By Harry Montgomery
Living in Williamstown, a college town, one’s own college town, means there’s not far to go for Reunions. Nor any easy getaway. They’re almost inescapable, not least at the college that invented alumni associations and reunions. These were key survival stratagems of beleaguered Williams students, graduates, and faculty after the notorious coup of 1821. Zephaniah Swift Moore, its president, had defected with much of the faculty to Amherst to found a new college in the more populous Connecticut River Valley.
On June 11 this year, the 194th annual meeting of the Williams Society of Alumni, heralded by bagpipes and the Sheriff, was held in Chandler Gym. The College has 29,000 alumni world-wide. I was there with many of the 1,850 attending this year’s Reunion, Classes of 1941 through 2016. My earlier attendance record at Reunions was not good, since I was among those too far away or too busy to attend. I did make one while still gainfully employed, my 20th. But I earned lots of stars for attendance from my 45th onward.
I’ve had a long if sometimes tenuous Williams connection. A scholarship student-athlete, my father believed in loyalty and payback. (He fought two world wars, with his Williams years wrapped around the first.) And, with coeducation since the mid-1970s, one daughter opted for Williams, making me the middle link in a legacy chain. Looking for an interesting and affordable place to retire, I came back to Williamstown with its abundance of free culture. Now classmates know we have spare beds. Also, taking on the note-compiling job of Secretary for the Class of 1954, I’ve become a close observer of the College.
How we view any phenomenon such as Reunions, is perforce subjective, a function of our times and its culture. But we develop a point of view. There is a predictable and observable shift in attitudes and relationships over time within class cohorts. Early meetings are marked by competitiveness and mutual appraisals of comparative success, including marital. These mindsets diminish and shift by the 30th reunion (my daughter just had hers). By the 40th, reunions almost become tableaux from a “Peaceable Kingdom” painting by Edward Hicks. One-time bigots and bullies as well as the jocks are happily sharing the shade with once shunned and scarcely known geeks and others we now might put under the rubric of LGBTs. The serendipity then is getting to really know those interesting classmates who somehow had lived in other campus silos, segregated by housing or major.
Reunions serve both graduates and their institutions. Along with Alumni Funds, they are major fund-raising tools for private colleges like Williams. Fiftieth Reunions are landmark affairs for College fund-raising, again marshalling competitive spirits, but now for the collectivity of the Class, particularly its 10-year take versus those of earlier classes. Development officers spend over a year laying the groundwork. Some arms may be twisted by class leaders and purses emptied the night before the Annual Meeting of the Alumni Association.
Viola! A bigger and better Class gift.
Until recently, post-50th classes became the Old Guard. But that was based upon old demographics and life expectancy. While never promising life-long room and board, such as the French accord to long-serving veterans in Paris’ Les Invalides, the College has always treated us post-50ths kindly. I think we’re now called the Greylocks. And October Mini-Reunions give us a second annual shot at camaraderie.
Well over 50% of my classmates remain active. But the calendar and clock are relentless. Back at the Annual Meeting, and the special 50th-plus lunch that follows, I see, up front, four happy warrior friends from the Class of 1941. This is the image I’ll keep of the 2016 Reunions.