Memorial service honors art historian Whitney Stoddard ’35

Colleagues, friends and family gathered together in Thompson Memorial Chapel last Saturday afternoon to celebrate the life and legacy of renowned art scholar Whitney Stoddard ’35, the Amos Lawrence Professor of Art, Emeritus. Stoddard taught full-time at Williams from 1938 until 1982 and continued giving lectures and running seminars until a few weeks before his death on April 2.

After introductory prayers and remarks led by College Chaplain Rick Spalding, friends were invited to say a few “words of gratitude and remembrance.”

John Chandler, President Emeritus, spoke first. Chandler noted that while Stoddard’s work with Williams’ students was legendary, “his publications, collections and scholarly investigations taught a much wider audience.”

According to Chandler, Stoddard was a “robust spirit who was not at all bashful letting people know what he thought.” Stoddard was an expert on campus architecture (for years he delivered an annual talk to first-years entitled “A Sense of Where You Are” and to graduating classes called “A Sense of Where You’ve Been.”) and had a strong influence on many design and renovation decisions.

“Whit was very vocal in his criticism of the original Baxter Hall design,” Chandler said. “I’m just glad he lived long enough to see the new plans.” A persistent theme in Stoddard’s writing and evaluation of campus architecture demanded that designs be respectful of nature, especially the mountains.

One of Stoddard’s most enduring projects involved the renovation of Lawrence Hall. According to E.J. Johnson ’59, Class of 1955 Professor of Art, “when you sense the energy of that architecture, you know that you are sensing the energy of Whitney Stoddard.”

Johnson praised Stoddard’s ability to introduce students who might not necessarily fit the mold of a typical art major to the beauty of the subject. “For many of us, taking a course in art was a shock, but Whitney caught us in the sheer joy of learning about art. Our lives were changed forever,” he said.

More than a few ‘rough-around-the-edges types’ were ensnared by Stoddard’s charms. “Whitney caused the unwashed to dip their toes in the cleansing stream of art,” Johnson said.

Williams alumnus Jack Curtin came to the microphone to speak for those students who entered Stoddard’s Art History 101class having little experience with art and left with a profound appreciation for the visual world. “Whitney treated the brawn with the same respect as the brain,” Curtin said.

Curtin emphasized that Stoddard tried to connect to his students on very personal levels, immersing himself in their lives. “Whitney was everywhere. He wanted to participate in every undergraduate experience, especially the parties. Whit will still be everywhere in this magical valley that he loved. We won’t see him, but we’ll know he’s here,” Curtin said.

Stoddard’s legacy might lie most deeply entrenched here at Williams, but his career took him all over the world. For years he directed an archeological excavation at Psalmodi in southern France. A world-renowned expert in medieval architecture, Stoddard was eager to share his scholarly investigations with anyone who was interested. This summer, the art history department will sponsor two students to partake in such an excavation.

Jerrilyn Dodds was one of many students who developed under Stoddard’s guidance. Referred to work with Stoddard in France by her professor at Columbia University, Dodds arrived at Psalmodi untrained and unsure. She left a changed woman, able to experience, as Stoddard did, the “deep pleasure of working with a beautiful treasure in a beautiful place.”

Dodds remembered Stoddard as “loyal and unflagging. He cared more about our scholarly development than he did about getting [the project] right the first time, or the second, or the third. The process was most important.”

She noted that his ability to relate to students on a personal level was incredible. “His manner. . . turned rough and callous students into sensitive lovers of art. He was teaching us to link our souls with the visual world,” Dodds said.

Michael Stoddard, Whitney’s grandson, shared several personal memories of his grandfather, fleshing out the portrait friends and colleagues had created.

“Grandpa loved to tell stories,” Michael said. “What made his stories special was the passion and flare he brought to the telling. He had a beautiful old gravely voice – there were a lot of people who couldn’t wait to hear him shut up, but not me.”

But what he admired most about his grandfather was “the amazing way he was able to communicate with young people. We had total access; we were never alienated by a generation gap.”Always fond of giving advice – sometimes solicited, sometimes not – Stoddard offered his grandson one ultimate piece of wisdom at the age of 87: “no more cheap wine.”

After the ceremony, a more informal reception was held outside Lawrence Hall. Friends and family circulated, sharing memories and anecdotes from Stoddard’s life.

Some in the crowd remembered his guidance and mentorship. “I’d never really looked before I met Whitney. I didn’t even know I had eyes,” a former student said. Others remembered his lively demeanor and the dignity with which he aged.

“His body deteriorated quickly at the end,” a friend said, “including, tragically, his vision. But until the last moment, his mind stayed sharp. He was still Whitney.”

Following family tradition, Stoddard’s remains were cremated. Most of the ashes were buried in the College cemetery next to his wife, but small portions were scattered in places of special significance.