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Berkshire School Archives: Founders

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Founders of Berkshire: Adventure, Intregity or Old-fashioned Grit?

Glenny House

Glenny Farm, 1900s

In the winter of 1907, Mr. Buck said, “ (we) descended from a train at Sheffield and were bundled into an old-fashioned sleigh drawn by two farm horses. As the horses toiled slowly over the wave-like drifts, we caught, in the growing darkness for the first time…the black outline of the Dome…Suddenly, lights twinkle at the head of a long hill... The sleigh creaks over a wooden bridge, and we are at once plunged from the blackness of a zero night and winter wind into the light and shelter and warmth of old Glenny House.”

Hackley School, 1905

Before founding Berkshire, Seaver and Anne Buck thrive at their first job with Buck as the acting headmaster of the then start-up Hackley School, teaching and Anne marketing the school. A friend and fellow teacher described how, even early in their careers, the Bucks had an educational philosophy, vastly different from the times: “Seaver taught boys the love of books (and)...before round tables were popularized and endowed, he had a large one built… so that all pupils faced each other as well as the teacher during discussions...Anne was understanding sister to all boys and masters...Her buoyant enthusiasm and…goodwill carried all along on a flood tide of happiness.”

Seaver Buck

When they started Berkshire, Seaver is 37 years old; Anne is 32. They are new parents. He has taught for only a handful of years.

Seaver Buck, baby portrait

So much of Seaver Buck’s drive stems directly from childhood hardship and loss.

Anne Allen, childhood portrait

Anne’s philosophy is born in the progressive family education business that scoffed at convention.

Cyrus Buck

Seaver was born in rural Maine to a successful farmer, Cyrus Buck

Lydia Whittle Buck

Seaver Buck's mother, Lydia, who died when he was 13 years old and who had been a teacher at Gould Academy.

Seaver Buck, childhood portrait

Seaver Buck said of his childhood self, “I was a very determined youngster.  Once…on a particular course, I hung on like grim death.” When he was young, Buck’s father sold the family farm and moved them to Portland as part of a business venture.  The one-year experiment failed, and they lost everything.

Lydia Buck, Seaver's mother

Seaver once said of his parents' relationship, “The only asset left was courage–especially Mother’s, which I learned later, must have been (my father’s) chief asset.”  Early on, Seaver understood the important balance of a partnership. The family returned to northern Maine, where soon after, his mother and two siblings died.

Cyrus Buck

Buck’s father experienced much loss with his business failure and the death of his wife and two children. He sends Seaver to live with his aunt and uncle to finish high school.

Seaver Buck, boyhood portrait

At his aunt and uncles, Seaver is alone much of the time, reinforcing his discomfort around people. After high school and only 18, Seaver teaches ages 4 to 22 in a one-room schoolhouse in Maine.  But all the while, he had a persistent dream–college–and not just any college: Harvard. His family pointed out that his health was unstable, he had no money and would only fail. To that, Buck held on like the ‘grim death’ and replied, “I would rather die on the spot than give up my hope for Harvard.” 

Allen School, Newton, MA

Seaver's first job was at the Allen School; he said it was a turning point in his career.  Here, he also met Anne Kittredge Allen, who would later be his bride. Buck boarded with the James Allen family and said that “for the first time since leaving (Maine), I had the feeling I was among the right people.”

Allen School Students, 1880s

 In the 1800s, The famous educator Horace Mann had asked the Allen family to start a school. It was the country’s most progressive: the classes were coed and were racially integrated even before the Civil War. The Allen Home was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the Allen family were ardent supporters of the abolitionist movement even throughout threats of arson. The Allen school was also a pioneer in physical education, being one of the first schools to include sports in the curriculum.

Anne Allen, Smith College Tennis Team 1895

When Annie graduated from Smith College in 1895, where she was a tennis champion, women’s colleges were a new idea, and very few women attended. After college, Anne returned to the Allen School to help run the student boarding house.

