Dispatch #32: The Tribulations of St. Paul's School
Click here  for print friendly version(Adobe Acrobat PDF  File)                                                        Page 1 of 4
This article originally appeared in the January of 2006 issue of Vanity Fair Magazine.   All photographs by Jonathan Becker, Vanity Fair's 'Photographer at Large,' with exception of the opening aerial photo by Vincent Laforet.
About the Contributor
First page photo spread (aerial photo)
Names of past graduates on display in a hallway of the Upper School.

Please also remember to read the postscript at the end...



       For the past 150 years St. Paul's School, the "exclusive" (as it is invariably called) boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire, has been the Eton of America's upper crust. Or perhaps it is its Hogwarts; as Harry Potter's fictional academy is called, providing the country with many of its most accomplished wizards-not just at making money, although that is what its graduates have tended to do, but in practically every endeavor. Its main constituency has traditionally been the conservative old Wasp families of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia-the plutocracy that has been running the country for generations. But this is changing. Since the first black student was admitted--in my class, which graduated in 1964-- the school's admissions policy has been progressively more meritocratic. The "natural aristocracy," based on virtue and talent, to use Thomas Jefferson's distinction, has been displacing the "artificial aristocracy," based on wealth and birth. Every year there are fewer "legacies," fewer fourth- or fifth-generation Paulies, among the 533 students, who now come from 37 states and 21 countries. 

        Despite its reputation for being a breeder of staunch, old-line Republicans, St. Paul's uas arso turne6 out a msimguls'ne6 roster of liberals, including the cartoonist Garry Trudeau and Senator John Kerry. Kerry was in the class of '62, two years ahead of me, and even then he seemed to be plotting his run for the presidency. When he finally got his chance, many of us alumni were hoping he would win, not only because we felt  the Bush administration was such a disaster but also because St. Paul's has yet to produce a president, whereas Groton prepped ED.R., Choate J.EK., and Andover both Bushes. But Kerry was a terrible disappointment. He simply lacked the common touch-which is not something you acquire at St. Paul's. 

      Last November, while Kerry was underperforming at the polls, a series of crises was rocking our alma mater. Elements of the trouble had been brewing for several years, but what busted the whole thing open was an article in the August 25, 2003, Wall Street Journal which revealed that the rector, as the headmaster of this venerable Episcopalian hall of learning is called, was being paid $524,000 a year in salary, pension, bonuses, and perks that included having his daughters' tuition at the University of Chicago picked up by the school. Parents, students, and alumni were stunned, and a rumor went around that the amount was more than the president of Harvard is paid. (It's actually a little less, and some prep-school headmasters get even more.) 

      The rector, as his name implies, is supposed to be a pillar of rectitude, especially if, as Craig Anderson was, he is also a bishop of the Episcopal Church. But "the Bish," as he was fondly called by students, had been accused of using the rector's discretionary fund-which is supposed to be reserved for school expenses-to pay for per¬sonal ones, including his membership in a yacht club in Maine. ("It was not a fancy yacht club," Anderson says from Minnesota, where he and his wife now live. "The dues were minimal-$I,OOO to $1,200 a year. In my contract, there were certain provisions for memberships in clubs. One year, this was used for the yacht club, but when this was brought to light and felt to be inappro¬priate, I repaid it fully.") On top of this, the trustees who were managing the school's $364 million endowment were accused of having "cozy relationships" with some of the companies they had it invested in, although an investigation found nothing illegal. 

      All of this prompted an investigation by the New Hamp¬shire attorney general's office, which put the school's finances under review through 2008, even though the rector and vice-rector had cut their own salaries by 10 percent. It also prompted an audit by the I.R.S., which has yet to be concluded. Not one but two scathing articles about the school eventually appeared in The New York: Times, the paper of record. Not good for the old image, especially when you are competing for top students against other well-endowed institutions such as New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, Connecticut's Choate Rosemary Hall, and Massachusetts's Groton School, Phillips Academy Andover, and Milton Academy, not to mention the excellent private day schools and public schools that are attract¬ing a growing number of high-performing teenagers. 

