High Fives in the Rain


       One of the best side benefits of teaching is laughter.  That is, putting 1,200 young people together in a school with 100+ adults crazy enough to want to work there creates myriad opportunities for humor. Over my many years here I have enjoyed more than a few moments of high comedy, sometimes planned but usually impromptu.  Of those that were intentional, who could forget Dave Trickler emceeing the Mr. Beach contest at the Faculty Follies in 1986’s Field Day?  How about the time Wai Wong and company broke out the Back Street Boys at an otherwise somber Middle School Chapel?  Or Michael Willey’s senior speech, whose thesis was that the Walt Disney Company’s ultimate goal was to rule the entire world?  And I still smile every time I remember Amelia Zontini’s perfect Brooklyn accent as she purred, “Oh Nathan!” in Guys and Dolls. I am sure that every alum has a list of favorite funny moments.

       In the end, however, the truly memorable funny moments just happen.  Here’s one of my absolute favorites. It’s a little subtle and requires a keen mind’s eye, but it’s worth the imagining. I cannot recall the exact year, but 2003 is close enough for our purposes.

       It had rained hard for three straight days that fall, hard enough for lower schoolers to be forced to walk through the Middle School on their way to and from lunch.  As you might expect, the children were instructed to be stone silent for their entire time in the Royster building.  As you might also expect, not everyone followed that admonition perfectly.  On Day One there was laughing and even a little playful wrestling as the transit was made.

       So when the rains came again on Day Two, the order went out that the kids were to walk silently and an arm’s length apart on their way through Royster.  This turned out to be still insufficient guidance, because now there was much jumping and catching each other by the shoulders, and still there was giggling if not outright laughter.  When Day Three brought more incessant rain, the instructions were to walk silently, arm’s length apart, and with both hands in pants pockets.  This time the commands were generally followed, and the 11:30 lunch brought 260 children, single-file and quiet, both to and from lunch.


The first grade boys demonstrate model "line" behavior.

       This was too much for Gary Laws to bear. Remember, his office is the last thing the kids would see as they turned to leave Royster on their way to lunch.  So as the 11:30 exodus commenced, he resolved to conduct a little experiment. He stood in his office door smiling down the hall as the kids turned the corner by the Latin room to pass by.  Just before the first youngster came abeam, Gary extended his hand at about the level of his head and said, quite cheerfully, “Gimme five!!”  He repeated this with every kid in the parade.

       This put the young ones on the horns of an excruciating moral dilemma.  On the one hand, here was the opportunity to experience the intimacy and joy of a “high five,” made even more precious by its contrast to the drudgery of a silent walk through a school building.  And after all, Mr. Laws is head of the Royster Division, and you shouldn’t disobey his suggestions.  On the other hand, for three straight days your beloved teacher had been pressing you in increasingly severe terms to be a good boy or girl and stay quiet.  To a ten-year-old child, this was a crisis of real magnitude.

       The “Laws Maneuver” was funny enough in and of itself, but what made me really chuckle were the different reactions of the students.  They fell into three rough categories.  The “Goodie Two-Shoes” remembered their orders and either looked away or down, hands remaining firmly ensconced in pockets as they slinked by.  The “Dangerous Rebels” excitedly jumped in the air, smiling broadly and shouting, “Yeah!!” as palm slapped against palm.  Finally, the “Have Cake and Eat It, Too” crowd tried furtively to withdraw a hand from a pocket and as quickly as possible make hand-to-hand contact with Mr. Laws.  Then, with blinding speed the hand returned to its designated spot, hoping to avoid detection from teachers either in front or behind.  Although disappointed at their lack of bravery, I had to admire their creativity and athleticism.  I mean, a couple of these kids displayed some fundamental quickness.

       Now the issue was whether Mr. Laws would repeat the maneuver on the students’ return trip.  He considered the question for a moment and concluded, “Nah, you can only have so much fun.”  He was correct, if only for that particular moment.  Something equally cute and funny would be sure to come up in a day or two.

       You end up smiling a lot in this place.

The always serious Mr. Gary Laws strikes a pose with a senior.


The Best Teacher I Ever Had


As the school year passes its halfway point, I find myself thinking about a school year many decades ago.  More specifically, I find myself thinking about the best teacher I ever had, Charles J. Cumiskey, Jr.

Mr. Cumiskey’s photo as Director of the Lower School.

At Norfolk Academy and elsewhere I have learned from many superb teachers.  In my teaching style, I pick and choose from the techniques employed by a range of men and women over my years.  Bob “Boomer” Scott, who taught Contracts at the University of Virginia Law School and subsequently became Law School Dean, was the best I ever saw at listening intently to a student answer while formulating his next question in response.  Every time I launch into a Socratic exchange in my Senior Politics class, I remember the Boomer and try to do what he did.  From Sheldon Hackney, then Provost of Princeton University while teaching a course in Southern History, I learned that lessons can be conveyed more powerfully by not using words.  Sometimes, a song or an image—or even a taste—gets to an intellectual point more perfectly.  And from Mr. MacConochie, I learned that the love of words is never unmanly.  It is in fact okay for a guy to like Emily Dickinson.

But Mr. Cumiskey was the best.  In 1965 he was head of the Lower School, the baseball coach, and the math teacher for the sixth and seventh grades.  With only one section per grade level in those days, there was no need for designations such as “6A,” much less “4GB.”  Mr. Cumiskey had been a catcher in college, and a very good one.  He still could peg a ball from home to second base on a line and on the bag.  (I’ll return to this in a moment.) He was diminutive, and like a good catcher, solidly built.  And also like a good catcher, there was something in his voice that commanded attention from those around him.

Coach Cumiskey.

Mr. Cumiskey loved teaching, and I believe he loved all of his students.  He would nickname each of us, not right away, but as the year progressed.  As much because I was a year young for my grade as for my five-foot-tall mother’s genes, I was noticeably shorter than my classmates.  Mr. Cumiskey set upon “Toe-High” as my moniker.  I wasn’t even “knee-high to a grasshopper,” he said, I was “toe-high to a tadpole.”  I loved the play on my unusual first name, and smiled every time he used it.  In the nicknaming and in countless other ways, he communicated his joy at working with young people with crystal clarity. He was boundlessly enthusiastic, clear, and demanding.  His math class was seldom easy, but it was never dull.

