by Leigh Winter Martin '99
This is a story of the purple thread that winds through time.
I spent 2020 wading through 20,000+ pages of Alumni Reviews, and certain names, words, and photos would inevitably catch my eye—like “Kennedy,” “Titanic,” “Princess Elizabeth,” “Lincoln.”
It seemed like nearly every political or cultural moment of the past 200 years intersected with an Eph story.
I collected these moments along the way, and when I started looking at them all together, connections emerged.
So, let me take you on an archival journey. We’re going to bounce around through time, from presidential assassinations to the Oscars to sports to an Eph born at the White House. There is tragedy along the way, along with indelible imprints on the culture. We’ll even make a brief stop at Pappa Charlie’s for a sandwich.
This is by no means a comprehensive history, and its lack of diversity reflects the era of the Williams alumni within it. But I hope it makes you smile, occasionally drop your jaw, and at the end of the day feel more connected to Ephs everywhere and our shared history.
Our story begins with Bob Cramer, Class of 1940, on his way to a friend’s wedding...
“Having been fully informed by both Sally and the doctor that nothing would be happening before Oct. 1, I went down to Newport a few days early for the wedding of a friend of mine named Jack Kennedy, Harvard ‘40. Sally, who likes to go to weddings, (she was crazy about ours) decided on Friday afternoon that she was feeling fine, had nothing to worry about until the 1st and would take in the wedding herself. She drove down late Friday and got their [sic] just in time for the bridal party dinner -- which was the usual active kind that 35-year old grooms have. She was fine when we got back to our hotel and in fact up to the time that we were leaving for the wedding. At that point she suddenly developed several rather severe pains which were completely new to both of us...so we drove over to the Newport hospital for a quick check-up. This rather harried fiasco disclosed that she was going to have it in approximately three hours and it was going to be a girl. She had it in two and one-half hours and it was a boy. I got to the wedding just in time to hear them say ‘I do.’” (November 1953 Alumni Review)
The baby’s godfather? JFK.
Eight years later President John F. Kennedy appoints Dr. Janet G. Travell White House physician. She is the daughter of Dr. J. Willard Travell, Class of 1891, and the Alumni Review writes that “she is the first woman, and first civilian in more than 40 years, to occupy the post.” (February 1961 Alumni Review)
In the following issue, the Review carries a correction, writing, “It was brought to our attention that Dr. Susan Ann Edson should be credited as the first woman doctor in the White House. But an Eph angle still appears.” (May 1961 Alumni Review)
For that angle, let’s travel back eighty years earlier...
When President James A. Garfield, Class of 1856, is shot on his way to his 25th reunion, Dr. Edson attends to him until he dies two months later.
“We now revise our claim for firsts and announce that a Williams alumnus was the first President of the United States courageous enough to set a precedent in having a woman physician to minister to his medical needs.” (May 1961 Alumni Review)
One hundred years later, there is another assassination attempt, this time on President Ronald Reagan. Again an Eph connection emerges, albeit a more light-hearted one, as a United Press International photograph of a well-wisher is picked up by papers around the country.
“That student whose picture appeared all over the country hanging a ‘get-well poster’ out a dormitory window after President Reagan was wounded March 20 was none other than Jonathan A. Ballan ’79, a law student at George Washington University.” (Spring 1981 Alumni Review)
Recalling the memory, Ballan recently added, “The location of my banner was perfect—across the street from the back entrance that Nancy Reagan used daily for her visits and where all the press gathered, so we waved daily."
More than a century earlier, Dr. John Wells Bulkley, Class of 1841, is a physician in Washington D.C. at the time of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He is called to attend to the president after the shooting and remains with him until he dies.
Two years prior to his assassination, Lincoln appoints Stephen J. Field, Class of 1837, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Field goes on to serve from 1863 to 1897, the second-longest tenure of any justice.
One hundred years after Lincoln’s assassination, an Eph is involved in a different type of presidential incapacitation. Dr. Edward Paul Didier, Class of 1946, serves as anesthesiologist for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s gallbladder surgery at the Mayo Clinic.
