Fifty years ago this fall, 143 girls joined 337 boys on the Williston Northampton campus—and the school was forever changed. In celebration of a half-century of coeducation, we reflect on that historic moment.
THE YEAR WAS 1971. Richard M. Nixon was president. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were prompting societal shifts. Change was in the air.
Against this backdrop, two boarding schools in western Massachusetts decided to link arms. After 47 years as an all-female institution, Northampton School for Girls (NSFG) merged with Williston Academy, which had been coed from 1841 to 1864, then all-male for the ensuing 107 years. That fall, the merged Williston Northampton School admitted 143 girls, 63 of whom came from NSFG.
Five decades later, Williston Northampton is a thriving coed boarding and day school. But the 50th anniversary of the merger offers a moment to reflect on both the triumphs and the pitfalls of two schools and two worlds colliding. As seamless as coeducation now appears, the first years were tumultuous, chaotic, and exciting—painful for some, and liberating for others.
“They were brave and courageous decisions—motivated by necessity and the dominos of the culture falling—but they were monumental decisions nonetheless,” said Head of School Robert W. Hill III. “There’s no way it could have been completely smooth. Those were tectonic plates shifting.”
BROTHER AND SISTER SCHOOLS
In truth, the merger was taking shape well before 1971, with negotiations quietly happening between the Boards of Trustees at both schools. When NSFG founders Dorothy Bement and Sarah Whitaker retired in 1962, questions about the school’s future emerged. Williston Academy was feeling economic pressure, and coeducation presented an elegant way to resolve both situations.
Williston Academy and NSFG had nurtured a special relationship over the years, coordinating programing since the 1930s, including dances, theater, and singing groups.
“There was a strong feeling, even if it was never official, that we were brother and sister schools,” said Rick Teller ’70, Williston Northampton’s longtime archivist.
Still, the announcement of the merger was met with varying degrees of enthusiasm. There were faculty murmurings that the NSFG girls wouldn’t keep up with the boys in academics. And in several editorials in NSFG’s Pegasus newspaper, students wondered if their school would be swallowed up by the “Big Bad Willies.”
Their concerns were penned in a letter to the editor in October 1970: “What kind of meals are we going to get? Will we be deprived of our privacy? Will we be uneasy with boys in the class? Will we have bells? What about our traditions?”
TO DO NSFG PROUD
Many of both institutions’ greatest fears dissipated in the first few months. The boys still studied; the girls had privacy and eased into life with testosterone-filled classrooms. But there was still jostling as students figured out their roles in the new school. Sheila Fisher ’72 was certain she would be the editor of the school newspaper her senior year. Then the schools merged, and suddenly her school newspaper was The Willistonian, and a boy was slated for the position. In the end, she was named coeditor along with her male counterpart, but she recollects that one of the early struggles of the merger was fighting for female parity.
“In certain areas, there was the assumption that NSFG was being absorbed into Williston, and there had been leadership positions already allotted to the boys at Williston,” Fisher said.
Girls also vied for equality in athletics. Williston Northampton was still working out the kinks by the time Mary Conant ’75 arrived as a ninth grader. Conant recalls that the girls still didn’t have Williston Northampton blue and gold athletic uniforms, but had to wear NSFG green and white uniforms. They rarely had professional umpires to call their softball games, and the girls’ locker room was small and ill equipped.
A GOOD TIME TO BE YOUNG
Alumni recount the early years of the merger as an electric time. Daily chapel was out, and with it a strict dress code. Day students flooded the school. The arts program blossomed, and the theater program flourished. New ideas were discussed and debated. There were boys in the classroom! There were girls in the classroom! Across the nation, the times were changing. Along with that came a push for coeducation. Yale went coed. Harvard, Princeton, and Trinity, too. Title IX was passed and the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated.
“I did feel like, the very first day in September, there was something very exciting going on, and I loved it from the second I stepped foot on campus,” said Judy Fisher ’73. Tony Spagnola ’72 also felt a new burst of creative energy on campus, and he attributes this to the girls. The arts became a viable part of the curriculum, not just an afterthought. “Guys were doing ceramics—that alone would’ve never happened,” Spagnola said. “It was a major, major change to the direction of where the school was going.”
Dorothy Bement and Sarah Whitaker forged their school at a time when education options for women were minimal. They opened their doors in 1924 to a single student, and soon were purchasing additional buildings to house, teach, and feed the girls. The pride in the school was enormous, and women found NSFG a haven for their dreams and aspirations. It wasn’t just nostalgia that made the merger difficult; NSFG was home.
“It was as if as soon as you go off to college, your parents decide to sell your family home and expect that this [new] place you’ve never lived in is going to be your home,” Sheila Fisher said. “Well, it’s not.”
