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Lawrenceville School history presentation

In my senior year of high school 2006-07, I abused a position on the student council to present a school history in an all student meeting. Not the first nor the last time I would try to feed an audience some history veggies. Posting here for posteriority (and in advance of my 10 year reunion next weekend).

The story of Lawrenceville is really the story of John Cleve Green, who made his fortune in the 19th-century off the opium trade. Despite these origins in the drug trade, Lawrenceville turned out to be a dang good school, and its lineage through Isaac van Arsadale Brown gives it a claim as the third oldest in the country.

The remarks as I had prepared them are below. I assume I extemporized the conclusion, probably commenting on then-Head Master Elizabeth Duffy in some way.

Hello all, I’m here to give a brief presentation on the School’s history. My fascination with this saga began last spring when I was researching a feature article for the Alumni Weekend edition of the Lawrence. That article was on a Fumitaka Konoye L’34, and to write it, I spent some time in the archives. I’ve enjoyed learning more about the School since then.

I’d like to begin with a quote from Woodrow Wilson. “Schools like Lawrenceville are special because they provide a process of the classroom and furnish a process of life,” he said. And truer words regarind our school have never been spoken. Lawrenceville, at its core, is unqiue because of the community it provides, its very process of life.

In 1802, Dr Isaac van Arsdale Brown graduated from The College of New Jersey, what is now Princeton, and moved to Maidenhead, which was just five miles away, to be Pastor of its Presbyterian Church. In 1808 he drew up the School’s Charter, and in 1810, the School opened as Maidenhead Academy with 9 boys, one of which was John Cleve Green. By 1820, the school had 25 students ranging from 8 years old to late teens. The Academy was open year round except for April and October, the vacation months. For a while at least Brown taught all the classes.

Brown, I think, was looking for a fresh start when he sold the School to Phillips. Phillips, however, was around for just a short period of time. His most interesting trait is his relation to those other Phillips. Whereas Andover’s founder Samuel Phillips and Exeter’s founder John Phillips were great grandsons of George Phillips, Alexander Phillips was his great great great grandson. A tenuous connection, yet it is true nonetheless. Phillips soon left the School to pursue a law career. He was actually a strong secessionist, and in 1866, he was a part of Texas’ Constitutional Convention that reestablished relationships between Texas and the USA. The 1860 census listed him as owning seven slaves.

A brief tangent: this is where Will Huston lives. In 1834 a teacher left the school to found the Lawenceville Female Seminary. When he died just a month later, the Seminary came back under control of the old school. So, you see, we’ve had girls around much longer than many think… now back to the story.

OK, so Phillips had sold the school to Samuel McClintock Hamill. Hamill’s greatest contribution was improving the academic character of the School. The school was colloquially known as Hamill’s School.

Let me spend a quick moment describing Lawrenceville’s roundabout savior, John Cleve Green, and his career. When he got to New York City in 1816, he was employed by N L and G Griswold, a shipping company. It is of note that he married his boss’ daughter, Sarah Helen Griswold. As a great benefactor of serendipity, he found himself in canton (Guangzhou) China in 1833.

The British East India Company had held a monopoly on the importation of opium into China, but that monopoly ended in 1833, while Green was there. Luckily for John, a partner of the highly competitive Russell and Company firm had become sick. Green was invited to join them, and he enjoyed five years of highly lucrative opium trafficking, until 1838 when the Chinese government imposed a death penalty on any convicted opium smugglers. A number of years later, Cleve died from an unknown illness, and from then on his legatees took care of his estate. Green’s legatees bought the school, because it had had a definite impact on John himself. With John Cleve Green’s capital, the legatees were able to spend extraordinary amounts of money to refound the School.

Really, their first acquisition was James Cameron Mackenzie as Headmaster. His contribution to the school was so great as to be nearly unrivaled. He persuaded the trustees to adopt Rugby’s House system, and to have a Senior House with great freedom to prepare the older boys for college. There was a lot of debate between the trustees and Mackenzie about that Upper House, and he nearly left in spite, but eventually prevailed, and got his senior dorm.

