Gardner Watts ’35 The thing about lasting a wildly long time is that you become deservedly famous. You’ve achieved outlier status, after all; you’ve lived the history the rest of us just read about. Everyone longs to draw wisdom from you and, noting your impressive mental and physical health, purloin the secret of your longevity. Many record your recollections. Your local TV news reporter airs a feel-good story, featuring footage of the two of you in a canoe. Which you paddle. Your hometown declares you a “Living Landmark.” A book comes out called Extraordinary
Centenarians in America
, and you are profiled in the first chapter.

In 2015, your college makes it official: you are its oldest living graduate. Then your alumni magazine pounces.

And so I headed to Suffern, N.Y., this spring to talk to Gardner Fairfield Watts ’35.

He had just celebrated his 104th birthday.

What a gentleman is Mr. Watts. His quiet charm would have been enough to make this an exceptional experience. But the man was a high school history teacher! He didn’t just live history; he savored and contextualized it.

Our meeting produced an avalanche of antique anecdotes. As a small boy, Watts woke up to the sound of shouts and fireworks on Armistice Day in 1918, and when he was a young man, Amelia Earhart once waved at him from her car. He saw Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs. At Amherst, he went to a poetry reading by Gertrude Stein. In Germany in 1934, he got detained by the Nazis.

 

We spent a couple of hours together in the modest home where he and his beloved late wife, Josephine, raised their five children. It’s painted barn red and chocked up with books, keepsakes and old photos—but new photos, too. There he is, at age 102, in a kayak. See him at 97, in a hot air balloon with his lady friend (a birthday gift for her 80th). At age 96, he climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty. “Old age,” wrote Cicero, is “the crown of life.” Mr. Watts wears it well.

Gardner Watts ’35 I put many questions to Amherst’s most senior alumnus that day, asking if he needed breaks (he never did), and we paged through the Olio and bound volumes of The Amherst Student from 1931 to 1935. He was alert throughout, correctly recalling details and dates to a flabbergasting degree. He stood, slowly but unassisted, to greet me. Hearing was his only difficulty. Robin Santoianni, his youngest child, repeated some of my queries by speaking loudly into his left ear, and helped facilitate our exchange with grace and wit. She joked that her main job, these days, is acting as her dad’s press agent.

The first thing to know about Gardner Watts is that, like so many Amherst men before him, he is a minister’s son. Henry Watts served in several Presbyterian parishes. Audrey Watts was energetic in civic affairs. They had three sons, with Gardner the oldest. One of his father’s positions landed the family in Sacramento, Calif., and there the boy, it seems, was imprinted by the drama of history as it happens. This was in 1919, and he was 4. He came upon the reverend, who was holding a newspaper and on the verge of tears: “I said, ‘Daddy, what’s the matter?’ I remember my mother said, ‘A great man has died back in the east.’ ”

That great man was Theodore Roosevelt. Today, this president’s picture hangs in the house here in Suffern. During our interview, I asked Watts what person, past or present, he’d most like to interview. He immediately said it was TR. The two men diverge in temperament—Watts describes himself as an introvert—but both have shared a deep love of history and the outdoors. Roosevelt was a robust booster of the Boy Scouts, and Watts began his lifelong habit of hiking the nearby Ramapo Mountains as a member of Suffern’s Troop 21.

At age 15, he and another scout were deployed to Suffern Presbyterian, the Rev. Watts’ church, to escort a frail elderly man at a Memorial Day service. He was a Civil War veteran in full uniform, agedly resplendent in Union blue and the buff silk sash of a general. “He had marched with Sherman, I found out later,” says Watts, who also has Civil War servicemen in his family tree. “For an hour and a half, I held his arm and hand. That made a great impression on me.”

His youngest child jokes that her main job, these days, is acting as her father’s press agent.

In high school, Watts had one of those teachers who shifts everything. She taught history with verve, and her name was Mrs. Wanamaker, a Mount Holyoke graduate who encouraged her shy student to think of a top college. He got into Wesleyan and Amherst and chose Amherst for its stellar history department—he’d known he wanted to teach the subject since taking her class. Also because Amherst gave him a scholarship, and said he could work on campus to earn more.

In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, the College had considerably and creatively ramped up what might be called early financial aid—paying students for kitchen labor, jobs in the library, felling old campus trees, selling tickets at sporting events, doing whatever could be hired out. This was because so many families had fallen on hard times. Indeed, when Watts entered Amherst, it was 1931, the pith of the Depression. With his flock too broke to pay his salary, Henry Watts had just lost his position. A distant relative stepped in to keep the family going, but there was nothing extra.

