On Saturday, May 9th, 2015, Sterling College held a reception celebrating the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters that would be awarded to alumnus David Behrend ’60 during the Commencement ceremony. David is one of the 60 original Sterling School pioneering boys, and was the first Sterling School alumnus on the Board of Trustees for Sterling. Below are his remarks upon the occasion.
Sterling as an educational institution was really a work of visionaries, headed by the founding head of the school, Norman E. Rioux. Quite frankly, the idea of starting a private boys’ boarding school in rural, remote, but beautiful Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, not far from the Canadian border, must have gotten a lot of quizzical looks from the townspeople, and at the March 1958 town meeting.
Besides Rioux, a number of the original faculty came with Ivy League degrees. Other founding teachers included: Messrs. Hessel, Ramsdell, Field, Stebbins, Donlan, Montgomery, Oates, Slawson, and in some cases, their spouses also taught.
Since they had no name for the school, a few of the teachers got together—I assume at the Berkshire School one night—and realized they needed to come up with one. Anyway, after much thought, going round and round, Doug Field, the most revered teacher at Sterling, a masterful math instructor, said “How about my wife’s maiden name—Sterling.” So be it.
Sterling actually grew out of a summer school, the Craftsbury Summer School, on Lake Hosmer, down the road a-piece. Now it is the nationally recognized Craftsbury Outdoor Center with Olympic-level Nordic skiing and sculling. Chuck Early, soon to be a French teacher at Sterling, started the summer program, along with Mr. Rioux as a partner. Rioux wanted to start a full-time boarding school for boys—hence Early bought him out, and Sterling was created.
After buying what was then the Heartside Inn, now Kane Hall, and a few other buildings, Sterling started with 60 boys in the Fall of 1958.
The problem was, no one had much of any money, maybe just enough for a minimal down payment to the family, from which they bought the Inn.
As the initial two years developed, a local woman named Miss Jean Simpson, a well-to-do, worldly lady, became interested in Sterling. It is fair to say that without Miss Jean, as we boys called her, cross-country skiing with us, showing us how to get maple syrup from the trees, Sterling would not have made it to my graduation year, 1960.
Miss Jean’s brother was a founding partner of Simpson, Thatcher, and Bartlett, an elite NYC law firm. She co-signed notes with the local banks for Sterling saying, “Education is the only thing I cannot say ‘no’ to.” Sterling was still in trouble financially and Miss Jean knew it. One day, while I was at Sterling, Miss Jean, I understand, knocked on the Headmaster’s office door, came in, sat down, and put down a check for $25,000 with no repayment expected. $25,000 in 1958—when gasoline was 24 cents a gallon, a loaf of bread 19 cents, and a postage stamp 4 cents—went a long way toward paying salaries, fixing over buildings and the plant. Things were tight with three boys to a room, and as many as seven or eight to a small bathroom.
Paradise, the building next to Kane Hall, was the USPS and soda shop, with two gasoline pumps outside for cars, which was next to the funeral home!
In 1958 as I turned 16, my mother contacted a NYC guidance counselor, Jane Griffin, and was recommended to a brand-new school starting up for students with some special needs, educational or otherwise, with small classes. I was told by my parents, “You are going away to boarding school in Vermont.” Having gone to camp in Maine for many years, I thought it might be like camp—sports, fun, etc.!
After Mr. Rioux came down to Philadelphia to meet the family I received a letter in the spring that I was accepted and might benefit from very small classes—that acceptance was the easiest part of my two years at Sterling!
Unlike the students now at Sterling College today, including those graduating in a few hours, all came here of their own free will. It is fair to say that many of the boys who attended Sterling in those years—1958–1973—that was not the case. Coming under different circumstances, many were underachieving like myself, and parents were looking for something, somewhere, to help them turn their sons’ lives around.
Then, educational deficiencies—ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, etc., were not on the radar screen until 20 years later. We were sent to Sterling, it provided the structure and behavior model that many of us needed at the time: sort of a cross between Valley Forge Military Academy and a parochial school! Blazers, ties, proctored study halls, waiting on tables, dishwasher detail. Grades were posted over at the exit to Simpson Hall for all to see.
Every three-week cycle, these grades were sent home to our parents. Not sure today you could get away with posting name, grades, and U or H for “unsatisfactory” or “high effort” after the numeral grade. To slack off was not an option. I should at this point note, that ultimately a large number of the graduates I knew during the first five years did improve significantly, and went to college, including some elite universities.