   This embarrassing spot on the school tie was still painfully fresh when, a few days into the 2004-5 school year, 15 sixth-form (senior) girls were suspended for hazing some of the new girls. The worst thing that happened was that some of the younger students were forced to simulate fellatio on bananas. Not such a big deal, compared with the 15-year-old girl at Milton Academy who performed oral sex on five members of her school's hockey team in succession a few months later. (Not such a big deal either, apparently, judging from a recent S.PS. graduate's response: "The question is: Did they win?") Or compared with the student at Northfield Mount Hermon School, in Massachusetts, who had the word HOMO carved into his back by two jocks in 1999. Or with the freshman football player at McGill University, in Montreal, who was prodded in the rear with a broomstick during a hazing ceremony last August 27, prompting the school to 'cancel its entire 2005 football season. But the banana incident violated New Hampshire's hazing law and had to be reported to the police. Groton's trustees had gotten into hot water a few years earlier for trying to keep the lid on sexual-abuse allegations. So there was an investigation, and the papers got wind of it, and the school suffered a second public-relations disaster. 

      Then, on November 7, only five weeks after the school's monumental new, $24 million gym and fitness center opened, a boy in the fourth form (the 10th grade) drowned in its Olympic-size swimming pool. While this appeared to fall into the category of pure tragedy (although the parents have sued the school), it couldn't have happened at a worse moment. One couldn't help thinking that the Lord was not smiling on this devoutly Christian school, where attendance at chapel four times a week is still obligatory. 

      The fourth element of the St. Paul's calamity had been incubating for years: the allegations that, from the late 1940s through the early 90s, dozens of the school's masters (as the teachers were known until women joined the faculty, in 1972), including several revered ones, had sexually molested students. Perhaps this shouldn't have been surprising, given that molestation-or "inappropriate boundary-crossing by a teacher," as it was more delicately described by Dean of Faculty Candice Dale-is a problem in schools the world over. Some of the alumni of Selwyn House, a private all-boys day school in Montreal that has educated much of the city's Anoglophone elite, for instance, have filed a class-action suit against the school for abuse they elite, for instance, have filed a class-action suit against the school for abuse they allegedly suffered from a teacher in the 70s and 80s. Both Andover and Exeter have also had sex-abuse incidents in the past 15 years. 

     My heart went out to the school. I had a great time there and learned so much that I entered Harvard as a sophomore. St. Paul's really gave me a leg up, as it did almost everyone who went there, including the ones who were kicked out or ran away and went on to have stellar careers. So it was distressing to see the treatment it was getting in the press. As one scandal followed another, none of the news articles that my classmates disseminated to one another in hundreds of mass e-mails conveyed what the school was actually like. Many of my media colleagues seemed to be taking relish in tearing down the reputation of one of the sanctums of American elitism. It was such a juicy target, how could you not go for the jugular? But anyone who has gone to St. Paul's knows what a magical, and surprisingly democratic, place it is. 

      My interest was piqued because I knew many of the players, including one of the most notorious of the accused masters, who is now living in disgrace in another state. At least I thought I knew him. (He had never come on to me.) I knew the new, interim rector, Bill Matthews, who had been an exemplary sixth-form supervisor in the Lower School when I was in the third form. And I knew the new head of the board of trustees, Jim Robbins, because we'd grown up together in Bedford, New York, in the 50s. Both of them had taken office after their predecessors resigned in June. We hadn't seen one anoth¬er in years, but I remembered them as good men. I also knew one of the lifetime trustees who had been on the secretive, too powerful Executive Committee and had stepped down, and the investment adviser who had done the report on the school's governance for the state A.G.'s office. The New England prep-school world of 40 to 50 years ago is a small one. 

      I had also written the history of two other private schools, attended by my five sons over the years-St. George's School of Mon¬treal, and Rippowam Cisqua School, in Bedford, New York-so I knew that schools are fascinating microcosms. They act out what is happening in the society at large. As the parent of a former student told me, after I started writing about the crises and their repercussions, "Everything that happened at St. Paul's is symptomatic of what our society has become." 

      The St. Paul's campus spreads over more than 2,000 acres of deep woods, spotted with dark ponds, on the outskirts of the state capital. On the largest pond, Turkey, the crews of the rival rowing teams, the 'Halcyons and the Shattucks (every student belongs to one of these, whether or not he or she goes out for crew), race each spring. When they are good enough, usually every other year, the best oarsmen go to Henley¬on-Thames, in England, to compete in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge .Cup against the crews of Eton, Harrow, and other Brit¬ish public schools. The Halcyon jacket is maroon, the Shattuck cerulean blue, and the lapels of both are fringed with white. Straw boaters, white ducks, white oxfords, and white shirts with the Halcyon or Shattuck tie complete the after-the-race outfit. Hogwarts has Quidditch; St. Paul's has crew, hockey, and squash .
       The central part of campus is bisected by a broad, straight road which becomes a ceremonial way on Anniversary Weekend each June, when the alumni parade..down it, class by class. It is the gratitude and the generosity of its 7,441 living graduates that keep the school going. But, as a classmate of mine who hails front one of the nation's oldest families told me, "Those who give like the idea of their kids and grandkids going there, but this has been a problem since the late 80s, when the school turned into some kind of a hothouse that only the creme de la creme can get into anymore." 

