News

2002 Convocation Address

May 4, 2011

by Brian A. Rosborough ’58, P’03,’06

Convocation Address, September 15th, 2002

As the farmer said at his first town meeting, “Before I speak, permit me to say a few words?”

“Mr. Boyden, I know you’re here someplace! You wouldn’t miss it. This was not my idea – your successor, Mr. Widmer, is very persuasive. You remember; you trained him. Look at the hills, Mr. Boyden! The foliage is beginning to turn, just as you promised. And smell that air! The farms are still with us. While some things are different, nothing has changed. That’s why we are here – to remember your ways and reflect on our times. I promise to keep this on a high level, to be mobile, and to finish up strong. It’s only 30 minutes. If things go wrong, I’ll see you in your office at nine in the morning!”

Thank you. Let’s hope he’s taking one of his naps.

In the 18th Century, a young republic founded private academies before the nation had public schools. Deerfield Academy was chartered in 1797 to accommodate youth “who might wish to tread the paths of truth and virtue,” assuming they could be found. It was a place to prepare young people for citizenship, to exercise their minds so they could serve church or state when their time came, and no doubt to keep them out of trouble in the good old days of corporal punishment. With notable exceptions, such as Headmaster Edward Hitchcock, the Academy remained a spartan village school — unremarkable, under funded, and to many, uninteresting, but important for the farm children who toiled in the brick museum down the road.

Matters turned for the worse a hundred years later near the end of the 19th century when state monies were channeled to public schools in nearby cities, siphoning off faculty and students from Deerfield, forcing the town to consider its closing. In 1899 no one showed up for the centennial of the Academy. The call went out for a new Head of School. The locals joked, “it best be an undertaker.” In August, 1902, one hundred years ago, a young Amherst graduate, a mere wisp of a man, Frank Learoyd Boyden, accepted the position for $800 a year, as a temporary job to earn a year’s wage so he could go to law school. They had no other candidate. He liked no other offer. It was a convenient arrangement, with low expectations on either side, or so they both thought.

The rest we inherit as legend, chronicled by fine writers like John McPhee, Brian Cooke, and journalists of that time. I am indebted to them for their insights and humor in preparing this reflection, and especially for the anecdotes contributed by faculty, alumni, and friends who knew Mr. Boyden.

Girls, please forgive the weighted references to boys, no gender bias is intended. People forget that Deerfield educated girls for 162 of its 205 years, including the first 46 of Mr. Boyden’s 66 years. You might say boys-only was a 40-year experiment, with marginal success, and then abandoned.

When I was sitting out there with you, Mr. Boyden was 77 years old – not exactly a whippersnapper. Tomorrow is his 123rd birthday. He’d been running the school for 55 years when I arrived from Jacksonville, Florida by train in my Palm Beach suit. My dad said, “Boy! You’ll be messing with Yankees your whole life, time you get up there and see how they think.”

On first sighting, I sized up the Headmaster to be venerable and rather staid, in tones of charcoal gray, but oh so quick. He was nimble of mind and wit, bemused by teenagers, impish, intuitive, restless, thoughtful, stubborn, kind, discerning, shrewd, inventive, and quite energetic. He was the sort of person you would get off the sidewalk for. With a loss of hearing, his trim, gold wire-rimmed glasses had been replaced by thick, black, Onassis-plastic horn-rims, with a tiny wheel on the right frame that allowed him to tune in and out. His age did not matter, but his hearing did. He was a good listener. It was clear to us, that he was determined to do right, with his life, with his school, for his students.

“I think we can build the best school in the country, and if we do, it will be your success, he would say to students. “If we can only do this, we will do it right.” What was right for his time? What is right for your time? Everything is different, but nothing really changes.

Mr. Boyden’s time spanned 66 years as Headmaster, from horse and buggy to the moon landing. He was present at the dawn of electric power, the telephone, the automobile, air travel, income tax, radio, television, penicillin, several wars and a depression. I asked him once, after he retired at 90, “Mr. Boyden, do students change over the years, with wars, Depression and the like?” He smiled. “No. They were all puppies.”

His time was an industrial revolution. Your time is an information revolution. You both started your adult journey at the beginning of a new century, with the same puzzlement over how to manage conditions beyond your control, e.g. the economy, greed, poverty, oppression, and threats to our security. He used his time to build a school that we hope will last for a thousand years. What will you build?

If you haven’t guessed by now, this song is about you.

What you build is less important than how you chose to build it. In our crowded, competitive, high velocity world–a healthy family, constructive work, and close neighbors are a cathedral of accomplishment. But it is not the buildings and grounds of Deerfield we celebrate today, rather the values and ethical compass of a man whose sense of mission enlightened the way for three generations of students who knew him. Why is he so fondly remembered, you must wonder?

He was soft-spoken, but could quiet a room of rancorous teenagers with a single clap of his hands, or divert a major highway with a phone call. He was diminutive, 5 feet and change, 120 pounds, always dressed in a tattered charcoal gray suit, but he earned the respect of seven U.S. presidents. Heads of State entrusted their children to his care. Behind his back we called him “Quid,” an affectionate moniker akin to a wad of chewing tobacco, but we would never knowingly disappoint him out of concern that it would lower us in his eyes.

Given his impressive size, I can’t imagine what endearments you have reserved for your headmaster.

Frank Boyden had confidence — in himself, in the future, and most importantly, in young people. He had what you look for in hiring a fighter pilot – no apparent fear of failure. On September 15th, 1902, he faced his first class of fourteen students, ‘including 7 boys, 4 of whom were feared’. He had neither taught nor coached nor managed anyone before. He simply followed his instincts, with customary enthusiasm. He broke his nose twice coaching and playing ball those first seasons. He recruited farm boys from nearby fields promising the afternoon off for sports, if only they would study in the morning. In football, playing quarterback, he once was picked up and carried down field into his own end zone by the opposing line. Perhaps he was the father of the forward motion rule! The next season he had straps sewn to the backs of the britches of his linemen so he could hang on. Confidence was the mother of his invention.

Mr. Boyden, like each of us, was a product of his times, e.g., conservative parents, attended church 3 times on Sunday, farm work through high school. He taught himself sufficient Greek and Latin in nine months at age 16 for admission to Amherst. In college he was unremarkable, but for his diminutive size and his grit. They called him Plugger Bill. He never made a varsity team, nor ever missed a practice. His maternal grandfather, Otis Cary, many say, was his role model. Cary was an energetic entrepreneur who ran a factory in Foxborough, a dart-about, who was known for short naps and abundant energy. “If you can’t find Mr. Cary, stand in one place, he’ll be around in five minutes.” Years later Mr. Boyden did him one better. He put his desk in the hall of the School Building so every student passed by five times each morning. That was management by sitting down. For Boyden, it was research into animal behavior. He could tell by the droop of your shoulders or the shuffle of your step if you were off your game. He knew whom you hung out with, or whether you were alone. He watched for leaders, he watched who followed, he listened for laughter, for confidence, for camaraderie, all signs the school was in high morale. Back then Deerfield was a singing school. The sons of Deerfield rallied, marched, and cheered on cue. We had an undefeated glee club and trumpet fanfares at ball games. The tall good-looking boys always went first, to make us appear stronger. Appearances mattered when you were poor. He picked up the crumbs under the admissions tables of Andover, Exeter, and Choate. If you could not pay, it did not matter. But listless singing would bring him to his feet with the famous spread eagle and putrid scowl. Sloppy dress, late meetings, litter on campus, unfilled time, were signs that his instruments were out of tune. He was the conductor; we were his chorus. He had a good ear.

Before it was called community service, Deerfield students bagged potatoes to help the farmers. He knew what it meant to be a good neighbor, bagging 30 acres of potatoes. He taught students how to greet a person, walking straight at them, hand extended, as if you liked them.

His credo became the school’s raison d’etre. His values were school values, and values worked better than rules. He was patriotic, believed in public service, celebrated family life, respected farmers, revered community, loved politics, hard work, wholesome living, and horses. This was the right kind of living, and being upright was central to his philosophy of life.

Shortly after taking on the Academy, Mr. Boyden began to reveal his strategy to anyone who would listen, “Conditions in the country are changing,” he would say. “Trolleys, automobiles and such things have tended to break down the influence of the home. Times are changing in the country and somebody has got to right things up… The high school seems to be the place to begin. Some people say teenagers have gone to the dogs, I don’t believe it!” said Mr. Boyden.

Today’s permissive, provocative, consumptive culture would not impress him much. He would wonder, “Who let the dogs out?”

There you have it. Deerfield’s bedrock. The Academy was founded on the belief that it should stand for the right things. To Frank Boyden, that was you. His calling was to build the character of youth. If done well, the future would take care of itself. He found mission in the philosophy of those he admired. His president at Amherst College, Frank Harris, believed that “College was not to make scholars but to make cultivated men, physically sound, intellectually awake, socially refined…all in proportion, not athletes simply, not scholars simply, not dilettantes, but all-rounders.”

Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Forest Service said, “The first condition of success was not brains, but character…People of modest intelligence come to the front because of courage, integrity, self respect, steadiness, perseverance, and confidence in themselves, their cause, and their work.” Mr. Boyden concurred.

Robert E. Lee once said, “A boy is more important than any rule.” At Deerfield, we lived by that.

His beloved student, teacher, and friend, Tom Ashley, reaffirmed for him that a life without purpose was aimless, and that sacrifice for one’s principles was noble. Ashley is buried in a French field where he fell during the Great War, cut down by a machine gun. Mr. Boyden used monies donated for his monument to build a dormitory and with it, Tom Ashley’s dream.

But by far, his greatest indebtedness for sage advice would have been to Helen Childs, his mentor, wife, and affectionate companion, whom he recruited and hired during his third year, then wooed and married, breaking every rule in the book. “If you ever have a disagreement with the students,” she warned, “you’ll find me on the other side.” Together they raised three devoted children, each proudly independent, all educators, inspired to leave their mark on the next generation and so they did — John, Ted, and Betty Boyden.

From their mother’s legacy, we learned the Head had a soft underside. “There’s not a nick of paper he wouldn’t pick up on this campus, but not one of his knickers at home,” Mrs. Boyden reported. “At times, the truth is simply not in that man.” “Why he’s the least scientific person in the world. He has some of the craziest ideas!” “If you play cards with the Headmaster”, she told one class, “watch him! That man cheats!” “Where is he now?” she would ask the switchboard. Once in Washington, D.C., he disappeared down the hall moments before they were to meet with an important member of Congress, also a generous alumnus. When Mr. Boyden reappeared miraculously just as they were called to convene with the Congressman, she asked under her breath, “Where have you been?” “Visiting with Mr. Eisenhower,” he replied. “I bet you were. What did you talk about?” “Boys” he replied. Sure enough, a year later, Mr. Boyden got a call from the President, asking to borrow a horse carriage, which he used to ride into a GOP fundraiser in the ballroom of a New York Hotel. Boys will be boys.

Never to be outdone, she held her own and the respect of her students. The Head was a teetotaler; neither smoked nor drank, not even hard cider. But he did have a weakness for sweets, animal crackers, and root beer. On one occasion at her afternoon tea, he took a huge wedge of chocolate cake with a wicked butter rum icing. The ladies present had been sworn to secrecy by Mrs.Boyden, who took obvious pleasure when he wondered aloud what was in it, then cut himself a second piece.

“You don’t have a mean streak in you” she would say, then pause, “You have plenty of other failings.” “Yes, you would have to add that,” he would reply. Like the school, the marriage was built to endure.

For each story about his moxie and shrewdness, you will find three remarking on his kindness. He never gave a student bad news at night. “Let him have a good night’s rest. He’ll have some tough nights ahead. I’ll tell him in the morning.”

When a boy went missing after his grandfather died, Mr. Boyden joined the search in his horse and carriage. He found him in tears on the lower level. He stopped and talked, shared memories of his grandfather, took him to church, fixed him lunch, arranged a car and driver, then rode home with him to tell the boy’s grandmother how very sorry he was. One day invested; one boy saved. That was Frank Boyden. ‘The student that needed him most was the most important student that day’.