Anne Allen and Allen Family

Seaver Buck, climbing

After several tries at the entrance examination, he was finally accepted and awarded a scholarship to Harvard in 1891. After two years, though, he could no longer afford the school and left to tutor a boy for the next three years. The family was wealthy, and Seaver felt shy and uncomfortable around them. He gained a little more confidence while traveling extensively in Europe with them. Buck especially enjoyed climbing in the Alps and, in his memoirs, said he loved the freedom from expectations he had while in Europe.

Seaver Buck

After saving up some money, Buck returns to Harvard. Yet, he never feels comfortable around classmates, feeling they all wondered “how an outsider got into the class fold.” Seaver Buck finally graduates after twelve years at the age of 29.  Certainly a persistent cuss. Anne and Seaver marry in 1900 right before they go to Hackley.

Anne Allen Buck

One story that personifies Anne’s “keen sense of justice,” as Seaver puts it, is when, as a young woman, she was going by trolley to NYC, and as she got on, a “poor old man” carrying a colossal basket was behind her.  He tried to put his basket on the bottom step of the trolley and climb aboard, but the conductor thrust him back and started the car.  Anne did not hesitate.  She pulled the bell, confronted the conductor, and told him on no uncertain terms that if he did not stop and take the old man abroad, she would see he was reported.

Berkshire School, 1907

The Bucks’ new school “emphasize(d) the individual which is very much the Allen School philosophy that surrounded Anne’s youth.   They thought the key was keeping small class sizes, eating at round tables with a teacher at each, giving boys single rooms for self-reflection, and allowing for solo activities like hiking, taking pictures, reading, or playing golf.  Buck said interesting people did worthwhile things in their spare time.

Anne Allen Buck

It is clear too that Anne Buck was integral in the school’s running with her training at The Allen School, whose catalog said that “the mothers in the families” have had no secondary part to play in the direct education of the “family.”

Glenny House, 1907

“Having entered upon an educational gamble, with some definite ideas about education, and perhaps even more definite ideals of what a school ought to be, we believed we might do something worthwhile.”

                       -Seaver Buck

Glenny Farm, 1907

Mr. Buck described the school’s developmental years as “a most interesting and satisfying adventure. (Mrs. Buck and I) began with no money and no plant worth speaking of--three farmhouses, two barns, a hen-house, and a tool shed…But there was “this ever-present wonder whether our venture would fail; the long and sometimes strenuous discussions over this or that development and the cost.“ In those first years, there were “the delightful irregularities of our school family--midnight raccoon hunts, Saturday picnics on the hillside “frying sizzlers,” hikes to Bash Bish and the Bat’s Den, games of “Relievo” among the pines, and hide and seek in the old barn.”

Ready for the Harvard Yale Game

 One year, the whole school went to the Harvard Yale game with the last car reaching Berkshire at 6 am the following day. Mr. Buck was in the last car that’s carbide had given out and had four flat tires over the fourteen-hour trip home.

Mr. Buck, Berkshire Campus

One alum described Buck as “an experimental Victorian builder, willing to face the unusual or even the troublesome.  That his faculty was more amiable, tolerant, and casual than scholarly and followed Mr. Buck's liberal impulses.” Mr. Buck was particularly bothered by a boy with no enthusiasm. “If it were possible, he said, ‘he would like nothing more than to have an iron forge or carpenter shop where boys could spend their time in useful occupations.” Buck used to say that if it weren't for the college boards, he could give his boys a real education. 

Mr. Buck with son Allen

“Mr. Buck placed before his students the motto: Pro Vita, non Pro Schola…his ultimate aim was not to build a grand school but to send worth into the world a fine body of men.”

-James Develin

Mr. Buck, skating

As he learned at the Allen School where he first encountered organized sports, Mr. Buck pointed out that to be a tower of strength, one had to take the proper care of one’s body.” In the early years, the Bucks participated in sports alongside the students. Mr. Buck was the goalie for the first hockey game, but the school watched in chagrin as the puck flashed by him many times in the net.

Mrs. Buck

Mrs. Buck would challenge the male teachers to tennis matches.

