, playing what we would now call zones.  Most shots came from a distance, so scores were lower — and of course, the three-point shot hadn’t even been dreamt of.  Foul shots were rare, and the free-throw line was 20 feet from the basket.  Even the metal hoop and net, which replaced a bottomless peach basket, had been introduced only as recently as 1906. Continue reading