What Sawyer Said

What Sawyer SaidYour article on Jack Sawyer ’39 (spring 2013) reminded me of a vignette about him and his leadership style. On a beautiful spring day shortly after the Cambodian bombing in 1970, Dick Berg ’71 and I were lounging on the bench at the head of Spring Street, contemplating the weather and life. Shortly after lunch, as President Sawyer walked from his home to Hopkins Hall, he passed by and we waved. Dick and I were still perched on the bench when Jack emerged from Hopkins later that day, and we invited him to sit with us. He took off his jacket, and we chatted. We told him that we and our fellow students were up in arms about Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings. Big things were going to happen. Jack admitted that he wasn’t aware of the student uprising, told us he would check around with various constituencies and thanked us before leaving. He subsequently steered the college through the historic campus “town meeting” and college strike of 1970. Our chat at the top of Spring Street was a quintessential Williams moment.

—Matty Mathieson ‘71, Burke, Va.

Reading “What Sawyer Said,” I was reminded of Sawyer’s first speech as president, given at his induction on Oct. 8, 1961. Two years out of Williams and as a North Adams Transcript reporter covering the ceremony before 1,000 people in Chapin Hall, I was intrigued by something newsy he said. Warning against “the overly rigid reliance on standardized tests and grading systems which fail to uncover certain traits of excellence,” he announced “an experiment in which we would admit a designated fraction of the entering class who might not ordinarily have been admitted on prevailing formal criteria.” These people would not be “weaker students but candidates … with a flair, a forte, a strength of character that would enrich the student population and the college … in recognition of the fact that occasionally a weak academic record merely shows that sometimes the most gifted or the most thoroughly reflective balk first at the treadmill of graded requirements.”

Taking chances in the non-traditional, gifted, even oddball thinker was a principle that spread among many colleges. Just as well. The treadmill of grades in the competitive world seems more like a mountain today. I assume over the decades Williams and its students have been the better for Sawyer’s experiment.

—Ernest F. Imhoff ’59, Baltimore, Md.