Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Teacher for All Occasions: Arthur E. Grant, Greenwich Country Day

In researching our index for an interesting subject to highlight this month, we came across one of our early interviews about a teacher at Greenwich Country Day School. Arthur E. Grant, interviewed by Cecie Munkenbeck in 1976, was a young man of 33 when he was hired by John Lynn Minor, founding headmaster.

Below is an account of the Grant interview by Greenwich Oral Project volunteer, Olivia Luntz, Greenwich High School senior and member of the National Honor Society. Olivia is pleased to announce she will be attending Amherst College in the fall.

Long-time teacher at Greenwich Country Day School, Arthur E. Grant, recalls a Greenwich few would recognize today and one that he made rewarding and fun for his students when he taught there from 1932-1966. When Grant first arrived at Greenwich Country Day School, after teaching for ten years at King School in Stamford, he and his wife moved into an old hayloft above what is now the schools gymnasium. With some love and labor, the hayloft was turned into a beautiful apartment that was known as The Ritz,which Grant and his wife called home for the next thirty-four years. During his time living in The Ritz, Grant formed close relationships with the children he taught and also witnessed and experienced significant changes, both within the school and the world outside. For example, during World War Two Grant recalls how he and his wife were overrun with children.” Since gasoline was hard to come by, transportation became a problem, and so parents would leave their children at the school, making it necessary for the Grants to house them. There would be eight or nine children staying with us overnight during the week, they slept on cots in the dining room.In spite of the chaos, Grant admits to “awfully good times with those children.”
Students and Faculty, 1926

Along with opening up his apartment to his students, Grant also hosted many of his students at his family’s home in Maine. Grant was born in Maine in 1899 and only left the state in the fall of 1922 to start his first year teaching at the King School in Stamford. He returned to Maine every summer and worked for the Department of Agriculture inspecting blueberries. Grant would invite some of his students to accompany him to Maine and the boys were allowed to live just about as they would in camp. We had a separate building for them to sleep in, and they played in the river a great deal and went fishing about everyday….I used to take them on hikes and hunting trips and fishing trips, and they loved that.The boys even got paid to help with picking blueberries. Grant believes that these summers in Maine were very beneficial to the boys he taught, as they were able to see how people outside of Greenwich lived and learned how to organize things by themselves. Grant specifically recalls one boy who went up to Maine with us for years and years. He came up there when he was about eight or nine years old, and the last time he came was between exams and when he graduated from Princeton some years hed be sitting on the doorstep when we got there.

Back in Greenwich, Grant helped to host parties and other events for his students. For example, he describes one Halloween party he planned with Mrs. Stillman Rockefeller that was held underneath The Ritz. She had the most fantastic set-ups….Ill never forget those children that evening going through those chambers of horrorsthat she set up….She had gone down to the markets downtown and had bought a whole big basket full of bones, animal bones….She had the intestines of chickens and all that sort of thing.He goes on to describe the room: It was dark as midnight in there. No light at all….The children came in one door and went out another. So they had to pass through this labyrinth, and come in contact with all these many things….It was just terrible because I remember hearing those screams. Mrs. Rockefeller had great fun, too!Grant and Mrs. Rockefeller, along with planning many memorable parties, also helped the school by replacing the schools wooden flagpole, which was being drilled by woodpeckers, with a new steel pole. It will always be there, I hope,” Grant adds.

Another event at the school that Grant remembers fondly was the schools pet show. We raised money putting on a pet show each year. Ill always remember seeing Stillman Rockefeller coming on the grounds with two large shoats (small pigs) on the end of a rope.He then goes on to describe the other animals that frequented the pet show, Horses, ponies, cats, snakes, toads, mice. Anything you can think of. We had all sorts of prizes.Some of the money raised in the pet show went to sponsor the training of a Seeing Eye dog, and the dog they paid to have trained was known as the Greenwich Country Day Dog.” In addition, Grant recalls the schools Field Day, which they called “Fun Day.” One year, another teacher suggested to Grant Why dont you dress up as a Russian woman of great renown and a great athlete and come to the school to play with the mothers against the boys in the softball game?Posters were hung up around the school of this Russian athlete that was coming to Greenwich and there was great excitement.” Grant describes arriving in a limousine ceremoniously, wearing “a great flowing robe,” successfully cloaking his identity as well. He then describes his turn at bat after the first two innings: “Well, I hit the ball way out in the field, and ran like the old boy around those bases. And, when I got to third base, I pulled that string. Everything dropped but my shorts, and here I was standing. Well the kids nearly mobbed me.

