A Brief History of Alumni Relations at Williams College
A complete capture of the history of 200 years of alumni activity and support for Alma Mater would require a multi-volume set of books simply as a starting point. The history of the Society of Alumni at Williams lives in archival documents, alumni publications and records of oral captures to name just a few sources. Just as important, it is present in the lived experience of our alumni community, most acutely in the friendships created and the impact we have on each other as we shape each other’s lives. This impact also occurs on the Williams campus as alumni shape the undergraduate experience through mentorship and broad definitions of philanthropy.
At this Bicentennial moment, we offer this synopsis of the history of the Society of Alumni. Our purpose is to educate, to remind us of how our past shapes and informs the present and helps guide us for the future. Viewed through the lens of present day, one is struck by who was excluded from the college's history and how long it took for all members of our alumni family to recognize themselves in our story. We honor all members of the Society of Alumni, past and present, in this narrative.
We owe a collective debt of gratitude to members of the Archival Sub-Committee of the SoA Bicentennial who contributed to this project, including Rich Levy ‘74 and Leigh Winter Martin ‘99, Archival Sub-Committee Co-Chairs, Bob Stegeman ‘60 and, most notably, Wally Bernheimer ‘61.
In June, 1821, just 28 years after the founding of Williams College, the institution was in crisis. The President of the college, Zephaniah Swift Moore announced his resignation, along with his intention to take perhaps half the students and faculty over the mountains to form a new institution in Amherst, Massachusetts. The possibility that the college would not survive was real. There was no such thing as e-mail; the telegraph had not yet been invented. There were no highways or automobiles; railroads did not yet exist. The only way to communicate was via intermittent mail service provided by horse and buggy over dirt roads, the roads used for what limited travel did take place. Under these daunting circumstances, Emory Washburn, Class of 1817, and Daniel Noble, Class of 1796, placed a notice in local newspapers in late August calling for a “general meeting of the graduates of Williams College” on September 5, 1821, “to consider the expediency of forming a Society of Alumni.” Amazingly, out of approximately 220 living alumni, 70 showed up to form the Society and volunteer to help save the college – demonstrating the level of dedication and emotional commitment to the college that has persisted for 200 years.
Throughout the first century after its founding, the Society of Alumni of Williams College was overseen by its own volunteer leadership, with no formal connection to the administration of the College. At each Annual Meeting of the Society, held in tandem with Commencement, four Officers and a three person Committee of Visitors were elected, with the charge to manage the Society’s activities during the coming year. Typically, these included the awarding of academic prizes, the convening of the Annual Meeting itself, choosing a Williams graduate to deliver an “oration” at the Annual Meeting, and, beginning in 1832, periodic ad hoc fund raising for specific needs of the college.
Annual Meetings of the Society continued throughout the nineteenth century, and attendance grew significantly. For a time, alumni also convened in Williamstown for an “Alumni Day” in the summer. The concept of quinquennial class gatherings would not emerge until 1883, while the term “reunion” would not appear in Society meeting minutes until 1911. As the number of alumni increased, the desire to meet between the annual Williamstown gatherings also grew, with the result that in 1867, the first Regional Alumni Associations were organized, a New York Williams Club based in the city, a Boston group and an Upstate New York group, based in Troy.
The first mention of alumni in the Williams College Catalog occurred in the 1868-69 edition, with a listing of the members of the Committee of Visitors who were empowered to attend examinations and other college exercises at any time in order to facilitate an annual report to all alumni concerning academics, discipline, and “the progress and needs and wants of the college.” This reference probably was not a stroke out of the blue, as it was at this time that the Society sought more formal influence in the affairs of the college. In 1867, the Society had formally proposed to the Board of the Trustees that a representative of the Society be elected each year to the Board for a five year term. The next year, the Board agreed, and Giles Bacon Kellogg, Class of 1829, became the first “Alumni Trustee.”
According to Fred Rudolph's Mark Hopkins and the Log, another initiative put forward by some alumni, at the 1871 Annual Meeting, was the admission of women to the college. The proposal was referred to a 5 member committee charged to make a recommendation at the 1872 Annual Meeting. The committee, by a vote of 3 to 2, recommended against the idea, as the majority was "not convinced that the wisdom of coeducation had been completely vindicated." The idea of coeducation was therefore tabled - for nearly a full century.
