In 1918-1919, the final year of Headmaster Joseph Sawyer’s administration, Williston Seminary’s outlook appeared bleak. Sawyer had been Principal since 1896, and on the faculty since 1866. Aged 77, he had been at Williston his entire adult life. Under his leadership, a vision for a different kind of school had evolved, but little had actually been done about it. Much of his effort had been in fund-raising, in which he had little experience, and for which, little taste. He had undertaken significant financial reforms at home. It was working: enrollment had stabilized, the deficits were shrinking, and Ford Hall had been opened in 1916. But the First World War changed everything. Enrollment, and with it income, plunged; deficits soared. Sawyer closed dormitories and tightened belts. Still, by the time the Armistice was signed in November, 1918, only 13 seniors remained. Depressed and in poor health, Sawyer announced his resignation in June 1919, effective as soon as a replacement could be found. (For Sawyer’s story, see Visionary Keeper of the Flame.)
Williston had hired Principals on short notice before. Sawyer himself had been among them. The 1919 timetable appeared open-ended: Sawyer would remain Head, assist with the transition, and then move over to the Board of Trustees. But those who knew him well probably sensed that there wasn’t much time. We are not sure why Archibald Galbraith was approached. Galbraith had been teaching mathematics at the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, for 16 years. Aside from a few years as Athletic Director, and service as a dormitory head, he had relatively little administrative experience. In his own words, he “had no other plan than to continue there.” (GY, 8). But someone must have had good instincts. In July, Trustees Robert P. Clapp ‘75 (for whom the present campus library is named) and John L. Hall ‘90 met with Galbraith and convinced him of the “challenging opportunity for real service, one which [he] believed [he] was able to do.” (GY, 9) Middlesex Headmaster Frederick Winsor was supportive, and in due course, Galbraith accepted the position.
As things transpired, Galbraith would have only one meeting with Sawyer, who by this time was too sick even to move out of the Homestead. Instead, the Galbraiths moved into temporary faculty quarters in Ford Hall. Sawyer lingered a few weeks and died, worn out in service to his school, on November 7, 1919.
Archibald Victor Galbraith was born in Boxford, Mass., in 1877, and grew up in California and in Springfield, Mass. He was an 1895 honors graduate of Springfield High School, attended Harvard, where he concentrated in mathematics, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, and received the Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in 1899. At Harvard he also excelled in athletics, particularly baseball. (According to legend, which Harvard authorities have so far been unwilling or unable to confirm, he was the only Harvard shortstop ever to execute an unassisted triple play.) After graduation he taught and coached at Milton Academy for one year, then three more at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, before he joined the Middlesex faculty. He married Helen McIntosh, of Newton, Mass. in 1905. Arch and Helen spent 1905-06 in Munich, where he pursued graduate courses. They also traveled extensively on the Continent for a year, before returning to Middlesex. They had two sons, Frederic ‘23, and Douglas ‘33.
When Galbraith arrived at Williston, he discovered a school which, in his words, was administratively “not fundamentally different from what it must have been during its formative years.” (GY, 11) For seventy years the Board, largely made up of the Founder’s friends and relations or their descendants, had labored to keep Samuel Williston’s vision alive, even as the educational needs of the country and the expectations of colleges had changed. There had been some migration away from this in recent decades – but certain Trustees were aware that it was not enough. Notably, John L. Hall ‘90, who had initially approached Galbraith, at age 47 represented the youth movement on the Board, while Clapp lived not far from the Middlesex School and may well have known Galbraith socially. They appear to have found a surprise ally in Robert L. Williston ‘88, Samuel Williston’s grand-nephew, but at 50, another relatively young Trustee.
Galbraith inherited a strong faculty, led by Charles A. Buffum (Latin and Greek), Sidney Nelson Morse (English), and the extraordinary George Parsons Tibbets (Mathematics). Several other exceptional teachers were in early or mid-career: George Hero (History), Lincoln D. Grannis (Latin and Greek), Melvin J. Cook (Math), and Earl Nelson Johnston (Science) – the last three are very much alive in the memories of alumni from the thirties and forties. But faculty roles were, by longstanding tradition and preference, largely bounded by the walls of the classroom. Galbraith observed that even Tibbets, innovator though he was, expended most of his attention on his more talented students. Although Sawyer’s writings on “The New Williston” had called for a greater role for the faculty in student life, nothing had been done. The situation was in startling contrast to that at Middlesex.
