The bells in the steeple

“The First War Memorial” (Winter 2009) is a beautiful article—clear and gracefully phrased, with marvelous photos. In fact, the whole magazine glows with the new format and design touches. Congratulations on the whole magazine and this article in particular.

Geoffrey Shepherd ’57
Washington, D.C.

Congratulations on your article “The First War Memorial.” As a lowly freshman living in South College in 1946, I was very surprised to be able to have free access to the unused church to find hymnals still in the pews. By my senior year I was gratified to see the tower preserved, even though I was unaware of the bells in the tower. I would hope to see better recognition of the tower as a memorial.

As a retired landscape architect, I must call attention to the correct spelling of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. My wife and I have been fortunate enough to have worked on the restoration of several Olmsted designs.

In the Classes section, I was delighted to spot a report by Jim McCabe ’54 in which he remembers his experience rowing on the Amherst eight-oar shell. As his freshman crew coach in 1951, I looked up my log to see what I had written and found: “McCabe (bow) worked hard, good form, enthusiastic….” Sickness prevented him from completing the season, but he went on the next year for Coach Philip Fox, who wrote in a letter to me in 1952, “McCabe and Butts both did beautifully….”

Francis T.P. Plimpton Jr. ’50
Ormond Beach, Fla.


imageThings have a way of slipping out of our memories, don’t they, only to be brought back to us by the efforts of another. In 1947 or ’48, when the whole of the old College Church was still standing, but used only for storage of furniture and other seldom- or never-used items, the bells in the steeple were rung by a 1949 classmate of mine, Tom Wheeler, otherwise known as “Skull” to us in the Beta House. Tom was a man of many talents, and how, when and where he learned to play the clavier was a mystery, as was how he was authorized to climb the steeple, generally thought to be off limits. But many afternoons at dusk the bells would ring out and resound throughout the campus with many of the same hymns and college songs you mention are played by Aaron Hayden.

It is quite probable that Tom was the last person to play these bells while the whole church was still standing, because, as your fine article points out, the church itself received its death sentence in 1949 and was replaced by James and Stearns dormitories. Tom died in New York City in 1957. I saw him a couple of days before he died very suddenly, and I’m sure if there had been available bells to ring, Tom would have been ringing them.

Wm. John Davison ’49
Brookfield, Conn.

I was delighted to read “The First War Memorial,” which captured perfectly the poignant character of the place—as well as Aaron Hayden’s infectious enthusiasm for it. Readers of this magazine may be curious to know that in October 2008, the Mead Art Museum arranged for the steeple to be opened to the public as a seasonal installation space for hardy works of art and other displays. Visitors to campus during Family and Homecoming weekends may remember seeing a slideshow of historic images of the College Church displayed inside the steeple and a new marker identifying this “ruin” in the campus landscape placed outside. We hope that visitors will return to see our
future displays and to read a brochure about the steeple’s his­tory written by Randall Griffey, curator of American art, which will be available in the museum’s lobby and at The steeple is a treasure not to be missed!

Elizabeth E. Barker
Barker is director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum.


Like many Amherst alumni, I never knew the old church steeple was a war memorial “for the brave patriots who lost their lives in the war against the Great Rebellion of 1861.” How many times did I go by that monument of granite blocks without ever giving a thought as to why it was built?

The steeple was built at a time when Amherst took the problems of America head-on. Is it still that way? Military service is not the only means to be patriotic or to show passion for your nation, but it does stand out. When I took a dining hall tray down the slope of Memorial Hill after a good snow, I always read the names of the battles of World War I and World War II, because I served in combat in Vietnam and those places meant something to me. To me, Amherst College stood as a warm, safe place from war’s violence, filled with bright, enthusiastic people.

Now the college talks about multiculturalism, and I believe President Marx to be sincere in his efforts to bring that about. But in spite of my affection for Amherst and many of its alumni, I have always felt that the college fostered a country-club mentality based on privilege and money. Amherst should be a leader in breaking down that mentality with the same passion as the men who gave their lives in the Civil War to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.
David C. Litrico ’77
Storrs, Conn.

Emily Gold Boutilier’s interesting history of the Stearns Steeple recounts how Joel Goldin ’59 played hymns on the bells on Sunday morning and even managed the Amherst favorite “Paige’s Horse.” Mr. Goldin may not have realized it, but the melody of “Paige’s” originated as a hymn.