At the 1890 Annual Meeting, William D. Porter, Class of 1850, proposed that the Society recommend to the Board of Trustees the establishment of a Williams College Alumni Fund. Again, the Board of Trustees accepted, resulting in the transition from ad hoc to institutional fund raising. But the fund was not yet an annual campaign. Instead, according to Philip Warren, Jr., Class of 1938, in his book The Purple Connection, “Contributions could be made at any time, in any amount, and all such donations would be at the disposal of the Trustees” to use as they saw fit. The Society retained responsibility for raising the money, but care had to be taken to insure that these smaller, hopefully repetitive gifts did not preclude donations and/or bequests of theoretically larger sums.
In 1897, a subsidiary group called the Williams College Athletic Council was formed, succeeded in 1902 by the Williams College Alumni Athletic Association, whose purpose was “to promote and regulate the general interests of Williams College…and to form a closer association between the Undergraduates and the Alumni in connection with athletic matters.” There was an initiation fee of $2, and annual dues of $1.
The list of officers of the Society of Alumni appeared in the Williams College Catalog for the first time in the 1902-03 edition. Interestingly, after its listing had disappeared from the catalog for many years, the Committee of Visitors of the Society, which interacted with the college administration and community, reappeared in the catalog 9 years earlier than the very first listing of Society officers (who did not so interact).
In 1909 the Athletic Association began publishing The Williams Alumni Review, the cost of which was covered by an annual $1 subscription, as well as by paid advertising. The first, and only, volunteer Editor in its first decade was Talcott M. Banks, Class of 1890. The publication itself was more of a newsletter than a magazine, containing news about goings on at the college, and not just about athletics (although certainly that was an area of emphasis). It also contained news about Regional Associations, as well as tidbits from various classes – the beginning of the rich class notes tradition that has continued through the years in the Review, and now Williams People.
In 1917, during World War I, alumni rallied to support the college by establishing a War Emergency Fund with the specific purpose of supporting annual operations, since the budget was stressed by the loss of revenue due to the exodus of students fighting in the war. Each alumnus was asked to contribute $10, to be paid in two installments, one in the fall, the second in the spring. When the war ended the next year, it was recognized that annual fund raising was a good idea. The War Emergency Fund was renamed the Loyalty Fund, and it became an annual campaign.
The first phase of the development of the Society of Alumni came to an end in 1919 with the college’s hiring of E. Herbert Botsford, Class of 1882, as its first paid employee with responsibility for dealing with alumni matters. “Botsie”, as he was affectionately called, had already been serving as the volunteer Secretary of the Society since 1909. He retained the Secretary title and was charged with managing the Society’s activities, but now as a formal member of the college organization. The next year, Talcott Banks retired as the Editor of the Williams Alumni Review, and Botsie assumed that responsibility as well. In a sense, this marked the birth of the Alumni Relations Office, albeit as a one person operation.
Despite providing an office for the Society (in Jesup Hall) and beginning to pay a salary to its Secretary, the college administration continued to view the Society of Alumni as a separate entity without any specific connection to the operation of the college. This was made clear in the announcement of the establishment of an “alumni office” that appeared in the October, 1919 issue of the Alumni Review: “various alumni interests” were being “brought together in one bureau, presided over by a paid official”, replacing the “voluntary efforts of several altruistic individuals”. But what actually happened was not that the college was bringing the Society under its wing; rather, it was the other way around: “the Society of Alumni of Williams College [had] brought its working capacity into close and ordered relation to the college.” Regardless, the goal was to enable the Society to keep in “closer touch” with the institution than had “ever obtained before”, including gaining “a better understanding of the needs and methods” of Williams College in the future, and providing a place on campus from which to do it.
The President of Williams at the time Secretary Botsford went on the payroll was Harry Augustus Garfield, Class of 1885, son of the late U. S. President James A. Garfield, Class of 1856. Botsford reported in his Fifty Years of Williams College that Harry Garfield was not comfortable dealing with the Society, once having said in response to being urged to appear more frequently at regional alumni meetings and other functions, “Why? Do you think they want to see and hear me?” According to Phil
Warren in The Purple Connection, Garfield’s successor as president, Tyler Dennett, Class of 1904, wanted to keep the alumni even more distant from the institution than did Garfield.
Nevertheless, in the early years that the Society had a physical presence on campus, and even with a paid full time college employee overseeing and coordinating alumni activities, there was little change in functions performed by the alumni office as compared with the previous era: coordinate the Williams Loyalty Fund, publish the Williams Alumni Review, promote reunions, and run an "Alumni Employment Bureau."
