After Amherst freshmen failed to defend the goalposts in 1952, a horde from Williams tore them down.

By Roger M. Williams ’56

Are we on top? Well, I guess we are.
We’ll make those fellows look like 30 pfennigs.
(What?) Pfennigs! (Oh!)
I’d like to know what to do with the dough,
For old Amherst is marching on to glory.

—Chorus, “Old Amherst’s Out for Business”

As I turned onto Route 9 East, heading to the 2010 Homecoming, those jaunty lyrics resounded in my mind’s ear. Of all the great songs we sang at “The Singing College,” that was always one of my favorites. Now I was summoning it for a purpose: to help me remember Homecomings more than a half-century ago.

For the usual reasons—long drive, dicey weather—I have been to only a couple of them since then. On this occasion, I wanted to compare current ones to those in 1952 and 1954, when I was a student and the football opponent was Williams. From a competitive standpoint, those games defined the word “homecoming.”

Memories at a great distance are of course episodic and idiosyncratic. Thus my most vivid one pictures the postgame scene on Saturday, Nov. 15, 1952. Amherst had just beaten its archrival, 21-19, and upperclassmen with command presence had ordered freshmen like me to defend the then-wooden goalposts. I dutifully joined a group arrayed at the east goal line. Suddenly, from the throng milling peacefully around the field, a shouting, liquored-up horde of our Williams counterparts, prodded by their upperclassmen, came running straight at us.

One guy struck me a glancing blow as he charged past—providential because it knocked me out of the path of the stampede. From there, I instinctively sidled further away and watched, somewhere between mesmerized and appalled, as our last line of defense gave way. The goalposts shook, splintered and crashed, and the attackers loosed a triumphant roar. I fled before my overseers could execute us for dereliction of duty.

Amherst defeated Williams at both of those Homecomings, as well as at the “away” game in 1955, triumphs remarkable in light of the Lord Jeffs’ overall record of 49-71-5 against Williams. Of the games themselves, I remember mostly trying to stay warm, cadge sips of an alcoholic beverage and do my part to cheer on the purple and white. I also recall:

  • Cheerleaders—all men, naturally, and clad, I believe, in white letter sweaters, turning the occasional gymnastic trick
  • The band—energetic and traditional (to be supplanted in the ’60s by a raggedy, seemingly half-stoned, blithely off-key bunch that mocked the whole band concept)
  • Players without face masks, arrayed in the recently adopted “two-platoon” system that created offensive and defensive specialists
  • Tailgating and tents? No tents that I recall. I guess tailgating existed in a small way, but not by that name.
In the 1950s, Amherst cheerleaders were all men, naturally, and clad in white letter sweaters.

A short tour of crinkly pages of the Student refreshed other, off-field memories. An “Extra” edition in 1952, published right after the game (a reminder of the days when print relayed the news) not only proclaimed victory but also gave play-by-play details. My classmate and pal Steve Davis reported in that edition that although visiting Williams men were “drunkenly well behaved,” overall weekend damage was slight.

My own memory of the social doings features hordes of Dartmouth men descending on Amherst fraternities and dorms. Dartmouth was not only all male but also far from women’s colleges. On any big weekend, our couches and even beds would be commandeered by Hanoverians sleeping it off after forays to Smith and Mount Holyoke coupled with copious amounts of booze from what we ruefully referred to as the “Amherst hotel.”

As the Student reported, a best-“effigy” contest brought satirical renderings to every fraternity lawn. The winner: Kappa Theta, which showed Lord Jeff dragging a purple cow into a grave, with accompanying inspired text: “Looks like a grave weekend.” Entries had been judged by a team of three surely suffering professors. (Where was the American Association of University Professors when they needed it?)

By today’s standards, Homecoming clothing ranged within very narrow parameters. Amherst men were clad in three-button tweed jackets, button-down shirts, narrow rep or paisley ties and naturally dirtied white “buck” shoes.  If any student wore a letter or freshmen-numeral sweater, it was turned inside out, so—to achieve that era’s equivalent of cool—only the stitched outline of the appliqué could be seen. Our dates usually arrived wearing blouses with Peter Pan collars, lamb’s-wool sweaters, demure skirts, knee socks and loafers, plus camel-hair coats and long, striped scarves in collegiate colors.

Amherst men wore tweed to football games; their dates kept warm in striped scarves.

