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Bard Features

Justin Gallanter ’34: Recollections of St. Stephen’s

The 1921 St. Stephen’s basketball team*
In the Bardian

By Helene Tieger ’85

“The business of an undergraduate college is to graduate not only persons who know how to make a living, but also persons who know how to live.”
—Rev. Bernard Iddings Bell, Warden of St. Stephen’s College (
Lyre Tree magazine, Sept. 27, 1929)

On a foggy January day in northernmost Vermont, Justin Gallanter ’34 recounted his memories of his years at St. Stephen’s College, the precursor to Bard: “At a school with 100 students and a faculty of maybe 15, there were no secrets.” His gaze was clear, his memory sharp, and his presence, as the last known living St. Stephen’s alumnus, a bridge to the past.

Gallanter wrote in his admission application that he and his parents were first interested in St. Stephen’s after reading President Bernard Iddings Bell’s Common Sense in Education. The Gallanters were impressed by the clarity of Bell’s philosophy of education and his energetic commitment to building a rigorous residential community then sustained by four campus institutions: the curriculum, chapel, athletics, and fraternities.

Bell believed that the ideal college would be one in which students were seen as “responsible persons” and that the curriculum should be adapted to the individual student, rather than forcing undergraduates to conform to a fixed program of study.

Bell came to St. Stephen’s in 1919 as the country was regrouping from the First World War. The college was struggling; it had fewer than 30 students enrolled. By 1930, when he personally reviewed and approved Gallanter’s application for admission, B.I. (as he was known) had overseen the construction of four new buildings, including Hegeman with its brand new science labs; tripled enrollment; coordinated the merger of St. Stephen’s with Columbia University; and imprinted the community with the force of his personality and his socialist (some said radical) views.

Founded in 1860, St. Stephen’s had always provided a strong classical education for young men planning to attend Episcopal seminary, but in the 20th century the college began to expand, seeking as students “men contemplating business careers; men looking forward to lives of social service; men wishing later to enter professional schools of Medicine, Law, Education, Theology, Engineering, or Journalism . . . ” (College Catalogue, 1930).

Justin Gallanter was just 16 when he arrived at St. Stephen’s, but many of his opinions were fully formed. His admission application reads: “I am poor in mathematics and physics because they do not interest me.” He was, however, a serious student, excelling in English, Latin, French, and history. He recalled that St. Stephen’s teachers were generally excellent, though, he said, “There was a Greek professor, Harry, who . . . spoke 17 languages that all sounded like English.”

Gallanter was able to recall all of his 32 classmates. Together, the Class of 1934 participated in the rituals and ceremonies of the time, including the annual Freshman/Sophomore Tug o’ War over the Sawkill Creek and the sumptuous Boar’s Head Dinner at Christmas. In winter, they would skate on the frozen river, using their academic robes as black sails. Pranks were common: one story tells of the college horse being led into a student’s Stone Row room and left there for hours.

The 1921 St. Stephen’s soccer team
Justin Gallanter ’34
The only openly Jewish student at the time, Gallanter said he experienced no prejudice, and he enjoyed the music and community of mandatory daily chapel attendance. The Chapel of the Holy Innocents’ bell was rung at 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. to announce morning communion and vesper services. The communion service was optional, but strict attendance was kept each evening, when robed students sat in assigned seats. Each student was allowed only 15 chapel cuts per semester, and missing a Sunday service counted for three cuts, ensuring that students remained on campus over the weekends.

Gallanter did not belong to a fraternity, but he called himself an “honorary Sig” because his roommate was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Each society had its own house on campus for meetings and gatherings. S.A.E. was a national fraternity, while Kappa Gamma Chi and Eulexian, both of which had begun as literary societies soon after St. Stephen’s was founded, were unique to the college. Unaffiliated students were “Non-Socs” (for non-society men).

Like most things at St. Stephen’s, the pros and cons of the fraternities were intensely debated. Nevertheless, until the early 1940s when they were abandoned, fraternities structured the social life of the College. Fraternity brothers ate together at special tables in the dining hall, and each house was responsible for maintaining one of the three tennis courts then installed on Oak Lawn in front of Stone Row. Annual dance weekends saw the fraternities competing to transform the gym to best effect. These weekends also included elaborate banquets to which distinguished guests were invited. During his 2010 visit to Bard (see Spring 2011 Bardian), the Rev. John Mears ’35 recalled waiting tables at one of these banquets, attended by then Governor Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. (They would have been doubly distinguished guests, as F.D.R. was also a trustee of St. Stephen’s College. When he was inaugurated as president, Roosevelt resigned from the board of trustees.)

Gallanter boasted no athletic prowess (athletics, no doubt, did not interest him) but B.I. was determined to build strong bodies to house strong souls. In 1921, Bell had fulfilled the dreams of generations of St. Stephen’s students by constructing the Memorial Gymnasium, named to honor alumni who had died in the First World War. The College embarked on a program of intercollegiate athletics that included football, basketball, hockey, tennis, and later, lacrosse. Competing and sometimes winning against schools like Amherst, St. Lawrence, RPI, or MIT brought tiny St. Stephen’s into the national spotlight.

Despite all this progress, spring 1933 was inauspicious. Four years into the Depression, the College was running a dangerous deficit. B.I. despaired and recommended on March 4 that St. Stephen’s “be closed as of June 30th next.” The remaining board members did not close the College, but chose instead to create a budget that slashed operating expenses and halved the deficit by halving the salaries of the entire staff. Bell could not reconcile his vision for the College to these terms and submitted his resignation. Donald Tewksbury was chosen to head the College—not as president, but as dean, on leave of absence from Columbia. Tewksbury did not hesitate to effect change. He reduced mandatory chapel attendance to three times per week, and dropped the classics requirement altogether. In his Educational Program for Bard College, he placed a heavy academic emphasis on the arts, and outlined the Moderation and Senior Project requirements familiar to Bard students today. The following spring, the Board agreed to change the name of St. Stephen’s College to Bard, in the belief that more grant dollars would be given to a modern, secular school.

Bard President Leon Botstein says Bard today continues the tradition of academic excellence. “Throughout my 38 years at Bard I’ve been conscious of the ideals of my predecessors,” he said. “Like them, we require our students to take themselves seriously in college, and expect that what they learn here shapes what they do in the world. If the College today is a center for and a model of cultural creation, debate, service, and political exchange among citizens of the future, then we are doing our job, as we have always done.”

Helene Tieger ’85 is Bard College archivist.

*Correction: the print version of this article incorrectly labels this as a photo of the soccer team.

Read the fall 2013 issue of the Bardian:

Post Date: 11-08-2013