‘An American Idealist’ Biography of Amherst College President John William Ward shines light on tumultuous era

Last modified: Friday, March 06, 2015

Kim Townsend might have the longest view of what’s transpired at Amherst College over the past half-century. At 79, the officially retired professor of English still leads a course each semester at the school, where he first started teaching in 1962.

And when Townsend looks back on his years at Amherst, he remembers the late 1960s and the 1970s as a particularly memorable era — times that were “uplifting and exciting and confusing,” as he puts it — as the social and political forces roiling the country washed up on Amherst College’s shores as well.

Smack-dab in the middle of those tumultuous years was the college’s president, John William Ward, a charismatic and sometimes controversial figure who’s the subject of Townsend’s newest book, “John William Ward: An American Idealist.”

It’s the first biography of Ward, a complicated man who would later win acclaim in the Commonwealth as the head of a commission that documented widespread corruption in the awarding of state and county building contracts. Yet just a few years later, Ward shocked friends, family and the academic community as a whole when he committed suicide at age 62.

“He was emblematic of his times,” Townsend said of Ward during a recent interview at Amherst College. “He was a very decent and humane man who had a vision for what the college could be, what the country could be. ... He really embodied the hope that was so strong at that time that America could become a truly democratic society.”

Close to the vest

Ward, who was Amherst’s president from 1971 to 1979, headed the college during a time of great changes on campus, when Amherst first accepted female students and African-American students demanded greater equality and representation at the school. He inspired many students — and angered many alumni — when he was arrested in 1972 at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee in a protest against the Vietnam War, an action that had particular resonance because he’d served with the U.S. Marines during World War II.

A respected writer and scholar in American Studies, as well as a popular teacher at Amherst before he became president, Ward was also a man given to what Townsend calls “black, Irish moods” of depression and a certain level of insecurity — about his roots, about his abilities and accomplishments — that persisted for much of his life. Couple those moods with troubles late in his life, when his marriage ended and his future job prospects were uncertain, and there may have been “a perfect storm” that led to Ward’s suicide, Townsend says.

He’s quick to add, though, that he has not attempted to psychoanalyze the former president in his book, nor offer a definitive portrait of him, because some aspects of his personality and story remain unknown; among other things, Ward was of a generation that kept most personal matters close to the vest, and he did not leave any diaries or journals behind, Townsend notes.

“Ward was a mystery,” he said. “I cite three to four people who were a lot closer to him and they spoke of him as a stranger or a mystery.”

At the same time, he says, he admired much of what Ward did, or tried to do, as Amherst’s president. His own recollections of life on campus during that era gave him a sense that the time was right for a closer look at Ward and his legacy.

“I wanted to do him justice, put him on the map,” Townsend said. “And one of my motivations was to put on record this most interesting period in the college’s history. A lot of readers so far have said, ‘Thank you,’ because this is a period that deserves recognition and stands out.”

Irish-immigrant roots

Townsend, who began his project five years ago after retiring from full-time teaching, plumbed a wealth of sources for his book, including interviews with more than 100 people: former Amherst students and faculty, other Five College personnel from that era, even a longtime friend and mentor of Ward from their days as students at Harvard University. He also drew on a good amount of Ward’s correspondence and speeches as Amherst president as well as news reports from the era, including the college newspaper.

Ward was born in Dorchester in 1923; he would tell others years later that he was the grandson of poor, illiterate Irish immigrants because he was proud of the progress he’d made in his life and how that seemed to embody the promise and ideals of American life. He attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, earned a bachelor’s degree in American history and literature from Harvard University in 1947 and then a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. He began teaching English at Princeton University in 1952.

Yet Townsend notes that Ward appeared to be conflicted about his Irish roots for much of his life, at times nursing a sense of aggrievement that some people looked down on him, especially in the WASP-y enclave of Princeton, and to some extent even at Amherst in the early 1960s. Perhaps to distance himself a bit from his heritage, he changed his name — William Joseph Ward — to John William Ward while he was at Harvard, though many people knew him simply as “Bill.”

“When he changes his name, I don’t think that’s an idle gesture,” said Townsend. “Identity was definitely a big theme in his life.”

