As members of the Williams College community joined together last Saturday to celebrate the induction of Morton Owen Schapiro as our new president there was one notable absence: Harry C. Payne.
As I understand the situation, Payne was invited to the ceremony, but declined the invitation mainly due to the fact that he was on campus just a few weeks ago for the dedication of the great hall of Goodrich in his honor as Payne Hall. Since Payne has found a new home in Atlanta it is understandable that such quick trips north are often difficult to make.
Regardless, I feel that the members of this community who were esponsible for the induction performed a great disservice to the legacy of Payne’s tenure as president by failing in his absence to even mention his name at the induction.
When I arrived on campus in 1997, Payne was in the midst of his term as the College’s 14th president. Over the next few years I watched from my position on this editorial board as a notoriously cloudy series of events occurred which culminated in the announcement that Payne would retire in the fall of 1999. This led to the appointment of trustee Carl Vogt ’58 to the position of interim president, only the second-such time in the College’s 206-year history that such a position had to be created.
It is easy to be taken aback by all of the pomp and circumstance of the recent induction, but before we move ahead with our 16th president I think it is important to realize where it is as a community that we are coming from.
As I sat in Chapin Hall last Saturday I saw President Vogt perform his ceremonial duty of passing on the College’s charter and key to President Schapiro, officially marking the transition. Seated just to the side during the ceremony were former presidents Francis C. Oakley, John W. Chandler and, on behalf of John E. Sawyer, his widow. But there was no Hank Payne.
If there is one thing that I have learned about Williams, it is that our history is extremely important to who we are today. We perform ceremonies and dress up in robes in order to place ourselves in the midst of a much larger academic tradition. College events, be they convocation, commencement or an induction, are important not only because of what they mean to us today, but also as a vehicle that connects us to our past. Given a history as rich as Williams’ it is completely appropriate that we embrace our past so that it can inspire us all to what we can achieve in the future. However, without the presence of one of our past leaders at such a ceremony our history is left with a gaping hole.
Oftentimes relationships do not end as we would like them to, and I think that it would be fair to say that such is the situation that this community finds itself in with President Payne. Simply ignoring him does not mean that any lingering awkwardness will fade away. As someone who has been at this school long enough to remember the work that Payne did here I feel that it is my duty to represent him the only way that I can, as I knew him.
My sophomore year, as the news editor of this paper, I had the privilege of working fairly closely with President Payne. As I wrote at that time of his departure I never found him to be anything less than extremely competent and cooperative. I would often get responses to my queries within minutes and his staff was always willing to find time in his overburdened schedule for a pesky reporter.
As the new leaders of Williams begin the process of starting anew, it is important to look at where we came from, and equally important not to leave any of our history out.
Without a history we are a much weaker institution, but without the truth we are not an institution of higher learning at all.