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From the Record (txt):

Two students fired a shotgun blast into the home of Chaplain William S. Coffin from a car on the night of April 12 [1958]. The shot broke a front window and sprayed into the Coffin’s living room, causing little damage, no injury.

On Thursday afternoon the case was broken by a joint police-student-administration effort and two students signed confessions to the shooting. Over the weekend the Discipline Committee voted unanimously to expel them from college.

Neither would tell what had motivated the action. Opinion here conjectured, however, that it had been a drunken “prank” aimed at Coffin because of his controversial stands on college issues (see FRATERNITIES).

The story reached the local press and radio. Commented the Berkshire Eagle: “a shotgun may be a valid tool of argument in darkest Mississippi, but up here we’re civilized.” The RECORD pointed out that the unpleasantness of the situation grew and involved more and more people as long as it remained unsolved, that the speedy success of the investigation was tremendously important to the best interests of Williams.

The whole incident made Coffin — who will be Chaplain at Yale next year — the most talked-about man of the spring term.

If the Coffin shooting was the most dramatic student/faculty conflict of the last 100 years, what was the second most dramatic?


Two Expelled Over Coffin Attack

From the Record (txt):

Coffin Incident Closed By Expulsion Of Two

The two students who attacked Chaplain Coffin’s home with a shotgun last Saturday night have been expelled from the college.

After a brief review of the case, the Student-Faculty Disipline Committee recommended the expulsion to President Baxter. Baxter followed the committee’s recommendation and approved the expulsion on his return to Williamstown Sunday morning.

Official notification was sent to the students Monday. Appeal against the decision might be made to the President, but it is unlikely that a reversal could be obtained.

I have heard a rumor that the facts of the case are not what they appear from the historical record. First, that there may have been a third student involved, a student who was never punished, who graduated and went on to a long and successful career in finance. Not that there is anything wrong with that! Second, that one of the students punished had nothing to do with the attack but took the fall for his fraternity brother.

What have you heard?


Two Students Confess to Coffin Shooting

From the Record (txt):

Two Students Admit Coffin Shotgunning

by John D. Phillips

The students responsible for last Saturday’s shotgun attack on the home of Chaplain William S. Coffin have been apprehended.

Williamstown Police Chief John D. Courtney, Jr., announced last night that two Williams students had signed confessions to the shooting, and implied that a third student might be involved.

The students were released On $50 bail and tried in the Williamstown District Court this morning on the double charge of malicious damage to property and carrying a loaded firearm in an automobile. They pleaded guilty and were fined $125. When asked in court why they chose Chaplain Coffin’s house for their action, they refused to answer.

This afternoon at 2 o’clock they will face the Student-Faculty Discipline Committee with the possibility of expulsion from college.

The case was handled by the Williamstown police force in co-operation with college authorities and RECORD staff members. This combined effort to track down the attackers began early Sunday when police pinpointed the time of the shooting and began investigating college shotgun registrations.

On the basis of this preliminary information, plus fragmentary knowledge received from Williams students, the police were led to believe that the attacker was a student. Several suspects were rigorously interrogated. That was Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, police inquiries in the Southworth Street area uncovered evidence of more than one student involved in the case. Both Mrs. Coffin and her neighbors said that they recalled seeing a dark bronze car passing slowly in front of the Coffin home at least three times during the day on Saturday.

One man stated to police that at 10:30 Saturday night, while standing in his driveway, he heard a shot and saw a car roaring up the street from the direction of the Coffin residence. He described the vehicle as a dark bronze Pontiac or Chevrolet of late forties or early fifties vintage. Police concluded from this evidence that at least one student besides the gunman was involved.

Still, authorities lacked evidence pointing conclusively to any particular students. Finally, on Thursday, they uncovered information on several students which checked with the circumstantial facts of the case.

They were immediately questioned by local police, and by late yesterday afternoon the confessions were secured.


1) Why didn’t the Record print the names of the students? I suspect that today’s Record would. But would today’s Record help out the police? I doubt it.

2) Which house did Coffin live in? Who lives there now?

3) How did police crack the case?


Tallmadge ’58 Dies in Plane Crash

From the Record (text) in November 1957:

Tallmadge Killed In Air Crash

Senior Edward S. Tallmadge, Jr. was killed instantly Sunday night
when a plane he chartered to fly a date home crashed into a moun-
tain 15 miles west of Williamstown.

Also killed was Pilot Donald P. Duquette, 25, of Adams. He was
an employee of Mohawk Valley Aviation Co. of North Adams, own-
er of the plane.

