Edward Yeomans was interviewed by Mary Giles on November 13, 1976. He spoke about his family and his career as a teacher.
(Edward Yeomans’ family has probably brought more people to Westport than any other. His father ‘discovered’ Westport when he was sailing down the eastern coast of Massachusetts, fell in love with it and brought his family. I know that Ed’s beginnings are not here in Westport, but that his heart and real roots are.)
Ed Yeomans – I was born in Chicago and we lived in Winnetka and my father worked in Chicago for a great many years, but every single summer while I was growing up, we came to Westport Point.
Interviewer – Did your father make that sailing voyage down the coast and discover Westport for himself, or was that something I had just heard?
Well, the word ‘discover’ is not the one I would use because after all, Westport had been a very substantial fishing and farming community before my family ever heard of it. From the point of view of summer people, he was, I guess, one of the first to settle here and come regularly. Let’s see—that cruise when he and his brother chartered a catboat and sailed west, I think took place in about 1890 – and it was during that cruise that they came into Westport Point to get out of a storm and spent a night or two and as you said quite properly, fell in love with the village and the harbor and decided that if they possibly could, they would continue to return here.
Interviewer – What made it possible for them to?
I suppose my father’s business gave him enough of a vacation so that he could afford to come and spend two or three weeks here every summer. I remember that he had to go back long before we did, but my mother and brother and I would stay on through August. Much later on, my father would take the whole summer off—in fact, when he was retired from his business.
When he was first coming here with your mother and the children, did he bring many of his friends as you do?
Yes, there were always friends who came and took part of their vacation here. I didn’t know the earliest crowd who were my father’s contemporaries in Winnetka and Chicago with the exception of Viva Spicer. As you know, there is a small paperback—a pamphlet really—which is a remarkable description of an artist. We have it in our library here and I think people would enjoy reading it. He was one who came with Father, he and his wife, and they lived in different places and on one occasion I remember my father telling that he won a raffle ticket—the only one he every won—which gave him an electric automobile. The electric automobile was sold and with the proceeds, land was bought for the Spicers, and that’s how the Spicers first acquired their land in Westport Point.
When did your father buy your property?
Well, he bought the first bit of land in about 1908 or 1909 from the Macomber family who were farming it. As the younger members of the family, like Otis, moved away, they finally sold off more and more land until Father bought it piece by piece and saw the beginnings of a very small house in that first year, and then when his mother and the maiden aunt, whose life was devoted to taking care of the old lady, wanted to move here from North Carolina for the summers, he built them a second house on the property. That’s known as ‘Mary’s house.’
The big house is the one that was so small in the beginning. As my brother and I grew up, we had more and more friends come to stay. And since you asked about such friends, the ones that I remember most vividly from those early days, after Mr. Spicer, were the ones who came down from Concord Summer School—Thomas Whitney Seurat and his various colleagues including Lyle Ring and Bob Delaney and a number of composers and musicians would come and expand the summer school. We all went to the summer school during the week and then we would have these great gatherings during the musical weekends, partly just to rest on the beach, but usually to make music too while we were here. And then another group that came with my friends and me were instrumental players and we really had a kind of chamber music home party weekends during those years. I was in college then and playing a great deal and singing a great deal.
I was living in Cambridge or here–and summers, either in Cambridge or the West. By this time I was in college in the West. I was a cowboy and a mule packer in the mountains.
As you are beginning to see, my life in the summers, while I was in college, was divided between a lot of sailing and cruising. My father had a yawl and we had many happy days cruising with ‘her’ and with my father here in Westport on the one hand, and on the other hand, I was equally attracted to the life of a mountaineer and a guide. I took parties through the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras a number of summers, doing all the responsible work of looking after the horses and mules and the rest, and I rather thought at one stage that I’d go into that work because I loved the West. I studied geology in college thinking that I would become an outdoor scientist. That changed to oceanography and I did spend one summer on an oceanographic research vessel, the Atlantis, which was based in Woods Hole, but I was one of the lucky ones who helped to bring her from Copenhagen where she was built. That occupied a whole summer.
Where were you in your education at this time?
I was still in college. I was a senior.
So your last college experience was this oceanographic one?
Yes, and I thought seriously of going into oceanography. You see, I also loved Biology and the sciences, but it was 1930 and I thought that I wanted to go to work. There weren’t many opportunities, so I took the first teaching job that was offered and I’ve been a teacher ever since and I don’t regret it at all.
Where was your first teaching job?
It was at the school where I went to California called the ‘Thatcher School’ for two years, and then I became interested in younger children—that was a high school—so when I was offered a job at Shady Hill in Cambridge by Katherine Taylor, who was the great head mistress of that school, I accepted it and felt very lucky. And I’ve had Shady Hill as a very central part of my life ever since – first as a teacher and then as Head Master.