After joining the other first-year New Yorkers on the train to the Valley, Watts arrived on campus and pledged Delta Tau Delta, because it was open to letting him pay his room and board by doing dishes and waiting tables in-house.

Between sudsing and studying, Watts didn’t have time for much else. He did play on the tennis team a few years, and occasionally played piano in his fraternity house. He recalls the inevitable freshman hazing: being kidnapped and blindfolded one night and dropped somewhere on campus. (“I remember the cold.”) He liked the theater, and enjoyed a couple of student productions: The Emperor Jones and Berkeley Square.

Come summertime, Watts needed to stoke up more earnings to help himself and his family. He got a $26-a-month job on a steamship in 1933, and in 1934 he worked in the engine room of a passenger ship—the SS Theodore Roosevelt, no less—sailing to Europe. That August, as they docked in Hamburg, he and a shipmate were given three days’ shore leave.

What happened next, naturally, he put in a resonant historical framework: “It was the same month that President von Hindenburg died, and Hitler was seizing power. I saw the Nazi parades, and all the Hitler books in the stores. We were just wandering down the streets, and suddenly we were accosted by a policeman. He marched us down to a police station. I’m sure we were confused, quite frightened—it all happened pretty quickly. They shouted at us, kept us for a few hours. Then they released us. We found out we had crossed the street illegally, just jaywalking. So I was arrested in Germany. In Hitler’s day. I guess it’s a story worth telling.”

I guess it is. 

Mr. Watts Goes to Amherst

Gardner Watts began at Amherst the year the Empire State Building opened, and left the year Social Security was signed into law. These are some aspects of his time on campus.

  • Favorite professor: Laurence B. Packard, history. “He changed my life.”
  • Favorite places on campus: The tennis courts and the library.
  • Poets heard on campus: Robert Frost and Gertrude Stein. Stein “interested but mystified” her audience, reported The Amherst Student. Said Watts: “She was a character, of course.”
  • Ex-president seen up close: Calvin Coolidge. “I remember coming out of a Latin class, and I saw these men with scholars’ robes on. A group of students were there, and somebody said, ‘That’s President Coolidge.’ Then, suddenly, they all began to laugh. They had been focusing on Coolidge to see if he would even smile. Remember, he was very dour. Then he looked my way and smiled. I’d like to think he smiled at me.”
  • Biggest campus issues: 
    • The “eating question,” because students ate variously at their fraternities, the dining hall or the College inn—and not all of these places served breakfast.
    • Should underclassmen be allowed to drive? (Only seniors could.)
    • Should there be a penalty if you skip chapel? (They took strict attendance.)
  • Biggest political questions:
    • Should Prohibition be repealed? 
    • Should the United States fight against fascism in Spain?
    • Should the New Deal be abolished? (In the 1932 Hoover-FDR election, Amherst students were pro-Hoover by a 5-to-1 ratio, according to The Amherst Student.)

This fella was a cut-up.” That was one of the vintage phrases Watts said while we paged through the Olio yearbooks of the early 1930s, as he recognized impossibly young faces from long ago. He pointed out one who got Phi Beta Kappa; one who had a prominent father; and one … well, “this fella got drunk too often.” Prohibition was in full force for the first half of Watts’ time at Amherst, though of course bootleg liquor sloshed around campus here and there. Repeal didn’t come about until December 1933, his junior year.

Rev. Watts was firmly pro-temperance “but kept it out of the pulpit,” said his son. “There was none of this Billy Sunday business, hammering away,” he added, cueing the famous evangelist who preached against the evils of drink. Gardner Watts tried smoking a few times, but stopped, and he never drank. I asked if he was for or against repeal back then, pretty sure what he’d say. “We thought Prohibition was a good thing,” he confirmed. “For a few years, why, more people believed in it than didn’t.”

On campus, whether to spike Prohibition was the hot issue, and the wets highly outnumbered the drys. Watts particularly remembered one fiery gathering on the subject. “It was at Johnson Chapel. Seniors were standing up and almost ranting against Prohibition. They were saying, ‘It must be repealed! It must be repealed!’” That memory poured into another: he asked me to turn to The Amherst Student editions of January 1933, because he believed that’s when Calvin Coolidge died. We flipped through the ads for Lucky Strikes, Shredded Wheat and Arrow shirts and read that the former president, class of 1895, had been living in Northampton. His funeral (on, sure enough, Jan. 7) was at the city’s Edwards Congregational Church, with President Hoover in attendance.