Philip Paul Bliss, an evangelical musician of some renown, published “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy” in 1874 after hearing the preacher Dwight Moody tell of a shipping disaster in Cleveland that happened because the harbor’s lower lights were not on. Instead of harbor lights, we have the mysterious “student lamp” to keep us headed in the right direction.

The curious can hit Google to learn more and, with some searching, hear Tennessee Ernie Ford sing the hymn. There are also some truly horrible renditions that should have been confined to their room.

George H. Gates ’53
Williamsville, N.Y.

David Foster Wallace’s depression

The contrast between the eulogies for David Foster Wallace in Amherst magazine and the article by D.T. Max in the March 9 New Yorker is jarring and thought-provoking. The four eulogists hardly seem aware of the magnitude of his problems and retrospectively gloss them with clichés. His mentor in the English department concludes that he was a “pussycat” too gentle and sensitive to live in this world and his former student that he had “the kind of smart that made you strange.”
After reading Max’s essay I wonder if anyone at Amherst knew the real David Foster Wallace. His problems were evident before he came to Amherst, they forced him to interrupt his education in sophomore year, and they led to numerous institutionalizations, use of multiple licit and illicit drugs and eventual suicide by hanging. Much of this is detailed in his autobiographical fiction, along with such poignant subjective passages as this one from the novel that was his honors thesis: “the emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an undescribable hell on earth.”
The tragedy of David Foster Wallace is of particular significance because of his prodigious talent, but it raises larger questions about the attitude of our society, and of Amherst as its microcosm, toward serious mental illness. Does the college have a responsibility to recognize the suffering of its students as well as their ability and performance, and to intervene to whatever extent possible? Why does our society define mental illness as an organic disease to be treated with drugs and electroshock and not as a human condition to be understood through an intensive relationship such as psychoanalysis? If college is to be an enlightened learning environment, it needs to pay attention to the whole person, not just his or her intellectual ability and academic performance.

Michael Robbins ’55, M.D.
Amherst, Mass.


Lord Jeff at war

I read with interest Kevin Sweeney’s evaluation of the career of Lord Jeffery Amherst (“The Very Model of a Modern Major General,” Fall 2008). The depiction of the commander’s meticulous planning of the invasion of Canada, contrasted with his pompous dealings with Native peoples and colonials alike after 1760, goes far in explaining the English conquest of New France and the subsequent divergence of America from Great Britain during the Revolution.

The essay’s analysis of the lessons Col. George Washington took from the Battle of the Monongahela about the fighting methods of the British regulars proved especially revealing, given Washington’s later battlefield success against the Redcoats. Moreover, the history of Maj. Amherst at Montreal, where he offended the surrendering French but provided necessities for destitute civilians, suggests the multidimensional factors that pervaded his decisions.

With the U.S. armed forces engaged in distant lands for the past six years, the article provides insights from 18th-century North America that perceptive readers can apply today. Professor Sweeney’s balanced summary reminds us of both the possibilities and the limitations that citizens of a dominant nation-state must consider before investing their confidence in the military.

Scott C. Heald ’97

I hope that my sense of personal gravitas does not expand as quickly as that of Mr. Joseph J. Brecher ’62 (“Time for a change,” Letters, Winter 2009).

When Amherst needs to create a song reflecting a tolerant and multicultural society, and after the bureaucrats meet to approve, and the review board of both representative and accurately proportioned faculty/alumni/town individuals meet to confirm—what will we have?

“Conquering the whole world” is a heavy assignment. And it does not appear likely that tolerance and diversity, even with abundant governmental rhetoric and promises of “change,” will do the trick.

I had thought that naiveté was drummed out, and good humor bred in, shortly after Amherst matriculation.

Ronald S. Bashian ’68, M.D. 
Arlington, Va.

I appreciated the article on Lord Jeffery Amherst; it showed pretty clearly that in today’s world he would have been guilty of genocide and war crimes. The victor writes the history books.

I always struggled with the college’s name and even with its song’s lyric, “to the Frenchman and the Indian he didn’t do
a thing,” which is a bald-faced lie. One side of my heritage is Native American. Amherst’s practices in war were nothing short of horrific and genocidal.

Maybe it is time for the college to adopt a more honorable name and song. Amherst was a criminal, a bully and not that good a general when compared to Cochise or even to Geronimo; they fought with far less against far greater numbers.

H. Dalton Dupuy ’67
Alice Springs, Australia

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04