Notably, there is no transfer of power while LBJ is under anesthesia; the 25th Amendment providing for this circumstance is not ratified until 1967.
Three years earlier, filmmaker John Frankenheimer, Class of 1951, directs and produces The Manchurian Candidate, the story of a Korean War veteran who is brainwashed in a communist conspiracy to assassinate a candidate for president.
Frankenheimer regrets turning down the opportunity to document John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and so jumps at the chance to do the same for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The two become good friends over the course of the year, and RFK stays at Frankenheimer’s house during his Los Angeles campaign swing. In fact, Frankenheimer is the one who drives RFK to his campaign headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel on the night of June 5, where RFK is assassinated shortly after midnight.
Travel 18 years back and a few miles across Los Angeles to arrive at the namesake for the Charles Brackett, Class of 1915, film Sunset Boulevard.
Brackett wins the Oscar for best original screenplay—his second, after winning best adapted screenplay five years earlier for The Lost Weekend.
Five years later, Brackett, as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hosts the Oscars. Fellow Eph Elia Kazan, Class of 1930, wins for On the Waterfront.
Kazan is celebrated as an “actor’s director” able to elicit career-best performances from his stars and launching the film careers of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Warren Beatty among others; but his legacy remains clouded by his controversial testimony as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 at the time of the Hollywood blacklist.
Two years earlier, while watching Brackett’s film Titanic, Ephs everywhere are delighted to see a group of college students singing “Yard by Yard” around a piano as the iceberg strikes.
The song is a mash-up of two songs written for the 1909 singing context, the verse by Clarence F. Brown, Class of 1909, and the chorus by Hamilton B. Wood, Class of 1910.
The film nets Brackett another best original screenplay Oscar.
Sadly, aboard the actual Titanic in 1912, an Eph dies: George D. Wick, ex-member of the Class of 1876.
Three years later during another disaster at sea, a different outcome, as Dr. Frederick W. Pearl, Class of 1890, is rescued from the Lusitania.
65 years after that, in 1980, two Williams families are among those to escape from the burning Prinsendam cruise ship off the coast of Alaska: Hank Field, Class of 1929, and Fairleigh Dickinson, Class of 1941.
“Dickinson is credited with a large part in the survival of the 60 people in the 48-man lifeboat in which he and Betty escaped. Calling on years of sailing experience, he utilized the boat’s sea anchor and rigged a rough sail from the canvas boat cover to turn the craft’s bow into 25-foot waves, keeping the vessel afloat until Coast Guard rescue operations could be completed.” (Fall 1980 Alumni Review)
Where there is tragedy by sea, there is also tragedy by air. In 1977, Dave Jayne, Class of 1958, dies in a plane crash aboard a jet headed from Amman to Beirut. A producer for ABC News, Jayne was in Amman for an interview by Barbara Walters with Yasir Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Walters, emotional about the loss at her 46th birthday party two days later, says it’s been a very difficult year. Reports note that she wore a lavender one-shoulder Halston gown. Whether it's a coincidence or a tribute to the fallen Eph we'll never know.
46 years earlier, Spencer Goldthwaite, Class of 1928, dies in a plane crash with famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. Goldthwaite was on his way to Pasadena, Calif., to spend Easter with his father, Edward S. Goldthwaite, Class of 1901.
A memorial is erected at the site of the crash in Kansas.
The Nordic football connections continue, as, 40 years earlier, Carl M. Johanson, Class of 1889, discovers Glenn “Pop” Warner, who will go on to be considered one of the greatest coaches in the game.
As the Alumni Review quoted the Seattle Daily Times: “Returning to Ithaca early in September, 1891 … Johanson observed a strapping fellow, with a broad sombrero, aboard the train.
