Former chaplain keeps faith alive in Billsville

Snack Bar is packed. Students and faculty members alike crowd into the small dining space, barely able to move due to the sheer number of people packed around them. The unlucky ones stand outside, trying to peer through the glass and see the activity inside. All eyes are on one single man standing on top of a table, speaking eloquently to the multitudes swarming around him.

It’s not a typical weekend night as Snack Bar. Instead it’s the scene over 40 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the College. The campus had only one person to thank for the invaluable opportunity to hear King speak: a personal friend of the civil rights activist, John Eusden.

“I asked [King] to come and speak at Williams, and he came and spoke at the chapel for almost two hours! Still, nobody left. It was an amazing speech. And then the next day, I made a big mistake: I asked him to speak at a coffee hour discussion in the old Snack Bar, and everybody came! They were hanging out the windows to try and hear him talk. People asked a lot of questions, so he just climbed up on a table to talk. It was amazing!” said Eusden, former professor of religion and former chaplain of the College.

Although King’s visit was definitely one of his most memorable times at the College, Eusden’s best memories involve interacting with students and faculty members. “I really enjoyed counseling – talking to students and also faculty – and helping everybody get through the problems they were facing in life. Sometimes it was very intense, sometimes it wasn’t, sometimes I got nowhere – But I really enjoyed it,” he said.

Though Eusden is no long working at the College, he has stayed in Williamstown and still keeps in contact with the current chaplain, Rick Spalding. “Rick Spalding is one of my heroes – we [have a] very close connection. We talk often and we even ski together a lot. I knew of him before he became the chaplain [at the College], but it was really only after he came here that we developed this relationship.”

Along with Spalding, Eusden also considers King as one of the most influential people of his life. The two were very close and worked on numerous campaigns together in the South, including Selma and Birmingham. However, the success of the demonstrations was not easily attained, and Eusden was often in life-and-death situations. “I remember one instance in which Martin and I, along with four other people, were strategizing in a hotel room when a homemade bomb was thrown in through the window,” Eusden said. “We all dived under a bed, not knowing what was going to happen. I asked Martin, ‘What shall we do?’ and he said to all of us, ‘We better hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer.’ So we all held hands and said the prayer, and the bomb ended up just being a dud. I can’t say that the prayer was the cause for our safety, but it did bring us closer together so that we felt joined in whatever might take place.”

Soon, living in jeopardy from police and violent white supremacists became the norm for Eusden. “Martin would always ask me to march with him in the front, but that meant I would always be the first to be bitten by the police dogs!” Eusden said, wincing from the memory of painful dog attacks. “I was also arrested for participating in the demonstration, and even spent an afternoon in jail. I was released early because I was white, but [King] stayed in jail for three weeks because he was black.”

It was during this confinement that King wrote one of his most influential compositions, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “We happened to be with Martin in the adjoining jail cell and he started working on the letter. We kept on suggesting words for him to use in the letters – but he never used any of them! We had some great words too!” Eusden said jokingly.

For now, Eusden’s days are no longer centered on counseling students or teaching religion courses. Instead, he has found the time to enjoy the beauty of the Berkshires, as Eusden’s hobbies now include cycling and cross-country skiing. However, engaging in intellectual pursuits is never far from this Harvard and Yale graduate’s mind.
“I’ve written many books, specifically about Zen healing through the physical, spiritual and mental self. The book I am currently working on has a lot to do theology and healing physically and psychologically. It’s about being connected to something greater than yourself and finding some direction in your life,” Eusden said.

Along with his various activities within the Purple Valley, Eusden also absorbs himself with issues from abroad. “I work for the China Foundation and we have a lot of institutions that are in Guangdong province. I have gone on many assignments, working to progress environmental concerns there. I especially worked to try and clean up the Pearl River and deal with the grave pollution problems. My wife and I lived there too, and I’d love to go back,” he said.

However, despite the appeal of living abroad, Eusden ultimately finds himself most attracted to life in the Berkshires. His love for Williamstown even translates for his family, as his son, Alan Eusden ’77 and his grandchildren, Will Eusden ’08, Caitlin Eusden ’10 and Greg Eusden, Class of 2013, all were drawn to Williams as students. “I kept thinking that it might be good to have some variety, but they all really fell in love with Williams,” Eusden said lightheartedly.

After decades of living in Williamstown, Eusden has seen the College through numerous transitions – from the prohibition of fraternities to the admittance of women. However, Eusden insists that the atmosphere of the College has remained constant throughout the years.

“I’ve seen the College change over the years, and I have to say that I love the changes going on here,” he said. “I feel that there is an openness at Williams. When women first became part of classes, there was a sort of ying and yang, and I found this ying and yang come alive in my classes. I love it now with both men and women at the College because there is a fullness here of what life should be, a place where you can learn about life and relationships.”