“I wish to recommend to those who are undecided where to go to college to think favorably of Harvard,” wrote a correspondent to The Willistonian in 1881. “I feel certain that no one will regret making a choice of Cambridge as his home for the next four years.” While it’s unclear how many students took up the Crimson scribe’s advice, his words proved momentous in at least one way. Appearing in the very first article in the first-ever edition of The Willistonian, they launched a journalistic tradition that continues to this day. More than 137 years after its formation, the paper has yet to miss a beat. Along the way, it has witnessed history, shaped opinion, and earned distinction as the oldest continually published high school newspaper in America.
Now a benefactor has ensured that the streak will continue for many years to come. With a gift of $250,000, a Northampton School for Girls alumna this past spring endowed a fund that will underwrite The Willistonian’s annual operating expenses, including photography, printing, supplies, and technology.
“The truth has to get out there,” says the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “And it has to get there from people who understand how to write it and how to ask questions.” Her commitment to truth-telling would have resonated deeply with The Willistonian’s founding editors. The newspaper came into being as a joint venture between a pair of eminent campus debate societies, the Adelphi and Gamma Sigma. The clubs existed for the express purpose of examining the day’s thorniest questions, and The Willistonian was to be their organ. From the start, no issue was too big for its pages. Student journalists over the years have covered the deaths of presidents and the cataclysms of world war, often highlighting local angles that brought national stories home to campus.
A brief survey of the paper’s witness to history could begin in 1896 with women’s suffrage.
“The chapel was crowded, the ladies being especially numerous,” reads the paper’s account of a debate between Adelphi and Gamma Sigma on the topic. “Why then shall women not be enfranchised?” asks a student named Swan, arguing in favor of extending the vote. “They form a class which constitutes one-half of our population, a class subject to the same laws, tried in the same courts, taxed to the same percentage as men, a class mentally, morally, and physically able to execute suffrage. They ought to have it. Justice demands it, common sense counsels it, prejudice opposes it.”
This a full 34 years before the states ratified the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote. You can practically hear the cheers along Main Street.
Flash forward to January 10, 1918. War engulfs Europe, and “Letter from a Williston Boy in France” takes readers to the battle, where a classmate tries hard to appear nonchalant.
“By the time you receive this, Gardie, Dink, and Scoop will be in Ordnance with me. Believe me, we will make the fur fly then… Yes, we are some explosive crew. Sometime we will mount a trench mortar out on the campus, or better in Room 6 North Hall, and show the inhabitants how they do it in this land of mud and rain.
“Yours in Williston, Paul D. Jones, Ordnance Field Force, 1st Regiment, U.S. Engineers, France.”
In the paper’s very next issue, a more somber missive arrives from the front: “Writing on the Death of Malcolm Gifford, Jr. ’15.” Forwarded to The Willistonian by Gifford’s grieving father, the letter was written by a chaplain who witnessed the slaughter at Passchendaele, where a half million soldiers lost their lives. “Long ere this you will have been advised of the death of your gallant boy,” writes the chaplain. “To have been in such a fight was well worth any young man’s while, and to die in such a struggle was to crown a life with glory.”
Fifty years later, different continent, different war. The Willistonian again bears witness. On November 10, 1967, the entire front page is given over to a debate on Vietnam, with teacher Edward Lawton taking up the Johnson administration’s case and teacher Henry Teller arguing against American involvement.
“I think that people have a right to their views and a right to protest,” writes Mr. Teller. “I am very annoyed by statements that those who protest are unpatriotic.”
Meanwhile, student John Olander ’68 files a report from the front lines of the culture clashes in Northampton, where an angry mob has attacked anti-war demonstrators as police officers stand by and watch.
“A Smith College drama instructor who was leading the demonstration was knocked to the ground,” writes Olander. He goes on to quote James Faulkner, head of the Northampton draft board: “Too bad they didn’t break his damn neck.”
Big, global causes make great headlines, but the measure of any newspaper is how well it covers the local stuff. The Willistonian has excelled. Witness the 19th-century editor who, finger to the wind, predicts that the new game of lacrosse “is likely to become a prominent feature of Williston sports.” Amid college notes (“Spencer, of Yale, was here Wednesday, soliciting men for the Gamma Nu Society”) and ads
for gentlemen’s fashions (“A.H. Stocker & Co. Have a Nobby line of Spring Hats”), he notes that a lax club “of some 20 members has already been formed and when the requisite number is complete, the sticks will be sent for without delay” (April 30, 1881). Campus hasn’t been the same since.
Some stories are personal—“Paul H. ‘Pit’ Johnson, Author of ‘Sammy’, is Dead in 61st Year” (January 30, 1942)—while the significance of others only can be appreciated in hindsight: “Wildcats Chosen as Williston Nickname” (December 14, 1939). In the best boarding-school tradition, a few commentaries are facetious by design, such as when editors in the 1930s surveyed Northampton School girls on their opinions of Williston boys. Asserts one source, “There are three types: 1. The kind that are nice at first but lemons after, 2. The smoothies—oh, yes, a few have been known at Williston, and 3. The plain, ordinary ones.”
Counters a Williston representative, “Persons residing in fragile, transparent domiciles should not hurl extraneous inorganic matter through the atmosphere.” Whether he was of the lemony, smooth, or plain variety has been lost to time.
By turns earnest and wry, global in outlook and inward-gazing, The Willistonian has steadfastly reflected the interests and values of generations of students. More important still, it has exerted a lasting influence on them, helping them grow as
writers, thinkers, and leaders.
“Being editor in chief of The Willistonian was one of the great pleasures and adventures of my life,” says Bruce Marshall ’68, now
a commercial real estate advisor. “It taught me about responsibility and the importance of deadlines. It taught me about learning to develop people upon whom we could depend. It introduced me to people who had wonderful God-given aptitudes such as Paul Wainwright’s ’68 photography or the dependability of our sports editor, Danny Carpenter ’68 and so many others, including Reeve Chudd ’69, the following year’s Willistonian editor in chief. At the end of the day, it gave me a deeper appreciation for our school and for the many wonderful people there, including professors, coaches, and students. What a grand privilege it was to be involved with the school paper.”
With its new endowment, The Willistonian will carry its mission into the future, shaping the student experience for years to come.