Leap Year

As America lurched through 1968, Exeter looked within.

By
Melanie Nelson
February 5, 2018
Exeter Bulletin

A photograph of Randy Smith ’68 from the 1968 PEAN supplement may be one of the most apt visual representations of the competing forces at play in Exonians’ lives during that year of turbulence

and transformation. The black-and-white image shows Class Historian Smith in midspeech, gazing downward, his lips forming into a choirboy “O.” He looks appropriately solemn, save for one detail. “At the last minute, I decided to wear a garland of flowers in my hair,” he recalls. It was a subtle nod to hippie culture that was as much parody as solidarity, as one might discern from what Smith calls the “good-boy haircut” underneath. The garland, it turns out, was both a sign of the times … and a harbinger of changes to come. For as significant, and sometimes traumatic, events unfolded on the national and world stages during that pivotal year of 1968, Exeter was experiencing its own quiet revolution under the leadership of Principal Richard Ward Day. Described by Trustee Emeritus Rob Shapiro ’68, chief executive officer of Ropes Wealth Advisors, LLC, as “very, very pro-student,” Day, a former U.S. Army combat parachutist and Harvard Ph.D. who had arrived at Exeter in the fall of 1964, was a vocal believer in service to others and to country. Principal Day was eager to “broaden Exeter into the world, and to connect education with the purposeful application of it,” Shapiro says. These goals, coupled with Day’s charge from the Trustees to infuse a new vibrancy into Exeter, primed the school for the major changes of 1968 and beyond.

Jan. 12: Michigan Gov. George Romney delivers his first major speech of the New Hampshire Republican primary in Thompson Gym, before an audience a CBS News reporter calls "unruly and impolite."

The Milieu

A longtime resident of Manhattan, Smith, today a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, found himself at Exeter thanks, in part, to Time magazine. “My father and stepmother had read a now famous article featured in an October 1962 issue titled, ‘Excellence & Intensity in U.S. Prep Schools.’ They came to view private school as something that would further their ambitions for me. Not incidentally, Exeter, at the time, was regarded as a place that could greatly improve one’s chances of getting into a good college. Something like 55 of us went on to Harvard after graduation.”

Even while Smith’s parents were eager for him to be inculcated in the ways of an elite New England preparatory school, the traditions that for so long had characterized such institutions, and their students, were starting to fray. “It was beginning to be a place of crosscurrents,” Smith explains. “On the one hand we had this great, meritocratic system of learning in Harkness. But it was funded by a fortune that came from Standard Oil and monopoly profits. Some of the animus at the time against places like Exeter stemmed from this notion that a lot of captains of industry were graduates of these private schools or sent their kids there. In some ways, there was a lot of complicity in the stuff that was being rebelled against.”

Like Smith, Lincoln Caplan ’68, the Truman Capote Visiting Lecturer in Law and a senior research scholar in law at Yale Law School, stresses the importance of contextualizing what was or wasn’t happening at Exeter during the ’67-’68 academic year, especially based upon modes of communication then available to students.

“I have to acknowledge how different Exeter was when students didn’t have phones and internet access,” Caplan explains. “Our connection with the outside world was mostly through letters. There were the TV rooms and butt rooms, but those were places that were meant to be a distraction from the events of the day. People did read the Globe and The New York Times, and some people really attended to the news, but in general, Exeter was much more isolated in terms of communication than it is today. In those days, even Boston felt far away.”

For his part, Shapiro recalls a school that was still “heavily structured” and governed by a strong sense of decorum. “Even as the world really was changing underneath us, we were going to have our coats and ties,” he muses.

March 5: Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon makes a stop in Exeter before the New Hampshire primary.

From the outside in

At the same time that many Exonians were grappling with the Academy’s rigorous academics and compulsory requirements in an environment not yet known for its warmth, major national and world events were unfolding during 1968 in rapid-fire succession. “1967-68 felt like the year the world intruded on Exeter, and Exeter responded,” Caplan recalls. “It was a year when Exeter changed a lot, which had to do with what was happening outside Exeter and, internally, with what was happening between the people who led the school and the students.”

One of the first national calamities came on April 4, 1968, when, while standing on the balcony of his Memphis motel room, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death. “In terms of big events,” says Peter Scheer ’69, an attorney and journalist who served from 2004-16 as the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, “I do remember that MLK’s assassination sent a shock wave through the community. I recall seeing teachers walking around in the hour or two after the news broke with tears in their eyes, or even openly crying.”

