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Tradition of Nonconformity

“Deferred Rushing: The Beginning of the End of Fraternities,” by Henry Bass ’57 completes our series of 1957 reunion essays. Special thanks to Henry for supporting this project and for putting me in contact with the other authors.


The class of 1957 was the first class at Williams under deferred fraternity rushing and the first class to dine together as freshman in Baxter Hall. However, Baxter Hall was not ready for us when school opened. We had to eat together in a crude temporary addition to Currier Hall until spring. But we didn’t have to choose a frat before beginning the school year, as Williams freshman had done for many years.

The construction of Baxter Hall as a place for freshman and nonaffiliated upperclassmen came about after the Garfield Club had forced the issue by dissolving in 1952 under the leadership of its president, Harold Kahn ’52. By a vote of 160 to 32, the club condemned the college for its failure “to rectify a social system which we consider archaic, intolerable, undemocratic and not in accordance with the liberal traditions of Williams College.” The college could no longer just dump guys who didn’t make a frat into the Garfield Club.

And fortunately for those of us who arrived as freshman in the fall of 1953, we had a whole year before we had to go through fraternity rushing. This was especially fortunate for me. I had grown up in small-town Kentucky, and I don’t think I would have been able to cope with rushing just after getting off the train and seeing Williamstown for the first time in September 1953. I had been recruited by telephone and had never seen the place before. I decided not to return a week early for fraternity rushing our sophomore year, and instead to join the “Turkey Coop,” as we called ourselves after the dissolution of the Garfield Club. I do not know how many others skipped rushing, or dropped out after seeing fraternities were not for them, or joined us because the frats rejected them. No one asked or cared.

Our class owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the members of the Garfield Club who made life easier for us and subsequent incoming classes of students, whether or not they joined fraternities. As freshmen, when we ate together, we made friends — friends we kept for four years whether they joined frats or not. By the time we were seniors, Williams was beginning to feel like a real college community. Our senior year a group of 22 students under the leadership of our class president, Dee Gardner, even wrote a letter to President Baxter and the trustees calling on Williams to move beyond fraternities to a college buyout of the fraternity houses.

Moreover, with freshman no longer in frats the college put fraternities under serious financial pressure by reducing the pool of students available for recruitment by 25%. Fraternities were soon forced to take almost everyone who wanted to join. And in September 1957, just after we left, total opportunity was achieved. In a second round of rushing, the fraternities divided up the final 14 students who wanted to join. Total opportunity, the most ambitious goal the Garfield Club had when it dissolved, was achieved in only five years.

In accepting deferred rushing, Phinney Baxter and the trustees could not have been unaware that they were taking the first step toward phasing out fraternities. The Williams campus was shocked in 1962 when a committee of distinguished alumni under the leadership of Jay Angevine ’11 recommended the end of fraternities. But I have always thought that no one who understood the economics of the situation should have been surprised. A number of fraternities had serious deficits and substantial mortgages. The alumni of these fraternities surely sighed in relief to have the college bail them out of debt (though negotiations with the college over financial details of the college takeover took several years.) Even the alumni of the rich fraternities who could afford to donate their houses to Williams must have been relieved to know that they would in the future get fund appeals only from the college and not from their fraternity as well.

My senior year at Williams, I had a fascinating conversation with Anne Baxter, the wife of President Baxter. We had invited her and President Baxter to dinner at the Turkey Coop. After dinner, someone suggested over coffee that Williams would be better off without fraternities. Mrs. Baxter strongly disagreed. She said that what had made Williams an exciting place for her over the years was the marvelously diverse group of students who were not in fraternities, first in the Garfield Club and later in the Turkey Coop. Mrs. Baxter said that no one could have recruited such an extraordinary group by design as the fraternities had done mostly by default. She feared that once fraternities were gone from the scene no one else would assemble such an exciting group.

Our college historian, Fred Rudolph, has argued that Williams had a tradition of nonconformity long before fraternities, like the five students who sought refuge from a storm under a haystack in 1806 and dreamed of an American foreign missionary movement. When we were at Williams, Rudolph came up to those of us who had invited Thurgood Marshall to lecture and told us that we were the descendants of those who had invited Emerson to come to Williamstown, after Emerson was accused of being a notorious atheist. I hope the tradition of nonconformity still exists now that the Turkey Coop and fraternities are both gone.

