Offices & Resources

1919—St. Mark's School a Century Ago
1919—St. Mark's School a Century Ago

From time to time, the St. Mark's website will share glimpses of the School's historic past, adapted from The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark's School by Richard E. Noble, St. Mark's Class of 1976.

Late in the fall term of the 1918-1919 academic year, the First World War (then simply referred to as The Great War) came to an end. More than 500 St. Mark's alumni had served in that conflict, and 20 of them had given their lives. One—George McMurtry, Class of 1896, had received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Headmaster William Greenough Thayer (pictured at left) was very much aware that, indeed, nothing would ever be the same again. The signs were there, of course. The Vindex noted in 1919 that the war "has been won, but at great cost of life and money. The lives can never be repaid, but the price of the cause for which so many died can and must be met." On the other side of the world, former Head Monitor, football captain, and Vindex editor Erastus Corning '99, who had just completed a tour of duty in the Army Medical Corps, was serving as chief surgeon to a special American Expeditionary Force in northern Russia. Responding to requests from the governments of Great Britain and France, President Woodrow Wilson sent 5,000 troops to assist their allies' intervention in the Russian Civil War. Lt. Colonel Corning, MD, was responsible for the care and treatment of American soldiers on this "Polar Bear Expedition,"battling the Red Army in and around the port of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea. The British government also sent troops to northeast Russia, in what then British War Minister Winston Churchill called a "plan to strangle communist Russia at birth." [i] Back home, alumnus William Floyd, Class of 1890, founded the Arbitrator, espousing pacifism, compulsory international arbitration, and the outlawing of war. From whichever point of view, a spirit of reform was in the air. Two weeks before Prize Day, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution—voting rights for women—was passed by Congress. At Prize Day itself, twenty diplomas were awarded, including four to members of the Class of 1919 who had left school early to enlist, and four more to members of earlier classes who had not received diplomas because of their service in the war. Only a few days after the graduation ceremonies, the Treaty of Versailles was presented and signed. The establishment of a League of Nations was seen by many as a step toward guaranteeing world peace, but the US Senate refused to ratify Woodrow Wilson's dream. For what, then, had more than 500 St. Markers worn uniforms, and why had 20 died?[ii] Strong in his conviction that they had neither served nor died in vain, the Headmaster was committed to raising a tribute and a memorial to honor all of them. He resolved that a renovated Chapel, larger than before, could house that memorial, and he quickly won the approval of the Board for his plan. Trustees Harry Burnett, Class of 1869, and Henry Forbes Bigelow, Class of 1885, joined Dr. Thayer as a building committee to see the project through. Burnett's job was to raise the funds, Bigelow's task was again architectural, while the Headmaster took on the role of creating the memorials themselves.

Even before sufficient money was raised, construction was begun. The back wall of the Chapel was knocked out, and the oval structure was refitted into a longer, wider rectangle. No longer would the altar be oriented toward the east, but instead it would grace the south wall of the new structure. The pews would now face each other in collegiate or choir style in order to reinforce the intimacy of a "family" school and a community, as well as to allow the masters, seated behind just two or three rows of boys, to better maintain discipline. Originally able to seat maybe 175, the renovated facility would now feature almost 100 additional seats. All of the older, larger stained-glass window memorials would be placed along the west wall of the Chapel, while the eastern side of the building was expanded to add a visitors aisle and smaller memorial windows for the recently deceased. While the work was underway, morning Chapel services were held in the Schoolroom. For Sunday morning worship, the boys would once again make the trek across Marlborough Road and up the hill to St. Mark's Church, where both Dr. Thayer and Father Cheney would celebrate. Sunday evening Chapel was sometimes held in the music and choir room (across from the dining hall), which was fitted out as a smaller chapel space; at other times these and other late afternoon services were held in the Hinkle Room. The echoing strains of "Sun of My Soul' would remain a regular feature of St. Mark's life for the duration of the Chapel project.

Over the summer, Trustee and Board treasurer Harry Burnett had managed to raise an impressive $75,000 (around $950,000 today) toward the Chapel renovation. In September of 1919, 154 boys arrived on campus to see a half-finished Chapel (pictured at right) and to greet Mr. Blake, Mr. Lawrence, and Mr. Snyder—Masters returning from service overseas—along with the newest member of the St. Mark's faculty, Mr. Philip Eaton, Harvard '08, scheduled to teach mathematics and chemistry. Another veteran of the Great War, Stephen Galatti '06, also settled in Southborough for the fall, asked by the Headmaster to serve as head coach of the football team while on a much-earned vacation from the reorganizing American Field Service. Galatti's 1919 team would put together an impressive 5-2 winning season, shutting out Groton 7-0. In honor of that triumph, Dr. Thayer declared a Headmaster's Holiday on November 7.