Along with Halloween, the school also celebrated Thanksgiving every year with plays. We had all the turkeys and the Pilgrims and everything else that went with it. And costumes. Everything. I carried on those Thanksgiving plays as long as I was there.Another holiday that was important at the school was, of course, Christmas. In the early years of being a teacher Grant got a Christmas tree for his apartment and would invite his students to help decorate it. He recalled how the children got the biggest kick out of doing the decorating of that tree; and they loved it.Grant started getting trees for the schools foyer and then decided we should have a nice big Christmas tree in the library right at the end of the reading table.Grant was then informed that it was a fire hazard to have trees inside a school building, but that did not stop him or the schools headmaster at the time, Mr. Webster. So the next year Mr. Webster contacted a friend who said, Go ahead and wire that big spruce thats outside, and Ill pay the bills.This started the tradition of the outdoor Christmas tree, which is lighted every year. Other winter fun included the sledding hill, started by the middle school. It went all the way down across the lower field to the other street that goes down back of the gym.” Grant notes that he and the teachers would go out there evenings at nine oclock and ice it, sprinkle it so the kids could have a good toboggan slide the next day.
Headmaster John R. Webster, morning assembly, 1949

Off campus Grant recalls taking his class every year to the Statue of Liberty along with the Botanical Gardens and museums in New York. I remember one year we went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and went on board a battleship and had dinner on board, and the boys all came back with sailor hats.Grant also recalls the project he helped start for children who were not interested in sports, for “all these little youngsters who had little or no athletic ability or cared less about athletics.” The school bus would take them in the afternoons to the Edgar Mead property where they worked on a cabin. As Grant describes it, “They had to cut the trees, make the logs. They built the whole thing from the ground up.The children were instructed by Pop Wierum, and once the cabin was finished, the school would have a party and barbecue there.  Grant says, I think we built the cabin up and tore it down three times. You know different groups, different years.

In addition to all the fun and excitement, Grant witnessed many changes in the school over the years, including the merging of Country Day with Rosemary, a girls’ school. Grant describes the joining as a headache! Conflicts arose because Rosemary had a more progressive approach than Country Day’s conservative one and because teachers from the different schools found it difficult to get along. In an attempt to remedy the problem, the headmaster of school, Charlie Buell, declared, there would be no faculty meetings, if this is the way its going to be,” Overall, it was a chaotic first year, but Grant recognized there were advantages, remarking that the girls “had a great deal to offer to our school.” Grant was to witness many more changes along the way, not the least of which was growth. He recalls, I could call every child by name who was in the school, but after it got so large, I couldnt do that.” Grant laments the change, saying, “that was the one thing I didnt like, not knowing the children well enough.In his early days of teaching, Grant was in charge of one group of students. He taught every subject other than music, but after Rosemary and the increase in enrollment, each teacher could only teach one subject.

Overall, Grant recalled his days as a teacher with great fondness, even though it was a twenty-four hour job. But we had lots and lots of fun, and that seemed to be the whole note of enthusiasm that ran through the school. It was a big family, and everybody was having lots of fun.He comments in his interview that he and his wife had many, many fond remembrances of Greenwich….Ill always say that some of the finest people in the world live in Greenwich.”

Arthur E. Grant died November 13, 1993, in Machias, Maine.

Cecie Munkenbeck died this year on August 17. She was 96 years old.
Cecie Munkenbeck, photo: Wilton Bulletin

The interview of Arthur E. Grant, “The Greenwich Country Day School,” April 12, 1976, is available through the Oral History Project office on the lower level of the library or in the reference area, on the first floor.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Alex Gibbons, Student Leader of the Arch Street Teen Center

The following blog post by Olivia Luntz, Greenwich Oral History Project volunteer and senior at Greenwich High School is derived from an interview conducted by OHP interviewer Renée Lux last spring. The interview is one of four commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Arch Street Teen Center and is with narrator Alex Gibbons, president of the Arch Street Teen Center board from 2014 until his graduation in June of this year   