But, Townsend writes, Ward also struck many as an engaging, often ebullient person, someone who looked to find the best in others. He had married Barbara Carnes, a woman from west of Boston, in 1949; the couple would have three sons. His doctoral dissertation, “Andrew Jackson: Symbol of an Age,” published in 1955, became a standard text in many college classrooms in succeeding years and eventually sold over 250,000 copies. It also established Ward’s reputation as an important voice in the growing field of American studies, in which he was “very good at bringing history to bear on literature,” Townsend writes.

Ward arrived at Amherst in 1964 to become part of the school’s American studies department — the oldest in the country, Townsend notes — and he soon became a popular teacher, known for his give-and-take in the classroom. Though he generally kept a low profile outside of class, he was also clearly sympathetic to growing student concerns about the issues roiling the country, such as the Vietnam War and racial inequality, Townsend writes.

In a speech he gave in fall 1968 at a Parents’ Day meeting, for instance, he deplored the violence sweeping the country — the assassinations that spring of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in particular — and rampant materialism: “Take a walk through your local shopping area ... look at the junk, the sheer pile of meretricious, shoddy junk that the wealthiest society in recorded history spews forth for our consumption every day. ...Consider the gross fatness of our society, and ask yourself if we can go on like this.”

A voice for change

Townsend devotes a big chunk of his book to Ward’s presidency, for it was there that both his strengths and weaknesses became more publicly evident. He was, Townsend said, “terribly ambitious, and it got him in trouble. ... He was a guy who was wounded easily because he took things personally. He couldn’t keep his person out of his persona, and as president, that became an issue.”

Ward claimed to be “flabbergasted,” for example, by the national news he generated when he was arrested in the 1972 protest at Westover Air Force Base; he insisted he’d taken the action as a private citizen, not as Amherst College president. Students and many faculty supported him, Townsend notes, but quite a few alumni were outraged and certain members of the college’s Board of Trustees, Ward’s bosses, likely never forgave him.

Ward does emerge as a strong supporter of African-American students and their demands, such as the creation of an African-American studies program and the hiring of more black faculty. He developed a genuine rapport with those students: One time the president got wind of a planned building takeover by students but defused it by “walk(ing) over to the Black Culture Center where they were meeting and enter(ing) it unannounced ... He was the trusted authority.”

In these chapters, Townsend paints a picture of a very different Amherst College than today, one where race relations were problematic and battle lines were drawn between students and many faculty on one side, and alumni, school officials and trustees on the other, over issues such as coeducation (Amherst would accept its first official female class in fall 1976). Ward was consistently a voice for change, Townsend writes, given “his efforts to democratize the spirit of the college.”

In his last few years as president, though, Ward came under fire from his former colleagues when the college’s financial problems led to limits on faculty salaries. “He didn’t have a helluva lot of sympathy for their complaints of hardship,” Townsend said. “He thought Amherst was a very privileged place and that faculty here had a very comfortable, privileged life. He thought high school teachers should be paid more because their job was harder.”

If Ward’s last years at Amherst were strained, his pro bono work with what became known as the “Ward Commission” from 1978 through 1980 was by all accounts a great success, not only in revamping Massachusetts’ building contracting system and saving taxpayers billions of dollars, but in restoring some public confidence in state government. “It all worked there for him,” said Townsend. “The interpersonal dynamics he built up ... really saw him through.”

That lent a particular sadness to his following years, when Ward worked for the American Express Company and then as president of the American Council of Learned Societies; neither of those positions, in New York City, ultimately satisfied him. Ward was also disheartened by America’s seeming turn to conservatism under Ronald Reagan, and then his marriage ended — at least in part, writes Townsend, because of a recent affair he’d had. Ward committed suicide in August 1985.

In fact, Ward had a number of affairs during his life, something Townsend doesn’t touch on until late in the book, although there are earlier hints of tension with his wife. “I didn’t want to tell a tabloid story,” he said. “I really wanted it to be about the larger issues.”

And, he added, he wanted Ward’s legacy to be about the spirit he brought to his teaching, his presidency, and his work in Boston. As he writes, “What set [Ward] apart from other college and university presidents was how much he understood and shared many of the views of those who wanted American society to change, especially the views of the younger generation, the students. He wanted American society to be more inclusive, egalitarian — in a word, more democratic.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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