Botsford’s tenure lasted for 15 years, until he retired in 1934, when he was succeeded by Edwin H. (Ted) Adriance, Class of 1914, who served through 1945, also as a one person operation. A significant change in the governance of the Society occurred during this period. The Committee of Visitors had been replaced early in the twentieth century by a four person Executive Committee that advised the officers of the Society, but no longer formally interacted with students and faculty to report back to the Society. In 1929, the Executive Committee was expanded to ten persons, with no specific terms. Later in the 1930s, the Executive Committee was enlarged again, to fifteen persons, with three persons named each year to serve five year terms. Thus was governance of the Society further expanded. In 1933-34, the Loyalty Fund was renamed the Alumni Fund of Williams College, and the Class Agent model was introduced at the same time.
When James Phinney Baxter III, Class of 1914, known as Phinney, became President of the college in 1937, more change was on the horizon, although this would be delayed in the waning years of the Depression as well as by the onset of World War II (during which Baxter spent 3 years in Washington, DC in the Office of Strategic Services). A member of a legendary, and legendarily close, class, Phinney, was committed to the idea that alumni were vital to the college, both individually and collectively. He actively reached out to the Society after the war, commencing with a major victory celebration in the fall of 1946 that was attended by some 1,500 alumni, to honor the more than 3,000 Williams alumni who had fought in the war, 118 of whom died during the conflict.
That same year, the size of the Alumni Office doubled: Ted Adriance remained Editor of the Alumni Review while Alfred L. Jarvis, Class of 1939, took over as Alumni Society Secretary. One year later, Adriance retired, and for the next five years several persons served as "Acting Editor," among them English Professor Fred Stocking, Class of 1936, and College Librarian Wyllis Wright, Class of 1925. Jarvis left the Secretary position in 1951, and was succeeded by Charles B. Hall, Class of 1915. One year later, the period of frequent turnover at the Alumni Review ended with the hiring of Ralph Renzi, Class of 1943, as editor. Renzi actually did double duty, also filling the position of head of the College's News Bureau, in other words handling the school's Public Information function.
President Baxter recognized both the college's need to raise money on an ongoing basis, and the centrality of the Society of Alumni to the college's success in meeting that need. After a 3 year hiatus during which Williams conducted a capital campaign (1947-49), he worked in tandem with the Alumni Office, and traveled extensively to visit the more than 30 Regional Associations then in existence. Phinney wanted to raise more money, of course, but he was equally focused on building participation in the annual fund raising effort, and much of the task of achieving that goal fell on the volunteer Class Agents and Associate Agents. For years, the Alumni Fund had achieved participation rates only in the 30% range. That began to change in the early 1950s, with 40% to 45% rates achieved through 1955, finally exceeding 50% for the first time in the 1957-58 campaign, raising a then record $215,580.
John English, Class of 1932, assumed the position of Alumni Secretary in 1960 following the retirement of Charlie Hall, and also oversaw the Alumni Review and Public Information functions. As he described it in his Oral History (recorded in conjunction with the college’s Oral History Project), "I was the entire Alumni Office." Although both English and Renzi had clerical support, and, beginning in the late 1950s, there was a second person assisting with the Review and News Bureau, the Society was still not considered a part of the college organization. That situation finally changed after President Baxter's retirement in 1961, when he was succeeded by John E. (Jack) Sawyer, Class of 1939. According to English, Sawyer "wanted the Director of Alumni Relations to be directly responsible to the college, instead of obscured into the Society." Even with that change, the primary responsibilities remained the same: Alumni Fund, Reunions, and working with the Editor of the Alumni Review. But now the college was in charge; the process of institutionalization had gained momentum.
John English served as Secretary for 15-1/2 years, and it was during this period under the leadership of President Sawyer that the Society of Alumni became an integral part of the college organization, with deepening interactions between the two groups. Beginning in 1961, Reunion Weekend was separated from Commencement, with the result that alumni had a weekend of their own and Williamstown all to themselves. At the same time, English, encouraged by President Sawyer's wife, Anne, made a concerted effort to transform the reunions, which prior to that time were "all male. Wives and children never came...and it was just a big beer party." Reunions became family events, and they were further enhanced by the presentation of Alumni Seminars that provided educational opportunities for attendees.
That same year, English, an avid golfer, established the Williams Alumni-Guest Golf Tournament, now a fixture on the College’s summer calendar.
