For those of you who have been reading the posts entitled, “Williams Has Too Many Nice Boys,” the genesis for the idea of my Senior Honors Thesis (The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939) started when I applied to Williams. In the course of wrapping things up after my Admissions interview with Phil Smith, my father casually asked, “So, is Williams still a playboy school?”
You would have thought a bomb had gone off. Phil got really animated and cited statistic after statistic (average combined SAT scores of 1300, 60% of students from public high schools, on and on), arguing that Williams was academically elite and no longer the school of the gentleman’s C. I remember thinking, “Wow, now that was an interesting over-reaction.” At the time, I knew nothing about the history of Williams, and when I asked my father later about his question, he explained that when he went to Brown in the late 1930’s, Williams had a reputation as a rich boy’s school, much like Amherst, where his brother had gone, and he was just trying to understand how much it had changed.
Fast forward to my senior year at Williams. I was a History major, planning to go on and get my Ph.D. in History so I could be a professor of History, and I was casting about for a subject. I wanted to do primary research, for two reasons. First, I’d done primary research in high school, writing a paper about Pope’s Day [the colonial version of Guy Fawkes Day] in Essex County for the Essex Institute in Salem, MA [now the Peabody Esssex Museum], and I’d enjoyed it. Second, I figured analyzing primary sources would help my chances at getting into grad school.
Doing primary research pretty quickly narrowed things down to researching the history of Williams College. I’d done an oral history project on Williams during Winter Study my junior year and enjoyed that, so that seemed like a good omen. That also meant that I’d have Prof. Fred Rudolph ’42 as a thesis advisor, and I’d had a great time in his “American Character and Culture” course. We started to mull over what would be a good thesis topic and at one point Prof. Rudolph mused, “You might want to look into Tyler Dennett’s ‘Nice Boys’ speech. That was a defining moment at Williams. There’s got to be a box of the letters about that around here somewhere.” Eventually we decided that a good strategy would be a thesis about Williams during the Great Depression, with the Nice Boys incident as the first chapter.
So I started to look through the Williamsiana Collection. However, at the time it didn’t consist of a classified set of books and articles with an affiliated librarian–it was a small room in Stetson with stuff tossed in. Literally. So I started to work my way through it. The dust and grime was incredible; I’d have to take a shower after coming out of the room. I spent three hours a week going through disorganized boxes of stuff for about three weeks. In all that time, I never found any Nice Boys letters.
I was starting to get really depressed, figuring that I’d either have to change my thesis subject or write the chapter on the Nice Boys speech without the letters, and just depend on interviews with professors who’d been at Williams during the 1930’s (e.g., Prof. James Macgregor Burns, Prof. Bill Gates, Prof. Charles Keller, Prof. Fred Rudolph, Prof. Whit Stoddard). Then, on the afternoon that I decided, “If I don’t find them today, that’s it,” a moment of serendipity occurred–I found the letters. They were in a non-descript box, but they were gold. People knew how to write letters in those days, and people’s emotions leapt off the page.
I was off and running. The logistics at the time were that you wrote the first chapter in the first semester. If that passed muster with your thesis advisor, then you got permission to proceed with the rest of the thesis. I wrote the first chapter, got the OK from Prof. Rudolph, and then spent Winter Study, spring vacation, and second semester finishing it.
I turned it in, it was accepted, and I graduated cum laude with Honors in History. Today, I cringe when I read parts of it. There’s some awkward phrasing, and things peter out towards the end. While I had a good eye for detail in those days, I should have been stronger in my judgments on how Williams reacted to the Great Depression. I guess you could say my writing ability and ear for argument have matured since college–probably a good thing.
When I graduated, I put my thesis topic down as a way to pad my slim resume, and it’s never failed to elicit a comment from interviewers. It’s usually the ice breaker: “I see you wrote your college thesis on ‘The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College.’ Tell me about that.” At this point, 34 years after graduating from Williams, I keep it on my resume as a good luck charm.
It has continued to live on in other ways. In the early 1980’s, Prof. Rudolph gave a course on Williams History for several years, and my thesis was one of the required readings. A couple of times I’ve met someone at a Williams function who says, “Guy Creese. Guy Creese. That name’s familiar… I know–you wrote that thesis on Williams in the 1930’s that I read in Prof. Rudolph’s class.”
It’s been photocopied several times by researchers looking for background on college life in the 1930’s. (For example, in 1981, John Toland ’36, the historian/novelist, asked the Williams library to make a copy as a resource for a novel he was writing.)
Several years ago, I put out a feeler to the Williams Alumni Review, asking if they’d be interested in a shorter version of chapter one, but they demurred. (My guess is it failed the political correctness test). Figuring that at least some alumni would enjoy reading it, I published it on Ephblog.
As you can probably tell, writing the thesis and learning about Williams was a labor of love. Given the reaction from some readers, it sounds as if you’d like to read more than the first chapter. (If so, I need to start doing a lot of typing, as 1975 was before the advent of the word processor, and I don’t have a digital version).
If you are interested in reading more about Williams in the 1930’s, let me know via comments. The other chapters of the thesis are:
- The Williams Gentleman: His Wealth and Social Position
- The Williams Gentleman: His Polished Manner
- The Williams Gentleman: His Underlying Philosophy
- The Williams Man and His Girl
- Fraternities and the Gentlemanly Ideal
To give you a feel for what awaits, here are some tidbits from a survey of the Williams freshman class in 1938 (back in the days when a well-tailored suit cost $55 and U.S. unemployment was 19%):
- Families of over a quarter of the students owned at least two homes.
- Almost 80% of Williams’ students families had servants; the average number of servants was 1.5.
- 55% of families owned two or more cars; 15% owned three or more.
- Buicks outnumbered Fords; Packards and Cadillacs outnumbered Chevrolets.