Time Traveling Through Williams Alumni History

by Leigh Winter Martin '99

Over the past year I’ve been through 20,000+ pages of archived Alumni Reviews. I’ve “met” so many wonderful Ephs and discovered so many wonderful stories, and I hope throughout this bicentennial you get a chance to encounter many of them. Here, I’d like you to meet E. Kendall Gillett, Class of 1908.

September 2019

I didn’t know it then, but it would be the only day in the archives I would get.

My partner-in-purple, Rich Levy ’74, joins me for the morning, and we decide it’s only fitting to begin with the Society of Alumni founding documents. It’s amazing to be touching our history, the words that got this all started. But that’s another story.

I figure it will be just the first of many visits to the archives as part of this bicentennial storytelling project, but since I’m coming from the West Coast I want to make it count.

The archives staff tells me I’ll have time to go through about 12 boxes. How do you choose when what you want to see is boundless?

Out of a starting list of 386 collections, I narrow it down to 41, though that still totals more than 1,600 boxes.

From there I select boxes from eight collections, including the Society of Alumni founding documents, some campus photos and blueprints, a couple scrapbooks, and two single-box collections that mention reunion photos in their descriptions.

One of those, Box MC309, is the E. Kendall Gillett photograph collection.

From the first photograph my heart takes flight. It’s June 1911, and the Class of 1908 is back for its three-year reunion, which was a thing back then. It was also a thing to wear costumes, and 1908 has fully committed, though I’m not entirely sure to what. (Are they...toddlers?)

A black and white photo shows members of the Williams class of 1908, in costume, at their three-year reunion in 1911.

Two years later, they are back for their 5th reunion, and this time they are pirates. 1913 was the first year that the reunion attendance cup was awarded, and 1908 wins. (Select from the gallery below to view full-size images.)

The life in these photographs jumps off the pages, and I am transported back in time.

I see the Class of 1910, back for their 3-year reunion, dancing at the corner of Route 2 and North St in front of the old Greylock Hotel. Standing in the same spot today you would be looking at Mark Hopkins, Bryant, and the Greylock Quad.

A black and white photograph in an album shows men from the class of 1910 dressed as sailors with dancing in the street at their three-year reunion.

The singing, the dancing, the costumes!

Every photo pulls me in deeper, then one stops me in my tracks.

A black and white photo of three men dressed as pirates and a sailor at their Williams class reunion in 1913.

On the right is Belvidere Brooks, Class of 1910, back for his 3-year reunion and dressed as a sailor. Five years later he would be killed in WWI, but his Williams legacy would be just beginning, as both Brooks House and the Brooks Medal for football would later be named for him. The other two in this photo would also make their mark on Williams: Francis E. Bowker Jr., Class of 1908, establishing the Bowker Swimming Trophy in 1925; Gerry Mygatt, Class of 1908, contributing a cover redesign for the Review and entertaining class notes over the course of his winding career as a writer.

The ends of their stories may already be written, but for now we’re just hanging out on Spring Street at reunion.

Every album page is meticulously labeled, in what I assume was the custom of the day.

E. Kendall Gillett ‘08, the man who has made this time-travel possible, doesn’t appear in many of the photographs, but when he does he is marked by a squiggle.

Or sometimes, “Yours Truly.”

An archival black-and-white photography of E. Kendall Gillet, who wears a sweater with the year 1908 across the chest.

1957

The next time I run into Ken, it’s May 1957. I had decided to start looking through some old Alumni Reviews, and there’s his name leading off the 1908 class notes as class secretary. In July there is a photo of him with his Class of ’34 son and Class of ’60 grandson, and in November there is a letter from him to his class outlining plans for their upcoming 50th reunion. For some reason it’s deeply satisfying to see him involved as a volunteer this many years later.

A clipping from a 1957 Alumni Review shows E. Kendall Gillett with his son and grandson.
July 1957 Alumni Review

I’m not quite sure why I started in 1957. I think I was looking for articles or letters to the editor leading up to the elimination of fraternities, for a sense of alumni reaction to that period of significant change. At that point the plan was to do targeted research around key events and dates.

But 1957 captivated me.

Students living in Lasell Gym while Fayerweather was under construction. Ephs helping Hungarian refugees. A new athletic craze called skydiving. Small-world stories. Alums grappling with issues of conformity at Williams. This absolutely incredible photo in a tribute to a ’27 alum. (Click through the gallery of Alumni Review clips from 1957 below.)

And over and over again, the theme of change. Exploring what it means to both love an institution and challenge it to be better.

There was heart and humor on every page. If I only hunted-and-pecked looking for alumni reactions and involvement on specific issues, I would miss out on all of this richness. All the little stories that make us, us.