Of course, it was easier to come from Shady Hill to Westport. Yes, that was much easier than the earlier pattern had been—of commuting from Chicago and for a while, from California. My father started a school in California. You see, he was not an educator, he was a business man but he had served on the Winnetka School Committee and while doing so, he became very much interested in what was happening in the Winnetka Public Schools, which, as you know, are among the most interesting of any group of public schools in the country. This was during the First World War and immediately after and so his interest led to some articles which he wrote and which were published in the Atlantic and this is really a unique story, as far as I know, in the founding of independent schools. One day he received a call from a man in Philadelphia who said, ‘I’m so intrigued by what you have written in these three articles in the Atlantic and I have this son whom I want to take to the West Coast because of his health but I can’t find any school I’d like to put him in. If you will leave whatever it is that you are doing, I will build a school plant that will embody these ideas and I will underwrite any reasonable deficit for the first five years.’
Father accepted and we moved to Ohaji and we had a beautiful school built. That was the Thatcher School. I was ten years old at that time.
Did you come back from California to Harvard?
I went first to the Thatcher School and then back to Harvard.
Did your father stay at Ojahi while you were coming back to Harvard?
Yes, he stayed there until he died. Since he had never had any professional experience, he employed a professional to run the school. His name was Goodwin Thompson from the Francis Parker School in Chicago.
When did your father meet your mother in all this coming and going?
That’s an interesting story too. When my father was just getting on the career ladder in his business, he was still working as a chemist in Chicago and living at Hull House. As the son of a minister, he had to work for everything he had. He had four brothers and sisters, three of whom he put through college. He had very little extra and everything he had went into supporting those other members of the family so he was this hard working young man, living at Hull House and running a Boys’ Club for the sons of immigrant families. My father was a great admirer of Jane Addams, as all of us were, and although he didn’t know her, he worked very closely with her.
One day to that service (Hull House) came my mother from Lake Forest. From quite a different background, she was really the rebellious debutant trying to get away from the family pattern of Lake Forest life and she offered her services to the youngsters of Hull House. Here she met this interesting young chemist who was involved in the same kind of interests, and from that friendship their marriage grew.
And so she went to California with him and back here with him?
Yes, he died first and I guess she lived fifteen years after he died. She was a very important influence in his life, a bit abrasive at times, but without her, he would not have kept on applying his energies as he did, first to the school and then the book that he wrote and other kinds of projects. She kept after him.
What my father did, he did of necessity—things that led to greater security in business. He became an inventor finally and began to manufacture some of these gadgets and this was the basis of his business, whereas my direction was a great deal more diffuse because I was able to experiment more—try more different kinds of things.
Other qualities of my father that need mentioning are that he was a very good musician—a self-taught cellist—but he know music—he understood music and he could play it. He always had friends around him to play chamber music.
He was also a first rate craftsman and we still have some of the models that he built—here in Westport, Chicago or California—wherever he lived. He always had a shop and tools and he was very much occupied with building models of the things he cared most about which were, of course, boats.
In many ways I’ve emulated him and in others I’ve not been able to at all. I’m a very poor craftsman. He had a great poetic command of language, which I don’t, but I love to write.
I’ve wanted to talk a little bit about the people you’ve brought or who have come here because of you. We feel very fortunate that so many wonderful people have come because of you. Could you name a few of them?
Well, because of our mutual interest in sailing and music, the Gregory Tuckers came and, of course, Klaus and Ollie Liepman and Kit Adams and the Harrises, friends perhaps more of my family, and Lyle Ring who taught at the Ohaji Valley School and was close to my father. I can’t begin to mention them all. Well, there were Arthur Kohlenberg (now deseased) and Gerry (now Mrs. Zetzel) and the Deknatels were friends of my family from Hull House. They were good friends of my family from way back there—and our cousins, the Truebloods. We helped them find that nice house of theirs—and I don’t know who all—the Rockwells who live up the street from us.
See how you’ve enriched Westport’s life. You are responsible for so many interesting people coming to Westport.
Not that we’ve done anything except introduce them. The place is so beautiful—if offers so much.
I want to talk to you a little bit about Georgia. You were at Shady Hill for a while, and then you moved to Georgia.
Well, I never seem to stay in any one place very long. I’ve always been involved in Education, but I’ve moved to different aspects of it, which would involve me in a very different setting. So, having had seventeen very happy years, I left to go into the Peace Corps and train Peace Corps volunteers. But prior to that, I’d had six happy years teaching at Shady Hill. I left that job to go to Georgia to be in charge of the experiences of college students as people working with parents in community education. Students from the college came out with me as I made my rounds to help the children, teachers and parents do community things. You will remember, there were the cooperatives—the public health side of it, the rural electrification side of it, the agricultural side. You know that was what was so wonderful about adult education—it was so comprehensive. It included a great many people with a great understanding of many crafts and disciplines.
I wanted to do something about what Roosevelt had spoken of as the nation’s number one problem, the economic effects of the depression. They seemed to be most acute in the South. I went to Carroll County, Georgia where the average family income was less than $700 per year.
