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Chester W. Williams

Chester Wheldon Williams was born in Chicago in 1906. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1929 and received a master’s degree from Harvard University in 1939. Prior to NEC, Williams held positions as an instructor at Grinnell College, and assistant professor at Cornell College in Iowa. 

In 1946, Williams was appointed to the theory department faculty at NEC, and he remained a faculty member for more than 55 years. During that time, he served in various capacities including dean (1953-62, 1967-76) and president (1962-67). From 1957-60, Williams held the position of regional vice president for the National Association of Schools of Music.

Portrait image of NEC President Chester W. Williams

Chester W. Williams History

In 1976, Williams retired and received an honorary doctorate from NEC. However, he continued to serve NEC as dean emeritus and special assistant to the president for the remainder of his life. Williams also ran NEC’s Summer School for several years and served as a trustee for the Frank Huntington Beebe Fund, which provided financial assistance to students pursuing music study or performance abroad. Williams’ memoir of his time at NEC, Indeed Music: My Years at New England Conservatory, was published in 1989.

Williams and his wife Janet (Sprague) were longtime residents of Wellesley, Massachusetts, with Williams only moving to Westwood in 1992. Williams conducted and played oboe in the Wellesley Symphony and conducted the Wayland-Weston Sudbury Community Chorus in the 1950s, as well as the Wellesley College Orchestra. He served as conductor of the Harvard Musical Association, of which he was a member for more than 50 years. Williams was also a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Wellesley where he served on the music committee.

Williams passed away on Nov. 2, 2001, at The Clark House in Fox Hill Village in Westwood at the age of 95.

Archival Collection

The Chester Williams presidential papers collection consists of approximately .4 lin. ft. (2 document cases). These records are primarily paper files, as well as a small collection of photographs.

Chester Williams’ Presidential Papers were donated to the NEC Archives by his daughter, Barbara Williams Olmsted, after his death in November 2001.

Access to the Williams Papers is granted by the archivist. Appointments must be scheduled in advance. There are limited restrictions pertaining to this collection.

All copyrights to this collection belong to New England Conservatory. Permission to publish materials from this collection is granted by the Archivist. This collection should be cited as: NECA 1.7. Chester W. Williams Papers (Presidential), New England Conservatory Archives, Boston, MA.

The Chester Williams Papers are organized into six series

  1. Correspondence
  2. Department files 
  3. External files
  4. Special events
  5. Subject files
  6. Photographs


Although a large portion of Chester Williams’ records in the conservatory archives originates from his tenures as dean, there is a small collection of presidential papers as well. Williams’ general correspondence files include letters from Leo Eben Tourjee, nephew of Conservatory founder Eben Tourjée, and Leo S. Tonkin Associates, a federal relations consultant, with regards to pursuing federal funds for the conservatory. 

The majority of correspondence relates to gifts/bequests to the conservatory. These gifts were primarily financial in nature and contributed to the Centennial Program Fund, the Conservatory Endowment Fund, and various scholarship funds. Included is information regarding grants from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. One file documents non-monetary gifts, primarily instruments, donated to NEC.

Departmental files

Among the important departmental records from this period are: a thorough evaluation of the Conservatory’s Public Relations Department; records of the Public Relations Group; and evaluations/proposals concerning the Preparatory Division, particularly with respect to the conservatory’s branch locations.

External files

External files document the conservatory’s interactions with two local radio stations, WCOP and WCRB, as well as with the federal government’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare on the topic of a graduate fellowship program.

Special event files

Special event files include commencement records, as well as records documenting the unveiling of a portrait of Carl Zerrahn, an NEC faculty member and former conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society, Harvard Musical Association, and the Worcester Music Festival. 

The commencement/concerts/other events file contains correspondence to and from prospective honorary degree candidates, including Arthur Rubenstein, Leopold Stokowski, Edgard Varese, and Nadia Boulanger. 

Other items found in this folder are a Christmas program from 1965, a Preparatory School program from 1962, and a convocation program from 1964. Also included are records of two meetings of the Independent Conservatory Conference, the first of which was held at NEC’s Castle Hill branch location in 1965. Finally there is one folder with correspondence regarding Nadia Boulanger’s visit to NEC in 1962.

