How do folks wind up on our Board of Trustees? Bill Sayre shares his journey – from a Long Island childhood to a 70’s communal farm in Maine, to professional furniture making – that eventually led him to the Conway School, and we discuss his role in helping to build a financial aid fund for Conway students.
Roxy: Thank you so much for joining us for a Conway Convo interview. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Conway, what your role is?
Bill: Well, I was a member of the Board of Trustees for six years and during that time, I was chair of the Development Committee and co-chair of the Campaign for Conway’s Future.
Roxy: What was your first landscape love? What was the first landscape that you ever fell in love with in your life?
Bill: I grew up on Long Island back when there were still lots of farms around, and I used to walk to school. We discovered a shortcut through those fields and farms and backyards. There was a bit of a wetland down on the edge of our property, it had a little pond and a stream that went into a wetland. I remember one very magical night in the middle of winter when everything was frozen hard but there was no snow. We skated on that pond for what felt like the whole night, down the river and through the wetlands, lit only by the moon. Growing up with that all around me was really important. I had a bird feeder outside my window and had a little bird book and got to identify redwing blackbirds and blue jays and add them to my life list.
Roxy: What brought you to this area and to the Conway School?
Bill: It’s a bit of a long story. I had been living in Boston in the early 1970’s, and a group of us decided to move to Maine to start an intentional farming community up near Belfast. I had a real interest in farming and ecological issues back then; things like Earth Day and organic farming. While the farming wasn’t financially successful, it was really interesting and I learned a lot. However, one of the endeavors that we were going to use to bring income into our community was furniture making and woodworking. And while I was up there I learned about Leeds Design Workshops, which was a local school here in Easthampton, MA that focused on custom furniture design and fabrication. It was very similar to the Conway School in structure. There were twenty-one students and its focus was hands-on learning. It was founded by a man from England [David Powell] who had been trained in a three-generation shop in the Cotswolds. He was an excellent craftsman. So I came and attended the first year and then went back to Maine. Then the school called me up and said, “Would you like to come back for a second year?” And I said all right and came back for a second year. In the meantime, I was doing farming during the summer. Then they called me again, and said, “Would you come back to work for us?” At that time, I had the ability to make that transition, so I did. I came down to Easthampton and worked for them in the field for about twenty-five years teaching furniture design and construction. Eventually the founder of the school retired with his partner, and I took over the program. I had up to five students on a rotating basis out of my shop. Shortly after retiring from there, being interested in a lot of outdoor activities, I had gone on a kayak trip with the Sierra Club and ran across a man named Al Rossiter who was on Conway’s board at the time. His daughter had gone to the school. It turned out that he and I had gone to the same grade school! We discovered this in the Okefenokee Swamp north of Florida, of all places. We became friends and kept seeing each other. Then when he got off the board, he asked if I wanted to join. I had been on the board of the United Way of Hampshire County for nine years, so I agreed. I joined because of the mission, but also because I had this affinity for the type of school Conway was, for hands-on learning, experiential learning, and in a field that I was really interested in, so I figured I might be able to help. I liked what I saw.
Roxy: Do you have a favorite style of furniture?
Bill: I am really fond of the Arts and Crafts period from the Cotswolds, the English style. I have a couple of pieces here from that era. It really embodied the concept of form following function in design. If you were designing a chair, you made sure that it was comfortable and worked first, then you could play around with what it looked like. At the time that we were going to school, art furniture was getting big in galleries, and a lot of that stuff was not functional. So we were on the other end of that spectrum. For example, we’d build a drawer that worked really well, not just something that was decorative.
Roxy: I’m curious about your experience with the intentional farming community, what were some of the benefits of that experience that you remember?
Bill: I think the biggest benefit was an opportunity to be living rurally. I was outdoors all the time, in the woods or in the fields, trying to understand what I was seeing, what was going on. For the untrained eye, 98% of what you see is a mystery, but you start to get some little messages here and there. There was a family of ravens that lived in the woods at the bottom of a steep hillside. Every morning they would come flying up and I could see this amazing group of birds – they are not your average crow. Then in the evening, they would fly back down. You are brought closer to all those rhythms that you don’t see in the city. It turned out there was another intentional community on the next hill over that we didn’t even know about until we moved up there, and they were also from Boston. There were a lot of people in that area, Waldo County, that were in a similar situation to us. So a food co-op got started, and MOFGA got started [the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association], and then they would have their Fall Festival where they would show farming equipment and you could talk to other farmers and attend lectures and activities. There was a lot of synergy going on, and that was a great benefit. I also felt like I was doing something, or trying to do something, that was countering these unhealthy directions that the country at large was pursuing.