He and his wife even sponsored what we called “cotillion.”  Upon the merger with Country Day School in 1966, he saw an opportunity to break the ice between eighth-grade girls and boys.  So on Saturday evenings we met in the dance room with a simple stereo.  For the first hour, he and Eileen (that’s Mrs. Cumiskey to you, young man) taught us ballroom dancing.  For the second hour it was “our” dancing to “Let’s Twist Again” or “Doo-Wah-Diddy.”  All the boys became nervous when he put on a slow song like “Willow Weep for Me” or, worse yet, “Unchained Melody.” You know it’s love when a grown man gives up Saturday nights to teach 13-year olds to two-step and then watch them fumble and lurch trying to do the Watusi.

Mr. Cumiskey was not afraid to be physical.  Don’t get me wrong – I am dead set against any form of corporal punishment, and don’t buy the argument for a second that it builds a bond of trust between student and teacher.  But in his case, it was so clear from the start how much he cared about you and how much he wanted you to succeed, that he could do stuff we might frown on today.  For instance, just suppose you turned your head to speak to the boy in the seat behind you; within an instant an eraser would ping off the back of your skull, throwing a halo of chalk dust and leaving you marked for the rest of class.  It didn’t hurt except for the embarrassment, and with that catcher’s arm he never missed.  Of course, he only had to throw erasers once or maybe twice in early September to stop the practice of turning around in your seat until at least Christmas.

      He also knew when to quit kidding and get tough.  Faculty have all read “Nurture Shock,” the latest science on over-managing kids as they grow up.  It has as one of its premises that kids lie to parents and teachers because they so deeply value their relationships, and fear that admitting some error or omission might jeopardize that relationship.  With Mr. Cumiskey it cut the other way.  We all adored him so much that few of us wanted even to put ourselves in the position to lie.  When he asked you a direct question you gave him a direct answer, simply because it was Mr. Cumiskey.  You couldn’t lie to him.

Finally, he was very, very good at getting angry.  I committed some transgression in his sixth-grade math class, and he sent me to his office to wait for him until class was over.  I’d like to say that the anticipation of his reprimand was worse than the actual thing, but no, they were both pretty bad.  So on top of not being able to fib, there was a positive element of danger in his class that helped keep us in line.  I’m not sure I ever transgressed again when he was about.

My sixth grade class – when Mr. Cumiskey was head of the Lower School. The author is in the front row second from left.

       It’s probably overkill to say that Charlie Cumiskey was the perfect teacher, but he comes as close as anyone I’ve ever seen.  He lives in Georgia now, pater familias to a very large collection of children and grandchildren.  He comes to Norfolk from time to time for important school occasions.  When last I saw him (I believe at 2010 Homecoming), he was doing great.  There is a part of me that laments not getting to know him better now that I am all grown up, but another larger part prefers to enjoy the memory of how much I learned from him as a child.

Some time ago, in making remarks to a group of alumni when he was present, I called him “the best teacher I ever had.”  I watched the tears come to his eyes.  There it is.  Forty years later, praise from a former student about his qualities as a teacher can make him emotional.  That’s why we love you, Mr. Cumiskey.  You always cared. You still do.

Note:  Mr. Cumiskey passed away on July 11, 2017.   He will be remembered fondly.


Message in a Bottle


“Differentiation” is the new hot word among educators and school administrators.  That is, we are encouraged to identify that which makes our course, our program, our whole school different from others in the area.  When it comes to Norfolk Academy’s program, differentiating is a comparatively easy task.  We can point to the senior and 9th-grade speech programs or to our insistence on sticking with the “teacher as coach” model.  I also don’t know of any peer independent school that feeds its 1,200 students family style.  Our honor system, if not unique, is very different in style and impact from others of its ilk. 

A Seminar Day activity.


Oliver Jeffers’ book “The Heart and the Bottle.”

But of all the things that makes us different, the Seminar Program is one of the most important.  Under the leadership of Tom Duquette, we just concluded a school-wide seminar day based on “The Heart and the Bottle,” by Oliver Jeffers.  It is the story of a little girl, greatly attached to her grandfather, who loves to play and explore with him.  When he “goes away,” the little girl no longer can see beauty or wonder in the world.  She puts her heart in a glass bottle, dangling it from around her neck.  After a while she finishes grieving and tries to get her heart back, but the bottle has become impregnable.  In the end, it takes another little girl, as curious and joyful as our heroine once was, to liberate the heart and bring back to her the capacity to love and explore.  Aimed at an audience of children, the book speaks to all generations.    

Before trying to convey the audacity and total “coolness” of an entire day spent with students of all grades mingled together in a common purpose, let us take a quick tour of the seminar program’s history.  At the height of the educational reform movement of the late 1980’s John Tucker, always the visionary, decided that Norfolk Academy faculty should become aware of, and perhaps occasional practitioners of, the Great Books curriculum founded by Mortimer Adler.  The heart of Adler’s program was the radical notion that teachers should be “facilitators” rather than “instructors.”  Adler wanted his devotees to share great texts with students, and through a process of organized discussions discover together all the works have to offer.  By definition teachers become better questioners instead of the source of answers.  Many faculty members found the loss of superior bargaining power in the classroom difficult and a little scary.  But Mr. Tucker was insistent, and so we all took formal training with Great Books instructors, and then with Tunstall Director Will Stacey at the helm, we met periodically for a year to practice conducting seminars ourselves.  To seal the deal we started a series of Great Books-styled seminars with upper school students in the fall of 1991.   

             They were successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.  We tackled very difficult texts from all disciplines at an extraordinarily high level, making students write essays for grades at the end of the day on questions developed during the discussions.  The cumulative list of readings is impressive indeed.  On most days there was some community activity, ranging from dancing by Elbert Watson to viewing Citizen Kaneto learning how to juggle to a presentation from Professor Ted Mearns, internationally recognized Constitution Law authority (and also Susan Duquette’s father).    I was tasked with planning and executing Seminar Day for the first several years, and found them to be my favorite days of each school year. 