       My six-day visit to the school in October coincides with one of those glo¬rious little windows known as Indian summer, a combination of Gershwin's "Summertime" and Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves." Each morning the ponds are swathed in mist. I watch students running across the bridge from the Coit Upper dormitory, where they have just had breakfast, to chapel. If they aren't inside by the time its Westminster chimes toll eight times, their names will be taken and they will get a "bag," which was called a demerit in my day. Back then, enough demerits put you on a work crew, which was run by a little man who was known to us as "the Toad." The Toad used to take some of the boys from the best families on a tour of whorehouses in the summer. As far as I know, no one who participated in these outings has ever complained. "The Toad was not a pedophile," says an alumnus who has .made it his mission to expose abusers among the faculty. "At worst he was a voyeur-facilitator." 

     By nine o'clock the mist has burned off, to reveal massive white pines, flecked with the flaming oranges and reds of turned hard¬woods, leaning out over the ponds. One golden, sun-flooded day follows another. The campus is as idyllic as I remember it. On my first day there, a Friday afternoon, the form directors-who get their classmates to come to reunions, and shake them down for checks-and the trustees have gathered for a "volunteer leadership weekend." I find everybody in the Schoolhouse, wearing the school tie-black with red and white diagonal stripes. It's a very bright, high-powered group, like a meeting of the Templars. Marvelous-looking old Wasps, including one who could be the twin of Ben Bradlee, mingle with other distinguished men of less obvious provenance. (Bradlee himself went to St. Mark's School, in Massachusetts.) There are a few African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and a few women, but it still seems like an old boys' club. 

      A lot of the people in the room are very pissed off. The class of ' 55, which had its 50th reunion in June, deliberately failed to meet its $2 million goal as a protest against the board and administration that allowed all these things to happen. But the treasurer of the class of ' 56's upcoming 50th tells me, "We have a couple of million at least in the bag already. We've got a good momentum going." And after the Bish was sent packing, donations shot up dramatically. It has turned out to be a banner fund-raising year. "Our return is higher than any endowment out there," reports the new treasurer of the board, Bob Lindsay ('73), who is a nephew of former New York mayor John Lindsay ('40) and is also head of the search committee that will choose the next rector. By all the metrics-the number of applications, the percentage of students accepted, the proportion who get into the Ivies, the amount of money being raised-the school is in vibrant health.

      Jim Robbins, the new president of the board of trustees, is at the lectern, fielding questions like a White House press secretary during a hurricane. Robbins runs his own media company in Atlanta. "Are you going to tell who did what, when, or is that protected?" asks one form director, and another says, "Let's cut to the chase. How much did the Bishop rip us off for?" 

Robbins says coolly that what is released will be what is best for the school, and that Anderson is repaying every penny of his questionable expenses. Robbins would be happy to discuss the exact sum, he says, but he doesn't want to publicize it lest it trigger another article in The New York Times. I have heard that the dubious expenditures add up to around $300,000. Peanuts by Enron standards, but it's enough to pay for more than eight full scholarships for a year. (Annual tuition at St. Paul's is $35,000, plus fees.) 
      Anderson later tells me he is constrained by the I.R.S. audit from saying how much he is paying back. He says the $300,000 figure is wrong but won't say whether the actual number is more or less. 

     Robbins and I have known each other since we were kids. In the summer of 1963, my father and I took him and another boy to climb a 
cluster of crags [phrasing changed here] called Les Diablerets-the Little Devil. We ran into trouble, as can happen in the mountains. Robbins was very brave and really pulled his oar in this life-threatening situation, so I have faith that he is capable of "righting the good ship St. Paul's," as he puts it. 


Click here to continue to next page


Back to the Home Page
Visit the Dispatches Guest Book

Or Send Comments and
Questions to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com