At schools and colleges like Williston Northampton, one eye is necessarily on the future. Difficult as it is to predict the educational needs of the nation and the world a decade or a half-century hence, it is essential to try. As Williston itself very nearly learned in the 19th century, complacency is what closes private schools. It took a Headmaster of exceptional vision and perseverance, Joseph Henry Sawyer (who joined the faculty in 1866 and served as Head from 1896-1919) to break us of the habit of constantly looking backwards.
Details of Sawyer’s campaign for “The New Williston” are for another post. But briefly, it called for the development of the Williston Homestead property – our present campus – as the eventual replacement for the cramped and increasingly obsolete Old Campus in downtown Easthampton. There was a complete re-thinking of the role of the school and faculty in its students’ lives, from a kind of laissez-faire paternalism to active collaboration in academic, athletic, and social activity. To pay for all this, Sawyer sought new funding sources, notably through the then-controversial idea that a Williston education was only the beginning of an alumnus’s lifelong relationship with, and responsibility to, the school.
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.)