The Sawyer Sign Caper

When construction of the old Sawyer Library began, there was no sign affixed to the chain link fence proclaiming, “Future Site of Sawyer Library.” My roommates and I decided to fix that glaring omission.

First, we marched down to the local lumber yard, located where the Spencer Studio Art building now stands. For sign materials, we picked out a 4×6 composite board, some white paint, some purple paint, and some ingenious fasteners for bolting our creation to the fence. As the clerk was mixing up the purple paint, he suddenly stopped and said, “Wait a minute. You aren’t going to use this for any vandalism, are you? The last time we mixed up some purple paint, students used it to paint the columns on Chapin Hall. It cost the college $20,000 to sandblast it off. You aren’t going to do anything like that, are you?” “Oh, no, nothing like that,” we said, trying to look as innocent as we could. “Well, OK.” He went back to mixing the paint.

Our materials in hand, we walked back to Mission Park. (Note: it’s really difficult to look nonchalant while crossing Route 2 and the Williams campus with a huge board and two cans of paint.)

Smilin' Jack Sawyer Sign
This picture is from the Class of 1975 yearbook. Exposed to the elements, the sign began to warp, so we eventually took it down and displayed it in our suite living room. I’m on the left; Jeff Williams, an economics professor, previously at Stanford and now at UC Davis, is on the right.

We painted the sign in our suite bathroom, the only place large enough in which to do the work. The tile floor also made it easy to wipe up the inevitable drips of paint. Jeff had worked as a housepainter during the summer; he painted the white background. I’d taken “Development of the Printed Book” during Winter Study, so I handled the lettering: “Site of the Future Smilin’ Jack Sawyer Library” in purple sans serif type. (Comic fans will notice the nod to an aviation comic strip that ran from 1933 to 1973). Over the course of several days as we created the sign, we cased out the comings and goings of Security in Hopkins Hall. Security changed shifts at midnight, so we decided to begin the “Sawyer Sign Caper” at 12:10 AM.

On the designated night, wearing all-black clothing, we hauled the sign through the snow up to the chain link fence right outside of Hopkins Hall and started putting it up. About five minutes into the project, with two out of the four fasteners connected, a car suddenly turned into the Hopkins Hall parking lot, shining its headlights onto the sign. “Put out your lights!” hissed Jeff. “Someone will see us.” “And why the hell should I?” It was a Williams Security guard, turning up late for his shift. “It’s against the regulations to remove college property.” “We aren’t taking this sign down; we’re putting it up.” That stopped him cold.

Unsure what to do, he decided the best course of action was to take us to see his boss, the Chief of Security. We walked down to the basement of Hopkins Hall, and explained what we were doing to Mr. Jenkins. We noted that we had been very disappointed that there had been no sign heralding the arrival of the multi-million dollar Sawyer Library. As members of the Williams College community, we’d felt that we were duty bound to rectify this error. Consequently, we’d created this sign with beautiful, Williams-purple lettering. We’d even spent extra money to get special fasteners so the chain link fence wouldn’t be damaged. To finish our pitch, we handed him our suite’s business card, which we’d had specially printed at the beginning of the school year. It proudly declared: “Suite 320, Dennett House: Creese, Macdonald, Muzyka and Williams, Associates: Artisans of Innuendo, Allusion and Contumely.” Mr. Jenkins chuckled at our business card, but he was still hesitant: “Um, I don’t know.”

We then pleaded, “Look, come on out and see what you think. If you feel the sign looks bad or is damaging the fence, we’ll take it down.” “OK, that sounds fair.” So at 12:30 in the morning, we trudged through the snow and pondered the sign. After a long pause, Mr. Jenkins said, “I have to hand it to you boys, that is one fine-looking sign. OK, here’s what I’ll do. College regulations say that I have to take down your names. However, if I never get a call from the Dean’s Office about this, this never happened. OK with you?” We allowed as we felt that was more than fair. “OK, finish putting the sign up and make sure it doesn’t damage the fence.” He walked away, smiling and shaking his head.

We finished putting up the sign, went back to Dennett House, and waited for the dreaded phone call from the Dean’s Office. It never came. The administration had a sense of humor, and even featured a picture of the sign in its quarterly newsletter to alumni, stating: “Student humorists were credited with the creation of this sign, with Williams purple lettering, which appeared one morning last month firmly attached to the fence surrounding the construction site of the new library. The library, to be completed in the spring of 1975, is to be named for President emeritus John Edward Sawyer ’39.”

A postscript. About a week after putting the sign up, I attended a Williams hockey game. As I was walking to my seat in the bleachers, I passed in front of the Dean of Faculty, Prof. Dudley Bahlman. As I did so, he glanced down at my sneakers with telltale specks of purple paint on them. He affixed me with a bemused stare and said, “An interesting shade of purple, Mr. Creese.”

 –Guy Creese ’75