Photo by Salt Water New England

Friday, November 1, 2013

What are the Preppiest New England Prep Schools?

Photograph from our archives          .
A common question is, what are the preppiest New England prep schools?   Are they the same usual suspects from three decades ago?

Also asked, what criteria makes a school preppy, and, what are iconic places and activities of the prep school experience?

70 comments:

  1. I am surprised that there are as yet no responses. I've often wondered this myself, being a faculty member of a girls' boarding school in Maryland. I've noticed that the syles have evolved from the prototypical preppy look described in TOPH, but a lot of the same staples are still in play, at least in the schools in this region of the country. However, the big academies that were once described in TOPH as "so prep that it hurts (Exeter and Andover)" are significantly less preppy today, at least based upon the students and recent graduates that I've met from those schools (I would expand this statement to include the members of the Eight Schools Association).

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  2. I'll bet there will be more responses once the Red Sox have won! And everyone has recovered.

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  3. Deerfield, Avon Old Farms, Miss Porters

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  4. Under what criteria? Legacies? Clothes? Admissions? I wouldn't have a clue, even though having having graduated from a Saint Grottlesex prep school over 30 years ago...

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  5. Good questions Reggie. I am in the Mid-Atlantic and we have quite a bit of prep schools here to. I think questions like this can bring out elitism and snoberry if looked at through pre-1960 glasses. For example, in my region there is Georgetown Prep and Visitation; not WASPy but definitely preppy. I suspect that there are similar examples in New England that will be missed if only the usual suspects are cited.

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  6. @ David P. .... my father went to Georgetown Prep and I went to St. Albans.....both preppy but in different ways.

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  7. Muffy - Towards your second point, about criteria, the schools should have once or twice a week meetings where the entire community is brought together. Also, that the school is at least one hundred years old.

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  8. I'm more interested in what commenters think the relevant criteria are than the results. I also think an interesting question is, why prep schools remain relevant, aside from cultural tradition. It's my opinion that they're largely the beneficiaries of correlation/causation confusion.

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  9. I agree with RWK in the first comment. I too teach at a boarding school--coed, in New England--and most of the students here still seem typically preppy, at least in the way they dress. Our dress code is traditional and I am daily surrounded by blue blazers, oxford buttondowns, repp ties (lots of bow ties, lately), khakis, Top-Siders, Bean boots, and dirty bucks. (Penny loafers are scarce these days, however.) Beyond these standbys, on chilly, rainy days I see a lot of Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies, and Lilly, Jack Rogers, and Tory Burch when the weather's nice. Along with J Crew and Ralph Lauren everything. Our school was mentioned in both TOPH and its unfortunate sequel, but it isn't nearly as well-known as Andover or Exeter. I take my teams to those schools, and the kids there are far less uniformly preppy than they used to be. For one thing, like the Ivy League colleges, they now draw their students from around the nation and the world. An extraordinarily bright and diverse student body but, coming from so many different states, countries, backgrounds and cultures, not necessarily a preppy student body. Insofar as preppies can be identified by their plumage.

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  10. Please help me to understand, why it is so important to be or seem to be preppy? I'm from Vienna/Austria. I know the term, but here it means a way to dress (like Ralph Lauren advertising).
    Is it similar to aristocratic? But nobody want to seem as, if he is not.

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  11. Anonymous @ 9:16 - you are indeed correct. There is a difference, but in the end, I would suggest that there are many more similarities than differences. Your family history speaks to the phenomenon that I have seen quite a bit; one generation or family member attends a school like GP and another StA. (Not so much with GP / Landon :-)). The overall socio-economic foundation is pretty similar. Please also excuse my misspelling of too. That is what happens when you type on the run.

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  12. St Pauls? Groton? Andover? Exeter?

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  13. Almost every New England prep school sells preppy through crests and Latin phrases, stern serif fonts, quads, classic buildings, field hockey and crew teams, libraries, clean cut students, tweed clad teachers, and so on.

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  14. If I were smart I wouldn't touch this with a ten foot pole but...

    Criteria: excellence in academics with some sort of moral/spiritual component.

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  15. My mother-in-law attended Miss Porter’s and roomed with Jacqueline Bouvier, who so shy, she dressed in the closet with the door closed. It’s quite evident she came out of the closet sometime after graduation. I suspect Miss Porter’s would be considered preppy enough.

