“Baxter Hall and the Williams College Class of 1957” by Robert D. Loevy ’57 is the second essay in our series of 50th reunion reminisces.

I had the pleasure a few years ago of writing a history of Colorado College and enjoyed every minute of it. There was one problem, however. It completely changed my view of my alma mater, Williams College, and my experiences there as a member of the class of 1957.

I now know the administration and faculty at Williams were glad to see me and my classmates when we arrived on campus. We were all born in the mid-1930s, the depths of the Great Depression, and birth rates had fallen precipitously along with the hard economic times. Because there was a shortage of “Depression babies,” as our age group was called, colleges and universities struggled in the mid-1950s to enroll as many highly-qualified students as possible.

Vestiges of World War II greeted the class of 1957 on the campus in Williamstown. We ate our meals in an old barracks-like structure left over, I am reasonably certain, from when military officers were trained at Williams College during World War Two. Military-style Quonset huts still occupied the campus south of the skating rink and north of the football field, remnants of the post-war GI-bill and the veterans and their families that program had brought to Williams.

But by 1953 the war was long over and most of the GIs had graduated and moved on. The College was stuck with just us – regular undergraduate male students without Uncle Sam to flood extra money into the Williams College coffers.
It was those early meals in those old barracks off the sophomore quadrangle that now interest me most. It was the first indication that the class of 1957 was going to be different from previous classes at Williams. We were eating in the barracks because Baxter Hall, the new campus student union, had fallen behind on its construction schedule and was not ready to serve meals and provide meeting places and lounge areas until after Thanksgiving vacation.

As we all know, the class of 1957 was the first class in many a year at Williams to not go through fraternity rushing the first minute we hit campus. We were the guinea pigs for what was called deferred rushing. We spent our freshman year living together in the freshman quadrangle, eating together in the big freshman dining room in Baxter Hall (after Thanksgiving), holding our houseparty dances in Baxter Hall, and not going through fraternity rushing until the start of our sophomore year.

It had all come about because the Williams College president at the time, James Phinney Baxter III, and a group of committed trustees had decided to make it happen. I remember freshman year hearing talk of the Sterling Committee, often described in derogatory terms, as the group that decided on deferred rushing as the first step in eliminating fraternities. The Sterling Committee, I assume, also was the group that called for the building of Baxter Hall to give the fraternity-less freshman class of 1957 a place to eat and socialize.
I’ve served on committees like the Sterling Committee. They are hard work, time-consuming, and often deadly dull, but they do have a way of accomplishing things for colleges and universities. I’ve often wished I could go back in time and sit in on the meetings of the Sterling Committee. I’m pretty certain they were long, bitter, and hard-fought, with pro-fraternity members often leaving in a high state of frustration and anger.

Most of all I like the idea of Baxter Hall. Here was a college building constructed for the sole purpose of changing a college’s social system. It was a brick-and-mortar monument to the idea that no form of social discrimination, even the minor slight of being rejected by a fraternity, had a place on a progressive college campus. Williams College raised a bundle of dollars and spent them in a hurry to turn Baxter Hall into reality. To me the building became an icon to how a small New England college named Williams decided and then acted on the idea that social equality among college students was something that should be striven for if not readily achieved.

We all know what happened. The fraternity system soon disappeared completely, as I now am certain the Sterling Committee fully intended. Baxter Hall became the student union for the entire campus, but rival social centers were established in the grand new dormitory complexes that Williams constructed in later years. And then, inconceivably, Baxter Hall, the college building with a social mission, was torn down (according to the Alumni Review) on the eve of the class of 1957’s 50th Reunion.

I live and teach some 2,000 miles from Williamstown, so I have been back to Williams only five times since I graduated with the class of 1957. (How many remember that Henry Cabot Lodge was our graduation speaker? I think that’s who it was.) I enjoy visiting my old fraternity house, which is still a student residence hall and remains virtually unchanged, except for some unattractive security measures, since when I and my fraternity classmates occupied it.
But I always also made it a point to go back and visit Baxter Hall, get a drink and a snack in the beautiful circular snack bar (perhaps a black-and-white milkshake), and go up the stairs to the old freshman dining room that 1957 was the first class to eat in. I have come to believe over the years that we, the class of 1957, began the process of accomplishing something very important there.

I now know the colleges and universities of America brought the fraternity and sorority problem on themselves. Rather than do the hard work of raising the money to construct decent dormitories for their students, colleges and universities took the easy path of letting the students organize themselves into social groups and provide their own housing and meals. The social exclusion was collateral damage that administrators were willing to put up with to save money.
I think the class of 1957 should be angry that Williams College tore down Baxter Hall. In many ways it was our building, given that we baptized it by being the first class to use it. It was nicknamed Phinney’s Folly (for President Phinney Baxter), but I know many of us now consider it not a folly at all but a magnificent physical representation of a daring plan for social reform.

It is important to remember what the United States was like in the fall of 1953 when the class of 1957 matriculated at Williams College. Racial discrimination in the form of “separate but equal” was still the law of the land. The famous Supreme Court decision ending racial segregation, Brown v. Board of Education , was not handed down until the spring of 1954, at the end of 57’s first year. Williams College acted to end fraternity discrimination well before the national Civil Rights Movement got underway with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
(Speaking of Brown v. Board of Education , I was taking American Government with James McGregor Burns at the time the decision was handed down in May of 1954. Professor Burns was so moved by the significance of the decision that he put aside the class syllabus and spent an entire class session discussing Brown v. Board and the impact it would have on United States politics.)

By the time the class of 1957 graduated, college and university administrators were preparing for the World War Two baby boom, that big increase in births that took place in the late 1940s when the soldiers came home from the war and started their families all at the same time. The boomers were scheduled to hit campus in 1964, just seven years after the class of 1957 left. In the process of educating the boomers, Williams College went co-educational, doubled in enrollment, and added a slew of new buildings, incidentally maintaining its position as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation.

I ended up doing what my professors at Williams College had done. My career in college teaching began in the night school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in the fall of 1958. My days as a college professor now are winding up at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. One year after the class of 1957 celebrates its 50th reunion, I will mark 50 years of college teaching.

Print  •  Email