Downstairs at the Frost Library archives, you can find all the bound Olio yearbooks lined up just so. Browse through them in sequential order, and you fall into a kind of time-travel fugue state: two centuries of in-jokes, plus an unsettling montage of fashion and hair choices. Crew cuts in one decade give way to questionable moustaches in another, peacoats are trounced by fleece, clogs segue to Uggs, and it’s like waves of nostalgia keep breaking between two covers, as each class is caught from 1861 until today.
Each class? Scratch that. Each class but one.
There is no 1969 Olio. It’s not missing—it never existed in the first place.
Why this happened, and why it matters 50 years later, is a very small story that flowers into a very big story.
“You have to remember the context of the 1960s,” says Jonathan Tobis ’69: “the virulent racism, cross burnings, KKK intimidation, church bombings, lynchings. The South was segregated and unequal. In the North, there was more subtle racism and fear of blacks, but also more people who did not share that prejudice, who wanted to change things. So, we asked ourselves, what could a few college students do to help change things?”
Those few were Tobis, plus Bob Brown, Bob Fein and Fred Hoxie, all from the class of 1969. The four of them ran as a slate for student government. “We had what we thought was a very enlightened and progressive agenda, and we thought we were hot stuff,” says Hoxie.
After getting elected in the fall of 1968, the four sought ways to goad their ideals into action. The College was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that April and, in this “extended moment of moral urgency,” as an Amherst Student editorial put it, a group called the Black White Action Committee (BWAC) was formed at the direction of College President Calvin Plimpton ’39. It was chaired by history professor Hugh Hawkins and Harold Dash ’70.
The BWAC began to make many recommendations, including the launch of something called ASAP, or the Amherst Summer Action Program. Slated for the summer of 1969, ASAP would pursue three aims: One, Amherst would partner with Smith College to tutor minority youth from nearby Springfield. Two, the College’s English department would start an English Teachers Institute for instructors from Springfield high schools. And the third proposal? The campus would host a college preparatory summer camp for high school boys of color, in partnership with an innovative national educational organization called A Better Chance. It would play out like a similar ABC camp set up at Dartmouth the year before.
To fund these initiatives, the Black White Action Committee punched way above its weight and asked the Board of Trustees for $160,000. The College, then facing a deficit, agreed to release what it called “seed money” of $35,000. A sour editorial in the Student chided the trustees because they were “enthused by the programs but did not agree to fund them,” and exhorted the student body to meet the challenge instead: “We are afraid that the new Amherst Man, like the Old Amherst Man, will be big in his rhetoric of social concern and social good-doing, but very small in his giving.”
The BWAC, forced to retrench, thought it could make do with $60,000 altogether, about half from the administration, the rest from the student body and beyond. And so began a fundraising blitz. The Mead threw a Capra film festival benefit. Students went door to door on campus, asking for ASAP donations. The annual chest drive, run by the Sphinx junior honorary society, raised several thousand dollars for the cause. Forgoing its annual banquet at the Lord Jeff, the staff of the Student feted at Valentine Dining Hall and gifted the savings. Val was also the site of a raucous Casino night, thrown by the brothers of Kappa Theta, which dealt another few thousand into the ASAP pot—and featured a show by “Teller the Magician.” As in Raymond Teller ’69, later of the iconic magic act Penn & Teller.
And this is where the Olio’s own magic comes in.
Back then, the yearbook was allotted $7,000 of the $55,000 student activities budget—a budget our gang of four now controlled. Cash like that could clinch the ASAP target and, in the Student, Bob Fein floated a trial balloon: “Olio’s share of the budget is the most non-essential block of money I can find to switch to a vital cause.” He added: “This is not meant as an insult to Olio.”
Actually, the Olio was used to insults. A survey about the previous year’s edition had revealed that students thought it dull, irrelevant, with too many pictures of “Amherst grass under Amherst trees,” as one wag put it. Still, when the student council officially pulled the plug, after months of Olio imbroglio, the yearbook’s acting editor spoke out for the aggrieved.