    When I was fourteen, my parents took me on a tour of New England schools. We visited Exeter, Andover, St. Paul’s, Deerfield, Choate and Pomfret. My interview at Deerfield was with the inimitable Frank Boyden, who questioned my parents more than me. He was very protective of his school. I remember that week as an exhilarating autumnal trip through New England; we also visited several historic sites, including Old Sturbridge Village.

    In those days, I don’t believe the word “preppy” had entered anyone’s lexicon. Appearing preppy was the last thing on anyone’s mind. In fact there was no aspiring to be noticed at all, let alone noticed as belonging to a particular sub-group, but we did have our proclivities.

    I’m sure the schools mentioned above would be considered preppy, but they’ve all gone through significant change. In retrospect, change was just beginning about the time I was of school age. What I most appreciated was the program that brought visiting luminaries to my school, especially in the arts. Pablo Casals comes to mind.

    If a student can get through these formative years with a realistic and serene sense of self, the school has done its job. A school, however, can damage a student as well as inspire him. In my day, boarding schools were fond of promoting the term, “in loco parentis.” No institution, however, can substitute for good parenting and many of my classmates opted for public schools when it came to their own children.

    My brother-in-law skipped his last year of high school and traveled to Kenya, where he worked for a big game hunter, sailed the Indian Ocean on an Arab dhow and lived for months with the Kikuyu tribe. Few educational experiences can top that.

    MGC

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  16. MGC, You are a wise, wise man.

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  17. I attended a New England prep school in the 1970s. Even then, there were students coming from other parts of the country, Jewish students, foreign students (admittedly children of diplomats), and students of various races. It took us only a day or so to look around us and learn how to dress properly.

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  18. Muffy, I'm curious as to what you and your husband's take is on prep schools and if they're relevant at all in the modern educational landscape. I've read (and enjoyed) Unschooling Rules, my wife, mother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law are all educators and our family owns and operates a Montessori school that competes for students with local prep schools (Princeton area) so I think you can guess my take on it.

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  19. Rev. Charles Martin, who was headmaster of St. Albans for a quarter-century, used to tell his audiences of Washington parents that his goal was to get their children into "the Kingdom of Heaven, not the kingdom of Harvard." Of course academic excellence and personal attention to the academic needs of each student matter, but if something like Martin's sentiment, whether religious or secular, is not at the core of a school's values and mission, much of the ethos has been lost. An education at a prep school should not merely be prepping for college but rather prepping for life, responsibilities, and civic involvement in the broader community, starting with the notion of responsibility to the school family.

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  20. I'm with Reggie: I feel I've lost all touch, at least with the boarding school world. There has been so much social change in the last 30 years. I assume that much of what has happened to the Ivies (both for better and for worse) has also happened to many of the elite boarding institutions.

    I will say I've had it with most of the suburban day schools I know, which seem to have been poisoned by the values of new money, competition for social status, and an ability to shut out the vulgar and narcissistic culture of the outside world.

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  21. How about this?

    All of the usual suspects...

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  22. Hi Muffy, I was wondering the same thing as Brian.:)

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  23. MGC, I like you...

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  24. My two sons had the great opportunity to attend St. Paul's School in Concord N.H. It's a beautiful NE campus, amazing education and good student life.

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  25. Andover and Exeter are not so preppy these days... St. Pauls, Pomfret, Deerfield, maybe Kent

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  26. Well, define preppy. Prep schools are, ipso facto, "preppy".

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  27. Shame to leave out what is certainly (still) among the preppiest, due to mere geography: Cranbrook Kingswood.

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  28. The idea of sending one's children away to school has always bothered me. Time is fleeting; time with one's kids is fleeting and precious; lost opportunities to share in the kids' growth and education are irretrievable. Prep schools used to be the best way for rich folks to make sure that their offspring learned social niceties (and, more important, the crucial social not-so-niceties) while getting them into Yale or Williams without straining their intellects. Nowadays there is hardly any point in pursuing any of these goals, especially at the enormous cost of sending your children away.

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  29. Commenter LG wrote:

    "Criteria: excellence in academics with some sort of moral/spiritual component."

    Based on these criteria, I would say that Exeter is extremely preppy, very selective with strong academics and a non sibi philosophy.

    It is NOT predominantly WASPy anymore. Nor is the student body particularly "preppy" in their dress. Girls have, essentially, no dress code (some rules about length of skirt and shorts, usually ignored) and boys no longer wear jackets and are often in sneakers. They may also wear turtlenecks or ethnic garb in place of ties if they wish, and many times are in casual after-sports-wear. The brand of "preppy" dress favored by most girls who dress at all preppily is something resembling L.L. Bean Signature or J. Crew.