Friction between many alumni and the college developed in 1962 after a Special Committee chaired by Jay Angevine, Class of 1911, recommended to the Board of Trustees that fraternities be abolished. Although the Society of Alumni itself resolved not to take a formal position on the matter, Secretary English, as the focal point for handling much of the external communication for the college during the Trustees’ consideration of the proposal, was in the middle of the controversy: “I guess 80, 90 percent of my work was dealing with angry alumni.…Jack [Sawyer] got tons of angry letters…. He would send them over to me and I would … segregate them into categories and develop standard replies.” The college made no effort to suppress dissent, and enabled the Editor of the Alumni Review to publish comprehensive news about the issue, printing or referencing opposing papers and letters from aggrieved individual alumni and organized groups in several consecutive editions. While some of the correspondence reveals that opponents of the proposal still felt some institutional bias against their position, even at the peak of the controversy the Alumni Fund did not suffer. From 1962 to 1964, not only were record amounts raised ($376,165 in 1963-64) but participation averaged about 56% during the period.
In the aftermath of the Trustees’ decision to phase out fraternities, President Sawyer and Secretary English realized that the college had “moved a little too fast without educating the alumni to the problem” caused by fraternities. The result was the creation of the Williams Today program later in 1962, with the purpose of informing a cross section of leading and engaged alumni about what was really going on at the college at that time, as opposed to what they “remembered” it was like when they had been students. The goal, according to English, was to “get [them] over the fraternity thing.” The program was offered several times a year and “it was tremendously effective”, especially because care was taken to avoid any hint of fund raising - it was truly informational. The program was so effective that it continued to be offered for several decades, long beyond the time when the friction caused by the elimination of fraternities had dissipated.
In 1964, the Alumni Office team grew to three, when Willard Dickerson, Class of 1940, joined it with specific assignment to manage the Alumni Fund. Dickerson served for three years, and was replaced in 1967 by James (Jim) Briggs, Class of 1960, who was eventually also given the title of Assistant Secretary of the Society (he also served as the Assistant Baseball Coach). With a more focused effort applied to the campaign, the Alumni Fund continued to grow throughout the 1960s, which Briggs attributed to the work of the volunteer Class Agent/Associate Agent system.
There was one casualty of the fraternity brouhaha: Ralph Renzi, having opposed their elimination, resigned in 1968. He was replaced as Alumni Review Editor by Thomas (Tom) Bleezarde, a reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer, then owned by the Berkshire Eagle, who had read about Renzi's impending departure in the latter paper. Tom served as Editor through 1999. His first issue, 88 pages, with a two-color cover and entirely black and white text, was split roughly 1/3 campus news, 2/3 alumni milestones and Class Notes. 32 years later, the cover had become full color, but the now 92 page text was still black and white, and the distribution of content had not changed - 1/3 devoted to campus news, 2/3 to alumni.
Two other momentous decisions besides the abolition of fraternities occurred during Jack Sawyer’s presidency, both of which would significantly affect the Society of Alumni. The first, made in the early years of his term, was to expand the pool of prospective Williams students beyond the traditional feeder public and private schools to broader geographical and demographic areas. The second, made in 1969, was to transform Williams into a fully coeducational institution. Upper class women transfers were to be accepted into classes graduating in the early 1970s, while the first group of first year women students would be admitted as members of the Class of 1975. There was not much objection to the decision to go co-ed, but, according to Tom Bleezarde, President Sawyer responded to the few complaints that arose from male alumni by pointing out that the size of the college was going to increase, and "now not only your sons can come to Williams but your daughters can come" too.
Neither decision involved the Society of Alumni per se, but each was destined to have immediate and long term impact on it, foretelling both its dramatic growth as well as its increasingly diverse composition – and this would have equally significant influence on the role of the Alumni Office itself. Yet, as the College approached the 150th anniversary of the Society in 1971, there was just a group of three persons managing the alumni operation, and coordinating the efforts of hundreds of alumni volunteers: volunteer classmates who organized their own reunions; volunteer Class Officers, who supplied the Class Notes that made up more than half the Alumni Review; volunteer Class Agents and supporting Associate Agents who solicited classmates on behalf of the annual Alumni Fund; and volunteer alumni who ran their own Regional Associations, including programming.
After the graduation of the Class of 1971, the Society of Alumni numbered about 11,500 members, of whom, for all practical purposes, 100% were male (seven women transfer students had graduated that year). At the same time, as best can be estimated, no more than 1% of the alumni body was comprised of persons of color. Just four years later, with the admission of classes with a fuller complement of women and the broader applicant pool, more than 400 women had already become members of the Society, and the number of persons of color had doubled. It was obvious that there would be rapid growth in these numbers in the coming years.
