A illustration of a person with a giant key walking to a white house
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.”

About the House


Year the Amherst ABC House began


Seed money given through the Amherst College student council


Number of alumni, listed in the alumni directory, who have tutored at the ABC House in the past 50 years


Number of Amherst staff and faculty who have actively supported the ABC House


Number of Amherst ABC House high school graduates


Percentage of Amherst ABC scholars who have graduated from college


Number of Amherst ABC students who went on to Amherst College

They came out of the woodwork in Amherst, too, to create a long, remarkable town-gown partnership. I know this from interviewing faculty and staff from the College, plus townspeople, and also because I happily spent an afternoon at Amherst’s Jones Library in their special collections rooms, reading old copies of the Amherst Bulletin. As I worked, in the company of Emily Dickinson memorabilia, I couldn’t help but apply her words. The Amherst ABC House has, for sure, “dwelled in possibility.”

You can even trace parallels between the town spirit that created Amherst College and, a century and a half later, the Amherst ABC House. The older institution was founded by a charity fund for, in the charter’s wording, “indigent young men of promising talents.” And that’s pretty much the case for the newer institution too, with both leveraging schooling as the route to a more abundant life. As psychology professor Allen Hart ’82, a longtime Amherst ABC leader, says of the town: “Education is our industry.”

Amherst College has supplied tutors for the ABC House these last 50 years, and many of the house’s live-in directors have worked at UMass. The Five College area is not as diverse as most U.S. cities, but it is more diverse than many college towns, thus providing local role models for the scholars. This critical mass—of diversity, commitment and educational vigor—has been critical to the survival of the ABC House here.

I could drop endless examples of communal effort, but let these few stand in: In 1970, the Amherst Regional school committee voted to waive the customary out-of-town tuition fees for the scholars, an unbroken tradition that continues to this day. The town organized the first of many benefit art fairs on the Amherst Common. Area churches assiduously passed the plate. A town doctor and dentist offered their services to the boys, gratis, which holds true now too. Townspeople have donated land, winnings from a fantasy baseball league, book collections and more, plus named ABC in their wills. Every year, the popular ABC Fall Foliage Walk rakes in vital funds too, with much of the town literally walking the walk.

A young student at a table showing a piece of paper to an adult
Amherst College has supplied tutors for the ABC House for the past 50 years. Here are some of them in 1972.

Lots of staff and faculty spouses have rallied round. Edified by the Bulletin, I grew especially fond of Ruth Talbot  Plimpton, wife of the College president. She organized several green stamps drives, raising enough to buy a billiard table for the house, plus a dictionary for each boy, inscribed “Best wishes from the Amherst community, Christmas 1969.” I like to think she spoke with a Maggie Smith-like imperiousness for this other pitch: “In making the appeal, Mrs. Plimpton noted that the blankets and pillows originally donated were already used and are now quite worn.”

By the 1980s, the house dropped some of its overly aspirational ways. At first, boys were accepted from clear across the country. But, since trips home were paid for by the ABC House, this practice became prohibitively expensive. Today, students come mostly from the New York City area and New England cities like New Haven. In the 1990s, the scholars had to relocate because lead paint was found in the house. The College lent an off-campus residence as a temporary home until the abatement was completed. An addition was built later on the house, as space grew cramped.

Fundraising has been, and remains, constant and arduous. Wealthier communities have an advantage here: the Darien, Conn., ABC House, for instance, can meet its budget from a couple of huge checks written by the New York executives who live in town. In Amherst, the College has long jumped in with money and time.  Facilities lends its trucks to transport sawhorses, tables and chairs for the Fall Foliage Walk. When dorms are renovated, furniture has been donated to the house. The IT department gives its older computers to the house and offers IT support; Jayne Lovett, senior technology operations specialist and longtime ABC board member, has been indefatigable here.

Tutoring at the ABC house helped me avoid the ‘Amherst bubble,’” says Brendan Seto ’18. “It helped me be more grounded at the college.”

Dale Peterson, the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English and Russian, Emeritus, has been an ABC stalwart ever since 1968, when students knocked on his Merrill apartment door and asked his wife, Lorna Peterson (former executive director of the Five College Consortium), for ASAP contributions. He also taught Terry Medley ’74 and for years drove the trucks for the Fall Foliage Walk. “There’s a whole tradition of faculty members and administrators being part of the official masthead of the organization,” he explains. As President Biddy Martin says, “Amherst is proud of our long association with ABC. We have the highest respect for their work to promote educational access, and we are especially proud of our common alumni.” 

It turns out that this long association also refers to those at the College who have acted as “host families,” whereby a scholar stays at their home one weekend a month as a respite. Host parents have included Amherst faculty members Rhonda Cobham-Sander, Allen Hart, David Ratner, Benigno Sánchez-Eppler and Karen Sánchez-Eppler, plus Nancy Ratner, director of academic projects (who once worked for the national ABC). These relationships have considerable staying power.

“In many ways, that’s where the scholars really put connections down to the community,” says Hart. I met several host families who’ve now gone to their host sons’ college graduations and weddings, and keep well in touch. The children of the Ratners’ host son, for instance, call them Grandma and Grandpa.

