Celebrating Phillips and Sarah Stevens

For a generation of Williston Northampton School students, the Stevens family is synonymous with campus life. From 1949-72, Phillips Stevens served as Head of School, overseeing Williston Academy and, later, its merger with the Northampton School for Girls. During his tenure, he oversaw major construction projects to modernize the campus, while increasing the number of students and faculty, raising admission standards, increasing endowment—ultimately setting the stage for coeducation. Sarah Wallis Stevens, described as a woman of “extraordinary warmth and empathy,” served for two decades as “First Lady” of Williston Academy. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of a fund established in the Stevens’ honor, we asked alumni to share memories, which you’ll find on the following pages.

Genuine Human Beings

Phil was an imposing figure, towering over everyone—a Hollywood casting success as a New England private school headmaster. It is a great compliment for me to refer to someone as a genuine human being—not someone with a hidden agenda—and both Phil and Sarah were very real, genuine people. Their personal warmth, particularly Sarah’s, made Williston just a little more bearable. As a measure of my affection for them: I traveled over 1,500 miles back and forth to Easthampton for Sarah’s memorial service because she was one of those few people in life whom one shows up for.—Doug Jones ’67

“The President’s Been Shot!”

I grew up at 17 Payson Avenue, in the brick house now called Gilbert House. Our family and the Stevens family were completely intertwined in thousands of ways with so many priceless memories. One event that stands out was when I was in eighth grade and home after lunch with my mom (Barbara Gilbert). Phil came running up the driveway and barging into our house—no need to knock—and yelled out, “the president’s been shot!” He had no TV in the administration building and knew the nearest TV was in our living room. Phil, my mom, and I stood in front of the TV and watched the news from Dallas in horror. My mom was sobbing; there were tears running down Phil’s face. I was 13 and had no idea of the import or of the impact. He used our phone in the kitchen to to cancel scheduled events and open up counseling, talking, and sharing for the entire Williston community. We were all of us in immediate shock and pain and grief, and Phil, being who he was, took charge and looked out for his school and all within it.—Tom Gilbert ’68

What a U.S. President Should Look Like

The first time I met Phil Stevens, with his horn-rimmed glasses and three-piece suit, I thought, “This is what the U.S. president should look like.” With his basso profundo voice and stern look, I regarded him with both fear and admiration. In my senior year, I was invited twice to tea with Phil and Sarah at the Homestead, and from these brief encounters, I learned so much more of their warmth and humanity.—Reeve Chudd ’69

Kindness and Humanity

I look back upon my four years at Williston Academy as the most impactful period of my life’s trajectory, although I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. The experience gave me an incredible and lasting foundation for the years that followed. Headmaster Stevens was always a larger-than-life figure to me during my time there, but one experience, in particular, showed his humanity and genuine concern for us as students. At the start of my junior year, my father passed away from a sudden heart attack. Mr. Stevens came to my dorm room to tell me the news after my mother called him. I was devastated and lost, but he sat with me for a great deal of time, not only to console me but also to help guide me through what was to come on that dreadful day. His concern and interest in my well-being didn’t stop with that one incident. Throughout the rest of my time at the school, he checked in with me regularly, particularly during my first months back at school following my father’s funeral when I would meet with him on a weekly basis for an “emotional check-in,” as he liked to call it. During my senior year, I had made the decision not to go to college immediately after graduation due to a decline in health for my mother. I can’t count the number of times that Mr. Stevens and I talked about this situation. Thanks to him and his support, I eventually changed my decision, and with his guidance, chose a college, Clark University, that was close to my mother. Being with my mother in her last few years (she died three years after my father), while obtaining a wonderful college education, are experiences that have indelibly shaped my life going forward. Headmaster Stevens was an incredible person, and I got to experience his kindness and humanity firsthand. It was an experience for which I will be forever grateful.—Wesley Harrington ’67

