Category Archives: Williston Seminary

“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

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

The Confessions of Harlan Mendenhall

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
The Rev. Dr. Harlan G. Mendenhall

In the fall of 1931 the Reverend Dr. Harlan G. Mendenhall, Williston Seminary class of 1870 (Classical), visited the campus.  Aged 80, Mendenhall was considered the “grand old man” of American Presbyterianism, having served in parishes all over the U.S., risen to the highest levels of the New York Presbytery, and was, in 1931, still not retired.    Dr. Mendenhall brought with him a variety of documents from his student days, including a copy of the 1869 Salmagundi, Williston’s first senior yearbook, which he had co-edited, and a scrapbook of his student writings as a member of Adelphi, the school’s literary and debating society.  He also sat down with The Willistonian for an extended interview, reproduced at length in the issue of October 21.  Conversation focused on how the school had changed in more than five decades – and took a surprising turn.

North and Middle Halls in the 1930s. When Mendenhall was a student, North Hall was new. (Click all images to enlarge.)

“Williston in my day was a great deal different than your Williston of today.  North Hall was but a few years old and was all partitioned off into three sections by thick fire walls.  There were no bathrooms nor any central heating system, and in the winter we all had to buy our own coal for our stoves.  We had no school dining room either and had to eat either at fraternity eating places or at the old “Hash Factory” which stood at the corner of Union and High Streets.  It was possible to eat for two dollars a week then.”

“Students were then a great deal older than the fellows at Williston are now.  There was one fellow named Redington who had already graduated from Yale and had come to Williston to study English.   As the boys were older, they were more independent and often used to have revolutions and uprisings of all sorts.”

Lyman W. Redington, class of 1866 and again, 1869. We have found no evidence of anyone else ever completing both the Classical and Scientific curricula, with a year of college separating them.

[Lyman William Redington of Waddington, N.Y. graduated Williston’s Classical Department in 1866.  He completed a year at Yale, left because of eye problems, but returned to Williston and enrolled in the Scientific, a.k.a. English Department, graduating in 1869.  He and Harlan Mendenhall were the founding co-editors of the yearbook Salmagundi in 1869.  He became a newspaper editor in Rutland, Vt., ran unsuccessfully for Governor, took up law, and ultimately became Asst. Corporate Counsel for the City of New York, and a Tammany Hall member of the State Assembly.]

“There was a fellow in school then who had received a check for one hundred dollars from home, and instead of depositing it in the bank, he took it across to Putnam’s Book Store and established a checking account.”

“There came a time when Ballance, that was the boy, [William Henry Ballance, class of 1870] said that he had ten more dollars coming, and Old Put claimed that he had drawn his entire account.  Then Ballance started an association of most of the boys in school swearing not to trade with Put until the ten dollars should be paid.  They formed a big parade and marched down in front of Put’s store and read the constitution and by-laws of the association to him.  Some of the boys carried big banners inscribed ‘No More Trade for Old Put’ and ‘False Weights Against True Ballance.’  The parade then marched over to the gym steps and had its picture taken.” Continue reading

Going to Mount Tom (ca. 1870)

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Abner Davol, class of 1872

Mount Tom — the “great hill” that dominates Easthampton’s eastern skyline — has drawn Williston students since the school’s founding.  Abner Pardon Davol, class of 1872, was no exception.  Davol, a native of Fall River, Mass., entered Williston Seminary in September, 1869, enrolled in the Scientific curriculum.  He graduated in 1872.

Student academic work from the mid-19th century is relatively rare.  But somehow Abner’s essay, “Going to Mt. Tom,” survives in the Williston Northampton Archives.  The manuscript, on both sides of a single folded 8 x 10 inch sheet, is undated.  The writing is not terribly sophisticated, and there is a certain naiveté to some of the content.  My guess is that this was submitted to a weekly English composition class during Abner’s first or second year at Williston.

Here is Abner’s paper.  Readers may click on each image to enlarge it.

Abner Davol, “Going to Mt. Tom,” page 1.

It was, and of course, remains, a distance of just under two miles from the Old Campus on Main Street to the foot of the mountain.  For Abner and friends to have walked the distance and achieved the summit in 80 minutes is quite an accomplishment.

Mt. Tom from Holyoke Street, at the time unpaved. Except for a few farms, the mile between the “factory village” and the foot of the mountain was unpopulated.
Page 2

What were they thinking?  Apparently Abner and his companions decided to descend via the steepest part of the escarpment, just beneath the basalt cliffs, a field strewn with broken shale.  And after sunset.  Contemporary maps confirm that there was a perfectly good road, but perhaps the kids were taking the most direct route from the summit to it.

“Factory village” was the residential area east of Nashawannuck Pond and the factories alongside it.  Town-gown relations were imperfect at this time, but Davol’s concern seems overstated.  It was probably added for dramatic effect, since it is likely that he expected to read his essay to his English class.

Mt. Tom from Nashawannuck Pond, ca. 1880. Then as now, the mountain was irresistible.

After Williston, Abner Davol returned to Fall River, where he became a banker and City Councillor.  He died in 1940, aged 87.