“The reason I mention this was, the next day in German class—Dr. Eastman was his name—he didn’t teach the regular lesson on Goethe,” explained Watts. “But he spoke with quite an emphasis about the attitude of people at the funeral. He must have seen a number of Amherst students there who were drunk, perhaps, or saying the wrong things, and so on.”

Gardner Watts ’35
Watts in his 1935 Amherst tennis sweater.

As he searched the Olio’s rather serious-looking head shots, he was happy to spot particular friends, such as his fraternity brothers Wilbur Fuller Arnold ’35 and Kingman Nichols Grover ’35. He particularly liked finding Fred Barghoorn ’34, who also washed dishes and played tennis. Barghoorn became a Yale professor who made headlines when Soviet operatives planted compromising materials on him in Moscow in late 1963. Just six days before President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, he secured Barghoorn’s release.

Mr. Watts readily admitted his grades were uneven. He excelled in a class on the New Testament (“Well, I was the son of a minister”) and various history courses. These good marks helped “balance off my great trouble with Latin and with mathematics,” he recalled. “I almost failed out of college because I couldn’t handle the mathematics.”

When I asked him which Amherst professors had a notable impact, he held up a visual aid he’d readied for our talk: a weathered, black-and-white photo of historian Laurence B. Packard, who wrote a magisterial book on Louis XIV and had worked in intelligence in Siberia around World War I. “Each lecture was a work of art,” wrote history professor Anson D. Morse in a 1953 anthology in honor of Packard. “I never heard anybody speak as well as he did,” said Watts of Packard. “It’s just amazing, for the first time in my life, to hear somebody who was so knowledgeable. I wanted to be like him. I never could be like him, but I knew I wanted to continue my interests in history.”

He recalls a fiery meeting in Johnson Chapel: “Seniors were standing up and almost ranting against Prohibition.”

Watts never peacocks, as I was learning, so when he said that several history professors, including Packard, “gave me some confidence that I could talk about these things,” it meant this: they wrote him stellar recommendations to go to Columbia, where he got his master’s degree in teaching history. This led to a school placement in a small town in Puerto Rico—which is where he saw Amelia Earhart in 1937, on her way to the Dorado home of her friend, local aviator Clara Livingston. It was the day before Earhart flew out of San Juan for her last fateful trip. “There was a lot of excitement,” he said. “Cars came along through here, very slowly. In one of them, standing and waving, was Amelia Earhart. She waved to me, and I waved to her. And that was it.”

In 1938, Gardner Watts came back home: Suffern High School had an opening for a history teacher, and Mrs. Wanamaker, now chair of the history department, enthusiastically recommended her former student for the job. A few weeks after the 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor, the town’s head librarian set up a blind date between Watts and Josephine Davis, a dental hygienist in the Suffern schools who often checked out books from the stacks. The librarian teased that two people who spent so much time reading were meant to be together. The couple married in August 1942 and said a painful goodbye seven weeks later, as the army dispatched the bridegroom to Panama.

He freely admits his war experience was “not exciting.” He adds, “We’re proud of what we did, but there’s no heroism there. We were stationed right along the Panama Canal. If the locks had been destroyed, as they could’ve been, why, the war would’ve gone on for further years.” Meanwhile, Josephine joined the Women’s Army Corps, where she was stationed at Virginia’s Arlington Hall, which housed the top-secret Army Signal Intelligence Service. She became a “Code Girl,” one of the female cryptographers who helped decode intercepted enemy messages. For three years, the couple wrote letters to each other—every single day. 

Josephine and Gardner Watts
Watts and his wife, Josephine, during World War II. He served in Panama. She served as a code breaker.

After the war, they returned to Suffern and started a family: eventually they had four sons—Kenneth, Erik and twins Gareth and Bruce—and a daughter, Robin. In 1953, Gardner Watts wrote a history of Suffern Presbyterian Church. In 1958, he was named village historian—a post he kept until 2006. In 1959–60, he got a Fulbright scholarship, and the whole family moved to Finland, where he thoroughly enjoyed himself, teaching school there for a year. Of that experience, he said, “We all represented the best kind of America, I hope.”