Headmaster Dennis Manning and Mr. Tom Duquette address students and faculty on Seminar Day.

 Ten years after its commencement, Mr. Duquette and a newly-arrived Dennis Manning decided that we should expand the seminar day to include grades one through twelve.  We had experimented with including middle school classes, but going school-wide was really reaching for it.  We chose Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D. B. Johnson, a book about choosing your journeys in life, and with considerable trepidation brought in everybody.  And although it was a logistical nightmare, the act of bringing the whole school together created a force of its own.  If we had to back off the intellectual level to get first graders on board, the idea of truly being one school for a day was, well, lovely.  Dennis Manning would later call our various seminar meetings throughout the day “50 or 60 one-room schoolhouses.”



      And so the all-school seminar has prospered, grown, and become a fixture of school life.  It is unbelievably audacious, asking faculty members across divisions and disciplines to come together for an entire day.  We put first-graders with seniors as well as everybody between and go to school together.  We feed them, we move them around, we prepare activities for them.      This time out we found new constellations in stars on sheets handed to everyone, we played at getting little red felt hearts out of Pepsi bottles, and we even measured each other’s heart rates.  And all the time we were focused on Mr. Jeffers’ provocative book.


Students consider how to extract a heart from a bottle. Some succeed, while others just have fun trying.



Helen Watson and Elbert Watson mesmerize students and faculty.

We did one other thing.  We watched Elbert Watson, together with two of his adult pupils, Helen Watson and Lauren Sinclair, interpret the book through dance.  All of us in the gym, half of us on the floor, sat mesmerized as this multi-media performance played itself out.  It was beautiful beyond description.  When they came to the moment when the little girl discovers her grandfather’s chair empty, I felt the tears welling in my eyes.  I averted my face for a moment to try and get control, and in doing so made eye contact with Chris Nelson, who was beside me having the exact same reaction.  We were both thinking of our own children and of the 1200 precious souls, sitting all around us in the gym, we guide every day.  It happened in the book and happens here almost daily; it is the young ones who touch our hearts.

 Differentiated, indeed.  And way cool.


Everywhere a Bulldog


        While walking to the Bookstore from Royster the other day I noticed –  well, I almost tripped over – a concrete statue of a bulldog where the various sidewalks join together.  It serves the function of a sort of carved welcome mat.  Weathered and a little pale, it is still unmistakably identifiable as our mascot.  Having never paid attention to it before, I wondered how many other canine representations on campus had escaped my notice. So I did a little ambulatory research to count the bulldogs.  The total?

            Forty.  Five sculptures, two major pieces of artwork, various and sundry signs, posters, stuffed animals, and even one live version (whom we shall meet in a moment).  And this is not counting the interior walls of any classroom or office, which would add scores more. Heck, Eric Acra must have ten on the shelves in his office alone.  The areas of highest concentration are predictable – the Bulldog Bookstore and the Burroughs gym complex.  I know we are a big campus, but forty is a lot of bulldogs.  Having done no similar walking tour in other schools, I would still bet that there are not forty dolphins in the halls at Cape Henry or forty cougars at Collegiate in Richmond.  It has to be a dead certain lock that there are not forty oak trees decorating the Norfolk Collegiate campus.

"Tucker" greets visitors to the Wynne Courtyard and Fountain.


            What should we make of this surfeit of bulldogs?  Why have we chosen to surround ourselves with such a large pack?  The initial answer is that the bulldog is a symbol of toughness, a character trait that when properly defined is to be much sought after.  The story goes that Teddy Baker ’53, who at age 14 had been given the job as spotter to a WNOR radio broadcast team at a much ballyhooed 1949 football game with Maury High School, supplied the nickname when the announcers grew tired of calling the Academy team “boys,” and demanded an alternative.  “I blurted out bulldogs,” Teddy recalls. To this day he has no idea where that choice came from.  At the time he was more worried about getting in trouble for supplying what was at the time a purely fictitious mascot identity.  But after the announcers repeated it on air, and more particularly when Abe Goldblatt used the name in his Virginian-Pilot article on the game the next day, the name was forever no longer fictitious.  And “fighting like bulldogs” had a very nice ring to it.  To this day we strive to conduct ourselves, like the bulldog, with an unwillingness to compromise or to give up until our work is done.


            There’s another, slightly more complex reason for all the bulldog art.  With all due respect to the dogs and particularly their owners, the bulldog is one of nature’s most ridiculous looking creatures.  Jay Rainey and his family are the proud owners of Silas, a standard English bulldog.  He makes it from their home on the circle to the campus proper quite often, always bringing sounds of delight from children and broad smiles from the adults.  You can’t help but love an animal that is so straightforward and self-assured in the light of his unusual appearance.  And if Silas is popular with the kids, the Peccie’s bulldog Churchill is, frankly, a rock star.  He is huge, packing 50 or 60 pounds into his 14 vertical inches.  He is twice as big as Silas, with twice the grunt, twice the drool, and twice the adoration.  On those occasions when he is toted across town to school, his arrival is an event.  After all, he must be pretty strong and confident to go around in public looking like that.


Churchill after a particularly challenging afternoon.


         Our students are anything but ridiculous looking.  I don’t know one who grunts or drools.  Check out graduation composite photographs if you want to see beautiful groups of young men and women.  But we all want to think that it is not how we look, but how we act that brings us respect and love.  The many images of our mascot serve to remind us of that.  You don’t have to be streamlined or lithe to be successful.  You just have to be a bulldog.

Pit Ball


      If anything defines the Royster Middle School, particularly its 7th grade students, it is Pit Ball. Like great literature, Pit Ball exists on many levels, ranging from the metaphysical to the mundane. It tests a young person’s honesty, his stamina, his aggressiveness, and his ability to suffer public defeat. In other words, it is the perfect game for middle-schoolers.