I knew then that I would go back to the beginning.

1909

A clip of the front page of the February 1909 Alumni Review.

Talcott Miner Banks, Class of 1890, mails out the inaugural issue of the Alumni Review in February 1909. It’s a slim volume of 20 pages, and the class notes at the end take up a page and a half.

The early years of the Review are just as joy-inducing as 1957. Instead of skydiving, we have aeronautics taking off (pun intended). 72-hour houseparties. Construction on buildings it would be hard to imagine Williams without, including Currier, Chapin (née Grace Hall) and Thompson Infirmary (back when “Old I” was the “New I”).

It’s there right from the start, all of the same themes. Humor. Love. Criticism. Philanthropy. Optimism. Alumni making an impact on the world and on each other in ways both big and small. Most of all, change.

It’s April 1910 when I next run into Ken.

He’s just joined the executive committee of the New York Alumni Association. Later that year, he gets engaged. The following year, a new job and a wedding (officiated by an 1883 alum!).

As I make my way through thousands of pages, Ken is with me on the journey. Or rather, I follow him on his.

What unfolds is a picture of a lifetime of service to Williams.

After joining the New York Alumni Association executive committee, Ken continues to get more involved locally, including with the newly-established Williams Club. In 1918, he serves on the Military Committee of the Williams Club, “devoted to keeping our men in the service in touch with Alma Mater,” which sounds somewhat like a WWI-era precursor to Stewart Menking ’79’s Adopt-an-Eph program.

A couple years later, in January 1920, he’s on the committee for the New York Dinner. Billed as an annual midwinter reunion, these epic dinners started in 1915 and routinely drew 500+ alumni. (See a photo below of the 1916 dinner.)

Twenty years later Ken would go on to chair this dinner and serve as president of the Williams Club. As the U.S. enters WWII, he posts a letter in the Review saying, “The Williams Club is the USO of all Williams service men and their friends,” whether they are members or not.

A black and white photo of E. K. Gillett at the 1940 New York City reunion dinner.
A black and white photo of Williams alumni at the 1916 New York City reunion dinner.

Reunions? Check. In addition to the photo album memorializing his 3rd and 5th reunions, he chairs his 15th; speaks at his 25th as class representative; serves on his 30th reunion committee; hosts a class dinner at the Williams Club when their official 35th reunion is cancelled by WWII; leads 1908 to win the attendance cup at their 50th; attends his 51st and 52nd reunions after joining the Old Guard; and serves on the committee for his 55th.

A black and white photo of the Williams class of 1908 at their 50th reunion.
July 1958 Alumni Review

Fundraising? He’s all over that, too. Ken serves as 1908’s class agent from the position’s origination until 1952; as vice chairman to the Alumni Loan Fund in 1932 (an alumni-funded pool of aid students could draw loans from, started in 1915) ; and as an Alumni Fund Director from 1937-40. He is a regular attendee at the annual Alumni Fund dinner and Class Agents meeting, and routinely has 1908 sitting atop the Alumni Fund percentage list. (Click the images below to enlarge Alumni Review clips.)

His desire to set a high bar for participation is ahead of his time. The Alumni Fund wouldn’t adopt an official participation goal until 1975.

All this in addition to serving as lifelong Class Secretary for 1908. It is in that capacity that I get to know Ken a little better, through many years of class notes.

7 Things You Should Know About Ken

#1. Family is always worth writing in about. There seems to be a report announcing every grandchild -- including this one from 1936 staking his claim to the title of “class grandfather” (aka the first in the class to become a grandfather).

The class secretary, Ken Gillet, informs us that "Breeze" Snowden won the class cup. Ken himself now lays claim to being the class grandfather. The grandchild is Watson Beach Day II, of Dedham, whose father went to Yale. Ken wants to know if the boy, now two years old, can be signed up for Williams, and would welcome any assistance in pushing this matter through. [April 1936 Alumni Review]


I smile as I read the clip above and see a familiar name; Breeze Snowden Jr. was featured front-and-center in Ken’s 5th reunion photo album as the class boy.

A black and white photography in an album shows a young boy in a stroller with the class of 1908 at their five-year reunion.

#2. He’ll never pass up a chance to take a dig at amHerst.

It will be a great blow to the members of the class of 1908 to learn that Attorney George S. Parker ('The Judge') has allowed his son to go to Amherst. [May 1936 Alumni Review]


#3. Williams is not the only alma mater he cares about.
He’s clearly proud of and reports in about his service to Taft as well.

