Post from the past

Letters home tell of life at Exeter at the turn of the century.

Benjamin H. Lacy '44
November 4, 2021

My father, Frank R. Lacy, and his younger brother, Burritt S. Lacy, both entered the Academy as uppers in September 1897 and graduated in the class of 1899. The letters that my father wrote home to his parents in Dubuque, Iowa, and which, to my good fortune, they preserved, paint a picture of life at Exeter in the Principal Harlan P. Amen era that later Exonians may find interesting.

Although the letters I have start only in the spring of 1898, it appears from the inscription “in Oct. 1897,” on the back of a picture of Burritt sitting at a desk in 11 Peabody Hall, that the Lacy brothers lived in Peabody throughout their two years at the Academy as two of its first occupants. In fact, the building seems not to have been quite ready for them. In a letter dated October 12, my father reports that he was still sleeping on a “lounge” because bed springs, which the Academy had ordered from Boston, had not yet arrived. Could this have been a belated attempt to adjust the school’s bed sizes to accommodate the 6-foot-6 Burritt and other oversized boys present or to come? In other respects, the brothers took the furnishing of their room into their own hands. My father writes enthusiastically about a Morris chair that they bought for $10. Their mother had sent them andirons for the fire-place, and they had purchased a screen and soapstone to complete the equipment necessary for its safe and efficient use.

The Academy apparently did not yet have dining halls, and Frank and Burritt took all their meals at Mrs. Read’s boarding house. The price was right. My father’s letter of June 20, 1898, thanking his father for a draft of $40, indicates that part of the money would be spent on paying his and Burritt’s bills of $9 each for board from June 22 to July 3. The Lacy boys were expected by their father to keep meticulous records of every penny they spent while at Exeter. I turned my father’s account book over to the Academy’s archivist some years ago. It would also appear that there was not yet an infirmary. In May 1899, Burritt, along with a number of other boys, came down with German measles. He simply stayed in his bed in his room, and Frank “had the doctor come and see him.” To cope with the constant threat of catching cold, Frank, at the beginning of his senior year, sent away for a half dozen bottles of cod liver oil, which, he assured his parents, he took regularly.

Grading then, as in my time in the 1940s, was tough. Notes to the report card state that “A” represents practi-cally perfect work and is a mark seldom conferred, and that “B” represents highly satisfactory work."

There were team sports. My father reports watching a football game and a track meet in Andover, and he exults in the camaraderie of a student parade through the town of Exeter and a bonfire following Exeter’s decisive victory in the track meet. His own physical training seems to have been limited to workouts in the gymnasium. He and Burritt did play tennis with some frequency, on their own, and my father writes of lengthy canoe trips and swimming up the river. The boys also had bicycles and, in those pre-automotive days, were apparently free to go as far afield as they desired. One letter tells of a 24-mile round trip to Rye Beach.

A more startling revelation in the letters is of the boys’ frequent exercise with firearms. In their senior year, they appear to have brought an arsenal with them. The letter of Oct. 6, 1898, to Papa and Mama reports they had gone out with the revolver and practiced firing. Later letters have them shooting a rifle and hunting (unsuccessfully) in the snowy woods with a shotgun!

They often wrote of academics as well. The letters include a “Report of Proficiency, Faithfulness and Attendance of F. R. Lacy of the Upper Middle Class for the Term ending June 21, 1898,” which, I believe, gives a full listing of the curriculum of the time: Latin, Authors and Composition; Greek, Authors and Composition; Mathematics; French; German; Physics; Chemistry; History, Ancient and Modern; English, Authors and Composition; Declamation; Mechanical Drawing; and Physical Training. In the ancient languages and English, separate grades were given on “Authors” (reading) and “Composition,” which in the case of the ancient languages I take to mean the ability to translate English into good classical Latin or Greek. Declamation consisted of memorizing a set piece and declaiming it before an audience including a faculty judge.

Grading then, as in my time in the 1940s, was tough. Notes to the report card state that “A” represents practically perfect work and is a mark seldom conferred, and that “B” represents highly satisfactory work. My father was graded on Latin, Authors and Composition; French; German; Physics; English, Authors and Composition; and Declamation. I assume this represented a typical class load.

Classes were referred to as “recitations,” for what-ever that means. There were, of course, no Harkness tables, but the classes were small. A letter dated Jan. 26, 1899, mentions an analytic geometry class of just seven. It appears that there could be some flexibility as to required attendance. In March 1898, my father writes that he has been invited by the teacher to join a geometry class and, because of a conflict with a laboratory obligation, was considering going once a week instead of the two times that the class would regularly meet.

I have always regretted that I was not able to coax him into visiting the Academy while I was a student there, but Dubuque was still a long way from Exeter and in 1943, with the war ongoing, travel was not easy — so he never made it."

The pervasive influence of Harvard on the Academy, as a major source of its freshman class, is very evident. A letter of March 13, 1898 mentions that Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, had that week spoken to the whole student body in chapel. The Harvard Examinations, which were given at Exeter over a full week following the end of the spring term, were, at least for the Lacy boys — and, I suspect, for the whole Academy — the high point of the academic year. Regular recitations ended, in 1898, on June 21 with the “Trustees’ Examination.” There was then a week during which the whole teaching staff was present in the old Academy Building to provide individual tutoring to any of the examinees who felt the need of help. Then, commencing on June 28 and continuing through July 2, examinations, which may have served both as qualifying and placement tests, were given by Harvard in all of the subjects in which the applicants wished to be examined. My father writes that “the order of ‘our’ Harvard exams is as follows: Tuesday: Advanced German, Thursday: Elementary Latin, Friday: Physics, Geometry, Algebra, English, Saturday: Elementary French and German.” Were there also Yale exams or Princeton exams given at the Academy? Or did you have to go elsewhere to be tested if you were so misguided as to have come to Exeter with the thought of applying to a college other than Harvard?

In reading these letters, I cannot but be impressed by the magnitude of the changes wrought at the Academy in the 43 years between my father’s graduation and my arrival in 1942. Some things that have changed greatly since my time were then still the same: My father and I both traveled between home and school by train, accepted Latin as the heart of the Academy’s curriculum and wrote letters home in longhand. But the school had in that 43-year interval been transformed. It had a new Academy Building and two other large new class buildings, numerous new dormitories and dining halls, greatly expanded playing fields and sports buildings, an infirmary, and even a church and an inn. I could go on. Dr. Lewis Perry (principal, 1914-1946) with the munificent support of Edward Harkness and other generous donors, had created a physical and social environment my father would not have recognized. I have always regretted that I was not able to coax him into visiting the Academy while I was a student there, but Dubuque was still a long way from Exeter and in 1943, with the war ongoing, travel was not easy — so he never made it. 

Editor’s Note: The letters written by Frank R. Lacy were given to Ben Lacy some years ago, he says, by his sister, Margaret Lacy Zimansky, of Iowa City, with whom his father lived during the last years of his life. The letters will now be preserved and added to the permanent collection of the Academy Archives.