Change was coming to the Society of Alumni on the geographical front too. Data is lacking regarding the geographical distribution in earlier years, but the distribution of undergraduates serves as a proxy. In 1919, at the outset of the second phase of the Society’s development, the undergraduate student body totaled 554 men, of whom 79%, came from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. By 1971, the undergraduate population was more than twice as large, 1,294 persons, and almost 66%, still hailed from those northeastern states. In both years, two other states, Ohio and Illinois, accounted for 9.5%. There were four international students in 1919 (less than 1%); by 1971, there were 39 (3%).
On the other hand, from 1919 to 1971 the staff of the Alumni Office and Alumni Review had grown from one white male to three, along with (in the days before word processing and personal computers) some clerical and other staff support. Change would necessarily have to occur in the office, too, in order to be responsive to a larger, more diverse Society, and to encourage alumni to remain involved with the college and to volunteer to serve it.
Change would also be required in the Society's governing body, the Executive Committee, which in 1975 was composed of twelve white males, and the five elected Alumni Trustees as ex-officio members, all of whom were also white males. In 1976, the first woman was named to the committee, Janet Brown ‘73. In 1980, Martha Tucker Hargrove ‘75 became the first woman named to the Executive Committee who had been admitted to the College as a first year student. That same year, a decision was made to expand the Executive Committee to 18 persons, with six nominated each year to three year terms; that transition was accomplished over a three year period. By 1983, women came to represent about 1/3 of the Executive Committee, and approximate gender parity was achieved by the turn of the century. Participation on the committee by persons of color and other representations of diversity was achieved in parallel with the gender diversification.
John English retired as Alumni Secretary in 1975. President Sawyer initially offered Assistant Alumni Secretary Jim Briggs the opportunity to succeed English, but Briggs preferred to continue with his dual role as Alumni Fund Director and Assistant Baseball Coach, which he said he could do because "the Alumni Fund ran from basically September 1st until February 1st, and baseball season started February 15th." Sawyer asked if Jim could recommend anyone for the Director/Secretary position, and he suggested the recent volunteer chairman of the fund, R. Craigin (Craig) Lewis ‘41, "one of the smartest guys I've ever worked with, most creative, a great writer....So I'm the only guy to ever hire my boss."
Ironically, Briggs would eventually become Craig Lewis's boss, when Jack Sawyer's successor as President, John Chandler, decided in the early 1980s to combine Alumni Relations and Development into one entity under the aegis of an Executive Director, and Jim Briggs was appointed to the position. According to Steven (Steve) Birrell, ‘64, a later Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development, Briggs was not given the VP title because President Chandler, having recently appointed a Vice President in another area, did not want to appear to be adding to the bureaucracy so quickly. But the college was about to embark on a major capital campaign, and he did not want to remain President for its duration. He therefore resigned before it began, and was replaced as President by Professor of History Francis (Frank) Oakley. At the same time, Briggs also decided he wanted to concentrate on coaching baseball. President Oakley subsequently appointed Hodge Markgraf ‘52, a revered Professor of Chemistry, to replace Briggs as the leader of Alumni Relations and Development, changing the title to Vice President at the same time.
For the first several years after 1975, it had been business as usual in the Alumni Office – run Reunions and a few other events such as the Golf Tournament, coordinate Regional Associations, and oversee the Alumni Fund and the Alumni Review. New programs, and change, came gradually. Beginning in the summer of 1977, an annual Alumni-Guest Tennis Tournament was initiated, although it lasted only into the 1990s, unlike the Golf Tournament, which continues today. In 1981, the first Alumni Travel programs were offered, one to the Mediterranean, the other to the Rockies. Alumni travel became a permanent part of the Alumni Relations repertoire, but no staff person was dedicated to overseeing the travel operation until 1994, by which time the number of trips offered had grown to eight. Robert (Bob) Behr, ‘55, who had previously served stints as Director of the Alumni Fund (1981-85), and Director of Alumni Relations/Secretary of the Society (1986-91), assumed the role of Alumni Travel Coordinator that year.
In 1980, the Society of Alumni resolved to elect surviving spouses of deceased alumni as Honorary Members. In 1982, graduates of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art were accorded full membership in the Society. That same year, the first affinity group was formed, The Williams Black Alumni Network (WBAN). The Williams Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association, now known as Williams LGBTQIA+ Alumni Network (BiGLATA), was founded five years later. The change in the composition of the Society of Alumni was accelerating, as was the programming created to support and connect the alumni body.
The first addition to the "team of three" in the Alumni Office took place in 1986, just before Craig Lewis retired. Wendy W. Hopkins ‘72 was hired on a half time basis, and became the first woman in the Alumni Relations Office with a role that involved more than clerical responsibility. Wendy became a full time member of the office the following year, and she assisted with managing all program offerings except the Alumni Fund.