Fisher isn’t alone. NSFG alumnae who graduated before the merger don’t necessarily see Williston Northampton as their campus, yet they now have no other physical campus to return to. They also fear that the legacy of their school will be lost.
A handful of NSFG traditions were carried over in the merger, including the Sarah B. Whitaker Award, the “White Blazer,” which recognizes “the young woman who has distinguished herself with the greatest contributions to the academic, athletic, and community life of the school while exhibiting exemplary leadership and integrity.” The Angelus, a large bell that was the centerpiece of NSFG ceremonies, was recovered andhas been installed in a plaza on the Residential Quad. Yet 50 years after the merger, some alumnae still wish for more recognition and celebration of NSFG traditions and history.
Teller offers a practical reality to paying homage to NSFG. “We are not a campus of monuments,” he said. “Our two pieces of public sculpture are a lion of very dubious origins, and a statue of Sir John Falstaff, a fictional character and a notorious corrupter of youth.”
“There are schools where you can’t go around a corner without bumping into some dead guy in bronze. That’s never been us.”
THE SCHOOL TODAY
Today, the idea of a non-coed Williston Northampton is hard to picture. The male to female ratio is nearly equal, girls assume many campus leadership positions, and girls athletic teams have long been on a tear. “As a female leader on campus, I feel empowered and supported. I think we all do,” says Senior Class President Sarah Markey ’22. That’s also true in the school’s newest dormitory, which opened in the fall of 2020. Named for a 1949 alumna from Northampton School for Girls, Emily McFadon Vincent House is home to 40 female students, who live under the watchful eye of dorm head and girls ice hockey coach Christa Talbot Syfu ’98 and three other female faculty members. A sign in the common room fittingly reads “Empowered women empower women.”
Five decades later, Williston Northampton is a unified institution. Even though coeducation is now taken for granted, Hill says the anniversary of the merger nudges students to appreciate the people who came before them.
“The women from NSFG were pioneers in education, as were their heads of school and founders,” Hill said. “There is a courage and pioneering spirit to the very essence of NSFG, which I think is a timeless message for both boys and girls at Williston Northampton.”
The anniversary of the merger is allowing both Williston Academy and NSFG graduates to take stock of the past, and reflect on the present. “It makes me proud of the way that the young women who went through that first year made it through,” Fisher said. “And it makes me proud of the school, to be honest, that it’s come out the other side in such a healthy way.”
This article, originally written by Megan Tady in celebration of the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Williston Northampton, has been edited and updated.
More reflections on the 50th anniversary of coeducation continue.
The White Blazer Carries On
My recollection of the moment in the photo above was happiness—I was elated to win the White Blazer Award! It certainly felt like a recognition by the “new” school that maintaining the traditions of Northampton School for Girls was important. I was also amazed at the 1972 graduation when I received the Harvard Book Prize. The inscription in that book reads “The Prize Book of the Associated Harvard Alumni shall be awarded to the outstanding boy in the next graduating class who combines excellence in scholarship with achievement in other fields.” I still marvel that the new Williston Northampton School had the audacity to give the prize to a girl in that first graduation!
I loved NSFG! But after the merger, I wouldn’t have wanted to go back to a single-gender school. I was privileged to be part of each school for two years. Being part of the merger during my junior and senior years at WNS was both challenging and energizing. It prepared me for many things in life. It helped as I went to newly coed Yale and later when my insurance company in Connecticut merged into a larger company in Massachusetts. Life flies by. It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago we were just starting at the “new” Williston Northampton School.—Ann Futter Lomeli ’73
The First Valedictorian
I remember being tremendously proud to represent the young women from Northampton School for Girls as the valedictorian of the first coed graduating class. Many of us had felt a keen sense of loss at leaving the NSFG campus, so this moment was a gesture toward showing that we belonged and could succeed at our new school. I was also proud because I was the first person in my family to attend prep school or college, and I was off to become a member of the entering class at Smith in the fall of 1972.
For many of us coming over from NSFG in 1971, the transition wasn’t easy, and we didn’t always feel entirely welcome. For one thing, young men outnumbered young women; many played leadership roles on the Easthampton campus that would just, as a matter of course, have been held by young women at NSFG. What’s more, as NSFG was assimilated into Williston Academy, some of our beloved teachers from NSFG were not offered employment at the Easthampton campus—another hard loss. Despite these drawbacks during that first year of coeducation, there were many assets as well. Williston was a more substantially endowed school than NSFG, one with greater resources and facilities. Its library was bigger, its art studios better equipped. It actually had a real theater and a distinguished theater program; it had a swimming pool. Many Williston faculty members were very encouraging to the NSFG students, as they taught us, mentored us, and challenged us. I was able to do things at WNS I could not have done at NSFG because of the broader array of resources and offerings. —Sheila Fisher ’72
“A Little Awkward”
The fall 1971 Bulletin represented the merger using photos of two students. Here, they share their behind-the-scenes memories of that experience.
