Sam Crane directs our attention to the passing of William Sloane Coffin, former college chaplain at Williams and social activist.

Before he became famous as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and crusader for civil rights, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin — who died Wednesday at the age of 81 — was a vocal, moral critic of fraternities at Williams College, where he was chaplain for a brief time shortly after becoming a minister.

It was his forceful position on the subject that likely led to an incident in 1958 in which a window of his Southworth Street house was shot out. Though no one was hurt, the incident helped seal the fate of the Greek system on campus.

I am sure that my father, class of 1958 and president of the DKE House, has an alibi. Frank Uible ’57, also DKE president, has declined comment on the incident.

[Williams College Chaplain Rick] Spalding praised him for his courage in taking positions against the war and for civil rights, as well as for encouraging young people to think about issues of justice and privilege in their own lives.

“I think the moral compass that he was pointed often in ways that startled people, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one of those positions that time didn’t prove was right,” he said.

Ha! Now is probably not the time to get into the issue of whether or not nuclear disarmament (much less Coffin’s views on economics) is a position that time did or didn’t prove right. It is certainly true that Spalding thinks that time has proved Coffin right. Many/most Vietnamese boat people — the grandchildren of whom are probably among current Ephs — might take exception to Coffin’s refusal to support the government of South Vietnam in its fight against the Communist North.

Leaving boring politics to one side, I can’t resist noting that, like all good bloggers, I read through a story like the Eagle’s paragraph by paragraph, quoting and commenting as I go along. The “jokes” above about the DKE House were just tossed in because, well, my father was a DKE and Frank is an EphBlog regular. Imagine my surprise when I read:

Williams history professor Charles Dew [’58] was a senior when Coffin was on campus.

“In my time there, he stood out as a particularly forceful and dramatic figure,” he said.

Dew said the college was beginning to debate the role of fraternities on campus, which were an overwhelming part of the college’s social life. Coffin came down strongly against them, noting discriminatory practices at some against African-Americans and Jews, and calling them “un-Christian.”

At about 10:30 p.m. one Saturday in April 1958, a shotgun blast from the street blew out a front window of the Coffin family home at 7 Southworth St. Coffin and his wife were not home, but their 3-month-old daughter, Amy, and a baby-sitter, Ruth Morgan of Williamstown, were in another room.

Williamstown Police launched an investigation that immediately focused on students, because of Coffin’s remarks about fraternities. As part of the investigation, they questioned each of the 55 students on campus who were known to own shotguns. During the course of the investigation, someone set off a pair of cherry bombs in the Coffins’ backyard as well.

After five days, two brothers of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity came forward and confessed. Junior Stephen Barnett and sophomore Paul Crews were charged with malicious damage to property, fined $125 each, and expelled by the college.

It was DKE! Who knew? This was not a story told around the Kane family dinner table. I wonder where Barnett and Crews are now. Dad and Frank need to fill in the details. Also, someone should add this story to the Campus Controversies section of Willipedia.

According to their statement as quoted in the newspaper, the two men said they had been riding around with a borrowed shotgun and thought it would be “a good idea” to shoot up the house. They passed the house several times, and thought there was no one home.

When asked by Williamstown District Court Judge Samuel E. Levine why they chose that particular house, Barnett replied, “I’d rather not say anything about that.”

The incident had a serious impact on the fraternity debate.

“No one was hurt, but it did the fraternity’s cause no good and was certainly a nail in their coffin here,” Dew said.

The college banned fraternities in 1962.

Thanks again to Sam for the pointer. It would make for a great senior thesis or independent study to tell this story in more detail, to find and interview Barnett and Crews, to paint a picture of what Williams was like in April 1958, forty eight years ago.

Entire article below the break.

Before he became famous as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and crusader for civil rights, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin — who died Wednesday at the age of 81 — was a vocal, moral critic of fraternities at Williams College, where he was chaplain for a brief time shortly after becoming a minister.