      First, a word about nomenclature. The story goes that Pit Ball was the brainchild of Vik Raman ‘97. Who knows if he intended intended “Pitball” or “Pit Ball?” To the extent that he was twelve or thirteen years old at the time, it is doubtful that he intended anything when it comes to spelling. In any event, those of us who care about such things have concluded that as a game, Pit Ball more closely resembles Dodge Ball than Football, so we choose to leave it as a two-word phenomenon. (All of this, of course, begs the question, “Who cares?”)

Pit Ball in the Kennon Forum


    For those of you who don’t know, Pit Ball is a game played in the Kennon Forum, that square depression of concrete known to all as “the pit.” (How many of you knew it was technically the Kennon Forum?). The pit is an inverse step-pyramid, descending in four two-foot steps to a base about 25 feet square. At the midpoint of each of the four sides, an intermediate step approximately three feet wide and one foot high has been added to make getting up and down more convenient. In other words, the pit has four staircases, one on each side. The game is played by four students at a time, each entirely on his own. Each “defends” a staircase. An old, beat-up soccer ball is tossed into the pit, and the player whose stairs are touched first by the ball is out. The rules of soccer are observed, more or less, so this game is played entirely with the feet. Finally, if the ball is kicked so high as to actually leave the pit, the student who launched it is similarly out. Other students line up on the stairs behind the contestants, hoping that the player in front of them will soon be out and give them a chance.

Defending his staircase.

      Right away you can see the complexities. How far do you stray from your stairs to try to eliminate an opponent? The boy to your right is a good friend, but can you trust him not to get you out if you wander too far? There is no referee, so will you dispute your loss if it is unclear that the ball hit your step but the other three say it did? The base of the pit is aggregate concrete, tailor-made for skinning hands and knees, so how hard do you push an opponent? While waiting your turn, do you automatically choose to wait behind the weakest present contestant? If you trip or otherwise fail to distinguish yourself, what do you do about the pleasure your classmates may be taking at your distress? Do you get back in line or slip away? And finally (and this may be most important), if one of your opponents is a cute member of the opposite gender in whom you might have interest, how do you let that affect your strategy?

      Faculty members take turns at “pit duty,” so the game is always supervised. Those who are watching closely can learn a lot about the students, and not just those currently in action. You can see who is strong, who is shy, who is loyal, who is sly. You can distinguish between those who want to win and those who want merely to play. And above all, you can tell the difference between those who accept their fate and those who prefer to equivocate their way around it.

Waiting for a chance to play.

      Two other aspects of the game bear description. First, it can be incredibly gratifying to watch kids grow up in the pit. The whining seventh grader turns into the ninth grade team captain. The one who was physically superior in the eighth grade has to deal with the fact that a year later his classmates are catching up to him. The shy violet becomes an outspoken leader. Gary Laws tells his newly arrived seventh-grade parents every year to put a picture of their youngster on the fridge now, because three years from now they won’t recognize her. Pit Ball gives the faculty the chance to take mental fridge pictures along the way.

      But more than anything, Pit Ball is fun. Four players and one ball lead to infinite strategic possibilities. The game is fast-paced and comes in short segments. It is completely co-ed. Even if you get eliminated, you can be back in the game soon. And in a weird way, having every player be alone has the effect of bringing everyone together. We all must be on the same side if no one ever has to choose one.


"Just something that brings people together."


      Forty-seven years ago the trustees engaged Stan Leggett to act as chief consultant in the design of our present campus. He was insistent that we needed a central architectural feature to be the school’s focal point. There was some debate about what that feature should be. He advised us that it mattered not what form that focal point took. “It can be a hole in the ground,” he joked. “Just something that brings people together.”

      Wow, was he right.

Camp Naglee


            Several weeks ago we looked at the tragedy that was the yellow fever epidemic of 1855 and how Norfolk Academy, or more particularly its facility, played a role in managing the crisis.  Let us now fast forward, if only for a few years.  We should resume the tale in the spring of 1862 as Norfolk, now an important seaport in a new and rebel nation, waits nervously in anticipation of the arrival of “Yankees.”

            Prior to the assault on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, the majority of Norfolk residents would have voted to stay with the original American union.  But the events in Charleston, coupled with greatly exaggerated characterizations of Abraham Lincoln as a warring zealot, changed everyone’s mind.  Norfolk’s delegates to the State Secession Convention voted unanimously to join the new Confederate States of America.  And if Norfolk was important to the United States as a seaport, it was absolutely vital to this new CSA.  It made sense that the town would be an early target of Union forces.  

            For a while the exploits of the new ironclad Virginia buoyed hopes that Hampton Roads could be defended.  But on March 9, 1862, the Virginia could do no better than fight to a sooty draw with the Union ironclad Monitor, and the harbor was laid open to invasion.  Within weeks, Robert E. Lee, newly in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, sized up Union troop movements and decided to commit fully to protecting Richmond.  The withdrawal of Confederate forces up the James left Norfolk completely defenseless. On May 9, 1862, Norfolk Mayor William Lamb officially surrendered the City to no less than President Lincoln himself.

            General Egbert (yes, Egbert) Viele was installed as military commandant of this occupied city. He ordered the 148th New York Volunteer Infantry to keep order and maintain peace.  They barracked in and around the Academy School building, calling their new home “Camp Naglee” in honor of the unit’s first commander.  For an occupying force, the rank and file treated the citizenry they controlled and the Greek temple they inhabited with respect and fairness.  The locals didn’t much care for the daily reminders of this Yankee presence in the form of full dress parades every morning, but there were no reports of bullying, much less of brutality. 

Camp Naglee - 1863

Camp Naglee Illustration dated 1863. Norfolk Academy. Click to view full size image.