In Galbraith’s words, “Student extracurricular activities of all sorts, including athletics, were voluntary and had to be self-supporting. They had gradually won a place in school life, almost without exception, initially against the opposition of Trustees and Faculties. Then they were grudgingly tolerated and finally recognized as an inevitable part of school life, and therefore requiring guidance, but never adopted as an integral part of the educational process for which the school management assumed full responsibility.” (GY, 12)
Relations seemed archaically formal: students and faculty were addressed, respectively, as “Mister” and “Professor,” and there was practically no social interaction outside of class. At Middlesex, by comparison, both married and single faculty lived in the dorms and mingled freely; the whole school took meals together; people called one another by name. “Large family,” noted Galbraith; “Williston would benefit from such informal friendliness and from the atmosphere of a common interest.” (GY, 12) A change of culture became a priority for reform.
But the first order of business was to determine how many students were expected that Fall. And here was the one place where all seemed woefully informal! Williston’s practice had been to enroll whoever turned up at the beginning of a term. In 1918-19, enrollment had been a mere 130. Much to everyone’s surprise, with the end of the war, 220 arrived in September, many of them veterans planning to complete high school. While this magically erased an anticipated budget deficit, it also meant scrambling to find additional staff and to reopen the dormitory Sawyer had closed.
New students were expected to present academic credentials and letters asserting their good character, but there was no program of selective admission; rather, applicants were admitted on trial. It was soon apparent that too many were not up to the task. In that first year, Galbraith’s reforms made it clear that academics were to be a priority. Study hours were better supervised, extra study time was made available to students who needed it, and a faculty committee was charged with examining diploma requirements. From this emerged a new policy: that since Williston’s traditional role was that of a college preparatory school, the standard for passing should meet the entrance requirements of the leading colleges. Does this seem obvious in 2021? It was not so in 1919. Typically, only a portion of a graduating class actually met Williston’s stated diploma requirements, while a minority satisfied college entrance standards. (Yes, many more went on to college. That is what old-boy networks were for.)
Galbraith demanded that his new model be in place by the 1920-21 academic year. Inevitably, a second existential reform was needed: that “Admission to the school should be limited to those candidates who showed sufficient promise in intelligence, character, and ambition to meet college requirements.” (GY, 17) It took several years to gradually bring this about. Better attention paid to transcripts from previous schools, the use of recommendations, standardized aptitude and intelligence testing (a new concept at the time), Williston’s own entrance examinations and placement tests, and personal interviews on campus all became part of the process. We were becoming the college preparatory school we had long claimed to be.
Galbraith also set about reducing class sizes, typically 30-45 students in a section. That might have been fine under the old lecture-and-recitation regime, but even some of the faculty old-timers had progressed to something more Socratic and interactive. In groups that large, it was difficult to give sufficient attention to everyone, especially to a struggling student. By degrees, the faculty was enlarged to the point where classes of 12-15 became the norm. The curriculum continued to evolve, with the addition of elective courses in all departments. The old Scientific and Classical divisions were finally phased out by 1933; students now pursued comprehensive programs that balanced college expectations with personal interests and aptitudes.
Perhaps to their own surprise, the faculty responded with enthusiasm. Certainly it was more enjoyable to teach students who actually did well, and to give proper attention to those who needed a push. There may also have been a sense of “it’s about time.” But such reforms require money. Now the historically conservative Board was surprisingly, and consistently, enthusiastic. One reason is that Galbraith projected optimism. There is an oft-repeated anecdote, one which this writer has not yet pinned down, that at a Trustee meeting in which Galbraith had stunned the room with a vastly ambitious proposal, he had exclaimed, “Gentlemen, it can be done!” But such was the force of his personality and the underlying feeling that everything he was suggesting made sense, that inevitably, it was done.
