What Happened to Windsor – Richard Neely

Re: What was Windsor like just before it closed ?

Posted by: “Richard Neely” who died November 2020

Wed Feb 14, 2007 7:41 am (PST) in YaHoo WMS Group Page.

I have been reading the questions about the end of the school in 1975. At the time the school closed, I was a member of the board of directors, having graduated in 1960. By that time I was already a justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and, of course, had experience as a practicing lawyer. Indeed, I was the only member of the board who was a lawyer, so I participated to a larger extent than most in trying to save the school. It was a bit of a trip for me traveling from Charleston, WV to Albany and then renting a car, but I did it at least once a month for about a year. Fortunately, the life of an appellate judge is surpassingly leisurely, so I could go for long weekends. That said, it is obvious that I was looking at the school from the vantage point of an adult and not from the vantage point of a student.

What had happened is that the entire market for private secondary education had changed by 1972. A combination of an inter-generational leveling in the distribution of wealth (i.e., younger parents didn’t have the spare money that their parents had had to afford private school) and the anti-establishment, anti-elitist attitudes bred in the 1960’s that caused younger parents to disparage private schooling as “elitist” substantially limited the market for paying students. There were a lot of private schools (now all closed) and a dwindling number of acceptable (i.e., not violent, crazy or abysmally stupid) students. So, standards obviously declined.

In the last years we continued to get a lot of really interesting, motivated, agreeable students, but our problem was that in order to pay the bills– including some horrific mortgages incurred to build the new boys’ and girls’ dorms and the theatre– we needed to take more and more students sponsored by the State of Massachusetts and State of Rhode Island. Some of these students were simply orphans or neglected children, but others came from the juvenile justice system and were definitely not Windsor material. And, even the students who had no delinquency problems did not come with the depth of background our earlier students possessed.

Windsor was, believe it or not, a remarkably conservative school culturally and socially. Our curriculum was quite rigorous by the standards of the time: everyone was expected to have four years of English, four years of history, four years of math, four years of science, and three or four years of a language. Not everyone did that, but that was what was generally expected. Also, Windsor could afford to appear to be free and unstructured because it was extremely structured through social pressure, example of the faculty and administration, and inherent discipline of the student body which they had learned at home. (For those who graduated before 1963, think of how little real sex (i.e., more than heavy petting) went on and how infrequently there was drug and alcohol usage. It wasn’t that we couldn’t have sex; it was that we had remarkable self-restraint.

The influx of state-sponsored students plus general lowering of standards came very close to destroying the atmosphere of the school, so at the time the school closed there was extremely low faculty and administration morale, partially of course, because the faculty and administration knew we were hanging on by our fingernails. For example, the school began to suffer deliberate vandalism of the buildings– something that was unheard of in my day as a student. (I once put Bill Kadell’s head through a wall made of wallboard in a wrestling match leaving a large hole, but that was not deliberate.) When Milan said “Son-of-bitch kids” in my day, he was always smiling; that was not the case in the 1970’s.

Heinz worked very hard trying to save the school because he believed that if we could just make it for three more years, the weak private schools would close, leaving what small market remained for the schools that survived. And, by the way, in those years Andover, Exeter, Choate and St. Paul’s couldn’t fill their classes! They refused to take entirely unqualified students, but their definition of “qualified” was very different from what it is today. Nonetheless, there were substantial empty places in those schools in the early 1970’s. I tried to help Heinz to the maximum extent possible, basically using the prestige of my office and experience as a lawyer.

At one point Heinz and I traveled to Newark, New Jersey to the headquarters of the Prudential Life Insurance Company and had an hour’s discussion with the president of Prudential because Prudential had a division that did “charitable” lending on very favorable terms. We laid out our case for WMS, which included our very substantial contribution to the ABC program that groomed minority students for professional and academic careers, but after giving us a very full and fair hearing, Prudential turned us down.

I also worked with a lawyer in Pittsfield named Meyers who had been very helpful to the school and who had helped secured much of the financing from local banks for us over the years. We tried to get the local banks to restructure our loans to give us a little breathing room, but they felt that they had been patient enough and they had federal regulators to satisfy.

In the years that I was a student a very high percentage of our students came from families of European refugees, academics, genuine enthusiasts for progressive education, and certified liberals. When Heinz interviewed me in 1954 at my house, my father asked Heinz what he thought of Senator Joe McCarthy. Heinz tried to say something tactful like, “Well… we let the students make up their own minds about subjects like that,” at which point my father pressed him for his personal opinion. Heinz said he thought McCarthy a disgrace to the United States Senate, at which point my father said, “Well, that’s the school for Richard!”

The children who initially went to Windsor came largely from well-structured homes and had their own internal sense of order. I can remember Carol Singer, whose family fled Hitler and whose father ran a lingerie concession in a department store on Staten Island, running up to me all excited and saying that I had to listen to Mozart’s C-minor Mass, which she had just discovered. It is still probably among my favorite pieces of music, but the point is that there was no force feeding of classical music, classical literature, or other high culture because a large portion of the students brought that culture with them. They also listened to Elvis Presley and danced in the Rec Room, but there was no resistance to high culture and the doing of plays like The Seagull.

From my observation as an adult, all that had changed between 1972 and 1975. Oddly enough, the old Saturday Review of Literature, which at the time had a very influential readership, did a feature story on WMS and allowed as how WMS did a much better job with keeping drug usage down than any of the other prep schools, notwithstanding the unstructured facade. And, that indeed, was a sign of our inherent discipline and conservatism. But it wasn’t enough. With the change in the nature of students, it was not possible to run Windsor in the way Windsor was traditionally run. So, I think that in the face of rejection from the financial markets, Heinz and Gertrud simply gave up and closed it down.

My two sons both went to the Buxton School in Williamstown, which in many ways is like the Windsor of yore. But I didn’t think that their education came close to approaching in quality the education I got at Windsor in the 1950’s. Part of that is that it is no longer possible to avoid television-like diversions (DVD’s, etc.) and other intrusions of popular culture, but another part of it is that the teachers simply didn’t have the same depth of background as our teachers like Jim, Franny, Label, and Oldrick Prohaska. Once, long after I had graduated, Oldrick asked me if I had ever seen his correspondence with John Maynard Keynes during the 1930’s, and then promptly brought out a box of letters he and Keynes had exchanged!

So, the bottom line is that Windsor ca. 1972-1975 was not the Windsor that we all knew from 1948 to 1965. There were still a core of the old Windsor-type students, but there weren’t enough of them to sustain critical mass, which is probably why we found our market for paying students dwindling. It was a vicious cycle.

Richard Neely, ’60