His name was Bill Mann ’69, and here’s an excerpt from his wrathful letter in February 1969 to The Student: “Remember Gooch, Swartzbubble, chapel dash … Phi Gam’s fire engine …? You damn well better. Cause this letter is our yearbook … save it and twenty years from now use it to recall the chaos, conflict, fun and the rest of your Amherst Experience … because Bob and his boys, through confusion and political delay, have decided you don’t want a yearbook.”
So, what happened? The Olio was not published, and the money got rechanneled to the ASAP programs. Some 1969 classmates fervently backed this move. But others, even now, remain sore about the scuppered yearbook.
Olio’s share of the budget is the most non-essential block of money I can find,” argued Bob Fein ’69. “This is not meant as an insult.”
And, as these things sometimes go, ASAP was sapped of energy fairly soon. The Smith-Amherst tutoring program dwindled in a few years; it turned out to be too ambitious and expensive. English professors Kim Townsend, Leo Marx and William Heath enthusiastically led the English Teachers Institute, but they worked for free and couldn’t keep that up and still do their own research. The institute lasted just that summer.
But all this ephemerality was offset by something substantial and long-lasting. Startlingly so: Amherst’s A Better Chance summer camp set the stage for an Amherst ABC House—which still thrives 50 years later.
Located on North Prospect Street in downtown Amherst, the ABC House has now housed and intensely supported more than 130 young people who graduated from Amherst Regional High School, with 95 percent of them going on to about 50 different colleges, including eight to Amherst College. Terry Medley ’74 is one of them. Medley, the youngest of seven, lost his parents as a little boy and was raised by an older sister. He grew up in a segregated town in Virginia and went to a high school where fewer than 5 percent of students headed to college. A prophetic guidance counselor recognized his potential and hectored him to try ABC.
“That program was the difference for me,” he says. “When I got to Amherst and the ABC House, I was introduced to the whole idea of learning for learning’s sake. I had never thought that way before. I mean, that just opened up an entirely new door for me.” Medley, who majored in black studies at Amherst, became an expert in biosafety and led the first governmental efforts to regulate biotechnology companies.
The national A Better Chance organization was founded in 1963. It’s a residential high school program that seeks out bright, motivated teenagers living in educationally underserved neighborhoods and places them in ABC Houses around the country. (Most houses are single-sex. The Amherst house, founded when the College was all-male, has continued as all-male.)
The scholars, as those admitted are known, reside together in a house run by live-in directors. The scholars attend a nearby private school or quality public school—the Amherst scholars all attend Amherst Regional High School—while flourishing in a family-like atmosphere with wraparound support. At the Amherst ABC House today, there are anywhere from five to nine scholars every year, and they traditionally call each other brothers.
Tracy Chapman and Deval Patrick: They’re probably the most famous graduates of an ABC House. Chapman, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, left Cleveland for the ABC House tied to the Wooster School in Connecticut. Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, left Chicago for the ABC House connected with Milton Academy, outside Boston—and has called this experience “the transformative gift of my life.”
Because college towns tend to boast excellent public high schools, a number of ABC Houses have capitalized on each place of learning, sending ABC scholars to the town’s public secondary schools by day and pulling help from college tutors who come to the ABC House at night. In the Amherst College alumni directory, 109 alumni list ABC tutoring as one of their college activities. Greta Anderson ’05, now a mathematics education consultant in New Orleans, was one of them: “I work with so many young people at the same ages of the ABC students I worked with years ago, and the ABC scholars serve as the bar for what’s possible. It was and is an honor to have been a small part of their support team.”
Although the Amherst ABC House has now prevailed in staying power, it was not a collegiate pioneer: when it opened, there were already ABC Houses tied to Carleton, Duke, Dartmouth, Lawrence University, Mount Holyoke, Swarthmore and Williams. Of those, only the Lawrence and Swarthmore-affiliated programs are still active, with the Williamstown house closing in 2015.
The Lawrence ABC House holds special resonance for Amherst. It’s located in Appleton, Wis., and its core founder was Ed Wall, the head of admissions at Lawrence until he came to Amherst in 1966 as admission director. Wall was invaluable in helping to advise and set up the fledgling Amherst ABC House, since he’d bit into the process already. In a 1968 Amherst Student profile of Wall, he noted how, back in Wisconsin, he was amazed seeing “the members of the community who came out of the woodwork to make the program go.”