From Williams to Woodberry Forest

by Patrick F. Bassett, Jr. '70

At age 22, a 1969-70 senior year at Williams, married and living on Spring St. in a shabby 2nd story apartment rented from Mr. Rudnick of Rudnick Cleaners, my wife Barbara and I, among a handful of married couples that year, enjoyed a raucous year of classes, sports, Park Hall Annex & Tyler House parties and Euchre games, and for Barbara, working for Phil Smith in the college's admissions offices. Upon graduation from Williams, we found our way to employment at Woodberry Forest School, an all-boys boarding school in Orange, VA, about a two-hour drive north to DC, with all its history and attractions, and a 45-minute drive southwest to Charlottesville, home of Jefferson's Monticello and the University of Virginia.

What better transition from the sylvan environs of the Purple Valley to its complement in the Piedmont foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, transported from one, at the time, all-male environment to another, Woodberry Forest School. That transition followed a Williams to Woodberry pipeline to find young and eager future teachers, whereby headmasters of boarding schools would visit Williams and other liberal arts colleges to recruit soon-to-be graduates to be the "triple-threat" (teacher, coach, advisor/dorm parent) that boarding schools desperately needed, not only to work 24/7 schedules, but also to populate the faculty with some younger role models for the boys.

Keep calm and carry on graphic.

In my case, Baker Duncan, the headmaster at the time, a tall, imposing, take-no-prisoners, larger-than-life character, recruited three of us in succession, all of us lacrosse players: First, a political science major (Rick Ackerly '67); second; an English major (Peter Rice '68); and last, another English major succeeding Peter, moi, Williams '70. While there was literally no "on-boarding" of fresh recruits, we learned by doing, including our mistakes. Classic case in point: My wife Barbara saw our advisee Charley hitchhiking into the local town, Orange, VA, in the middle of a school day and gave him a ride. It did not occur to her that he should be in class in the middle of the school day, at the time. In fact, she took him to the train station and only later found out from me that he was running away from school (and, in fact, never returned). Hence, she, albeit unwittingly, was an accessory to the crime.

While Peter, post-Woodberry, went on to other professional endeavors in the business world, founding Plow & Hearth, a highly successful retail and mail order company, Rick and I remained in the independent school world for the five decades of our careers, and I still write and speak occasionally on factors impacting that industry, most recently on the topic of the scourge on colleges, schools, and our constituents of "The New New Normal of the Covid-19 Crisis." My theme in that piece: The motto of the Queen of England in September - October 1940 regarding "manning-up" for the 57-day aerial assault on London: Keep Calm, Carry On. In the larger picture of what we hope our educational system provides beyond academic "smarts" is real-world maturity: i.e., not just high IQ (academic "smarts,"real-world problem solving skills; analytical perspicacity) but also high EQ (Emotional Intelligence), especially empathy; community consciousness, and social conscience. Especially in this time of chaos, uncertainty, and confusion, Woodberry's ethos (and Williams' I would add) is to graduate young people of character to serve with honor and dispatch for their families, communities, country, and world. In other words, "Keep calm, and carry on."

For now, like many of my classmates, Barbara and I are luxuriating in the role of grandparents: No role in life, it seems to us, is more engaging and rewarding. After all, as the old saying goes, "The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they are united by a common enemy."

Barbara and I are so looking forward to our 50th Reunion: It won't matter that it had to be re-scheduled because of the social isolation required by the Covid-19 crisis, once we do gather together mano y mano to sing our Williams drinking song: "Come raise our drinking cups, to Williams, to Williams, to Williams!"

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