A photo of a diary opened up to a page from January 1, 1932

While teaching four decades of Amherst freshmen how to write, Theodore Baird seldom published his own work, but he wrote every day in his journal.

It’s been more than a half-century since Baird’s English 1–2 composition course—which challenged, inspired and mystified students—went the way of other core requirements. In a fitting epilogue to the career of an instructor whose personality was especially intertwined with his teaching, the College’s Archives and Special Collections has acquired 60 years of private diaries kept by Baird and his wife, Frances, known as Bertie.

Earlier this year, Tom Fels ’67, one of Baird’s students, left Paula and Walter Auclair’s farmstead in Pittstown, N.Y., his Subaru Outback filled with old composition books and binders of pages penned by the Bairds, Amherst-bound. Paula Auclair had inherited them from her mother, Alice Machlett, Bertie Baird’s sister, who’d received them after the Bairds’ deaths in February and December of 1996. She felt it was time for the diaries to return to Amherst.

He judged the ice on New Year’s Day “perfect” for skating, but the weather was “gloomy.”

Ted Baird taught at Amherst from 1927 to 1969, and Bertie was a Smith professor for several years. They lived on Shays Street, in a home they commissioned from Frank Lloyd Wright in 1940, the only Wright house in Massachusetts.

The diaries, amounting to some 21 linear feet of material, have tripled the amount of Baird-related text in the College archives, joining correspondence between Baird and his students and colleagues, some curricular materials, and manuscripts published and unpublished.

Archives intern Elliott Hadwin ’19 got to know the Bairds throughout the spring, vacuuming decades of dust from many of the volumes and filing them in chronological order, learning little bits about the couple as he made his way. “They are writing every single day, together,” Hadwin says. “You get an idea of how different their lives are. He, as an Amherst professor, gets to be a little more up in the clouds,” while his wife was more focused on the practical side.

The diaries include accounts of Robert Frost. Among the few news clippings in the diaries is a June 17, 1938, article from The Amherst Student about Frost’s resignation from the Amherst faculty following the death of his wife, Elinor. 

A photo of Professor Theodore Baird and a photo of a diary page
Left: Professor Theodore Baird; Right: The professor’s final entry. The scope of the diaries offers a bounty that transcends the specifics of a single course or its instructor.

Baird developed the English 1–2 course, in which the focus of an entire semester was on a single question such as “Where are you?,” “What is a game?” or “What or who is your true self?” The course could be tough on students and instructors alike, recalls Kim Townsend, the Class of 1959 Professor of English, Emeritus, who taught it in the 1960s. “First of all,” Townsend says, “there are no books. The substance of the course is wholly the students’ writing, over the fall, 33 assignments. Everything depends on the dialogue between teacher and student, the comments that one would make in criticizing and redirecting.”

The course was unusual enough for its time, and had enough rippling impact, to prompt the National Council of Teachers to publish a 1996 book about it, Fencing with Words: A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College During the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938–1966, by Robin Varnum. In an essay about the course, Varnum wrote, “It served to turn high school boys into men who questioned the authority of received wisdom.”

William H. Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, edited two volumes of posthumously published Baird essays. “He was a man of very strong taste, and he really was pretty much of no two minds about anything,” Pritchard recalls. “He liked it or he didn’t like it. He admired it or he didn’t admire it.”

It’s a trait evident in the diaries. In one entry, for example, Baird dismisses an author’s work before describing a trip to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: “July 13, 1933: Read Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, a low dull book. Quite exciting however, to be going to Chi and the Fair. ... We walked the 3 miles to the end of the Fair, buying a few souvenirs, going to see Rumba. Remember the smell of the Fair.”

The sheer scope of the diaries, with two lifetimes of observations painstakingly preserved, offers researchers a potential bounty that transcends the specifics of a single course or its instructor. “There’s such a vastness of time,” Hadwin says: “everything from the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the College going coed, the end of fraternities—huge College events will be covered in this.”

Diary photos: Jiayi Liu; Baird photo: Amherst College Archives