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#1 Comment By rory On May 18, 2007 @ 12:57 pm

now THIS is supporting the “williams conversation”. thanks to all the authors and to David for setting this up. It has been a nice respite from revising my article!

#2 Comment By ephmom On May 18, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

I, too, applaud the efforts of all involved. Projects like this provide newcomers like me a welcome context for current Williams conversations.

#3 Comment By Diana On May 18, 2007 @ 3:13 pm

It’s pretty awesome that this fall’s incoming freshmen (the class of ’11) will be 100 years younger than the man who headed the campaign to end fraternities (Jay Angevine ’11).

#4 Comment By hwc On May 18, 2007 @ 3:35 pm

Mrs. Baxter said that no one could have recruited such an extraordinary group by design as the fraternities had done mostly by default.

So, if I understand Mrs. Baxter’s “logic” properly, the presence of fraternities at Williams was responsible for attracting more students who didn’t wish to partake in fraternities?

Or conversely, without fraternities, Williams would be less attractive to students who didn’t wish to join fraternities?

Uh….OK.

#5 Comment By frank uible On May 18, 2007 @ 3:45 pm

Mrs. Baxter would have made a good White House spin doctor.

#6 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 18, 2007 @ 4:09 pm

Frank, Anne Baxter, was the best leader’s spouse I have ever met. If George W. Bush had a wife like her he would not be in trouble.

#7 Comment By Jonathan Landsman ’05 On May 18, 2007 @ 5:06 pm

Do I read this right? Did a primary beginning — if not the beginning — of the movement to end fraternities come from the students? The common wisdom held by administrators, as told to be by them directly, is that students were overwhelmingly in favor of the fraternities abolition when it was pressed, I suppose by Angevine ’11. If you begin telling the history at that time, fraternities were held dear by students at large right up to the end, when alumni and administrators drove a stake through the heart of the evil beast. You can imagine that this history is seen as a good reason to discount polls that show student opinion to be against a new campus social system.

But is the story a little different if you start telling it earlier? Am I reading right that the Garfield Club was a student group — of frat rejects? — who passed a resolution supporting the seriously alteration, weakening, or ending of the fraternity system? Can someone check my understanding, and begin perhaps by telling me more about who the Garfield Club was?

#8 Comment By hwc On May 18, 2007 @ 5:58 pm

I’m guessing that the Garfield Club included most of Williams’ Jewish students, who would have been banned by fraternities according to their national bylaws.

I believe the Williams “Jew quota” at the time was a maximum of 10%.

#9 Comment By frank uible On May 18, 2007 @ 6:44 pm

Henry: If Mrs. Baxter was as good a politician as you imply, then her purpose in making the subject statement was probably to compliment the non-affiliates to whom she was then talking without openly opposing fraternities.

#10 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 18, 2007 @ 10:51 pm

The Garfield Club was set up by the College so there would be some place to dump the guys that did not make it into a frats. Traditionally all but 2 or 3 guys who did not make it into frats joined the Garfield Club. The college fed them in Currier Hall. Two or three guys a year refussed to join the Garfield Club and ate on Spring Street. But, for all practical purposes the Garfield Club was the nonaffiliated remainder.

In 1962 the members of the Garfield Club decided that they had had enough of being members of a college sponsored non-fraternity and voted to dissolve the Garfield Club. Their announced goal was to force the college to build a hall with a large dinning room for freshman and a smaller one for nonaffiliated upper classmen. This would make deferred rushing possible.

The vote had some opposition since some members of the Garfield Club thought the club was better than nothing. But, the majority felt the system was so rotten that they needed to make a personal sacrifice in order to force the college to act on changing the system.

And the dissolution of the Garfield Club succeeeded in forcing the trustees. The trustees did vote (1) to build Baxter Hall where Freshman and nonaffiliated Frosh would eat (2) to end freshman rushing and defer rushing to the sophomore year, just as the Garfield Club had demanded.

