History of travel image

The History of Travel at Thayer Academy

by Larry Carlson

As many of you know, I, like all members of the faculty have a number of duties outside the classroom. Today, I am speaking as the Academy's archivist. In the Archives, which I lovingly refer to as the Academy's attic, are found as many bits and pieces of the Academy's history as can be gathered, and the collection continues to grow. Today I want to share some stories from our past, that both celebrate and explain our history, as well as have meaning for our present and perhaps our future.

One of the most appealing aspects of Thayer Academy has always been its relatively small size. It is dwarfed not only by the town of Braintree, but also by the local high schools and especially by metropolitan Boston and its surrounding communities. The Academy hosts and serves a relatively small community and maintains small class sizes (which allow both teachers, parents and students to get to know the various subjects and each other well). It provides numerous opportunities both academic, artistic and athletic, so that all who desire can participate, for the most part. Next, everybody's days, nights and weekends are kept full and so very much of what we do is in one way or another related back to the Academy. However, though close knit, the Academy and its community was never meant to be isolated from the much larger world. Instead from its earliest days, the Academy has actually been at the center of a worldwide web of experience and connection to the world beyond the oceans and across the nation's boundaries.

It's well known, of course, that the Academy's founder, General Thayer, made a famous journey to France, to acquire materials with which to build the curriculum at West Point. However, as is the case with many things regarding the early days, the story truly begins with Anna Boynton Thompson, who did much to open her students' eyes to a wider world by studying overseas herself, visiting the ruins of antiquity (at times, on the back of a donkey in Greece) and sharing her experiences in her classroom. She likewise kept them informed about current events and left money in her will to support student travel overseas, believing that this would do much to rebuild a world torn apart by WWI.

She was followed in these endeavors by Headmaster Stacy Southworth, who was so active in local affairs that he was chosen to represent the town of Braintree on the occasion of the town's namesake's (Braintree, England) 750th anniversary. Agreeing with Miss Thompson regarding the importance of encouraging student travel, he worked with Dr. Sven Knudson of the University of Copenhagen to bring Thayer Academy boys to Denmark for two summer-long visits, where they were hosted by local families and honored by a visit from the Danish king. Under his leadership, longtime faculty member Harriet Gemmel traveled to England for a year, exchanged places with an English teacher, Miss May Steer. Miss Steer must have made quite an impression and many lasting friendships, for the 1937 Black and Orange yearbook was dedicated to her, and the Verse Speaking Choir she began was a feature of Academy life for a number of years.

As one might expect, World War II put a stop to such exchanges and visits. However, in the aftermath, the Thayer Academy community reached out to support the nations ravaged by war, "adopting" a French student in 1946 and beginning the first of a number of formal ties by becoming affiliated with a French school. And the beliefs of Miss Thompson and Headmaster Southworth were carried forward in what must have been a very interesting and curious exchange for all concerned. A German exchange student, Helmut Bieber, of Munich, entered Thayer in 1949 and graduated with the class of 1950. This might not seem all that astounding in 2015, but at the time, it had been less than 5 years since our nation had been at war; at that time, there were no doubt students at Thayer who knew American soldiers who had been wounded or killed fighting former German soldiers, perhaps known to that young German. It appears that several great risks were taken and that the outcome was a resounding success.

Headmaster Southworth was succeeded by another great internationalist, Dr. Gordon Thayer, who, among other things, was permitted by the US State Department to visit the USSR in 1960, the purpose being to evaluate Soviet educational techniques and practices. Under his leadership, the Academy focused its attention westward to Asia, with students and faculty visiting and establishing an exchange program with a Japanese school in 1962 and founding a summertime Asian Institute in 1963. Foreign languages had been taught at the Academy since its very earliest days; a Language Abroad program was begun to enhance this through immersion and established the annual practice of Language Department-sponsored trips to France and Spain, which continues today.

Now that exchanges and foreign travel were well established, the 1970s, 80s and 90s featured expanded offerings. European skiing trips were led by faculty members Elizabeth Bailey and "Skip" Adams. History Department faculty member Jim Rehnquist led a trip to Greece to go along with his course on Ancient History, and students traveled to the USSR to augment their study of Russian history. A number of exchange students joined the community. A biennial trip to Australia was begun in the 1990s, as well as an annual exchange with a school in England.

In the new century, the web of connection linking the Academy to the world beyond our borders now touches nearly every continent. Of course, the Language Department still leads students to France and Spain, but under the auspices of the Senior Projects program, its members have led trips to Mexico, Peru and Greece. The Art Department now sponsors Artists in Italy; an opportunity to spend a prolonged period studying and creating in Tuscany. Students still visit England, and we have reconnected with Japan. There was been a brief exchange relationship with a school in South Africa and strong relationships have been created with schools in both China and India. And it is very seldom that we do not hear of a student making some kind of visit to another country for any number of reasons on his own or with his family.


My sense is that Thayer Academy students have planted their feet and left traces on every continent in the world, except for Antarctica; and I'm not certain they haven't been there either, perhaps as alumni. I have little doubt they will someday be making tracks on other planets too. Thayer Academy students were never meant to know only one place no matter how cozy and pleasant the campus may be. From the beginning, they were encouraged to reach out, led to step out, make contact with foreign places and gain the understanding to make themselves better people and the world a better place.