As Ever, Tom Ashley
Tom wrote much of the Booklet of Deerfield Academy during the summer of 1916, when he was taking graduate classes at Columbia University in preparation for his teaching duties at Deerfield. Correspondence with Mr. Boyden flew back and forth between the Academy and the city, as the two new colleagues laid their plans:
It has been the intention all thru to escape the cut and dried formal expression and subject matter of most catalogues and to really get across the spirit and aims of the school, and for this reason its presentation may seem a little out of the ordinary.
The aim of the school is that the welfare of the group is attained through the development of the individual.
The chief aim of the school may well be said to be the development of its individual students with development not confined to the intellectual, solely, but a full development in all phases of life. This enables students to better take their place and be of greater influence in that field of endeavor which may be chosen (after Deerfield).
Tom Ashley's "Plan of Grounds" (Courtesy of the Academy Archives)
This ideal involves intellectual development, a desire to do service through influence, and a high standard of character…a system cannot develop character, rules will not make citizens . . . our aim is to preserve individuality and by it develop character.
When completed, Tom Ashley’s catalogue was a tapestry of facts, philosophies, and ideals. Tom even went so far as to attempt to describe the very spirit of Deerfield:
If the spirit of Deerfield Academy could be condensed into a word, that word would be “loyalty.” Loyalty to the school, to the principles for which it stands, to its aims, to the faculty, and each other. Yet that spirit of loyalty is not a feeling that can be created at will, or forced upon a school, it is a spirit that must come of itself . . .
One of the essential components of character that Mr. Boyden recognized in Tom was in fact loyalty, a characteristic that Tom demonstrated time and again through his work for Deerfield. And it was this sense of loyalty that must have made Tom’s decision to leave Deerfield for service in the Marine Corps both easy and difficult. Although he sounded certain in saying “My country needs me. I must go.” . . . Deerfield was never far from his mind. When Tom arrived at the Marine Barracks in Norfolk, Virginia, he discovered he was joining his class a month late and would have to catch up. He wrote to Mr. Boyden:
I will have a fine opportunity to try out our theory that a person with a broad education and natural abilities should be able to grasp almost any situation in a short time . . .
Tom was killed in action on June 6, 1918 while leading his battalion in an attempt to recover lost territory. An eyewitness later said that Tom stood “calmly and confidently” until it was time to attack, and then he urged his men on with the rallying cry, “Come on, follow me!”
Mr. Boyden celebrated the life of his student, friend, and colleague by recounting his story to Deerfield students—the story of a Deerfield Everyman who aspired to give back to his school and country by developing strength of mind, spirit, and body in his own and future generations of students. In time, Mr. Boyden was known among educators for his achievements with “unlikely material”—unlikely material such as a young boy who would rather roam the woods than sit in a classroom. Over time, the telling of Tom’s story became a tradition, and, somewhere along the way, Tom’s story began to shape the character of Deerfield students much in the same way that his relationship with Boyden shaped the character of the school itself.
As Mr. Boyden continued to share the story of Tom Ashley, an oral tradition began. Today, the story is shared with students at two important moments. New students gather in the fall with Head of School Margarita Curtis, and she tells them the story of a young man who spent his boyhood in the meadows and woods surrounding Deerfield, more comfortable out in nature than in the classroom, and of the quietly determined Headmaster who recognized the boy’s good character and potential; and of the young man who left his beloved Academy to serve his country. The story is told again on the eve of Commencement, as graduating seniors mingle their own stories in with Tom’s, finding the measure of both in each other.