E. Kendall Gillett is a member of the National Committee which is to direct the Taft School Semi-Centennial Program, and also a member of the Headmaster's Selection Committee for the school. [March 1936 Alumni Review]

E. Kendall Gillett was elected president of the Taft Alumni Association on Alumni Day in June. The Taft Alumni Bulletin has this to say about him: "Gillett has always been one of the most interested and active of the the Taft alumni..." [October 1936 Alumni Review]

At the October meeting of the Board of Trustees of Taft School, E. Kendall Gillett was elected to serve ont he Board for a five year term. [December 1947 Alumni Review]


#4. He's got dad jokes.

A voice from the dim past—Fred Wehle writes from Louisville, Ky., that he will be back in 1938 for reunion with bells on. I hope he has more than this to cover him. I might suggest he borrow Sally Rand's fan at least. [May 1937 Alumni Review]


#5. He promotes one of our greatest alumni traditions, Ephs supporting Ephs.

I have just learned that John Woodcock was hit by an automobile while crossing the street a block from his home on November 19, last. John has been confined to his bed ever since the accident. He needs cheering up and would like to receive letters from any of the boys in the class or others who were in college with him. In case you have not received an Alumni Bulletin, John can be reached at...Drop him a line. He would like nothing better than to hear from you. [February 1939 Alumni Review]

John Woodcock writes: 'The doctors promise that I will be able to walk downstairs to my Thanksgiving dinner in November. I am now on the home stretch and am planning to come to New York for the 1908 dinner this winter.' No member of the class realizes, unless he has seen John, what a siege he has been through. He writes that he wishes news from the class. I hope anyone who can do so will drop him a line. He counts on his friends more than you can realize. [October 1939 Alumni Review]


#6. He welcomes long-distant classmates back with open arms.
(Click the images below to enlarge Alumni Review clips.)

#7. He’s in favor of Williams admitting women. Sure it’s for selfish reasons, but I’ll take it.

Gillett writes that he and Mrs. Gillett have left Florida and are ont heir way to Norfolk, Conn. by way of Pasadena, Calif., where they are going to see their son, Frank '39, and his family of wide and three girls. He asks that the Alumni Secretary see the President about making Williams co-educational. Ken will be back in time to be present for Commencement. [May 1954 Alumni Review]

1966

As I make my way through the Alumni Reviews of the 1960s, I realize I’m holding my breath every time I approach the obituaries section; I only let it out when I get to 1908 and see Ken is not there.

August 1966. I make it through the main paragraph-length obituaries section and exhale. But I forgot about the ‘other deaths’ section, and there he is. I burst into tears. The logical part of me knows how the passage of time works, knows he was always going to die before I was even born, but it sure feels like I’ve lost a good friend. He’s been with me through this whole journey and now he’s gone.

A clip from the August 1966 Alumni Review lists alumni deaths including E. K. Gillett.

In the next issue, his two-paragraph obituary appears. I’m surprised to find out he was a founder of a publication called Motion Picture News and co-founder of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, which established three standard widths for motion picture films. Looking back, out of more than 100 collected clips, I can count the work-related items on one hand—five one-liners noting a change of firm or address. Instead, it was always about his family or service to Williams.

I skip ahead to the 1908 class notes, in search of some sort of tribute or mention. But there’s nothing. By now word would have reached his class, right? When other classes have lost their lifelong class secretary, there’s usually at least an acknowledgement. Next issue, nothing. Did he just live to the point where most of the class was already gone, and there was no one left to remember him?

He who reported on so many lost classmates, often attending their services, now is gone without a word.

This compounds my sadness, and all I can think of is the musical Hamilton. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story…?”

I need closure, and I want all he gave to Williams to be acknowledged.

So maybe I’ll be the one to tell his story.

September 2020

As I sit down to write this, I go back to check the archives collection listing for Ken’s photos. Under additional description it says “Gift of E. Kendall Gillett (Williams 1960), Dec. 2018.” December 2018, just nine months before my visit to the College Archives. If I had started this project a year earlier I never would have even encountered it.

The luck and kismet of how people come into our lives is a beautiful mystery. I will forever be grateful I pulled Box MC309.

A black and white photograph of E. K. Gillett in front of Grace Hall construction (now Chapin Hall).
E. Kendall Gillett photograph collection

I’ve “met” so many wonderful Ephs and discovered so many wonderful stories, and I hope throughout this bicentennial celebration you get a chance to encounter many of them.

To my dear friend E. Kendall Gillett, Class of 1908, thank you for letting me tell your story. At least a tiny, purple-colored sliver of what I sense was a very full life.

Yours Truly,
Leigh Winter Martin, Class of 1999

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