            All this changed with the appointment of a new commandant, Benjamin “Beast” Butler in December, 1863.  Here was a man who enjoyed being the boss and loved to prove his power whenever he could, even when it was not necessary.  He and his lieutenants took over the venerable Selden mansion and wrecked the place.  He conducted show trials in which trumped-up charges were made against ordinary citizens (including Reverend Armstrong, whose diaries we saw two weeks ago) followed by confinement to work camps.  And as Grant closed in on Richmond, the 148th was ordered into action and the Greek temple was converted into a surgery called “Delamater Hospital.”  This was the ultimate insult to the locals.  This seat of high learning was now a place where injured invaders could be patched up, and if able, sent back into action against our brothers and our neighbors.  Confederate soldiers would be taken care of in lesser facilities behind General Lee’s lines.

            And then there was the passage and the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.  This liberation of slaves infuriated many white folks in Norfolk and terrified the rest.  Viele had worked with the leaders of this new African-American community and had maintained a tenuous peace.  Butler had no interest in peace, and with federals looking the other way, violence in the streets became rampant. 

            With news of Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox, and more importantly of the generous terms of surrender offered by General Grant, Norfolk began to rouse itself from its moribund state.  The occupying federals returned to their homes almost immediately.  Within days Delamater hospital was evacuated and the Greek temple once again stood empty. By the third week in April, 1865, paroled soldiers were returning in large numbers.

            Come the following September, Norfolk Academy would undertake again its original mission as a school. Reverend Robert Gatewood would assume leadership of the school, and would usher in a return to the classical “academy” model of instruction.  Gatewood was a true scholar, and a very serious man. He had in many ways lived a hard life, most recently ministering to the wounded and dying in the notorious Libbie prison in Richmond.  In the act of instructing young people he saw a way to once again experience the good side of life.  So for twenty-three years, with an outstanding faculty at his side, he pursued that vocation with unlimited zeal.  Norfolk Academy would once again be recognized as an excellent place for young men to grow and prepare for college.

            The group that succeeded Gatewood would include many familiar names such as Tunstall, Royster, and Grandy.  With America’s eventual entrance into the First World War, and with the concomitant designation of Norfolk as the nation’s chief port of war, those leaders would face an agonizing choice.  But we shall leave that episode for later exploration.

No Vacancy


             Norfolk Academy, as the saying goes, lies at the heart of Tidewater.  Due to quirks of history as early as the creation of the Board of Trade by the British Parliament in 1607 and as late as America’s entry into World War I in 1917, our school has always been central to the life and the development of our community.  You might argue that some independent schools have as much national prestige as the Academy, but no educational institution in the nation has played a bigger role in the history of the area it serves.

             That is particularly true when it comes to sticks and bricks.  That is, the structures used to house our school have, on no less than four occasions, been put to use in service of the community.  Since the Revolutionary War, Norfolk Academy has indeed closed four times, but it has never been vacant. The reasons for the closings range from incredibly sad to proudly patriotic.  To understand the first episode, let us take our minds back to June 7, 1855.

             Arborvirus flavividirae. That is the scientific name for the microbe that manifests itself in humans as Yellow Fever.  Certain classes of simians simply tolerate the disease. But when mosquitoes bite an infected monkey, those mosquitoes and their offspring become carriers.  Worse than that, any human they subsequently bite and infect becomes a carrier as well, so once unleashed the disease spreads exponentially.  Given the state of medical science in 1855, the disease killed approximately two thirds of those it infected, and no one at the time had any idea how it was transferred, much less how to treat it. So when on June 7, the steamer Ben Franklin, carrying a cargo of tropical fruit (and deadly insects) from Charlotte Amalie to New York, started taking on water off the Carolina coast and put into the Gosport Navy yard in Norfolk, it unleashed a flying brigade of tiny and medically invisible angels of death on a defenseless community.  Like any exponential sequence, it grew slowly at first, but by the end of August the plague was literally everywhere.

             Reverend George Armstrong, a Presbyterian minister in Norfolk, wrote a series of essays describing in excruciating and depressing detail “The Summer of Pestilence.”  The numbers are almost impossible to believe.  The local newspaper said that by August 11, half the city’s residents had either died or fled.  Armstrong’s congregation sank from over 200 to 27. By September almost every remaining human was either recovering, sick, or dead.  There was no time, and more important, not enough lumber to stage individual burials, so a large pit was dug at what is now the corner of Hampton Boulevard and Princess Anne Road for use as a mass grave.  Scores of bodies were lowered into it every day.  It is heartbreaking to read Armstrong’s description of the futility of public officials’ attempts to check the spread of the disease, for they were completely ignorant as to its source.

             The disease spared no class, race, or age group, although those that had access to better hygiene seemed to have a better chance of survival. With that much death and desertion, there was certainly no need for a school.  And Norfolk Military Academy, holding forth from its grand Greek temple on Bank Street, had become a great and regionally renowned school since its move to the site in 1840.  In a fine building designed by Thomas Ustick Walter (whose next project would be the dome of the U. S. Capitol), and under the leadership of a young and talented headmaster, Colonel John Bowie Strange (VMI’s “first cadet”), the school had become a recognized feeder to colleges and military academies up and down the east coast. But with almost no living students in town, there was no reason to open for classes in the fall of 1855.  For a while, young boys used the school grounds as places for play, but by the first of October, there weren’t enough to get up a decent game.


             With death rates at their highest down by the Elizabeth River, City Fathers wanted to move their offices, particularly the post office, farther north.  The suddenly vacant Greek temple was ideal, and school trustees did not hesitate to allow the City to use the facility.  If we cannot serve the community by educating its young, they thought, at least we can provide a place to receive words of comfort from the outside world.  But Dr. Armstrong could not help but bemoan what had happened to the Academy site.  Near the end of September he described a place where just weeks before:
Norfolk Academy photo of the 1804 Greek Temple building in downtown Norfolk.

… a crowd would collect on the ample porch and on the steps of the building, while in the yard . . . there were always boys playing marbles or engaged in some other sport, and this with all the characteristic hilarity and thoughtlessness of youth . . .Thus, even after a general gloom had spread over every corner of the city, here was a spot which yet wore a rosy, cheerful aspect.

All is changed now. Today I saw no boys playing around, no crowd collected in the porch; one by one, men with sad countenance came, and receiving their letters, turned and went away again, one having hardly the heart to speak to another.