If I were to name all the Amherst faculty, staff and students who have been part of the ABC House, the list would probably crest 200. Richard Aronson ’69 puts this long chain of dedication in perspective. He’s the health professions adviser and an assistant dean of students at the College—and was a counselor at that first ABC summer camp back in 1969.

“Amherst College was doing ‘community engagement,’” he says, “long before it actually was a phrase.”

A group of young students standing on the front steps of a building with large columns
The students and staff of the Amherst Summer Action Program camp, held on campus in 1969. It was envisioned by Amherst students and faculty in an “extended moment of moral urgency.” Attendees included future Amherst student Charles W. Donaldson Jr. '74.
Amherst ABC Scholars Who Are Also Amherst College Alumni

Terry L. Medley ’74

W. Miles Beck ’77

Sandy McLean ’77

Jawwadd A. Rasheed ’78

Gregory Nelson ’79 (Deceased)

Jorge Blandon ’96

Fard F. Johnson ’97

Kent A. Dunn ’98

Picture a big, staunch house, built around the Civil War, painted white with gray trim, Italianate flounces about the eaves. A substantial lawn. Two basketball hoops squaring off in the driveway. At the back door, I’m warmly welcomed into the kitchen, which sports a chore chart and is fragrant with garlic. Dinner for nine is being prepped: garlic bread, chicken broccoli pasta alfredo and a capacious salad.

My presence is mildly, politely noted by the scholars in my path; they’re used to various adults stopping by to see things for themselves: board members, donors, alums, host family members. Blink, a Chihuahua-Pekingese mix, gives my shoes a pro forma sniff or two. Then Sid Ferreira starts my pre-supper house tour.

Ferreira and his wife, Isabel, are the current resident directors, and have a long, generous history with the ABC House. He has worked at UMass for three decades, mostly in student affairs. Isabel is an administrator in the Amherst Dental Group. The couple lives in the apartment upstairs, and receives room and board but no salary. Their grown son, a photographer, moonlights as the (paid) dinner cook.

What strikes me first are all the inspirational posters: President Obama, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the movie Amistad, Nelson Mandela, the famous 1968 Olympics image of track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their fists raised in a black power salute. Then there’s the big hallway of alumni photos, 50 years’ worth of boys now men, who also ate garlic bread, shot baskets, did chores and had their lives changed within these walls.

Sid Ferreira shows me the basement with its foosball and pingpong tables, its treadmill and punching bag. Bikes hang from the ceiling. There’s an alcove with a washer and dryer (the scholars do their own laundry). As he lays out their rigorous schedule and the rules (no swearing, for instance), I note pairs of lined-up sneakers in the bedrooms, earbuds in squiggles on the desks. I have a teenage son myself, and I’m envious of the neatness on display. “We teach them how to keep the place tidy,” says my guide. “If they go live in a college suite, they’ve got to help keep it clean.”

Virtually every weeknight, Sid is on the phone with the scholars’ teachers at Amherst Regional High, keeping tabs on their work, grades, behavior: they need to maintain at least a B+ average. When the time comes, board members help with college applications, sometimes college visits too. Isabel is the go-between for the scholars’ parents.

“We believe in the mission,” says Sid Ferreira. “It is extremely fulfilling to get to know these brilliant young men. It’s a lot of hard work, though, and sometimes there are difficult conversations. Conversations when they’re not doing well. Conversations about social justice, about how there are traps out there for them, about the experience of being black or brown men in this society.”

At dinner, I’m joined by the Ferreiras, Amherst ABC House president-elect Keith Nesbitt and the scholars: Azumir, Daniel, Matthew, Pierre and Roshawn. (To protect their privacy, I was asked to not use their last names in print.) They each pull their place mat out of the china hutch and take big, teenage-boy helpings from the platters on the table. Such good manners, I think, because no one is grabbing the last bite of garlic bread—but Isabel tells me, with a smile, it’s because whoever takes the last bite has to refill the water pitchers. The scholars are loose and funny with each other. Several vent about Mrs. Caporello’s busted ankle keeping her from the house (she’s one of several retired Amherst high school teachers who volunteer here). One ribs another for having the highest voice, “like a chipmunk.”

Come 7 p.m., they head up to the study room to greet the Amherst College tutors, who are here five nights a week, no matter what. (During the College’s calendar breaks, athletes who stay on campus for team practice take over the tutoring. The women’s basketball team manages for the whole winter break.) I peer over various shoulders: Daniel works a Spanish vocabulary sheet, while Azumir studies a textbook passage on the Hindu caste system. Pierre reads about the American slave trade. Jason Seto ’19, who manages the ABC tutors, helps Matthew with a math problem on tree growth rates. Tutors Laura Schwartzman ’20 and Braxton Schuldt ’21 attend to their own studies until one of the scholars needs help.

It’s pretty quiet for a while. Click of keyboards, book pages turning, the churn of an activated printer. Until Pierre lifts up Jason’s backpack to reach for something behind it. “That pack’s so light!” he notes incredulously, as if light weight is for lightweights, seeing as his own backpack weighs as much as a mature bulldog. Jason shrugs: “Hey,” he deadpans, “that’s college.” And everyone laughs.

