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Ben Labaree

Environmental Studies

By Nancy Reece Jones

My favorite professor, hands down, was Ben Labaree. Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, and founder of the Williams-Mystic Coastal and Ocean Studies Program, Ben was the heart and creative vision behind the Environmental Studies program, which drew me to Williams. He imbued his teaching with personal warmth, infectious enthusiasm, and dedication to the subject matter that made a lasting impression on me and countless others. 

Ben’s own words, which Williams President Maud Mandel included in her September 2, 2021 tribute letter, best capture his legacy: “The great thing about teaching is that the most important part of one’s contributions becomes a permanent part of your students—not just part of their intellects, but part of their whole being. The teacher contributes to a life-shaping process, the implications of which are sometimes nothing less than awesome. A good teacher not only teaches students the subject, but also teaches them to enjoy learning, no matter what the subject matter.”

I loved Ben’s flagship “Man and Nature” class; in fact, I recently unearthed the mimeographed syllabus in a stack of college-era materials. Many of the classics he selected still line my (downsized) shelves. This course, later renamed “Nature and the Americans”, was likely one of the first environmental history courses in the nation. 

I was fortunate enough to participate in the first Mystic Seaport trip, the ground-floor moment of what became Ben’s passion. An eager crew of us took a multi-day trip to Mystic Seaport, CT, during which we immersed ourselves in the history and implications of the country’s maritime history. This experiential adventure was the beginning of what eventually became an exciting semester-long program, Williams-Mystic, that opened for its first full semester in 1977 and immediately drew students from Williams and 15 other schools. 

It's been a joy to witness the blossoming of Ben’s nascent Environment Studies program in the past 50+ years. Ben was one of several inspired and inspiring professors—including Hank Art and Tom Jorling—in that coordinate program. (At the time, I bristled that it wasn’t a legitimate major, but in retrospect I appreciate the advantages of its interdisciplinary focus.) A highlight of my reunion trips to Williamstown is the alumni lunch at the Environmental Studies Center, which includes updates on the impressive research of students and professors who continue to carry the torch lit by Ben and others in 1971.

When I learned of Ben’s death at age 94 on August 29, 2021, I wrote a condolence letter to his wife and lifelong companion, Linda Pritchard Labaree. I expressed how much Ben had meant to me and how the Environmental Studies program had shaped my career. I was touched to receive the following note and pleased to hear her take on the effect of coeducation on the Williams community.

“Ben would be overjoyed to know how much ‘Man and Nature’ meant to you and that you remember the excitement and discovery of Mystic Seaport Museum for a few wintry days (?) (Maybe the field trip you took was not in a Winter Study. Maybe you were there during a beautiful spring or fall spell (!?)

“I have a lot I want to say about you women who bravely entered Williams for the first time matriculating. You made all the difference for Ben because you brought such warmth, true interest in learning, and you were women—you opened up, gave the college a brightness and light-heartedness the academic community hungered for—especially after the serious and cantankerous years 1965-1971—with good reason. Those were hard years and wore many faculty members down. The Vietnam engagement, plus civil rights and the women’s movement, the division that seemed to lurk behind so much of what had always been collegiality became fractured. I think we all became judgmental of those who kept their distance. It was an era; and today’s divisions remind me of those years. But it isn’t really the same, although I think it laid the ‘base.’ I suspect you know what I’m trying to say.

“But oh! the change that overcame Ben when he reached out to the Center for Environmental Studies was wonderful! He was energized—ideas kept coming. There was a real purpose for sharing his love of the lands (and sea) he knew, and he became fascinated learning about the confrontations between conservationists, preservationists, and the public good.

“I am so happy to know that the enthusiasm and body of study has been with you all these years. I feel confident speaking for Ben about the arrival of you women students: you took the lid off of whatever had gotten stale, and your response to all sorts of things at Williams brought a whole new atmosphere to the classroom—I can feel it even now, and I thank you so very much for being part of that brave group that gave one professor I knew best an everlasting boost and affirmation. I treasure your card.”

When I emailed Linda recently for permission to include her words in this piece, she consented, adding this final note: “It is a lovely feeling to feel your warmth and to be befriended despite the elapsed years. Thank you for writing and giving me this opportunity to feel even just a little bit a part of your life and your 50th reunion. This proves to me the nearness we experience when the joyful, spiritual presence of someone we cherish is living among us. We are gifts to each other when that happens.”

Ben Labaree
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