Sharing Williston Northampton and Local History

Northampton School for Girls — and After

Presented at an all-school assembly, October 11, 2011
by Richard Teller ’70, Archivist

(Note: Annually, and occasionally more often, Williston Northampton students hear a presentation about our shared history.  Campus tradition has named this event “The Button Speech,” even though the subject matter rarely concerns Emily and Samuel Williston and the buttons.  Here is the 2011 Button Speech, presented with the caveat that it was intended to be read aloud to a captive audience of teenagers at an early hour.)

(Another note, June 24, 2017: A while ago it became necessary to take this post down for some minor editing.  This left the blog without a summary history of Northampton School for Girls.  Thus, the text has now been restored to the blog with only minor changes from 2011.)

A captive audience, at an early hour

Good morning. We are at a milestone in school history this fall. The Williston Northampton School is 40 years old.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “This year I actually paid attention at Convocation, and Mr. Hill definitely said it was our 171st year. And what’s all that 1841 stuff about?” And you are absolutely right. Except that was a school with a different name: Williston Seminary. Although it’s the same school. Kind of.

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Prom Night!

The 1914 Senior Promenade, at the Easthampton Town Hall (1914 Log)

It’s prom night — another senior class milestone.  At Williston Northampton, informal tradition has our students dressed and milling around the quad an hour or more before they need to leave for the event.  Being seen is essential.  I know one parent who is driving considerable distance just to view her son in a tux.  Some of us middle aged types are content simply to marvel at how well our kids clean up.

 

 

The 1939 Northampton School prom. Photo by Erik Stahlberg.

The date of the first Williston Seminary senior promenade is unknown, but the tradition goes back at least to 1902.  No decorated gymnasium or road trip to the Log Cabin in those days — the Easthampton Town Hall, right across the street from the Old Campus, had a ballroom.  Northampton School for Girls held their first prom at the Hotel Northampton in 1939.

 

Another view of the prom. Attributed to Caroline Gavin Arnold ’47; donated by Kathryn Wood Lamb ’47.

A colleague recently wondered whether, for all that it is a rite of passage for thousands of high school students, most people have happy memories of their senior proms.  I have no opinion.  In my senior year, 1970, the Williston Academy prom was canceled because of a student strike.  (That’s a topic for another post.)  The 1947 cartoon at left suggests that memories may be mixed.  But I recall a Reunion Weekend conversation a few years ago.  I’d identified a returning alumnus with his date in a prom photograph and showed it to him.  “Wow,” he said.  For a moment, there was a distant look in his eyes.  “I wish I could remember her name.”

Your comments and questions are encouraged!  Please use the space below.

Recent Gifts: White Blazer

Andrea Madsen Gilmore ’70 has presented the Archives with her White Blazer.  It is a gift of special significance, not only because it fills a gap in our collection, but because Ms. Gilmore carefully cherished and preserved it for the 42 years since her graduation.  More formally known as the Sarah B. Whitaker Award, the White Blazer honors the co-founder and co-principal (served 1924-1962) of Northampton School for Girls.  It is one of the two most prestigious prizes awarded to Seniors at Commencement.

The citation for the White Blazer specifies that it “is given to the young woman who has distinguished herself with the greatest contribution to the academic, athletic, and community life of the school while exhibiting exemplary leadership and integrity.”  The origins of the prize go back to the 1920s, when the outstanding Northampton School senior was awarded a White Sweater.  Then, as today, it was awarded by vote of the faculty.  In the ‘thirties the sweater was replaced by a blazer because, as Miss Whitaker noted in her memoir, “styles change.”  The prize was renamed in her honor following her retirement.  (Also shown is 2011 Whitaker Award winner Sarah Fay, receiving her White Blazer from Head of School Robert Hill III at last year’s Commencement.)

Your comments and questions are encouraged!  Please use the space below.

Musings on the Campus Fence

By Richard Teller ’70, Archivist

When I drive to work, I usually come down Brewster Avenue.  As I turn onto Park Street, I see the iconic Class Fence, stretching out of sight in both directions, each section with the date of a graduating class.  170 of them, so far, going back to 1842.

2012’s plaque debuts

It’s a powerful metaphor.  Every class is represented, plus one enigmatic “L.L.D.”  Last night, at the annual Senior Dinner, the Class of 2012 received their number plaque.  There will be many more.  Williston Northampton has a lot of fence left.  For our seniors, the placing of the plaque is the first traditional milestone in joining the rest of us alumni represented by that fence.  (But of course, it isn’t really the first milestone.  Enrolling is.)

The fence dates from 1916, when Headmaster Joseph Sawyer (served 1896-1919), as part of a campaign to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary, challenged every class to meet certain fundraising targets.  Upon achieving them, the class could put its number on the fence.  That’s why the dates are not in order; classes met their goals at different times.  The campaign was 100% successful.  Even those classes which had no surviving members were “adopted” by other alumni groups.  At some point mid-century the tradition changed and classes were awarded plaques at the time they graduated.  From this point the numbers are consecutive.

L.L.D. plaqueAnd the mysterious “L.L.D.”?  They were one of Williston Seminary’s fraternities.  We don’t know much about them; they were a secret society that kept secrets well.  The frats were wisely abolished in 1926-28, but not before the L.L.D. alumni achieved a kind of immortality by pledging and contributing to the fund.

A number of years ago, a student wandered into the Archives.  He had no particular agenda; he’d simply noticed that my door was open, and he’d never been in.  I showed him a couple of things that I thought might be of interest, and let him poke around for a while.  Finally he said, “This might sound strange, but just knowing that this stuff is here makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than just my couple of years at Williston.”

It might have been the best thing any student ever said to me.  And no, it didn’t sound strange at all.

Your comments and questions are encouraged!  Please use the space below.

Sharing Williston Northampton and Local History