Homesickness was his specialty. B. Johnson missed his ranch in Texas. Didn’t care much for Yankees. He wanted to go home. Mr. Boyden noticed his slump and asked if B. knew anything about horses. “I’m having a problem with my mare,” Boyden said. B. spent the day in the barn. Boyden checked in to say that he had to go to New York the next day, would B. mind taking care of the horses while he was away? Four years later, B. Johnson graduated high in his class, and returned the favor as trustee and generous donor.

It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. He treated everybody the same. As a first term faculty, Bob Binswanger was assigned to watch the right balcony during compulsory brick church on Sunday. “But Mr. Boyden, I’m Jewish!” said Binswanger. “Oh, you don’t need to participate, just take up the collection!” he replied. Mr. Boyden relished fundraising. If it helped, he would invoke scripture, “The Lord loveth a cheerful giver” . On one occasion, Mr. Boyden was stopped on Main Street by two women who asked if they might look inside one of the old houses. He obliged and gave them a tour with a bit of history. On the way out, one lady gave him a quarter. Realizing her mistake, she apologized. “I didn’t recognize you, Mr. Boyden.” “That’s all right. No one ever does.”

He taught us humility and not to take ourselves too seriously. It is surprising how much you can accomplish in life, if you don’t need the credit.

Mr. Boyden used his size and self-deprecating humor to great effect. He would delight in stories about himself, crafted to keep order at Evening Meeting or to pass on values to his students. A favorite was playing catch with a boy who decided to show up the Headmaster, returning each throw with a faster, blistering hardball. It escalated to a standoff, before a crowd of students, until the boy dropped out. Boyden would pause and then came the throwaway line, “But then, I was wearing a glove.”

Everyone has a favorite Boyden encounter. My moment came the last week of my senior year. Late one evening Bob Merriam, the Assistant Headmaster, asked me to bring a book and a toothbrush, he had an assignment. They were always asking seniors to intercept misdeeds, to avoid handing out punishment. Half way across campus. I said, “What’s up?” He replied, “Mrs. Boyden is away. I’d like you to spend the night with the Headmaster.” “I don’t want to go!” I replied. He assured me it was ok, I’d sit up in his guest bed, reading, until the Head stopped by around 11 pm after his rounds to say goodnight, then I’d sleep, and slip out in the morning. Just as he promised, Mr. Boyden stuck his head in my room, thanked me for staying over, and said if I got hungry, there were some cookies and milk in the kitchen. I was a slow reader, and by midnight was hungry, so I tiptoed down the backstairs toward a light in the kitchen, rounded the corner and there was Mr. Boyden! In his underwear! Some legs! Some shorts! No one had every seen Mr. Boyden out of his gray suit, not even Mrs. Boyden! I knew I would have to be blinded! My first thought was to dart into the broom closet, but before I could, he said, with great compassion for my predicament, “There you are! Milk is in the icebox. Cookies are in the jar.” And there we sat trapped by our misfortune, both trusting that the encounter would be soon forgotten.

Nothing seemed to faze him, except rudeness and unsportsman-like conduct. Indeed, he liked to win, but with grace. He seemed more pleased to have you pick up an opponent, than to have first knocked him down. “Introduce yourself after the match. Walk them to their bus. Invite them back to Deerfield.” None of today’s “Good game, good game, good game, good game?” Two years ago, I was at Exeter for the Deerfield lacrosse games, and was shocked to see one of our players deliver a severe whack to the back of an opponent, in frustration or retaliation. The refs and coaches were across the field and missed it; only the two players, a few fans and I saw the foul. “Cut that out! You can’t do that!,” shouted an older fellow near by. “No! No! That’s wrong!” he pleaded. The players ignored him. At the end of the match, I felt ashamed that I had not spoken up, so I went over to the Exeter parent to apologize. He smiled “Oh, I’m not from Exeter, I went to Deerfield. We never did that in Boyden’s time”.

