by Joe Sheppard . . .
With a little help from his friends.
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal and as an assistant to the faculty advisor of the student newspaper - Spectrum. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
One of the things I’ve always loved about LA is that friendships among the kids form easily, often between students of different grades—something which just didn’t happen in the uptight prep-school society that I grew up in, shortly before the Spanish-American War. Those friendships were a frequent topic of conversation in my office, typically with seniors nearing the end of their time at Lawrence. The dialogue would take one of two paths. The first was a real, and touching, concern among the seniors that when they left LA, they would lose most of their friends. There’s really not much an adult can say to a young person at a time like that, except to confirm, gently, that yes, it is likely that they will never see some of their classmates again after Graduation—adding that the friendships that are meant to endure, will endure. And only time will tell which ones those are.
The second topic was a corollary of the first. I would sometimes find myself explaining to young people that friendships can’t be taken for granted; like flowers, they need nourishment to survive, and without it they wither and die. This one hit me recently when I lost an old and dear friend, a girl I’d grown up with in the summers since we were very small. Betsy was honest, smart, funny and kind-hearted, the kind of person you’d always look forward to seeing. Even after a long interval, it seemed as if you’d been together the day before.
The thing is, we’d seen each other exactly once since college age, and that one time was thirty years ago. Her parents had moved away from our New Hampshire summer campground when Betsy was in her early twenties, leaving her grandmother, who owned their cottage, to care for it by herself. Betsy loved the place dearly, and, as a sole heir, expected that it would be hers when her grandmother died.
It was not to be. Her grandmother, a lovely woman whose memory was failing, sold the house suddenly without telling anyone in the family. Betsy was devastated. She did visit us at our cottage once, in the early 1980s, and we had a wonderful afternoon. Then she went home, which was only a few miles away, and we never saw each other again. For years I thought of calling or e-mailing her and inviting her and her husband to lunch or dinner, but I never got around to it.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I read some summer-related post on Facebook and decided to see if Betsy had a page. When I typed her full name, I was immediately directed to “Betsy O’Connell Miller obituary.” She had passed away in December, apparently of cancer. The writeup was beautifully done, and the picture, a recent one, showed Betsy with the same broad, slightly mischievous smile that I remembered so well. Memories drifted in along with tears, and then a vague feeling of guilt. I had “meant” to contact Betsy, but I hadn’t, and now it was too late.
I’ll never know whether Betsy’s and my friendship would have revived had we seen each other again. What I do know is that I didn’t follow my own advice. I took the flower for granted and never watered it. So, friends, try to be better gardeners than I was with my childhood friend. Water your plants and talk to them—they say it makes them grow better. And come to Reunion this June—after all, isn’t that all about friends?
on Tuesday April 15 at 01:57PM
As you read this, many Lawrence students will be scattered across the globe on trips, while others will be on campus doing something they’ve never done before, often with students they’ve never known until now. This is Winterim—the forty-third, I believe. It’s both a great educational experience and, as it became clear after the first year, a brilliant solution to a nasty problem: how to survive the last two weeks of the winter term without waking up screaming every morning.
We had to do some gerrymandering of the calendar to get the new program into those two weeks. Some people were unhappy with the need to start the winter trimester after Thanksgiving instead of in January, because, as Arthur Ferguson would have put it, “It’s always been that way.” And others were uncomfortable with the mandate that everyone had to give a Winterim course unrelated to his or her primary field of endeavor. This provision relaxed over time, and faculty who prefer working in familiar territory can offer courses in an area that they know. For a while, too, it was verboten to give the same Winterim course two years in a row.
Like many colleagues, I had no idea what to do when the first Winterim rules came out, but my lifelong love of fixing up old things came to the rescue. Heaven knows how I ever got into it, but at one time I had a hobby of repairing antique reed organs, which, back in those days, were still fairly commonly found in “antique” (read “junque”) shops, for little money, as the market for them was not exactly hot. I had fixed up three or four over the years, we owned one in need of some serious help, and Don and Martha Morse, who lived upstairs, had a beauty that was wheezing and gasping its last.
My course writeup stipulated that you had to bring your own organ if possible. Five or six kids signed up for the class, a couple of whom actually supplied an instrument. We took over the woodworking shop in the basement of Spaulding, and by the end of Winterim we actually had three or four instruments in some kind of working order. The last night of the term was devoted to a big show-and-tell in the Library, which meant we had to lug those things across campus into the old Conant art gallery. The preferred wood of parlor organ builders was black walnut, and most of them had casters that rolled in one direction only—from side to side—so we were all pretty sweaty by the time the gallery doors opened.
One of the most fun Winterims I ever did was called “Be a Faker,” which Jim “Daddy” Draper and I put together. Jim played a wicked alto sax, and used to sit in with the school band, which I directed for a few years. We often lamented the fact that the kids weren’t taught to improvise, so we decided to build a Winterim around teaching a bunch of young musicians how to play jazz as it should be played—from the head instead of from a printed page. I don’t think any of them went on to become the next Louis Armstrong or Paul Desmond, but we had a great time and put on a pretty good show for Winterim Night, playing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and a hand-tailored arrangement of the old standard “Bye Bye Blues.”*
One year, Dick Jeffers and I indulged our love of things on tracks with a course called “End of the Line?”, during which six kids and we spent several days working on the old trolley cars at the Seashore Electric Railway in Kennebunk, Maine. We prepared for that with a week of riding around on the Boston subways, escorted by the trolley museum director, who arranged a non-stop, end-to-end ride on the Green Line aboard one of the brand-new cars before they were even placed into service (Like the museum director, Jeffers, and me, most of them are now retired).
Winterim is like garlic: its effects often last far longer than the initial contact. After “Be a Faker,” the old school band became a jazz ensemble, which it has remained to this day; and “End of the Line?” saw the founding of the Lawrence Academy Model Railroad Club and construction of the HO-scale Squannacook and Nissitissit Railroad, which ran on a somewhat erratic schedule in the loft of the Loomis House Garage for several years. Our courses certainly weren’t unique in producing the Garlic Effect; I’m sure many of you reading this column can recall a Winterim experience that influenced your choice of major in college or perhaps even of a career. Drop me a line and tell me about it. Your recollections would make good reading!
*Because the original Edison cylinder recording of the Winterim night concert was lost in the remodeling of the Ferguson Building, we offer these somewhat less exciting versions for your listening pleasure:
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on Tuesday March 4 at 11:20AM
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