The dates came overwhelmingly from neighboring Smith and Mount Holyoke. With no public transport to either campus, they had to be picked up by car. And with autos forbidden to Amherst freshmen and sophomores, and rather scarce among upperclassmen, the unwheeled often had to stand at the intersection of Route 9 and Pleasant Street, in hopes that drivers would take pity on them.

Many of the Smithies invited as Homecoming dates had been spotted weeks before, when copies of the guide to incoming Smith freshmen circulated throughout Amherst dorms. Hall telephones ingested a torrent of nickels and transmitted such awkward opening gambits as, “Hi, I—umm—noticed [stared at!] your picture in the freshman book, and I’m—umm—wondering if maybe…,” etc.

For freshmen, any evening schedule was very restricted. Since they had not yet joined a fraternity, and since females were banned from dormitory rooms, the dorms’ unappealing basement areas provided the one place to gather out of the cold. Beer and booze were available only if you knew an upperclassman who would buy them. (The fraternities, though filled with drinkers under the legal age, had no problem getting all the alcohol they needed.) A lot of us, in freshman and later years, spent dateless weekend nights singing songs from the great Amherst song book—better after a few beers but good in any case.

So much for Then. Here, in November 2010, was Now. On a Saturday when the Big Time sports world locked onto the shifty off-field maneuvers of Auburn’s star quarterback and his preacher dad, Amherst (and Williams) basked in the Small Time—as they have for 125 years of deliberately low-key football competition. The 2009 Amherst victory, the first in 24 years in Williamstown, raised the stakes for 2010. In addition, Williams came to Pratt Field undefeated. As loyal alums know, the Ephs steamrollered our Jeffs in the second half and won 31-16. But that result failed to dampen the occasion, with its fabulous weather (late spring in mid-fall), a broad palette of foliage and indoor-outdoor partying.

Before the game, I conducted, at Amherst and Smith, a modest, unscientific survey of attitudes toward the weekend. At Amherst, I concluded, beating Williams still matters, and most students do take in at least part of an Amherst-Williams game. What a young man named Dan called “continuity” matters, too—“it’s the time alums converge on campus, giving you a sense of what this place has meant to many people over many decades.” His companion, Kate, likes Homecoming as a release from what she called “the Amherst bubble—the beautiful, sheltered place where nothing bad happens; you get actual contact with people from the outside world.”

When I asked about dates for the game, I received blank looks. There is no “dating,” there are no “couples.” As Kate told me, as if patting a child on the head, “We’re into relationships now.” The relationship code appears to proscribe public displays of affection: at the game, I saw only one young man and young woman displaying anything like that—with a bit of smooching behind the stands.

Of four Smithies I interviewed, none realized it was Amherst Homecoming weekend or knew anybody who would be attending it; only one knew, sort of, that our traditional rival is Williams. All the purple-and-white-striped scarves are nowadays in their grandmothers’ attics. And Northampton and Amherst, it seems, at least socially, might as well be 800, rather than eight, miles apart.

I was surprised to discover the Friday night bonfire still flaming brightly. Not that this one had much to do with football—from what I observed, nothing more than two players mumbling a few sentences about the importance of beating Williams. Truly impressive, however, was the number and variety of other activities packed into the weekend, so many that football could seem secondary. Two interesting examples: a gathering sponsored by the new-to-me Center for Community Engagement and back-to-back sessions on student-alumni networking and how to bring technology fruitfully to bear on it.

At the game, the class and sports-team tents provided a warm and welcome touch to the proceedings. A drink or a quick nosh, I gathered, was available to just anybody who sauntered into one of them. As for the tailgating, the college website linked to a curious—perhaps arch—assessment that pronounced Amherst’s version of it the best in the country. The anonymous commentator cited New England charm, restrained atmosphere, sophisticated menus and the ban on oversized vehicles. He or she could have added, America’s best-looking alumni.

After the final whistle, kids frolicked on the field, while our alums criticized Amherst’s second-half play calling and Williams’ exulted with members of their team. The goalposts? They were completely ignored. Thus do we measure progress in human affairs.

Roger M. Williams, a magazine journalist since graduation, is writing a feature for the Spring 2011 Amherst magazine on how the college’s Folger Shakespeare Library helped solve a recent international crime.

Photos: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections