When people retire from Kimball Union, especially after a long tenure, they are often asked to reflect on their lives here at the Academy. For those who have spent much of their career at boarding schools like KUA, one statement generally sums up their feelings: “It isn’t a job, it’s a way of life.” For many, it is clearly a chosen way of life. Phyllis Burckes, Alumni Secretary and wife of Stacey Burckes, who taught at the Academy from 1962 to 1973, expressed this sentiment at at a Reunion reception in the 1992, adding, “It was our best years right here at KUA.”
With such a full day of teaching, coaching, advising, dorm duties, etc., it is amazing that many faculty members have found the time to develop outside interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of these interests have been related to teaching or coaching, and some have benefited the Academy. This was true even in the nineteenth century, when living without any modern conveniences left little time for anything beyond family, school and church. For example, Principal and Classics teacher Cyrus S. Richards, class of 1831, wrote and published three Latin textbooks while at KUA from 1835 to 1871. His wife Helen, an accomplished pianist, travelled by train to Boston every week for her own piano lessons, in addition to teaching piano to their own three children and a number of KUA students.
Left: One of three Latin textbooks written by Principal Cyrus S. Richards. Center: Headmaster Charles A. Tracy taking school photographs with his box camera. Right: A dollhouse and miniature furniture hand crafted by Tracy for his granddaughter.
Charles A. Tracy, who served as Headmaster from 1905 to 1935 and was a graduate of the class of 1893, was able to carve out time to become an accomplished woodworker and furniture maker. His work included a doll house he built for his granddaughter Anne Tracy, complete with miniature furniture. Beyond Headmaster Tracy’s duties as Principal and Classics teacher, was his involvement as a citizen in the local community. In 1910, for example, he and Howard W. Chellis, owner of the Meriden Telephone Company, formed the Meriden Electric Light and Power Company, as Tracy was eager to bring power and electricity to campus buildings. The new electric company were able to use the established telephone poles. He was also involved with the organization of the Meriden Bird Club, considered by some to be the oldest in the country, and established student participation in housing and feeding migratory birds, which was a new idea at the time. For his own enjoyment, Tracy founded the Merifield Men’s Club, a club for the men of Meriden and Plainfield to meet in each other’s homes and exchange ideas.
The first Dexter Richards Hall, built of wood, was demolished in 1935 to make way for the construction of the current brick dormitory. Wayland Porter, a physics teacher at the academy for 30 years, claimed that his first Thanksgiving vacation at KUA in 1935 was spent, not relaxing as he had planned, but stacking boards from the old building with Headmaster William Brewster ’14. Brewster “suggested” to the new teacher, that he help save the boards from the old building (shown below) so that they could be made into sides for the hockey rink on Chellis Pond. Porter himself was a resourceful man whose initiative and talent contributed a number of useful things for KUA over the years. Among these were a a log cabin he built with the Outing Club on the top of French’s Ledges, later the Townsend Ski Hill, as well as a rope tow for skiers on the Potato Patch that was powered by the engine from Brewster’s Pierce Arrow car. Porter also created a scoreboard (now in the Archives) for the basketball games held in Silver Gymnasium.
Left: “Old DR on its way down. Free kindling wood for people of the town.” Center: The boards on the Chellis Pond Rink came from the first Dexter Richards Hall. Right: The basketball scoreboard for the games held in Silver Gym was constructed by physics teacher Wayland Porter.
Headmaster Brewster returned to campus to serve as headmaster from 1935 to 1952. He had grown up on a farm in Windsor, Vermont, and therefore was in a good position to organize the faculty and students into sharing chores at Hall Farm, such as milking the cows, harvesting potatoes, and collecting eggs, during the Depression and World War II. Outside of his KUA responsibilities, Brewster was quite involved in other organizations. During the summers, he and his wife Onie left KUA for Waterford, Maine, where they owned and ran Birch Rock Camp for boys. They would take along one of the KUA cooks and a few others as camp employees, and in the fall, several campers could be found among the students at KUA. Brewster was also one of the founders of Cardigan Mountain School in nearby Canaan, New Hampshire, a school that has sent many boys to KUA over the years.
Ernest “Bill” Robes ‘35 who returned to KUA in 1945 as Director of the Outing Club, Woodsmen’s Team and Ski Coach until 1952, happily shared his enormous knowledge of the outdoors with his students. He also was a talented furniture maker and an inventor of various gadgets. Many alumni will still remember him as the inventor of a toy called the “Space Saucer” in the 1950s. Robes had observed KUA boys tossing tin can covers from the kitchen to each other in a way similar to skipping flat stones over water. It occurred to Robes that discs made from plastic would have fewer dents and fly better. After leaving KUA to open his furniture business in Etna, New Hampshire, he also formed a “Space Saucer” company, which fabricated and sold some 65,000 of the toys at .50 cents a piece by the time he closed the company in 1962. Interestingly, another inventor on the West Coast had come up with a similar toy at around the same time, dubbed the “Frisbee” – but KUA alumni can claim that they “scaled” the first plastic one!
Left: Grubby Douglass creating his “Grub Tubs” in his basement. Center left: Three of his “Grub Tubs” sailing in Kennebunkport Harbor. Center Right: Grubby working on the KUA grounds in front of Miller Student Center. Right: A “Space Saucer” created by Bill Robes.
Another teacher with avid outside interests was Henry “Grubby” Douglass, who taught math and French and coached JV football, JV hockey and baseball from 1937 to 1972. No one ever called him Henry. He had earned his nickname, Grubby, as a child, and with his life-long love of working with his hands, never lost it. In the spring, he could be found caring for the flower beds on campus, a chore he visibly enjoyed. Purely for his own pleasure, he built small boats in his basement in Hazelton House. Douglass sailed his so-called “Grub Tubs” with family and friends in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he and his wife Barbara, who worked as KUA’s dietician, spent their summers and their retirement years.
Much has been written about Ira Townsend ’38. In addition to his 40-year tenure as the academy’s business manager from 1940 to 1980, Townsend was the inspiration behind the Townsend Ski Hill on French’s Ledges. Other faculty and alumni, including Parker Jones, Stacy Burckes and the Outing Club, spent countless hours with him over the years clearing the hillside of brush and trees, building the ski jumps and the A-frame lodge and grooming the trails. Somehow, Townsend found time for other creative interests as well. At home, he made sculptures from scrap metal and wooden road signs for the town, some of which are still standing. He loved to fly, especially with his daughter Patsy. He owned an Ultralite plane and built a runway for the plane near his home on Columbus Jordan Road in Meriden. Sara Townsend, Ira’s wife, was a French teacher and the Drama Director from 1953 to 1970. She invested countless hours in the local community, and was a dynamic force behind the building campaign for the Meriden Library that opened in 1965. After she stopped teaching, Sara was elected as a Sullivan County legislator from 1970 to 1988, continuing her role in community service.
It seems the arts and outdoors are a theme among faculty interests. George Akerstrom is well known in the KUA community for coaching stellar hockey teams from 1943 to 1978, but many people may not know of his success as a silkscreen artist or of his love for fly fishing, at which he was an expert.
Left: The Jones House in 1955. Center: The Jones House after restoration by Parker Jones. Right: Parker Jones painting the front door of Jones House.
Another artistic teacher, who was also a keen outdoorsman, was Parker Jones ’37. A faculty member from 1952 to 1980, Jones taught English and was advisor to the Outing Club and Woodsmen’s Team. For a number of years, he also coached the fencing team. He was an accomplished photographer and took many of the photographs now held in KUA’s archival collection during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1955, while living with his family in Hall Farm, Jones and his wife Kay, who worked as Headmaster Carver’s secretary, bought a house on Main Street. The house was in a dilapidated state, just about falling down, and Parker Jones undertook the huge task of restoration, applying his artistic eye and his skills in carpentry and building. Twenty-five years later, upon retiring, the Joneses sold the house and moved to another house that Parker had designed and built on Cape Cod. KUA bought the Meriden house in 1996 and named it the Jones House, honoring Parker and Kay’s long service to KUA as well as the work Jones put into saving the house from demolition. An article in the Spring 1997 Kimball Union Magazine by Elizabeth Knox featured Jones’ descriptions of restoring the Jones House.
These are just a few examples of how faculty in the past have managed to pursue outside interests, despite their busy lives on campus. Today, faculty still expand on their skills and develop new ones both during the school year and over the breaks. Sometimes their interests are an extension of their jobs, such as playing music, exhibiting artwork, or conducting research. A number of teachers are involved in summer camps and coaching over the summers. Others garden, knit, and farm on a small scale, while still others travel to see the world. Sometimes these interests pop up unexpectedly during the school year, as teachers offer to share their talents through K-term or Global Fair or in an All School Meeting. Most find ways to incorporate their personal passions into their work at KUA, for, as the adage goes, it isn’t just a job – it’s a way of life.