Interior of the Greenwich Arch Street Teen Center
Alex Gibbons got his start at the Arch Street Teen Center by attending weekend dances when he was in middle school. He appreciated that the dances enabled him to meet people from outside his private school community. In his freshman year of high school, Gibbons sat in on his first teen board meeting and “really connected with just the message of the place and what it was doing for our town.” After serving on the board for two years, he became president in his junior year. Gibbons explains that the board is made up of twenty-five to thirty high school students, with about fifteen from Greenwich High School and another fifteen representing private schools. During weekly meetings they plan events and discuss how to advertise these events to fellow teens. As president, Gibbons ran most of the meetings and assisted the executive director, Kyle Silver, in keeping the center running. But Gibbons’ involvement with Arch Street didn’t end there. As a musician he jammed at the center with other kids and even opened for a featured band. However, Gibbons believes he has benefitted most from his involvement as a public servant. He values working with different people and nonprofits, scheduling events, and he recognizes that working with different organizations is not something most teens have an opportunity to do.

While Gibbons was working for Arch Street, the center expanded its programming to appeal to a wider audience. In addition to the flagship dances, the center now offers a variety of activities and events. Over the summer Arch Street offers paddle boarding, and during the school year yoga classes are available. In addition, the center recently opened its own café, the Greenwich Grind. Although Gibbons was not sure about the changes at first, so far, he admits, the feedback has been positive. “I’ve been used to having only dances this whole time, and I didn’t know …on your average Wednesday after school, are teens going to be coming down to hang out at Arch Street?” But, as it turns out, they do come. There they would be: “a bunch of middle schoolers, hanging out and eating food and playing ping pong and kind of enjoying themselves.” Overall, Gibbons is pleased with the success of these new programs, believing they will help Arch Street appeal to those teens less interested in the dances and more interested in other activities, therefore helping to broaden the center’s base of teens.
Alex Gibbons

However, no matter the success of Arch Street’s other programs, Gibbons still asserts that the most popular events are the dances, each selling an average of four hundred and fifty tickets. Gibbons believes it is the dances that best help Arch Street accomplish its mission of providing a drug-and alcohol-free environment for teens. Being able to attend fun events or just hang out in a substance-free zone is especially beneficial for middle school students, as it helps delay exposure to drugs and alcohol. Gibbons notes that Arch Street has very strict security to ensure that no substances are brought into the center and there are always trained EMTs on site during dances in case any teens arrive showing symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

There are still further goals to reach, according to Gibbons. Gibbons notes that the high school dances are most popular among teens attending private school in Greenwich and that in the future he would like to see a more diverse crowd in attendance. “Just because your dance is selling out, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily fulfilling the mission of the Teen Center.” He adds that a lot of the teen board’s programming focuses on trying to reach people at Greenwich High School and that he enjoys it when he sees students from public and private school interact. Gibbons notes that the middle school dances and the Greenwich Grind are popular with public school kids, and he is hopeful that the high school dances, too, will soon become popular with all of the teens in the Greenwich community.

In addition to reaching out to teens, Arch Street also strives to educate parents and the community. For example, Arch Street has recently introduced a speaker series, which is aimed at parents and teens. These talks focus on topics such as helping teens with the college process, managing stress levels, and talking to teens about drugs. The Winter Wonderland event last December was another successful community program, one of which Gibbons is particularly proud since it was entirely teen planned. In order to attract families of elementary school kids, the planners provided for activities such as a bouncy castle, an arts-and-crafts table, and a fire truck for kids to explore. There were also photo-ops with Santa and the Grinch and lots of food. Gibbons hopes that this event will become a tradition at Arch Street, bringing the community together for years to come.

Overall, Gibbons believes that Arch Street is not only valuable to teens as a place that is drug-and alcohol-free but also as a place where everyone is equal. “It kind of levels the playing field,” he says, giving teens a chance to interact with students from other schools. He is quick to stress that he, too, has benefitted from this opportunity. Gibbons adds that there aren’t many events outside of Arch Street that would bring together teens from the different high schools in Greenwich, and this is exactly what makes Arch Street special. Gibbons ends his interview by noting that Arch Street is lucky to have such generous donors that have kept the Center going for twenty-five years, and he hopes Greenwich will see Arch Street continue for at least another twenty-five years.

And we in Greenwich are indeed lucky to have young future leaders like Alex Gibbons and Olivia Luntz among us.

(OHP interview: Alex Gibbons, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 7, 2014.)

Greenwich Oral History Project interviews are available in the reference area on first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the project office on the lower level.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Arch Street Teen Center, 25 Years Old and Going Strong!

