My dad drove my sister and me up to Northfield and Mount Hermon from Fort Benning, Georgia, before the start of the school year in 1967. Marjorie was a “cop” in Wilson Hall and had to report early, so I had a couple of days to explore Hermon’s beautiful campus before starting in as a sophomore. Dad was a member of the Class of 1944. He had been sent to Hermon when his father had gone off to Europe to fight in World War II. Now, just months after Dad’s return home from Viet Nam, he and my mother were tightening the family belt so that I could be a Hermonite, too. By doing so, they spared me the series of three different high schools that would otherwise have been my lot as the family moved from posting to posting.
Dad and I were roommates for a night in Overtoun before he headed south on the return trip. He had lived in that venerable building a quarter-century before. It must have seemed ancient even then. I have a photo of him sitting elbows over knees in front of Overtoun, showing off brightly striped socks, a big maroon “H” on a black sweater, his luxuriant pompadour, and a broad smile. The picture reminds me of what it was like to be young.
That fall, New England and Mount Hermon were aflame with two different raging fires in addition to the orange and red foliage: First of all, the Red Sox were in the pennant race (Conigliero would soon suffer the notorious career-ending beaning). Second, Eugene McCarthy was challenging Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president. Cheers of “rah, rah, rah Red Sox” punctuated our meals in West Hall, and pro-McCarthy sentiments dominated lunchtime conversation with the faculty members assigned to our tables. It was quite a new milieu for an Army brat who had never lived in New England. There was the family connection, of course, and not just through Dad — my mother was a Northfield girl. Yet, at the same time, there was the unease of feeling out of place, a stranger in a strange land.
Our Headmaster, Art Kiendl, somehow got word of my discomfort. He invited me to his office for a chat that was heartening without being in the least coddling. His gruff exterior masked a sensibility that was deeply in tune with what it was like to be a young boy away from home for the first time. He won my unwavering loyalty on that occasion.
Later that year, Mr. Kiendl showed up at Overtoun to visit with the boys during the study hour break one night. (You don’t know what exuberant madness is unless you’ve shared a dormitory with 120 fourteen-year-old males.). The Headmaster chatted us up until the bell rang to signal the resumption of quiet study time. “Alright, you rats,” he intoned, “back in your holes!”
Still later, in the springtime, our class gathered in the Overtoun basement, reeling from the news that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. It was a gut-wrenching scene, fraught with confusion and raw emotions.
The contrast between those moments somehow encapsulates for me our entire time at Mount Hermon: the old-school jocularity of our little enclave, burst in upon (not for the last time) by agonizing forces that were rending the country at large. “Time it was and what a time it was …” And what a place, too – a very fine place I feel blessed to have known.