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South Kent School The Class of 1967 Wall

September 16th, 2022

          As South Kent begins its 99th year, the School’s foundational precepts – Simplicity of Life, Self-Reliance, and Directness of Purpose – now stand at the heart of campus, carved in stone and mounted on the rebuilt retaining wall above the Old Building. 

         As a project of the Class of 1967 and a gift to the School to mark the upcoming Centennial, the final result bears little resemblance to the original concept from when the class first began discussing possibilities two years ago. “For most of our class, the three founding principles had an impact that has stayed with us through our subsequent lives,” says Peter Thompson, who with Phil Walker is an agent for the class.  “We wanted to do something to memorialize them where the boys, faculty, staff, and visitors will see them every day, in the hope that they will have a similar influence on the current and future generations.”

         The first option to be considered was to carve the principles on a granite boulder and place the rock somewhere on campus.  This simple idea proved difficult to execute.  Despite the enthusiastic involvement of John Dunn ’67, who invested considerable time and effort working with potential carvers, the proposals were unsatisfactory.  “After several months of e-mails and phone calls, the mock-up looked like something that might be found in a graveyard,” John says, “Not a good look!” The idea of three granite benches, each with one of the precepts carved into the seat, was rejected as a potential maintenance headache for the School. At this point, Paul Giarra, ’67’s head prefect, thought to research the artisans behind Washington, DC’s many public memorials. He discovered that many had been carved by The John Stevens Shop in Newport, RI. The shop has been in business since 1705 and specializes in designing and executing one-of-a-kind inscriptions in stone. The current proprietor, Nick Benson, is the third generation of his family to own the business and, among other projects, did the carving for the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington.  His father previously did the carving for the John F. Kennedy gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.  It turned out Nick graduated from Marvelwood and knew South Kent School well. With John Dunn’s energetic and visionary involvement, a proposal took shape for a traditional slate plaque, carved with text to memorialize the three precepts, to be mounted adjacent to the entrance of the Schoolhouse.

         In September of 2021, Dunn and Thompson approached Head of School Lawrence Smith to tell him of their class’s desire to make a Centennial gift to South Kent and to “sell” the idea of the memorial plaque. While Smith graciously agreed to accept the plaque, he wondered if ’67 might consider a more practical objective for their philanthropy. The retaining wall above the visitors’ parking area by the Old Building had been slowly deteriorating for years. Some time ago, it had been identified as the number one infrastructure priority on campus, but competing priorities and limited resources had repeatedly pushed it to the back burner.  Now it was in danger of collapse, possibly taking a substantial part of the hillside with it, and potentially endangering the Brown Dormitory (the former Infirmary).  Said Smith, “I very much hope that you will pursue this.  Repairing the wall is an immediate and serious need of the School. Fixing the wall and displaying the three central values of the School on it would make a strong statement about who we are, for everyone.”  Would the Class of 1967 help by funding all or part of the reconstruction?

         At this point, John Dunn combined his vision with his years of marketing experience and conceptualized a project that would answer the School’s practical needs while still memorializing the three founding principles. The John Stevens Shop could carve three slate panels, each with one of the principles, and they could be mounted on a rebuilt retaining wall where they could be easily seen from the Old Building courtyard. “Nick Benson’s enthusiasm for the project was gratifying,” says Dunn, “and knowing we were working with the best in the business made it a joyful process.” Thompson and Walker embraced the revised concept and circularized their classmates. With nearly universal enthusiasm for the idea, funds began to flow, and the School pushed the “Go” button.

Site preparation began in late May, shortly after the end of the Spring term.  A large tree that had grown up through the old wall was taken down just before Alumni Weekend. EML Services of Bethel, Connecticut, began demolition of the old retaining wall and stabilization of the site in July, followed by construction of the new wall.  At the same time, Nick Benson began carving the three slate panels in Newport. Everything came together during the first two weeks of August, and the Class of 1967 Wall was completed by the middle of the month, in ample time to welcome boys back to campus for the Fall term.

         Commenting on the completed wall, Head of School Lawrence Smith said, “It … capture(s) and display(s) Simplicity of Life, Self-Reliance, and Directness of Purpose not only in the plain beauty of the rocks and words but also in its location and presentation. (It declares) ‘This is who we are,’ etched in stone, on the surface of a simple and beautiful wall, truly a part of the Hillside, where every student and every visitor will see it every day.”

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