I became involved in many self-help projects where people would work with one another and where their welfare would seem to depend upon greater cooperation. People were raising cotton and more cotton, but they didn’t have enough to eat and it had never occurred to them to have gardens and to can their produce cooperatively.
Five years ago now, when we were back there visiting, not having been there for 25 years, the changes were enormous. In place of the barren and weedy fields, there were green pastures and good looking cattle, and in place of unpainted, dilapidated houses, there were nice looking houses—sometimes rebuilt—sometimes the same ones fixed up. This was a very rewarding experience. We saw the president of West Georgia College who is still living there, who had been members of our cooperatives. All of the things in this adult education were in the right direction and it was responsible for many changes but there were some changes which could only come about when the pressure for change mounted, and that included racial relations because ever since those studies of intercultural sociology, this had become a major interest of that college and its teacher training work. And the public schools were the beneficiaries so Carroll County has always been a leader in the South in the understanding between various groups.
You came back from Georgia to New Jersey didn’t you?
I’m amused when I think back at this. Our work at the college (Georgia) had attracted the attention of the head of the National Farmers’ Union who lived in Denver, Colorado. He heard about it, came down and said, “We want this kind of work in the National Farmers’ Union. Will you come and help us do it in Pennsylvania and New Jersey?”
I felt this might be an interesting next step—I’ve mentioned my restless habits—so we moved to Pennsylvania and I became Director of the National Farmers’ Union in New Jersey. It was very interesting but exhausting. It was not just one county, but I had two states to cover and I was driving night and day, going to meetings and building cooperatives. I exhausted myself and I was very happy indeed when the invitation came to become Head Master at Shady Hill. I stayed there for thirteen years and I probably would have stayed there happily for many more years if it hadn’t been for the opportunity to use some of this experience I had had in the Peace Corps on an International stage.
I saw the Peace Corps as something even more than its name. I saw it as, I think William James it was who said, ‘A means to find a moral equivalent for war.’ It was with a missionary hope that I entered and there were many frustrations along the way, which are now understood. All of the facilities of the Community Education Program of Puerto Rico were put at my disposal in the hope that they would spread to Latin America and other underdeveloped places in the world.
Now, could we wind up with a little bit of what you are doing now? We do have it in written form, but I’d like to include just a bit of it here.
I went to England about 1967 and saw what I had already head about in some glowing detail, a method of teaching young children, which was entirely different from even our most progressive which I had grown up in and been familiar with throughout my whole teaching life. And the difference was in extending great amounts of trust, respect and responsibility to even quite young children, with the understanding that they could learn to learn themselves with much less teaching from a teacher, but using the environment around them, each other and many adults as their sources of learning. It accomplished this with a minimum of confusion, having learned much about the skills of self-discipline and self-regulation.
I have felt that their roots are intermingled with those of the one-room schools in this community, and so I felt that this could be accomplished in this country and I set myself to bringing across from England people who could help train our teachers in attitudes and points of view because it was as much attitudes and points of view as it was techniques. So, for the next seven or eight years, that’s what I did full time. I had teacher training sessions, bringing teachers, who might learn, to workshops. I went to England every year and recruited teachers from the classrooms to come and spend the summers in this country and run training sessions.
The National Association of Independent Schools gave me a place to work, a salary and a means of bringing teachers together. I could go to them and say, ‘If you will give me a place to work, I will provide the facilities of director and recruit teachers.’ According to our ground rules, teachers had to come just from independent schools.
I think our efforts touched public education in this country just as much as it did in private education. Some may praise it, some may damn it, but like everything else which is in the right direction, it requires great skill, great sensitivity. It cannot be achieved by simply pushing the furniture around and saying, ‘Now I have an open classroom.’ It’s a completely altered point of view about learning and about one’s own learning as an adult, as well as about the learning of children.
Let’s go to Westport. Having lived here part of the time—you don’t vote here—there are probably certain things that you feel are essential to preserve what you love about Westport.
Yes, there are certain things. Of course, one of them is the zoning and the restriction of the use of land. I don’t think of zoning in the snob sense at all. I think of it as a necessary way of preserving not only the purity, but also the beauty of the land and water. I think it needs constant attention. There are too many abuses, too many grandfather clauses, in spite of so many gains.
Another is the preservation of the beaches, dunes and salt marshes, and that’s a different problem because it has to do with legislation and Wetlands Act that are well meant, but must be enforced to be useful. It makes no difference how good the law is, if it isn’t backed up by action and it’s in that area that our problems on the beaches, dunes and salt marshes arise.
When it comes to smaller issues, like should the ‘Let’ be opened, I tend to be very conservative on that. I’ve seen what happened on Long Island and I’m not happy with what I’ve seen.
One of the things that has kept this community as pleasing as it is, is the relative difficulty of getting in and out of the harbor, and I don’t minimize that I’ve gone aground a few times with my boat, and every time that happens, I’m reminded that that is a preservative of something very precious here.