WRFC reunites for 50th year

When John Greer ’77 journeyed to campus for the Williams College Rugby Football Club’s (WRFC) 50th anniversary last weekend, he made the event a literal family affair. Greer’s son Nick is a member of the class of 2008 and one of the squad’s captains, a position the elder Greer – “Tosh” to his teammates – held over 30 years ago. Though the Greers may have been the only father and son pair in attendance among the crowd of over 250 players from the classes of 1961 to 2008, there was certainly no lack of family atmosphere.
“If there was a motto for our weekend it would have been ‘Togetherness and Camaraderie,’” said Jose Pacas ’08, president of the WRFC and main organizer of the reunion events. “I got big hugs from guys I’ve never met. You just love each other for being brothers of the WRFC.”

Pacas said that planning for the reunion, which included a Friday night cookout, intercollegiate and alumni games on Saturday afternoon and a banquet Saturday evening, started about one year ago when the team held its annual tournament in memory of John Donovan ’83.

Normally, less than 30 alumni attend the event, but Pacas and other players wanted this year’s weekend to bring together a broad spectrum of former players to celebrate the WRFC’s 50th season.

“Some of the alumni like to joke that this is an unprecedented level of organization for the team,” Pacas said. He was quick, however, to extend credit to Alumni Relations, Dining Services and Campus Safety and Security for the helpful roles that they played in making the weekend’s events run smoothly. “You say 50 years of rugby are coming and people sort of shudder and hide,” he said, adding that he “couldn’t thank Dave Boyer [associate director of Security,] enough for trusting the rugby team to keep the event as safe and controlled as possible.” Despite the fact that there was a $900 fine issued by security for an illegal party held by the team on Thursday night in Perry House, the official reunion events went off without incident.

According to Peter Pearson, who coached the WRFC just after it was formed in 1959, the College initially “had very little regard” for the WRFC and “were opposed to it.” It was something of a surprise, then, when President James Phinney Baxter, who Pearson said “did not approve of rugby,” broke the ice by appearing at the pitch – fittingly, it seems – with a “keg of beer.”

Dave Coughlin ’61 formed the team in 1959 after returning from two years studying in Scotland, where he first played rugby. According to Tim Sullivan ’62, posters went up around campus and “about a full squad” showed up to the first practice. “I was a swimmer, but I turned out to be better at rugby than I was at swimming,” he said, adding, “not to mention it was a hell of a lot more fun.”

Though Coughlin founded the WRFC, it was clear at Saturday’s banquet that Pearson is the club’s mythic figure. “Peter, I salute you,” Coughlin said during his address, drawing applause and even a standing ovation. A native of England, the legend goes that Pearson played a high level of rugby during his time at Leeds University in Yorkshire. He was an RAF fighter pilot in World War II and was shot down by the Germans over France. After being smuggled back to England by the resistance, Pearson married an American woman, took off for Williamstown, operated a fine garment factory in North Adams and, it seems, found a connection to his origins in the WRFC.

After the team started, it quickly established an array of unique traditions. These were on full display Friday night when hundreds of alumni and current players circled-up, beers in hand, to sing songs that had been passed down in an oral tradition by each team’s “chief of protocol.” A climax came on Saturday night when the current chief, Matt Beatus ’09, was raised high atop a keg of beer by two alumni, where he recited the lengthy (and somewhat obscene) “Ballad of Eskimo Nell.”

For Paul Hogan ’86, a former chief himself, the weekend’s most poignant moment came at the Cole field pitch on Saturday afternoon, when about 300 alumni, current players and even members of the opposing teams gathered together in a circle to honor the memory of Donovan. Donovan died after a long struggle with mental illness. With Donovan’s mother, Ellen, in attendance, the team raised over $1000 for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

“He was a guy that for any of us was a brother, and we want to honor him by making sure that the work that we do gives back to this community,” Hogan said.
It is clear that the reunion meant a great deal to the alumni. “Rugby to me epitomizes this whole notion of very intense athletic competitiveness on the field, but then off the field people are comrades and mates; people hang out and people are mutually supportive,” said David Weaver ’82. “That to me is what rugby is all about, and that’s what Williams is all about too. So it’s a real congruence in the school’s ethos in terms of what it creates in terms of people and sports.”

The events and emotions of the weekend were perhaps best summed-up by the WRFC’s current coach, Bruce Stephenson, on Friday night.
“Rugby’s hard to describe – you either love it or you don’t sign up,” he said. “These guys are out of control, but they love it with a passion.”