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  30. Aren't all New England prep schools preppy by definition?

    When I graduated Choate in '91 there was less Bean than Benetton. The 20 year reunion photo was absent oxford shirts, loafers, khakis, and featured a single navy blazer (over a t-shirt) in a sea of black on black.

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  31. Judging by most of these comments, I would say "preppy" has been abandoned by the prep schools. I once stumbled upon a blog showcasing what current Exeter students wore to class, especially those who are actively involved in school groups and sports.

    There was a great deal of J. Crew. What was once a style based in functionality and tradition has, in many ways, turned into mall chic. Some preppy undertones survive, but that's about it.

    The only constant is change, they say.

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  32. This was one person's memory of Choate back in the day:

    http://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/michael-lindsay-hogg-boarding-school-memoir?click=main_sr

    Julia

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  33. " DSF said...
    The idea of sending one's children away to school has always bothered me. Time is fleeting; time with one's kids is fleeting and precious; lost opportunities to share in the kids' growth and education are irretrievable. "

    I hear you DSF, but the girl wants to play competitive ice hockey and got herself a scholarship, so what's a mother to do? Anyway, I was persuaded with the argument that when they are home, they are all ours, no wrangling about homework. The first kid went to public school..

    As to the topic at had, Deerfield and St. Pauls seemed the most homogeneously preppy of the NE schools we toured, all the others had big populations of dramats (black clothes, piercings.

    Lymie

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  34. For the last two decades, headmasters have been hired based on their ability to fund raise and deliver students into the most competitive colleges. Most prep schools today want to produce the equivalent of Lance Armstrong. This is a major shift from the role they had played previously.

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  35. First of all, there are no true prep schools outside of New England, and really outside of the former Erickson League.

    My list:

    PA
    Exeter
    St. Pauls
    Deerfield
    Taft
    Hotchkiss
    LC (my alma mater)

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  36. Anonymous @10:19, You wrote, “For the last two decades, headmasters have been hired based on their ability to fund raise and deliver students into the most competitive colleges.” I’d argue that Heads of School (Headmaster is no longer PC) are hired to raise money (takes big endowments to bring in Diversity from around the globe).

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  37. No, anonymous. First of all, there are no true "prep" schools outside of ENGLAND. The New England prep schools are just thin copies of the great English "public" schools.

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  38. Headmistress works. That's what she was called at the private school where my wife once taught, although it was not a boarding school.

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  39. One thing we may be missing in all these discussions of "preppiness," (as defined by a certain dress code and set of values), is that neither prep schools nor earlier generations are in the cultural driver's seat these days.

    My impression in the 70's and 80's was that we kids looked to _each other_ for what to wear--which was also influenced by what our parents bought us and enforced as acceptable. It went without saying that you would dress "respectably," dare I say in conformity, unless you were specifically trying to make some counter-cultural statement such as "artsy" or "hippie" etc. This was considered pretty edgy; you didn't dare do that much if you wanted to remain with the crowd we now call "preppy," and in my school we called "The Jocks." There were expectations! Anyone who thinks "labeling" based on dress is bad today, you should have been around THEN!

    Today, kids are looking to arts and media celebrities for primary style influences rather than Mummy, Daddy or each other. That ethos is one of exhibitionism, social nihilism and "can you top THIS?"
    Pushing the knife-edge of transgression is the new normal. Since no one today is ever expected to ACT like a grown-up, the entire concept of dressing like one for "respectability" has gone by the boards.

    If these kids think "preppy" at all, it's probably now a "retro" style, with the original cultural subcontext completely lost.

    Suffice it to say that I now see prep-school girls dressing in a "style" that would have surely branded one an "outlaw" when I was in school; one of the young women of dubious rep, smoking in the shadows behind the "auto-shop," waiting for the "bad" boys!

    I fear we chase a chimera here, folks . . .

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  40. "Diversity" refers to ethnicity, not socio-economic class, I assume?

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  41. Non sibi sounds nice, but strikes me as too close to paternalism for my taste. I much prefer the philosophy of self-reliance, which I understand is more Yankee than Preppy.

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  42. MGC, I enjoyed your thoughtful and insightful analysis. Your perspective clearly does not come off a rack nor from a book. Cheers!

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  43. If Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis went to Miss Porter's, then she was a preppy, right? However, I read here somewhere that preppy gals don't wear dresses (or skirts), therefore she does not qualify as a preppy? I am confused!