1967-68 felt like the year the world intruded on Exeter, and Exeter responded."
Lincoln Caplan '68

Yet the event engendered more than great sadness at Exeter. According to Julia Heskel and Davis Dyer in After the Harkness Gift: A History of Phillips Exeter Academy since 1930 (2008), King’s assassination prompted a reckoning at the Academy on the subject of civil rights. Less than a month later, on May 1, the school celebrated Human Rights Day, which included discussions, throughout campus, of race relations. By the fall of 1968, it had hired its first black instructor.

Two months and one day after King’s assassination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, having just delivered his victory speech at the California Democratic primary, was shot several times by Sirhan Sirhan, and died the following day. Scheer says it further underscored “the sense that things were coming unglued.” Indeed, nearly three months later, on August 28, 1968, thousands of antiwar protestors took to the parks and streets of Chicago to register their collective disgust for the Vietnam War, sparking a violent clash with Chicago Police, Army troops, Illinois National Guardsmen and members of the Secret Service. Supplying the roiling international backdrop for these seminal national events of 1968, meanwhile, were the three-phase Tet Offensive, which lasted from Jan. 30 to Sept. 23; the Prague Spring, which lasted from Jan. 5 to Aug. 21; and the student demonstrations and worker strikes in France, spanning most of May and June. “It was an exciting and engaging time for young people,” Scheer recalls, “but a frightening time for older people who felt the establishment, of which they were a part, was coming under attack.”

The changing role of students at exeter

As the decade of the ’60s continued to elicit changes both subtle and monumental, Exeter, in its own way, strove to keep up. This was perhaps most evident in the evolving empowerment of students, encouraged by Dick Day,  Exeter’s 10th principal, and Edward S. Gleason ’51, who’d returned to Exeter in 1967 to become school minister.

“Dick Day really believed in the democratization of responsibilities at Exeter,” Caplan says. “He and Ted Gleason together had a sense of leadership and of the character of the institution that led them to include students in pretty important decisions in a way that hadn’t been done before.” Among other overtures, Caplan recalls Day inviting students to participate in committees that had previously been the exclusive domain of faculty and trustees.

Three years after Day’s arrival at Exeter, Gleason, who would become an iconic figure to a particular era of Exonians, was hired to replace Frederick Buechner as school minister. Up to and including the beginning of Gleason’s tenure, all students, regardless of their family faith traditions, attended “chapel” in Phillips Church six mornings per week. Yet, guided by new thinking about the dimensions of moral education, as well as advances in the field of developmental psychology, Exeter had been grappling with its mandatory church requirement since at least the early 1960s. By the spring of 1966, a poll taken by the Student Council Religion Committee indicated that “more than 80 percent of the student body was opposed to the church attendance requirement,” according to Heskel and Dyer. In late May of 1968, the Trustees, taking their cues from students and faculty, abolished mandatory church attendance, and what had previously been called “chapel” became “assembly.”

He challenged the cynical, macho, male shtick at Exeter by talking about love … how he loved his classmates."
Charlie Trueheart '69

“In this new era, where the weekly service in Phillips Church was voluntary, Gleason formed a group called the deacons,” explains Charlie Trueheart ’69, director of the American Library in Paris from 2007-17 and current Paris editor for The American Scholar. “We were assistants in Phillips Church, and our main mission was to plan services that would attract students who no longer had to come. We did all of the writing and choreography, and selected the music.”

According to Stephen Thomas ’68, founding director and outgoing head of school at The Oxbow School in Napa, California, Gleason granted his deacons freedom not only in the material they presented at services, but in the atmosphere they created for their fellow students. “Together with Rev. Gleason, the other deacons and I changed a lot about the religious offerings,” Thomas recalls. “We hung Sister Mary Corita’s posters all over the church and unscrewed the pews to create a more egalitarian seating arrangement.”

Beyond this opening up by faculty and administrators to student ideas and opinions, students were increasingly wary of tradition for tradition’s sake. For Trueheart, this was nowhere more powerfully embodied than in the words of his classmate Dan Wolff ’69.

“Dan made a speech one morning in chapel that blew all of us away,” Trueheart remembers. “He challenged the cynical, macho, male shtick at Exeter by talking about love … how he loved his classmates. He essentially shamed us for our hard-bitten cynicism and mistreatment of the weaker among us.

“That talk, ironically, but also not ironically, was called ‘The Revolution.’ It signified that the old ways were behind us, and that this was about joy and love and closeness. It shared a resonance with the Summer of Love, which had happened in 1967.”

The academy begins to diversify

On Wednesday, May 22, 1968, The Exonian published a supplement with a main headline reading “The New Black at Exeter.” Seemingly intended to take the pulse of the race issue at the Academy, it contained, among many other things, excerpts of a study of African-American Exonians conducted by Eric Gronningsater ’70; the “Proposal of Incorporation” for the Afro-Exonian Society (chartered a few months earlier in February); and a transcript of Thee Smith’s (class of 1969) chapel speech titled, “I am a Black First.”