In addition to his regular duties and obligations, William G. Thayer worked diligently to secure memorials for all St. Markers lost in the World War. The renovated Chapel would, of course, be the focal point for these remembrances, and gifts from classes, families, and friends regularly crossed his desk. But along with the Chapel project, Dr. Thayer had something more ambitious in mind. Just six days after the Headmaster's Holiday celebrating the St. Mark's victory over Groton, he wrote a letter to Dr. William H. Schofield, Billy Cheney's stepfather. "Several years ago," he wrote, "you spoke to me about the summer camp you were interested in of which I believe you were President. I do not know what disposition you made of your plant and buildings but I am interested in the matter just now."

Thayer's letter had three sources of inspiration. The first was Groton School, which had been running its own camp for "underprivileged boys" on New Hampshire's Squam Lake since the summer of 1893. Indeed, William Thayer himself, as a young Groton master, had been involved in its very first season. With the war over, the St. Mark's Headmaster wanted to provide St. Markers with a regular opportunity to serve others.

The second inspiration came from St. Mark's alumnus Gardner Monks, Class of 1917. While at Harvard, Monks became involved in youth work at St. Stephen's Church in Boston's South End. Through this work, he connected with Castle Brent, a local chapter of the Knights of King Arthur, a boys' club based on Arthurian legends. Always an ecumenist at heart, Gardner Monks was pleased that this organization was "interdenominational" but "definitely religious." Many of the Castle Brent boys were from needy or disadvantaged families, and after a brief stint in the Army, Monks returned to Harvard and to Castle Brent in early 1919, hoping to arrange opportunities for these boys to spend some time out of the city and in the fresh air of the countryside. That summer, he managed to reserve one session at the Groton camp for his Castle Brent boys, and he went up to New Hampshire with them. In October of 1919, Harvard junior Gardner Monks visited Southborough and spent a long evening in discussion with Dr. Thayer. During the course of the conversation, Monks detailed his experiences at the Groton camp. "I came away with two deep convictions," he explained to his old Headmaster. "One: the basic idea is wonderful. As a tool for working with boys... extraordinarily loaded with possibilities. Two: the practical operation of the idea leaves a lot to be desired."

Monks did not appreciate the "state of separation" which existed at the Groton site. There was minimal contact between the staff and the boys. Not only that, but the Groton students themselves, while certainly given opportunities to work with their young charges, were not given real leadership opportunities, as Groton masters kept tight control over the program. Finally, there was no real attempt to get to know the boys, no background on the campers before their arrival and no follow-up after their departure. "Couldn't St. Mark's do the same sort of thing as Groton is doing at its camp, only much better?" said Gardner Monks shortly before taking leave of the Thayers.

The third inspiration for Dr. Thayer in regard to a St. Mark's summer camp project came from one of his own masters—Maurice Carey Blake—who recently returned to the School from France where he attained the rank of captain. Blake spent 14 summers at Camp Pasquaney in Hebron, New Hampshire, which had been founded in 1895. Edward "Ned" Wilson had been in charge of Pasquaney from 1901 to 1906, when young "Muzzy" Blake had been a camper there. Blake had returned to Pasquaney to work as a counselor under Wilson from 1910 to 1916 and again in 1919. Blake and his former student, Gardner Monks, were close friends, and the veteran St. Mark's master also promoted Monks' dream to William Thayer, emphasizing his own advocacy for and experience with a summer camp for boys.

The Headmaster had been unsure about beginning such a project due to the formidable expense of acquiring sufficient land and building appropriate facilities, but the existence of "Brantwood," a site with cabins and buildings on the side of North Pack Monadnock Mountain, on the road between Greenfield and Peterborough, New Hampshire, presented an ideal opportunity. Brantwood had been founded in 1904 as a collaborative effort between the Rev. Donald Browne—an Episcopal priest from South Groveland, Massachusetts—and Mrs. Schofield—then Mary Lyon Cheney—as a memorial to her late husband, Charles Cheney, father of the late William H. Cheney, St. Mark's Class of 1916. Intended as a summer retreat for boys from urban parishes, it was designed much like the early Groton program: week-long sessions were reserved by individual churches and youth organizations, while a permanent staff would supervise an active program of games, hiking, woodworking, and so on. The war, however, yielded a severe manpower shortage, and Brantwood had been forced to close down. In 1917, 1918, and 1919 there were no voices echoing across the Brantwood Hill. In his letter to Dr. Schofield, William Thayer outlined an as yet uncertain proposition: "If we could get such a camp as yours at a small rental, we might undertake it... Will you kindly let me know if your camp grounds and buildings have been disposed of, and if not, if you would be willing to let us have them."

