Clarence Chaffee

Editor’s note: As most of us know, Clarence Chaffee coached not one, or two, but three sports (soccer, squash, and tennis). We begin with Doug Rae’s tribute to the soccer coach, followed by Jon Weller’s remembrance of the squash coach, and now complete with Trav Auburn’s homage to Chafe the tennis coach.

Chafe on the soccer field — Doug Rae

Our class had the good fortune of attending Williams while a number of “gentleman” coaches were still in residence. They came of age between the wars when the ideal of the amateur athlete was still dominant, and they brought the values of hard work, fair play, and building character to Williams. Clarence (Chafe) Chaffee was one of those coaches. Chafe coached soccer in the fall, squash in the winter, and tennis in the spring. I was lucky to play soccer for him.

Chafe was already a legend long before our class arrived in Billsville. His squash and tennis teams were always nationally ranked, and he, himself, was a force in the over 60 age group competitions. In those days the soccer season included only 9 or 10 games, but one of those games was always against one of the Ivies. And it was always special to beat one of the Ivies, especially Harvard. As Freshmen we learned that on Harvard’s last visit to Cole Field, Chafe’s varsity had beaten a very strong Crimson team, which included the Nigerian Olympian and soccer All-American, Chris Ohiri.1-0. We managed to continue that tradition in the fall of 1966 beating Harvard in Cambridge.

Chafe did everything first class. He drove a Cadillac. And I remember riding with him to a pre-season scrimmage at Albany State as a sophomore. Several of us were standing in front of the field house with our gear waiting for one of the upperclassmen with a car to pick us up. Suddenly, Chafe drove up in the Caddy and told us we were riding with him. He pushed a button and the trunk popped open while we stood there open-mouthed. I had never ridden in a Cadillac before, and I have no memory of the game, but the memory of riding with Chafe in the Cadillac is still very vivid.

Chafe never yelled, but he always got his point across. He worked us hard, and we won some games because we were fitter than the opposition. Practices were hard, especially pre-season double sessions, but never tedious; and I loved every minute I spent with on Cole Field. Chafe hated losing, but he taught us to lose with grace. Our senior season was a bit of a disappointment after the success of junior year, and losing to Amherst in the snow is still an unhappy memory. During that frustrating season Chafe never lost perspective that soccer was just a game, and he taught us that losing challenges one to correct mistakes and find ways to improve.

I was in the Peace Corps in Malaysia when Chafe coached his last game. Along with hundreds of Chafe’s soccer alums I sent a telegram: “the Silver Fox deserves victory” and the lads sent him out as the winner he was.

Ode to Chafe (Squash) — Jon Weller

Little did I know when I came to my first squash practice in November of 1964 that I would come under the influence of the most important teacher and mentor I would encounter in my Williams career. Clarence Church Chaffee, known to everyone as Chafe, came to Williams in the fall of 1937. His legendary tenure as squash, tennis and soccer coach plus a short stint as Athletic Director spanned 33 years until his retirement in 1970 at age 69. The only time I met Chafe before coming to Williams was a brief hello at the Alumni Tennis Tournament which I attended with my father, class of ’37, in the summer of 1964. Needless to say, my so-so tennis skills and meager squash experience were not worthy of whatever recruiting took place in the mid ‘60s.

That’s where Chafe took over. While all his tennis players over the years came to Williams with significant match and tournament experience from junior days and high school, the majority of the freshmen who came to that first squash practice had never seen that strange looking, skinny instrument with a small round head known as a squash racket. Chafe relished the annual challenge of assembling a respectable freshman team from this motley group, creating a farm team for his competitive varsity squad. Chafe accomplished this task with his engaging personality, infectious wry smile and the most amazing teaching skill I have ever encountered. He explained the intricacies of the game and demonstrated their application with skill and aplomb. Few of us ever won games from Chafe until late in our careers, but we knew, slowly and surely, our games were improving as he helped us mature from boys to men. Those of us who were fortunate enough to play squash (or tennis or soccer) for Chafe for four years learned early on that what Chafe was teaching had as much to do with life after Williams as it did with sport. More on that later.