Ultimately, the experience was very character building, with rigorous small class academics, enabling me and others to reach within ourselves to succeed.
Most 270 students with whom I have connected with over those 15 years (1958-73) for reunions might not admit it, but a vast majority were helped at Sterling at a critical time or juncture in their lives.
In 1963, Ted Bermingham, a Princeton grad and a history teacher, became head of the school. Ted took Sterling in a somewhat different direction—combining academics but also experiential education, using Outward Bound, Kurt Hahn’s philosophy. Outdoor education and adventure, including a challenging winter Expedition which tested the boys not only physically but mentally, and is still in existence 50 years later.
At the end of the decade of the 1960s, I got a call from Ted Bermingham asking if I wished to be on the Sterling Board of Trustees, and said “yes”—the first Sterling graduate to have that honor. And, wouldn’t you know it, I served almost three decades, leaving when my last three-year term was up in 1998. I saw Sterling transition through a number of changes, from secondary school, to institute, to two-year college, to its present state as a four year college with a fine national reputation—I should say “international” as they have had a number of students from abroad over the years.
I served with many outstanding board members over that lengthy time frame, many of whom gave their work, wisdom, and wealth to keep the institution going. Quite frankly, there were a number of spring meetings in May at graduation—when I was not sure that Sterling would be able to stay open in the fall.
The heads of Sterling, Presidents including Bermingham, Manning, Wright, Devens, Cowens, Williamson, Wootton, and now we are blessed to have Matthew Derr taking us in warp speed through this decade and hopefully for a long time—some lasted longer than others, but all in some manner made contributions to Sterling. I also mention Dr. George Hill, a board member for many years, and New Jersey surgeon, whose daughter graduated from Sterling. George played a critical role when we were between presidents several times and served as interim President.
Who would have thought back then, that in 2015 Sterling would climb to such heights as being ranked this year again number one in a specific area amongst 160 colleges and universities nationally? And to boot, have an article in the New Yorker online. I should add that during my lengthy Board stay, there were a significant number of times the New York Times had articles on Sterling, as a unique institution of learning.
I had the pleasure of serving under a number of beloved chairpersons. John Allen of Yale, who was an executive of Readers’ Digest, and close friends with the founder, Dewitt Wallace. The Digest was one of the first to provide Sterling with funding. John McCarthy ’62, a fellow Pennsylvanian, was chair for several terms during the start of transition out of secondary education. The barn below us is named after John, who, along with this wife Susan and children, owned and operated the terrific Craftsbury Inn for many years before John passed away in 1988.
Marvin Brown became chair. A Wharton graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, a successful financial broker in New Jersey, he saw his daughter Farley graduate from Sterling, and after joining the Board, decided to move up here with his wife Linda full-time. He was responsible for the building of the Brown Library next to us. Farley Brown and her husband John Zaber, also a Sterling graduate, are both faculty members at Sterling.
A wonderful and extremely talented woman named Virginia Russell followed during some turbulent times. I am assured that her experience as a very successful business leader here in Vermont was needed. She and her husband, after living in Brandon, VT for many years raising a great family, now reside in Vero Beach, Florida. We all wish her well. I believe I am correct that she deeded 27 acres of land up here to the College. Like a number of men and women on the Board, she is a very dignified human being who gave the three W’s mentioned earlier.
Lew Cohen, from Brookline, MA, whose son graduated from Sterling, became chair and gratefully refurbished Johnson Hall—where your humble speaker lived as a student—into Mager Hall, named after, I believe, his father-in-law. Mager is now home of the President’s Office, other administrative staff, and the Boardroom.
Finally, in my last years on the Board, Jon Goodrich ’63 and Peter McKay ’63, schoolmates of mine, became co-chairs of the Board. Jon is from Bennington, VT and Peter lives in Westport, CT. Both Jon and Peter have gone on as adults to lead very successful lives as a business entrepreneur and attorney, respectively. They served in the initial stages, if I am correct, as Sterling became what it is today, a nationally recognized four-year institution of higher learning.
I left office in 1998 as noted, and was given a captain’s chair, which is in my office at work. It has the notation, ‘longest serving trustee in Sterling College history.’ I know that for a fact, as immediately after I left the Board, the by-laws were changed and one can serve only three consecutive terms before exiting for at least a year—smart idea!