Yet the eight-page supplement wasn’t the only thing to signal changing perceptions of race at Exeter. Coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement and with Principal Day’s commitment to augment public service opportunities for Exonians, the Academy amplified diversity recruiting efforts, relying on organizations such as A Better Chance (ABC) to identify and prepare talented students of color for life at Exeter. Strikingly, between the academic years ’64-’65 and’67-’68, enrollment of African and African-American boys at the Academy grew from eight to 42 students.

May 22: The Exonian publishes an eight-page supplement, “The New Black at Exeter,” to document the fledgling Afro-Exonian Society.

“Diversity and access mattered to Dick Day,” Shapiro believes. “Not just a stray black face here and there, but a critical mass.” Scheer agrees: “I think Exeter was one of the first schools to see the importance of this.” Both men recall a student body that, with very few exceptions, was welcoming of the change.

Acceptance, however, did not always translate to understanding, and alumni of the time, both black and white, remember growing pains. “I think it became clear pretty quickly that the black students felt as though they were in a place — it was a strange place for anyone, but bizarrely so for them — where they didn’t fit,” says Scheer.

As though to illustrate this point, Stephen Thomas, a founder of the Afro-Exonian Society, recounts a well-intended overture gone awry. “One of the topics we [African- American students] discussed is that almost all of us had requested roommates, only to learn upon arrival that we’d all been given singles. ‘They,’ which is how we referred to the administration … ‘They,’ in their benevolent paternalism, apparently thought our transition would be easier if we had private time and space. Instead, we felt exiled.

“On the whole, the Academy was doing its best with what they knew to make us all comfortable,” Thomas adds. “There were just a few faculty who could not appreciate how far from this place we were coming.”

While unquestionably imperfect, diversity efforts of the mid- to late-1960s would pave the way for more comprehensive programs in the coming decades, among them coeducation in the early 1970s, increased focus on diversity recruiting in the 1980s and 1990s under Principal Kendra Stearns O’Donnell, and the middle-income initiatives of the early 2000s.

September: Anne Cunningham is named the first woman to hold a regular faculty position at the Academy, hired for a one-year appointment in the Math Department.

The coming of coeducation

A random survey of The Exonian newspapers published from January 1968 to September 1968 yields the following headlines:

“PEA Succumbs to Feminism”

“Religion Department to Introduce Philosophy Course, Co-ed Classes”

“Mrs. Cunningham, Math Instructor, Named First Woman Faculty Member”

According to Heskel and Dyer, in After the Harkness Gift, the question of coeducation at Exeter first arose in the early 1950s — “… years before it became a focus of discussion at similar private academic institutions elsewhere.” Day’s immediate predecessor, the prescient and iconic William G. Saltonstall ’24, had been eager to transform Exeter into a “national high school,” and for some in his administration, admitting girls seemed like a logical progression. Detractors argued that females would pose too great a distraction, and the matter was eventually jettisoned, only to resurface again a decade later.

By the time most of the class of ’68 arrived at Exeter in the autumn of 1964, small numbers of girls had been attending Exeter’s summer session since 1961, and the trustee-appointed Academy Planning Committee, chaired by Science Instructor C. Arthur Compton, was recommending that the Academy add 250 girls to the school’s population. Coeducation was in the offing; it was just a matter of how and when. The fact that the idea was moving ever closer to becoming a reality, however, did little to allay the vexation of boys who, in 1968, found no girls on campus with whom to learn and socialize.

“The most challenging aspect of being a student at Exeter or other fancy prep schools during the mid- to late-’60s is that there were no females, period. None,” Scheer asserts. “This was a very strange way to live, especially given that most of us had come to Exeter from coeducational environments or had at least been to summer camps where girls were present. This kind of separation felt unnatural from the very first day for most of us.” Caplan agrees, adding that “students were all for coeducation, which probably had to do as much with instinct and longing as with how it would inevitably impact the school.”

Indeed, polls from the era indicate that a vast majority of students — and faculty — were in favor of admitting girls. Results of a survey published in the winter 1969 issue of the Bulletin show that 88 percent of students, 77 percent of faculty and 51 percent of alumni (with much stronger support from those who had graduated after World War II and the Korean War) supported coeducation.

Fortunately for Exeter, but perhaps not so much for students of the late 1960s, the coeducation matter reached its apex in the early days of 1970. After nearly two decades, numerous studies and a proposal, as late as the spring of 1968, to establish a boarding school for girls in close proximity to PEA, Exeter’s Trustees finally approved a plan to admit day student girls to the Academy in 1970 and boarding girls the following year.