No doubt it was this intangible that had intrigued the Board when they selected Galbraith in the first place. For most mortals, integrity is something to which we aspire. Galbraith wore his like a comfortable suit of clothes. He projected it, to the extent that this writer’s father, who had known Galbraith well, recalled that “Arch Galbraith was the man of the greatest integrity I have ever met.” (Henry Teller, Convocation Address, September 23, 1983)
For there were other reforms to be addressed. Facilities in the new dormitory, Ford Hall, were practically luxurious – large rooms, central heating, and in-dorm dining. This was in marked contrast to the situation on the Old Campus, where student residences were largely unchanged since the 1860s: coal stoves, not even indoor plumbing. There was no dining hall for Old Campus students, who took their meals in local boarding houses and hotels. True, Ford students paid more for the privilege of living there, but that didn’t sit terribly well with Galbraith, either. Prospective students who compared Williston’s primitive facilities with those elsewhere were easily tempted away.
Once again, the Board was convinced to raise and spend the money. Indoor toilets were installed in North and South Halls by the opening of school in 1920. The provision of adequate adult supervision of the residence halls was another challenge. The buildings had been constructed with vertical partitions that did not permit passage. Each was, in essence, several self-contained abutting structures with individual external entrances. (Could this have been for fire suppression? Having lost one Seminary building and a church to the flames, it had certainly been one of Samuel Williston’s concerns.) In 1921 corridors were cut through the partitions, so that the Housemaster and his assistants, whose apartments were at the rear of the building, could be a presence during study and social hours. The whole dynamic of dormitory life changed.
In 1919, Williston purchased a boarding house on Union Street to use as a dining hall for Old Campus residents, and engaged a dietician. This still proved unsatisfactory, so dining facilities were consolidated with those of the Williston Junior School in Easthampton’s former grand hotel, Payson Hall. These arrangements remained in force until the Old Campus was closed in 1951.
One marked difference in Galbraith’s style was his eagerness to consult. Sawyer had never been terribly comfortable with sharing and comparing. In contrast, immediately upon accepting his position, Galbraith joined the Headmaster’s Association of the United States, a group of 100 secondary school heads dedicated to discussing ideas about best practices, concerns, and trends in education. Galbraith commented that he also enjoyed the fellowship of shared experience (GY, 19); being the chief executive of any organization, even a school, can be a lonely job. One had to look no further than Joseph Sawyer to be reminded of that.
Conversation among Galbraith’s Headmaster’s Association colleagues helped shape Williston’s social transformation. The first challenge was to redefine the role of athletics. Physical education had been integral to Williston culture since Samuel Williston’s time. The school’s gymnasium (1864) had been the first of its kind in any secondary school. Williston and his friend Dr. Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College had devised a pioneering physical education program for all students. But over the years this had evolved to an emphasis on team sports, notably baseball, track, and football. The school provided coaches, but no other financial or organizational support. Varsity teams tried to be self-perpetuating, but there were no lower “training” or “junior varsity” clubs. The only subsidies the teams received were through admission charges to games. By the time Galbraith arrived, the greater portion of students was involved in no formal program of exercise at all.
Galbraith felt that a return to physical education for all was essential. He was supported by reports from the Armed Services that during the War, the physical conditioning of a large proportion of recruits had been abysmal. Gally had no interest in continuing the school’s program of military drill, but he was determined that every student would be engaged in physical activity appropriate to his skills and interest. The school took over the funding and management of all athletics. Lower-level teams were created in the major sports. They had their own names and uniforms, and played teams of equivalent skill from other schools. Younger and less experienced boys could acquire the skills that might someday promote them to varsity level. Gradually, other sports were added: soccer, ice hockey, tennis, and when indoor facilities were opened in 1930, squash and intramural swimming. Galbraith eventually included the ability to swim in the graduation requirements, while encouraging strong swimmers to qualify for Red Cross lifesaving certification.
All this meant a change in faculty responsibilities, for most teachers were now expected to coach at some level. That included the Headmaster, who coached football and was head coach of the new hockey and tennis programs. (Given his longtime interest in sports, one doubts that Gally saw this as much of a burden.) Another fundamental change was in the works: For decades the academic week had placed classes comfortably in midmorning and midafternoon, five days a week plus Saturday mornings, with study, meals, and chapel time arranged around them. There was little time for teams to practice in daylight. Under the new regime, classes started earlier in the day and were over by midafternoon, allowing appropriate time for practice. Wednesdays and Saturdays were half-days, with games in the afternoon. A century later, that’s still what we do.