Unlike other teams at Williams, which competed in Division III, the squash team played all the top college teams. In our day the top teams were Harvard, Yale and Princeton, followed by Penn, Army and Navy. Of course, winning the Little Three was the top priority, and matches against Amherst were always highly competitive. It was in the lead up to these tough matches that Chafe’s magic came to the fore. Although he wanted to upset the top teams in the worst way and we had to beat Amherst, he kept the atmosphere light and relaxed. At the appropriate time he would take each of his players aside, and with his inimitable style, remind each of us that our opponent put his pants on one leg at a time, just as we did. Armed with this simple but sage advice, Chafe’s troops came away with many unexpected wins. For me, the most improbable wins, especially coming back from match point down to win the deciding match against Amherst senior year, were a tribute to Chafe’s ability to get the best out of me and all his players.

No matter the results, Chafe taught us how to play the game the right way. Sportsmanship and integrity meant everything to him. No point was worth taking unless it had been fairly earned. Every member of the team played to this standard, honoring the college and Chafe along the way. Upon his retirement the Intercollegiate Squash Association honored Chafe with annual awards in his name to the top college coach and the college player who best exemplified Chafe’s ideals for sportsmanship and integrity of the game.

I encountered many great teachers while at Williams, but none so influential as Chafe. After all, he was my professor for Squash 101, 201, 301 and 401, the only teacher I had during each of my four years. I suppose the student/teacher relationship we shared is akin to today’s tutorial, Williams’ signature academic experience. I know there are countless classmates who feel similarly about Chafe, not to mention so many who were influenced by Chafe before and after. For me the lessons learned from Chafe on the squash court became essential life lessons post Williams. They were particularly important to me in business settings, where competition was always front and center, but sportsmanship and integrity were at times not on display. Whenever I came across a tough situation, I never failed to remind myself that the person across the table put his/her pants on one leg at a time, just as I did. And I always strived to play the business game with the integrity that I learned in Chafe’s classroom.

I was a very lucky guy to have known Clarence Church Chaffee.

Trav Auburn remembers Chafe the tennis coach:

I very much echo the sentiments expressed by Doug Rae and Jon Weller about Clarence Chaffee (Chafe). Though the following is too much about me, it does reveal that Chafe, in addition to being a great teacher and coach, was very astute with respect to the human condition. His insight and patience enabled him to turn around a very difficult young man in need of a strong mentor.

The first day I met Chafe was in the summer between junior and senior years of high school. I was playing in a tennis tournament held at Williams representing Connecticut against other sections of New England. Although I did not win those matches, I played well and Chafe appeared to like what he saw in my game. While at that tournament, I also had a great interview with the Admissions Office, and between the Admissions Office and Chafe I was admitted to the Class of 1968.

My first two years at Williams were full of frustration where it concerned tennis, my primary sport, and squash, my new sport, with most of my matches punctuated with outbursts of temper featuring both verbal and racquet abuse. After taking many lessons from Chafe, I played on the Freshman Squash Team. I missed the Freshman Tennis season as I was on disciplinary probation, and just missed playing Varsity Squash by one spot sophomore year. Although I made the Varsity Tennis Team sophomore year, I was one notch too low to play singles, and not chosen by Chafe in doubles, mostly due to my terrible temper which arrived with me at Williams. During those years, Chafe never spoke harshly to me, but it was clear that my temper was limiting his trust in me and my playing time, but he never gave up on me.

