Friday, October 2, 2009

Amherst 250th Parade: Kudos, and a few ironies and embarrassments

From the Amherst Bulletin:
An anniversary 250 years in the making: Amherst celebrates founding with huge parade
Staff Writer
Published on October 02, 2009

Rain or shine, came the words of organizers at 9 a.m. Sunday. The shine part never showed. But the Amherst populace did, throngs of 'em. The rain was coming down pretty steadily at 10, 11, 12, and was still going at 1:17 p.m. when Amherst's 250th Anniversary Parade stepped off from Amherst College. The parade didn't finish up until after 3 at the University of Massachusetts. (read the rest)
The weather was almost a more prominent feature of most coverage and chatter than was the parade itself, especially because the preceding day had been unusually beautiful and sunny. Still, the parade held the attention of viewers and reporters. HIghlights in some accounts: Parade marshals the venerable Steve Puffer (noted repository of North Amherst historical memory) and Stan Ziomek (longtime town official and patron saint of baseball and other youth sports) tossing Tootsie Rolls to the crowds (someday, anthropologists and historians will analyze each of these choices and actions in microscopic detail, you know), the ever-popular UMass Marching Band, members of South Church belting out the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the "Zamboni" (or was it? at the University of Wisconsin—another land grant university, historically related to UMass, and with a far better hockey team—there was never any doubt that we had a real, certified Zamboni, and not a knockoff) from the UMass rink, and the re-enactors of the 9th Masschusetts Artillery firing off a few rounds with real black powder.

Of course, in other of my circles, the favorites were the Emily Dickinson Museum—participants in the new ballet, "Emily of Amherst," dispensing cookies— and the float of the service organization, the Amherst Club, proclaiming that it had raised over a quarter of a million dollars for local charitable causes.

Hampshire College was ably represented in minimalist fashion by President Ralph Hexter and his partner, Manfred Kollmeier, along with former President Chuck Longsworth (a few others participated, notably some of our Library and IT staff, as individuals rather than part of the official lead team). Of course, in civic affairs no less than cuisine, minimalism may prove elegant but ultimately unsatisfying, leaving us hungering for more.

Indeed, the low profile of my employer in these activities was regrettable, as is the modest level of its involvement in the civic affairs of the town as a whole—which is ironic, given that one of our founding documents, The Making of a College (1975) identified one of its four key "challenges" as the need "To reorient the college in relation to community, so that it and associated institutions will play a vigorous, constructive part in shaping community development." and devoted an entire chapter to Interinstitutional Cooperation and the Larger Community. The founders of the College realized that the institutions of higher learning were changing the character of the town— the State College became the University in 1947, and since 1950, both population and population density have more than tripled—and had to bear some responsibility for helping Amherst adjust to those changes. Such was the theory, at any rate.

Participation in a boosterish parade of this sort is no litmus test, but we need to do more. To be sure, our previous Dean of the Faculty, Aaron Berman, speaking on the steps of Town Hall when we kicked off the 250th celebrations in February, astutely called attention to the extent to which our students have found ways to unite their talents and curiosities with the needs of the town, for example, through service in the educational system. To be sure, our colleague Myrna Breitbart has worked tirelessly to make more robust the community service requirement for students (new policies are about to go into effect). Nonetheless, even our admirable community-based learning program has focused more on traumatized urban areas such as Holyoke than our own surroundings. Community efforts of the College as a whole (even taking into account its meager resources, compared with those of Amherst College) are as modest as our parade presence.

What disappoints but does not surprise me is that our students don't really feel connected to the town. It's not their fault, and rather, it's ours and the norm: Students are transients, and almost all Hampshire College students live on campus, which is located at the far southern end of town, and not, like Amherst and UMass, at or within walking distance of the center. After all, why should they feel connected when their own institution evidently does not?

Our absence on the list of "major sponsors"—next to the names of the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College—is glaring. In fact, we could not even pony up to fund one of the blue-and-gold banners (above) that adorn the lampposts of the town. Frankly, it's an embarrassment. I mean, if the tiny Amherst Brewing Company, which is only half as old as the College, can be a "major sponsor," and if the purchasers of banners include (in addition to the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, History Museum, and Emily Dickinson Museum, as one would expect) local businesses whose domains range from liquor and insurance to plumbing and small-engine repair, what sort of message are we sending?

Well, apparently, none at all. In one of my courses, my co-teacher and I are devoting some time to local history. Had we not mentioned the 250th anniversary, our students would have been completely unaware of it. A sad observation on a happy occasion. (I hope to follow up with some postings on student reactions to their encounters with Amherst history.)

Additional highlights:

• Best slogan (fine points of grammar or usage aside): Valley Light Opera
"'Fifty percent less calories than those other operas!' cried a member of Valley Light Opera, whose collegues were in dress rehearsal for 'The Mikado'."
• Irony of the day: the invitation to and fascination with the Budweiser Clydesdales—this, in a town that prides itself on its defiantly anti-corporate attitude. Additional irony: The mighty equines could not "march" in the end because the rain would have damaged their elaborate gear, and so, they passed by in their trailer. Sort of like the difference between a Budweiser and a real beer, too. Speaking of real beer, Amherst Brewing Company not only stepped up and became a major sponsor of the 250th, but also produced a special brew for the occasion. There's a big whopping metaphor for something lurking in all these ironies.

I'm not sure just what about the gear of the horses was so precious. Didn't these creatures, appropriately harnessed, use to do real work in real weather? Fortunately, the horses pulling the Muddy Brook Farm Wagon, bearing Parade Marshals Barry Roberts and Stan Ziomek, were made of sterner stuff. So, too, were (as one would hope), the Quaboag Highlanders, with all fifteen pipers piping.

• Second place for irony:

-Those "Congos" singing Julia Ward Howe's stirring "Battle Hymn of the Republic" were a big hit. But isn't that a religious activity? I mean: a church congregation singing verses that are a veritable summary of Christology? (And weren't our squeamish residents concerned about the "militaristic" imagery? After all, as their bumper stickers like to proclaim, "War is Not the Answer"? Well, actually it was, in 1861.) Public money paid for this parade and would thus seem to be endorsing its content.

-Flash back to Spring 2008: Amherst Town Meeting appropriates (Article 35) $ 25,000 to support the 250th Anniversary celebration in which this religious act took place.

-Flash forward to Spring 2009: Town Meeting votes down a proposal (the lone historic preservation proposal defeated amidst a string of unprecedented victories) for $ 7,000 to repair the roof of the historic 1820s North Congregational Church on the grounds that this constituted an unconscionable violation of separation of church and state.

In point of fact, there is nothing wrong with using public money to pay for a parade in which a church choir sings—any more than in using that money to protect the public interest in a historic resource that has public value and just happens to belong to a religious organization.

You're 250 years old, Amherst: surely, it's time to grow up.

We note the ironies and disappointments because we have to (to do otherwise would be untrue to Amherst's critical spirit), but the event was, on balance, of course, a great success. As the Bulletin observed:
As a capstone on the year's celebration, the parade was a perfect moment in time to reflect on how far the town has come since its colonial period: where schools were once an afterthought, two colleges, a public university and a widely respected public school system now stand; where Native Americans were once persecuted, an accepting and diverse community thrives; and where a colonial territory once defaulted to an overseas king, one of the most democratic forms of government - Amherst's representative Town Meeting - holds sway.

So much has happened in the last 250 years, in the town, the nation and the world. One thing that has remained consistent is the care Amherst residents show for one another, as well as their sense of stewardship of the planet and the community they call home. (read the rest)

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