Amherst Magazine

Displaced from JChap

By Adam Gerchick ’13

150210040

When a sprinkler pipe burst in Johnson Chapel just before midnight on Feb. 12, 2012, it sent water into some 26 offices of faculty and staff. While the building remains structurally sound and the chapel itself stayed dry, several offices suffered collapsed ceilings and extensive water damage, compelling the college to temporarily close JChap.  

For many of the building’s faculty members, most of them in the English department, this meant a change of scene from antique windows and creaky wooden floors to austere offices in Merrill Science Center and cramped Frost Library study rooms.

“It began for me with a phone call at a quarter to midnight, as I was fast asleep,” says William H. Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English. “It was a bad night.” In the morning, Pritchard discovered that Chapel 2, the ground-floor office he has occupied since 1967, was unharmed. As he was relocated—along with his typewriter—to 205 Frost, the flood’s aftermath became more an inconvenience than a tragedy.

If Pritchard’s ordeal sounds relatively painless, that’s because it was. Michele Barale’s was not. Barale, the Thalheimer Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies and director of the college’s Writing Center, arrived on campus shortly after receiving word of the flood to discover her office in ruins. “I’m sort of sorry I went,” she says. “It was horrific. It was hot. It was steamy.”

The flood drenched most of Barale’s office library and destroyed hundreds of photographs assembled on her desk for a scholarly project. Most distressing, though, was the damage caused to a copy of Precious Bane, by Mary Webb: “It’s a book that my father gave my mother in 1941, and that she gave me, and I wrote my dissertation on it.”

Amherst shipped Barale’s and other professors’ waterlogged books and papers to be freeze-dried at a document-restoration facility in Chicago. The college hopes that most can be salvaged.

“I cannot believe how great the [facilities and physical-plant] staff was” in the flood’s aftermath, Barale says. “They were as kind as you could be to a woman saying, ‘I think I’m going to throw up.’” She has since found new photos and is writing again, using Frost for books she no longer has on her shelves.

Before the flood, the last major disruption in Johnson Chapel had occurred in 1995, when the building underwent an extensive renovation. That time, Pritchard stayed put. “There was a threat to displace me, but I refused to move and managed to keep my office,” he says.  Such a feat required flexibility: “I remember once getting in through the window.”

In his temporary office in Frost, Pritchard has been writing literary reviews and browsing the library’s collection of Olio yearbooks. “For a while I’ve been thinking about changing styles, and they’re pretty interesting,” he says. “Especially in ’68. The hair grows long, the faculty disappears from the book.”

A few doors down from Pritchard, Robert Hayashi, assistant professor of English and American studies, describes his temporary reassignment as a mixed blessing: “You see the best in people. The facilities people have been wonderful. The library staff even brought us chocolates.” Hayashi, whose JChap office suffered only minimal damage, notes that his carrel window in Frost offers a line of sight down the center of the First-Year Quad to the War Memorial and the Holyoke Range. He may not have his office back, he says, “but at least I have the promotional-material view.”

Image © 2012 Ken Orvidas c/o the Ispot.com