When I was young, despite Mr. Ashburn’s favorite adage, “Only the bound are free,” my childhood was largely unbounded. We lived on a large parcel of land which I, my four siblings and other children in our village, explored widely year round. The land descended through the woods surrounding Walden Pond, along the Sudbury River and extended deep into fields and farms once owned by the Adams family of Massachusetts’ and the nation’s history. A boy about my age lived next door and for a time we went to the same boys’ school steeped in the Transcendental traditions of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville. He was Nick Booth '67 and when the time came to look into boarding schools, he encouraged me to visit Brooks, where he was a rising fifth former. It was “very much like home,” he said.
Brooks in the late sixties was a small clapboarded “village,” largely former estate buildings spread out atop a broad rise surrounded by low hills and wide, grassy fields. It overlooked the long, wide clear lake. It was the place for me, not too far from home or too near. Brooks was unlike the nearby brick confines of Middlesex, Groton and St. Mark’s. It wasn't like the gray, gothic towers of St. Paul's farther north. Those schools [were] chosen by forebears and friends but they weren't for me.
Early in my third-form year there was a defining event. Another boy (Hugh Warren) and I were offered the chance to be part of an experiment. There was a vacant master’s room at the top of the stairwell to the Merriman dorm. Frank Ashburn (“The A”), founder and headmaster, said that if we two kept our grades up, the room clean, and “retired at a reasonable time” (his words), we could live there on our own without being subject to inspection by dorm prefects or oversight by a dorm master. Hugh and I were pleased to oblige. It was a life-saver for me because I disliked dorm life in cubicles, the norm for third formers then. Hugh’s study habits steadied me for the next three years and kept my mind from wandering as it was wont to do. His persistence in the face of difficulties and his strong ethical standards inspired me. My life at Brooks became, early on and through the remaining years a successful introduction to a good life as a young adult. It was “college preparation” in the best manner possible.
In our last year, Hugh and I were each assigned alternately to be Senior Prefect by Mr. Ashburn. I spent many evenings with him in his study, discussing ‘the state of the school' and how the student body was influenced by the cultural ferment of the times. I was interested in those concerns but didn’t have enough distance from them to be usefully analytical or articulate. I was just too young. It was still important for both of us to discuss them. However there was a different concern that I wished to investigate more deeply. My agenda, if it could be called that, was that I believed the school should become coed. During the fifth form, I went to sessions on the topic at an independent school conference. I’d gone with Alan “Churchy” Lewis and Louis “Luke” Menand of the sixth form. They were in Mr. Ashburn’s and my own opinion Brooks’ brightest and most articulate students. At that conference we met boys and girls from coed schools who were very impressive: they exhibited great intelligence, friendliness, acceptance of differences, wide aptitudes and strong concerns. They evinced more school spirit, a deeper pride in their achievements and in their schools’ accomplishments than I had seen at Brooks. The attendees were of course the best the schools had to offer to represent them, but the difference I saw between them and “us boys at Brooks” (at the time) was startling. They were markedly at ease with each other and with us. Much of this I attributed to coeducation, although I would have been hard pressed to explain my reasoning.
As a result, I wanted to explore greater coeducation possibilities in discussions with Mr. Ashburn. I learned that not only did he agree that Brooks should go coed, he’d been giving it more serious thought than I for some years. He believed it would change the school’s essential character dramatically and for the better. Major financial and other commitments would be required regarding an extended curriculum, more dorms, different athletic programs and new faculty with new responsibilities.
However, “The A’” knew it would be a task for the next headmaster. When he’d raised the possibility with the current faculty and administrators, he saw that they were hesitant for a significant number of reasons, many of them personal. I saw the same during the few faculty meetings about coeducation he invited me to observe. Thus he came to believe the search committee for his replacement must be fully committed to finding the best candidate: someone who would embrace coeducation, despite the enormity of the challenges.
In the fall of ’69, during my term as Senior Prefect, Mr. Ashburn helped me set up meetings with individual students and with what are now called “focus groups” at eight different co-ed schools from lower Pennsylvania to upper New York state. I already knew some of the students. I kept a car at Brooks, so I could drive myself to the meetings. I was excused from regular fall sports practices when possible, even some ‘away games’ and the occasional Friday or Monday classes. (My grades suffered dramatically that trimester.) Discussions with “the A” on my return about what I learned helped clarify my thinking on the subject and were valuable for both of us. I saw how deeply he was concerned about the school’s future.
In the spring of 1970, my sixth-form year, several girls came to Brooks as day students for the first time. They were six students from the all-girl Rogers Hall in Lowell, now sadly defunct. I became friends with three of them in particular and could see that they benefited from being on campus as much as we did from their presence. One of them joined me to learn dark room techniques and create a photo essay about Walden Pond and Thoreau for my Spring Project. We’re still friends.
Brooks has successfully become coeducational and by everything I see, read and hear, it’s all the better for it, just as Frank Ashburn wished. Brooks in my opinion rivals excellent, small, liberal arts colleges now, truly an accomplishment. I recommend it to anyone who asks.