            The Academy’s most recent Headmasters have each observed that in times of tragedy, schools are good places to be. Even on September 11, 2001, Dennis Manning said publicly what reassurance he drew from buildings full of energetic children.  It seems, however, that even the ferocious optimism of youth was no match for Yellow Fever.

             Mercifully, a premature October freeze destroyed the mosquito population and staunched the spread of the disease.  Norfolk Academy would reopen in 1856, but it would be a full decade before times would permanently turn for the better.  A Civil War would have to spend itself out across the land, and Norfolk would have to suffer occupation by what most citizens deemed a foreign power, the Union army.  Even at that nadir, our school was put to public use.  In a week or two I’ll tell you all about it.

Remembering to Smile


listen (mp3)
          This Spring we will mark the twentieth anniversary of the tragic loss of D. A. Taylor.  Whenever I permit myself to think about him, I find myself wincing and smiling at the same time.  The staying power of the foundation formed by his friends in his memory is remarkable.  Rather than fade, it seems that with each passing year the memories grow sharper and more distinct, and each year his old buddies grow more committed to preserving them.  And while that says a lot about D. A., it says perhaps even more about his friends.  Finally, it says something about this school.

             If you never knew DeShannon Artemis Taylor, you missed something.  This young man, cruelly taken from us by meningococcemia at age 16, had a personality larger than life.  To quote the Bard of Avon, he really could “set the table upon a roar.” He was a fabulous athlete and a top-notch student, but most of us remember him primarily for his style and razor wit.  Tom Duquette will tell you that when traveling with the lacrosse team there was a certain quality of laughter that would roll to the front of the bus when D.A. was at work.  And if it needed quelling, there in the middle of it all would be the young Mr. Taylor, trying his hardest to suppress that smile but not really succeeding. When it bubbled to the surface of his face, there was something about that grin and those flashing eyes that was utterly disarming.  That quality of joy made his prolonged suffering especially hard to endure.

             But this is not to memorialize D. A.  That has been done superbly many times and far better than I can manage.  I can remember Jordan Jacobs, Drew McKnight, and Russell Carter, stripped to the waist and dancing out their grief under the tutelage of Elbert Watson while a large group of seniors pressed into the old dance room to watch and to share in the intimacy of the moment.  I think of the poetry written for him, one piece particularly by Gail Flax.  Every time I pass the sculpture made for him, I think how perfect it is – black, strong, and bubbling up from within with life and motion.

             No, this is about his friends.  This is about a group of adolescents who were visited by terrible tragedy and found purpose in it.  To list them here would be to omit someone, but few people have any idea as to the scope of activity of the D. A. Taylor Foundation.  There are dinners in Manhattan, a basketball tournament in Norfolk, concerts in San Francisco.  And none of it is partying for its own sake.  These former schoolmates, now fully men, have figured out a way to transform grief into good, and they find the experience ultimately rewarding. It has become much more than honoring a lost friend.  For them, friendship has taken root in the soul.  There is a spirituality to their celebrations that these days is very, very rare.

             Where is that coming from?  I think it has to do with two things.  The first is “team.”  Not all of the Foundation members were D. A.’s classmates; some were older and some younger.  But many of them played either lacrosse or football with him.  To the extent that belonging to a team connotes the sharing of sacrifice, each of them is drawn to an annual replication of that experience. The events put on in his memory have a sense of communion, and to use a very old word, the making of an oblation.   Each of the celebrants feels as if he owes D. A. something, and each is glad to join with others in acknowledging the debt.

             The other source of the Foundation’s staying power, I think, is the longing for innocence.  These folks have passed the age of thirty, and they work in law offices, in investment banks, and in businesses all across this country.  Of course they hit the elliptical and they play pick-up basketball, but for all of them life has become, if nothing else, more complicated.  There are bills to pay and meetings to attend and family obligations to observe.  What could provide better respite from all that than to re-immerse yourself in the triumph of locker-room exhaustion after a particularly grueling practice?  What can block out the typical concerns of adult life better than re-living the moment of winning the TILT championship?  What can banish everyday worries better than the memory of the smile on D. A.’s face after one of his particularly successful bits of mischief?  And because those moments of innocence and joy were riven for a while by his passing, who wouldn’t want to recreate them?   

             The Foundation does Good Works.  There are scholarships to deserving young students and awards to those who distinguish themselves on the playing field.  More than that, the Foundation preserves a time in which life was as simple as intercepting a pass or breaking away to the goal.  Although it comes with a terrible cost, the memory of D. A. Taylor provides those who were close to him a very special place to go. He can still make them smile.

We All Scream for Ice Cream


          It just doesn’t get any better than the “ice cream social.”

       For many autumns now we have pursued the tradition of putting our youngest with our oldest to enjoy everyone’s favorite – ice cream.  Because there are typically many more seniors than first graders, many of the latter get matched with more than one senior.  Those kids count themselves lucky.  At any event, after E Bell seniors go down to the first grade classrooms to pick up their charges and take them to the Pit.  The Meriwether Godsey folks set up tables containing big tubs of ice cream and all sorts of toppings under the walkways.  It feels a little bit like Christmas morning, even if it is 80 degrees outside. Seniors visit with a first-grader.

           With some exceptions, they arrive in the same fashion – the first graders terribly nervous and out of their element, and the seniors looking mildly concerned that they won’t know how to connect with the little ones.  But ice cream, particularly chocolate ice cream topped with cherries and whipped cream, is also a universal ice breaker.  The lines move quickly, and before long there are groups of two or three all around the pit seriously digging in to their bowls.  The looks of delight on the faces of the little ones tend to erase the worried looks on the faces of the seniors.  Before long the sugar has hit the bloodstream and now there are no sitting groups.  The Pit and the area around it become a dizzy mix of games of keep-away and tag, the air filled with those unmistakable high-pitched squeals of pleasure that only six-year-olds can make.

