“old Peabo” And The School

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Two years after the school was started, a sorely needed gymnasium was built with funds extracted from Augustus Hemenway, a wealthy Boston merchant of usually restrained charitable impulses. Next came the fives courts, another sweaty antidote to loaferism, and then, in 1891, Hundred House was opened. Designed to accommodate one hundred boys, and also to include spacious living quarters for the headmaster and his family, Hundred House was a major undertaking, ingeniously financed by granting each donor of five thousand dollars or more the extraordinary privilege of nominating for admission a boy who had not been registered at birth. By 1904 nearly a million dollars had been gathered in and wisely spent on additional land, buildings, and playing fields. Groton could boast a physical plant surpassed by few schools and not many colleges of the time. The rector’s special pride, and the spiritual heart of his tidy domain, was a resplendent new chapel whose soaring Gothic tower dominated the countryside. It had been built with funds provided by Amory Gardner, one of the original masters.

Despite his generosity to the school, of which the chapel was only one manifestation, “Mr. G.” or “Billy Wag,” as the boys called Amory Gardner, was a source of much anxiety to the rector. For the rigorous life of a Groton schoolmaster Mr. G.’s background hardly could have been worse. A rich orphan, he had been raised in the lush ménage of his uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Gardner. Mrs. Gardner, the famous “Mrs. Jack” of Fenway Court (see “Mrs. Jack and Her Back Bay Palazzo, ”A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October/November, 1978), who shocked proper Bostonians with her mildly Bohemian ways, adored him. He was a marvelous teacher for the few whose minds were genuinely receptive to knowledge but was bored by what he considered the rector’s tedious concern with discipline and decorum. Once, when the boys put his chair on his desk before he entered the classroom, he merely climbed up and sat down as though there were nothing in the least unusual about it. But later on, when the recitation did not go to please him, he danced a frenzied jig of pretended exasperation on his shaky perch, and roars of laughter from the class could be heard throughout the building. Such occasions would bring the rector, breathing fire and brimstone, on the run; the class would slink out, and in the ensuing clash Mr. G. would threaten to resign. No one, including Mr. G. himself, ever took his threat seriously.

 

Parents and contagious diseases were the constant banes of the rector’s existence, and, of the two, parents were the more incurable. Most of the disciplinary problems of the school, he thought, were due to their moral laxity, and he deplored the lavish surroundings and the atmosphere of self-indulgence in which many of the boys lived at home. There was Mrs. A., for example, who lived “in noble state, garbing her domestics in knee breeches, etc., with all that it implies,” and whose unfortunate son, while at Groton, “never really entered into its spirit.” Parents who sought special privileges for their sons exasperated the rector immensely. He even had a hot exchange with his old and dear friend, Theodore Roosevelt, who, while residing in the White House, demanded that one of his boys be allowed to leave school during the term—which was not permitted—to visit a dentist in Washington; the dentist came to Groton.

Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties gave the rector his worst time. While he disapproved of the Eighteenth Amendment, he disapproved far more of breaking the law, and of the promiscuous social drinking and loose conduct that soon became fashionable. It grieved him to think that by his lights most of his old boys were nothing better than criminals. His attitude was so inflexible and archaic that there were many among the alumni and in the Groton community who sadly concluded that their beloved “old Peabo” had outlived his usefulness. In the spring of 1927, when he reached the age of seventy, it was hoped by many that he would gracefully retire. But despite gentle hints from friends, the advisability of doing so apparently never entered his mind. And that fall, when word got back to him that some of his senior class had taken a drink or two while visiting in the rooms of graduates after the excitement of the Harvard-Yale game, he summarily expelled six of them. Parents and alumni were stunned. It seemed indeed cruel and excessive punishment to deprive a boy of his last year at Groton, and the protests were loud and strong. One old Grottie called him the Vicar of Bray and accused him of having “sold out his real convictions for a mess of pottage called ’law and order.’ ” But nothing could change his mind; the time had come for a devout Victorian to take up arms against the forces of evil in modern society.