For all his enthusiasm for athletics, Galbraith was committed to the idea of an almost cultlike amateurism in school sports. Winning games was satisfying, but participation was supposed to be its own reward. This occasionally produced friction. The undefeated 1947 football team was invited to a post-season playoff against Albany Academy, in another prep school league. Half a century later, alumni team members gathering to dedicate a Sawyer Field memorial to one of its members, Lindy Hanson, expressed a certain resentment that Headmaster Galbraith had adamantly refused. That was not what Williston sports were about. Playoffs put a premium on results, rather than play or character. The alumni recalled that Gally had been by no means unsympathetic, but he was unwavering. His integrity had asserted itself once again, and students knew better than to challenge it.
During the 1920s Galbraith was also reshaping the school’s social organization, moving faculty into advisory roles for clubs and publications. He and Helen began a tradition of “open houses” at the Homestead, where faculty and students could gather more-or-less informally, and to which young ladies from Easthampton, local girls’ boarding schools, or freshmen from Smith and Mt. Holyoke might be invited. He expressed concern about morale and discipline: for too many years, particularly during Dr. Sawyer’s decline, there had been a tendency to treat school rules as “irksome limitations on freedom and therefore to be cavalierly disregarded.” (GY, 25) Regulations were revised to address what was perceived as reasonable and necessary. To invest students in the idea that good order rose from a partnership among all concerned, the Student Council was to have a role in advising and proctoring.
But here was a problem. For decades, the social life of the school had been in the none-too-clean hands of six fraternities. Their representatives comprised the Student Council. It was a culture based on social class, secrecy, exclusion, and flouting of the rules, with traditions of hazing and bullying built into the mix. For a long time the faculty had been aware of this, but no one seemed to know what to do. Galbraith did. By 1926, after much negotiation with students and alumni, he had convinced all six frats not merely to leave campus, but to dissolve. It must have been a difficult negotiation, but the force of Galbraith’s personality was such that, as John Dignam ‘47 once told this writer, “you never won an argument with him, but you went away convinced that you’d been treated fairly.”
Strong enrollment, the postwar investment bubble, and revived energy and commitment on the Board of Trustees, were such that Williston’s deficits were completely retired by 1927. It was time to look forward. Such a new outlook needed a new name. For eight decades we had been Williston Seminary. But the generally understood meaning of “Seminary” had changed. Most people now thought of a Seminary as a religious school. Despite our Protestant roots, we were not. Furthermore, to some, the name “Seminary” suggested a girl’s school. Williston had been a stubborn bastion of testosterone for 50 years. (See “A Perfect Paradise on Earth.”) The final straw may have come when Harvard returned a student’s application with the suggestion that “she” apply to Radcliffe. In 1924 we were re-incorporated as Williston Academy.
Samuel and Emily Williston had willed the Homestead property to the school with the proviso that at least one new building be built there. Half a century passed before Ford Hall met that requirement. It was time for another. There was a pressing need for a modern indoor athletic facility that would also provide space for social activity. The onetime state-of-the-art Old Gymnasium was obsolete. Galbraith and the Board turned to Boston architect James MacNaughton, class of 1909, who designed a spectacularly innovative new building. The Recreation Center contained a basketball court, pool, squash courts, and modern bathing and dressing facilities; also an art gallery, portable stage, kitchen, and the Cleveland Dodge Room, a gorgeous paneled meeting room and library. Conceptually, the building was every bit as cutting-edge as the Old Gym had been in 1863. Today, as the Reed Campus Center, it anchors the south side of the Quad.
Funds were committed, construction began, and the school was able to open the building in time for the 1930 senior prom. Happily, it had been paid for before October, 1929, when the stock market crashed, plunging the United States and the world into an economic depression from which it would take a decade to emerge.
But in the 1920s, Galbraith envisioned a truly radical plan. The original buildings on Main Street were obsolete, and the property left no room for expansion. Ford Hall residents’ leisurely walk to and from the Old Campus several times a day was inefficient at best. Meanwhile, the Homestead property was huge, mostly empty, and very much a blank canvas. Why not consolidate operations on Park Street? So along with the Recreation Center design, James MacNaughton was commissioned to draw up a master plan for a single campus, of which the Recreation Center and Ford Hall would be the first elements. The target date for the move was the school’s centennial in 1941. The Depression and World War II intervened, but the plan remains. Elements can be seen at “The Campus that Never Was.”