Mr. Buck, Skiing

Buck also took up skiing. A Green and Gray quote said, “Mr. Buck tries his new skis and loses his balance halfway down the hill. No, it wasn’t funny.”  This quip, printed in the School paper, seems to illustrate the friendly banter the students could use with Mr. Buck even though they were in awe of him.

Mr. Buck, baseball

Mr. Buck also played baseball frequently in the student/faculty games that were the highlight of the spring Alumni Days. 

Mr. Buck was also known by rival schools as a competitive sports fan.

Kent’s Father Sill: “Why is it that we can’t lock a Berkshire team?”

Alum’s response: “He apparently does not know what our Headmaster is like: no one ever saw a sponge tossed in from his corner.”

Allen House, 1911

We cannot forget Mrs. Buck’s role in Berkshire’s history; it has been a secondary tale for too long. Her role was an essential one: casein point, two buildings are built in the first years of the school: an Infirmary out of necessity with the lack of vaccines and antibiotics, and the second, Allen House, in honor of Mrs. Buck.

Mrs. Buck and children

But as Art Chase put it, “theirs was an extraordinary partnership with her wisdom serving as check and balance on a thousand occasions; the Bucks saw to it that intellectual curiosity was nourished from without as well as within.”

Mrs. Buck in buggy with Charley-Boy

Even with their small children, Mrs. Buck would ride a farm horse named Charley-Boy up to16 miles for eggs, poultry, and vegetables in the early years. One day, Mrs. Buck went to a farm, but all the chickens had gotten out, and she spent the afternoon pursuing them over the hillside so that the school might have enough food.  Mr. Buck noted, “I modestly admit that the Headmaster did some important chores in those days, but nothing to compare with an achievement like that.” 

Students Drill on Campus during WWI

But as Art Chase put it, “theirs was an extraordinary partnership with her wisdom serving as check and balance on a thousand occasions; the Bucks saw to it that intellectual curiosity was nourished from without as well as within.”

Boys' farming, WWI

With the Armistice Celebration in November of 1918, things started to look up. The boys were given the day off from school but in typical Buck fashion—to shuck corn for a neighboring farmer.

Mrs Buck

You never let me down and I know you never will.  How you acquired this magnificent quality to inspire confidence and devotion from all Berkshire Alumni is beyond me.”

-Albert Keep of Mrs. Buck

Glenny House Fire, 1918

But then, just days later, as Mr. Buck described it, “we were plunged into what seemed a bottomless depth” by the Glenny House Fire. The largest and most important building on campus, Glenny House, had been burning wood for heat to save coal for WWI. Then one morning, a fire broke out on the third floor. Students and teachers tried to put the fire out with hand-held extinguishers and garden hoses, but the water pressure gave out.  The boys were instructed to run into the burning building and throw everything outside: beds, radiators, china, every stick of furniture. Even the uncooked turkeys saved for Thanksgiving were saved. Now, ⅓ of the boys had nowhere to sleep, the Buck themselves and three other teachers were homeless, and there was no kitchen, dining room, or common room. Most felt the school would have to close, never to again open. One alum said, “However, Mr. Buck, in typical fashion, arose to the occasion, having other ideas in mind, and at that very moment was already planning a new and greater Berkshire.”

Glenny House Fire aftermath, 1918

The Bucks soon saw that the fire, as devastating as it was –and remember this is the third fire Seaver Buck has lived through– allowed them to “develop…(in a way) that could not possibly have been ours had we remained a private organization as we did before the fire.”

Memorial Hall under construction

The fire and subsequent building of Memorial Hall to replace Glenny and honor all the students and faculty who had fought and died in WWI pushed the Bucks and the school to go beyond just a personal dream.  Mr. Buck later said the fire “turn(ed) what seemed like a tragedy into a prosperous adventure.”

Berkshire Hall groundbreaking

In the 30s, Bucks realize their culminating dream since arriving in Sheffield– a main academic ‘workshop as the Bucks call it’–Berkshire Hall.  One of the board members suggested that a faculty lounge be included where teachers could relax and socialize.  Buck immediately dismissed the idea: the academic building was not for “masters (to) smoke and loaf.”  Buck wanted them to be in their classrooms so they could always be found for extra help.

