Members of the class of 1953 reflected on their time at Brooks some 68 years after Prize Day. The following is an interview conducted by class correspondent Hal Hamilton ’53 (below, left) and Ollie “O.K.” Niess ’53 (below, right).
HAMILTON: What were your first impressions of the school? How come you picked Brooks?
NIESS: On a sunny, fall day in 1948, I remember being dropped off by my parents, who were concerned about my happiness. I met some guys who were throwing a football around and enjoyed the experience with them. My mother heard me laughing and she immediately felt that I had met some friends, and she felt better. This was a positive experience for both of us. Brooks was picked by my parents, who had a friend who was an Air Force officer in my dad’s outfit. This man was from North Andover, Massachusetts, and knew that Frank Ashburn was the headmaster of the school. I think that Mr. Ashburn’s father was an Army doctor. He and my dad became friends and the rest is history.
HAMILTON: Did you make friends right off?
NIESS: Yes; even though I was an Army brat and had few similarities with the New York and Boston boys, I made friends easily. Sports were the common denominator … and a good sense of humor helped tremendously. We all were in the same situation and closely shared our experiences with each other.
HAMILTON: Favorite teacher?
NIESS: Ray Eusden was my all-time favorite and we became good friends when I was the Peabody House perfect. His wife, Priscilla, also was very good to me.
HAMILTON: Best courses?
NIESS: I enjoyed and did well in my history courses, which led to my majoring in history at Duke University. Oscar Root’s science courses were good, as were Doc Scudder’s classes. I even enjoyed Fessenden Wilder’s classes. He was tough, but I liked and respected him and was forced to learn well.
Academics were difficult for me from the beginning. My first year, I took Latin, French, algebra, history, English and shop. I didn’t even speak English well and I was supposed to manage Latin and French.
Having Leo Cronan as my coach for five years was a satisfying experience. He taught us fair play and to never give up, no matter what the score. I followed this dictum for all of my life and coached my son and his teammates to never to quit, ever. We won some games because of this belief.
HAMILTON: What did you make of Chapel?
NIESS: Believing in Frank Ashburn made it easy for me to appreciate Chapel. I even learned to like the Episcopalian services, which were quite different from the generalized Presbyterian services that I had been exposed to at military bases during my upbringing.
HAMILTON: Did anything stick here?
NIESS: The Episcopalian services still are in my memory and always will be.
HAMILTON: Sports being your thing, anything left undone? What you would like to have done better? Had a more modern football helmet?
NIESS: I always felt that I came close to greatness many times in all three sports and, with some good breaks, I would have been more successful. After breaking the school record in baseball by winning five games during my freshman year, I later had disappointments in losing a 1-0 one hitter, a 2-0 2 hitter, a 4-3, 10-inning game blown by a defensive miscue in the bottom of the 9th, and two 5-4 loses and a 4-3 loss in which I had three hits, four stolen bases and scored three runs. In basketball we won a 60-58 game during which I scored 16 points in the fourth quarter at Nobles, and then, in the return game during the dance weekend, I scored 16 points in the first quarter, which was a school record for two successive quarters against one team and 36 points in the game and, with 15 seconds to play, I was working myself in the lane for a pass from Carter Harrison ’53, GP’20, who was not able to get the pass to me for and easy shot, and we lost the game 54-53, my biggest disappointment. In football, I broke the school’s record for passes caught and total yardage for a season, but only scored two touchdowns in two years. However, I had four passes caught where I dragged tacklers on my back and came down within two inches, two inches, one foot and three feet from touchdowns … all of which were scored when Tim Keating ’53 snuck over for scores. So, I had many moments of greatness and came close to many others. Enough to be elected to the Brooks School Athletic Hall of Fame and I accepted this award on behalf of all the athletes of the 1950s who also deserved this award, such as Pete Soby ’52, Tim Keating ’53, Lud Kramer ’51, Peter Ward ’53, Bob Saltonstall ’52, P’88, GP’09, GP’11 and others.
HAMILTON: FDA and thee: How was the relationship?
NIESS: I liked and respected Mr. Ashburn very much and he was very good to me, as was Mrs. Ashburn. They were first-rate people.
HAMILTON: Discipline at Brooks?
NIESS: Fair and fitting. I do not think any one was disciplined unless he deserved it.
HAMILTON: Did you take away anything when you left?
NIESS: Just the experience of attending a great school, which now is greater in every way.
Observations of Rob Walker '53, H'66, P'94, GP'18
Brooks Then and Now
In our recent search for fresh, meaningful content for our class notes, Hal Hamilton ’53 and I considered recalling our Brooks education in the 1950s in contrast with today’s curriculums and other school characteristics. That led me to first ask, "What do I remember about my Brooks experiences?"