Subject files

Subject files consist of materials such as information regarding the Carr Organ; detailed inventories, evaluations, and recommendations regarding the conservatory’s collection of pianos; records of other instruments; a few records of the Committee on Space; a few documents concerning a joint program with Simmons College; and the NEC summer program at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.


There are three folders of photographs in the Chester Williams presidential collection. 

The first folder contains photos of Williams’ spring 1965 trip to Puerto Rico with the NEC Chorus. In addition to Williams, there are several photos that include Pablo Casals and his wife Marta, and NEC’s Choral Director Lorna Cooke deVaron. 

The next folder contains photographs from the NEC Chorus trip to the Soviet Union in 1966.

The third folder contains photographs of Williams alone, as well as photographs from NEC commencement ceremonies during his presidency. In addition to Williams, these commencement photos include images of Marian Anderson, E.Power Biggs, Norman Lloyd, Paul Taylor White, Erica Morini, Carl McKinley, Jesus Maria Sanroma, Hubert Weldon Lamb, Ross Lee Finney, Mildred Miller, Roger Sessions, Michael Steinberg, Shinichi Suzuki, Warren Storey Smith, and Margaret Mason.

Series 1: Correspondence

  • Box 1 – Folder 1
    • Correspondence, General
  • Box 1 – Folder 2
    • Correspondence, Faculty
  • Box 1 – Folder 3
    • Correspondence, Gift acknowledgements, 1962-1964
  • Box 1 – Folder 4
    • Correspondence, Gift acknowledgements, January – June 1965
  • Box 1 – Folder 5
    • Correspondence, Gift acknowledgements, July – December 1965
  • Box 1 – Folder 6
    • Correspondence, Gift acknowledgements, January – July 1966
  • Box 1 – Folder 7
    • Correspondence, Gift acknowledgements, August – December 1966
  • Box 1 – Folder 8
    • Correspondence, Gift acknowledgements, January – July 1967
  • Box 1 – Folder 9
    • Correspondence, Gift acknowledgements, non-monetary
  • Box 1 – Folder 10
    • Correspondence, End of Presidency

Series 2: Departmental records

  • Box 1 – Folder 11
    • Admissions
  • Box 1 – Folder 12
    • Business Office
  • Box 1 – Folder 13
    • Public Relations – General
  • Box 1 – Folder 14
    • Public Relations – Public Relations Group
  • Box 1 – Folder 15
    • Special Students Department (Preparatory Dept.)

Series 3: External Files

  • Box 2 – Folder 1
    • Department of Health, Education and Welfare
  • Box 2 – Folder 2
    • WCOP-FM
  • Box 2 – Folder 3
    • WCRB-FM

Series 4: Special Event Files

  • Box 2 – Folder 4
    • Dedication of Carl Zerrahn Portrait
  • Box 2 – Folder 5
    • Centennial of NEC
  • Box 2 – Folder 6
    • Commencements/Concerts/Other NEC Event
  • Box 2 – Folder 7
    • Nadia Boulanger visit
  • Box 2 – Folder 8
    • Independent Conservatory Conference, 1965
  • Box 2 – Folder 9
    • Independent Conservatory Conference, 1967

Series 5: Subject Files

  • Box 2 – Folder 10
    • Carr Organ
  • Box 2 – Folder 11
    • Committee on Space
  • Box 2 – Folder 12
    • Pension Plan
  • Box 2 – Folder 13
    • Piano Inventories
  • Box 2 – Folder 14
    • Simmons College – joint program
  • Box 2 – Folder 15
    • Tanglewood
  • Box 2 – Folder 16
    • Voice of Firestone collection
  • Box 2 – Folder 16a
    • Other instruments

Series 6: Photographs

  • Box 2 – Folder 17
    • Photographs – NEC Chorus trip to Puerto Rico, 1965
  • Box 2 – Folder 18
    • Photographs – NEC Chorus trip to the Soviet Union
  • Box 2 – Folder 19
    • Photographs, Other