Boyden of Deerfield



ON A September morning in 1902, an inconspicuous and almost frail young man who had graduated from Amherst College the previous June walked up to the front door of the old schoolhouse in Deerfield, Massachusetts, which was Deerfield Academy. It was no coincidence that, within, the board of five trustees was holding a meeting to decide whether or not they should close the Academy. Chance no doubt played some part when the trustees finally decided to engage the applicant as the new principal, —for the outcome of almost all such interviews is unpredictable, — but chance has had very little to do with the fact that Frank L. Boyden, the young man from Amherst, has remained as principal now for forty years.

Approval of the choice was not universal. As the neighbors looked out of their windows at this one-hundred-and-twenty-pound youth with glasses, — not at all the type they had hoped for, — the feelings of many were that Deerfield Academy, which had had its ups and downs since its foundation in 1797, was in for another disappointment and had much better close up for good. Little would be added to the ancient luster given it by such a former head as Dr. Edward Hitchcock, who had propounded and proved to an astonished world the theory that the earth is millions of years old.

Always a believer in athletics, although apparently no athlete himself, the newly appointed principal on his first afternoon in office called out the fourteen boys in the school for football practice. They were an oddly assorted group dominated by a big freshman whom we shall call Smith. In a scrimmage Smith was thrown heavily and let go some oaths which constituted a great part of his meager vocabulary. Instantly the diminutive new principal stopped the scrimmage, looked the six-footer in the eye, and said, “Cut that out.” “Yes, sir,” said Smith. This was Frank Boyden’s first case of discipline, and no more important case has come up in his forty years of service.

Late that afternoon a townswoman who had seen the principal crossing the road in the morning leaned over her fence to exchange ideas with a neighbor who was working in his garden. “I saw the new principal this morning,” she said. “He’ll never do.”

“You’re wrong,” chuckled the gardener. “I was at their football practice this afternoon. We’ve got a man.”

On that first day Mr. Boyden called on Captain Ephraim Williams, a patriarch of the village. He found him sitting in a rocking chair before a blazing fire, a shawl on one arm and in his other hand a fan. “I have a shawl and a fan,” he said, “because I am not sure whether I am going to have a chill or a fever.” But Captain Ephraim Williams, like Sophia Smith and Mary Lyon, thought the education of the Deerfield Valley of supreme importance. These people were willing to scrimp that boys and girls might be educated. Consider Dickinson hired a woman to keep house for him at twenty-five cents a week, and when he discovered that she was saving money on it he married her! In the old cemetery at Deerfield are two tombstones, and on the bottom of one is the following inscription: “These stones were gratuitously erected by Consider Dickinson in memory of his Father and Mother-inlaw.” But Consider Dickinson and his wife left their fortune to found the Dickinson High School in order that the boys and girls of Deerfield might have an education.

Seldom if ever can the ways and means of education which have proved successful in one country, one school, and, I am almost tempted to say, in one teacher’s classes be transplanted to another country, school, or class. In education, certainly, the style is the man. So, to approach the secret of Mr. Boyden’s great administration at Deerfield, it is necessary to know something about the town itself.

With its wide streets, spreading elms, old colonial houses, and exciting ancient history, it is, of course, one of the most beautiful and fascinating towns in New England. In the seventeenth century the settlement was several times raided by the Indians, the most serious raid being in 1704, when many captives were carried off to Canada, some never to return. In one of the earlier raids on Deerfield and the neighboring town of Hadley, tradition has it that one of the “regicides” who had condemned King Charles to death reappeared to warn and rally the defenders. With the somewhat later history of Deerfield is connected the name of Eleazar Williams, undoubtedly the great-grandson of the Reverend John Williams, of Deerfield, and somewhat more doubtfully the “Lost Dauphin” of France, as he steadfastly maintained he was until his death in 1858. The “Lost Dauphin” once told George Sheldon, the historian: “When I am on the throne of France, I’ll send over a battleship and take all the people of Deerfield to Paris and give them a good time.”

Deerfield has always been more a part of the world than some of its small neighbors, and its inhabitants for centuries have been not only readers and lovers of books but, together with scenes and settings in Deerfield, the stuff of which literature and art are made. Somehow the chance remark which a wonderful old lady of over eighty made to me this summer seemed to epitomize the spirit of the place better than I can. “ In Deerfield,” she said with some pride, “we have always danced.”


