The Gentleman Optimist

By Norman Boucher / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007

At their best, alumni magazines embody the character of their schools as filtered through the personality of their editors. Both are necessary: if the personality of the editor dominates, the magazine fails its patron; but if the editor's angle of vision is lacking, the result is lifeless, a publication with all the appeal of a legal notice. At Brown no editor understood this better than Chet Worthington '23, the man who edited the BAM for slightly more than thirty-seven years, from 1931 to 1968, longer than anyone else. Chet died July 22 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the age of ninety-nine.

Most alumni who graduated after 1968 knew him as the dignified, well-dressed man who wore a variety of hats near the head of the Commencement procession year after year - eighty years in a row, to be exact. Few understood the man's significance to Brown, or his seminal role in the history of this magazine.

As a student, William Chesley Worthington edited the Brown Daily Herald, cofounded the Brown Jug, joined Delta Upsilon, was president of his class, and admitted to "acting a little." Later he volunteered for Brown, worked for Brown, and was one of the University's best ambassadors. His great cause was the importance of alumni to a university, not just as a source of dollars, but as part of a school's living history, as an essential element of its character and direction. His influence on the subject, however, went well beyond the University: he was president of the American Alumni Council, which eventually be-came the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and was a founder of the organization that first published the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A native of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, Chet directed the alumni-relations office, the annual fund, and the news bureau at Brown. He occupied many leadership positions with the Associated Alumni, the precursor to the Brown Alumni Association, and served on countless committees. He even sent his children, Bill and Constance, to Brown. (Chet covered Connie's Commencement in his last issue.) Brown recognized his contributions in 1958 with an honorary degree.

After graduation he earned a master's from Columbia's journalism school, winning a Pulitzer traveling fellowship to Europe. (Travel and the outdoors were other passions. He was active in the Boy Scouts all his life, and his family once camped across the country and back. Chet also loved foreign travel; six years ago, at the age of ninety-three, he served as ar-chivist at the Petra, Jordan, dig by Professor of Archeology Martha Sharp Joukowsky '58.)

In 1926 Chet was hired by the Providence Journal, where over the next fourteen years he served as reporter, critic, city editor, and Sunday-magazine editor. Then, in 1931, he was offered the BAM editorship - at $50 an issue, or $500 a year. He had his doubts at first that the limited topic of Brown University and its alumni would hold his interest for long.

But his love for Brown deepened, and over time the Brown Alumni Monthlybecame the publication of record for the University, chronicling the administrations of four presidents, describing a campus as it coped with the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. Chet's BAM kept its lens tightly focused on Brown and its alumni, but he brought to it a new wit and flair. Death, for example, had long been described in reverential tones in alumni magazines, but Chet's voice even took care of that: "The Aldrich brothers," he wrote in the October 1956 issue, "who had been so generous to Brown and for whom Aldrich Field is named, had once talked about their lifelong companionship. ÔWhen we go away, we like to go together,' they said. They went away together that year, dying in the same month."

Chet's BAM is full of stretches of well-crafted reporting punctuated by short bursts of wit. He relieved the monotony of class notes by peppering them with boxed items like this one, titled "Slumber for Sale," from the December 1939/January 1940 issue:

"Norman Dine '23 and his work on behalf of slumber are in the public prints again. The first man to make a living out of combatting insomnia, he runs a sleep shop of his own in the big New York store of Lewis & Conger, and most of the magazines have described his work. His newest wrinkle is an arrangement with a telegraph company so that sleepless Manhattanites can call and have a messenger boy deliver a sleep-inducing gadget from a central office." The item goes on to describe the gadget in a voice that's very funny yet is never disrespectful.

Chet's BAM worked so well that editors of other alumni magazines began to emulate it. At a 1958 dinner in Chet's honor, Charles Widmayer, then-editor of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, said he spoke for "hundreds of alumni and alumnae magazine editors throughout the country" when he praised Chet. "In this editorial business," Widmayer said, "consistency is the real test. Holding to a high level of interest, variety, balance, and an attractive presentation month after month is what separates the men from the boys."

Chet's approach had a serious goal. His job would be successful, he once wrote, "if the readers are better informed with an intelligent, stimulated awareness, if they feel closer to Brown, if they are impelled to add to the golden seductions of their own College memories some active understanding and responsible regard for today and tomorrow on the Hill."

By 1968, though, the issues on campus had become increasingly contentious, and Chet was puzzled by the changes. "I confess," he wrote in his last issue, "I've not been a good student of protest, its history and its manifestations, its techniques, its roots, and its meanings. The issues - for a while, at least - changed so rapidly that you wondered if the posture, even the lark of protest, was not more important than the cause itself." Ever the optimist, he then noted that at least the protests seemed "to have alighted of late on some matters of national relevance."

Still, his love for Brown never wavered: "You get irritable, even with old friends, and discouraged," he noted in his final issue. "And then a student editor writes: ÔThere is a pride in Brown - its people, its ideals, and history.' He tells you why, and you feel better."

In his last years Chet would sometimes make his way to the Refectory for lunch. He sent checks to Brown. And on Commencement morning everyone looked for him in the procession. What was he thinking all those years as he headed down College Hill? He provided a hint in a July 1956 Commencement reflection. "Why were you in line?" he wrote. "Well, because you belong there, that's all. That's what it is. You're part of it, part of Brown. That's why you're there. Probably that's why it gets you, too. Sentimental old fool, in a silly Procession."

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September / October 2002