Lessons from A Bold Leader

  • By Sara Schulwolf '17
  • sschulwolf17@amherst.edu

Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013

ward

A few weeks ago, I was enraptured by the sight of two Shetland sheepdog puppies frolicking on the quad. Being the canine enthusiast I am, I felt compelled to pet those dogs, and, in accordance with accepted social conduct, engage their owner in casual banter. Soon, I was shooting the breeze with Professor Kim Townsend of the English department, exchanging social niceties and banal personal information. Of my multitude of Sara tidbits, the fact that my father was an alumnus, class of ’77, piqued Townsend’s interest the most. Townsend informed me that he was in the process of writing a book on a former Amherst president, and he suggested that the next time I saw my father I should mention President Bill Ward and gauge his reaction. Townsend left me with two pieces of information about Ward. First, that President Ward had been the only president of Amherst College to be arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. Second, that Ward had, in a “rather dramatic fashion,” ended his own life.

With that, Townsend had seized my attention. Amherst College governed by a political deviant? Shocking. Thus, after a joyful reunion with my parents during October break, I asked my dear father for any information that he could provide me about President Ward. Jim Schulwolf, a tranquil man by nature, instantly bristled.

“What this guy didn’t tell you,” snarled my father, mustache hairs standing on edge, “is that Bill Ward is the reason that you’re here right now.” He was not referring to my conception. Rather, Bill Ward was, according to my father, the man responsible for Amherst’s decision to go coeducational, a difficult feat amidst a conservative board of trustees. Furthermore, after leaving Amherst, Ward served on a Massachusetts research committee tasked with investigating the questionable management of state construction projects. The Ward Commission, checked the rampant corruption present in Massachusetts politics. While my Dad grudgingly affirmed the accuracy of Townsend’s facts, he spoke of President Ward with an air of reverence, like that of a child describing a beloved sports hero. The emerging contrast between Townsend’s diffidence and my father’s admiration captured my interest. I became determined to uncover his legacy and his accomplishments (or lack thereof) as measured by those who knew him. 

My first stop, as might be expected of a twenty-first-century collegian, was the Internet. After scrolling through pages of scholarly documents and the requisite Wikipedia entry, I’d sufficiently enhanced my knowledge base. I knew Ward’s birthplace. I knew where the Ward archives were located in Frost. I knew the names of his publications and that his wife’s name was Barbara. Armed with this information, I returned to my original source for a follow-up conversation.

Kim Townsend warmly welcomed me into a cozy cubicle on the third floor of Frost. “This,” he said, gesturing to a hefty stack of papers, “is what I have to say about Bill Ward.” After four years and 300 pages, Townsend has produced a biographical depiction of Ward that will shock individuals like my father, who viewed Ward through rose-tinted glasses. Reluctant to forsake my father’s viewpoint, however, I pressed onward. What about coeducation? Townsend was quick to counter: Transforming Amherst into a coeducational institution resulted
from a five-year debate between students, faculty, and trustees. According to Townsend, Ward was “more proud of the process than the result.” Not quite the feminist crusader I’d envisioned. 

For the better part of an hour, I listened as Townsend painted a novel picture of the man that my father had venerated. Ward’s innovations in education and collegiate life now appeared spurred by questionable motives; his political beliefs and civil disobedience morphed into a misguided plea for attention. Maybe Ward never should have left the classroom, Townsend suggested. If I’d felt puzzled before, it was nothing compared to this conflict between the impression I wanted to maintain and the facts now thrust upon me.

“But you knew him?” I asked Townsend. “You taught while he was President.”

“Nobody really knew Bill Ward,” he said, rifling through his desk drawers to produce a multitude of correspondences from Ward’s alleged close acquaintances. All of them maintained that nobody truly knew Ward. Sure, Townsend continued, were I to ask my father’s peers for their impressions, they’d beam and recall an ebullient Irishman with a genuine concern for students. But that was never the whole story. 

At homecoming, I made a point to seek out members of classes who graduated during Ward’s tenure. What can you tell me about President Ward, I asked again and again. I was met with a spectrum of responses. Pleasant nostalgia for the man with a tangible presence around campus. Disdain for one who’d soiled the prestige of Amherst with his inability to suppress political opinions. Confusion as to why someone of my generation even cared. The more feedback I received, the more apparent it became that there was no easy answer to my Ward inquiries.

I can present to you these few facts about President John William Ward. He studied at Harvard, though a tour of duty in World War II delayed his graduation. Before accepting a job as professor of American Studies at Amherst, he taught at Princeton. He authored numerous publications that dealt with the role of myth and symbol in American history. Amherst College became coeducational during his presidency. On March 11, 1972, Ward was arrested for “disturbing the peace” in a protest of the Vietnam War at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. These events represent the life of a man who, for better or worse, significantly impacted our institution. But the facts themselves can only tell so much. The real story lies in the memories of those who crossed paths with Ward, and it is these opinions that can shed light on Ward’s character.

Alone in Johnson Chapel, I begin a slow circle around the room, scrutinizing the face of white male after white male until I reach the one that I seek. Ward’s portrait is nothing short of eerie, quite distinct from the authoritative-yet-affable expression of many of the other presidents. According to Townsend, Ward had commissioned an African-American watercolorist—who’d left the college on a less-than-stellar note—for the task, perhaps just to spite the administration. Captivated, I study the pensive blue eyes, the cobalt-gray background distorted by murky brushstrokes, the melancholy expression of his nearly obscured lips. Who are you? I think to myself. A complicated man no doubt, there’s still much that we, the Amherst community,can learn from Ward’s controversial legacy. I know that my search is just beginning.