Mr. Taft

History

Horace Dutton Taft got his start in 1890 as a schoolmaster when he was invited by a family friend, Mrs. Robert Black, to head a brand new college preparatory school for boys in Pelham Manor, New York. Until then Taft’s experience as an educator had been limited to tutoring Latin at Yale, his alma mater. Here, presented with 17 students of “extraordinary variety for how few they were,” Horace Taft plunged headlong into the complete education of the boy, and indeed his own as a headmaster. Mrs. Black named the small institution “Mr. Taft’s School.”

Pelham Manor

Often noted for his warmth, humanity, and sense of humor, Horace Taft described the first years at Pelham Manor: “It was a most comical beginning of a school. The furniture arrived at the same time the boys and their parents did, and I put both to work on the front porch opening boxes. Carpenters were at work upstairs, putting up the beds. Mr. Black was there, and he was moving around, entertaining parents and boys. Considering how few they were (seventeen), there was an extraordinary variety among the boys. An undue proportion of them had been in other boarding schools and knew more about the inside of one than I did.” As he would for the rest of his career as a headmaster, Horace embraced the education of the whole boy, and in true boarding school fashion, got a dose of the same experience himself. In addition to managing the school, Mr. Taft taught Latin and mathematics, and lived the 24-hour job of dormitory master.

“Discipline was primitive and direct. I had a room in the middle of the house on the second floor, and I could reach almost any boy. I waked the boys up in the morning, pulling the blankets off when necessary. There ought to have been a Mark Twain there to describe that school.” He soon cultivated what would become his life-long calling as a headmaster: “One thing cheered me mightily. I suppose that nothing pleased me so much in my plan for a boys’ school as the idea that I might be a lay preacher, that association with boys would give me opportunity for influencing their ideas and ideals. In my stay at Pelham Manor I learned a great deal about a headmaster’s work, even if a large part of it consisted of learning how not to do it.”

At the end of his second year at Pelham Manor, Horace married Winifred Thompson, a teacher at New Haven High School. By then he had decided to find a location for his school farther from New York City. In 1893 the young couple moved the fledgling school to Watertown, Connecticut.

Why Watertown?

The Tafts had been introduced to western Connecticut during visits to a friend in Litchfield. For a while they were determined to locate there, and seriously considered three possible sites. In the meantime, word of their search for a ready-made facility had gotten out. It ended in March 1893 when an acquaintance from Yale offered his family’s hotel, which stood languishing in a place called Watertown. Wasting no time, Horace and “Winnie” spent a frigid day inspecting the 30-year-old Victorian ark called The Warren House. It was, in Taft’s words, “a forsaken place,” cold and dirty. Despite “the chill of the visit” the young couple decided to lease the building and its six acres with an option to purchase the property in five years. The Tafts quickly realized that Watertown was more accessible to New Haven and Waterbury than Litchfield, and felt immediately welcomed by the community. Thus, with a $10,000 loan, they set about refurbishing the great old building. With the exception of the tremendous disparity between the room sizes, oft-mentioned parental fears about the “Firetrap,” and well water of dubious quality for drinking, the property seemed to the Tafts like “Paradise” after Pelham Manor, and served the fledgling school adequately for the next two decades.

The Warren House
The Warren House

The Taft School, Watertown

Mr. Taft’s School opened in the fall of 1893 in the Warren House, a large, drafty old structure which had seen better days as a hotel. There were five masters, 30 boarders, and a handful of day students. Latin, mathematics, English, history, and science comprised the curriculum, with Greek and modern languages (French and German) offered additionally to the older classes. Early on, Mr. Taft instituted the monitorial system as a way of teaching responsibility and introducing student self-governance. In 1898 he changed the name of the five-year-old enterprise to The Taft School.

In his early school catalogs, Taft touted Watertown’s “clear, dry, and bracing air” and made clear his expectation that the boys would “take vigorous part in athletics.” The Warren House property included some very wet fields for the first football and baseball games played against the Gunnery, Hopkins Grammar and other area schools. The first track teams competed on a horse race track which dated from the hotel’s early days. There was informal amusement, too, for boys and grown men alike. Old photographs reveal Horace joining in baseball games and sledding sessions down the Green Hill and into town. Although he was revered as the embodiment of all the school stood for—character, intellect, hard work—this consummately dignified headmaster was also beloved for his humanity and sense of humor. His students called him “The King.”

