The Nobles School History Project by Bob Henderson, Head of School
The philosopher/critic George Santayana once wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As a history teacher, I have often asked my students to consider and challenge this assertion, yet I do believe revisiting our heritage allows us to remember and affirm what has sustained us and to avoid the encumbrances that once impeded us.
As Noble and Greenough School approached its centennial celebration in 1966, one of the truly remarkable figures ever to grace this campus, Richard Flood Sr. ’23, undertook to write the first comprehensive history of the school. Mr. Flood for many years had been the confidant and collaborator of Nobles’ dynamic third headmaster, Eliot T. Putnam, who served for 38 years in that role. As a graduate and leader of this community, Mr. Flood was uniquely positioned to develop perspective on the origins and development of the Nobles enterprise, and he researched the project extensively. The result was the 1966 publication of The Story of Noble and Greenough School. Particularly fascinating elements of this tale pertain to the very early years of “Noble’s Classical School” in the Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods of Boston, the inspirational influence of James Greenough on the faculty as the school entered the new century in 1900, the move to the Dedham campus in the 1920s, and the struggles of the school in the Great Depression and war years. The book is a bit dated in its narrative style, yet remains a good read for anyone curious about our roots, and especially for those interested in the close links between this school and the evolution of Greater Boston between 1866 and 1966.
The next major chronological milestone for the school is fast approaching: our sesquicentennial in 2016. The last 45 years of the history of this school have seen exponentially greater growth and change than the preceding century. The major themes include (but are not limited to) coeducation, remarkable diversification (in every regard) of the student body and faculty, bold expansion of and improvements in curriculum and program, nearly total transformation of the physical plant, and the professionalization of many of the functions and offices of the school. Yet, despite all this change, there are elements of the culture and experience of this community that remain immutable and which are indelibly impressed on all generations of students. Even as we highlight rapid and positive change, we need to celebrate that which is unique, essential and transcendent about the Nobles experience throughout our history.
That is the charge that I gave to Joyce Eldridge, former communications director of Noble and Greenough School, when I asked her to take on the task of writing our sesquicentennial history. She has embraced the endeavor with energy, passion and wisdom. I want to share a couple of anecdotes from her work that illustrate the importance of her undertaking.
The African-American students who entered Nobles in the 1970s faced a literal trek from the inner city to the Spring St./Route 109 bus stop in Dedham, which for most of them required a long train ride, followed by two tedious public buses. For some students who then missed the school shuttle to campus, walking from Spring Street to Nobles through white neighborhoods is remembered as frightening to the point of being overwhelming. Furthermore, once they arrived at school, there were few of the support services (clubs, faculty with whom they could identify, programming, inclusive philosophies) that exist today. Yet that brave transition to Nobles was transformative for this school, and is allegorically powerful in regard to the era of critical, broadening and sometimes painful changes that the school had entered.
Among the powerful sustaining elements of the Nobles experience is the permanence of faculty-student relationships, a cornerstone of a Nobles education since George Washington Copp Noble opened his tiny Harvard preparatory school at 2 ½ Pemberton Square in Boston in 1866. The lifelong relationship that a teacher may maintain with his former students continues ad infinitum, as is illustrated in a story regarding retired teacher and administrator Chris Mabley about his connection to his former student, current Board of Trustees President Jeff Grogan ’74. One morning in 2004, 30 years after Grogan had graduated, Mabley left a box of donuts on the stairs of Lawson House with a note: “For my advisees.” Grogan took one because, he said, “Mr. Mabley was my advisor 30 years ago and is still my advisor today.” This closeness continues frequently into the next generation as longstanding faculty find themselves now happily teaching the children of their former students.
I eagerly anticipate the publication of the new volume in 2016, and from time-to-time over the next few years I look forward to sharing with you some of the wonderful things Joyce Eldridge has and will continue to uncover and explicate in her research and writing.