A major milestone occurred in 1988, when Katherine Berry ‘57 became the first woman to be elected President of the Society of Alumni. She had been recognized at the 1971 Commencement as the first woman graduate of the college, retroactive to 1957, the year she completed study. Eight years later, in 1996, Edward C. Coaxum ‘66 became the first person of color elected to the position. Both he and Katherine Berry had previously served terms on the Executive Committee.
When Bob Behr retired as Director of Alumni Relations during the 1991-92 academic year, he was succeeded by Chester (Chet) Lasell ‘58. Chet came to Williams from the corporate world, having served in a public relations capacity at the John Deere Company in Moline, IL. As a "communications professional," as he referred to himself in his Oral History, he brought a different mindset to the position. "What I discovered was that while Williams' relations with its alumni had always been quite positive, [it] was still doing alumni relations the way it had been done 25 years before basically." Feeling that the Society had not done enough to keep up with the changes, especially regarding serving both younger graduates and more diverse cohorts, he hired a professional polling company to perform surveys and focus groups of alumni to better assess attitudes, wants, and needs.
The survey responses made it clear that more staff, and a more robust budget, were going to be required to deliver more curated offerings to Williams graduates, providing them greater opportunity for interactions with each other and with the college. Another byproduct of the survey was the realization that Alumni Relations needed more visibility to and attention from overall college governance; thus, the Development Committee of the Board of Trustees was renamed the Committee on Alumni Relations and Development, and its responsibilities were broadened beyond the prior concentration on fund raising.
The Society, including its leadership team, also needed more visibility to alumni around the country. The Executive Committee had long been meeting three times per year in Williamstown. But a change was made in the early 1990s to hold the January meeting off-site in a city where there was a Regional Association (there are now more than 60 such groups). In addition, a joint event was incorporated into the meeting, sponsored in conjunction with the regional organization, so that Executive Committee members could mingle with local alumni. In most years, the Williams President also participates in these off-site meetings and programs. These annual “road shows” have proven to be extremely meaningful both to the committee and to alumni in the host regions.
In 1993, two more affinity groups were organized - the Williams Asian Alumni Network, now called the Williams Asian and Asian American Alumni Network (WAAAAN) and the Williams Latino Alumni Network, now called the Williams Latinx Alumni Network (WLAN). That same year, Paula Moore Tabor ‘76, who was finishing her three year term as a member of the Executive Committee of the Society, was added to the Alumni Relations staff to oversee all the affinity groups. Paula was the second woman, and first person of color, to be hired by the college to a managerial position in the Alumni Office. Also in 1993, Masters Graduates of the Center for Development Economics, which had been established in 1961, were accorded full membership in the Society of Alumni, adding close to 1,000 persons to the roll. One more affinity group was to be inaugurated, but not until 2015: the Williams First Generation Alumni Network (WFAN).
1993 marked the 200th anniversary of the founding of Williams College. To celebrate the milestone, the college established the Bicentennial Medals, awarded for distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor to multiple alumni each year. The Alumni Relations team, with the involvement of the Executive Committee of the Society, was charged with recommending candidates for the Medals to the college President, who made the ultimate selections. As part of the Bicentennial celebration, a “Diversity Weekend” was held in the fall, including events sponsored by WBAN and BiGLATA.
In 1994, another person was added to the Alumni Office staff to fill a new position related to on-campus programs, including reunions, homecoming, and special events. The final addition during this period was a one year Internship in Alumni Relations, created for a recent Williams graduate. One of the primary focuses of the whole team became cultivating relations among younger alumni, creating special programs for them, and trying to bring them back to Williamstown more often. As the other persons were added, Wendy Hopkins focused more on Regional Associations and other off campus programs. Eventually, Chet Lasell made her his “no. 2 in command of the operation.” The modern team was taking shape.
During the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the Alumni Fund had grown steadily, along with the Society itself. The Fund topped $1 million for the first time in 1977-78, with almost 61% participation from about 13,500 alumni. Just 5 years later, with about 2,000 more members, the Fund exceeded the $2 million level, and participation topped 65%. It took just another four years, to the 1986-87 campaign, to breach the $3 million mark, with participation by an amazing 69% of the more than 17,000 living graduates. For the next seven years, however, while the Society grew to more than 19,500 members, there was some stagnation, with the $4 million level attained only once; three different persons had held the position of Alumni Fund Director during that time.
