Northampton 350th Convocation, John M. Greene Hall, June 5, 2004
I am very pleased to join in this historic convocation. Smith is a Johnny-come-lately, or I should say, a Joan-come-lately, to historic Northampton. However, its anniversaries have a fortunate symmetry with those of Northampton. Smith’s first commencement coincided with Northampton’s 225th anniversary; Northampton’s 350th coincides with the college’s 125th.
Northampton has always been an integral part of the vision of Smith College. When Sophia Smith completed her will, she specified that the college that would bear her name should be located not in Hatfield, where she lived, but in Northampton. She insisted that the college should be located in what she called "the best place," and she determined that place was Northampton. Nonetheless, she laid down a condition. The city would need to contribute $25,000 to the new college; otherwise, it would be established in Hatfield. Hatfield was so upset by her choice that it attempted to take legal action, contending that Sophia was not of sound mind when she abandoned her native Hatfield, but at length they gave up their attempt to overturn the will. The town raised the money, and land was purchased in Northampton.
Smith’s founders very much wanted the college to be part of the practical life of the town. Contrasting their vision to the one that they imagined had inspired the founding of Mount Holyoke, they decided not to build a single seminary-like structure where students would live, but a set of buildings that looked like family houses. To emphasize this point, Smith purchased the first student residence from a town citizen, Mr. Dewey, and the house thereafter bore his name. Students, they felt, should use Forbes Library as their library, and attend Northampton’s churches.
The kind of commitment to civic life that Smith’s founders tried to incorporate in the arrangements of the new college has been important throughout Smith’s history. It is best symbolized in the Grecourt Gates, which stand as the symbolic entrance to the college, outside of College Hall. The gates were erected in honor of the Smith College Relief Unit, a group of Smith graduates who went to France in 1917 to help rebuild some villages in the district of the Somme that had been destroyed by the war. Shortly after they arrived in the district to rebuild, the German Army swept through again. The Smith women helped evacuate the village, packing up belongings and standing at the crossroads, directing straggling soldiers while shells were exploding around them. When the allies retook the village, the Relief Unit returned, completing the rebuilding process and not leaving to return to the United States until 1920. In 1924, William Allan Neilson, Smith’s third president, erected the Grecourt gates, so called because they are a replica of the gates of the Chateau at Grecourt where the Unit had its headquarters, to commemorate their efforts.
At the dedication ceremony, there were a number of speeches in John M. Greene, and then a grand procession to the site of the gates, during which everyone sang the Marseillaise. Those who spoke at the ceremony described their significance. Harriet Boyd Hawes, of the class of 1892, the leader of the Unit, said, "Here was a chance for our beloved college to do its bit for humanity and to establish a tradition of service which should take us far outside our own walls." Ada Comstock, the great Dean of the College after whom the Ada Comstock Scholars Program is named, said, "They form a wide gateway through which the graduates of this college will go out year by year, ready as were the members of this unit to dedicate all they have to the common lot."
When you walk through the Grecourt Gates, the first place you reach is Northampton’s Main Street. Smith’s founders intended the college and its students to share in the practical and civic life of the city. It is a mission we continue to hold dear today.