Celebrating 178 Years of Community

December 15, 2020

Message from the headmaster



The first day of classes ever at St. Johnsbury Academy happened on December 13th, in the year 1842. So on Monday, we celebrated the Academy’s 178th Birthday in distanced style, with cookies baked by Chef Paula Bystrzycki and her students in Culinary Arts (individually wrapped and brought to students in the morning), and with an Academy history quiz put together by faculty members Denise Scavitto and Liz Laverty.


The Academy was founded by brothers Erastus, Thaddeus, and Joseph Fairbanks to provide “intellectual, moral, and religious training for their own children and the children of the community,” and has served young people from the town of St. Johnsbury and our surrounding communities ever since. It has steadily added to the populations it serves over its 178 years—very early on the school also had boarding students who came from around the world—and from the first, the Academy has educated girls. I don’t know if people appreciate how special this is—very few “New England Academies,” most founded in the mid-to-late 19th century—welcomed girls. Did I say very few? I meant, about none. Not only that, but when in 1873 the school began to offer technical education in addition to college preparatory and liberal arts programs, it became what it remains: one of the most unique independent schools in the country. 


This town was very different in 1842. Many of the buildings that define our current landscape had yet to be built. Fuller Hall, where daily Chapel is ordinarily held, did not yet exist—it was dedicated in 1873. Colby Hall, Newell Hall, South Church, and many other of our school buildings, some of which no longer exist, were built after the Civil War, as were many of the cornerstone buildings of the town itself, such as the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.


One of the buildings here on Main Street, right in the middle of campus, is the Charlotte Fairbanks Cottage, which houses our Admissions and Business Offices; but over its 150 years has also served as a student residence for both girls and boys, and once briefly as a quarantine space for the Spanish flu in 1919. Countless stories surround Fairbanks Cottage; including one from April, 1891, when future President Calvin Coolidge wrote to his father about the “boarding place I like very well.” I recently heard another such story, and found it particularly moving.


In 1949, a brother and sister arrived in St. Johnsbury from Hong Kong—their family had been from Shanghai, China, but moved when the unrest of the Chinese Communist Revolution was at its height. The parents of Nancy and Oscar Tang wanted their children out of China—Oscar remembers his mother holding him close as they walked through Shanghai in those early years of the revolution, so he wouldn’t see the bodies on the street. They understood that formal education would be critical to their children’s success, so the Tangs sent their children to New England, to the little town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont—where Nancy, who was 13, enrolled in St. Johnsbury Academy and lived in Brantview. Oscar was only 11 years old, and not a student at the school—but nevertheless wound up finding a home with the high school students in what was then a boys’ dorm: Fairbanks Cottage.


In Hong Kong, Oscar had been picked on and bullied in school—every day, it seemed, he had a fight. So it was a relief to him that the people at the Academy and in the town of St. Johnsbury were welcoming and kind, even though he spoke little English, and even though most had never known anyone from China. Oscar would ride his bicycle around what he saw as a prosperous and pleasant town, spending time at the Fairbanks Museum and in the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum reading room. His Academy student neighbors in the Cottage befriended him—in the spring he went for walks in the woods with one of these boys, named Harold Davis. They asked permission of a local farmer to drink from the sap-buckets on the maple trees, and they did—Oscar remembers the sap tasting only slightly sweet.


While Nancy went on to Wellesley College, then Berkeley, and eventually settled in California, Oscar continued his education in New England. He did not attend the Academy, but instead went to a school that specialized in English as a second language, ending up at Phillips Academy Andover (where he later became the chair of their board of trustees). He attended Yale College and Harvard Business School, and went on to a remarkably successful career in investment banking. Oscar Tang is now one of the most influential educational and cultural philanthropists in the world, and certainly, one of the most accomplished people ever to spend time in St. Johnsbury. He would tell you that when he lived here in Fairbanks Cottage in 1949, St. Johnsbury was America to him—it was his first America—a small but vibrant town with simple pleasures and people who were genuine and kind. His brush with St. Johnsbury was brief but potent, and he has become an important investor in the economic development of the town, and has given generously both to the Academy (to help restore Brantview, where his sister lived, among other things) and to the Fairbanks Museum. He’d like to see the school and the town thrive and continue to be a place where young people from around the world can find a good start in life.


I find it a boon, as we turn the page on a difficult year, to remember how powerful a kind and welcoming community can be when combined with a mission to teach and learn in abundance. I am humbled by how meaningful Academy people, and all the local educators I’ve met, have been in helping to form that community. Our diversity, our deliberate inclusion, and commitment to teaching and serving one another has brought us through dark times, and will bring us through this one. With the prospect of a vaccine and better days ahead, I hope we can keep following this 178-year-old beacon bravely into a New Year. 


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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