I’ve never felt that I’m changing the world,” says Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander. “But that was not a reason not to do what we do.”

It’s an odd truism that, when you’re researching an article, your pleasure reading often chimes in on your topic. Take this superb Alice Munro short story called “Train.” In the story, a woman in rural Ontario has been tending her disabled mother. A community of Mennonites lives nearby and helps her by bringing food and doing chores. She’s lucky to have them, she notes: “But they are lucky too, because they are supposed to practice charity and here I am practically on their doorstep and an occasion for charity if you ever saw one.”

This struck me as a distillation of how the ABC House has served the town and the College. “An occasion for charity” may sound patronizing. But being local, tangible, visible, matters. Allen Hart, who grew up in Williamstown hanging out with the scholars at that ABC House, frames it this way: “Diversity and inclusion and social justice are lived in Amherst in a way they might not be elsewhere. Here, it feels as though they want to do the right thing, but they’re not sure how to really make that happen.”

That same gratification works for students at the College too, this getting something by giving something, face to face. “Tutoring at the ABC House helped me avoid the ‘Amherst bubble,’” says Brendan Seto ’18 (Jason’s brother). “It helped me be more grounded at the College, rather than lost in my own studies and friends. It also helped me realize the importance of connection, of doing things with meaning rather than for yourself.”

During my reporting, other literature, especially my commute-to-work audiobook of Great Expectations, yielded further insight. Now the book moved me afresh because I’d just had ABC House alumni share their pain at leaving home when they, like Dickens’ working-class character Pip, were singled out for an elite education. As a parent myself, I found that Joe Gargery really hit home. He’s the kind blacksmith who was Pip’s guardian, and now any time Joe entered the narrative, I felt the sacrifice, sorrow and hope of the ABC families who let their children go, to help them rise up.

But why must great expectations, especially for young people of color, hinge on exiting a community? Shouldn’t well-resourced schools be the norm? Michael Hawkins, Amherst’s associate dean of admission, is an alumnus of the ABC House tied to St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., and has twice served as president of the Amherst ABC House. “We’re supposed to be preparing for the end of ABC,” he says. “But that’s so Pollyanna. In a sense, there’s always some important issue, issues of inequity, issues of access for young people to good education, that this problem won’t be solved for another 50 years.”

Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the Emily C. Jordan Folger Pofessor of Black Studies and English, is likewise a passionate supporter of the Amherst ABC House. A former board member and host parent, she remains attached to her host son, Ricardo Burton, a 2002 graduate of Amherst High. “It’s very true that programs like ABC are just sort of Band-Aids,” she says. “They don’t change structures. The fact that you could literally scoop out six random students from almost any low-income community of color, and come up with such fabulous kids, is a constant reminder to me of how underserved those communities are, how much talent never reaches its full potential.”

In our era, ABC Houses are no longer outliers in their commitment to diversity: a number of prep schools, unconnected to ABC, are trying to extend their outreach too. And one must grant that the houses tied to public high schools may be less appealing to a parent whose child can now get a free ride to, say, Phillips Exeter. But some families realize that “with our structure comes a family,” as Allen Hart says. With ABC, “there’s security there, and there’s oversight there and relationships there, that some of the other types of programs don’t have.”

When the Amherst ABC House began, some in the College’s Afro-American Society endorsed it, but some called the program token, and asked why it plucked up the best students, since they already had the best chance of succeeding. And even if you agree with the premise of A Better Chance, the mathematical impact seems small. At this point, the nation’s ABC Houses have graduated some 13,000 scholars—that’s only about half the number of Amherst’s living alumni.

But Cobham-Sander again reframed the issue: “You can’t underestimate the ripple effect of educating one person who gets an opportunity. An opportunity to have that education in a safe space racially and culturally, the fact that they live together in this house, and in a community with different kinds of cultural offerings. Because all this makes them much more comfortable moving through a broader sort of space. I’ve never felt that in supporting ABC I’m changing the world—but that was not a reason not to do what we do. Because the need is so great.”

All kinds of celebrating broke out this June for the 50th anniversary of the Amherst ABC House. A Reunion Weekend panel at the College covered ABC’s local history and impact. Amherst alumni also headed to town for an open house at North Prospect Street, where former tutors could revisit old memories and all could meet the current scholars.

Not long after, a big  ABC gala took place at the UMass Campus Center, with Amherst College as a presenting sponsor. As hundreds of alumni scholars and supporters gathered at UMass, some spoke about how ABC had revolutionized and strengthened their journeys. The crowd was treated to a stirring video, too, and given a keepsake program. It featured various written testimonials and a short history, including of the College’s leading role in the Amherst ABC House, from the class of 1969 full on to the present.

These words were cumulatively inspiring. But, in truth, the photographs were even more powerful. Page after page of black-and-white scholar portraits taken from 1970 on up to today, this endearing evolution of clothes and hairstyles, all those many smiles, this great, touching record of time gone by, of youth, of hope. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was a yearbook.

Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer.

Illustration by: Juliette Borda; Photos: Amherst College Archives