‘I never saw a finer specimen of manhood,’ smiled Carl Johanson today. ‘I don’t know where this fellow is going; I don’t know if he ever heard of Cornell or Ithaca,’ Captain Johanson said he soliloquized, ‘but I’m going to show him Ithaca if I have to throw him off the train when we get there.’
The Cornell man introduced himself; learned that the other was Glenn Warner, just off a Texas ranch, and that he was on his way to enter Cornell University. ‘And you’ll report to me for football,’ grinned the delighted coach.
‘I’ll do nothing of the sort; I am going to Cornell to study, not to play’, retorted the Texan.”
Three weeks later Warner came to practice, and the rest is history.
Moving from the gridiron to the hardwood, Oswald Tower, Class of 1907, is among the first group of four individuals named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
“Ozzie was a member of the rules committee from 1910 to 1960 and editor and interpreter of the rules from 1914 to 1960.
“When he was given the Harold (Kid) Gore Award in 1942 as the individual who had done the most for basketball, the citation said: “The game was born in the mind of Dr. [James A.] Naismith, but nourished in the mind of Oswald Tower.’
“Lee Williams, executive director of the hall of fame, said: ‘After Dr. Naismith wrote the original 13 rules in 1892, the game passed through cumbersome, almost leaderless days, with conflicting sets of rules. Ozzie was one of the two or three men who codified the whole thing, and his mind and voice kept the game growing bigger and better through all the years it needed help. He ruled the game, although he perhaps didn’t intend to, but his word was the last word.’” (August 1968 Alumni Review)
Travel 22 years forward and two and a half hours southwest from the Basketball Hall of Fame to Central Park, for The Concert in the Park, Simon and Garfunkel’s benefit attended by more than 500,000 people. The concert is proposed and greenlit by Gordon Davis, Class of 1963, then New York City Parks Commissioner.
The first song Simon and Garfunkel play? Why, “Mrs. Robinson,” of course, written for the 1967 film The Graduate, based on the novel of the same name by Charles Webb, Class of 1961.
In 1992, Webb writes a letter to classmate and class secretary Buck Robinson, saying “Even though we weren’t acquainted at Williams, I took the liberty, in writing a first novel, of utilizing your surname for a character, as I felt it had a certain ring about it…”
Other of-their-moment works by Ephs?
In 1918, Lieutenant James S. Alexander, Class of 1917, has the honor of translating the terms of the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, from French into English.
Seven years later, a textbook by Dr. George William Hunter, Class of 1895, is at the center of the Scopes trial.
His Elements of Biology is the book Tennessee teacher John T. Scopes is using when he is arrested on charges of teaching evolution.
73 years later, Edward J. Larson, Class of 1974, wins the Pulitzer Prize in History for his book on the trial, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.
Decades earlier, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Class of 1919, is a founding member and two-time vice president of the Screenwriters Guild. Fellow Eph Charles Brackett, Class of 1915, is also a founding member and will serve as the union’s president 1938-1939.
In 1934, Garrett wins the Oscar for best original screenplay for Manhattan Melodrama, sharing the award with Joseph L. Mankeiwicz. Mankiewicz's daughter Alex later matriculates at Williams with the Class of 1987
Garrett goes on to serve as head of the psychological warfare branch of the office for War Information for operations in North Africa, Sicily and Italy during World War II.
Speaking of World War II, let’s meet a few more Ephs, though admittedly these are just the tip of the iceberg. [Ed. I thought we were done with the Titanic bit.]
John MacVane, Class of 1933, radio war correspondent for NBC:
“Hello America! London Calling!
He’s John MacVane. You hear him twice a day, usually, on your radio. His voice comes in from London, carrying the news of bombed Britain to a nation of anxious Americans, tuned to one of the other of the National Broadcasting Company’s two coast-to-coast networks.” (May 1941 Alumni Review)
Jack Daly, Class of 1942, roommate of future President Gerald Ford:
“Former Roommate Now in White House
“Back when Jack Daly ’42, was a pre-flight instructor at Chapel Hill, N.C., he and another Navy ensign were seeking a roommate for a house they had rented. The requirements were that he had to have a car.
