Shelver, Driver, Switchboard Operator

by Alan Dittrich '69

Williams hired me for many student jobs, in an effort to provide me with some cash during my extremely “frugal” college years. 

At various times I was a shelver in the library, a lab equipment gofer for Professor Howard Stabler in the physics department, a College driver and a weekend switchboard operator. All of these jobs were interesting and sometimes quirky.

The shelving job helped me learn the library’s cataloguing system and brought me to sections of the stacks I would not otherwise have visited—Classics, Art History, Economics. I also occasionally got to shelve or reorganize books that had not been taken out for 100 years or more. And because Williamstown public school students could use the Library, I always knew when there was a big assignment (e.g., Shakespeare), because an entire section of the stacks would be ravaged and in need of loving restoration.

Alan and the soap bubble
Alan and the soap bubble

The job for Dr. Stabler was something of a sinecure, since he needed me only about half the time I was assigned. I was able to use the rest of my shifts to build some equipment that I’d later use in a math demonstration on soap films and soap bubbles—the required lecture in one of my math courses with Professor Feeman.

I can’t imagine that Williams has student drivers any more, either for pay or for convenience. (I do remember transporting some members of the wrestling team, of which I was the student manager). But in the 1960s it was OK. At one time I drove a faculty family to NYC so that they could then sail off for the professor’s sabbatical in Europe. On the way back, the car died in the middle of one of the throughways. (I don’t remember which one.) This was panic time, with angry traffic all around and, of course, no plan for this contingency. However, my faith in humanity was restored when about a dozen boys of approximately 11 or 12 years old materialized and made the astounding offer to push me to jump the car. They did—unfazed by the swarming traffic and virulent drivers—the car restarted. I zoomed away—waving to my rescuers—and never once stopped, for fear of stalling out again, for the remainder of the trip back to Williamstown.

At another moment, I drove a piece of lab equipment to a repair facility in West Hartford, Conn. You’d think it would have been cheaper to ship, but I guess they wanted to make sure the device was handled kindly. And on another occasion I drove to the Albany airport to pick up Sir Bernard Lovell, the English physicist and astronomer, who was coming to Williams to deliver a lecture. On our way back, it started to snow, blindingly, as night fell and we crept along some hilly, windy, unplowed and very unfamiliar roads. Sir Lovell didn’t seem concerned, but I was in a dire sweat the whole time, since I didn’t really know the route but was fortunate to have one car ahead of me, whose tail lights I could see, blazing a path that I could follow until I got close to town. We arrived a couple of hours late but, thankfully, alive.

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