A Brief History of the Williams Alumni Fund

E Liberalitate E. Williams Armigeri:
Through the generosity of E. Williams, soldier

All Ephs have those who came before us to thank for our Williams experience. Here’s a brief history of the founding of the College, the origins of the Alumni Fund, and the history of alumni philanthropy at the college.

The Founding

No greater illustration can be given for the benefits of Planned Giving than that first gift made by Colonel Ephraim Williams. While on his way to thrash the French at Lake George, he took time to make out a will. In a document dated July 22, 1755, he made provisions to found a “free school” in West Township, which at that time was the farthest outpost of Massachusetts. Forty-eight days later Colonel Williams was killed at the Battle of Lake George.

Not until 36 years later did the founders propose that the school become a college. There were only six colleges in all of New England, plus one institution of higher education in Massachusetts, a puritanical place in Cambridge. Clearly, this was a time of growth opportunity for colleges. In 1793, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts granted a charter to Williams College.

The Defection

In 1819, the trustees decided that Williamstown was not the right place for the College. They reasoned that there was no theatre festival nearby, nor even a place to get a good cup of coffee. They petitioned the legislature to move the College to Northampton. Fortunately, the lawmakers, in their wisdom, refused. Two years later in 1821, the president of Williams, Zephaniah Swift Moore, absconded with half the student body and, as legend has it, a good portion of the library. He went over the hills to the east and founded a college in the town of Amherst, leaving the remaining loyalists in a fix.

The Salvation

Emory Washburn, Class of 1817, saved the day by rallying alumni, parents, and friends to save the College. To accomplish this rescue mission, Washburn founded the world’s first continuing Society of Alumni in 1821. Using techniques that still work today, Washburn and his class agents made appointments, visited prospects, and talked up the College to anyone who would listen – and the Alumni Fund was born.

Those early Williams supporters heard the call and responded. The gifts flowed in, and by 1828 the new College president, Rev. Edward Dorr Griffin, stood in the middle of Main Street supervising construction of a handsome new building that would hold classrooms, a library, a chapel, and, eventually, his name.

And with it stands the wonderful tradition of cheerful alumni support of Williams College. When reached by letter, phone or email, graduates are both friendly and generous, and because of this the College flourishes.