Fair play to Boyden meant you only challenged a ref’s calls, when they were wrong in your favor. If you showed anger, you were benched. If you complained to the refs, you were out of the game. He was almost benched himself when he corrected a plate umpire saying the Deerfield catcher had not made the tag out that would have given his opponent a tying run. He was overruled. One of his hockey captains, Rutger Smith, refused to accept a goal made when the opponent’s goalie was down, injured on the ice, away from the net. Taking advantage of a slow whistle was not right. Deerfield went on to win 4-3 in overtime. Winning the right way was a mark of character, and still is today. Character was not something like charm, that was switched on and off to suit the occasion, you either had it or not. “Better to lose with dignity than win and gloat over it”, he would say, but losing was hardly an option. “This is a strong school we are playing today, they have a much better record”, he would say, “but we can take them. Let’s have a victory, by 40 points if possible.”

His management style was conversational, in discipline and in praise. Often he would blend the two. We should all do so, as well. One student found Mr. Boyden and Red Sullivan, his beloved hit man, waiting in his room at the wee hours after a night of revelry. “I hope you’ve had a good time of it”, he began, “but Mrs. Boyden has been up much of the night, worried sick over your disappearance. You know how fond of you she is. Do me a favor, meet her in her garden when she begins her day at 6 am tomorrow morning, and tell her where you’ve been.” Or more indelibly, with another miscreant, “We both know what you’ve done was not a quality act, and should not be repeated.” He never threatened, just let you know how he felt about your behavior. He was even effective when he was foggy on the facts. The academy switchboard used to be in his house, as he delighted in answering calls after hours. After one evening meeting, he told the operator a few boys might drop by, something had gone wrong; please call him when they arrived. There was a stream of them, in two’s and three’s, building to about 30 when he arrived in the living room. As overheard by the operator, Mr. Boyden spoke to them in personal terms, about how very sorry he was to hear about the trouble, how disappointed he was to learn they were involved, and how it reflected poorly on the school and the other students, so on and so forth, for about 10 or 15 minutes. He said he looked forward to a better effort, beginning tomorrow, and they filed out, chastened. When they’d gone, Mr. Boyden passed by the switchboard, paused to read the newspaper, and said, “I wonder what they’ve done.”

Much has been made of his love for horses. Head of School is a lonely job. They were his companions. He had an eye for picking spirited horses. He would even sneak off to western movies in Greenfield to see them run, then doze off during the love scenes. Most afternoons he would encircle the playing fields, horse and buggy at full canter, like St. Nick dressed in black. You could hear him call, Go Blackie! Go Ready! On Lippit! On Madagascar! as if to remind us that it took courage and daring for a man of his size to be reining in the 500 colts who attended Deerfield.

If he had an eye for horses, he had a genius for picking men. Deerfield owes its legacy to a remarkable faculty who were beguiled by Frank Boyden. Drawn to his mission, it appeared some took vows of celibacy and poverty to serve us, each paid a pittance to start, then a modest raise after 35 years. Such talents, recruited for their humor, personality, optimism, and receptivity to the ideas and problems of youth. Many had offers to go elsewhere, but they stayed for decades, loyal to his vision, loyal to the school, and loyalty was the only currency you needed to be happy at Deerfield.

At the day’s end, the All School Meeting was perfected to an art form. Hundreds of gangly, cross-legged teens were packed like sardines for 20 minutes of news, information, and homily. The largest rug on campus set the limits for his admissions policy and on it goes. Look around and you’ll recognize the anthropology of Deerfield that sets you apart from other clans, as if marked in some way by a Boyden tradition.

High standards. Fresh flowers. Free meals for visitors. Snappy uniforms. Away games. Few signs on campus so visitors ask students questions. A triple threat, live-in, round-the-clock, caring, coaching faculty. Home cooking. Sit down meals. All School Meetings. A respectful dress code. Sports for all. Single rooms. Lots of ice cream.

Today you have less singing and more rules, perhaps to compensate for more freedom. We were checked in 17 times a day. No kidding! Five classes, three meals, two study halls, before and after sports, Evening Meeting, and bed, and once when we weren’t looking. It was like the U.S. arms policy. “Trust, but verify.” Faculty meetings and student government were oxymorons. School officers were appointed the last week of senior year. The Prom occurred after graduation. We rarely left campus, unless we tunneled out. Radios and television were time wasters, not allowed. One dance a term was believed to keep the libido in check, each choreographed to match frightened boys with frightened girls by height and geography. Dances were assigned, doors locked, the music was to die for. Squads of faculty on bush duty lined the walls and walks so you couldn’t make a break for it. When the girls’ buses arrived and departed, you could overhear the Head say, “Oh my!”

