“First Lady of Williston” Sarah Stevens left us on February 9, aged 99 (read her obituary here). At a memorial service in the Williston Chapel on Saturday, August 13, Ellis Baker delivered the following remarks. Mr. Baker graduated Williston Academy in 1951, returned to teach English, 1957-1961 and 1966-2000, and was Director of the Williston Theatre.
Talking about Phil and Sarah Stevens separately is impossible … at least for me, since I knew them both from the time they arrived at Williston in 1949, Phil as Headmaster and I as an upper middler (11th grader), both new kids on the block . Actually, I had been there earlier, too, from age 10 in grade 6 in 1944 through grade 8 in 1947, through the end of the war years, in the Williston Junior School. And the distinguished Galbraith Years were soon to end. The end of an era. The beginning of another.
Phil Stevens had been hired to reconstitute Sam Williston’s school physically, to remove it from its once elegant but deteriorating 100-year-old downtown campus to the half finished “new campus” out Park Street where Samuel Williston’s farm and Homestead had been—and where in the 1920’s and 30’s Ford Hall and the “new gym” had been built before the Depression and World War II years. The problem now was: Phil had to move the school with precious few remaining funds, especially owing to Samuel’s ill-advised late-in-life bad business decisions in the 1870s, to which Emily Williston had objected to no avail and which ultimately had sapped the funds meant to endow Sam’s school. Sam had gone ahead without her approval, which he had never done before, she being the one with an uncanny head for business. He lost nearly everything. Until then, they had been the perfect team, and history has spoken of Sam and Emily in one breath.
For Phil and Sarah, the new 100-years-later team, the going was tough, but they had wasted no time, and at the end of their first year in 1950, we had a ceremonial celebratory parade through town carrying beds and desks and chairs and suitcases and bureaus to the modernistic new square brick edifice along Payson Avenue to be known as Memorial Dormitory, as yet surrounded by a sea of mud and construction debris. A dreary beginning, but it was the best Phil could do with too little money … certainly a stylistic departure from the Classical and Georgian … but that’s what you get when the money annually runs dry. You learn to get by. For classrooms and a library and labs and offices, even a chapel, Phil had renovated three 19th century factory buildings languishing at the edge of the campus by the railroad tracks. They would have to do. Given that Sam’s original button factory still stood a block and a half away, this 19th century factory connection seemed not inappropriate for this school “founded on a button.”
Sadly, the old campus was sold off and torn down, including the historic gymnasium with its iconic Italianate tower. Gone were the baseball field, tennis courts, North Hall, Middle Hall, and South Hall; and across the Main Street green, gone was Payson Hall, originally the Mansion House, if memory serves me properly, a hotel/rooming house, then serving as a dormitory and the school’s dining hall; and gone were the playing fields behind the dormitories where bonfires with crowds gone crazy had, just a few years before marked, the end of World War II, celebrations which I remember well to this day. In their places: Ed’s Foodland, two banks, an insurance agency, a dentist’s office, a Laundromat, a law office, and dumpsters … “beautifying” the center of town. The price of progress.
In relocating the School, Phil and Sarah undoubtedly intended to honor the founder’s wishes to make available educational advantages for young people, boys and girls, advantages unavailable in Sam’s youth in the Connecticut River valley, advantages for which he had walked to Andover to the Academy there to study. When his eyes gave out, making his own education no longer possible, born was his dream of a school like Andover for Easthampton. Phil and Sarah were determined to carry on Samuel’s dream.
The neighbors of Payson Avenue, Park Street, Payson Lane, Brewster Avenue, and Main Street may well have been concerned by the school’s continuing development in their front, back, and side yards. Sarah Stevens understood this, so she became Phil’s eyes and ears in the community, as Emily apparently had once been for Sam, undoubtedly staying tuned to the neighbors’ anxieties as they saw bricks and mortar replacing yet more of the genteel lawns and gardens—and the putting green—of the Williston Homestead and farm. Sarah knew they had to be good neighbors. It is clear to me that Sarah—the smart Smith College graduate that she was—knew that if the school was to survive this changeover, it had to be embraced again by the town which had spawned it in 1841. She cared. Surrounded by that community, Sarah set out to build bridges. She identified with those in it. She became an important figure in Sam Williston’s Congregational church downtown, taught Sunday School, became involved with the PTA in town, and with the school’s immediate neighbors, and in time deeply involved with the academy’s activities, faculty and staff families, and students … especially as Den Mother extraordinaire to legions of Williston boys, at the head of the table at dining hall dinners, iconic braids and all, surrogate mom. A generation or more of Williston boys have considered Sarah their adored surrogate Mom, annually celebrating her ever since at reunions both on and off campus until she died just shy of 100. Because Sarah had cared. We were family. Importantly, Sarah was proof that Phil cared.
And when young neighbor Gordon Gilbert fell from the bridge over Williston Pond and, unable to swim, drowned, Sarah and Phil opened the Williston pool to the town’s children, providing them swim lessons and a safe place to play and swim, thus binding town and gown further. The 1950’s were a make and break time for our school. Together, they made it.
So, who comprised the Stevens’ immediate neighborhood? These are names some of you will know: The Donais …Doc (for many years the school’s doctor) and Roma, Hank, Harriet and Paul; The Torreys … with David and Marcia; the Strongs and son David; the Lussiers , the Gilberts, the Dempseys, the Diamonds, the Bauers, the Felsens, the Pitchers, the MacIntoshes, the Hepworths, the Manchesters, the Bridges, the Hatches, the Kistlers, the Snyders, the Whitneys, the Adamses, and lastly but not leastly, the Curtises … with their three, Barbara, Dick, and Jeff. Now an aside: Dick (now 70, to whom I taught 9th grade English in 1959-60) and Jeff were to become my brothers-in-law, as I married their older sister Barbara in this Chapel forty-nine years ago last week. 1967. At Sarah’s suggestion to Barbara, Sarah and Phil had generously opened their house to Barbara and me, housing the bride and her bridesmaids and hosting our wedding reception. Picture this: that sometimes austere once teacher-then-businessman-turned-headmaster (who had given me my first teaching job in 1957), making the rounds of that reception, sleeves rolled up, a bottle of champagne in each hand, keeping our guests’ cups full, an image we have cherished since.
For Barbara–who had often been the Stevens’ baby sitter yet one of the neighborhood kids enjoying cookies and donuts in Sarah’s kitchen–for Barbara, Sarah was not a distant lady in the big white house on the corner a block away. Rather, she was that mother who embraced all the kids of the neighborhood and school, including six of her own—Flip, Peter, David, Jonathan, Ruth, and Tim—Mrs. Stevens, wife of Headmaster Stevens, majorly involved in town and school life, known as the lady who had teamed up with her husband, as Emily had with Samuel Williston 100 years before, to build a new school and make it central to the corporate image of the town. Clearly, neither man could have done it alone without the woman at his side.
Finally, for me, deeply imbedded in my career of theatrical memories is that of Sarah playing Sir Thomas More’s wife Alice in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons on the Williston Theatre Stage … Fall, 1966. Sarah, herself a woman for all seasons, created an elegant and powerful portrayal of Alice More in what was a moving, unforgettable, truly triumphant performance.
So I am grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to the lady who was at the elbow of Phil Stevens, steering him—as we all suspected she did—softening him, making the school for many, more of a home away from home. Decades of boys had called Phil “The Pin”—“Kingpin”—but we all knew that his beautiful lady was his “lynch-pin,“ truly the Queen Pin!
And so it is with great fondness—Barbara joining me in this—that we remember Sarah Wallis Stevens.