Today Williams announced it is ending in-person classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My heart breaks for the seniors missing out on their final semester, and all of the students. (And selfishly for me, as my final EC meeting in April is off as well.)

But one thing I’ve gained by living in two timelines, the present and the past as experienced through archived issues of the Alumni Review, is a sense of perspective.

Flashback to the October 1918 Alumni Review:

The entire issue is fascinating, as Williams navigates the height of World War I, but I’ll highlight one section here, Cedit Armis Toga.

The last two paragraphs echo Maud’s sentiments for the students, especially the seniors.

For the boys, of course, the change in the order of things constitutes an upheaval of supreme importance. At a blow almost the whole elaborate system of so-called “college activities” was swept away. Fraternities, musical and dramatic clubs, publications, with all their scores of officers, imposing letter heads, balances and deficits, were thrown into the discard for the duration of the war. Athletics succeeded in gaining recognition through the training merits of football, but the traveling privileges for the team are cut to a minimum, necessitating a radical abridgement of the game schedule of normal years. Journalism, for the sake of the record of these memorable times, is promised a revival through the generous enthusiasm of our academic students, but the “Lit,” the “Cow,” the “Record” and the “Gul” are awaiting Gabriel’s trumpet in a state of suspended animation. Along upper Main Street a dismal row of closed fraternity houses repels the visitor, who must go to the Red Triangle rooms in Jesup Hall if he wants to find the boys in their leisure hours.. No daily chapel, no hurrying laggards at recitation hours (for everybody marches to classes in regular formation, no North Adams “parties,” no time for anything but work, except from Saturday noon to Sunday night.

And how do they stand it? Why, like the soldier and sailor boys they are ! These young men have laid aside the easy robes of college life, they are under military orders, wearing the uniform and eager to go forth under the Stars and Stripes to the place where the Big Fight is. They have got into a sterner game, into a broader, more democratic life than was easily possible here before the war, they are less like boys and more like men. Perhaps, when peace comes and the American colleges open up their doors, this time of martial training will be found to have left its imprint upon the young men of our country who enter the classrooms again to complete the mental training which was interrupted by the war. Perhaps they will have a more erect bearing, a more alert and respectful attitude, a more democratic ideal of campus life, a sweeping disregard for over-organization, fraternity politics, and pettiness in general— who knows ? But, for the present, suffice it to say that Mars is in the ascendant. Cedit armis toga— the toga yields to arms.

Only time will tell how this period of upheaval impacts this generation of students.

A few other incidents of school closure have popped up in my research so far, though of a less serious nature.

Paralysis Epidemic Postpones Start of School – October 1916

Water Shortage Closes Williams – April 1918

Note: As of this posting I’ve only reviewed 1909-1933 and 1957-1959. I will update this post with other examples as I come across them.

As Maud closes her letter:

We are about to confirm—if reluctantly and for unwelcome reasons—that Williams is more than a campus. Williams is all of us. And we will find ways to connect and thrive and celebrate our connections despite even these most unprecedented challenges.

I believe we will. We always have.

Till the cows come home.

72-Hour House Parties

The early years of the Review quickly settle into a reliable routine, recapping the familiar markers of campus life during that era. Phi Beta Kappa inductions, what Cap and Bells is working on, Gargoyle selections, faculty lectures and freshman teas, student elections and editorships. And always a delightful bit about House Parties.

The first thing that caught my eye was “limited to 72 hours.” LIMITED. These kids did not mess around.

Travel back to 1909…

You may think this whole 72-hour houseparty limit is a joke. But, think again. (June 1909)
“Doing their best to keep awake for the 72-hour limit” (February 1910)
Wait, why is “Exams” in quotes? (February 1912)
Too heavy a schedule, indeed. (February 1916)

Freshman Are Little Fellows

I did a double take the first time these stats caught my eye. Here’s how four classes from the 1910s measured up.

They used to publish what now in the Alumni Review? (December 1911)
Freshmen Are Little Fellows (December 1912)
Well after last year’s class, of course they look good. (December 1913)
“Surpasses it in development” – going to steal that euphemism for aging (February 1915)

Up in a Balloon, Boys!

As I mentioned at the outset, I started this project by reviewing Alumni Reviews from the late 1950s. One thing that struck me was the novelty of new sports and outdoor pursuits popping up time and again – from skydiving, rappelling, and spelunking to the arrival of wheel skis and a possible predecessor to the game of Ultimate Frisbee (we’ll get to that later).

So when I went back to the beginning, you can imagine my delight when just one year into my exploration, 1910 brought me tales of the early days of aeronautics at Williams!

The whole read is quite a ride in and of itself. So what happened next?