Those were Mr.Boyden’s times. Happily, we have returned to the enlightenment of co-education, now a residential offering that seems closer to Heaven. But your times are different in other ways. A splendid diversity of students enriches your experience. The only language Mr. Boyden ever spoke was Yankee. Your curricula is dynamic, faculty more independent, students smarter, facilities more robust, and the school is as financially solid as the granite it sits on. Deerfield is no longer a striver, but a leader in private education and first in civility. In your language, the place is hot.

Nor is America an innocent upstart nation, that city on a hill in virtuous isolation, the most admired of the 20th century. In one transforming moment, we peered into the abyss of September 11th, and realized that America is no longer a safe and separate place. We are burdened by awesome power and wealth in a crowded, untidy world teeming with potential, teetering on mishap, and in need of ethical leadership. Our ‘just do it’ culture, a reflection of our national values, has become troubling, threatening, if not deeply offensive, to a growing number of cultures, faiths, and societies less fortunate than our own. In Mr. Boyden’s time, the world was just as complicated. What is new is America’s ‘paradox of power’, i.e. how to manage our wealth and might with grace and imagination. In a more consensual world, we will need to share decision-making, resources, and the environment more equitably. From sharing to work, we need leaders with compassion and humanity, with an instinct for honesty and fair play, and the ethical strength to back their convictions. That’s where you and Mr. Boyden may have a ‘rendezvous with destiny.’ Just as he prophesized, the Academy would prepare legions of young people for service to others. He would hammer away at youth on this village anvil, until he shaped goodness and character, camaraderie and common sense, befitting the requirements of his times. And so they did serve; statesmen, 15 college presidents, 50 Heads of School, hundreds of teachers, countless chairmen, CEOs, artists, engineers, composers, scientists, and writers all met the challenges of their day.

And with equal rights and equal pride, so will you.

By some magic during your Deerfield days, you become reflective and responsible, critical and creative, aware of your potential and the endless possibilities that stretch out before you. As ‘books fall open and you fall in,’ you discover capacities you’ve never known, not only to think, but to think about thinking, to muse and wonder about the future, and to ask what it all might mean. It is here you will find the enduring values and friendships that compose the points on your ethical compass enabling you to navigate the foggy times ahead. All too soon it will be your turn to fashion and shape events that will impact your generation, and those beyond, your mark left in the depths of time.

When it was his time to retire, Mr. Boyden called a meeting of the school as he had done so often before. After the day’s announcements, he told the boys it had been a privilege to build a school with them. It was their success. He introduced his successor before the boys read about it in the morning papers. Then suddenly, ‘he saluted his school with a wave of a paper, tightly rolled to conceal what he might of said.’ The boys were stunned. Who would speak next? Without a cue, they stood, like the flash of sunset’s light from a hundred ancient windows, a last reflection of everything he stood for, and they sang mightily, “The Sons of Deerfield Rally.” Alone on the stage, Frank Boyden stood respectfully; content that Deerfield’s days of glory would never end.

With gratitude for unattributed quotes borrowed from the works of John McPhee and Brian Cooke and for the inspiration of my teachers, Eric Goldman, Joe Nye, and David McCord. In appreciation for the memories and mirth shared by Mr. Boyden’s friends Bob and Mary Merriam, Eric Widmer, Meera Viswanathan, Bryce Lambert, Peter Hindle, Bob Binswanger, Ruth and Larry Bohrer, Martha and Roland Young, Vicki and Bob Hammand, Chuck Schmidt, Cynthia Travers, Flip Cannon, Larry Boyle, David Hirth, Jay and Mimi Morsman, Tina Cohen, Art Ruggles, Dick Wheeler, Priscilla Butterworth, Edie Corse, Hank Flynt, Dick Boyden, Frank Yazwinski, and Frank and Alex Ciesluk. With special admiration for his daughter Betty Boyden, and enduring gratitude to my parents for sending me to Deerfield.