The year was 1969. Richard Nixon was the new President, the Vietnam War was in full force, and racial tension was palpable, even on campus. The values and customs upon which the United States had been founded were being challenged. At times, it seemed two generations of Americans were themselves at war.
As I recall it was a gorgeous Sunday in the early spring. The snow we had been trudging through for four months had finally melted. Everywhere was the special green that comes only once a year when all the trees first leaf. The early morning fog had burned-off and the air was warm, but free of humidity – crisp and clear.
All the windows in Crossley were wide open and music of every type imaginable was pulsing out. On the off chance that I might complete homework I had been procrastinating over, I wandered down to Beveridge Hall and began studying. At some point I realized I was not alone, and I looked up and was greeted by name by Dean Burnham. I was surprised that he not only knew me by name but was aware of how I was performing academically and in what activities I was engaged.
As a transplanted public high school student, I was just beginning to learn of the degree to which the faculty and administration at Mount Hermon were caring and dedicated. Later, when I returned to NMH to teach as a student intern in its summer program, I witnessed that this extraordinary dedication was the rule, not the exception.
Dean Burnham asked what I was studying and whether I was enjoying private school.
I think I mentioned that I found my classes challenging, and that our regular late-night discussions in the dorm and frequent dinner debates were equally thought-provoking. I do specifically recall Dean Burnham asking what it was that we debated. I commented in an offhand manner something to the affect: “You know, the usual, sex, drugs and rock and roll.” At that point I expected he would continue doing whatever had brought him to Beveridge Hall on a Sunday afternoon. But again, he surprised me.
He smiled with those kind eyes of his and pulled up a chair…… and we talked.
We talked for quite a while. Not as a Dean and one of his many charges.
We talked as two curious individuals genuinely exploring our ideas and opinions.
As our discussion progressed, we shared both our heartfelt convictions and deep-seated personal doubts.
Dean Burnham had an uncanny ability to completely focus on you and to make you feel nothing was more important at that moment than your exchange. He had the gift of a great listener.
I do not recall exactly what we discussed, but I will never forget that he made me feel the concerns with which I was wrestling were significant and that my opinions mattered. In his gentle, unassuming way he encouraged me to continue to think independently. His smiling presence and patience affirmed for me – at a precarious time – the importance of finding my own path.
This was a gift he gave to me and to innumerable young adults. As a teacher, coach, and Dean, Dean Burnham gently touched the lives of many hundreds of students. After he left NMH and served as a Headmaster at several private schools, I know he continued to inspire a generation of students and dedicated educators.
I, for one, feel blessed to have been touched by his caring and the dedication of all the coaches, teachers, and administrators at Mount Hermon that changed the trajectory of my life.