Category Archives: Faculty

Hélène Cantarella – “Noblesse Oblige”

For a generation of Northampton School for Girls alumnae, the name of Hélène Paquin Cantarella (1904-2000) is one with which to conjure.  Merely to write that she taught Senior English from 1958 to 1969 is to understate her influence.  There is virtual unanimity among her former students that she was the most demanding teacher they ever had (her summer reading syllabus alone exceeded 30 titles), that her conversation, in and out of the classroom, was constantly challenging, that she urged and inspired her students to levels of production and insight of which they had never imagined themselves capable.

Perhaps her students caught only a glimpse of a life fully lived: she was prominent in the Italian anti-fascist movement during the War; taught at Smith College, where she founded the film program; was a prolific, nationally recognized literary critic and translator.

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The Depot

In 1854 Samuel Williston established the Hampshire and Hampden Railroad Company.  He and his longtime business partner, Joel Hayden of Williamsburg, Mass., initially hoped to extend the line as far as Troy, New York, but their realistic concern was to connect Easthampton and Williamsburg, both former villages that were now evolving into factory towns, with what they correctly saw as a rapidly developing national rail grid.

The H. & H.R.R. purchased the route of the defunct Northampton-New Haven Canal, an ill-conceived enterprise that had already lost Samuel a considerable sum.  The project took five years; competing railroads did their best to create obstacles.  Samuel ultimately spent $35,000 of his own money—about $820,000 in current dollars—to see the 24-mile rail spur’s completion.

His biographer, Frank Conant, points out that it was more “a matter of public service rather than for profit.”  But “the day would come when he could board the cars at Easthampton’s nearby depot and arrive in New York City a few hours later.”1

The Easthampton Rail Station in the mid-1950s, shortly before passenger service ceased.

Whether there was an elaborate rail station in the early years, or just a simple shed, has not been determined.  The present building apparently dates from 1871.  In its original state it contained a large waiting room, baggage room, and office for the station master.

The depot appears frequently in Williston Seminary lore: teams and spectators would board “the cars” for travel to away games as far away as Worcester.  The train provided quick access to the entertainment delights of Springfield.  Individual anecdotes describe torchlight processions of departing student “heroes”  down Union Street from the campus.2  Even freight service found its way into legend: witness the tale of William Peck’s double bass, retold in “Williston’s First Orchestra.”

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The Round World Squared

Horace Edward Thorner (1909-1981) taught English at Williston Academy from 1943 to 1970, and served as the school’s Librarian.  For ten years prior to coming to Williston, he was a practicing psychologist.  Such bald biographical data insufficiently describes a multifaceted scholar, collector of and dealer in rare books, antiques, and atrocious puns, coach of the Williston Chess Team, and, simply, a fine teacher.

A prolific author, Thorner’s writings include verse translations of Homer’s Iliad and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a play, The Man Who Shot God, many works of criticism and history, and several volumes of poetry.  He is unique among our faculty for having been an elected fellow of both the Royal Society of London and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

In 1965-66 Thorner, on sabbatical from Williston, traveled around the world.  To supplement, or perhaps supersede, his camera, he carried a notebook in which he recorded his impressions in verse.  These he collected in The Round World Squared (Hawthorne Publications, 1979).  In the introduction he commented, “Each of the poems was written on the spot at the time, proving nothing more, perhaps, than that a man like me does well to keep on moving.”

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The Impossible Mr. Tibbets

There was a time, only a generation or two back, when private schools were expected to have a few Great Eccentrics on their faculties.  In an era when people much more frequently kept the same job for a lifetime, and when residential faculty were discouraged from marrying, schools became, in a sense, havens for a few talented individuals who, for whatever reason, could not or would not easily thrive in outside society.  Williston Seminary was no exception.  Even so, for an unholy combination of inspired teaching and rampant misanthropy, one name stands out.

George Parsons Tibbets taught Mathematics at Williston Seminary from 1890-1926.  Over six feet tall, “a great body topped with a strong face and crowned with a flaming thatch of red hair,” he was “a marked man in any crowd.”  (Holyoke Transcript, April 7, 1926) And that was before one discovered that he had no talent for, or perhaps interest in, what most people considered normal social skills.  Even his best friend and faculty colleague of 36 years, Sidney Nelson Morse, noted – in Tibbets’ eulogy, no less — that he was “at times insistently importunate, imperious, and impertinent.”  “His attitude was a perpetual challenge to all whom he met.”  Tibbets tended to get straight to the point with what he called the “basal virtues” of his argument: “Conversation with him was seldom a smooth and halcyon sea of conventional phrases – there were wrinkles in it, made by the fusillade of his pelting comments.”  (S. N. Morse, Eulogy, corrected typescript and Williston Bulletin, November 1926.)

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