The ‘elite mystique:’ How the College and its reputation have changed

When I was in the eighth grade, I was introduced to John Botts ’62, a very collegiate, handsome guy in a Williams t-shirt who also happened to be captain of the men’s tennis team. If I am trying to pinpoint when my bond with the College began, I think that it was then. “What a cool guy,” I thought. “I want to go there,” to the school with the elite mystique, as I came to see it. It had nothing to do with knowledge or achievement. It was an identity sought. I must add that I lived in a very Ivy kind of town. While that was not my parents’ background, I, very impressionable at the time, had quickly picked up on it.

All the following years I studied feverishly to get those As and to get on the honor roll. It was with the same fever I took the SATs. My shuffling feet distracted those around me. I got into the College which, in the traditional sense, is forever my greatest accomplishment. In a different era, it had a really tremendous snob appeal.

With Fred Rudolph ’42, professor of history, and my great college friends, we read The Protestant Establishment in class. In the 1950s, the College was No. 3 in NYC’s social register behind Princeton and Yale. By the time I arrived, the College had fallen into the 30s. The College’s huge transformation began with President Jack Sawyer, who was shocked to see the school’s social degeneracy, academic lethargy and financial peril. I call him the “quiet revolutionary.”

After graduating, my ideas about the elite mystique were confirmed; for some, the Williams identity was a social aphrodisiac. I remember meeting a preppy guy from Dallas who said that only those at debutante parties and the like would know of Williams. He liked that. I was taken aback. The College once was known as the “West Point of Wall Street.” Instantly, I became a special person. I had that elite mystique

However, I soon realized that most people never had heard of the College. I am approaching 50 years since graduation, and the anonymity still holds true, despite the No. 1 rankings and the incredible 19 of 21 Director’s Cups.

Several years ago, Rudolph, who was a part of the College for most of his life, told me that it was now twice the school I knew, at least. No doubt about that. It is a born-again school. It is no longer the once “rich boys’ school.” This really hit me when I saw the Mountain Day videos and saw how much fun fellow Ephs were having. The reason? Women! They showed such spark. Back in my day, the College seemed inert. Williams’ transition in many ways has been phenomenal.

However, I still get the “Where’s that?” For several years out of both pride and promotion, I have worn a Williams hat. Only twice have I recieved any kind of acknowledgement. I have long been unable to sort out this elite school identity. I am sure that most Ephs today were higher-minded than I was in their pursuits of attending the College. My daughter went to Ohio Wesleyan, and I loved that school and her Buckeye friends. At times, I realized that I was more at home there. Unencumbered, however, my Eph pride will never wane.

I  realize that students today with their diversity of interests will find the College of the past foreign indeed. I don’t think that there is a college in America that has changed so much and all for the better.

Jim Barns ’69 was an American studies major. He lives in Charlottesville, Va.

Comments (2)

  1. For what it is worth, Williams College has absolutely no prestige where I live in Laguna Niguel, CA. I don’t think many have even heard of it. I seem to get more clout out of the fact that I attended Occidental College and met President Barack Obama back when he was a sophomore.

    1. John the “Obama Associate”, I just had lunch with Barack and he has no recollection of who you are… Also, it’s been years since you have been denied tenure at Williams, why not move along? Holding grudges is bad for your health.

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