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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Anyone familiar with Easthampton in the ’40s through the ’60s is likely to recall a taciturn gentleman with an easel and paintbox, often engaged in capturing a town landmark or rural scene. Albert Kiesling (1885-1968) was born in Clinton, Mass., and moved to Easthampton to work in the textile mills. He was a protégé and friend of the American expressionist painter Oscar F. Adler (1868-1932), another Clinton native. In fact, Kiesling and Adler often painted the same scenes together.
In the summer of 2016, Easthampton CityArts+, in association with Albert Kiesling’s family, mounted an exhibition and sale of a large group of his paintings, at the Mill Arts Project (MAP) Gallery at Eastworks in Easthampton. The following video, from Easthampton Media, is an excellent introduction to Kiesling’s work. (Alumni from certain eras may recognize some of the people interviewed.)
There are five known Kiesling paintings of Williston scenes. One had been on campus since 1945. Following the CityArts+ exhibit, Williston Northampton was able to obtain the other four, through a combination of alumni generosity and purchases. They are:
The Old Gymnasium
The Old Williston Seminary Gym, with its distinctive tower, was built in 1864, the first free-standing athletic building in any American secondary school. It stood on High Street, at the rear of the original Williston campus. Rendered largely obsolete by the construction of the Recreation Center (now the Reed Campus Center) in 1930, it was razed following the school’s consolidation onto the present campus in 1951. Kiesling painted the scene in 1952. Williston Northampton was able to acquire the painting through the generosity of Patricia Zavorski Coon ’61. This painting currently hangs in the office of the Director of Athletics.
The Button Mill
The painting of the original Williston Button Mill, Easthampton’s first factory building, was commissioned in 1945 by Charles Johnson, class of 1875, Treasurer of Easthampton Savings Bank, and presented to the school by the Class of 1905, one of whose members, Guy Richard Carpenter, was instrumental in tracking down and preserving many of the documents and memorabilia that now comprise the Williston Northampton Archives. The building, which still stands on Union Street, was erected in 1846-47. One of the workers’ tenement houses beyond the mill also remains, now home to the Easthampton Diner. Kiesling added a couple of historical touches to the background: the spire of the Payson (now Easthampton Congregational) Church and, in front of it, Williston’s original (1841) White Seminary building. This painting hangs in the front parlor of the Head of School’s Residence.
The Old Campus
This undated painting now hangs in the Advancement Conference Room in the Williston Homestead. Purchased in 2016 via the Archives Fund, it shows the pre-1951 campus from the intersection of Main and Union Streets, from the vantage point of the Congregational Church’s front lawn. The buildings, from right, are South, Middle, and North Halls. All these structures were torn down after the move to the New Campus in 1951, but a portion of the distinctive iron fence remains in place. Also visible are the Maher Fountain, which remains today, and the First Congregational Church, which succumbed to fire in 1929.
In the mid-19th century, Hill’s Mansion House was Easthampton’s grand hotel. Even then, it housed Williston students able to pay the premium rates. The huge wooden building stood at the top of the hill on the corner of Main and Northampton Streets. In the early 20th century, when the hotel business had fallen off, the school bought the building and renamed it Payson Hall. It was used as a dormitory, dining commons, and for many years, the home of the Williston Junior School. From the early 1950s on the structure, in increasingly fragile condition, hosted inexpensive apartments. It burned in the early 1970s. Kiesling’s 1963 painting, part of the 2016 purchase, is now in the office of the Director of Alumni Engagement.
The Williston Birthplace
Here the subject is the Payson Williston parsonage, also known as “The Birthplace,” on Park Street, opposite the Homestead. Dated 1968, thus one of Kiesling’s last paintings, this seems less successful than the others – something in the perspective is not quite right. The artist has set the building well back from the road and included a nonexistent mountain. Also part of the 2016 purchase, this painting presently hangs in the Williston Birthplace, now a faculty residence.
Finally, if you watched thevideo, you’ll recall that Kiesling was also an enthusiastic creator of snow sculpture, often of epic proportions. On Saturday, February 10, as part of the 5th Annual Easthampton Winterfest, the Nashawannuck Pond Steering Committee will host the First Annual Albert Kiesling Snow Art Competition. Please click the link for details!