Berkshire Hall rendering

But by the late 1930s, as Berkshire Hall was finished, many families could no longer afford boarding school tuition. The school’s future became precarious with Mr. Buck reducing his salary by 75% and the faculty being asked to take multiple pay cuts. Mr. Beattie, the music teacher, and football coach, met Mr. Buck on the steps of Berkshire Hall one day, and Buck explained he had to cut the salaries once again.  He couldn’t speak and broke down in tears. Desperate to keep the school going and determined to help any boy graduate, Mr. Buck asked families to pay what they could. This was a wild idea at the time, long before there was financial aid.  By the end of the year, half of the school was paying a reduced rate. The Bucks saw Berkshire as a family, and once a boy had been admitted, they felt obliged to see a boy through.

Mr. Buck formal portrait

At the beginning of WWII,  Buck worried that “ he could not turn the school, that he didn’t have it in the right financial shape, and that he had failed because of his incompetence.” 

In a letter to a friend about his last years, Buck wrote, “When two people set out along the road with the idea of reaching a place a long way off and when they have tramped along a good while longer than they ever expected; when they are getting pretty footsore and weary and “the old man" finds his rheumatic knee getting double kinks, the road seems to get harder and the hills steeper.”

Mr. Buck with Grandchildren

“He was every bit the headmaster: a head of silver hair, his profile like an outcropping of Vermont granite. He was impressive without being intimidating.  We were in awe of him, not afraid of him.”

-Calvin Tompkin

Mr. Buck

Buck announces that assistant headmaster Keep, whom he had been grooming, would take over. The Bucks' retirement is revealed in the public papers, and even teachers like Eipper and Dean mention that they first heard about the Bucks’ retirement in the paper.  For such a small school and devout following, it seems that the Bucks can’t bring themselves to tell anyone in person. The Bucks retire, and not long after, Mr. Buck passes away.

Berkshire Campus, 1940s

The Bucks’ legacy is said best by Dr. Beebe, longtime school doctor upon the Bucks’ retirement: “Vividly, I recall from the time I tied up a little old horse to a hitching post in front of Glenny House to the marvelous changes (today). Now, with your well-equipped school and well-organized faculty, you can step aside and leave this perfected institution in the hands of others.  I say, my good friend, it is a pretty worthwhile job you have done-don’t let yourself think otherwise.  How few men with the small means you started with could have accomplished what you have, could even have had the courage to undertake it.  Everything I have written applies equally to your help-mate without whom you could not have accomplished all you have. A marvelous combination–you and Mrs. Buck–for the achievement and perfection of a splendid institution. Long may it live.”

Mrs. Buck formal portrait

Mrs. Buck’s lived at Berkshire for more than 20 additional years.  It was a right of passage for young faculty to meet with her. One teacher writes of his meeting with her as “I have never felt more welcome or more important in the first ten seconds of a stranger’s presence in my life. Mrs. Buck’s aura was so strong that it was so easy for me to understand the powerful role she played in the founding of Berkshire…. I decided, then and there, that I wanted to have a school. I wanted to have the same type of memories Mrs. Buck had had. I realized I had just spent two of the most important hours of my young life in the presence of Anne Buck. Through the inspiration of Anne Allen Buck, I found the courage to develop a prep school that in many ways is a clone of Berkshire. That fall afternoon sipping tea and sherry with Mrs. Buck was a turning point day in my life. “

Mr. Buck's painting

Countless headmasters, during their tenures, have referred to the Bucks.  Mr. Piatelli might have said it best as he hung Seaver Buck’s portrait back in the headmaster’s office: "As our founder and first head, he deserves a prominent place, and his picture is a constant reminder to me that as Head of School, I am representing what he started, and carrying out his legacy. The thirteenth head of Berkshire then paused, perhaps to consider the perils and pitfalls before him. “And let's face it,” he laughed. "He is the person we are all compared to when you come right down to it.” 


Film Clips from the 1940s

Film Clips from the 1940s

Button for Virtual Event

Hosted by Bebe Bullock '86, archivist, our virtual evening looked at how the School founders were and what motivated them.