This year is the 100th anniversary of the song “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane.” If you graduated from Middlebury in the last 100 years, you’ve sung it at least once. College songs are common. They’re often about the college’s location, its mission, its history, or its student body characteristics. And while Gamaliel Painter, as many of you may know, was one of the founders of Middlebury’s town and college, the song isn’t about him, really. It’s about his cane.
That’s a bit unusual. Why is a cane such a persistent symbol of Middlebury, worthy of a song (where rapping canes often provide a percussive accompaniment) that’s been sung at graduations and reunions for decades? The lyrics of the song give a bit of a history lesson.
The first verse presents the facts: “When Gamaliel Painter died, he was Middlebury’s pride, a sturdy pioneer without a stain; and he left his all by will to the college on the hill, and included in the codicil his cane.”
Gamaliel Painter was, indeed, a sturdy pioneer. He was born in Connecticut in 1742 and migrated to Vermont, where he became a highly influential member of society. He helped found both the town and the college of Middlebury; was a member of the Constitutional Convention, a county court judge, and an Addison County sheriff; and represented Middlebury in the state legislature. He deeded land to the town of Middlebury for a common and a courthouse, and he oversaw the construction of the Congregational Church and Painter Hall.
When he died he left the vast majority of his estate, including his cane, to the College.
Over time, that cane became a symbol of the College. We give replica canes to newly minted alumni—a tradition that’s come and gone over the years but has been current since 1995. The original cane is well traveled: it’s gone out to Monterey for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies Commencement, and it’s passed among new students at the first-year convocations in September and February. When I think about the number of hands that have touched Painter’s cane over the centuries, and particularly over the last two decades, I don’t think about the 217 years’ worth of germs (although it’s been pointed out to me). Rather, I think about the physical connection among so many Midd students with this piece of College history.
In later verses of “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane,” we’re told that while “his blessed bones are hid ’neath a marble pyramid” in the Middlebury cemetery next to campus, “he left to us his courage in his cane.”
I keep Painter’s original cane in a place of honor in my office where I often look at it, appreciating all it symbolizes—its history and its present relevance. I like to think that “his courage in his cane” that we sing about is the courage that Gamaliel Painter exhibited in moving from sophisticated New Haven, Connecticut, to the frontier land that was Vermont, creating connections between land and people, and generously providing for the future of Middlebury. It was also his courage to commit to an evolving community that could be challenging but that inspired enough pride of ownership that it was ultimately worthy of his estate.
Middlebury is continuing to evolve. I believe that the institution is now uniquely positioned to deliver an immersive education that will prepare all of our students to lead engaged, consequential, and creative lives and address the world’s most challenging problems in an environment that fosters work across intellectual, cultural, and geographic borders. Middlebury can and will be more flexible and more collaborative, and will be the leader in place-based experiential learning. We will deliver more opportunities for lifelong engagement with our alumni. And we must continue to be intentional in how we choose to pursue our vision and allocate our resources.
At this time of year, I hold Gamaliel Painter’s cane quite a bit—and when I hold it, I am connected to the thousands of hands that have held it before me, and that will hold it after me. With the gift of this cane in 1819 came a gift that provided stability to the College, and eventually led to a song, and a shared tradition. Equally as important came “his courage in his cane,” which will guide all of us as we move together into the future with Middlebury.
Laurie Patton can be reached at email@example.com.