Horace Taft with 3 sons
Horace D. Taft with students

The Taft Family

Horace Taft’s older brother, William Howard Taft, had been politically prominent as secretary of war under Theodore Roosevelt, but his career reached its pinnacle in his election as president in 1908. Horace and Will enjoyed a close relationship, and the president’s two sons graduated from Taft. Thus the year 1909 opened with great excitement for the Taft family. Will’s second son, Charles Phelps, was among the younger boys in the school when his father was elected president. Horace felt it only right that Charles should be allowed to attend his father’s inauguration. But how to how to justify to the rest of the school Charles’ absence? Horace’s solution was to rule that no boy could leave campus except to attend his father’s inauguration as president of the United States!

Later, in that same euphoric year that his brother became President, Horace Taft suffered a tremendous personal blow: the death of his wife from cancer. Winifred Taft had taken critical part in the operation and sustenance of the new school, supporting her husband in his ideals and work, managing the school’s finances, and in the myriad activities she planned with and for the students. She had also developed close friendships and associations in Watertown, and become a literary and intellectual leader in her circle. Horace Taft described her death as “the kind of blow that divides a man’s life in two.”

For years Horace and Winifred Taft together had envisioned a proper boarding school campus for their prospering enterprise, and planned to build it on their land on Nova Scotia Hill, some two miles distant. During the last years of her life, Winifred had been collaborating on architectural plans for a new school building with the New York firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson. However, Mrs. Taft’s illness made the relocation impracticable, and the campus developed in situ, just off the Watertown Green. The present-day heart of the school, HDT and CPT Halls, which house the administrative offices, reception areas, classrooms and auditorium, date from the first major construction phases of 1912–13 and 1929–30.

In 1908–10 “The Annex”, the school’s first building project, was constructed opposite the Warren House, where the Taft parking lot is now. This large, gambrel-roofed building served as a dormitory for students and faculty for the next fifty years. In 1911 a wooden gymnasium was built where HDT Hall stands now. The school’s incorporation in 1912 was followed by the first major construction phase, with the building of Horace Dutton Taft Hall (1913–14), following Bertram Goodhue’s design.

A New Campus: Building in Brick for the Ages

In order to raise the necessary funds to develop the campus, the privately owned school was turned over to a board of trustees in 1926. With major new funds in place, the school built Martin Infirmary (now McIntosh) and staff residence (Congdon). The main campus soon took on its present-day form as the Warren House was torn down and replaced with Charles Phelps Taft Hall and Bingham Auditorium in 1929–30. The student body had grown to 323 boys, the faculty numbered 27.

Math teacher Ed Douglas with Students
Math teacher, Ed Douglas, with students

Taft’s mission was to educate “the whole boy.”

The masters were almost all Ivy League graduates who pushed their students relentlessly in their quest for excellence and high College Board scores. Most graduates in Mr. Taft’s time went on to Yale, and there many became class leaders and Phi Beta Kappa students. Although Taft academics were demanding, they were only part of the whole picture. According to a student at the time, while the classroom atmosphere was “rigorous and unyielding, there existed quite a close and warm relationship out of class between us boys and our masters. Perhaps that was due to the amazingly high ratio of one master for every ten boys. More probably it was fostered by the colorful personalities of the members of the teaching staff which drew young man to them. We knew them well, and they us, and the net result was very good indeed.” Athletics, music, drama, literary and other club activities provided outlets for various extracurricular talents, and an alternative context for student-faculty interaction.

Headmaster Taft himself got to know his charges. Early on he began the long tradition of hosting small groups of boys for Sunday suppers in his living quarters. These evenings provided an informal setting for discussions of “any subject from European politics to the last unpopular rule adopted by the faculty.”

In 1936, after 46 years as headmaster, Horace Dutton Taft retired. Since his inauspicious start at Pelham Manor he had come to be regarded as one of the most revered headmasters in New England. After a year away, he returned to teach his favorite course—Civics—to Taft seniors.

Students watching baseball game from stone wall lining Woodbury Road
Students and their guests watch a baseball game from the stonewall lining Woodbury Road.

The Cruikshank Era, 1936–1963

In February of the following year a search committee appointed the man who would succeed Horace Taft as headmaster. Paul Fessenden Cruikshank seemed a perfect fit: a Blair Academy and Yale graduate who had majored in law and history, a past teacher and coach at Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven and at the Gunnery, and founder of the Romford School in nearby Washington, Connecticut. Surely Mr. Taft appreciated the close parallels to his own career and was pleased with the appointment. In the summer of 1936 Paul and Edith Fitch Cruikshank and their four children moved in to the Headmaster’s quarters in Horace Dutton Taft Hall.

