This week Norfolk Academy will celebrate its 286th birthday. That’s an awfully long time. When you try to wrap your mind around the idea of our school being that old, you find yourself unable to get it all in. Being as familiar with the school’s history as I am, I tend to narrow my focus to specific anecdotes and the people they contain. Here are five small ones, all chosen for a reason.*
I envision Col. William Byrd, stopping at Norfolk for a weekend in the summer of 1728 while on his way up the South Branch of the Elizabeth River. He is leading a team of surveyors trying to settle the dispute between Virginia and North Carolina as to the exact location of the dividing line between them. I see him joining in a sequence of social occasions, including church on Sunday, in the company of all five signatories to the school charter. I know there is no evidence of this, but I wonder if somewhere in all those meetings Col. Byrd did not urge his hosts to finally start the school for which a lot in town had been reserved in 1680.
I can see Reverend George Armstrong, one of the pitifully few residents who survived the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1855. I can hear his words as he describes the grand building that just months earlier had held a vibrant Norfolk Military Academy but is now a Post Office, rising over a deserted and defeated City. I feel the lament as he mourns for the gentlemen coming to get their mail and walking away “without even the courage to look one another in the face.”
I can enjoy happier times as a reborn Norfolk Academy opens one of its rooms in 1872 to house the initial collection for the new Norfolk Public Library. Over there talking are Robert Gatewood, the intense and dedicated Headmaster since the school reopened in 1865, and William B. Selden, Jr. Chairman of the Academy Board of Trustees and Norfolk’s leading citizen. Back at the Selden home that day is daughter Anne with her husband Cyrus Wiley Grandy I. Together they would begin a line of citizenry central to the life of both the school and the community.
I can feel the frustration of the school’s Board of Trustees as twice in 22 years (1917 and 1939) the school is forced to suspend operations, each time unable to overcome the rush of events caused by the coming of a world war. But I can also sense the patriotic pride of the Board as the schoolhouse is converted in 1942 into a facility for training upcoming Navy officers in the art and science of navigation.
Finally, I was actually there to experience the surge of satisfaction as Patty Masterson brought down the closing gavel at The Common Wealth in Education, which in the summer of 1986 helped start a nationwide, if not worldwide, reform movement in education.
I remember clearly the mix of exhaustion and wonder at the breadth and power of the conference. It was only later, when I had been employed by the Academy for more than nine days (yes, that’s how long I had been here officially), that I could really appreciate what a miracle of planning and execution the conference was, and how it changed the world of education so much for the better.
These five moments are here to drive home the notion that Norfolk Academy, more than any other independent school in the nation, has always played a central role in the community that surrounds it. The Charter about which we speak is literally a Deed of Trust, a contract if you will, between the City of Norfolk and the three gentlemen charged with creating our school. As does any real estate deed, that contract lasts in perpetuity – in our case we are beginning year 287. It therefore behooves us—those students, faculty, parents and board members who are Norfolk Academy today—to continue to do our best to fulfill our side of the bargain.
Yes, we are all here to educate and help rear children. That mission will always come first. But we should not forget that we pursue our mission in the context of a grander scheme, a scheme that was set forth clearly, albeit with a misspelling, in the Charter. It obligated the first trustees to build a schoolhouse and to operate it “for the proper use of the inhabitance of the City.” So much has changed since that Charter was signed. Norfolk Academy is no longer housed in a wood frame building across the muddy road from the church now called St. Paul’s. And what we now call Hampton Roads looks absolutely nothing like the primitive town that was Norfolk in 1728. But through almost three centuries, the idea of our school has never changed.
Our most proper use is to benefit those around us.
* For more detailed versions of these stories, you could always try Norfolk’s Academy: The Heart of Tidewater.