Some sixty years ago Polish people began coming to the Valley, to cultivate the tobacco and onion fields. Saving their money and buying up farms, they have become a very substantial part of the population of the region. Even in 1902 they were there in great numbers, and whatever admiration one may feel for cultivated natives of Poland, one cannot help thinking that the granite doorsteps of Yankee farmers were probably more fertile soil for seeds of education than the front yards of immigrant Polish peasants. Nevertheless, Frank Boyden set about spreading the gospel that every boy and every girl in the neighborhood should have an education, and that they should get their education at Deerfield Academy. So the new principal hitched up his buggy and began to call on the neighbors and the people of the surrounding farms. To anyone who knows Frank Boyden, that was a perfectly characteristic thing to do. He has an interest in people which is genuine, and many of the staunchest supporters of Deerfield Academy today are the sons and the daughters of the people whom he called on forty years ago.

From the first it became apparent that it was the new principal’s ambition to make of Deerfield Academy a community school. Besides an evident belief in athletics as a kind of scholastic tonic and, for the town, a social solvent, he soon showed concern for the social manners of his boys and girls. The four receptions a year which he arranged may not seem to be an infallible recipe for social graces, but they pleased the town and Mr. Boyden. Consequently, they were popular in school. The neighbors brought in ice cream and cake, and the neighbors have been doing so ever since. When one goes to the great commencement dinner where at the present time fifteen or sixteen hundred people sit down, some part of the dinner, you will find, has been brought in by the neighbors.

Naturally, when a strange young man comes to town and begins to secure a foothold, local prejudice and opposition appear, and that happened here. The political leaders of the town did not like to have their control questioned. But the good women of Deerfield were staunch allies of the new principal. One morning on the post-office steps a local politician was heard to mutter as he stroked his beard, “These women are raising hell around here. They want to cut off from the check list the names of voters who have died. Why, if we did that, we shouldn’t have enough voters in Deerfield to send a representative to Boston.”

I do not propose to describe the difficulties which Mr. Boyden encountered. Year after year in town meeting the voters saw the wisdom of granting the money which he asked for his school, from 1876 to 1924 a combination of the Dickinson High School and Deerfield Academy. On occasion, however, some few ventured the opinion that the principal was actually stealing the school from the town and seeking to make it his own. Eventually the amendment to the State Constitution making it illegal to appropriate public money for private institutions made it impossible for the town to continue its generous gift, and it established its own high school in South Deerfield. For a time it seemed that Mr. Boyden’s work was to end in failure, and that the growing respect and affection which he had inspired in town was to end only in pleasant memories. This deprivation, however, proved to be the greatest single influence in making Deerfield Academy a national school. Mr. Boyden’s instinct for appraising a situation is close to unerring. On this occasion, as on others, he stood by his guns, refused to make weakening compromises, retained the respect and affection of the town — and, providentially, received financial succor from friends at a distance. Mr. Boyden never speaks of those days of struggle and discouragement, but they were an important element in making him the man he is today.


To the old friend no less than to the casual visitor the same teasing question remains unanswered: “What is the secret of Deerfield Academy?” To say “Frank Boyden” is to make no real reply, for the school and the man are inseparable. Mention of his name brings to mind a shy, quiet, unobtrusive, short-statured, spectacled man in his early sixties, having no marks of the athlete, no pretensions of the scholar, no assurance of the businessman. His dress is invariably sober, even somber. A more obviously selfless person could hardly exist. Certainly Frank Boyden is no type, yet Deerfield Academy is as clearly the image of its principal as ever was inked impression on a printed page. In the one as in the other you find the same honesty, simplicity, earnestness, and interest — the same lack of ostentation in what they have, and the same welcome for what they seem to think you can bring. This idea may be one of the great secrets of effective education anywhere.

Interest — the quick, real interest in the other person; the human interest that years ago prompted Frank Boyden to hitch up his horse and go call on his neighbors; the interest that inspires quiet questions rather than showy answers — that seems to be the secret of Boyden and of Deerfield. No one can fool schoolboys for long. They are quick to detect any insincerity, any hypocrisy, anything that is not genuine. They are equally quick to respond to sincerity, to real interest, to genuine affection. They know when a school, from the head down, cares. An honorary degree given to Mr. Boyden by Yale a few years ago was given for his “researches into the minds and hearts of youth.” And no one knows better than he that it is hearts that should logically come first. “I have never known a teacher,” said a former pupil of his, “who has so completely given himself to one object, and that object the development of character.”