We’re always throwing out the old, “Did you know the first intercollegiate baseball game ever played was between Williams and Amherst?” (no need to name the victor)

For the sake of variety, why not offer up that Williams was also a participant in the first intercollegiate balloon race on June 3, 1911?

Henry P. Shearman, Class of 1911 (I really need to figure out how I’m going to consistently abbreviate and note class years now that we have the ’11s of the past and the ’11s of today) and the pilot of that first intercollegiate balloon race, went on to continue his ballooning career at least for a little while – his first class notes submission post-graduation in the October 1911 issue of the Review celebrates his solo balloon flight.

The Greek Chorus Takes the Stage

And so it begins…

The functions of the Review, as they appear at the outset, are mainly these: to present in brief form a resume of the more important features of the daily life at Williams; to discuss the conditions and tendencies of that life from an alumni standpoint; and to maintain an efficient department of alumni news. Other functions may be added to these in course of time, such as the printing of correspondence of graduates, or the securing of articles on special topics by competent authorities, but the aim will always be to publish a paper by and for the alumni of Williams College.

Our attitude will be, in all probability, much like that of a chorus in a Greek play — taking notice of the actions going forward on the stage, commenting upon them now and then, but never (to use an expressive slang phrase) “butting in.”

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

On the 50th anniversary of this publication, the son of this publication’s original editor will take stock of how well it has delivered on its mission to date, revisiting the Greek chorus metaphor in a lovely, very Williams way. But we’ll get to that later.

The Editor wishes to return thanks for the words of commendation and kindly criticism which have come to him since the issuing of the first number of the Williams Alumni Review. To those who have sent us items of alumni news we are especially grateful. To make this department of the paper a success we must depend largely upon the help received from Williams alumni everywhere, and to this fact we beg once more to call the attention of our readers. We do not expect, however, to subordinate unduly the statement and discussion of the College news; our object is to make the Review a means of keeping Williams graduates in touch with the College and with each other.

What starts as a handful of pages of news in the early issues will steadily grow, eventually meriting a split into an entire publication of its own, Williams People.

The steadily increasing circulation of the Review, not only by reason of the growing enrolment of the Alumni Athletic Association (whose members receive the magazine in return for their annual dues), but because of new subscriptions from the general body of the alumni, is a source of sincere gratification to those concerned in the conduct of the undertaking. If this broader field means the beginning of a closer touch of Williams men with each other and with the College, to a mutual and lasting benefit, the career of the Review has thus far been not in vain.

As the first year closes out, the editor expresses his appreciation of this taking hold. As do I.

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.

Meeting Senator Murphy


Tonight I had the chance to spend some time with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT).  It was my first time attending a political fundraiser, and my attendance was in no small part driven by the fact that he is a fellow Williams alum (and rugger!).

I am an unabashed fan of Ephs succeeding in the world. Textbook basking in reflected glory, I suppose. And so in addition to fangirling for Tim Layden stories on SI and eagerly streaming each Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It episode, I’ve followed Senator Murphy on Twitter for a while, always happy to see what seemed to be a real person coming through.

When you meet people in real life, there’s always the risk of finding out that it was all a façade. That without the scripts, or the ability to edit, people won’t live up to your expectations.

And so it was great to meet Chris and come away feeling that he is exactly who he seems to be. A little funny and a little angry, but mostly determined, hard-working, sincere, optimistic, and above all genuine.

Chris opened the dialogue with the concept that American history has always been the story of two steps forward, one step back. At one point someone asked about the frustration of dealing with morally bankrupt Republicans, and the discussion included something to the effect of: you’ve got to pick your battles.

But maybe we don’t.

A few weeks ago, when news of the Parkland school shooting broke, I think many of us settled in for another round of “thoughts and prayers.” But then the Parkland kids lit a fire under America and now it seems like anything’s possible.

March For Our Lives, San Jose 3/24/18

A few weeks ago, gun control wasn’t on the list of battles you’d pick (and expect to win). But now it is. We had become complacent, and now we are not.

What other battles are similarly ripe for disruption?

We hear a lot of talk about how a blue wave is coming, or maybe even a tsunami. But maybe it’s more grounded than that. Maybe it’s more manmade. Maybe it’s a dam about to burst, on all of these issues that Americans overwhelmingly support. Maybe it’s a blue flood.

Whatever we call it, I am here for it. And I’m glad Senator Murphy is, too.


Last Hurrah at the Garf

Look at this beauty. I’ll stipulate that it’s expensive to maintain and the opposite of energy-efficient. That it contains some of the coldest, smallest rooms on campus. That some nights I would have to warm up my bed with my hair dryer before crawling in.