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  44. Greenfield, I was going to reply but why? You said everything I was going to say and then some... Once again well considered comment.

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  45. The preppiest New England prep school is Rollins College in Florida.

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  46. Some may not want to hear it, but it is possible to find independent schools where the culture and dress are conservative. They are often single sex schools that are- gasp- not in New England. Woodberry Forest particularly comes to mind.

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  47. @ Anonymous 11:14 I must agree with you. Any school here in America that prepares a child for University is technically a prep school. I'm sorry NE but you didn't invent the concept of Prep you simply brought it over from England as did your cousins to the South.

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  48. Dublin School in Dublin, NH requires its students to shovel out the campus after a snowfall. The dress code was stiff, practical, and didn't yield an especially preppy-looking student body. The students and staff worked hard to create an academically and personally supportive environment and to build good learning habits and community involvement.

    Perhaps this is more of a Yankee value than a preppy one,* but after taking a post-grad year at Dublin, my worried, unaccountable, deeply alienated boy of a brother emerged a thoughtful, responsible, self-sufficient, socially able young man. No, he hadn't magically acquired a taste for JPress and lacrosse, nor was he headed off to to Princeton in the fall. But, through exposure to the culture and values of the Dublin School, he emerged dramatically better prepared for his time at UNH, more confident, and able to make friendships and social connections of much greater depth and meaning than his high school acquaintances.

    There's a lot about Dublin that is not preppy, but the same can be said for pretty much any boarding school at this point. Dublin is relatively new, doesn't have a brand name, and doesn't attract a lot of traditionally preppy students or families. However, my brother's experience with Dublin is much more closely aligned with the suggestions offered above for what defines a "preppy" prep school than what my friends at Wellesley described of their own experiences, often at those big-name, traditionally "preppy" schools.

    Should any parents be looking for ideas for schools to investigate, and should you be willing to consider a lesser-known school, I would strongly urge you to take a look at Dublin.

    * incidentally, Yankee Magazine is headquartered just up the street.

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  49. The Gunnery
    Taft School
    Wykeham Rise
    The Ethel Walker School
    Westminster School

    Just a few excellent Connecticut schools.

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  50. If you ignore the tie clasp, the tab collar, the white socks with loafers and the Madras sport jacket and focus only on the two young gentlemen in the foreground of the photo, you will see faces not found in other schools. I never saw such faces anywhere I went to school and I don't know if they are typical or not. But just photos of the two heads practically shouts "prep school."

    Maybe even "preppy!"

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  51. Opinion from someone who graduated a CT Boarding school last year, These appear to have a solid concentration of Preppies:
    Deerfield
    Middlesex
    Kent
    Taft
    Loomis
    and Gunnery/Canterbury seem to be on the rise
    Most others have considerably diversified.

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  52. The photograph appears to be Gunnery, if I'm not mistaken.

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  53. @Hearthstone Farms: Re-read William Manchester's "Death of a President". Mrs. Onassis was preppy when measured by the criteria that actually matter.

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  54. I was at Colby in the late '60's - the campus dress style was the same as my prep school in SE Michigan (when we were not required to wear our uniforms). I don't buy into the belief that prep can only be NE - I agree that Cranbrook/Kingswood (Bloomfield Hills MI) is quite prep. cheers!

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  55. Sadly, Tilton School, my alma mater along with other fine Lakes Region schools would not show up on this list. So I shall place my votes for the following in no particular order:
    St. Paul's
    Lawrence
    St. Mark's
    Belmont Hill
    Milton
    Kent
    Taft
    Hotchkiss
    Deefield
    The Gunnery

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  56. In my opinion, a school has to be single-sex to be really preppy.

    My favorite prep school in the DC area? Saint Anselm's Abbey School. Very small and for very capable boys only. A family member of mine is a graduate.

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  57. One of my brothers-in-law attended St. Stephen's in Alexandria when it was just St. Stephen's. It has since merged with St. Agnes (girls) and is now co-ed, but is not a boarding school. It's a small school but k through 12. However, around the corner and up the hill is Episcopal High School, if you want a real prep school. There are, in fact, a lot of prep schools around here but none claim New England status.

    Many private schools, prep or not, have gone through hard times in the last hundred years and some have not survived. It seems to be a characteristic of the smaller schools that they struggle to stay open, especially the military schools.