Mr. Boyden has always kept in close contact with his boys. He accepts no boy without first having had a personal interview with him. In the fall, when school starts, he meets new and old boys separately every evening for the first few weeks. By Thanksgiving he has instilled into the hundred or more newcomers so much of the spirit of the school that they are indistinguishable from boys who have been in Deerfield two, three, or four years. Very early Mr. Boyden informs the students that he has few rules and no penalties. By some magic, perhaps that of keeping them busy, he makes them content with the few strict rules that do exist.

Once Mr. Boyden asked a man working in the stable how he managed horses so well. “I manage horses just the way you manage boys,”' the man replied; “give them a little rope but not too much.”I am sure that Mr. Boyden’s knowledge of horses and love of horses have helped him in his management of boys. Only this summer, in the midst of an important conference where a college president and heads of schools were in solemn conclave, a high-spirited horse broke his halter in the Deerfield stable and dashed out into the school garden. Mr. Boyden, with no excitement, left us for perhaps five minutes, then quietly returned to his place at the table. I learned afterwards that he had caught and led back into his stall a horse which nobody else in town would have been able to manage. “Work ‘em hard, play ‘em hard, feed ‘em up to the nines, and send ‘em to bed so tired that they are asleep before their heads are on the pillow,” was the summary of the Deerfield method that he once gave to an old friend of his in the town.

It would seem impossible for any other headmaster to run his school as Mr. Boyden runs his. Imagine having your desk in the midst of a hallway through which all the boys in school pass in the course of a morning. He must have an enormous correspondence, and perhaps he can dictate some letters while sitting at his desk, but I have never seen him do it. There he sits, and boy after boy stops, asks him a question or two, and then passes on. It is Mr. Boyden’s method of knowing his boys. I once said to him, “How in the world can you be a schoolmaster with so many interruptions?” “Well,” he said, “there are always interruptions in life.” Many times, however, I have seen him on a motor trip, dictating letters to his secretary hour after hour. When the task is finished, the secretary takes the train back to Deerfield, with notebook full, to type the letters which Mr. Boyden signs on his return. Many of the rest of us are overborne by our correspondence. He makes correspondence secondary.

The most important element in Mr. Boyden’s success with boys and girls is not only his interest in them but his genuine interest in their interests. Love for boys is a great advantage if the boys do not know it. Psychology is a handy gift if other people do not know it. After forty years he still coaches the baseball, football, and basketball teams.

Early in his career at Deerfield, Mr. Boyden took his baseball team to a neighboring town for a game. So busy in making arrangements had he been that he had had no time for breakfast that morning. When he got to the town where the game was to be played and had attended to numerous necessary details, he discovered that he would have no time for luncheon, either. In the sixteen-inning game which followed, Mr. Boyden distinguished himself both at bat and in the field. On his return in the train that evening Mr. Boyden, for the first time in his life, “passed out” completely. No words of devotion, of course, could have ever begun to express so much. The members of the team, who in some instances had been sent to Deerfield to break up the school, told Mr. Boyden to go home for a week; they said that they would run the school!

One beautiful October afternoon not long ago, when the Deerfield Valley was at its best and the maple trees around the playing fields were bright with autumn, the football team was playing Loomis. Late in the game Deerfield had the ball on the Loomis fiveyard line. Looking over at Frank Boyden, who was sitting on the bench surrounded by the excited substitutes, just as the ball was put into play, the wife of one of the masters was heard to breathe, as quick tears came into her eyes, “Put it over, oh, put it over. Do it for the Little Fellow.” What boys and girls, men and women, parents, townspeople, and friends from afar have done and will do “for the Little Fellow” is one of the glories of Deerfield.

Nor is his interest confined to boys. The girls, a comparatively small number, who have been to Deerfield know also of Mr. Boyden’s sympathy and understanding. Some years ago there was in school a Polish girl. Disobedient, rebellious, and indifferent to appeals of all sorts, she was one of the very few who had ever seemed untouched by the spirit of the school. After leaving Deerfield she kept books in her father’s store. There she was still unhappy and dissatisfied. Somehow Mr. Boyden learned that her ambition was to go to the Normal School. Saying nothing to anybody, he went to the school, got a place for her, and then faced the difficult task of persuading the father to release his bookkeeper. Eventually he succeeded. After finishing at the Normal School, this girl taught Vermont Yankees in a school of her own! Later on she confessed to Mr. Boyden the cause of her difficulties in Deerfield. “I thought you were trying to change me from being a Pole,” she said.

