As Ever, Tom Ashley
By Grace Friary
It is an unlikely story with an unusual beginning. When first noticed by Mr. Boyden, Tom Ashley was having too much fun to go to school. Swimming as early and often in the season as possible, fishing, hunting, and tending to chores, he was an awkward, reticent Old Deerfield farmboy who had an indifferent attitude toward education. Mr. Boyden detected something more in Tom’s character: honesty, loyalty, enthusiasm, resilience, and reliability.
By the time of Tom’s June 1911 graduation from the Academy, he had developed into someone admired and respected by his headmaster and his peers: a boy whose loyalty to his school was overshadowed only by his ability to give selflessly to benefit others. Never a top student, Tom epitomized the term “well-rounded.” He was described by friends and faculty as a young man whose strength of character defined him: he was committed to his studies, to athletics, and to his friends, family, and community.
His success continued. Having overcome the awkward shyness that plagued him early in his Deerfield career, Tom matured into someone for whom worldly success was predicted by all who knew him. When he graduated from Amherst College in 1916, he was twenty-two years old. He briefly considered a career in business (in oil, to be exact), but an offer from Mr. Boyden to teach at Deerfield made him reconsider his future.
- The Ashley portrait, painted by Deane Keller in 1963, currently hangs in the Gymnasium’s Trophy Room.
“I want to repay what Deerfield has given me,” Tom wrote when accepting Boyden’s offer to return to Deerfield. He continued, acknowledging that it was his great fortune to attend the Academy and that those four years had shaped the man he had become. With this affirmative reply to his headmaster, Tom Ashley traveled back up the Valley to become a partner in the work of building a great school, and while Tom’s contribution to the fortunes of Deerfield was compressed into a little more than a year of formal service, the impact of his commitment continues today.
From 1915 to 1917, Tom pushed for both the physical and academic expansion of the Academy with a re-installation of a boarding department at its core. Together, Tom and Mr. Boyden intuited that the 18th and 19th century New England academy model could be expanded, allowing Deerfield to compete for students with more established schools like Taft, Groton, and Phillips Exeter. Interestingly, Mr. Boyden was not as enthusiastic as Tom regarding the boarding department, and the young man who Mr. Boyden had cajoled into the classroom now had to convince his mentor that a dormitory would be a healthy addition to Deerfield.
Educational philosophy seemed particularly important to Tom, and he felt that it would define Deerfield. Influenced by educational reformers like John Dewey and Charles Hughes Johnston, (The Modern High School, 1915) Tom convinced Mr. Boyden that the school needed a catalogue to describe in print what potential students and their families could expect of a Deerfield education. Handwritten by Tom, the completed outline for the “Booklet of Deerfield Academy” filled three slim notebooks, encapsulating his personal thoughts about Deerfield’s distinctiveness. Reading this document today, it seems clear that either Tom was remarkably prescient about the Academy’s direction—or that the Academy itself was patterned around his words and beliefs.