While not a direct beneficiary of coeducation, Caplan was later able to observe its effects on the Exeter community. “In 1979-80, I was a White House Fellow, and from that point, every three to five years, I was invited back to Exeter as a guest of the History or English departments. In this way, I got to see the evolution of coeducation, which I believe made more of a difference in the ambience of the school and its level of happiness than anything else.”

Vietnam

When four-year boys in the class of ’68 arrived at Exeter in the fall of 1964, the Vietnam War was already a decade old. Many, having been born in 1950 or adjoining years, were the sons of World War II veterans whose stories of derring-do had helped to mold their boys’ opinions about what constituted patriotism, grit and worthy sacrifice. As such, several in the class came to the Academy with pro-war leanings, or, at the very least, with inchoate views on the subject. Rare, at that point, was the pacifist Exonian, says Jeff Gould ’68, Rudy Professor of History at Indiana University. “Back then I was one of a very small handful of students who were (or wanted to be) anti-war activists.”

Yet as U.S. involvement in Vietnam intensified under the Johnson administration, and Americans were stunned by the Tet Offensive of early 1968, public support for this increasingly bloody war of attrition, including among Exonians, waned rapidly. To further magnify the issue, during the 1967-68 school year, four Exeter alumni were killed in action.

We'd gone from respect, to at a minimum skepticism, but more broadly to outright disbelief and rejection."
Peter Scheer '69

Peter Scheer vividly recalls his own and others’ shifts in thinking about the war. “In terms of international political issues, I was struck when I got to Exeter by how conservative it was … not just the faculty and the school, but the students. A chapel talk from the fall of ’65, my freshman year, really illustrates this.

“Someone involved in the Quaker pacifist movement — she’d probably been part of the ‘Ban the Bomb’ campaign of the 1950s — came to speak out against American involvement in Southeast Asia. At one point, she held in her hands shrapnel from an anti-personnel bomb to show us how they were designed to maim.

“In response to this, the student body, in order to make clear its disagreement, began stomping its feet and yelling. It turned into a roar, and the administration perhaps moved more slowly than it usually did to tamp it down. While I had been exposed to arguments against the war through reading The New York Times, and was maybe a little more open-minded as a result, I still got caught up with the stomping.

“Now dial forward to ’67, certainly by ’68, so just a couple of years later, and something like 80 percent of the student body, and the same percent of faculty, were against the war. This reflected a broader shift in attitude generally toward government and authority and official pronouncements about American policy. We’d gone from respect, to at a minimum skepticism, but more broadly to outright disbelief and rejection.”

Like Scheer, Gould, who participated in the “Vietnam Summer,” an antiwar campaign mounted by the American Friends Service Committee during summer 1967 and who would go on to create at Exeter The New Liberator, a progressive student publication that debuted in 1968, recalls an expanding discourse around the war, one gradually more welcoming of heterogeneous points of view. That’s not to say, however, that there was no pushback, as is illustrated by Gould’s proposal to his classmates to stage a walkout on the 1968 graduation speaker Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state under President Truman and an initial supporter of the Vietnam War. Having caught wind of Gould’s plans, Principal Day called the student to his house, where, says Gould, “He politely stated, ‘Well, Jeff, I never thought of you as a fascist.’”

Back to the future

Rob Shapiro likes to say that 1968 was the year when the Academy’s trajectory became less centripetal and more centrifugal. “What we had,” he emphasizes, “is a very self-contained community of academic excellence reaching out to connect with a rapidly changing world.” Indeed, once administrators and faculty of the era (often with the explicit backing of students) permitted the proverbial doors to be opened, and the light to filter in, there was no denying that the resulting illumination was both a balm and a boon to the entire community. For all its angst and upheaval, its sadness and straining, 1968 was the year in which the modern Exeter began to take shape.

What we had is a very self-contained community of academic excellence reaching out to connect with a rapidly changing world."
Rob Shapiro '68

Today, 50 years on, a quick survey of the Academy bears this out. As of January 2018, 43 percent of current Exonians are students of color, while the gender composition of the student body is evenly split at 50 percent female and 50 percent male. From a school that hired its very first female instructor in 1968, Exeter has evolved into an institution where the majority of administrative leadership positions are held by women. Meanwhile, the sense of faculty as approachable allies versus removed disciplinarians and of the importance of including student voices in critical school decisions and programming — concepts first introduced in the late 1960s — have, with time, blossomed to the benefit of all.

Still, Shapiro emphasizes the importance of a characteristic that remains unchanged at Exeter, even today: “There was a feistiness to the Academy long before 1968 — a substrate of independence,” he says. “We had a lot of freedoms compared to students at other private schools, but also a healthy respect for structure and rules even as we were talking about the possibility of dissolving them.” That helped the Academy weather the cultural revolution of the late 1960s.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.