For his first year of retirement Horace Taft gracefully “exiled himself” to California. On his return to Watertown, Cruikshank invited Taft to take an active role in the life of the school. In addition to teaching his class in civil government, the former headmaster spoke weekly at Vespers and hosted Sunday suppers for seniors at his home. Cruikshank later wrote of Horace Taft: “Close as he was to the school and active as he was in its life, he never once offered me gratuitous advice.”

While he was a strict and serious headmaster known for his unrelenting emphasis on moral standards, respect for authority, and his famous insistence on gray flannels and wingtips over khakis and loafers, Cruikshank believed deeply in the ability of the upperclassman to “regulate” himself so as to find his own balance between work and play. New privileges were extended to seniors and upper middlers (juniors) even as life was highly regimented, with compulsory meals (including breakfast,) daily Vespers, and church on Sundays.

The War Years

The War years had a profound effect upon campus life. The departure of much of the school’s staff for wartime work required that the boys take over responsibility for much of the daily care of the school. Student monitors supervised student KP duty, waited on dining tables (previously the task of staff waitresses) and cleaned classrooms, halls, stairs and other public spaces. While they continued to be the ones to clear the hockey rink (which was then the Pond) the boys took over the tasks of mowing the campus grounds and harvesting fruit at local farms for the kitchen. In fact, so much work was done by the students in World War II that the school’s tuition dropped from $1,450 to $1,250.

Another wartime change was the accelerated graduation program, instituted in 1943, in which rising seniors took a summer semester so that they could graduate from Taft in February. Cruikshank felt strongly that the boys finish their secondary education before entering the military. Many faculty members also left Taft temporarily to join the war effort. At Vespers the headmaster would read the names of alumni killed in the line of service; in all there were 59.

Cruikshank’s great legacy was the expansion of the curriculum and the increase in academic standards at Taft. While student enrollment stayed fairly steady at 345 boys between 1930 and 1960, the faculty grew by 50%, the course selection by 200%, and many AP courses were introduced. During the 1940s and early ’50s the number of student clubs exploded as well, owing in part to wartime advances in technology and skills, such as chemistry, navigation, radio, ski and outing. Debates with other New England prep school teams, especially arch rivals Choate and Hotchkiss in the Triangular Cup, continued to be popular.

Mays Rink
The Mays Rink

One of the most exciting and enterprising events of the time took place in the year 1949–1950, when hockey coach and math teacher Len Sargent decided to build an artificial ice rink for Taft. After traveling the country on a fund-raising trip that summer, he returned to Watertown and mobilized over 3,000 hours of help from students and faculty to construct the first such facility in the independent-school world. After the structure was given a roof, the resulting quantum leap in practice time helped to ensure Taft’s dominance in the prep school ice hockey league for more than a decade.

There were many other additions and improvements to the campus during the Cruikshank years, including the purchase of faculty houses, construction of an up-to-the-minute science center in 1960, a language lab, the “New Gym”, and the interior rehabilitation of several of the main buildings.

In 1961, he hired a 20-year-old teacher named Lance Odden, fresh out of Princeton, who began offering a course in Far Eastern History. Until then, history offerings had been confined to the traditional categories of Ancient, Medieval, European and American. Russian History and Asian Studies were soon added.

Edith Cruikshank was universally regarded as a gracious, maternal figure by the boys and known for her tea and cinnamon toast gatherings in the Headmaster’s quarters. She was appreciated particularly for her special efforts to study the photo and file of each new boy before he arrived on campus in the fall, so she would know every student’s name and something about their background. Her kindliness may have been most appreciated by the youngest members of the community, the eighth graders, who formed the junior class until the level was phased out in 1958. As with all headmasters’ wives, Mrs. Cruikshank’s job included hosting visiting parents, dignitaries, and athletic teams, and accompanying her husband on frequent school-related travels, in addition to raising four children.

The Esty Years, 1963–1972

In 1963 Paul Cruikshank retired, and the Board of trustees hired John Cushing Esty, associate dean and instructor in math at Amherst College, to be the next headmaster.

He and his wife Katharine, an author and mother of their four children, took over Taft at the dawn of the tumultuous ’60s. With his energetic intellect and ambitious ideals, Esty set out to renew the educational experience at Taft. His mission was to question some of the traditional tenets of education and to introduce opportunities and experiences that would foster the development of students’ identities and self-esteem as they moved from adolescence into young adulthood.