Chet Lasell recognized the challenge presented by the situation: “…it became clear to me that if we were going to grow that program to the $5, 6, 7 million dollar level, the whole program needed to be managed and directed by fund-raising professionals, which I was not, and never professed to be….” Accordingly, the responsibility for the Annual Alumni Fund was “moved over to Development, and I think it has proven to be a very wise decision.” By 1998, the Alumni Fund passed the $5 million level, and it took only another two years to reach the $6 million mark, after which, with the exception of the years of the Great Recession, the expansion has been continuous, well surpassing the $14 million threshold in 2020.
Although it was not the purpose of the change, the separation of the responsibility for the Alumni Fund from the Alumni Office had an equally beneficial effect on the Alumni Relations aspect of its duties: the staff was able to focus completely on serving alumni, concentrating on what Steve Birrell described as their major role, “cultivation” – without always having to think about whether an interaction or an event was going to result in a direct monetary benefit to the college.
By 1998, the change in the composition of the student body, with its inevitable effect on the change in the composition of the Society of Alumni, was clear, albeit still in process. Out of about 2,140 total students in 1998, only 57.3% came from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and another 4.4% from Ohio and Illinois, a combined drop for those states of about 14 percentage points since the early 1970s. The number of international students had risen to 124, or almost 6% of the enrollment. Chet Lasell chose to retire at the end of that year, and Wendy Hopkins was promoted to be Director of Alumni Relations. Not only was she the first woman to hold the position, she was the youngest appointee since Alfred Jarvis, who had served a short stint immediately after World War II. All of the other Directors of Alumni Relations in the previous 50 years had begun their tenures when they were at least 50 years old. And all had graduated from Williams College prior to 1960, that is, before the institution of the major changes the college had undergone during and after the term of President Sawyer.
A second organizational change in the Alumni Office occurred early in Wendy Hopkins’ term, when Tom Bleezarde retired in 1999, after 32 years as Editor of the Alumni Review. The new Editor, Amy Lovett, no longer reported to the Director of Alumni Relations, but instead, as Tom described it in his Oral History, to “a person who is called the Director of Communications for Alumni Relations and Development. It’s the first time that the Development Office aspect of the college has had a direct line into the magazine.” Worried that the change would adversely influence the editorial content, he had argued against it, but the move was made in any case. Yet it had the same positive effect as the transfer of the Alumni Fund responsibility, allowing the Alumni Relations team, now numbering five persons plus an intern and support staff, to concentrate even more directly on their primary mission: “to engage and connect alumni with their institution and one another,” as Wendy Hopkins described it, with support from Information Technology and Communications specialists. Fortunately, Tom’s initial concern about the effect of the change on editorial content did not come to pass.
Tom Bleezarde had recognized that the Alumni Review was in need of updating and redesign, but had put any change off, knowing he would be retiring. Once on board Amy Lovett instituted the process that resulted in the modernization of the magazine, including the addition of color to the full publication. The magazine had continued to grow in girth along with the size of the alumni body, but all the expansion was devoted to the alumni segment. In a typical issue, only about 30 pages continued to contain news and information about the college, with more than 70 pages devoted to alumni. As a result, in 2005, the Alumni Review was split into two separate publications, each offered 3 times a year, with alternating issues published every two months. One, now called Williams Magazine, contains expanded content, and focuses on substantive news and information related to the college, past, present, and future. The offshoot, called Williams People, is devoted exclusively to Class Notes, milestones, gatherings, and related matters.
The Internet Era had begun, and it was to have significant impact on the way the Alumni Relations staff would communicate with Williams graduates, especially those from more recent classes. The publications became available on-line beginning with the Winter 2003 edition of the Alumni Review. The Alumni Society’s presence on social media was initiated less than 4 years later, with the first appearance being a Facebook group established in 2007, and a second one formed in 2010. Both of these have been deactivated, replaced on Facebook by Williams College Alumni (Eph Alum), now with about 8,500 followers. In June 2012, two other social media presences were established: ephalum on Instagram, currently with 5,500 followers and, on Twitter, Williams College Alumni (@ephtweets), with 2,750 followers. Since 2013, there has been a Williams College page on LinkedIn, with almost 30,000 followers, obviously not all of them alumni. The Alumni Directory was also converted to on-line presence, with the last print edition having been published in 2007. Access to individual alumni information is now available solely via the Alumni tab on the Williams College website.
Wendy Hopkins opted for early retirement in 2008. Reflecting on her tenure and on delivering on the mission of Alumni Relations, she recognized that “what [was] critically important [was] the caliber of the volunteers we have. We’re utterly dependent on an army of volunteers around the country and around the world actually now….we can’t be in all places and we have to depend on the local groups." She added, more specifically as to reunions, “first of all we have volunteers. I’ll just keep coming back to volunteers, because the volunteers are the backbone of everything that Alumni Relations does….”