The Great Potato Explosion

I was a faculty brat at Williston. My mom was the nurse. And the Homestead was a magnet for a bunch of us kids. My best buddy was David Stevens ’62—number three in the Stevens line of six. On rainy Saturday mornings, we would often meet at the Homestead and use the ancient basement to play squirt guns, or go to the “game closet” and play some all-day game like Monopoly. I would usually go a little early and meet Sarah in the big colonial kitchen where she might be prepping meals. One day I knocked on the door of the kitchen. Sarah let me in—and what a mess! She had been cooking potatoes in a new pressure cooker, and it had exploded! There were potatoes everywhere. I ended up standing on the counters scraping potatoes off the ceiling, and was Sarah’s favorite as I peeled potatoes while her family rustled up their breakfast. One time I peeled onions for her. And she told me the secret to not crying while peeling onions was to hold a fork in your mouth. I can recall explaining the trick to Phil Stevens when he showed up for breakfast. This would have been when I was in fourth or fifth grade.—Chuck Vernon ’62

“Yesterday, I was proud of you boys.”

My most vivid memory of Phillips Stevens is from May 1970, just after the Kent State shootings. The deaths of four students protesting the Vietnam War shocked the nation. Several Williston students gathered to discuss whether we would join the anticipated demonstrations across the country the following day. We hatched a plan to march to Smith College in Northampton to demonstrate outside the campus house where President Nixon’s daughter, Julie, was living. We thought that was the best way to get the message to the president that the war in Vietnam needed to end.

Our dorm masters (as they were known then) warned us that if we moved forward with our plan, we would be expelled. The next morning, I joined a few dozen other students outside the Homestead. Phillips Stevens repeated the powerful and stern warning that if we missed classes and left campus for Northampton, we would be expelled. Not to be deterred, we marched on to Northampton. As we did, Mr. Stevens announced loudly to everyone else, “We all have a job to do. Let’s go to class.” The faculty and other students headed to the classrooms.

But Mr. Stevens, being concerned about our welfare, trailed us. Someone had created a banner that read “Give peace a chance,” and those holding it led the way. We chanted “All we are saying is give peace a chance” over and over. As the march went on, Mr. Stevens got closer and eventually was walking alongside us.

We entered Northampton and headed onto the Smith College campus where we were met by TV news cameras. Smith students welcomed us and invited us into their houses where they fed us as we made plans to participate in demonstrations with them. It was an incredible day for a teenage boy to experience. We all returned to campus in time for dinner and went to our dorms. To our relief, we had not been expelled.

The lead news story that night on the Springfield TV stations was “The chapel bells at Williston Academy rang in a day of antiwar demonstrations in the Pioneer Valley.”  Phillips Stevens came across in the coverage as an enlightened, progressive headmaster who led his students into Smith College to demonstrate and protest the war. The next morning at assembly we all gathered as usual in the auditorium. Mr. Stevens went to the podium and stared into the distance for the longest, tensest pause I can ever recall. Finally, he said “Yesterday, I was proud of you boys.”  And that was it.—Ed Michael Reggie ’71

“I’m Actually the Janitor”

I remember the story of when my brother, Dan ’64, and my mom met Phil for the first time. My mom was very proud of her son and she wanted to be sure Dan would be welcomed at this private school. When Phil walked into his office, my mom and Dan were already seated. My mom asked Phil if he was the football coach. Phil, dressed impeccably in his classic tweed jacket, gray slacks, and bow tie, responded, “No, I’m actually the janitor,” and proceeded to pick up a wastebasket and head for the exit. Mom and Phil hit it off from the start. He always treated my mom with the utmost respect. When Dan was about to graduate, my mom told Phil that Dan had a younger brother that could also play football. Phil said, “We can work something out for Jimmy, too.”—Jim Cain ’68

Phillips and Sarah Stevens Scholarship Fund

The Phillips and Sarah Stevens Scholarship Fund was established in 1973 by a small group of alumni to honor the legacy of the Stevens at Williston. Every year, a student with financial need is awarded this scholarship—a fitting tribute to this important couple who played such a pivotal role for generations of Williston Academy alumni. Over time, alumni have added to the fund—when Mr. Stevens passed away in 1994 and again, upon Mrs. Stevens’ death in 2016. Recently, as the fund celebrated its 50th anniversary, the Stevens family has made another generous contribution in hopes that other Williston Academy alumni will join them and provide more financial aid to Williston students. If you’d like to add to the fund, contact Eric Yates, Chief Advancement Officer, at eyates@williston.com.