The Arch Street Teen Center, located at 100 Arch Street in Greenwich, is said to be the longest-running, privately funded center for teens in the United States. In order to record the history and accomplishments of this organization, Greenwich Oral History Project interviewer, Renee Lux, conducted interviews with some of the center’s key members and supporters, all with important stories to share, some going back to the organization’s founding. It is fitting to focus on these interviews since the teen center will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary,  November, 2016.

It is important to recognize that there are many community members who have been instrumental in the center’s success, who have given time and great effort. We focus here on four who represent what it takes to make a teen center a success.

Judith A. Donahue, one of the four narrators interviewed, was there from the beginning. She told our OHP interviewer that a friend had recruited her in 1985 to give six months of her time to a feasibility study for a teen center in town. Six years later, after much involvement, the feasibility of a drug-free, alcohol-free center where teens could successfully gather for fun and camaraderie became a reality. (OHP interview: Judith A. Donahue, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 7, 2014.)

Equally important and instrumental in seeing the teen center flourish was State Senator, L. Scott Frantz, whose interest in the center began early on, after the death of his younger brother, Chris, an early advocate of a safe place for teens to gather. After his death in an aviation accident at age twenty-two, Senator Frantz’s mother, Ann Haebler Frantz, took up the cause, but when she too died, in1988, the Senator was the sole family member left to see his brother’s dream become a reality. (OHP interview: Senator L. Scott Frantz, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 1, 2014.)
State Senator, L. Scott Frantz

While Ms. Donahue and State Senator Frantz are key figures representing the commitment and work it took to make the Arch Street Teen Center the vibrant success it is today, one of the narrators interviewed is on the frontlines daily, Executive Director, Kyle Silver, who has been at the organization’s helm since 1997, six years after the official opening, when Mr. Silver was still a student at the University of North Carolina.

A big part of Mr. Silver’s job is providing programs and events inspiring enough to tear teens away from social media and to bring them into the Arch Street location and into the community for service projects, as with Neighbor-to-Neighbor, for which the center won a student organization of the year award. Then there are the weekend evening events drawing hundreds of students and the conference events bringing in celebrities and well-known public figures to speak on important topics from careers to the environment.

Less in the public eye but equally important are the routine day-to-day operational duties, keeping the budget in line, growing attendance while securing safety and maintaining a drug and alcohol free environment at events. Additionally, there is the challenge of communications, so important to maintaining support for the center’s existence.  

Taken together, the challenges are enormous, and yet the Greenwich Center has become a template around the country for those communities who would like a teen center of their own lasting longer than a year or two. When Ms. Lux asked Mr. Silver about Arch Street’s success, his answer was immediate:

“I can tell you the definite answer to that; it’s because we give so much ownership to the teens when it comes to planning the events.”
Executive Director, Kyle Silver

Ownership must be initiated by the teens themselves, Mr. Silver stresses. That ownership ensures success of the programs, of community support, of the facility itself. The teens are the ones who ensure the center’s mission, “to provide teens with a safe environment in which to connect and socialize with their peers.” It’s that simple, and, according to Mr. Silver, “…it’s stood the test of time” because, he says, when you “grow from a simple base, you can have something extraordinary.”

At the Arch Street Teen Center the structure of the teen board provides that simple base. The students who underpin the ownership required for success are those on the leadership council: the president, the co-president, the vice-president, and the teen board. Working together the teen leadership committees and the adult committees provide a foundation strong enough to weather challenges that can appear daunting to the casual observer.

Simply reading Mr. Silver’s interview gives an indication of how he goes about his job on any given day: steadfastly maintaining a policy of zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol; staying informed, whether on the premises or away, with Blackberry always handy; checking emails constantly; keeping his sites on what’s going on socially among his “customer base”; being aware of the unique challenges a town like Greenwich presents, making sure kids of varying economic backgrounds and experiences can come together in a place that welcomes them all as equals.

With all this in mind, it is easy to understand that Executive Director Kyle Silver is proud of his successes, remembering when those events that now produce four hundred attendees once saw only thirty or forty.

Mr. Silver concludes with this observation: “Teenagers are a very tough demographic because they’re challenging on a lot of levels….So we have our challenges, without a doubt, but at the same time the community support has been outstanding.” Things are, it seems to Mr. Silver, “to be as good as it could be.” (OHP Interview, Kyle Silver, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 23, 2014.)

Our fourth interview, with Alex Gibbons, president of the teen board for two terms until his graduation in June, 2016, will be the subject of a separate post by our own student Oral History Project volunteer, Olivia Luntz. It’s next up.