Williston Seminary’s first building was the so-called “White Seminary” or “Old Sem.,” erected in 1841. Of neoclassical design, it was built of wood — indeed, it was Samuel Williston’s penultimate wooden structure before his decision to build entirely in brick. (His 1843 mansion, today’s Williston Homestead, was the other.) In 1857 the White Seminary burned to the ground. Two student letters describing the fire survive in the Archives. That of Henry Perry ’58 is reproduced below; another very different account, by Abner Austin ’59, will appear later this summer. The letters are remarkable not only as documents of school life but as reflections of the authors’ personalities.
Henry T. Perry (1838-1930), class of 1858, of Ashfield, Mass., went on to Williams College and Auburn Seminary. He entered the Christian missions and spent most of the years 1866-1913 in Turkey, where he was witness to the Armenian massacres. His biography, Against the Gates of Hell, by Gordon and Diana Severance, was published by The University Press of America in 2003.
“There is so much to be done at school that we often forget to think, to pray, or just enjoy the taste of life. This Student Council is presenting an Angelus bell to the school to remind us all of the need of quiet thought. Traditionally the Angelus is rung as a call to prayer. Our Angelus will be what we make it. There is much to think about in that brief moment of our own. There is world peace to pray for, boys in Korea to be remembered, people at home to be loved, and our own thoughts to be thought. The Angelus will be rung daily to provide a moment of peace in the whirl of activities. It is a small beginning but if eighty girls pause in the middle of rush and confusion to pray and to think, it is a beginning.” – Maria Burgee ‘52 [Maria Burgee Dwight LeVesconte], at the dedication of the Angelus, 1952.
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.
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.
And 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.
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