Decades later, seniors go back to school

It’s easy to take life in the Purple Bubble for granted, but try imagining a life of drudgery in a cubicle – it certainly doesn’t sound as fun as being a student, does it? After all, the College provides almost limitless opportunities to learn about ancient Chinese history, the philosophy of American political thought or even knot theory. Though conventionally it seems as if students’ time at Williams is limited to eight semesters, the dream of never leaving the College’s classrooms isn’t as unattainable as you might think.

In fact, this aspiration is hardly a reach at all because the dream is right in front of most students’ eyes: auditors. Whether they grew up in Williamstown, have returned after retirement or are professors and alumni, Williams’ auditors have all chosen to go return to the classroom years after completing their college degrees.

Fred Stocking, who is almost 93, graduated from Williams in 1936 and later came back as an English professor in 1940. Although he is now retired, that doesn’t keep him from coming back to campus. He and his wife Carol have taken Keith Kibler’s musical theater Winter Study course four times now, in addition to several other regular semester courses.
“We most enjoyed the wonderful spirit of the students; they really supported each other,” said Carol Stocking, beaming as she talked about the musical theater class. “They had a really good morale, because some of them had never sung before. The students were very welcoming, and treated us like people. They would come to talk to us, and would treat us like part of the group, like we really belonged there.”

Like Fred and Carol Stocking, Lincoln Diamant, an 83 year-old who lives in Sweetwood retirement home, cannot resist the temptation of the College’s courses. Each week he makes the trip with his wife to campus to take an American political thought course. “The first time I was in Williams was in 1941, a long time ago,” he said. “Through the years I’ve been here a couple times, and I wasn’t disappointed when I came back.”

After graduating from Columbia University in 1943 and pursuing a career in publishing and broadcasting, Diamant chose to retire in a place that, as he puts it, “is a breath of fresh, young air that you don’t usually get.” He has already audited four regular semester classes in the history and political science departments.

“That I’m allowed to do this is the world’s greatest benefit. [I love] getting into the classroom and not having to pay for it as long as I behave myself,” Diamant said, chuckling sheepishly. “I could have sat around on the golf course all day and had lunch, but that wouldn’t have been fun.”

Peter Mehlin, who grew up in Williamstown, feels the same way. “It’s a wonderful experience and I wonder why more people don’t do it,” he said. “It’s one of those great things that Williams offers to the community.”

Mehlin spent the better part of his life in Brooklyn working as a librarian, but, as he said, “Williamstown looked better and better the older I got. And having the College here was a major positive consideration in coming back, in terms of all the cultural goings-on.”

Mehlin’s Williamstown education began in Hardy House when his father taught astronomy on campus, and he hasn’t stopped learning since. Peter has taken 12 history courses thus far, and has loved every experience. “When I came back to town, I was looking for something that fit into my schedule, and there was a gap in my knowledge [where history was concerned] and I got hooked,” Mehlin said. “Now I’m very serious about my auditing – I go to all the classes, and I do all my readings.”

Luckily, he doesn’t have to endure the stress of regular student life. After all, Mehlin has the luxury of learning for the pure purpose and enjoyment of, well, learning. “The nice thing is that I don’t have a major to fulfill, I don’t have division requirements to complete,” he said. “I can just take anything I want. I have all the advantages without the test – I’m amazed at the students here, and at the course load that they can carry. I’ll go to Berkshire Symphony or Cap & Bells, and see someone I recognize – you obviously don’t sleep at all.”

More than anything, auditors add a unique perspective to the classroom. “They had never heard of some of this or that, but we had, because we’re so old,” Carol Stocking said. “Some of that musical theater is still around, and they had to learn it.”

Mehlin agreed. “Once in a great while, I will volunteer something because of my life experience – I’m often older than the professors,” he said. “One example was in Professor McTildy’s class on South Africa, when we were talking about apartheid and Mandela. None of the students had been born, and the professor had been a very young woman. I was able to say a bit about the American view at the time.”

An undergraduate degree may only take four years to complete, but the opportunities to continue learning on campus are far from over once students graduate. Williamstown is full of people well past their prime taking advantage of a learning environment that is still young and fresh. “I get to dabble away at whatever interests me. I’ve got the rest of that course catalog, and I’ve got the rest of my life planned,” said Mehlin.

Even if your future is both imminent and looming, and that cubicle haunts your dreams, Williamstown will still be here for when you’re ready to retire. And if you’re not planning on reentering the Purple Valley anytime soon, then believe Diamant when he said, “All of this is actually training for what life is all about. [After] this four-year term, you’ll come out an educated person, and God knows what’ll lead you when you come out. There’s a mess [out there] right now. Good luck.”

In the words of someone much older and wiser, there’s always much more to learn.