A bold but brief experiment in education, part one
When we reach our golden years, we search for those decisions that changed our lives for the better.
In my case, the first special moment occurred in spring 1948 when I accepted a place offered to me by Headmaster Rev. Michael Millen at Landhaven, his boarding school in Camden. I was a sixth-grader in public elementary school 166 on the upper west side of Manhattan in New York City. This decision lifted me out of my urban setting to become one of just 17 young boys in an extraordinary and different school in a beautiful town on the coast of New England. Let's examine Landhaven's genesis and brief history.
In 1946, Michael Millen decided that he wanted to open an experimental boarding school in Maine. After careful investigation, he purchased from Thomas Watson, IBM's founder, a beautiful estate on Melvin Heights in Camden that was originally built by the Strawbridge family approximately 50 years earlier. Rev. Millen paid $16,000 for 60 acres of woodland, a beautiful frame house of 23 rooms, a garage, a tiny caretaker's cottage and a boathouse on nearby Lake Megunticook. A gift in 1948 of the adjacent 40-acre Lee estate nearly doubled the school's property, but was never fully utilized.
Millen was only in his late 20s, but looked older in his horn-rimmed glasses and black ministerial garb. His dream was to provide an exciting education, free of the restrictions of standard grade levels, and with richer course offerings. He sought to foster a challenging learning environment for boys capable of benefiting from a vibrant atmosphere in an exciting and beautiful haven.
This youthful and extraordinarily bright dreamer was raised in the small Iowa town of Coin. After high school he spend one year at a community college, from whence he transferred to Harvard where he supposedly had the highest IQ, roughly 200, of any of the renowned college's students. At the end of one year Millen audaciously decided that Harvard had nothing more to teach him and went back to the middle west to become a Methodist minster. His father died, leaving a steady income for both mother and son from their two farms and the ability to make his educational dream come true. MIllen's classmate and good friend from Harvard, John Turner, joined the Landhaven enterprise as co-founder. They would later add to the faculty another Harvard colleague, Pierce Johnson. Several other teachers joined the faculty: Norwood Beveridge, of the North Haven clan; his artist brother Eliot, who taught painting; and Frank Schacht, who had been a close friend of the musical Trapp family. There was also a housemother named Miss Parsons and a wonderful cook, Mrs. Merrifield. The Headmaster's mother spent a good deal of time at the school.
Both MIllen and Turner believed in a school where boys would take not only requirements for college, but also imaginative courses that piqued their interests and challenged their abilities. At age 13, for example, one student might take semantics or philosophy at the same time that his roommate was studying more conventional subjects like introductory Latin or geometry. Several teachers created one most unusual course entitled Historicogerographicosociomature, which combined a number of subject areas from history to architecture.
Rev. Millen believed in learning through travel so the entire school in in the summer of 1948 drove to Philadelphia to attend the Democratic National Convention, and on the way home did volunteer painting and repairs at a charitable institution in New York City. He fostered an appreciation of theater by taking us that fall to Boston to see the new film version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," starring Orson Welles, whom he admired. Subsequently, the school spent the entire summer term of 1949 producing "The Pirates of Penzance," which it then performed in the Camden Opera House. Two weeks after I arrived in August 1948, we all climbed into our yellow school bus and drove to Canada's Gaspe peninsula for two weeks of exploration. (I am told we were originally supposed to pick potatoes somewhere in Maine but the plan fell through.)
The school's unique adventure came in February 1950 when 17 students, two teachers, Michael and his mother and Miss Parsons sailed aboard the Queen Elizabeth to commence a nine-month journey through Europe. His dream was for us to study all the art, architecture, history, politics and language skills we could absorb. Instead of examining photos in books of the Roman Coliseum, Michelangelo's statue of David, Notre Dame Cathedral or Rembrandt and Van Gogh's painting, we stood inside ancient cathedrals and churches, feeling their grandeur, soaring majesty and beauty, and studied from just a few feet away the paintings and statues of masters. Our experiences included other memorable experiences.
We were the first American students to visit Yugoslavia following the end of World War II, and while there sat in Marshall Tito's home outside Belgrade relating our impressions of his nation. We next spent two months studying at a co-ed French boarding school, Le College Cevenol, in Le Chambon sur Lignon before traveling through chateau country to Paris. While many doubtless saw the famous movie "The Third Man" we visited Vienna, still under four power control, and there sought out the locations where it was filmed. Months later we met in London with the film's producer, Sir Alexander Korda, and one lucky friend was given a copy of the script.
William Frohlich is a resident of Rockport. The second part of his memories of Landhaven will appear in a future edition of Camden Herald.