Opening doors

Posted by James Rainey - 11 January, 2015

EHutchens"We practically went from door to door."

This was the response of Eleanor Hutchens, one of the founders of Randolph School, to a rather naïve question on my part: How did you recruit your first students?

Leslie Crosby '83; my wife, Ruth; and I were having coffee in Eleanor's home one morning in December (Leslie was kind enough to bring us all together), and I found myself mesmerized by Eleanor's accounts of Randolph's early years. Like those of any admirer, my questions were obvious and unoriginal, but I asked them anyway. And Eleanor, to her credit, was patient with me.

Why did you want to start a school?

Three of the School's Founders—Margaret Henson, Pat Richardson and Eleanor Hutchens—at the gates of the original campus on Randolph Street, in 2000 Three of the School's Founders—Margaret Henson, Pat Richardson and Eleanor Hutchens—at the gates of the original campus on Randolph Street, in 2000

"There were 12 women who founded Randolph. We all wanted to start a private school for different reasons. My reason was that the quality of life here would depend partly on the schools. The public system was having a hard time keeping up with the sudden influx of new people. The superintendent of Huntsville City Schools was a fine person who was delighted with our hopes and who encouraged and helped us. We read what we could find, and we formed small committees who visited successful independent schools in Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, and elsewhere. We knew that Huntsville was going to become an important city, too. It had strong educational institutions in its past – Green Academy and The Female Seminary, for example – and it should have a strong, independent, college-preparatory school for its future. Altogether, we spent about a year doing research."

How did you raise the money you needed?

"We decided to ask the eight husbands of members of our group to lead our campaign. They agreed, but proved timid. In those days, men didn’t ask other men for donations. We hadn’t realized that, but if you read Huntsville history, you’ll see that it was women who founded the hospital and led other charitable enterprises. So we took back the cards we had given the husbands and approached likely givers ourselves! Some men were generous with money and eager as fathers to see that their children were ready for college, but a woman, Jane Lowe, was the greatest giver in her lifetime — and she continues to give, as you know."

How did you decide on a name?

"I thought we should call it Twickenham School, in honor of Huntsville's history, but the others liked Randolph, after the street where we started it. And I lost the vote!"

How did you recruit your first teachers?

"One thing we knew was that we wanted true scholars. We wanted teachers who knew their subjects. We didn't care as much about formal training in education. If our students were going to be ready for college, they would need a strong foundation in the subjects they would be taught there. That meant they would need teachers who knew those subjects very well."

What was your greatest challenge when Randolph first opened?

"We had to be clear with parents that we were not going to be a school for students who were in trouble in the public schools – students who acted out, or students who wouldn't do their work. If a child was having those problems elsewhere, he was really going to have them at Randolph!"

Eventually, I slowed down with my questions, and Eleanor was able to get in a few of her own. Turnabout is fair play.

What did you do at your former school?

"I started out teaching Algebra II and American Literature. I also helped to coach the swim team. After a few years, I became a college counselor, and then I moved into curriculum planning, including libraries and technology. I had to give up Algebra II eventually, but I didn't stop teaching English until this year."

What do you think about technology?

"When most of what you need to know is in your pocket or your purse, it doesn't need to be in your head – or at least not as much of it does. Knowing the answers isn't so valuable anymore. Knowing the questions is very, very valuable. Randolph understands this distinction."

How do you like Huntsville?

"I love it, and my family loves it, too. Huntsville is very welcoming to outsiders." [Eleanor nodded her head in agreement. So did Ruth.] "We feel very much at home here. I can't imagine a smoother transition into my role at the School than the one I've enjoyed."

What do you like best about Randolph?

"The strong relationships between the students and the faculty and staff. Everything builds on those foundations."

Rainey_footballDo you have the football disease?

"Yes, but I also have the science disease and the history disease and the arts disease. I want Randolph to be excellent in everything that it offers. It doesn't have to be 'either/or.' Randolph can be a great academic school with great football teams, too. And 'great' shouldn't only mean 'winning.' It should mean 'life-changing.'"

We talked about a lot of things. As two former English teachers, we agreed that Moby-Dick is a wonderful novel but too long to teach in high school; that A Streetcar Named Desire is an excellent play; and that instruction in grammar still matters. Eleanor joked that smartphones are "conversation killers": people used to argue points of trivia and make cases to support their guesses; but now they just "cheat" and look up the answers on their phones. She told us that she still reads constantly. Sometimes the books are in hard copy; sometimes they are on her Kindle. Leslie, Ruth, and I admired the variety of magazines spread across her coffee table. Eleanor told us about her weekly Shakespeare group, too. "We've read all the plays, so now we're repeating them," she said. The three of us were amazed – and envious.

popup_parkseeking_truthRandolph is still, in essence, the school that Eleanor Hutchens helped to found. The motto that she wrote for the School and had approved by a University of Pennsylvania classics scholar, Diligentes Ad Veritatem Quaerendam, still applies to us.

We still believe in working hard. We still believe in seeking truth. And Eleanor's original efforts remain our ongoing efforts. We must still preserve our educational mission. We must still recruit and retain outstanding men and women to execute that mission. We must still nurture a spirit of philanthropy in our community to guarantee it. And we must still identify, enroll, and inspire students from throughout our region who are well-suited to reap the benefits of a Randolph School experience.

The sidewalk never ends. We must still, practically, go door to door. And Randolph School, over half a century later, is still worth the effort. Thank you, Eleanor!

p.s. This week's "5 Questions" exercise is adapted from a Nautilus article from September 29, 2014, about the loudest sound in recorded history. Give it a try!

Topics: community, football, Huntsville, mission, Head of School, Faculty, founders, Board of Trustees, Eleanor Hutchens, Jane K. Lowe

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