“old Peabo” And The School


The mind of Endicott Peabody, like the minds of so many pious, middle-class Victorians, was dominated by an unshakable belief in the literal interpretation and absolute infallibility of the Bible. Once, when asked why he was so positive of immortality, he replied, “Why, the Bible states clearly that Christ assured us of life immortal.” It was as simple as that. Subtle theological problems did not interest him, and he became restless and dejected at theological school. To add to his misery, he was desperately in love with his first cousin, Fanny Peabody, and Miss Peabody showed little sign of returning his affection.

By May, 1883, he had nearly given up hope. “[Without a wife life is very piecemeal and lonely,” he wrote to a friend. “It seems as if mine might always be so.” He was already twenty-six years old, and as if unrequited love were not trouble enough, he was beginning to doubt his ability to be anything other than an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sort of preacher. But his aspirations for himself were far beyond the ordinary, and that same lugubrious letter closed on an almost optimistic note: “… if it seems right for me to do so, I hope to start a church school.” Founding a school would be an outlet both for his missionary zeal and for his urge to accomplish something concrete. His friend and mentor, Phillips Brooks, the great Episcopalian preacher, did suggest that he first try teaching for a year at St. Paul’s School, but he was not keen on the idea. Peabodys started at the top.

Once his mind was made up, Peabody quickly solved the initial problems of building what harried headmasters grimly refer to as the “Almighty Wall” — that is, the endowment. Friends donated ninety acres on “a large plateau overlooking a glorious valley with great hills and mountains beyond.” His father, perhaps with a sigh of relief, and a small group of Bostonians contributed forty thousand dollars, and the school was in business. Cotty’s brother Jack was an architect, and his firm, Peabody and Stearns, was commissioned to design a building containing dormitories, classrooms, and living quarters for the masters, all under one roof, for an estimated cost of thirty-seven thousand dollars. There was nothing pretentious about it, but it was exactly what Peabody wanted for a school to be run on the principle that boys and masters should live together as members of a closely knit family. To Endicott Peabody, the family was an institution as sacred as the Bible-and Groton, above all, was to be a family.


There were only twenty-seven boys at Groton its first year. The masters, besides Peabody, were Sherrard Billings, aged twenty-seven, teaching experience, one year; and Amory Gardner, aged twenty-one, teaching experience, none. The curriculum was slightly modified classical: large portions of Greek and Latin, seasoned generously with sacred studies, were sprinkled with history, math, and modern languages. Why any sensible parent would pay what was then the very substantial sum of five hundred dollars a year to have a boy educated by three young and almost totally inexperienced schoolmasters may now seem inexplicable. But Peabody was convinced that the time was right for his modest, family-style version of a British public—that is, private—school.

There was never any question that he was right. What worried him most from the very outset was not having too few students but too many. Later he would be ruthless about slamming the door in the faces of parents, regardless of their wealth or station, who had failed to register their unfortunate sons at birth. His measuring stick for the proper enrollment was the number of boys with whom, in a nightly ritual after prayers, he could exchange solemn handshakes as they marched off for bed in their cold and dismal little cubicles. The ceremony came to be known as the “go by.” Family-style schools were nothing new, but the successful ones tended to outgrow themselves and the others vanished. A highly restrictive admissions policy was essential, therefore, if the family concept was to be preserved. But the very difficulty of getting into Groton, combined with the Peabody charisma, quickly made it fashionable, and the enrollment figures kept climbing. By 1896, when young Franklin Roosevelt’s mother could finally bear to part with him (he was fourteen, two years older than the usual age for entering Groton), there were 110 boys at the school and the original band of brothers had become a company of rambunctious cousins. Until recently the student population was never allowed to exceed two hundred, the majority of them sons of former Grotties. A reputation for exclusiveness was thus inevitable and, much to the rector’s annoyance, along with it came a reputation for snobbishness.

For Peabody, the founding of his school was followed by an even more personal triumph. In October, 1884, the engagement of Miss Fanny Peabody to Endicott Peabody was formally announced. They were married during the summer vacation after the first year, and Mrs. Peabody became a wonderfully gracious and charming Groton institution. She also contributed one boy and five girls to the school family.