At a time when information can be shared instantaneously, how do Williams’ class secretaries keep their classmates engaged between issues of Williams People, which is published just a few times per year? Longtime co-secretaries Palmer Q. “Joe” Bessey ’66 and John Gould ’66 found one solution that has brought their classmates even closer together.
When the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Bessey had just sent in the class notes to be published later in the spring. Recognizing the delay, Gould began to request more frequent updates from his class and sent them out via the class listserv—sometimes daily. “I wanted to know how people were coping with the pandemic,” says Gould. “I had visions of people dying and nobody knowing anything about it for six months because that’s how long it takes between the submission [of notes] to the class secretary until the publication [of Williams People].”
Their emails continued after restrictions were lifted and served as an inspiration for a recent addition to Williams People: universal prompts that alumni can answer in addition to sending in their news. The prompts encourage broader participation and are less time-dependent.
Earlier this summer, Gould and Bessey sent their 1,000th class update—and they’re still going strong. Now, says Bessey, “If we get a couple of slow days, which is not often, we skip a day or two. If we go four or five days without anything to send out, the class gets worried.”
We asked the two, who won the Thurston Bowl for distinguished service as class secretary in 2011, to share the recipe for their success in keeping classmates connected to each other and to Williams.
Laying the Groundwork
Joe Bessey: When we started our co-editorship [around 1991], we thought we were the cat’s meow. Email and the listserv were big advances. We could send out an email request for news rather than a snail-mail letter. We each had a different group of people who we knew would respond to us. Between us, we got a reasonable response. It worked out well.
John Gould: In the old days, to do the class notes, you had to send out [a call for notes] and rely on the kindness of people, whether they were in the mood for it or not, to write back.
Bessey: At the beginning of the pandemic, John devised the system we use now. It’s really easy. We arrange and send out a call for submissions from the class via the listserv. If a classmate wants to submit something, he simply replies to us and types in his comment. We gather the submissions and send them out in the evening.
Gould: We also can make a little news ourselves. We copy and paste the emails into a Word document. We don’t do a lot of writing ourselves. Everybody else does most of the writing. We might do an editorial response. And I don’t know about Joe, but I correct some grammar sometimes.
Bessey: Oh, me, too. And spelling.
Gould: I have a copy of every single one that’s been done in a set of files, so I have them all archived.
Establishing the Tone
Gould: The political situation, especially in the last three years, has become so fraught that when I started this, I said I didn’t want to hear any political opinions. I didn’t want to see this turn into any flaming. There were a couple [of notes] that I sent back, and I said, “I don’t feel comfortable [sharing this].” We’ve been walking a tightrope more recently.
Bessey: By and large, people have not flamed up too much. The discussions have been civil.
Gould: Some of the political stuff I find distressing, and there are no answers to it. But there’s so much to talk about. Like Martin McLean ’66—if he wants to talk about what’s going on in Ukraine, he’d better, because he knows. He worked for the State Department for God knows how many years.
We’ve had a lot of people be retrospective, remembering their favorite courses and things that happened. One story—this was from when fraternities were being replaced by “social units.” John Rugge ’66 and a couple of guys took his truck and went up to Pownal or someplace like that and stole an outhouse. They ran back and set it in front of Baxter Hall with a sign that said “Social Unit Number Five.” So [through these class emails] it was finally discovered who it was. It was no detective work. I’m like the priest who sits in the confessional booth and just opens his ears.
Bessey: I liked the story about Russell the Skunk. He was scurrying around outside the DU [Delta Upsilon] House, now Garfield House, and two of our classmates were able to capture Russell in a box. They snuck into Baxter Hall, opened the box and left. Russell was mad.
Gould: Yes, and he could express himself.
Bessey: Many remembered the remarkable coaches we knew: a swimming coach, a tennis coach, a cross-country ski coach. The comments went on for weeks about how much they influenced their lives.
Gould: We had a run on poetry. People sent in some of their favorite poems. And others wrote some.
Bessey: Some good writers that we never knew about.
Gould: If people have photographs, we can put them in a Word file and attach it to the listserv. Some people love to send us buckets of photographs. The photographs take up a lot of memory and won’t go through listserv email by themselves. But they can be included in the Word attachment. Sometimes I just pick two or three.
Bessey: The other thing that’s neat with the electronic form is that we can put in URLs. So we can refer to a whole article about something.
Gould: We can report deaths right away, or when we first find out about them.
Also, Dan Cohn-Sherbok ’66 is a cartoonist, and he makes puzzles out of the cartoons. So every Sunday or Monday, we send a puzzle to put together.
Bessey: About half of all the people who get the listserv [messages] have sent something in.
Gould: Every now and then, somebody will write and say, “I’ve never written before, but I read this every day with my morning coffee.”
Strengthening Class Connections
Bessey: I’ve gotten to have interactions with many more people in the class than I would have, even coming to reunion. I was probably like a lot of people—a little anxious about going back to reunion. You think, oh, all these people are going to try to be 18 years old again. And it’s never been that way. It’s always, you come back five years older, and more of life has happened. And so it’s very interesting when you get to know people that you never had anything to do with when you were on campus. This has opened me up to a lot more sort of folks. John’s more gregarious. He knows everybody.
Gould: One thing that I enjoy is that when I see people at reunions, they understand that we all know each other. You don’t have the flexing and posturing that some reunions can have. This [email newsletter] is so confessional in some cases, they mention that they’ve had failures in one way or another. God knows, I think failures are critical. They’re important.
It’s been an interesting experiment. And, mostly, it’s fun.
Bessey: Almost every day, somebody will say, “I think what you guys are doing is great.”
Visit alumni-news.williams.edu/my-class-notes to submit news to your class secretary and answer the universal prompt for the next issue of Williams People.
Top photograph: Bessey and Gould at their 50th reunion in 2016. Provided by the Office of Alumni Engagement
Interior photographs courtesy of Joe Bessey and John Gould.
Regina Velázquez is an associate editor and senior writer in the Office of Communications.