In the 1960s, he started an organization called the Historical Hikers. Several times a week, he’d shepherd groups through the Ramapo Mountains, telling stories about its caves, old iron mines and Revolutionary War locales.

He retired from Suffern High in 1974, after four decades of teaching history and coaching tennis. When I asked Watts what kind of a teacher he was, or if he had advice for students today, he smiled but demurred. (“I know the older people are supposed to give advice, but I’m going to pass on that one.”) His daughter, however, sometimes felt compelled to jump in: “He’s very modest. We run into people all the time who had him as a teacher, who say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I was really well-behaved in your dad’s class, but, man, he was such an influence on me. What a gentleman he was. He made history interesting.’”

In retirement, Gardner and Josephine continued the Historical Hikers, trekking and decoding the Ramapo terrain several times a week. “The combination of good exercise in the mountains and trails, and teaching people something worth learning—I liked that.” The teacher’s devotion to the bygone broadened in this era of his life. In 1982 he and Josephine founded the Suffern Village Museum in two former science classrooms. These rooms—now full of arrowheads, washboards, documents, cannonballs and sepia photos—are now known as the Josephine and Gardner Watts Museum. He insisted her name go first.

Gardner Watts For a long time, this alumnus passed up Amherst reunions, but then he brought his whole family to his 50th in 1985. “So many good memories, the old enthusiasm, came back,” as he put it. They went up to Johnson Chapel, down to the tennis courts. He happily connected with some old friends, and the College asked him to give a talk about historical hikes. He revisited the Valley for his 60th reunion in 1995, but fewer classmates came then. Age was catching up.

Josephine died in 2006. They had been married for 64 years. Every morning, after the widower wakes up, he touches her photograph.

I tried to be delicate, but there’s no denying the level of loss if you live to such a rare age. Gardner Watts has lost his wife and his oldest son, and is now the last of his contemporaries. I asked how he coped with the resultant sadness. “You remember those you lost every day,” he said. “If you think about them, you try to remember all the good things—and I do—and that they had good lives.”

All his previous interlocutors had asked what accounts for his longevity, and I wasn’t about to break that chain. Not smoking or drinking helped, he said, but that wasn’t the heart of the matter: “Happy family life—that has a lot to do with it. Happy marriage. Very happy marriage. Healthy activities, too. The hiking, tennis. It’s a combination of these things, I guess. Maybe being lucky, too.”

I asked if it’s true that, as you get older, you get wiser. “Well, I guess that’s true,” he conceded, and paused for a moment, and I thought he was going to beg off making a big pronouncement, as this had been his pattern today, and indeed his lifelong custom.

But then he offered this: “You know the truth better.” 


Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer.

The Rest Is History

It’s impossible to make a highlight reel of 104 years. But here are some landmark events from Suffern, N.Y.’s “Living Landmark” and Amherst’s oldest living graduate.

Best historical event witnessed: A 1927 Yankees game that also showcased Charles Lindbergh, fresh from a ticker-tape parade after his historic flight across the Atlantic. “I saw Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Lindbergh, all on the very same day. So that was something.”

Worst historical event witnessed: A 1925 Ku Klux Klan parade in Suffern. “I was sitting on the front porch on Washington Avenue, and I saw them come down the street there. They had the hoods on and everything else. Other churches welcomed them, and they wanted to come to the evening Presbyterian service. My dad, our sexton and the other elders said, ‘Absolutely not. We don’t want you.’ They took the right side.”

First movie seen in a theater: Safety Last!, a 1923 silent romantic comedy starring Harold Lloyd.

Favorite author: Arthur Conan Doyle. His mother took him, as a boy, to see the Broadway play about Doyle’s famed fictional detective. As a high school teacher, Watts started a Sherlock Holmes club.

What age he feels inside: 75

Favorite decade: The ’40s, because it contains “the year I met Josephine.” The couple was separated for three years by the war, “but we wrote to each other every day, as one should.”

Top innovation in his lifetime: The radio. “When we got our first radio, with the three dials, and you try to get connected and so on—that was just amazing. The elders had given the family a radio at Christmas, so that was a big present in 1924. When television came, it wasn’t as much of a surprise.”

What he’d title his life story: Looking Back on 100

Number of descendants: 5 children, 6 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. “I love them all. Perhaps some of the standards I have are being passed down to them. Also, love of our country. That’s the legacy I hope for.”

Photo Credits: Peter Ross