To begin, I should say Brooks seemed the right school for me from the start and I never regretted that it was my own choice. More specifically, I never experienced any poor teachers and in fact developed a lasting respect for their academic competence. Over time, a fondness for many of them generated in and beyond the classroom. In contrast to today’s mixed faculty, ours was all male, but the many wonderful wives tempered our masculine environment. Although there have been many impressive physical additions, too numerous to discus, fortunately they fit in comfortably without intruding on our magnificent campus setting. I have always been drawn to its beauty from my early pleasurable wanderings along the wooded lake paths and over the fields and nearby hills. And I must not fail to mention the special lifelong friendships that grew out of my Brooks experience as a student and teacher.
The size of the student body has more than doubled along with a comparable increase to the faculty and administration. Undoubtedly the greatest changes since our time are the addition of girls, and racial and ethnic diversity. Brooks is now a much more complex institution with many more challenges than in our day, yet seemingly able to creatively deal with them. The tone of a good school, as in our time with Headmaster Frank Ashburn, is set from the top and fortunately the even, upbeat leadership of Head of School John Packard H’87, P’18, P’21 and other key players has permeated positively throughout the school community. Brooks seemed to have a special character and soul in our day and evidence suggests it retains that today. Although I thought at the time that I was working my hardest, I realize now, that often distracted, I was slow to reach the intellectual maturity required for excellence. Indeed, in Frank Ashburn’s often wise early assessments, I was likely one of his “late bloomers.” However, in the end, I was well prepared for Yale, though today probably an improbable goal given my mediocre math scores. Compared to today’s expanded, ever-innovative Brooks curriculum, ours was basic and rather spare, but more than sufficient for the time. Good writing skills were stressed by my English teachers, Francis Parkman in the third form and Fessenden Wilder in the second and sixth forms being my most demandingly, influential, yet encouraging guides. We learned effective writing requires organization and clear logical thinking, and that once started on this exercise the mind seems to generate self-propelling creative sparks within itself.
Our stellar college acceptances were normal for Brooks at the time, especially for Harvard and Yale, and given the small class of thirty or so it seems remarkable that we sent four classmates to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today’s extreme change in the college admission situation in no way reflects poorly on the quality of Brooks education, but rather a radically different and widely expanded competition. Our sports were certainly important, serving also to burn-off adolescent energy and coaches were expected to provide character values as part of good sportsmanship. It was important to win or lose with dignity and grace. In my own experience as a three-year starter in football, our coach Leo Cronan gave me life-learning lessons I still value as part of my overall Brooks education. Today, even speaking as a former athlete, I wonder if our competitive athletic schedules require too much student effort and time, especially in overly long-distance trips to St. George’s, Tabor and others. The Independent School League has steadily expanded to more teams, resulting in many more games and perhaps its overall influence is out of balance.
Compared to current comprehensive offerings in the arts, except for our excellent choir and dramatics, I would have wished for more extracurricular outlets, particularly with singing, which I loved from early childhood. Other similar schools had quartet and octet groups that flourished with faculty guidance. It seems unfortunate that something similar did not develop out of the occasional fun-filled singalongs on Saturday evenings with George Barr at the piano, leading us through a wide medley of songs, particularly American show tunes. We had a good nucleus of singers in Peter Buswell ’53, Carter Harrison ’53, GP’20, Steve Stranahan ’53, P’88, Peter Ward ’53, Carlo Zezza ’53, myself and Al Donovan ’53, who had a superb voice. Since Frank Ashburn enjoyed music and was a Yale Whiffenpoof, it seems odd that small group singing didn’t become a tradition during his time. Something else which might have helped had we known about it was that Leo Cronan, as a notable Irish tenor, sang semi-professionally at different times during his life. Wouldn’t it have been rewarding for us to have been able to involve our own titan of sports in such a potentially satisfying experience?
Due to a gradual demise of a liberal arts curriculum at many colleges, it seems all the more important that key cultural and intellectual underpinnings be at least touched upon in secondary education. One would hope that exposure might include pivotal figures such as Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Machiavelli and other Renaissance humanists, Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; and of course great poets and novelists, not to mention figures in more contemporary culture, dare I say Pablo Picasso, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, and even Cole Porter, to mention but a few, endless possibilities? What seems most important considering our increasingly dominant technological education at all levels is to maintain connection to our humanist traditions with their timeless insights on how to live socially responsible, productive and meaningful lives working for the common good. And just as critical, our students must be given strong, thorough American history courses, truthful about our shortcomings as well as triumphs. They should also be taught civics, how government was intended to function and citizen responsibility, and perhaps a bit of practically applied economics.
For a school such as ours, the above might seem too tall an order, but if we are to maintain civilized standards and conditions in today’s troubled country and world, time-tested values must be recognized, fought for, and transferred to the young. As a former history teacher, I have always believed the subject provides a valuable framework or context for better understanding other disciplines including literature, art, music, economics, politics and human culture as a whole.
As one can sense, I am still a teacher at heart, regretting as I do having abandoned this noble, rewarding profession many decades ago. My memories of Brooks as a student and teacher remain preeminent in my life. Overall, Brooks has always had more than its share of strong students as reflected in its enviable academic standing and college placement records.