Time Traveling through Williams Alumni History

Lately I’ve taken up time traveling. 

As part of my work leading the archival/storytelling effort for Williams’ upcoming Society of Alumni Bicentennial, I’ve been traveling back through Williams history.

I started for some reason with 1957. I think I may have been trying to pick a year where the debates around fraternities may have been heating up, to look for correspondence from alumni on the topic.

But what I found as I immersed myself in the Alumni Reviews from that year was so much more. Stories of Ephs helping refugees. Wild characters from the past remembered. Stories about the “new athletic craze” of skydiving. Small world stories of Ephs connecting with other Ephs. A funny song dedicated to the Alumni Fund. And over and over again, the theme of change. Exploring what it means to both love an institution and challenge it to be better. 

So I decided this wasn’t going to be a hunt-and-peck endeavor. I would go back to the beginning and look through every Alumni Review, starting with Volume 1, Number 1 in February 1909.

And it’s there right from the start, all of those same themes. Humor. Love. Criticism. Philanthropy. Optimism. Alumni making an impact on the world and on each other in ways both big and small. But most of all, change.

As the inaugural editorial closes:

First and last, we are devoted to Williams College, well pleased as to its present, and optimistic toward its future.

The Williams Alumni Review, February 1909

I’m still not quite sure how I will recap and share this experience here. I could go year by year, but that seems to miss an essential story around topics that echo through the years. I could group by theme, but that will also be challenging given that new content will continuously be revealing itself and adding to those themes. For now, it will be more freeform.

With a decade of Alumni Reviews under my belt, I’m seeing connections to this project everywhere I go. Whether I’m discussing women’s philanthropy and thinking about the women who helped establish Williams’ first endowment, or if I’m listening to an author (Williams alum, obvs) talk about how she brought the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to life in a creative way, parallels are everywhere. Names repeated over the years start to come to life in new ways. In 1913, Phinney Baxter is elected Senior Class President. And we know what happens later – in the 1957 issues I started with he’s President of Williams! 

It’s like I get a chance to live in an alternate timeline.

To close out this first post of what I expect will be an epic series, here are some of the gems from 1957 that captivated me.

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