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  58. My, oh my! I totally forgot the point I had intended to make in my previous post here about St. Stephen's & St. Agnes (short attention span). It goes without saying that the merging of the schools was not without controversy but then, what is? There will be those who resist change just like there are those who insist on change. Fortunately, there will be some who think it's a good thing and that it was about time, too.

    Personally, I think it's about time for a woman president (dare I say, a "lady" president). The only question remaining is the same as always: Harvard or Yale?

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  59. Blue Train -

    Oh, I agree about the first lady president, but how about the University of Idaho? ;)

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  60. Hey, Harvard has a female president and so does the University of Virginia. The University of Idaho (and Yale) will have to wait. Let's not push it!

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  61. I thought that we were talking about President of the United States. :)

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  62. BlueTrain, Did you really write, "My, oh my! I totally forgot the point I had intended to make..."? That's sort of like "ready, fire, aim." What in the ham sandwich does the sex of a university president have with preppieness of prep schools anyway? What is your/the point please ;-)

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  63. Oh, dear, I have confused another Anonymous reader. A hundred thousand pardons from your unworthy contributor.

    Anyhow, I nowhere referenced the sex of any university president. Most are too old for that anyway. But the gender, however, is another matter. There was a suggestion somewhere that an all boys or an all girls school is better, although I will admit the person who brought it up did mention sex. I never made the association. But mixed gender schools are apparently not without controversy in these later days, which was my point.

    By extension, there is controversy in some quarters as to whether or not a woman is suitable for the grand office of a university president and likewise, the president of the United States. Too bad Madeline Albright doesn't quality. What's Condoleezza Rice doing these days? Can't think of any other women I'd vote for just now.

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  64. Yale has already had a woman presiden, Hanna Holborn Gray, who served as acting president in 1977 and 1978, between the presidencies of Kingman Brewster and Bart Giamatti

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  65. Anonymous 7:42, Gray was *acting* president at Yale for a mere 14 months while the appointed president was away. She was later the first full president of a major U.S. university (Chicago)for 15 years.

    P.T.

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  66. Apologies, that should say first full female president of a major U.S. university.

    P.T.

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  67. To P.T.: Note I wrote "acting" president in the first line of my comment ... acting or not, she was the Pres ... Mrs. Gray ... she wasn't there when I was there ... my freshman year was A. B. Giamatti's first year as president ... he was a popular pres and I always like to see Paul do well in the movies

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  68. At one time in America, many public schools had something of a preppie sub-culture, perhaps more so in New England. Not every school, of course, but down into the 1970s in some places, there existed a social strata in high schools that personified prep culture, even though they were public schools. They might have been the "in crowd" of our youth but many of them went on to the big schools like Harvard and Yale and other obscure schools somewhere in the north like Cornell or Oneonta. Most however, go to regional schools like UVa or William & Mary for Virginians. They even had their exclusive rites, like Junior Assembly Cotillions, and other forgotten (but not gone) social passages of the South. But public schools are not what they used to be. Now there are quinceaneras. Same thing, only different.

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  69. Since I last contributed to this thread, I have learned something. It was unintentional, I assure you.

    One of my wife's neighbors when she still lived at home with her family on Seminary Hill in Alexandria was Keating Carrier. There was an article about her in the Washington Post that prompted my wife to do a little investigating about her and coincidentally, the article was referenced in a literary group that I also read and sometimes contribute to on-line, even though I am barely literate. Her father was Walter Karig, who was a journalist and also wrote some of the Victory at Sea episodes back in the 1950s. He also wrote, very surprisingly, two Nancy Drew books.

    She had contributed to an oral history project with the City of Alexandria, Virginia, as did my wife's aunt, who still lives in the same neighborhood. Ms. Carrier attended St. Agnes Episcopal School in Alexandria, which has since merged with St. Stephens. She described the city schools at the time as being very bad. At the time, the place where they lived was out in the country and on a dirt road, now a paved four lane street. St. Angnes was apparently a tiny school because her graduating class was only eleven in 1944. But she also described St. Agnes as a "prep school for Episcopal High School." I thought that was a particularly curious way of putting since EHS is a prep school itself and is a boarding school as well. She said some students boarded at St. Agnes, too.

    EHS was apparently at the time more for local boys (in the 1930s and 1940s), more so than it is has been in recent years. I wonder if that was true of other prep schools that have survived to the present day. I know that in Virginia there used to be a lot more private academies (here I am referring to earlier than around 1960), though I don't know how many were boarding schools or would have been characterized as prep schools, some having been military academies.

    Just a little local history.

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