Esty recast the mold of the headmaster and asked new things of the faculty: to foster their students’ reflection on the experiences and material they were exposed to, rather than be asked simply to know it. Like other younger educators of his generation, Esty encouraged critical thinking and active discussion inside and outside the classroom.

Ideally, for Esty, good work habits and achievement should be discovered by the student himself, and learning be its own reward. Accordingly, one of Esty’s first initiatives was the Independent Studies Program, which he introduced in 1964 under Lance Odden’s supervision. This was intended to allow the more mature senior boy to follow a chosen field of interest with a teacher’s guidance, and to exert some control over his own life at school. He was not required to attend classes, or the job program or athletics, and exempted from some of the dormitory rules, but was expected to complete all regular course work and behave responsibly. The early IS projects ranged from literary criticism and playwriting to an analysis of American foreign policy in Latin America and the construction of a harpsichord. The program brought a host of distinguished visiting speakers, professors and artists to campus, such as Robert Penn Warren and Archibald MacLeish.

Esty’s experiment in education included changes in daily school life for all students.

The Sunday schedule was loosened considerably, allowing boys to sleep in, and to attend the church of their choice in the afternoon. Where Vespers under Horace Taft and Paul Cruikshank had been a formal, serious function with only the headmaster and the most senior faculty presiding, or perhaps a guest speaker, Sunday Vespers was eliminated, and the weekday Vespers format was opened to a wide array of students and faculty as well as outside presenters.

Before he finished his decade as headmaster, Esty and the school’s trustees began the giant move toward co-education. In the spring of 1971, 82 girls entered Taft.

Opening day of the Arts and Humanities Wing, April 26th 1986
Opening day of the Arts and Humanities Wing, April 26, 1986

Lance Odden’s Headmastership, 1972–2001

In 1972, the school’s second year of co-education, Lance Odden was named the new headmaster. In 1966 he had spent a year and two summers studying for his M.A. in history at the University of Wisconsin, writing his graduate thesis “U.S. Relations with China, 1929–31.” Odden’s intellectual passion for history and Asian Studies was balanced by his career in coaching the boys’ varsity lacrosse and hockey teams. His wife, Patsy Odden, would become assistant director of athletics and coach of the hugely successful girls’ varsity hockey teams.

Odden’s mission at Taft was to put the school on a comparable footing with the other principal New England prep schools at a time when admissions were becoming increasingly competitive. For the next 29 years, the first couple directed and oversaw the transition to coeducation, the diversification of the student body, an explosion in the arts offerings, and a huge increase in the institution’s endowment. Major campus improvements during Odden’s time included the expansion of the athletic facilities, the construction of the Arts and Humanities Center, the Wu Math and Science Center, the renovation of the Library, Centennial Dormitory, and a second hockey rink.

The headmaster continued to teach until his retirement in 2001. During his 30-year tenure at Taft, Lance Odden became a leading figure in the roster of New England secondary school headmasters. In his years as headmaster he repeatedly echoed Horace Taft’s stated goals to “educate the whole (child)” and to urge upon his largely privileged students the importance of using their educations to contribute as responsible citizens and humane leaders in the world.

William R. MacMullen ’78, 2001–

In February 2001, the Board of Trustees appointed its first Taft-educated headmaster: William R. MacMullen, ’78. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale and his master’s degree from Middlebury. MacMullen was hired as an English teacher in 1983, and had served as dean of faculty, dean of academic affairs, a college counselor, a class dean and boys’ varsity soccer coach. His wife Pam is also an English teacher, dean, and coach at Taft. “Mr. and Mrs. Mac,” as they are affectionately known by students, have two boys, John and Tom. MacMullen is the school’s fifth headmaster in its 119-year history.

Under his leadership, the school has added Walker Hall, the new Moorhead Academic Center, the installation of an artificial turf athletic field, the creation of the Global Studies Department, expansion of the office of Multicultural Affairs and Education, a steady increase in financial aid as well as increased diversity of the faculty and student body.

The most significant change in recent years is the renovation of Horace Dutton Taft Hall [1914] that included the expansion of the dining halls and restoration of the founder's residence into the Moorhead Wing. Designed by the Gund Partnership of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the wing include Laube, Prentice and East dining halls and the Mortara Academic Wing.

 

THE TAFT SCHOOL  | 110 Woodbury Road | Watertown, Connecticut 06795 | 860-945-7777 | Info@taftschool.org