“old Peabo” And The School

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Ellery Sedgwick, an early old Grottie who later distinguished himself as editor of The Atlantic Monthly , commented somewhat cynically upon the rector’s efforts to persuade his boys that a life devoted to public service was more befitting a Christian gentleman than one devoted to private gain. “In season and out,” Sedgwick recalled, “public service was held up to every boy as a shining goal. It is God’s mercy that all of us didn’t go into it!” But the one out of ten who did produced an array of public servants that no other school could match in numbers or distinction, and a Franklin Roosevelt more than made up for the other nine. Ironically, in the presidential election of 1932, the rector conscientiously voted for Herbert Hoover as the man best qualified for the job. He was soon won over to the New Deal, however, and he was saddened by the vituperative hatred for their fellow alumnus expressed by many old Grotties who felt their cherished privileges threatened by a traitor in their midst. In 1934, when Groton prepared to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Peabody felt compelled to request the absence from the ceremonies of those who were unwilling to accord the proper respect to President and Mrs. Roosevelt. On another occasion, at a dinner given in his honor by alumni at the Union Club in New York, he closed his remarks by saying: “I believe Franklin Roosevelt to be a gallant and courageous gentleman. I am happy to count him as my friend.” For an embarrassing moment, the convivial gathering was shrouded in silence.

The rector was bombarded with outraged letters reciting the treacherous crimes of “that man in the White House.” He answered them faithfully and tried to calm the irrational fears of their authors. In one soothing reply to an overwrought old Grottie, he wrote: “There has been a good deal written about Franklin Roosevelt when he was a boy at Groton, more than I should have thought justified by the impression that he left at the school. He was a quiet, satisfactory boy of more than ordinary intelligence … but not brilliant. Athletically he was rather too slight for success. We all liked him… masters and boys alike.”

But the Rector’s beau ideal ran more to the type of a boy like Richard Whitney—star athlete, prefect, and rousing leader of the school. After Groton and Harvard, Whitney rose to fame as the Wall Street stockbroker who captained the Street’s last stand against New Deal legislation regulating the securities markets. In 1938, when Whitney was finally forced to confess that he had been embezzling trust funds for many years, the rector had the sad experience of visiting one of his favorite old boys in Sing Sing. Whitney took his medicine gracefully; he was as popular with his fellow inmates as he had been with the other boys at Groton in his days of glory. And the rector was loyal to the end.

When Endicott Peabody died in 1944, four years after his reluctant abdication, the age of the great headmasters already was doomed. Over the next three decades, the dogma of “muscular Christianity” would be eroded by treacherous currents of social change. What once would have been utterly unthinkable to Peabody and his compeers is now an accepted fact of life at most boys’ boarding schools: they have betrayed their monastic vows and gone coeducational. In September, 1975, forty-seven carefully selected girls joined the two hundred carefully selected boys at Groton.

For some of the older alumni, born too soon to enjoy the privileges of modern permissiveness, it seemed as though the clap of doom had sounded. But the unique world of Groton did not come to an end, and the school is still loyal to the spirit of Endicott Peabody. The nightly ritual of the “go by” is observed as faithfully as it was in 1884.