Williamstown: A Sense of Place

From time to time our minds wander through the memorable places we have known in our lives: where we lived, visited, worked, studied, loved. Where we succeeded, where we failed. This seems only natural. After all, we are territorial animals: grounding in a solid sense of place is instinctively what we want and need in an ephemeral world.

The memory banks of Williams graduates contain an indelible impression of Williamstown, its surroundings, and the whole Berkshires region. It is where we were transformed from entering freshman adolescents to (more or less) adults as seniors. Whether or not we thrived in and totally enjoyed the isolated mountain environment at the time, or even thought we hated it, the experience changed us. We left the mountains for other places and pursuits, but the mountain world never entirely left us.

Our school song, penned by Washington Gladden, is even titled “The Mountains.” The first line of the chorus, as we all know, is “The mountains! The mountains! We greet them with a song.” Granted, the tune and the words are sentimental; they evoke a bygone era, as most school songs do. Today, when we sing the words of the song, the school pride we feel is mixed with a quiet amusement. But the underlying sentiment it evokes is markedly different from a typical school song that simply extols the virtues of academia at an alma mater. “The Mountains” speaks directly to the natural attraction of Williamstown and its surroundings that has always existed in the minds of graduates.

Some local impressions are particularly strong for us: the natural beauty of the course at the Taconic Golf Club, the backdrop of the Clark Art Institute, or some other spot or vista around the campus. Or maybe it is also the built environment of the College, Weston Field, the gleaming white Congregational Church, and the “Village Beautiful.” The scenes are interwoven with distinct memories of the crisp air of early fall, the changing leaves, the snow, or the sloppiness underfoot during the spring melt.

It is appropriate to say that Williamstown and its natural surroundings are our other home, or at least one of the most important homes of the many we may have had in our lives. Of course, it is not necessary to own real property in the area after one’s college years to feel this way. Those graduates who make the special commitment to actually own property in the Williamstown area, however, do so because of these ingrained feelings.

Returning for reunions renews and intensifies these feelings. Reunions are about people, but they are also about place. We anticipate the first view of the place we will glimpse as we round the last turn or mount the last hill on our arrival. There is a sense of excitement in seeing what is familiar again. We note (approvingly or disapprovingly) what is familiar and what has changed.

Is this unique to our particular college experience? No. To some degree, the alumni and alumnae of other schools in other places presumably feel the same way about their college environments. The transitional place where adolescence ended and the world awaited is special for everyone. What is different, and heightened, about the relationship we have with our Berkshires second home is the unique natural splendor of the setting, and the way that the small college town (no, village) seems to be well suited to it.

Paradoxically, the Berkshires are a place that feel we know well, and yet may know little about. Unless we have returned to explore it since graduation, our attachment to the area is more about feeling and remembering than it is about knowing.

Berkshire County in its entirety runs the length of Massachusetts, more than one hundred miles. As students we were nestled in one small part of it, in the northwest corner, near Mount Greylock and the Appalachian Trail. The sweep of its rich cultural and industrial history was obscure to most of us, and not of particular interest, during our college years. Then our young and eager minds were more outward looking, to the big cities of Boston and New York, and the wider world beyond. But an increased appreciation of the Berkshires now provides us with an enhanced perspective on an old and familiar place of special meaning in our lives.

Our website will feature a series of articles about different aspects of the Berkshires in the coming months. It is hoped that the information they contain will fill in some of the blanks, and make the return to campus and Williamstown for our 55th reunion in June 2023 even more meaningful and enjoyable.