One day two Polish boys came to the principal and said that they wanted to attend Deerfield Academy. “ Why do you want to come?” he asked. Almost in unison the two replied, “So we can sit on the bleachers.” He has put a good many Polish boys and girls on the bleachers, and the imagination which he has shown in dealing with this alien element in the community has been a source of great strength for the Academy.

Other examples of this same sympathetic, understanding imagination (which perhaps may still better be called “interest”) come to mind. At the end of a very busy day a particularly garrulous mother, with her son, got to Mr. Boyden. The longer the mother talked, the more convinced Mr. Boyden was that the boy should not come to Deerfield. As they were leaving the room, the boy looked at the principal and said, “I do want to come so much.” Immediately the halfhour explanation of why his admission would be impossible went by the board. “You shall,” said Mr. Boyden.

A few years ago a young fellow with an exceedingly poor preparation for the work applied late in the summer for admission. The principal was obliged to tell the boy and his parents that there was absolutely no place for him. When school started in September, to the surprise of everyone, this boy appeared with the rest. Not having the heart to send him home at once, Mr. Boyden told him to stay around if he wanted to do so, but that he doubted very much if there would be room. Teachers who had sampled what he had to offer were even more positive. After a week, however, a vacancy occurred, and Mr. Boyden sent word that he might have a term’s trial. That night, as he was bidding him good night, the principal asked him how he liked the school. “Pretty well,” said the boy, “ but I think you ought to have a box in the school where boys could drop their complaints.” ”I have been here for only an hour,” said the son of a United States Congressman, “but I have already discovered seven or eight things which could be improved.”

Mr. Boyden has a sense of humor with a New England tang to it. Like a wise schoolmaster, he does not use this humor at the expense of his boys. I imagine that most of his graduates are impressed with other qualities. He has a firm directness in his dealings with his pupils which they understand and admire. I have never heard him “jolly” them or use sarcasm, but the humor is there. No one likes a good story more, though he tells few himself. No one chuckles more over a witty bit of repartee. He is the cause of humor in others, but since 1919 he has been too busy and his job too serious to spend much time in pleasantries.

Every Deerfield boy and every man who knows much about Deerfield has heard the story of Tom Ashley. There is not space here to tell again what I consider to be the best American story of a boy’s development and a remarkably clear illustration of Mr. Boyden’s philosophy of education. The gist of it is that Tom Ashley came to Deerfield an inarticulate, undeveloped, almost hopeless boy. Within four years he was the leading boy in school — a, great athlete, a fine scholar at Deerfield and, later, at Amherst; he subsequently died leading his troops in Belleau Wood. The most prized scholarship at Amherst is the one named for Tom Ashley.

But how did Tom Ashley happen to come to Deerfield in the first place? When Mr. Boyden discovered him in the town, this unhappy boy’s only asset seemed to be that he was strong for his years. Mr. Boyden asked him to come to the Academy, but Tom grunted a refusal. On the first day of school Mr. Boyden asked Tom’s father to come to the village post office with his son just before school was going to start. During the conversation with his father, Mr. Boyden broke off suddenly to say, “There’s the bell, Tom. Would you mind going up to the school and opening the door? Tell Miss Hawkes that I will be there in a few minutes.” Tom, glad of something to do, took the keys to the school and did as he was told.

Then he waited around for Mr. Boyden. Mr. Boyden was busy all the morning and kept out of Tom’s way. When it was time for lunch, he asked Tom to stay. After lunch he said to Tom, “You know about some of these young fellows who are coming from the high school this year. I don’t know anything about them. Won’t you go out and help them with their football this afternoon?” This was the one thing which Tom would have been willing to do, and from that afternoon he was a bona fide member of Deerfield Academy. I should say that Tom Ashley did more for Deerfield Academy than any other boy who has gone there in these forty years. It was Tom Ashley, according to the principal, who persuaded Mr. Boyden that Deerfield should cease being a local school and should be open to boys from all parts of the country.


