Sandy adopts revolutionary garb outside Winch.
The study room for Winch 2 is a social room now. Desks and candlesticks are long gone, replaced by couches, a refrigerator, and a hot pot. The spindly steam radiator still clanks from its old corner, and the big bay window, with its fitted wooden seats, still reveals a regal view of the Great Lawn, though now through a cluster of maples, birch, and sycamore. Time effaces the past, but exhilaration overtakes us nonetheless as we enter the room, bent on uncovering the legend of Alexander “Sandy” Macdonald Jr. ’46 and his brass cannon.
In a community rife with people of character, Sandy stood out. A history major who came to Reed from St. John’s College and Stanford, Sandy was captivated by the American Revolution and the early days of the republic. He was a brilliant musician who could perform Mozart’s operas on the upright piano in Capehart and sing all the parts. And he had pluck. To achieve a period effect on that piano, he inserted thumbtacks into the hammers and pressed newspaper into the lower strings. “He could sing American Revolutionary songs that wouldn’t stop,” recalled Richard Abel ’48. “He was just a remarkable guy.”
“Sandy used to say that the 19th century music was content without any form,” said Frits Brevet ’50. “Rollin Dudley ’46 would say the 18th century was form without any content.” In Sandy’s company, Frits learned to sing “The British Grenadiers”—with additional verses improvised for the Roosevelt administration—and to sip Madeira wine. On festive occasions, Frits recalled, Sandy and others sported paper-bag wigs, cut and curled and sprayed white.
Formal dances found Sandy dressed in 18th-century garb, his hair coiffed with powder or covered with a wig, wearing a jabot at his throat and buckles on his shoes. “He had an absolute coterie,” said Richard. “He was very charming,” said Patsy Wallace Garlan ’48, his close friend. Sandy and Patsy improvised the minuet during band breaks, and Sandy also took a spin with Shirley Georges Gittelsohn ’49, who was adept at making low bows in a full skirt.
CHIP OFF THE OLD DORM BLOCK. A concrete corner in Winch still bears the scar from Sandy’s one-shot fusillade.
Photo by Tom Humphrey
He dated his class papers with the year 1746, or thereabout, and wrote the first version of his thesis—“Columbia or ‘The Prudence of the Fathers’: Being an Account of the American Doctrine of Non-entanglement in the Theory and Deed from earliest Origins, to the Declaration of President James Monroe”—entirely by hand, using a quill pen he sharpened and dipped in ink.
Though the varied stories of Sandy piqued our curiosity, it was the reference to the foot-long brass cannon he kept in his room that served as tinder for an investigation.
“He would fire it off out the window at the height of bachelor parties celebrating the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, or Dolly Madison, or whomever,” Patsy reported. Lewis Leber ’50 said that Sandy issued ultimatums against the residents of Eastmoreland pertaining to their duties and obligations as subjects to the English Crown, and would “enforce the will of the king” by discharging the cannon onto the Great Lawn.
The most dramatic episode in which Sandy and his cannon figured was revealed in marvelous detail 60 years after it took place, in an interview with George Bussell ’51, recorded by John Ullman ’65 and recently uncovered in the archives.
As George recalled, Sandy, Rollin, and Jack Guthrie ’46 were celebrating George Washington’s birthday in fine form—with costumes, paper-bag wigs, and revelry that grew more animated as the evening wore on. Since it was midweek in 1946, the disturbance ran contrary to the work that George and roommates Lynn Hall ’49 and Eldon Schalka ’50 were trying to accomplish a floor above in Winch 6. The revelers responded to complaints with an invitation to join the party. “We were studying and we said, ‘No. We can’t.’”
Missives to the assiduous scholars began arriving from Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington—written with a quill and sealed with wax. Sometime later, the party became a little more hilarious, said George, and emissaries from Winch 2 arrived at Winch 6 and knocked repeatedly at the door. “I think we threw some water on them as we opened the door and that really upset them.”
Not one to ignore a challenge, Sandy reappeared with Rollin and Jack and made a commotion outside Winch 6 that brought its inhabitants to their feet. “We heard this noise at the end of the hall and opened the door and looked, and here they were, preparing this cannon for firing at the room. So we all ducked, and sure enough, off went the cannon.”
Luckily, Sandy’s marksmanship proved less precise than his penmanship. The “good-sized pellet” veered slightly off course, sparing the door and smashing into the wall just to the right of the door frame.
Sixty-seven years later, guided by Towny Angell, director of Reed’s facilities operations, editor Chris Lydgate ’90 and I arrive on the third floor of Winch and take a bearing on the cannon’s aim, reading from the interviews in hand. Towny is skeptical—so many alterations have been made to the dorms since 1946; how could any physical scars survive? True enough, the old Winch 6 door and its framework are gone, but the old concrete walls look much as they might have in Sandy’s day. Following George’s description, we fix the likely target of the fusillade and find an undeniable dent in the concrete wall. Bullseye! We let out a rousing cheer, attracting the attention of Quincy resident Ryan Butcher ’14, who pauses to join the celebration.
As to why this remarkable event in Reed’s history never left the confines of Winch, the answer is simple: no one was injured and the cannon was retired that night. But, as George and others attested, it was something you never forget.
Sandy returned to Tacoma, Washington, and was employed in his father’s construction business. His death was recorded there in 1978. Also in Washington, Jack died in 1987; Eldon in 1992; and Lewis in 2012. Rollin died in 1995 and Richard in 2013 in Oregon.
Our thanks to Gay Walker ’69 and Mark Kuestner, who manage the tremendous requirements of record keeping and archiving in the Hauser Library special collections, including the Oral History Project (OHP) interviews, and also work like gumshoes for Reed magazine. Learn more about the OHP in Comrades of the Quest: An Oral History of Reed, by John Sheehy ’82, available online through the Reed bookstore. For information about the Dorothy Johansen Society for the History of Reed College, organized to perpetuate the work of the OHP, send email Gay.