James Cain ’68 grew up less than five miles from the Williston campus, but until his brother Daniel enrolled at the school as a post-graduate in 1963, he says, “I don’t remember that I even knew Williston existed.” As a boy, he had other things on his mind. His father, William, a local plumber, had died suddenly when Jim was 9, leaving his homemaker mother, Sabina, then 45, with four children to raise. His older brother, William, and sister, Constance, got jobs in town, and, with highly efficient management of limited resources and a position at the Department of Motor Vehicles, “somehow mom was able to stitch everything together,” Jim recalled recently, sitting in a conference room of the newly refurbished Sabina Cain Family Athletic Center. The facility—updated with new flooring, seating, display cases, and banners—was renamed and dedicated this past June to honor Sabina Cain in recognition of her family’s generous support for the school.
A plaque inside the athletic center notes that the standards and values Sabina Cain lived by “encouraged her children to develop their own character and values. These included a strong family bond and an appreciation for community and personal relationships.” Indeed, the success story of Jim Cain and his brother Dan, who died in March 2017 at age 72, demonstrates the power of educational values to transform a family. A high school All-American running back at Holyoke High, Dan was encouraged by his coaches to take a post-graduate year and then pursue college. Accepted at Williston, he led the Wildcats to an undefeated season (he and his team are enshrined in the Athletic Hall of Fame), but also began to excel in the classroom. “He really became engaged academically and motivated to be a good student,” Jim recalls. “He worked hard and in a very short period of time—one year—he had strong enough grades to get into Brown.” Dan later also earned his MBA at Columbia University.
Her son’s transformation did not go unnoticed by Sabina, the daughter of Polish immigrants. “My mother realized that this was an opportunity that she should try and grab for me,” says Jim. “So she twisted [Headmaster] Phil Steven’s arm, and somehow convinced him to take me in. And I don’t think any of us, either Dan or I, paid a nickel.” Jim, an accomplished wrestler at Williston who also played football and lacrosse, recalls how his mother loved sports and seeing her sons play. “She attended all our games,” he says. Wrestling—and the recommendation of his coach and college counselor Don Knauf—would eventually lead Jim to Harvard College, but not before he received some stern counsel from his older brother. “I was struggling academically,” Jim recalls. “I was lazy and not engaged as a student. Dan really became my father in a lot of ways, more than just an older brother. At Christmas of my senior year, he read me the riot act and then all of a sudden my grades picked up.”
Dan’s paternal guidance would continue after college, as the two brothers pursued careers in finance, eventually forming Cain Brothers, an investment banking firm specializing in health care, in 1982. Both also began a decades-long relationship of support for Williston. Dan and Jim both served for many years as Williston trustees. Jim also volunteered with the Alumni Council, for the Williston Northampton Fund, and as a member of reunion gift committees. As a trustee, he served as treasurer and chair of the Finance Committee, and was a member of the Strategic Planning Committee. For his volunteer work, he received the Margaret French Eastman award in 2004 and, in 2018, was recognized with the school’s Distinguished Service Award. This past spring, the Cain family presented Williston with one of the largest gifts in its history, which will fund the continued expansion of the Residential Quad, among other top priorities.
As the brothers were building their business, the next generation of Cains was arriving at Williston—Daniel Decelles ’89 and Aimee (Decelles) Frosk ’92 (Constance’s children) and Jennifer Cain Cross ’89 (William’s daughter)—drawn in large part by the example of their uncles. “I actually really enjoyed public school,” Jen Cross recalls. “But after my freshman year, something just clicked, and I wanted to follow that path as well.” Her sense of family connection to the school was reinforced when longtime faculty like Rick Francis and Al Shaler would mention her uncles. “How often,” she notes, “are you able to go to the same school as your uncles?”
Dan Decelles, who so idolized his uncles as a boy that he too became an investment banker specializing in health care (and a trustee of the school), had heard his uncles’ stories of Williston, and wanted that experience as well. “I would have wanted to do whatever they did,” he says. “If they were plumbers, I would’ve wanted to be a plumber.” As for his grandmother, who died in 2006 at age 91, he recalls a very strong, very smart woman who in today’s world would herself have been an accomplished professional.
Her name on the athletic center is a fitting tribute to a school that so influenced the trajectory of her family, beginning with her son Daniel. “It really changed his life,” Dan recalls, “and because of that, it changed all of our lives.”