Wendy’s successor as Director of Alumni Relations in 2008 was Brooks Foehl ‘88, who was even younger than Wendy had been when she took the position. Brooks had himself been a volunteer Class Agent and had started his employment with Williams in 2001 working on the Alumni Fund. Wendy recruited him to join the Alumni Relations team 2 years later. By 2008, the direction of Alumni Relations was well established, and Brooks stayed on the same course that began with Chet Lasell and took greater form under Wendy Hopkins.
One important structural change took place in 2011, when the Center for Career Exploration moved organizationally to what is now called the Office of College Relations (formerly the Office of Alumni Relations and Development). The Center had begun its existence in 1940 as the Placement Bureau, staffed by one person. It was later renamed the Office of Career Counseling, and despite the growth of the student body, it did not become a two person operation until 1982. Over the years, as its focus turned more to proactive counseling in a wide variety of fields (as opposed to its original mission, which was primarily to bring companies to campus to perform recruiting), the Center worked increasingly with Alumni Relations, trying to take advantage of alumni networking opportunities. While the Director of the Center reports to the Vice President of College Relations, there is also a sort of dotted line connection to the Director of Alumni Relations.
In earlier eras, Alumni Relations had three primary functions: running reunions, managing the Alumni Fund, and publishing the Alumni Review. In addition, some assistance was provided to Regional Associations. As indicated, the Alumni Fund and the publications now report elsewhere. But the number of annual or periodic events and interactions currently overseen by the office, both on campus and off, has grown exponentially. These include, but are not limited to: Bolin Legacy Weekend; Ephs on the Vineyard; participation in the annual New York City Pride Parade; periodic reunions of singing groups, athletic teams, department majors, and other organizations; Send Off Parties around the country to welcome entering Williams students and their parents; Conversations with the President; fall Mini-Reunions for classes in their 50th Reunion cycle, as well as the "Greylocks" (formerly known as the "Old Guard", the alumni of all classes beyond their 50th Reunion); Young Alumni Happy Hours; viewing parties (in conjunction with Amherst) to watch the annual football game – the list goes on.
Current Director of Alumni Relations Brooks Foehl is honored to lead efforts for alumni to engage with the college itself and with classmates and friends, all on an equal level. This philosophy is crucial to dealing with the far more diverse alumni population of the early decades of the 21st century as compared to just 35 years earlier. The alumni community now numbers more than 31,000 living members, and the Alumni Relations Department has grown to 12 persons. The essential link between the two - the institution and the alumni body - is the myriad of volunteers, now numbering more than 3,000 (volunteers have consistently represented roughly 10% of the Society over the years).
Brooks says that “much of the work of our office falls under the definition of volunteer management. One of the reasons Williams is so successful in its engagement is because the work is being done by peers and fellow Williams alumni. A vital part of our job is to support the volunteers who are doing the work connecting alumni to each other and their college”. This is true regardless of the nature of the projects, whether reunions, other on-campus events, career based interactions, affinity group matters, off campus gatherings, or other bases of contact. There is a connection that runs continuously from the college, through the Alumni Relations Department and the alumni volunteers, to the growing body of the Society of Alumni - all of which adds up to enormous equity in, and a major asset of, the college.
As Steve Birrell stated in his 2003 Oral History, “…the loyalty and the affection of generations of Williams alumni has made the college what it is today, and…this has translated into support for the college in a lot of ways, financial being one….But I often talk about the two endowments. The endowment which we normally think of when we say ‘the endowment’ is the accumulated wealth of the college: $1.2 billion worth these days. That is a hugely important asset to the college obviously. But there’s another endowment that Williams has, which is the accumulated loyalty and devotion and affection of its alumni, and that I would argue is an equally valuable endowment. One that would be more difficult to rebuild were it to be compromised frankly than the financial endowment would be if we had some bad years in the markets….The role of us on the Alumni Relations side is to nurture and feed those relationships, to keep those connections with the college.” This “Second Endowment,” as Steve characterized it, is a principal factor that distinguishes Williams from its peers.
All in all, when considering the evolution of the relationship between Williams College and the members of its Society of Alumni, even as the extent of the college’s institutionalized structure has evolved, and even as the composition of the alumni body has become far more diverse, the bond between the alumni and the college has remained strong, and the dedication of the alumni to the college has remained palpable. It seems that at least one thing hasn’t changed since 1821: the vital connection between an enduring institution and its graduates.