“They found one, and he had the car. Jerry Ford was the man with the wheels, a Ford, of course. Jack recently told Boston Globe columnist Ernie Roberts that:
“‘Jerry didn’t make it any secret that he was ambitious about politics, but we had no idea then that he would go this far.’”
John H. Thompson, Class of 1930, war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, writing in to the fall 1983 Alumni Review:
“‘In his 1979 book, On the Air in World War II, [John MacVane, Williams Class of 1933] remarked: “If U.S. colleges and universities were ever to match correspondents on D-Day, Williams College with Jack Thompson and me had twice as many as any other American institution of higher learning…”
“‘In other invasions—notably French North Africa and Sicily—I had jumped behind enemy lines with our pioneer paratroopers, becoming the World’s first paratrooper reporter, and the first U.S. civilian to be awarded America’s brand new Medal of Freedom for ‘meritorious service’ during the fierce paratrooper battles in Sicily.
“‘But after my last jump in Sicily in 1943, the late Col. Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, had ordered me to ‘Jump no more.’ So, on June 6, 1944, I found myself bobbing up and down in one of the little landing boats, clutching a typewriter, as we charged toward the beach into a tempest of fire from the entrenched Germans on the high bluffs.’” (Fall 1983 Alumni Review)
After the war, Williams President James Phinney Baxter III, Class of 1914, presents General Dwight D. Eisenhower with an honorary degree.
That same year, Eisenhower publishes his war memoir Crusade in Europe. It would be optioned by Twentieth Century Fox and become the first documentary series on television—produced by none other than Richard de Rochemont, Class of 1924.
The next year de Rochemont wins an Oscar for his documentary short, A Chance to Live.
One year later, in 1950, he meets a young Stanley Kubrick and becomes an early mentor to him.
Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove would go on to be immortalized as the Pappa Charlie’s sandwich, Dr. Strangepork.
You know who else is hungry now? Cookie Monster. 1969 features the debut of Sesame Street, with Jon Stone, Class of 1952, as chief writer, director, and producer.
Stone develops the beloved characters Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird; wins 18 Emmy Awards over the course of his career; and receives an honorary degree from Williams in 1977.
Back to Ike, now President of the United States, who has an Eph encounter in Switzerland.
“President Eisenhower congratulated the Rev. Gerald B. O’Grady Jr., Class of 1940, rector of the Emmanuel Church of the American Community in Geneva, Switzerland, and asked for a copy of Mr. O’Grady’s sermon when the latter preached against ‘dogmatic absolutism or flabby surrender’ in his sermon on July 17.” (November 1955 Alumni Review)
It would not be the last time Eisenhower would cross paths with an Eph clergyman.
The Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., Class of 1937, serves as dean of Washington National Cathedral from 1951 to 1978.
In 1969, Dean Sayre ‘37 assists in the funeral of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
One year earlier, Dean Sayre invites Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to preach at Washington National Cathedral, at the time a very controversial decision.
That March 31, 1968 address turns out to be Dr. King’s last Sunday sermon.
Three years prior, in 1965, Sayre flies down to join Dr. King on the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Two years before Selma, Dean Sayre participates in a march of a different kind, the funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy.
Twelve years earlier, in his first year as dean, Sayre gives Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh a tour of Washington National Cathedral during the royal couple’s visit to Washington, D.C.
Travel back 36 years to when Francis B. Sayre Jr., Class of 1937, is born—in the White House.
He is the son of Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre and Francis B. Sayre, Class of 1909; and the first grandson of President Woodrow Wilson. Sayre’s path would take him far from his grandfather’s racist, segregationist views and policies, as he preached against racism, economic inequality, political corruption, McCarthyism, and the Vietnam War.
Five years later, President Woodrow Wilson appoints Bainbridge Colby, Class of 1890, as secretary of state.
After the 19th Amendment is ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote, Colby is the one to issue the official proclamation that it is now part of the U.S. Constitution.
