November 28, 2011
The Governor’s Academy History: A Debriefing
Founded in 1763, before the American Revolution, the former Governor Dummer Academy is the oldest boarding school in New England. The school seal, shown here, was created in the workshop of Paul Revere.
I had eight months to research and write the 250-year history. That’s just one month of work for each 30 years, a challenge! There was little choice, however. The Academy needs books by mid-August 2012, in time for a series of anniversary celebrations. After internal review, the edit-design-proofread-index-print process typically takes about eight months.
The book committee recently accepted my suggestion that I write a short “debriefing” document on my experience, while everything’s fresh in my mind. Here is the story I am submitting for the Academy’s use:
Researching and writing the history of The Governor’s Academy was really four projects in one. The school’s history divides into four distinct periods, and each of these periods required a different approach by the researcher and writer, both of them me. In fact, the history of Gov’s is a bit like the history of the world: It has its Classical or Mythological Era, its Middle Ages (sometimes called the Dark Ages), its Renaissance, and its Modern Era.
The Classical Era (1635–1790) covers the early history of the Dummer family in Byfield prior to the founding of the school, and the legendary days of Master Samuel Moody, the first teacher or preceptor, who served for 27 years. Among the many notables Moody trained was Samuel Phillips, founder of the second-oldest boarding school in New England, Phillips Academy in Andover. Today we would call Moody the first headmaster of the Academy, but in his time he was simply the master, because he was the only master. His brother Joseph and family ran the farm that supported the school. “Master Moody,” as he is typically known, taught in the Little Red Schoolhouse (below).
The Classical Era of “Dummer School” is rich and interesting. It blends with the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and of the important colonial community of Newbury. (Byfield was founded as a parish of Newbury in 1709.) The Classical Era is documented as well as can be in John W. Ragle’s excellent Governor Dummer Academy History 1763–1963, covering the first two centuries.
There are things we don’t know about the Classical Era, however—like what Samuel Moody looked like or just about anything he said or wrote. For a founder and a legend, Moody left precious little evidence of his own existence, except what the school’s trustees recorded about him in their minutes. The most definite thing about him is his gravestone in the York Village cemetery in Maine. Its Latin engraving, Integer vitas Scelerisque purus, means “whole in life and free of sin.”
During research for the book, there was a moment of great excitement when teacher Chris Drelich, an invaluable help, located a portrait of “Samuel Moody” from the right era. Unfortunately, there seem to have been several Samuel Moodys in 18th-century New England, and this portrait, owned by a Rhode Island historical society, could not be verified. So it does not appear in the book.
Jack Ragle worked on his history of the school over half a dozen years. I reckoned that what he had not found in such a long time I would be unlikely to find in a short one. So my history of the Classical Era largely follows his, spiced up, I hope, by a different writing style and a few new facts that came to my attention. I am not sure that a researcher with unlimited time would find much more about Master Moody and the early days of the school than Ragle did or than I wrote. But I can’t say that my book particularly advances human knowledge about this era. So this period was the least interesting to write.
The Middle Ages (1790–1907) were another story altogether. In 1925, well into its Renaissance, the school mounted an extravagant historical pageant, in which headmaster Charles Ingham and his wife impersonated Governor William Dummer and his wife, Catherine Dudley Dummer. Other characters traipsing about the open-air theater in fanciful costumes included Samuel Moody, famous Dummer graduate Edward Preble, The Spirit of Long Ago, and Father Time, played by George W. Adams, GDA 1873. A grand affair (above), the show was repeated in 1926.
The historical pageant recalled the Dummers and Master Moody, but it said nothing about The Middle Ages. There is a good reason for this. After Master Moody retired, Dummer fell on hard, uneven times. In the following 117 years, the school had 20 headmasters. That’s less than six years per headmaster.
Dummer Academy (renamed in 1782 when it was incorporated) came to the verge of closing several times during its Middle Ages. A good headmaster was followed by a sickly one (two died after hasty departures) or an overambitious one (the school could not always afford the best available). The student count fluctuated between 0 and 80, repeatedly, like a sine wave. The trustees experimented with coeducation twice in the 19th century; they tinkered with the ratio of day-to-boarding students; and they attempted two major changes of curriculum, including the idea of starting an agricultural school, which did not get off the ground. They contemplated selling most of the farm property in the 1850s, and fortunately they failed. None of it worked for very long—until Dr. Charles Inhgam was hired in 1907 and The Renaissance began.
This made writing about The Middle Ages fascinating and, I thought, important. Although Ragle’s book covered this period, headmaster by headmaster, no one remembers much about it, so it was my job to bring it to light. If I did not do so, I figured, who else would do so, at what later date? Primary sources were more limited than for the last two periods, but the Academy’s archives, well managed by Laurie DiModica throughout my research, are remarkably comprehensive. I particularly enjoyed studying the collection of 19th-century catalogs, published almost every year beginning in the 1830s, as well as the handwritten minutes of the board of trustees.
Photography, as we know it today, came into being during Dummer’s Middle Ages, so a visual record begins to appear during this period. The book includes images of the mid-19th-century campus, when the Mansion House, Commons, and The Third Schoolhouse (now Parsons) were the primary buildings. Student body photographs from the post–Civil War era, including the first football squad of 1885, are priceless.