“The school set up a photo shoot with Dave Griswold and me. We really didn’t know each other so it was a little awkward. Maybe that was the point, since none of us knew each other! I remember it as an exciting time; everything was so new to us. It was a new campus, which was an adjustment, but also lots of fun to be on a coed campus!”—Caroline (Officer) Wharton Ewing ’73
I took a lot of grief for that shot from my classmates because I was sporting the Glen Campbell hairstyle and those plaid pants! Caroline and I had never met before this shoot, so it was awkward, but sort of fitting for the feeling of the merger. Bringing together two very different schools was quite the challenge to pull off. Thanks to great teachers and traditions, we managed to prosper and build lifelong bonds.—David Griswold ’73
NINA GOODRICH ’74
I didn’t go to NSFG, but was one of the girls who started during the first year of the merger. It really was a vibrant place. There were so many choices, so many things to do! There was a bit of discrimination at the time— for example, a sense of “did girls belong in math and science?” And it was helpful to know that A) there was doubt, and B) when girls did well, that was a learning experience for all. I went to women’s colleges, Mount Holyoke College and Wellesley, and I think there was something of a “Yes, we can” movement that I was proud of for the rest of my career. It was the seed that made me feel nothing was insurmountable.
ANDREW WOODEN ’73
Having spent my career teaching and leading in independent schools, this writing assignment of remembering Williston Northampton School from 1971 to 1973 is welcome. I am truly grateful that WNS was coed when I arrived; otherwise, I would have missed more than half of my best experiences and memories. Being a school senior administrator, when I look back at our school’s first year of the merger, I can only speculate on what must have been difficult discussions that probably took place behind closed doors:
What is the right curriculum? How progressive should the merged school be? Are we really allowing students to “have fun” down on the Manhan? And, is coed overnight camping a good idea? And, who is really in charge?
I remember overhearing faculty disagree about these inevitable dilemmas, but they didn’t cloud my experience. The teachers and administrators I got to know were student focused and bright, creative, caring, and selfless. They inspired me to be a teacher. I am grateful beyond words.
I left a small rural town in Maine, and I was impressed by Williston’s respectability. Squash courts, clay tennis surfaces, stately elms, grand receptions in graceful spaces—I felt as though I had landed in a place where there was a lot of “there” there. But what mattered more were the teachers and many of my favorites were from “Hamp.” Several of my closest friends were too. I was drawn to the humanities, and I was amazed that teachers would take students to concerts and invite us to listen to classical music and jazz in their dorm apartments. I had lots of ideas, and my teachers helped me to hone them, and I first began to learn to write well because of English teachers who wanted to help me find my voice.
The world seemed to be falling apart during those years. Vietnam, racism, genocide, recession, and predictions of impeachments and pardons. I arrived in Easthampton having campaigned for Nixon/Agnew and at Williston I learned to write editorials for The Willistonian calling for their removal. At WNS I was encouraged to be a better thinker. Teachers showed me the beauty of the artist’s world. Classmates, mostly young women, made me want to be a better person. As I contemplate my 50th reunion I am grateful for attending a coed school—even if neither I, nor my school, had it all figured out.
JUDITH MILLER CONLIN ’72
I hadn’t expected to be at WNS. My goal, to graduate from Northampton School for Girls in three years, was stymied by a bad case of mono. Instead, I planned to keep my head down, ignore the boys, and power on to fast-track through college and medical school. Which worked out fine, until I sat down in Doc Gow’s biology class next to Michael Conlin ’72, a wiry Irish kid from Worcester. I tried to ignore him. Instead, two years later I married him, and it was the best thing I ever did. Some habits from Williston were so steeped in XY chromosomal tradition that change was difficult. For example, it took 25 years to be recognized as manager of the track team and to receive the varsity letter that I had earned! I missed the NSFG traditions: the Sacred Garden, Phoenix Night, the Angelus bell, class songs, the alma mater, cocoa and graham crackers for recess— even “Tweenies.” Yet I have grown to treasure the combined school, especially as we watched our children, Flannery ’95 and Jared ’98, make their way through WNS as “six-year seniors” from middle school through to graduation.
MICHAEL WILLS ’72
I came to Williston in 1969 and got to know about 400 other guys. We all knew who we were, and then the next year it was more of the same. When we became seniors in the first year of the merger, there was a whole new bunch of people to meet. Suddenly, there were girls in the classes —girls from Northampton School for Girls—whom we were familiar with, but who we didn’t know well, and other girls, too. It was definitely nice to have a different dynamic and new people there. Maybe we cleaned ourselves up a little better, too! It was a major deal, and a big positive. I guess you could say Williston really assembled a good bunch of people to go to school with.