The victims were on the last leg of a round trip to LaGuardia Air-
port, N. Y., where they dropped off Tallmadge’s Amherst weekend
date. The plane plowed into a wooded area near Grafton, N. Y., at a 45 degree angle.

Tallmadge, 21, was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward S. Tallmadge
of Milwaukee. He was president of WMS and instrumental in its
recent expansion program. He was social chairman of Delta Kappa
Epsilon and had participated in woe, the German Club, the Flying Club and varsity soccer and skiing.

CAP Search

The plane was reported overdue at North Adams airport Sunday
evening, but wreckage was not found until early Monday. Local
Civil Air Patrol officials organized a search which involved 16 planes and 40 college students.

Exact causes of the wreck were not known Tuesday, but a probe
by the Civil Aeronautics Administration is underway. Raymond E.
Gaudette, an airport mechanic, indicated there is some evidence
the plane came down with a dead engine. Some speculate that It was
out of gas.

According to airport officials the plane was a Cessna 172 delivered
brand new one week before the wreck.

A memorial service for Tallmadge was held in Thompson Memorial Chapel Tuesday evening by Rev. William S. Coffin, chaplain. At press time, arrangements were not complete for his fueral
in Milwaukee.

Was that sermon truly the event that led to the shot-gunning of College Chaplain William Sloane Coffin’s house the following April? David HT Kane ’58 wrote:

If memory serves, Coffin was the floundering son of wealth who decided to try the Chaplain’s path opened by his uncle, a reknowned theologian. An early stop on that path was Williams where he alienated many when, in his first weeks on campus, a Deke Senior was killed in the crash of a chartered small plane after a Fall ’57 home football weekend. Coffin, in his capacity as Chaplain, led the memorial service at Thompson Chapel and appeared to fault the Deke for his own death. Coffin’s theory was that the lost classmate had too much money and therefore chartered the plane to return his weekend date to her home in New Jersey. The crash occurred as the plane was returning in bad weather. If our classmate had taken the bus all would have been fine. A number in attendance at Thompson that day stood and walked out in protest.
Neither Coffin nor the undergraduates changed much in the ensuing months and it was not recorded that any protested his decampment for Yale at the end of the year.

What did Coffin say, 58 years ago this fall?



Williamstown resident Nick Wright ’57 writes:

I appreciated the material from the blog you sent my way re: the Coffin episode of 1958. How times have changed! I can’t imagine that any undergraduates pulling the same stunt today would have been handled so gently. When I get a chance, I intend to review the Record, NA Transcript and Pittsfield Eagle microfilm on the incident.

Has there been any blog coverage of the PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) scheme in any colleges in MA? I have been searching the internet, but so far can find that only Harvard and (I think) BU are involved in a regular payment scheme with their respective communities. Yale has such a deal with New Haven, but there the town was sinking fast, and I believe that CT subsidizes the arrangement worked out. Princeton, where I lived for over 20 years, had a deal with its Borough/Town for many years, and recently sweetened it, but I don’t know if Trenton was involved at all. Alum tend to not like these deals, but I think they are increasingly inevitable, especially in small towns like this one where the College is so dominant. Not that the College has not been helpful. They have, especially in the education area — where young faculty recruitment is a major concern, but the Town has to genuflect, etc., and the relationship tends to be less healthy than I tend to think it should be.

The Coffin incident was discussed here. More details, please! Whether or not the students were treated “gently” is a matter of some dispute. It would be great if Nick could add to the (weak) Willipedia page on the topic. Oh, yeah. Older alumni like him (and me) can’t edit it.

Payments to the town are a favorite EphBlog topic. Highlights here, here and here.

Short version: Williamstown is a richer than average town in a richer than average state. The College should do everything possible to be a good neighbor (share facilities, encourage tutoring by students) which does not involve writing a check. How much to spend on the schools of Williamstown should be left to the voters of Williamstown to decide. They, currently, think that the teachers’ union is guilty of ridiculous feather-bedding. Voters are using the blunt tool of budget limits to try (so far unsuccessfully) to reign in spending. The College should stay out of the dispute. The notion that this has any meaningful connection to “young faculty recruitment” is silly since there are thousands of excellent professors who would love to teach at Williams. Also, almost none of the faculty who Williams currently hires have a better option in terms of local school systems for their children. What? You think that the schools are much better in Amherst or Brunswick?


One Night in April

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.

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