Eames built on Ingham’s striking achievement. He tripled the student body, to 225. And his administration built Duncan House (1934, now the health center), Phillips (in two phases, 1936 and 1941), Ingham Dormitory (1947), Alumni Gymnasium (1950), and Frost (1957). Another of Chris Drelich’s contributions to the book project is a series of four campus maps showing the buildings erected as of 1790, 1907, 1959, and today.
When Ingham arrived in the summer of 1907, the previous headmaster had been fired, the faculty had resigned en masse in protest, and the student body had been reduced to a handful. Someone had walked away with the official student-body records, so Ingham did not even have the boys’ addresses. The senior class of 1909, Ingham’s second, numbered six (pictured above). They look like a tough if well-dressed lot.
Studying the Ingham era was particularly interesting because The Archon began not long before Ingham arrived, and this became an important new source for my research. Until The Governor began its history as a student newspaper at the end of the Eames era, The Archon served as both student news organ and alumni magazine. Ingham used it as a symbol of a new stability during his headmastership, and Eames, who succeeded Ingham in 1930, upgraded The Archon to reflect his own ambitions for the Academy. It was Eames, too, who changed the school’s name from Dummer Academy to Governor Dummer Academy, one of his first acts as headmaster.
Studying the richer source materials of the Ingham-Eames Renaissance, including a dramatically larger cache of vintage photos, gave me a tremendous admiration for these two key headmasters.
My admiration only increased as I studied the four completed headmasterships of The Modern Era (1960–present). These were Valleau “Val” Wilkie, Jr. (1959–1972), Jack Ragle (1972–1983), Peter Bragdon (1983–1999), and John M. “Marty” Doggett, Jr. (1999–2011). Fortunately, all four men were still very much alive, with all marbles intact, and I had the pleasure of interviewing each. (The above photo was taken at Peter Quimby’s installation. Quimby, center, is flanked, left to right, by Doggett, Bragdon, Wilkie, and Ragle.)
I caught up with Val Wilkie at reunion weekend in June 2011, as he sat surrounded by his admiring 40th reunion class of 1971. I traveled to Lebanon, New Hampshire, to interview the genial Jack Ragle. Both Peter Bragdon and Marty Doggett were still active on campus, so I had multiple opportunities to speak with them.
Added to my research for the Modern Era were not only the archive of Governors, but also and especially many personal interviews with trustees, adminstrators, faculty, and students. This was particularly satisfying because it drew on my experience as the founder of Memoirs Unlimited, Inc., a company I started 25 years ago to help people write and publish their memoirs. My work with individuals—interviewing them and then editing their words into coherent life narratives—evolved over time, so that I began taking on family and institutional histories as well as personal memoirs. The Governor’s project followed directly my 200-year-history of Massachusetts General Hospital, Something in the Ether, co-authored by Martha Bull, my daughter.
I love interviewing people, and I had great fun “running my recorder” at Gov’s. I particularly enjoyed two lengthy sessions with hand-picked groups of senior and junior students in May 2011. These interviews not only gave me new insights into the school as a whole, but they also provided the raw material for a lengthy prologue. In this prologue, I created a semi-imaginary conversation among a group of present-day students, using comments made by the actual students I interviewed and setting a tone, I hope, for the school history that follows.
The problem with writing recent history is that we aren’t always sure what is most important about it. We acquire perspective over time, and although Marty Doggett moved out of the headmaster’s office in the summer of 2011, the meaning of his headmastership is still being written and interpreted. Peter Bragdon’s headmastership is probably just coming into focus, while the Wilkie and Ragle years are settling into stable patterns of meaning.
While the Modern Era at Gov’s truly has been the era of rocket-propelled “lift-off,” during which the Academy has emerged as a leader in secondary education, the Wilkie and Ragle years, the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, posed a final set of problems for me as a writer. As my mother used to say, those were tough years to raise teenagers. The same goes for educating teenagers. Under Wilkie and then Ragle, social norms shifted radically and some of the “Old Guard,” teachers who had been at GDA since 1930, were perhaps too old to learn such new tricks. There was a difficult period of adjustment, which fell squarely on the shoulders of Jack Ragle, as the changes of the late 1960s “bloomed” into major cultural challenges in the 1970s. It was not always easy, as a writer, to separate problems of the culture at large from problems specific to Dummer. In the end, I agreed with Peter Bragdon, Ragle’s successor, who said that Ragle had been largely successful preserving the school during very difficult times.
These are just some of the pleasures and challenges I confronted while researching and writing the history of The Governor’s Academy. Fortunately, I enjoyed exceptional support from the Academy community since my first day’s work in March 2011. Especially helpful were Laurie DiModica and Chris Drelich, already mentioned, as well as head librarian Susan Chase and members of the book committee like history teacher Bill Quigley.
Finally comes the question everyone seems to ask: What about the name change? How did you handle that? It is no secret that the school changed its name for the third time in 2006, when the former Dummer School, Dummer Academy, and Governor Dummer Academy became The Governor’s Academy. The latest change was controversial at the time and is still controversial for a small minority. You will have to read the book to learn how I handled this story. I can say that I drew courage from alumna Sarah Matuza 1999 (granddaughter of Put Flint 1935), who just shrugged and said, “It’s part of the history of the school to change the name once in a while.”
You can’t argue with that.