Behind the Uniform: Alan Horbal

When you arrive in Williamstown early to lead international orientation, you end up spending a lot of time in cars: Driving to campus from the airport in Albany, to the storage unit in Hoosick, N.Y., and back and forth from the airport to pick up the first-years. In my case, this meant spending long days with college driver Alan Horbal, who not only made for good company but also offered an earful of surprisingly colorful stories from Williamstown and the Berkshires. After becoming road buddies with Horbal during our first week on campus, I sat down with him once more (this time, with him out of the driver’s seat) to hear some additional stories.

Born and raised in North Adams, Horbal has resided in the area for six decades and has been affiliated with the College for the past 15 years. As a result, Horbal has witnessed a lot of changes in Williamstown and the greater Berkshire area.

One such change was when the College went co-ed. “Until that point [in 1970,] Williams College was basically comprised of wealthy Caucasian males,” he said. “And the occasional buses full of girls that would come from Wellesley, Mount Holyoke and the like on weekends.” Once women were admitted, he said that the atmosphere suddenly shifted in a very noticeable way and that the transformation was “one of the best things to happen to the College.”

Abolishing fraternities brought another big change, according to Horbal. “I was a cook in south Williamstown at the time and knew all about Main Street and the frats,” he said. “We were all jealous of what they were able to get away with, but they were a lot of trouble for sure. Toga parties, I assume.”

Horbal also brought up an often-overlooked consequence of abolishing Greek life. African-Americans in the area at the time were mostly cooks and maids in the fraternities, and the closing of the houses meant the elimination of a lot of jobs. “No house dining means less dining staff. No fraternities means you don’t need maids or laundresses anymore,” Horbal said. “It was a constant change and a constant cut of employment that you never think about in context to the houses.”

Horbal has watched Williams grow and has been involved in the community not just as an independent driver to the College, but also in genealogical research. His interest in the field began when his aunt passed away. He started asking questions about his ancestry that his relatives weren’t able to answer, and he was forced to seek these answers on his own. He has taught a Winter Study class “Genealogy” on the subject and still teaches at the Berkshire Athenaeum and the Chicopee Public Library. There, he works with a group of volunteers he has dubbed “Horbal’s Army.” He also helps residents with basic genealogy, all pro bono, because he “loves it so much.” Through his Winter Study projects, he has compiled databases of every minority birth, marriage and death in Williamstown and Cheshire County, along with comprehensive archives of every resident in Pittsfield, North Adams and other areas in the Berkshires.

The last thing I asked Horbal to do was tell me stories about the Berkshires and give students a sense of what lies outside our purple bubble. Horbal, a natural and enthusiastic storyteller, jumped at the invitation. He regaled me with many colorful accounts of oddities in the Berkshires. These included an exclusive, invitation-only nudist colony in Hancock that recently had an open house and the old “Chinese Rooming House” in North Adams where Chinese immigrants were sheltered and to which the Knights of Labor, back in the days before peaceful segregation, walked with pitchforks inhand to protest.

Horbal is convinced that while it seems that we are in the middle of nowhere, we are actually surrounded by colorful places and opportunities. “I know you guys complain about having nothing to do,” he says, “But if you asked me what goes on here in the summer for example, I could give you something different to do every day for three months.”

He adds that all of this adventuring can be done “without leaving a carbon footprint,” imploring students to use vans instead of smaller, personal vehicles. Horbal’s main off-campus escapade suggestion?  Going to concerts, whether they be by Windsor Lake, at nearby Tanglewood, at the Times Union Center in Albany or otherwise. “Pay me for gas, and I’ll take you to any concert you like. Provided you buy me a ticket as well, of course,” he promised, with a cheeky smile.

Even after all this time I’ve spent with Horbal, I would gladly gather some friends to fill his van and drive to a concert – provided that I got to listen to his stories all the way there.