1932. The national economic depression was at its worst. President Herbert Hoover, forced to defend his record, was about to receive the worst electoral whipping ever at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt, who promised a New Deal for the American People. But even FDR’s most rabid supporters knew that recovery would take years. And the people who managed tuition-dependent private schools weren’t sure they had years. Williston Academy’s Headmaster Archibald Galbraith (served 1919-1949) was no exception.
To be sure, Williston was in somewhat better shape than some of its competitors. The 1920s had been reasonably good years for fund-raising. When the 1929 crash came, much of the school’s assets were liquid, since Williston was midway through a major construction project. So we were less affected by the implosion of the investment market. The construction of the Recreation Center (see previous post) proceeded on schedule, and the building was opened in 1930. But endowment was nearly nonexistent, and the pool of academically eligible students whose families could afford boarding school was shrinking.
One answer was more aggressive marketing. Gone were the days when a combination of alumni networking and discreet ads in a few prestigious magazines was sufficient to create a viable group of applicants for admission. Galbraith needed to cast his net wider, to appeal to families that perhaps had never considered private schools. Among the products of this re-thinking was a 1932 pictorial pamphlet entitled “Williston Boys at Home.”
The booklet is nearly devoid of text, in contrast to the dry, text-heavy and pictureless Annual Catalogue of the time. It manages to avoid nearly any mention of Williston’s crumbling Old Campus, although more than half the students lived there and all classes met there — in fact, whether through oversight or design, there is no reference to the academic program at all. This Williston is a place of hockey and dancing, theatricals and swimmin’ holes. Times are good. Williston boys are indeed at home.
(“Williston Boys at Home” was generously donated to the Archives in 2008 by Gordon Cronin of Taurus Books, Northampton, MA.)
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.)