Arthur MacConochie passed away peacefully at his home on Friday, May 3. This writing is not to give the details of his life or of his successors and family. Others can do that far better than I. No, this is to pay tribute to and celebrate the Mr. Mac (for that is what we all called him) I first met as a student in 1967 and was years later privileged to call colleague. This is for all of those who by age or calling never knew him. I feel compelled to try and convey the wisdom, the loving dedication for his students, and the gentle grace that meant so much to so many.
It is no exaggeration to say that for two generations he was the heart of this school. For 40 years, first on North Shore Road and then on Wesleyan Drive, Mr. Mac taught English with what could only be called abandon. His students would share loving smiles at the sight of him covered with chalk dust at the end of each class, dust acquired by drawing connections (literally) between two ideas scrawled several feet apart on the blackboard. He sometimes would place one knee in the chalk tray and go on tiptoe to try and extend his reach. He was the quintessential teacher.
In fact, his reach extended far beyond the classroom. Most students left his course changed for the better. Among other things, he taught us that it is never unmanly to love words, particularly words crafted into poetry. And while he was a disciplinarian on things such as grammar and syntax, there was always an element of joy in his room. These were the greats we were reading, and the greats deserved our honest and earnest appreciation. The young men and women taught by Mr. Mac went out into the world knowing how to use their own words clearly and properly and always wanting to read more of them penned by somebody else.
His contributions to the school itself, if possible, were even more far-reaching. Mr. Mac wrote the school’s honor code, based on the Uniform Military Code of Justice (he was an “armer” in World War II). But he simplified and tempered them with a keen understanding of the real lives of adolescents. Mr. Mac had wisdom about such things that seemed without end. Those of us open to it would simply wait for the next pearl to drop. And when coincident with John Tucker’s arrival in 1978 it was decided to rewrite the school’s Philosophy and Objectives, Mr. Mac was the official scribe. While he did not come up with each phrase, he did physically write each down, and thus the document bears his unmistakable signature and style.
My favorite phrase from the school’s Philosophy provides that the school will strive to instill respect for others “until unselfishness of thought and action becomes habit.” If any one set of words describes Mr. Mac, it must be these. Mr. Mac was a true gentleman and a lovely, gentle man. He could be stern, but he was never rude or even gruff. It would take new acquaintances a little while to realize that his equanimity and ease were absolutely real and at the heart of who he was. He seldom talked about himself and never indicated in any way that he thought he deserved more out of life than he had been given. His took his pleasure from small, simple things such as walks with his wife and reading to his children. He was a famous letter-writer, always finding occasion to pay a compliment or express gratitude, usually unnecessarily given. I ran drafts of several passages from my book by him, and his hand-written responses were always filled with more praise than suggestion. Above all, Mr. Mac loved to dance. I think my favorite picture of him shows him dancing at a prom sometime in the 1970’s, dapper in his tuxedo and smiling from ear to ear. A trip around the ballroom floor stood for so much – grace and intimacy and perhaps even joy. More than anything, a dance meant that both parties were giving and neither was taking. It was the perfect metaphor for his whole life.
In the last years of their mutual time here, Mr. Mac and Bill Harvie would come to rest in the two matching leather chairs in the Masters’ Commons. Mr. Mac had seen and cut out a cartoon from The New Yorker depicting a similar scene, except the two gentlemen were drawn as very much older and the chairs were back to back. One old warhorse was saying to the other, “Still here, Bob?” Mr. Mac immediately saw the parallels and posted the cartoon in his office, and the two friends started a daily tradition of Mr. Harvie asking, “Still here, Mac?” Just now I went into the Masters’ Commons to look at Mr. Mac’s portrait and I heard Mr. Harvie asking the old question. The reply came loud and clear – “Still here, Harve.”
Of course he is still here. In ways too significant to ever fully appreciate, Arthur Alastair MacConochie, Jr. will always be here.