The dissolution of the Garfield Club was the most momentous thing a group of Williams students ever did. That a bunch of rejects had the courage to do this is truly remarkable.

Because the frats had a 25% smaller pool to draw from the already serious financial problems of the frats, suddenly became much worse. That vote in 1962 was the begining of the end. There were not enough students in the upper 3 classes to support 15 fraternities. The trutees knew this. Conceivablly, it would have been possible for only the weaker fraternies to die, but this would not have been popular. My impression was that the trustees decided to begin the process of ending the system after the Garfield Club dissolved.

The role of underdogs when they stick up for themselves is always neglected, since history is generally written by the establishment. But, basically the system ended because the members of the Garfield Club decided that they were not going to take it anymore.

Most Jews were traditionally dumped into the Garfield Club though eventually there were some frats that took Jews. Obviously other minorities were also dumped there including artists, pre-beatniks, misfits, etc. This was the the group that President Baxter’s wife told us she found to be the most interesting thing about Williams College.

#11 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 18, 2007 @ 11:08 pm

oops. Typo in my post above. In graph 2 i mant Class of ’52, not ’62. It was in 1952 that the garfield Club voted to dissolve.

#12 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 18, 2007 @ 11:44 pm

oops 2– In paragraph 6 I made the same mistake above. I meant ’52 not ’62.

HWC, Yes most Jews were in the Garfield Club. Alvin Kernan, who taught at Williams, and later at Yale and Princeton relates in his memoir, IN PLATO’S CAVE that when he was at Williams in the 40’s that some fraternity members called the Garfield Club, the “Garfinkel Club”.

#13 Comment By Jonathan Landsman ’05 On May 19, 2007 @ 12:56 am

Dear Henry,

Being a good consumer of knowledge, I must still be sure take with some skepticism the story as you tell it, which has the rejects in the Garfield Club planting the seed that sprouted to tear awart frats, only because you are, now my one source for the story, and it does seem rather flattering to the members of this group. I am ready to believe it, but can you aslo answer: what were the practical ramifications for the ex-Garfielders that year? Where did they eat? What else changed for them?
And how did the College “create” such a club in the first place? Was there someone like today’s Community Life Coordinator to run it? Did its members associate in any way beyond eating, and what sort of people were they?

Yet yours it is a cohesive account, and of course an attractive one to me. As a person with deep ties to the Odd Quad and who once had to speak in defense of the culture there, I love to hear that Currier Hall has a noble history of feeding “rejects” (housing them too, I guess) who constructively broke from prevailing campus culture. I think most of the Odd Quadders today would be similarly chamed to know of this precedent.

#14 Comment By Jonathan On May 19, 2007 @ 12:58 am

I’m sorry — you did sort of answer my “who were they” question with “Most Jews were traditionally dumped into the Garfield Club though eventually there were some frats that took Jews. Obviously other minorities were also dumped there including artists, pre-beatniks, misfits, etc”

#15 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 19, 2007 @ 12:24 pm

Jonathan,

The Garfield Club was created long before I arrived. It had disolved before I arrived. Tho many of the guys who dissolved the Garfield Club were still around when I was there. My Junior Advisor, Jigs Gardner,’55 and one who voted to dissolve, was a Freshman when the vote took place. I called Hal Kahn, ’52 who was President of Garfield when it dissolved when I was researching my article. Since he had gone.

I do know that the Trustees responded to the dissolution of the Garfield Club by adopting deferred rushing and building Baxter Hall. Baxter Hall was not ready for us when I arrived in Sept ’53. The Club had only dissolved a year and a half earlier. Until the Spring of ’54 the Freshamen and the former members of the Garfield Club continued to eat in Currier Hall, including a crude annex, built, we think by the Army in World War II. The crude annex waas not finally torn down for another year. When I was at Williams no one ever suggested that any of these events would have taken place without the dissolution. There is a bicentenial picture history published by the College that has some of the details, which is pretty good. I can’t put my hands on my copy right now.

The Garfield Club functioned much like a fraternity and built the same life long friendships. Many of its members were devoted to the Club and dissolved it with real regret. Some of Williams’s most distinguished alumni like Elia Kazan were meembers.