Then came junior year, when I played in matches on the Varsity Squash team, and when the tennis team went south on spring vacation I found myself playing #1. I lost most of those matches but behaved well. Chafe had found his moment to say just the right thing. After one of the matches near the end of the trip, I sat with Chafe and he said, “When you arrived at Williams, you had the worst temper of anyone I have coached in 33 years. However, this spring you have controlled your temper and behaved like a real gentleman and I commend you for that.” That moment changed my life. When Chafe used that bit of psychology on me, there were not to be any more tantrums, and I I was not knowingly going to disappoint such a wonderful mentor as Chafe ever again.

A final wrinkle for Chafe came my senior year when I hurt my knee playing touch football and missed all of the squash season, and about one-half of the tennis season. I did the best I could with limited mobility but neither the tennis team nor I had much success that year. At the sports banquet that spring, I received the Scribner Memorial Trophy, an honor chosen and awarded by Chafe, which goes to “that member of the Varsity Tennis Team who best exemplifies team spirit, sportsmanship, and character.” I treasure it to this day, and with those difficult beginnings at Williams, I have always wondered who was more surprised when Chafe handed me the trophy—Chafe or me. As I look back at those years, I marvel at how much Chafe put into turning me from an adolescent brat into a young gentleman. He did so much for me and I returned so very little.

As I left Chafe’s house on graduation day, he wished me luck and said “most importantly, please visit whenever you are in Williamstown.” I did that faithfully until his death, and continued to visit Fran, his wife, after his passing. Years later, I was at a driving range in Vermont and a woman asked me, because of the colors of my golf bag, if I had gone to Williams. I answered “yes”, and it happened that she was Chafe’s daughter, Alice, who then said “you may have known my father Clarence Chaffee, who taught there for over 30 years.” I was proud to reply that I had played squash and tennis for him, and more importantly, he had done more for me than any man except for my father.


6 thoughts on “Clarence Chaffee

  1. I tried out for the tennis team freshman year in a doubles match against Chafe. And did not make the team. Later that winter, we met in the squash courts for a one on one match which I again lost. Damn, he was a winner all his life! To this day, I have admired him, and hold him as an example of a gentleman and athlete.

  2. Like Gordon, I tried out for tennis freshman year. Playing against Bruce Simon, one of the best HS players in NY State, I somehow managed to win the opening game, and then lost the next six to lose the set, 6-1. Ever the gentleman, Chafe came over and said, “You know, Howard, we have lots of other sports in the fall here.” I’ve never been cut from a team in such a gentle and supportive manner!

  3. Coach Chaffee was an amazing man and inspiration to all he coached. I tried out for soccer but was not good enough to make the team. I remember being so impressed with his athletic ability and how well he inspired his teams. Good memories!

  4. My singularly most vivid recollection of Clarence Chaffee was on a day when I had been practicing squash by myself in one of the Lasell courts. I was hopelessly unathletic, but determined in a foolhardy sort of way to improve my “game,” such as it was. After I had been swatting the ball around for a quarter of an hour or so, the door at the back of the court opened, and in walked Coach Chaffee. After greeting me in a very friendly way, he said, “Ya know, I’ve been watching you, and I’ve got something I’d like to say. There are two types of students at Williams–the athletic ones and the scholarly ones. From watching you, I’ve concluded you must be brilliant.” Every time I recall this incident I smile.

  5. Ditto for me on all these comments. Chafe took the time to teach me how to play a game I’d never heard of. While just the last man on the frosh squash team, I continued playing for several years armed with many of the lessons and examples my classmates have remembered above.

  6. My only experience with Chafe was on the sidelines of a soccer game. I greatly enjoyed his dour commentary. “No,no, the other way!” Many years later he was scheduled to play doubles in a seniors tournament at a nearby club. His partner was my high school Spanish teacher, Malcolm Clark, one tough dude. Before the match I found them at breakfast. This brought a big smile from Chafe. Clarke said that Ephs looked him up all over the country and he loved it. These were wily competitors and they won the championship.
    Seth Warner who lives nearby was soccer manager for Chafe. When there was a road game, they would take off in Chafe’s big Caddy and take to the backroads seeking to beat the team bus!

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