Now most of you are saying to yourself, or thinking “OK—David served on the board for one hell of a long time, helped plan many of the Reunions over the years. But that is only half the story. The question might be, ‘Why did he serve so many years?’”
Here is the answer. You have already noted my acceptance letter into Sterling as a junior in 1958. After that, it got much harder. I am reminded as I speak of my mother’s younger sister, Hannah, and their mother, Grannie, both of whom graduated with honors from Smith College. Aunt Hannah told me after my graduation from Sterling that she had a tough time getting into Smith, getting through Smith, and ultimately, graduating from Smith, which sounds like what happened to me at Sterling.
During the fall of that first year at Sterling, knowing he was taking serious chances on some students in accepting them, Mr. Rioux met with faculty about each of us during that fall semester.
During the meeting held about me, I heard years later, my teachers—two from Yale and two from Harvard—two felt I should be sent home at the holiday break and two said, “Let’s give him more time.” Fortunately, the head of the school broke the tie and said, “Give him the rest of the year.” After all, with 60 students, he could ill afford to have too many boys leave, and some did on their own, unable to measure up to the academics or abide by the strict rules and structure at the school.
That spring semester I failed algebra, with John Hessel who Dona and I have visited out in Portola Valley, California. John was the athletic director and my basketball coach and baseball coach. He noted years later that I gave him trouble in the classroom and on the court. Anyway, I failed algebra, and went to summer school to try and conquer it again.
I attended the Craftsbury summer school down on Lake Hosmer, and took remedial English, in part because my junior year English teacher, a Harvard grad in classics, and my to-be senior year English teacher. A Harvard grad in English thought it a fine idea. While in summer school, I noted a quiet number of Spanish speaking teenagers: well, they were from families of the ousted President Batista in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba.
Back to algebra: I failed it again, by either one or two points, with teacher Bill Shepard. Heartbroken, it looked like I was not to return to Sterling. Somewhere in the mile between the summer school and this Common, the grade was changed, and the one or two points were given to me. Maybe they told Mr. Shepard if he wanted his last check to change it, or more probably, Chuck Early, the headmaster there, changed it, recognizing that his friend Norman Rioux needed all the students he could keep. When I left the Board in 1998, I was given this copy of my grade—even today, I take a deep breath. Here is the paper with the grade on it!
Finally, in the Spring of 1960, we started looking for colleges and I noted to the head of the school that I might be interested in a college combining academia and athletics. We drove down to the MA college, and as I was told much later the following happened: Mr. Rioux had me in with Dr. William Lammers, the director of admission, noting that I was a fine young man, nice family, was athletic, and I left the office. What transpired as I waited outside was this: Dr. Lammers asked Mr. Rioux how I could possibly do the work at a college level after such unsatisfactory secondary school grades, and low SAT scores. They went back and forth, and finally the admissions director blinked—maybe to just rid Rioux from the room. He noted, “Here’s what I am willing to do: I will accept David on one condition—the minute that I get back his application and deposit check for admission, he is on probation.” So. I was one of the only people I know who was on probation four months before I set foot in a classroom. Ultimately, I got through the first year, and I barely graduated on time. I got my master’s elsewhere, and the rest is history.
Now you know the whole story of my allegiance to Sterling that continues to this day and forward. Without Sterling, I don’t want to think where I would be today: would not have been years later, a frequent radio guest on the Philadelphia talk show station for eight years; never have developed my national practice counseling and guiding lawyers in career transition.
Tom Hanks, the actor, noted in a New York Times article, reprinted in this month’s Readers’ Digest, “I owe it all to the years I spent after high school in a two-year California college: that place helped make me what I am today.” I feel the same way as Mr. Hanks, as many of today’s Sterling graduates do also.
My philosophy in life has been there are very few associations, institutions, organizations, and individuals outside family that mean a lot—and to those you remember favorable—in any way you can. Obviously, Sterling is near the top, and Dona and our family are blessed to be able to spend time in this great state during the summer.
Sterling has achieved excellence in education over these 57 years. I am reminded, in closing, that Sweet Briar College in Virginia is closing down after 114 years later this summer. I like to think Sterling College is only at its half-life, and hopefully will be around for many years to come in a meaningful way. Thank you.
—Cedar Cottage Saturday, May 9th, 2015