The Depression years took their toll, but Williston entered them in a somewhat better position than many peer schools. Maintaining enrollment was a challenge; while there had been 199 students in 1929, the low point came in 1934, when there were only 134. However, with careful managent, there were only two years that ended with financial deficits. Galbraith hired the school’s first Registrar (Director of Admission), James H. Shepardson, who could devote all his energies to enrollment, previously the province of the Head and an assistant. In a major change, he also appointed Williston’s first Business Manager, Warren B. Watters, who brought expertise formerly not available outside the Board. One of Watters’ first successes was to associate Williston with a consortium of Eastern boarding schools, whose combined purchasing power saved precious funds.
Money was found to expand the campus. In 1928 the school was in the process of converting three houses on Main Street as a new home for the Junior School, since 1916 housed in Payson Hall. Despite the crash, the project was able to go forward, so that in 1930, the Junior School was relocated to what is now called the Main Street Quadrangle. The increased number of teams was more than could be accommodated on Sawyer Field and the Old Campus. In 1938 Williston purchased a large tract of land off Taft Avenue, to be known as Galbraith Field, addressed issues of leveling and drainage (adjustments to the latter remained a work in progress for several decades), and created several playing fields, including a permanent baseball diamond.
Williston Academy celebrated its centennial in June 1941. It was an optimistic affair, but subdued. World War Two had already engulfed much of the rest of the world. Many felt it inevitable that the United States would be drawn into the conflict, as indeed it was six months later. Plans to move to the new campus remained on hold. Ultimately, it would be left to Galbraith’s successor, Phillips Stevens, to bring them to fruition in 1951, by which time the MacNaughton concept had necessarily evolved. Enrollment remained relatively stable during the War, but students were anxious to accelerate their graduations and enlist. One incentive to stay in school was that the Armed Forces did not permit anyone without a high school diploma to qualify for officer training. In 1943, Galbraith established a summer session, so that students could graduate sooner. Williston also provided dormitory and classroom facilities for a U. S. Naval flight school headquartered at LaFleur Airport in Northampton. Several faculty, including Galbraith, taught mathematical and technical subjects in this program.
Archibald Galbraith retired in June, 1949, having served for 30 years. He presented his successor, Phillips Stevens, with a balanced budget and, perhaps more importantly, a commitment to growth and improvement that had remained undiminished through 20 years of economic retrenchment, wartime, and postwar recovery. It was a commitment that Stevens shared.
Gally, in robust health at 72, turned some of his attention to his bridge and golf games, but had no plans for an idle retirement. Having served on the Board of Northampton’s Clark School for the Deaf since 1930, he became their President, served on several other boards, and assumed leading roles in the Rotary Club and Community Chest. He continued his close association with Williston, perhaps – although it was never said openly – at less distance than Headmaster Stevens might have preferred.
Helen Galbraith died in 1957. The following year, Gally married Martha Dickinson, who had come to Williston in 1913 as a live-in nurse for Mrs. Joseph Sawyer. (Martha actually appears in the 1915 groundbreaking photo in the Ford Hall post.) Martha had remained with Mrs. Sawyer until her death in 1927, inherited the Sawyer furniture, and remained a campus neighbor throughout Arch Galbraith’s tenure. It was inevitable that she and the Galbraiths would become close friends – Martha, in fact, regularly crossed the street to assist Gally and Helen with Homestead social events. It may have been Martha who suggested the mixed-gender Sunday socials described earlier. At 75, she had never been married. She and Gally traveled extensively, until his death, aged 95, on Christmas Day, 1971. Martha also wrote several memoirs of her years at Williston, which we may someday reproduce on this blog. She continued to be a campus presence until her own passing, appropriately on her way to a Williston Northampton Commencement, in 1979.
Longevity of service may not always be a virtue, but Williston was fortunate in having only three Principals or Headmasters in a span of 75 years. Joseph Sawyer (1896-1919), Archibald Galbraith (1919-1949), and Phillips Stevens (1949-1972) were each here long enough to reshape the school’s mission, envision a future, and leave their successors with the tools to bring that future about. Few institutions have had that luxury.
And if Archibald Galbraith needs an epitaph, in these cynical times, what could be better than to repeat,
“He was the man of the greatest integrity I have ever met.”
GY: Archibald Galbraith, The Galbraith Years, 1919-1949. Easthampton, Mass.: Williston Academy, 1963.