That same year, one mile away from Colby’s office in the State, War, and Navy Building (today the Eisenhower Executive Office Building), the statue of Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial has just been completed.
Turns out you are looking at the legs of an Eph. Prentiss French, Class of 1917, sat as a model for Lincoln’s trousers while assisting his uncle, Daniel Chester French, the statue’s sculptor.
Thirteen years later, Williams has two state governors.
Joseph B. Ely, Class of 1902, serves as governor of Massachusetts from 1931-1935.
Herbert H. Lehman, Class of 1899, serves as governor of New York from 1933-1942. Lehman goes on to represent New York in the U.S. Senate from 1949-1957 and receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, though, sadly, dies the day before the ceremony.
In 1926, he donates the funds to construct Lehman Hall. The Alumni Review describes the donation as “for the purpose of properly accommodating those freshmen who in past years have been forced to room in Lawrence Hall”—wait, Lawrence Hall, like WCMA, like the rotunda, you may be asking? Yes.
Legendary Art History Professor S. Lane Faison, Class of 1929, writes in the winter 1992 Alumni Review: "In 1925, the fall of my freshman year, Lawrence stood empty because the books had recently moved to the new Stetson Library. In fact, some of my classmates were temporarily housed in the beautiful 1846 Ionic rotunda—a peril indeed! The reason for this desecration was the absolute certainty that a score or more of entering frosh would flunk out by Christmas; therefore a policy of admitting an oversupply to fill up vacant dorm rooms, come January."
Head from Lawrence Hall across the Berkshire Quad to Driscoll Dining Hall, named for another Eph governor.
Alfred E. (Jake) Driscoll, Class of 1925, serves as governor of New Jersey from 1947-1954 and is known as the “father of the New Jersey Turnpike.”
Serving as a trustee for 20 years, and as chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, it is Jake who suggests that the Hopkins Observatory be moved across the quadrangle to make way for Prospect Hall.
After his death in 1975, as a tribute to his service to Williams and his distinction as a public servant, the Trustees rename the Fitch-Prospect Lounge and Dining Hall in his honor—Driscoll Hall.
Head up Route 7 to Vermont, where Philip H. Hoff, Class of 1948, is elected governor, serving from 1963-1969.
“...the first Democratic chief executive chosen there since before the Civil War. What few people realize is that the gentleman who turned the trick 109 years ago in the Green Mountain State was John S. Robinson, who was a member of the Class of 1824 at Williams.” (November 1962 Alumni Review)
Put a pin in that last tidbit, we’ll come back to it in a minute.
Williams again has two state governors in 1991.
Bruce Sundlun, Class of 1942, serves as governor of Rhode Island 1991-1995.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Arne Carlson, Class of 1957, serves as governor 1991-1999.
The Alumni Review erroneously reports, “This is the second time Williams has had two alumni serving as heads of state governments at the same time,” referring to the aforementioned Ely of Massachusetts and Lehman of New York.
Erroneously? Yes, as I discovered a third instance through the process of writing this story.
This is actually the year Williams first has two state governors.
Remember the name I said to put a pin in, John S. Robinson, Class of 1824, governor of Vermont 1853-1854?
Well, turns out there was another Eph governor at that time, also omitted from the 1991 list.
Emory Washburn, Class of 1817, serves as governor of Massachusetts 1854-1855.
They call that a triple-double, folks.
Which takes us back to the beginning of this wonderful community we all share.
Because the Williams College Society of Alumni? It was Emory Washburn’s idea.
When Zephaniah Swift Moore, second president of Williams, takes off for Amherst in 1821, it is Emory Washburn, Class of 1817, who writes to Daniel Noble, Class of 1796 and then president of the Board of Trustees, and together they hatch a plan.
Washburn publishes notices in regional newspapers, and on Sept. 5, 1821, with nearly a quarter of living alumni in attendance, the first alumni association is born.
Ever connected, ever thriving. Together, we are Williams.