The grade at Deerfield is high. Early in a boy’s career his choice of college is decided on, and the work he shall take to attain his own objective. There is, I believe, no school catalogue. The development of the apparent capabilities in each boy is the system and, so far as is feasible, each boy sets his own standard. The result is a belief in the school, on the part of teachers and boys, which I have seldom seen equaled. The relationship between the boy and authority is simple, direct, personal. Mr. Boyden has never been satisfied with giving his boys the best training possible and then sending them to college to sink or swim. If in the first term at college the danger signals are flying, Mr. Boyden has been known to get boys back to Deerfield during the Christmas vacation for a checkup and, if it is deemed necessary, for help.

The faculty at Deerfield is well paid; Mr. Boyden has made a great point of this, and in the advice he gives to younger headmasters (and there is no head of a school whose advice is more sought after) he always says: “The first requisite of a successful school is that the teachers should be well paid.” One of the things which strike the visitor at Deerfield is the enthusiasm of the faculty. They need enthusiasm, for the duties they have to perform are varied. There always seem to be three or four teachers around, whose greatest pleasure is to show the school to strangers or to entertain the numerous visitors. In most schools the members of the faculty are rarely seen by the visitor; at Deerfield the teachers seem to be a visible part of the school.

Not long ago. just before commencement, one of the rare instances of fatal illness in school came to a senior in Deerfield. In spite of good doctors and good care the boy was sinking fast. Almost the last request he made was to ask if he could be given his diploma earlier than other members of his class. When Mr. Boyden brought it to the sickroom, the boy looked up, smiled, and said, “Well, I made the grade.”

In all this care, concern, and devotion Frank Boyden has been aided by Mrs. Boyden, who since 1905 has been the very heart of the machine. Mrs. Boyden is an unusual scholar in science and in mathematics, a rare teacher, and she has given herself, as Mr. Boyden has done, completely to the school. Ask Deerfield boys about Mrs. Boyden, and you will get answers which deepen your faith in the importance of schools.

I have said very little directly about the religious side of Deerfield. After Mr. Boyden had been in the Academy about a year a sincere but perplexed old lady in the town said, “One of our last principals always carried a Bible in his hand, but the religious interest in the school was very low. I have never seen Mr. Boyden with a Bible, but he seems to have brought here a profound religious faith.” Indeed, Mr. Boyden speaks very little about religion. I have heard him quote only one passage from the Bible in his speeches, but I have heard him quote this one a number of times: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable,

. . . whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” That seems to be the core of his faith. As you sit with him and his boys on a Sunday night before the fireplace, and the School sings hymns and listens to a good speaker who understands the heart of youth, you regain something that the last twenty years have made obscure: a belief in whatsoever things are honorable or of good report.

No account of Mr. Boyden would be complete without mention of this side of him. When a great architect was surveying Deerfield before a new building project, he intimated that some elm trees on the campus would have to be cut down. “No,” said Mr. Boyden, “I can’t lose my shadows. When boys rush out of the schoolroom in the afternoon into the sunlight they may be noisy and turbulent, but when they reach the shadows of the trees, they become quiet and orderly.” I doubt if any other schoolmaster has made such practical use of this bit of psychology.

I well remember the first time I saw Mr. Boyden. It was the last day of the winter term in 1919. It had been a hard winter, with more sickness than usual, and Mrs. Perry had asked me at breakfast what I was going to do that day. “I shall dismiss the school, clear my desk, and then sleep for fourteen hours,” I replied. Only the first part of the program was successfully carried out. About eleven o’clock a stranger came into my office, a short, energetic man with what seemed to be particularly large glasses. Of all things, he carried under his arm pictures of school buildings and schoolboys. Now every head of a school is in the way of seeing a good many pictures of school buildings, and I was not immediately very much interested. But we sat down, and Frank Boyden began to talk about Deerfield. For the first time I heard the story of Tom Ashley. For the first time I realized what a private school could do for a community, though this came by inference, not from what Mr. Boyden told me. For the first time I felt an excitement about this school in the Deerfield Valley. Finally Mr. Boyden said, “I hope I’m not keeping you from your lunch.” “Oh, no,” I said; “it’s not nearly lunch time yet.” But when I looked at my watch, I found that it was quarter to three. The experience that was mine has been duplicated, I imagine, by many other listeners entranced by the magic of Frank Boyden.