 Lower school students and seniors enjoy ice cream.         Soon it is time to return to Smith-Hofheimer.  The trip back to the Lower School looks nothing like the trip out; it’s more of a skip than a walk.  There will be several other events in which the students will be reunited, so the goodbyes are not final.  After parting, each of the two grade levels will share stories of how silly some first grader was or perhaps how “cool” some senior was (or maybe vice-versa).  I suspect that the first grade teachers have designed some transition activity to slowly take the edge off the little ones.  And parents will hear all about it at dinner time.

          In its earliest stages, the plan of merger with Country Day School called for the lower school to remain behind on North Shore Road while grades seven through twelve set up shop on Wesleyan Drive.  Lower school students and seniors relax during the social.That would have been a terrible shame.  I can remember as a new second grader toting my yearbook up to big impressive seniors for autographs.  Getting Dubby Wynne’s signature made my year.  And even if we youngest ones were sequestered in the separate “Little Red Schoolhouse,” the main building was only steps away and grade levels mixed readily and often.  It was bigger than school spirit.  It was about belonging to something large and mysterious and absolutely wonderful.

 Seniors and lower school students.          Classes of 100+ and a campus sprawling over 85 acres make such feelings harder to produce.  Surely no one wants to go back to the days of senior classes numbering in the teens.  But with events like school-wide seminars and pep rallies and Field Day we can capture a little of the magic now and then.  I wish we could do more.

          When they were sure there was plenty of ice cream to go around, the seniors invited the faculty to fix a bowl and join the party.  It was absolutely delicious, made even better by 200 or so deliriously happy people swirling around.  So I have to repeat myself.

          It just doesn’t get any better than the ice cream social.Students write to their upper school buddies.



“Chartered” is an odd sort of word to describe the beginning of the school now known as Norfolk Academy.   We use it because the form of our creation was, if not unique, at least very different from that of most independent schools. The story of the origin of Norfolk Academy involves an act of the House of Burgesses, a surveyor from Chipping Camden, an ancient French word, an extended family, and quite possibly roasted oysters and sangria.

We begin with the Virginia colonial legislature’s 1680 “Act for the Co-Habitation and the Encouragement of Trade and Manufacture” (the “1680 Act”).  The 1680 Act represented a sort of colonial push-back against the mercantile policies of the Crown.  Because colonizing Virginia was always seen as a commercial enterprise, the British government tried to suppress any development of town centers in Virginia.  The notion was that the colony should serve only as a source of raw material while the mother country reaped all the profits of trade and manufacture.  Three generations in, the leaders of Virginia were beginning to resent this – we would do just fine making our own goods and selling them to our own citizens, thank you!  One of the obstacles to increasing such trade and manufacture was the colony’s lack of cities with accompanying workforce and port facilities.

And so, among other things, the 1680 Act called for each county to designate an area of 50 acres to act as a town center.  As to what was then called Lower Norfolk County, a parcel owned by one Nicholas Wise lying along the Elizabeth River “at the entrance of the branch” was perfect.  The County acquired the land and designated prominent citizens to act as “feoffees,” that is, trustees having fee simple title to the land but obligated to sell parcels to whoever wanted to buy, and thus Norfolk Town was born.  Ironically, King Charles II vetoed the 1680 Act when he heard about it, but it took a full three years for word to get from Virginia to London and back again, and by that time the urban cat was out of the bag.

The original feoffees hired one John Ferebee, surveyor, to plat out the fifty acres so that the town land could be sold in an orderly manner.  Ferebee had arrived some years earlier from the little town of Chipping Camden, in the Cotswolds.   By October, 1680, Ferebee’s plat was ready for recording.  It showed a planned community with 51 lots, as well as the one or two existing structures, most notably the Parish Church.  Ferebee added specific descriptions to the plat in two places; a “public market” was indicated where Commercial Place now lays, and the word “school” was placed upon lot 51, just across the “Road that Leadeth out of Town” (present-day St. Paul’s Boulevard) from the Parish Church.

The original town of Norfolk.

The highlighted area encompasses the original 50 acre plat. The designated lot for the school house is shown in the upper right section across from the church.

The designation of a spot for a public market made perfect sense, but the addition of “school” was more curious.  The 1680 Act had absolutely no provision regarding schools.  As a matter of fact, there were no schools per se anywhere else in the entire colony. Any teaching of the three R’s was done in those days by private tutors or local priests. In that sense, then, locating a school next to the church made perfect sense, but the notion of any kind of free-standing school was at the very least radical.  No one knows why Ferebee called for a school.  It is true that there had long been in Chipping Camden a grammar school called “Ferebee House,” but we can find no direct connection between that institution and our John Ferebee.  Partially because of the eventual veto of the 1680 Act, and partially because Jamestown remained “the place to be” until Williamsburg took its place in 1693, Norfolk Town grew very slowly, and for decades the designated school lot remained unimproved.

Finally, on November 13, 1728, Samuel Boush and George Newton, acting as successor feoffees, deeded the school lot in trust to Samuel Boush, Jr., Nathaniel Newton, and Samuel Smith, as trustees “for the Erecting a School house” on lot 51.  The two grantors, Sam Boush the elder (often called “Col. Boush”) and George Newton, were long-time Norfolk leaders, cousins, and great friends.  Samuel Boush, Jr., was obviously Col. Boush’s eldest son, and Nathaniel Newton was George Newton’s younger brother. Only Sam Smith, who had arrived recently in Norfolk and was making a fortune selling English linens, was from outside the family.  The Trust Deed conveyed basic powers for the three new trustees as well as limitations.  The most significant power was to select and employ “any Schoolmaster or masters.”  Equally important, the trustees were required to reserve “Actuall” possession of the lot only “for and in the behalf of the said Inhabitance of Norfolk Town.”  The rest of the Deed contained nothing more than the standard legal verbiage of the day.

Norfolk Academy charter, dated November 13, 1728

Norfolk Academy charter, dated November 13, 1728.