Roxy: Speaking of building community, you have done quite a bit of that in the town of Williamsburg. [Williamsburg, MA is a neighboring town of the Conway School’s location of Northampton.]
Bill: Yes. I first moved here when we bought our house in 1989. I started slowly joining various committees, and for the last seven years, I’ve been a selectman. I’ve sort of worked my way up to that point, which I enjoy a lot. It’s very interesting work and there are lots of different points of views, perspectives and needs, desires, wants. I work with people of different backgrounds, some of whom have been born and raised here for generations, others like me who moved here more recently. It’s a community that’s not diverse in the traditional sense of that word, but it’s not homogeneous either.
Roxy: I’d like to talk about your work on building a financial aid fund for Conway students. How did that come about?
Bill: It’s something that from the beginning, when I first came to the Development Committee, I was suggesting and advocating. This was before JEDI [justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion] was being discussed much. I was looking at Conway, and saw that it was having a hard time filling all of its slots every year. Clearly the expense of the program was a concern – it was not available to people unless they had resources. That was something I observed, but there was no ability at the time to change that by starting up an endowment, or anything like that. So when the Campaign for Conway’s Future got started, we started identifying specific needs that people could direct their donations to. We call them “buckets.” One of the programs we did start with a direct link for donations was an endowment, which Conway calls the Financial Aid Endowment. It’s been moderately successful. I think of all our buckets, it’s the second-biggest one there at this time.
Roxy: What would you like to ideally see happen at Conway with regards to that? How would you like to see the Financial Aid Endowment grow?
Bill: I don’t know if it’s realistic to say that the Conway tuition should be free for everyone. But I do think that for those who can’t afford it, tuition could be free if the program grew enough over time, and that would allow the very strong mission of Conway to increase its reach, in particular to communities where the work is much more needed.
There’s another perspective on this from the position of the donor, which is really how I was viewing it: You can give a dollar to Conway that could be used immediately for whatever – electricity or teacher salaries, whatever it is. But if you want to make a longer term impact, a legacy donation? Endowment is really a strong pull for donors for larger amounts. Because otherwise if you give $10,000, for example, you could be giving $10,000 every year forever, right? Donors need to be reassured that the money is being well-stewarded through the process, and an endowment that grows over time is a perfect vehicle for that.
Roxy: What do you think are the biggest benefits, the biggest reasons to give to Conway?
Bill: In a few words or less, we’re in an ecological crisis, an environmental crisis on the planet, and these students are getting the tools to address that issue directly. The mission statement itself [We explore, develop, practice, and teach design of the land that is ecologically and socially sustainable] is also a good way of putting it.
Roxy: Yes, it is. I like how Conway combines the social and ecological, which seems fairly unique among graduate programs, and the hands-on nature of the program.
Bill: I think Walt’s [Walter Cudnohufsky, Conway’s founder] original purpose was to provide hands-on experiential learning. Another way of looking at it is that you’re learning how to learn rather than just being fed the diet that people think you need.
Roxy: Is there anything else you’d like the Conway community to know about you?
Bill: I think Conway is a great school, a great program, has a great mission and has a lot of potential unrealized, but hopefully that will emerge in the next few decades. Without question, we have a really strong, supportive community. It’s not as big as it needs to be, but it can grow, and it will grow. I’m very excited about the potential. I’ve met great people in the time I’ve been with Conway that I never would have come across otherwise. I’ve probably gotten more out of it than I’ve given to Conway, so I’ve tried really hard to give a lot to Conway. It’s been great for me to just be involved, and I would strongly encourage anybody who is interested to get involved with Conway because you’ll benefit from it without question.
Roxy: Now for a fun question: What is your favorite tool?
Bill: Well, the first thing that popped into my mind was a really well-sharpened chisel. You can do so much with it.
Roxy: You really can. A chisel’s sharpness is very important, isn’t it? My father once gifted me a set of chisels. Nothing expensive or fancy, just a set of chisels because he thought they’d be useful for me to have around. I ended up using one of them to chip concrete, and dulled it horribly. He was so mad!
Bill: The thing about chisels is when you learn the A-to-Z of sharpening them, they can be reconditioned. I hit a nail with one and I put a dent in the edge of it that was maybe a 16th of an inch deep. But if you have a good grinder and the right stones, you can bring it back to razor sharp, so don’t throw them away! As long as they’re good steel, they can be rehabbed.
Roxy: It’s nice to know that you can rehabilitate a chisel, even a badly damaged one.
Bill: That’s the mark of a good tool, when you don’t just use it once and throw it away. It has life.