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.
When I first started out at LA in the 1960s, my mother, a loyal, old-school St. Grottlesex faculty wife, was fond of saying to me, “You’ve got to improve yourself, Joe.” What she meant, of course, was that a few years at this place called Lawrence Academy would be fine for cutting my teeth, but then I needed to move on (and up) to a wealthier, more prestigious institution where I could wear bow ties, suspenders, and tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows, and work my way into the Headmaster’s office or some such, eventually retiring filled with gratitude for having helped mold the character of future corporate heads, banking magnates and perhaps a president or two.
Well, Mom got part of her wish: I do like bow ties—a fondness inherited from my father and nurtured by the fact that being colorblind, I create fewer sartorial horrors with a bow tie than with a four-in-hand. As to the rest of her dream, I have to give her credit for never expressing disappointment at my failure to move up the tweed-runged ladder.
What I never had the heart to tell my mother, who died long before I retired, was that I stayed at Lawrence precisely because it’s not St. Grottlesex, or, to be fair, not the St. Grottlesex where I grew up in the 1950s, all Brooks Brothers and Long Island lockjaw and faculty tea every day at four o’clock. The very first time I visited the Academy for an interview, as a senior in college, I was struck by how genuine everyone was; on my tour, boys held the doors for Mr. Ferguson and me because they were polite, not because they were looking for “brownie points.” And some of them spoke wicked good Massachusetts English, a dialect worlds removed from the carefully modulated tones of my Greenwich- and Main Line-bred St. Grottlesex classmates. Many faculty had been at the school for years, and, as with the students, every teacher I met was warm, welcoming and encouraging to a nervous kid looking for his first job.
Those same students—their children and grandchildren—are still here, still genuine, unpretentious, still opening doors just because it’s polite and they’re nice people. And I’m far from being the only faculty member who spent, or will have spent, a very long time at Lawrence Academy before moving on or retiring. A few of us became dinosaurs, devoting a lifetime to one job—a quaint concept in these days when corporate loyalty seems to be breathing its last.
Some of the younger readers of this column may wonder why anyone would be crazy enough to attach himself to one position, one career, one home for (in my case) just about half a century. Once in a while, especially since retiring, I’ve asked myself the same question. The answer comes when I think of people like Norm Grant, Dick Jeffers, Rich Baker, or Bob Darling, colleagues and friends all, and all men who believed in LA enough to make it the center of their lives, not just a place to earn a living. I am humbled by these people, and grateful to have been able, like them, to serve a place that I quickly came to love and call home.
So, Mom, I guess your hopes were realized after all. I did improve myself—I stayed at Lawrence Academy.
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This will be the last Shep’s Place until September. Have a good summer, everyone! JS
on Wednesday June 4 at 11:23AM
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
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