The camp was still there, untouched by anything save the elements, and when her husband shared with her Dr. Thayer's letter, Mary Lyon Cheney Schofield was enthusiastic about the idea. She saw a resurrected camp under the auspices of St. Mark's as a fitting memorial to her dead son. When the Headmaster suggested that it be renamed Camp Cheney however, she vetoed the idea. Billy had known it as Brantwood, so Brantwood it would remain. Thayer's exchange with the Schofields corresponded fortuitously with a decision that the existing Brantwood Trustees had undertaken: that they should "offer the camp property to some organization having similar aims as Brantwood." On December 19, 1919, that Board agreed to the arrangement and set about to consider "ways and means of best accomplishing the transfer of the property to St. Mark's." Two weeks later, Dr, Thayer, Mr. Blake, and Gardner Monks boarded a train at Boston bound for Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was three days after Christmas.

It began snowing heavily when the train was only a few miles north of the city. The three St. Mark's passengers chatted casually, each attempting to sound an optimistic note about their chances of reaching Brantwood in a blizzard. In Peterborough, after some delay, they were able to hire a car, but the driver was decidedly pessimistic about their success. Two miles up Sand Hill Road, still short of the entrance to the camp, it was clear they could go no further. Help arrived in the form of Hugh Murphy, a lanky, white-haired man looking older than his fifty years, wearing hip-high rubber boots and a worn overcoat. He was driving a horse-drawn sledge, and the cold, wet travelers were pleased to transfer to his conveyance and spend the night at the Murphy farm. Around the kitchen fire, the three men introduced themselves to Mrs. Murphy. She and her husband had been expecting them, but they would not be reaching Brantwood that evening. They sat around comfortably, getting to know each other. From time to time Gardner Monks would unwind his tall frame from his chair and assist in pouring coffee, tea, or elderberry wine, indulging in well-mannered small-talk with Bertha Murphy. Maurice Blake, bubbling with nervous energy, kept firing questions about the Brantwood site at Hugh Murphy, and he was forced to repeat himself frequently and loudly, as Mr. Murphy was hard of hearing. Blake's patience, fueled by his curiosity and his zealous attention to detail, proved limitless, and he managed to fill a notepad with ideas and suggestions for future planning. Dr. Thayer was content to listen, occasionally interjecting. His searching gray eyes missed nothing. The next day they managed to ride Mr. Murphy's sledge into the camp. They were pleased with what they saw and were enthusiastic and optimistic about the fledgling St. Mark's venture.

Such was St. Mark's 100 years ago, in 1919. It was the aftermath of a great upheaval, and in truth the beginning of the modern 20th century, for St. Mark's and for the world.

[i] Dr. Corning, who had been some twenty-plus years before one of the first St. Markers to become involved in community service outreach, continued to serve. Returning home, he practiced medicine in Albany, New York, until his death in 1944. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that he has been credited with introducing the hot dog to the St. Mark's cuisine at the turn of the century. In 1919, Corning encountered on more than one occasion a younger St. Mark's alumnus, John B. Dodge '12, who was traveling through Asia for much of the period between 1919-1921. In 1921, Dodge (related by marriage to Winston Churchill) was arrested by the Soviet authorities and charged as a British spy. He was eventually released and returned to his home in England to work for the London Stock Exchange and (because of his experience in America) eventually became the director of a New York bank.

[ii] In fact, the actual number of former St. Markers who died in the First World War was twenty-two, as Captain Charles Anthony Fowler '04 was killed in action on October 11, 1918, north of Fleville, France, while Captain Francis Burritt Shepard '96 was struck down with tuberculosis while serving in France and died a month after the armistice. But Benson writes: "their comparatively short periods at St. Mark's did not satisfy the conditions of affiliation as drawn up by the School for the formal printed record." Fowler was at St. Mark's for less than two years between September of 1898 and June of 1900, while Shepard was there for only a few months in 1895.