A Changed and Constant Brotherhood

by Norman Spack '65

Norm Spack and classmates in 1961
Norm Spack with First Year Entrymates in 1961

Our class entered as freshmen in September 1961, just as Jack Sawyer ’39 was moving his family into the president’s house. On my Sage A doorstep was the academic year’s first issue of the Williams Record with a broad headline that the “Angevine Subcommittee of the College’s Board of Trustees had decided against the continuation of fraternities.” Ninety percent of sophomores, juniors and seniors belonged to fraternities, and  40% lived in the  houses.

I had neither a personal nor family experience with fraternities anywhere, so I was barely informed what the trustees were up to. I certainly wouldn’t gain any knowledge as a freshman, since we were all barred from walking into any fraternities. We were socially distanced to the freshman quad and Baxter Hall. Fraternity members were allowed to offer us rides out of Williamstown. I went on road trips frequently  and met a lot of upperclassmen. I was too naive to realize that after each trip the driver would fill out an evaluation form about me for the benefit of his fraternity’s rushing process.

Ironically, I first entered a Williams fraternity as a high school senior applicant. Family friend Ernie Fleischman ’56 and camp counselor Arnie Sher ’58 continually encouraged me to apply. I learned to sing all stanzas of “Come Fill Your Glasses Up” by age 15. Ernie arranged for my overnight stay in a fraternity the night before my interview in the admission office

Sophomore year—September ’62—was Williams’ last year of formal fraternity rushing. Again, it resulted in 90% of our class being accepted by a fraternity. About 18 of us matched to Phi Sigma Kappa.

I had a good time there. If the walk to meals at the Phi Sig house from Fayerweather was a bit much, it was offset by the fraternity’s proximity to the Clark Art Institute, where I tried to “veg out” weekly. I particularly enjoyed my friendships with seniors in the house, especially Stan Nadel ‘63 and house president John Dorman ‘63. Dorman would later be my supervising intern when I was a third-year medical student on an internal medicine ward at University of Rochester. Five years later and after several career changes, John was a junior pediatrics house officer on a rotation at Boston Children’s Hospital, and I was his senior resident-supervisor. I think there was an Amherst grad among the med students. I hummed “Yard by Yard” as I began rounds with the entire team in the midst of the NICU babies. 

During sophomore year the college organized student committees to assist with “quality of life” issues anticipated in the transition from fraternities to residential houses. I served on a subcommittee with transition director Donald Gardner, Jr. '57, who had the toughest job on campus. We dealt with dining services, knowing that it was going to be an impossible task to move from the intimate and personalized dining rooms of the fraternities to the residence house dining halls with their economies of scale. Whenever I made the trek to Phi Sig for breakfast, I was greeted by Chef Vern Anderson, who asked, “How would you like your eggs, today?”

By the end of my sophomore year at Phi Sig, rising seniors, who were the leadership core of the house close to us rising juniors, decided to leave Phi Sig to become leaders in the newly inaugurated Berkshire House, one of the first two residential houses in the now former Sophomore Quad. (The other was Prospect House.) In September 1963 I joined 12 Phi Sig juniors in moving into Berkshire. The early excitement was soon dampened in November by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Noteworthy, my wonderful roommate and future lifelong friend, Jim Forbes ‘63, who died of cancer in October 2019, also became my med school roommate in Rochester for two years. A lifelong Republican, Jim was devastated by Kennedy’s death and drove his 15-year-old jalopy full of Berkshire House members to Washington, D.C., to wait in line for hours to pay respects to the president, who was lying in state in the Capitol rotunda. Others who had been students of James MacGregor Burns ’39, JFK’s biographer and consultant, rushed to be in his presence on campus.

As a senior I was elected president of Berkshire. Joe Small ‘65 was elected president of Prospect, our next door neighbor. At our first house meeting, I presented an agenda for the year. The absence of “rushing meetings” would give us more and better use of our time.

Without selection and coercion of our residents, we needed to prove that we would retain some of the best traditions of Williams fraternity life: intramural teams, parties, sculpture for Winter Carnival, faculty guests for dinner. If our intramural basketball team repeated as college champions, it would be a bonus. It certainly stunned the competition, a league of fraternities.

I wanted to provide “added value” to the college. I realized how many juniors and seniors were hoping to embark on a post-graduate degree. I had started applying to med school and often found myself given a tour by a first year student with only a few months at the school. Therefore, we invited recent alums with at least a full year completed at their grad school: med student, law student, business school student, doctoral student. We advertised the event, and students came from across campus to our lounge, where space was limited to standing room only.

I hadn’t realized what had been missing in the new residential houses—contact with alumni. In a meeting with other leaders of the new residential houses, it was decided—with the college’s support— that alumni could be invited to spend a weekend with the members of a house and share their post-Williams experiences

Morris Ernst '09
Morris Ernst '09

The college suggested Morris Ernst, Class of 1909. A hero to the Civil Rights movement and one of the two founders of the ACLU, Ernst was retired as a named partner in New York’s premiere human rights law firm, Wolff, Greenbaum and Ernst. He is best known for winning the 1933 legal judgment in Federal District Court in New York that James Joyce’s Ulysses would no longer be considered obscene and could be published and disseminated in the U.S. This was probably the most significant obscenity judgment in American literary history.

Morris accepted the invitation and we invited students from across campus for a dialogue with the amiable legend during his visit. All the senior English majors were there; Ulysses was the main subject of English 401-402. Later, in 2018 I was taking an adult education course on Ulysses. I was proud every time I opened Gifford and Robert Seidman’s Ulysses Annotated, a compendium of Williams student research.

After the grad school panel and a couple of films, I was delighted to overhear friends who were still in fraternities and were leaving our lounge after the Morris Ernst dialogue, saying, “Why can’t our house sponsor terrific programs like this?”

And, one of my senior professors patted me on the back for the example we were setting for Williams in the new residential houses. And then he smiled broadly, “You know, you guys might just make it possible for Williams to go co-ed someday.”

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