In my role as Eph busybody, I occasional provide unsolicited suggestions to people at Williams about how they should do their jobs. Surprisingly enough, my sugegstions are generally met with polite acknowledgements and patient explanations about why something that seems to be such a good idea from the perspective of 15 years ago and 150 miles away might not work that well in practice. One of my favorite topics is “The Mountains” and what a shame it is that students, like us, never learn the words while at Williams (with the exception of the rugby team, perhaps). For the last decade or so, I have been sending a letter on this topic to the incoming JA’s around this time of year. Some years I send it to the incoming co-presidents (wasn’t there a President and Vice President during our era?). Some years I send it to all the new JA’s (the list is often printed in the Record). Some (most) years I am too scatterbrained to send it at all. In any event, here is this year’s version.

To the JA’s for the class of 2007:

At the 1989 Williams graduation ceremonies, then-President Francis Oakley had a problem. Light rain showers, which had been threatening all morning, started mid-way through the event. Thinking that he should speed things along, and realizing that virtually no one knew the words to “The Mountains,” President Oakley proposed that the traditional singing be skipped.

I cry arose from all Ephs present, myself included. Although few knew the words, all wanted to sing the damn song. Sensing rebellion, President Oakley relented and led the assembled graduates and guests through a somewhat soaked rendition of the song that has marked Williams events for more than 100 years.

Similar scenes play themselves out at Williams events around the country. At many of the Williams weddings that you will attend in the future, an attempt, albeit a weak one, will be made to sing “The Mountains.” At reunion events run by the college, “The Mountains” will be sung, generally with the help of handy cards supplied by the Alumni Office. It is obvious that most graduates wish that they knew the words. It is equally obvious than almost all do not.

What we have, as current-President Schapiro can explain better than I, is a collective action problem. Everyone (undergraduates and alumni alike) wishes that everyone knew the words — it would be wonderful to sing “The Mountains” at events ranging from basketball games in the gym to hikes up Pine Cobble to gatherings around the world. But there is no point in me learning the words since, even if I knew them, there would be no one else who did. Since no single individual has an incentive to learn the words, no one bothers to learn them. We are stuck at a sub-optimal equilibrium.

Fortunately, you have the power to fix this. You could learn “The Mountains” together, as a group, during your JA orientation in a few weeks. You could then teach all the First Years during First Days next fall. It will no doubt make for a nice entry bonding experience. All sorts of goofy ideas come to mind. How about a singing contest at the opening dinner, judged by President Schapiro, between the different dorms with first prize being a pizza dinner later in the fall?

The point is that once a tradition like this is started, it will in all likelihood go on forever. And you will be responsible for that. A hundred years from now the campus will look as different from today as today looks from 1903, but, if you seize this opportunity, Williams students and alumni will still be singing “The Mountains”.

Congratulations on being selected as a JA. It is a singular honor and responsibility.


Dave Kane ’88

This year, I got a nice response from all concerned. Dean (of the college) Roseman actually arranged for it to be sent to all the incoming JA’s. I also discovered that am introduction to “The Mountains” has been an official part of “First Days” for at least the last two years, with the JA’s making big signs with the words on it and leading the freshmen in a rendition during the first class meeting in Chapin Hall.

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