It was his forceful position on the subject that likely led to an incident in 1958 in which a window of his Southworth Street house was shot out. Though no one was hurt, the incident helped seal the fate of the Greek system on campus.

Coffin died at his home in Vermont this week, after a long and varied career that included a stint as a spy and a brief stay at Williams. He later went on to Yale University, where he became a liberal moral authority against war and for social justice.

Williams Chaplain Richard Spalding knew Coffin while he was himself an undergraduate at Yale. He said Coffin’s career helped shape the role of college chaplain toward greater social engagement, partly in response to the turbulence of the 1960s and growing social awareness among students.

“I don’t think there is any question at all that he broke ground in this field,” he said.

Spalding praised him for his courage in taking positions against the war and for civil rights, as well as for encouraging young people to think about issues of justice and privilege in their own lives.

“I think the moral compass that he was pointed often in ways that startled people, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one of those positions that time didn’t prove was right,” he said.

Coffin was born into a wealthy family, attended prestigious schools, served in World War II, and in the early 1950s was an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency. He went on to Yale Divinity School and, after a brief time as chaplain at Philips Andover Academy, he was named chaplain at Williams College in February 1957.

‘Dramatic figure’

Williams history professor Charles Dew was a senior when Coffin was on campus.

“In my time there, he stood out as a particularly forceful and dramatic figure,” he said.

Dew said the college was beginning to debate the role of fraternities on campus, which were an overwhelming part of the college’s social life. Coffin came down strongly against them, noting discriminatory practices at some against African-Americans and Jews, and calling them “un-Christian.”

At about 10:30 p.m. one Saturday in April 1958, a shotgun blast from the street blew out a front window of the Coffin family home at 7 Southworth St. Coffin and his wife were not home, but their 3-month-old daughter, Amy, and a baby-sitter, Ruth Morgan of Williamstown, were in another room.

(Contrary to local legend, the baby-sitter that night was not Jeb Stuart Magruder, who was a Williams student at the time and would later serve as an aide to President Richard Nixon and spend time in jail for his role in the Watergate conspiracy. However, at a speech on campus in December 2004, Magruder confirmed that he baby-sat for the Coffins on several other occasions).

Williamstown Police launched an investigation that immediately focused on students, because of Coffin’s remarks about fraternities. As part of the investigation, they questioned each of the 55 students on campus who were known to own shotguns. During the course of the investigation, someone set off a pair of cherry bombs in the Coffins’ backyard as well.

After five days, two brothers of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity came forward and confessed. Junior Stephen Barnett and sophomore Paul Crews were charged with malicious damage to property, fined $125 each, and expelled by the college.

According to their statement as quoted in the newspaper, the two men said they had been riding around with a borrowed shotgun and thought it would be “a good idea” to shoot up the house. They passed the house several times, and thought there was no one home.

When asked by Williamstown District Court Judge Samuel E. Levine why they chose that particular house, Barnett replied, “I’d rather not say anything about that.”

The incident had a serious impact on the fraternity debate.

“No one was hurt, but it did the fraternity’s cause no good and was certainly a nail in their coffin here,” Dew said.

The college banned fraternities in 1962.

On to Yale

The autumn after the shooting, Coffin went on to the chaplain’s post at Yale, where he stayed until 1976. In the early 1960s, he became active in the civil rights movement. In a speech to the South Congregational Church in Pittsfield in January 1962, he discussed the “prophetic role” of the clergy — to be “a disturber of the peace” when necessary.

“I think that the church by and large in our country has been remiss in its prophetic role, and it was precisely when the voice of the church was silent and withdrawn that Jim Crowism established itself in this country,” he said.

Later he spoke out against the Vietnam War. In 1967, he and prominent activists like Dr. Benjamin Spock faced charges for advising young men on avoiding the draft, though their convictions were overturned in 1970.

In a speech at Williams in May 1968, he justified his position: “You can’t duck the issue; it’s a moral one.”

Said Coffin: “You cannot surrender your conscience to the state. You’ve got to face up to it.”

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