But just how many 19,000 square foot 167-year-old Tudors are there any more?

Last I read, the recommendation on Garfield House was for it to be razed, and it was going before the historical commission for a final decision.

Sadly, I do not have the billions needed to pay to restore and/or have it transplanted somewhere, and assuming no other savior steps forward, may I present another option, a consolation prize of sorts for those of us who have lived in and loved the Garf:

A Last Hurrah at the Garf.

WWRFC 30th 025

Picture it. That enormous, glorious lawn filled with tents.

Generations of Garfield denizens coming back to Williams.

A weekend to enjoy and celebrate this 1850s classic that has given so many of us lifelong memories.

At my 5th reunion, the 50th reunion class sponsored a fireworks show off the roof of Baxter before it was razed. In a similar way, this could be simultaneously a fitting memorial and a great community-building event.

Imagine if we could get an art/comp sci student to work on some sort of epic VR experience? How epic would a “walking through history” virtual reality module be, where you could go back in time and walk through Williamstown at different eras? See how the campus and buildings are changing, even walk into the future and see the future campus plans? It would be incredible! Lines around the block!

And don’t get me started on the merch opportunities! Koozies are table stakes where I’m concerned, of course, but we could also have a charity auction of historical items and memorabilia. Proceeds could go to a charity or future historical restoration projects—the alumni version of the athletic department tag sales.

Given the chance, I’d be there in a heartbeat, and I’m hoping many others feel the same.

Stay tuned…


First day of Astronomy 102: The Solar System, my freshman year at Williams.

The professor walks into the room, and after a brief info, pulls out a camera. He wants to take a class picture that he can print out and pass around the room for us to write our names by our faces, so he could learn our names.

That professor? Jay Pasachoff, who I would soon learn was, if not already by then, on his way to becoming the world’s foremost expert on solar eclipses.

Image: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

And so after enjoying that wonderful eclipse—through eclipse glasses, a telescope, a homemade rig, and a welding helmet—I was thrilled to see Professor Pasachoff on the front page of the LA Times.


I probably didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. Scratch that—I definitely didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. And I definitely don’t remember everything I learned in that class.

But I will always remember that first day, and how this man at the pinnacle of his field cared enough to get to know each and every one of us by name.

Oh, and wasn’t that eclipse awesome?


Driverless Cars and the Great American Road Trip

Photo by Doug Kerr via Flickr

I went back to Williams this past weekend for a rugby reunion. Lately when I go back, I like to fly into Boston or New York (vs. Albany which is closest), and tack on an extra day to see friends. In theory this is about making the trip from the West Coast worth it by seeing more people, but in reality it’s just as much about the drive.

The Taconic is one of my favorite stretches of road. The first time you drive it you can’t quite place what makes it feel so different from other roads. Then it hits you: there are no shoulders. Two feet to the right is a curb, and then grass. It makes for an incredible feeling when driving, so little separating you from nature.

Something amazing happens when you take a drive like this. Your mind has to focus just enough on the road and how fast you are driving (because OMG the Taconic is cop city!) that the rest of your mind is free to wander. To drift off into neglected corners, resurface long-forgotten memories, and offer up weird ideas, steered only by the sights out the window, the soundtrack playing, and sheer freedom.

And it got me thinking: what does a driverless car future mean for the Great American Road Trip?

I have taken dozens of road trips throughout my life. The cross-country trips during college from Massachusetts to California and back. The trip that only lasted 10 miles before my Jeep’s engine melted in a freeway-side fire. Down and back up the East Coast visiting friends. The trip where we spilled a bottle of cleaner the first day, ensuring that our Vanagon smelled Fantastik® the whole week. The 15-hour trip from Chicago to my summer internship in Florida where I needed to drop off my stuff at an apartment then get to the airport to fly to a Williams reunion, only to miss my flight by ten minutes. I-40. 70. 80. 90. And I swear I will do the 10 at some point.

“It’s about the journey, not the destination” is often applied elsewhere as a metaphor, but in the case of the road trip, it’s literal.

It’s about stopping to check out the miniature donkeys you just saw a sign for. It’s about finding that great local diner. It’s about just once admitting when checking into a motel that you really have six people, not four – and they offer you a room with three queen size beds side by side!


And when it’s just you, it’s about putting your playlist on shuffle and letting each song unlock and replay an old memory.

So, as much as I’m excited for the time when driverless cars mean I don’t have to sit in traffic or endure a tedious commute, I don’t want to lose the magic that only a long drive can bring.

There is value in letting your mind wander. There is value in spontaneity. And there is value in being present for the actual, literal journey.