This Week in Williams History: President Taft, Pink Floyd, ‘lice condoms’

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“This Week in Williams History” is a column dedicated to looking back at memorable moments in the College’s past through articles in the Record. This week in history, three guests visited the College: former President William Howard Taft in 1917, Pink Floyd in 1971 and an unwelcome outbreak of lice in 1997. 

Nov. 22, 1917: ‘Ex-President Taft talks on YMCA’

In November 1917, ex-President William Howard Taft spoke at the College about the crucial value of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) at the time as well as the military history of Germany and the entrance of the United States into the First World War. “We are now neither Democrats nor Republicans, but Americans,” Taft said. “The object of the United States in this war is to make the world safe for democracy.”

The first six rows of Grace Hall were filled with members from the Williamstown unit of the Massachusetts State Guard, while the student body and greater College community filled the rest of the auditorium. (Grace Hall, named in honor of Alfred Clark Chapin’s first wife, became Chapin Hall once Chapin married his second wife.) Rising in respect for the former president when he first entered, the audience appreciated “his subtle thrusts of mingled humor and satire” and remained “wholly at ease” during the entire speech, the Record reported.

Although beginning by stressing the importance of the work of the YMCA, Taft focused his lecture on the position of the United States during the war. “The only way in which the psychological nature of the German mind can be changed, and it must be changed, is by an actual and decisive defeat of the German nation, physically and mentally,” Taft said. “When Prussianism has been eradicated, then and then only will the mission of the United States have been fulfilled.”

Nov. 16, 1971: ‘Pink Floyd: totally unenjoyable in spite of electronic wizardry’

In November 1971, psychedelic rock group Pink Floyd performed at the College, only to receive a scathing review of their concert in the Record. Pink Floyd, known for its “electronic wizardry” and “truly underground music,” as the Record sarcastically put it, did not seem to impress the student body. 

“As far as music is concerned, they should have remained underground,” Andy Culbert ’76 wrote. “The music that Pink Floyd made may have served a purpose, but the members of the group exhibited very little musical talent – certainly not talent enough to warrant the price of admission.” 

The performance lasted for two-and-a-half hours. Although a long line of students waited in the cold to be admitted, the size of the audience at the end of the concert was substantially smaller than it was at the beginning. 

“At least one person went to sleep – a remarkable feat considering the holocaust of sound,” Culbert wrote. “It seemed from this viewpoint that about ninety per cent of those who attended the show were bored silly; the other ten per cent were too spaced to know what boredom really is.”

Nov. 18, 1997: ‘Fear and loathing on the way to the Health Center’

An outbreak of head lice swarmed campus and infested more than 100 students in November 1997. Thought to have originated in Frosh Quad, lice also surfaced in upperclass dorms, forcing the college to provide free laundry in all first-year dormitories and purchase 27 extra vacuum cleaners. 

“I am desperately trying to avoid it,” Junior Advisor Christine Caveney ’99 told the Record. “On our floor we had a sign saying, ‘This floor is lice free.’ Then it reached us.” 

The outbreak not only hampered large social gatherings, including a concert planned in Mission Park that weekend, but also ostracized and isolated those who had it. “I was treated as an outcast like when an entry-mate slammed a door in my face, and I wasn’t even going into his room,” Ken Benton ’01 said. “After I was first diagnosed I walked away with my head down, wallowing in the disgrace.”

Regardless, some students took the epidemic in stride. “At a party I went to people were wearing shower caps as lice condoms,” Chance Chiou ’01 said. “It seems like everyone but me has it.”