The trustees of the school spared no expense in designing their new campus. They were a little neligent of the past though, an original plan included the removal of Hamill House. The architechtual firm was Peabody and Stearns, one of, if not the, best in the gilded age. And, as almost every one in this room knows, the Circle was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed central park. At this time, with the new facilities and a new group in power, school spirit absolutely flourished. Some reasons for that are the advent of house sports, the introduction of school colors, the expansion of interscholastic sports, the singing of school songs, and the success of the Lawrence, the Olla Podrida, and The Lit (established in 1896 by Owen Johnson, Lawrenceville’s first post graduate student. He graduated with the class of 1895 but was readmitted so he could spend a year starting Lawrenceville’s Literary Magazine.

On March 28, 1899, Mackenzie resigned because of irreconciable differences between him and a trustee.

Simon John McPherson was the next headmaster. His greatest gift, in my mind, was student government. Upper, for instance, was almost completely sovereign. Its board of student directors had power that could be checked only by the veto of the Headmaster. McPherson also began the Student Council in 1916 with 8 V Formers, the Five Circle Presidents, and the Hamill and Davis Presidents. Davis House was the name the Lawerenceville Female Seminary was given when it was incorporated into the boys’ school.

In another Lawrenceville historians mind, McPhersons greatest accomplishment was connecting the students of Hamills’ era to the new school by way of a reorganized alumni association.

McPherson died of influenza on January 9 1919 and Lawrenceville was little prepared for what was about to hit them.

‘Bott’ as Mather Almon Abbott was called hit the School like a storm. In his first year, he “fired” nintey boys and eight masters. He’d call a person into his office, get the facts (or tell them), and then down came the swift hand of justice, ala Donald Trump but without any humor. He was a fantastic orator and a superb leader, and was later compared favorably to Winston Churchill.

He was also an anti-prohibitionist, a singular trait for a Headmaster. He opened speeches by saying, “I am the Headmaster of The Lawrenceville School. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I am here to tell you that the 18th Amdendment is runing your children.” He believed prohbition actually made drinking more “sporitng” among teenagers. When Abbott tried to resign in 1927, over a dispute with the board, there was a tremendous outcry in favor of the bott. He stayed on until his death in 1934.

“There was something of Caeser in his face,” said the novelist Frederick Buechner. “There was vigor and conviction in his expression and when he smiled it was with tremendous zest.” Heely’s gift to the School was the Harkness system. Edward Harkness was a philanthropist who donated to a number of academic institutions. In fact, Exeter’s Headmaster Lewis Perry (lawrenceville class of 1894) had just secured a five million dollar gift for his school. So Heely got to talking to Harkness and was able to secure monies to remodel Memorial Hall and the Fathers Building and to build a new administration building. Heely was also the Headmaster in power when Lawrenceville began to want a cash endowment.

Heely died during the summer of 1959. So, Bruce McClellan was offered the headmastership for the 150th year at the lawrenceville school. McClellan, who had excellent leadership techniques, was the first Headmaster that was really concentrated on fundraising. This was partly because of coincidence, having come into power just in the middle of the 150th Anniversy Fund Drive. Lawrenceville has always been building rich and endowment poor. McClellans most pressing legacy was his support of coeducation.

Another Fundraising Headmaster, Josiah Bunting III saw to it that Lawrenceville’s endowment went from $65 million to $142 million during his tenure. He was also in power for the actual arrival of girls on campus.He was a big proponent of the inherent responsibility that comes from living in a community. Between Bunting and Michael Scott Cary, Philip Jordan Jr served as interim headmaster.

It’s easy to see how Cary’s emphasis on making Lawrenceville a more closely knit community was a result of his time at Deerfield, a school known for a singular amount of school spirit amongst prep schools. He introduced all-school meetings, and for that I guess I should thanking him. Cary raised more than $100 million dollars during his time as headmaster.

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