What prompted old George Newton and his great friend Colonel Boush to execute the Charter that fall of 1728?  Why not 1726 or 1730?  Certainly all the ingredients were there.  Political leadership had changed dramatically on both sides of the Atlantic.  Parliament was now a permanent institution, as was the Virginia Colonial Assembly. The Crown espoused a new, pro-business attitude.  A philosophy favoring the rights of the individual and the advantages gained by his education was growing in popularity.  More and more individuals were feeling the tug of philanthropy.  And Norfolk was finally growing – growing fast.  All of the original Town land had been sold. Colonel Boush was even creating the first suburb north of the Town by subdividing and selling off the west side of Church Street. There must have been a growing number of school-aged children. But again, why 1728?  Here’s one possible explanation that is fun to consider.

In the spring of 1728, all of Norfolk was agog with the news of the impending arrival of Colonel William Byrd II of Westover and his surveying team.  It seems that Virginia and North Carolina had chosen Mr. Byrd to settle the long-running dispute as to the exact location of the line dividing the two colonies.  Both in historical and physical terms, no one could agree precisely where one colony ended and the other began.

Of all the figures in either Virginia or Carolina, Byrd alone had the reputation and the political clout to force acquiescence of both colonies.  Westover was arguably the grandest plantation on the James.  Byrd could be counted as one of the wealthiest men in Virginia.  More than that, he had successfully styled himself an “aristocrat.”  From his elaborate wigs, perfume and dress to his ostentatious life-style, everything about him reeked of class.  No expense was spared at either decorating or entertaining at Westover, and when Byrd traveled, he traveled in style.  Beneath the show was a man of classical education, razor-sharp business sense, and keen wit.  In his diaries he professed to read “a chapter in Hebrew and 400 verses in Homer” (in Greek, of course) before breakfast just to stimulate his mind.  In addition to his diaries, Byrd wrote several modest texts which still read well today.  Born in this rough colony, he had acquired all the trappings of upper class.      

Byrd and his fifteen-odd surveying companions arrived in Portsmouth midday on Friday, March 1, 1728.  All but Byrd, his servant, and the expedition’s chaplain decided to remain on the south bank of the Elizabeth.  Frankly, from across the river Norfolk did not look as though it would have a pub big enough to provide them all food, much less drink. But across the river the three came for dinner at the house of George Newton.

No one can be sure who was at this modest meal. “A clean supper without any luxury,” Byrd called it.  He also commented on Mr. Newton’s wife, Aphia, who “appeared to be one of the fine ladies of the Town, and like a true fine lady to have a good deal of contempt for her husband.”  It is more than likely that George’s younger brother Nathaniel was there, and perhaps Colonel Boush and his son.  Byrd spent Saturday equipping the expedition and returned with several others of his team for a party at the home of Samuel Smith, whom Byrd described as “a plain man worth 20,000 pounds.” The entertainment consisted of “some Oysters and a Bowl,” Byrd wrote.  More than likely the oysters were pulled out of the Elizabeth and roasted, while the bowl was filled with rum punch, usually a strong, sugary mix akin to Sangria. Evidently Byrd and the chaplain survived the party intact, but not his servant “Tom, who broke the rules of hospitality by getting extremely drunk.”  Finally, after an interminable and sobering sermon at the Parish church the next day, Byrd took Sunday dinner with “Col. Boush, who stirred his Old Bones very cheerfully in our service.”  No doubt young Sam was also there for the family meal.  By Monday, the expedition was off from Powder Point (Berkley) and paddling up the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.  We know for certain, however, that the single most influential continental figure in the Colony had had the ear of all of the Trust Grantors and Grantees at least once that weekend in the spring of 1728.

Byrd would comment shortly thereafter that “Norfolk has the most ayr (sense, feel) of any town in Virginia.” One would like to believe that Byrd passed these sentiments along to his several hosts.  Byrd was a true celebrity; he wrote that “common folks in church could not attend to their devotion for staring at us, just as if we had come from China or Japan.” Messrs. Boush, Newton, and Smith may not have stared, but at least they had to be impressed with the man.  Picture Mr. Byrd, pushing back in his chair across a pine-beamed floor, puffing on a pipe, telling the “who’s who” of Norfolk that in their Town they have something special and that they must work to help it prosper.

“For instance, where’s your school?” you can hear him ask.

“Well…there’s a lot set aside for one.  We, uh, just haven’t started it yet,” comes the halting reply.

“Well, get to it,” the gentleman from Westover intones.  “You don’t want your children growing up ignorant, do you?  And if there is going to be a school, then it is your responsibility to undertake it.  It comes with being a gentleman, now doesn’t it?”

And as the expedition’s barges make their way up the river Monday morning, we can see the two cousins, Colonel Boush and George Newton, looking at each other and agreeing that Byrd is right.  We can see them resolving to put the school lot in trust, if only to keep it out of commercial hands.  Perhaps it was as they crossed the river on the ferry back to Town that they agreed that young Sam Boush, Jr. and brother Nathaniel Newton would make excellent trustees.  Perhaps Sam Smith volunteered to help, or perhaps they knew that the talents of Norfolk’s most successful new arrival could be of great service to a new school.  Within months the Charter was drawn, signed, witnessed and recorded, and Norfolk Academy sprang officially and legally to life.

Alas, there is no shred of tangible proof that any conversation like the foregoing ever took place.  But the timing of Byrd’s visit and what we know about it makes it an almost irresistible notion.  At the very least, it’s an entertaining and not entirely implausible explanation of how things began.

In any event, we know of no other independent school in the country whose existence was contemplated by an agent of local government and whose creation was accomplished by a real estate transaction.  So words like “founded” or even “begun” don’t fit.  “Chartered” works best. Coming from carta, the Latin word for map, the 1728 Charter acts more as a verbal road map than anything else.  The first free-standing schoolhouse would be built around 1755. The school would formally adopt the name Norfolk Academy in 1787 and would be formally incorporated by Act of the Virginia General Assembly in 1804, but none of these was a true beginning. It may not have been “Magna,” but our “Carta” represents a signed agreement among men that gave rise to something special. We believe that as we close in on our 300th year, we still exist, to paraphrase the Charter, for and on behalf of the inhabitants of our community.