I personally found its ex-members more interesting than the members of any fraternity. Peter Goldman the famous writer and editor of Newsweek was a senior when I was a Freshman. The now late Steve Weiner, who endowed Williams’s Jewish Center, was also a nonafiliate and a good friend. Jigs Gardner, my JA influednce me the most to join them rather than a frat. Jigs has written interesting gardening books with his wife, Jo Ann.

I can well understand Anne Baxter finding it an interesting place. Several years ago I had lunch in a dinning hall at the University of Chicago. It reminded me of the Williams nonffiliate group.
If you want to know what the Garfield Club was like visit Chicago.

Hope this answers your questions.

Henry

#16 Comment By hwc On May 19, 2007 @ 1:22 pm

Thanks, Henry. Really enjoying your reminiscing. Those of us who went to Williams post-fraternity and co-ed have virtually no knowledge of those traditions. I was there in the pseudo-frat house era. Every freshman was assigned to a frat house. Those who wanted to be involved in pseudo-frat life were active in the houses. Those who didn’t, weren’t. You could still be assigned to a particular pseudo-frat if your father or grandfather had been a member of that frat.

One of the real fears for the new anchor housing was that it would break up the so-called “Odd Quad”, the contemporary equivalent of the Garfield Club. In effect, it would have been like assigning Garfield Clubbers randomly to the fraternities, with the hope that they would integrate into frat life.

I haven’t seen any reports of how that is actually working out. My guess is that the new housing system, over time, will tend to tamp down diversity in the student body.

#17 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 19, 2007 @ 4:45 pm

Dear HWC,

There were members of the “Turkey Coop” as we called ourselves, after the dissolution of the Garfield Club, who anticipated the problem you raise. We did not want to be randomly assigned to frats and turned into Williams fraternity men. When the Angevine plan came out, we feared it was not a plan to abolish fraternites but merely one to bail them out by nationalizing them. Since the members of the Angevine Committee were a bunch of old guys from Williams’s most elite frats this should not have surprised anyone. The lefties would have liked to have seen all the frat buildings turned into offices. But, we knew Williams, being Williams that this was not in the cards.

A friend of mine who was a couple of years behind me at Williams complained that the Rev. William Sloan ruined the Turkey Coop for him by persuading so many fraternity guys to resign that the Turkey Coop became a frat. He said something like, “Henry, I sit down for lunch and no one wants to discuss Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs. There are all the ex-Kaps, Ex-Saints, etc who don’t want to talk about anything but their damn skiing trips.”

Dick Anderson thought that Anne Baxter was absolutely right. That the abolition of frats would simply make Williams entirely pseudo-fraternity.

Anne Baxter was not stupid. When I was as young as the folks on this blog I thought the world could be changed. After 50 years I’m a little pessimistic.

#18 Comment By frank uible On May 20, 2007 @ 4:33 am

Henry: Ambrose Bierce once defined reform as “a thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation”.

#19 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 20, 2007 @ 9:14 am

Frank: Man, what a bright close to our discussion!

#20 Comment By frank uible On May 20, 2007 @ 9:51 am

Henry: There are “frat” men extant, who have actually read Bierce, Naked Lunch and Howl and, to boot, who have never been on a skiing trip, damned or otherwise.

#21 Comment By outed anon On May 20, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

Williams tore down Baxter hall. It was not a historical building……. right!

What year exactly did frats meet their demise at Williams? My understanding was that the students got rid of them in the late 50s? A good cronological history of the killing of Williams fraternities, and the players involved, would aid greatly in this discussion.

#22 Comment By Dee Gardner ’57 On May 27, 2007 @ 12:56 am

Dear Outed anon:

Interesting discussion in response to our essays. To answer your question about when the fraternities were abolished: the Angevine Committee recommended to the Board of Trustees in 1962 that the college provide housing, dining and social facilities for all students. They did not outright abolish fraternities, but everyone knew that would happen. A few fraternities wanted to continue as “purely fraternal groups” without housing, dining and parties, and at first, the college policy was that these groups could continue. The new residential houses (Spencer, Perry, Wood, Garfield, Tyler, etc) were established and “sponsored” by their old fraternities, and new houses built and opened (Prospect, Berkshire- later Fitch-,Mark Hopkins, Carter, Gladden, Bryant on the Greylock Corner, later Mission Park.) The Class of 1966 was the last class to go through rushing and join the fraternities during the transition. The Class of 1967 was told before they even decided to come to the college that they would be coming to a non-fraternity college, so if they wanted fraternities, they could go to Amherst or somewhere else. The first residential houses began in the Fall of 1963, Prospect and Berkshire, populated by many who opted to be pioneers in the new system, who left their fraternities, or non-affiliate status, or had been freshmen the year before. Within the next few years, fourteen of the fifteen fraternities on campus had given their houses to the college, and were either sponsoring new residential houses or providing a new academic center, like the Phi Delta Theta house became the language center, the Sig Phi house became eventually the Environmental Studies center, before it made way for the Sawyer Library, and the Delta Psi (St. Anthony Hall) became the Center for Development Economics. Located on the west side of Route 2, the Phi Gamma Delta house was sold to the Town of Williamstown for a town hall, and its goat room turned into the town lock-up. Many students joined a number of planning committees which worked closely with the Standing Committee, chaired by Talcott M. Banks ’28, and staffed by Donald W. Gardner, Jr. ’57 (me!) These committees on physical facilities, government, intramurals, social life, cultural life generated great ideas which were incorporated into the new system, and gave students a sense of involvement in and ownership of the new Williams. It was soon clear that the continuation of a few fraternal groups would not be a good idea, as it would divide the campus into fraternity and non-fraternity groups which is what we wanted to get away from. About 1967, the college prohibited fraternity membership even in the “purely fraternal groups.” There was not much reaction to this change, with the exception of Saint Anthony who felt that they had maintained the original purposes of literary exercises in their chapter meetings, and who could object to these? Interestingly, it was a few years ago that it was reported in the Record that a small group of Saint Anthony members were meeting secretly in a barn in Pownal, Vermont. There was considerable reaction on the campus, but no one from the offending organization came forward in the response to the offer of amnesty by the Dean. Apparently that was not the first fraternity that had violated college policy, as alumni have admitted. Colby, Amherst and Bowdoin, some years after Williams, also abolished their fraternities, and some off-campus fraternity activity was prevalent at Amherst too.

Let me add a final note to answer the question about the students role in this reform. (Read Fred Rudolph’s article in his book of writings about Williams, “Who is watching the reformers.” Fred makes a case for the key role of students in all changes in the history of Williams.) The students founded the fraternities in the 19th Century, and students were the ones who brought them down in the 20th Century. The Garfield Club dissolution in 1952 was important to trigger the Sterling Committee report recommending that rushing be deferred to the start of sophomore year, and that a student union (Baxter Hall) be built for freshmen and non-fraternity men. The 1957 plan of the “Terrible Twenty-two”, of the class of 1957 and 1958, that fraternities be replaced by college-owned houses (former fraternities) without rushing, was rejected by the Board of Trustees. But in 1961, Bruce Grinnell ’62 and others petitioned the Board to end rushing and assign students to houses. That lead to the Angevine Committee whose 1962 report gave the death knell to the fraternity system. The majority of fraternity undergraduates were naturally opposed to the end of thier comfortable way of life, and many alumni protested too, threatening to end their support of the college. The Trustees courageously held firm to their decision. President Jack Sawyer’39, Ted Banks’28, Charlie Foehl’32, Fred Rudolph’42, Whit Stoddard’35, Dick Debevoise’46, and Hodge Markgraf’52, Deans Ben Labaree and John Hyde’52 and Provost Joe Kershaw, who made up the Standing Committee, deserve the thanks of the college and generations of Williams people for building a new tradition of respect, diversity, fairness and intellectual priority in its residential campus. Student leaders showed the way, and the College took decisive action.

#23 Comment By frank uible On May 27, 2007 @ 7:21 am

The process of abolishing fraternities was decidedly undemocratic. The proposition was never put to a general vote of the alumni and twice failed in a vote by the student body. Furthermore the means of the abolition was arguably a conspiracy to boycott by the College and others in criminal violation of the U.S. antitrust laws.