History & Traditions
In 1850, Frederick William Gunn, educator, prominent abolitionist, and outdoorsman, along with his wife, Abigail Brinsmade Gunn, founded their school on a hilltop in bucolic Washington, Connecticut. For more than 170 years, The Frederick Gunn School has flourished by standing squarely on the ideals of its founders: intellectual strength, moral courage, physical rigor and character.
Today, there are reminders all around us of Mr. Gunn’s legacy. Most are not as tangible as a school building or a sepia-colored photograph but have shown to be even more lasting. Mr. Gunn’s philosophy of education, with its emphasis on character development, curiosity and independent thinking, remains relevant today. What was regarded as iconoclastic at the time has proven to be universal. Today’s graduates are not only prepared but eager to face the challenges of the 21st century and, like our founder, be a force for good.
The Frederick Gunn School has been led by 11 Heads of School, including founder Frederick Gunn, who each contributed to its success over the course of our 170-year history.
Mr. Gunn served as the school's first Headmaster from 1850 until his death in 1881. During his tenure:
- He led students on the first all-school walk from Washington to Milford in 1861, which led to his recognition by the American Camping Association as the founder of recreational camping in the United States
- He welcomed girls, African-American, Native American and international students to his school in defiance of social norms.
- He installed the first lending library in Washington, Connecticut, in his living room, where local citizens periodically gathered.
- He served as an early proponent of physical activity and participation in sports as a building block of character development.
- He believed that his students had “an inalienable right to their fun.” To that end, he organized dances, musical events, debates and plays for his students and town residents.
- He often reiterated that one needed to have a “boy-heart” to understand and teach the young. His students recounted that he was always the first one selected when they were choosing sides for a student game. He would call a day off from recitations and accompany the children on nature walks during the glorious seasonal days of spring and fall.
John Chapin Brinsmade succeeded Mr. Gunn, his father-in-law, as Head of School in 1881, and continued a tradition of academic innovation as the public school system established itself in Connecticut. He served as Head of School for 41 years, the longest tenure in the school’s history to date.
- He expanded the school outside of the family home, building a dormitory, a schoolhouse and a gymnasium.
- During his tenure, the science curriculum was expanded to include labs as college entrance became more competitive.
- Fraternities were established, which had teachers as well as students as members.
William Hamilton Gibson of the Class of 1902 was appointed the third Head of School beginning in 1922, when The Gunnery was purchased by a group of alumni acting as trustees.
- It was Gibson’s vision to turn the school away from the main road, where car traffic was on the rise, and create a quadrangle of Colonial Revival buildings.
- With the support of generous benefactors, including the Van Sinderen and Bourne families, five buildings were constructed and the schoolhouse was remodeled.
- The enrollment of the school tripled.
- Fraternities were abolished based on Gibson’s belief that they were detrimental to the community spirit of the school, and The Gunnery, which had accepted girls as students in previous years, was converted to an all-boys school, in keeping with the prevalent practice of independent schools at the time.
- Outside of The Gunnery, Gibson was instrumental in the founding of the Washington Art Association in the 1950s and was one of the first trustees of Steep Rock when Ehrick Rossiter deeded the nature preserve to the town in 1925.
The Rev. Tertius van Dyke was called by The Gunnery to temporarily replace his brother-in-law, third headmaster W. Hamilton Gibson, in 1936.
- A graduate of The Lawrenceville School and Princeton (1908, Phi Beta Kappa), van Dyke received a master's degree from Magdalen College at Oxford and was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary.
- In 1916, he took a leave of absence from his church work to serve as personal secretary to his father, who had been appointed minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
- One of the first changes he initiated as Headmaster was the addition of two lower “forms” (in effect, 7th and 8th grade) and the division of the school into three lower forms and three upper forms with separate student governments. The plan was to increase the enrollment to 90 students. The schoolhouse was then enlarged to accommodate the plan.
- He also introduced unsupervised study halls on an Honor System, which proved to work well in the morning but not the afternoon. Another innovation was the reinstitution of dancing classes such as those held by Mr. Gunn. Three schools, Wykeham Rise, Romford, and The Gunnery, took part in the classes which were held at Wykeham.
- He and his wife, Betty, raised their daughter, Dorothy, and two sons at the school. Henry van Dyke IV ’44 later graduated from Yale and studied law at Columbia; Paul van Dyke ’45 graduated from Hamilton College.
- Van Dyke resigned as Headmaster in 1941 and went on to become the Dean of Hartford Theological Seminary. In the 1950s, he came to live out his life in Washington.
After an illustrious career as a physics professor at Yale and Phillips Exeter Academy, Russell Sturgis Bartlett came to The Gunnery in 1942 from the Newark College of Engineering, where he had worked on the revision of the College Boards, which resulted in the institution of the SATs.
Bartlett studied at Taft and Yale, Class of 1917, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. He joined the U.S. Navy and served as lieutenant j.g. in command of submarines during World War I.
Having received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1924, he returned to England, where he studied with Nobel Prize winner and discoverer of the electron, Sir J.J. Thomson, at Cavendish Laboratories and Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Bartlett was a member of the British Royal Scientific Society and studied at the King’s College, London.
He and his wife, Emilie Jeannette Daggett, had three children: Beatrice "Betsy" Sturgis Bartlett, William Mayhew Bartlett ’48, and Susan Leigh Bartlett Bull.
He led the school through World War II, arranging for accelerated graduation by instituting a six-day week and a summer session to accommodate students directly affected by the new draft law. He also introduced courses in meteorology, navigation, gasoline engines, semaphore and Morse code, and cartography to prepare the students for war service. He taught some of the science classes, including navigation, when some of the science faculty left to serve in the war. He also marshaled the students to help replace men from Washington in the military, creating a volunteer firefighting unit and helping local farms with their plantings and harvests.
Sadly, Bartlett fell ill in 1944 and died a year later. He left his scientific library to The Gunnery as a precious legacy.
Ogden D. Miller H'69 P'50 '54 '55 was appointed Headmaster in January 1946, following the death of Russell Bartlett.
- Born in Southington, Connecticut, he attended Lewis High School and Williston Academy.
- He graduated from Yale in 1930 and received an honorary M.A. in 1938. Prior to becoming Headmaster, he worked for 15 years at Yale University, as Associate Dean of Freshmen, Assistant Secretary of the University, Chairman of the Board of Athletic Control and Director of Athletics.
- He and his wife Anne raised three boys at The Gunnery, Ogden D. Miller, Jr., '50, David Miller '54, and Dwight Miller '55.
- During his tenure, the school campus was nearly doubled in size through the annexation of the Bourne estate. The acquisition was part of his administration's "Second Century Campaign," which raised funds to support several significant additions: The PO (1949); a second gym (1953); the old Barnes estate and South Street water supply (1958); the construction of three “temporary” dormitories, Emerson, Butler and Bache (1964); and the Science Building (1967).
- Miller increased the academic reputation of the students and prepared the school to meet the challenges of the civil rights movement.
- He raised the level of athletic participation and promoted the success of Gunnery teams, which enjoyed great success during this time.
- He redesigned the school crest and oversaw the school's Centennial in 1949-50. The weekend celebration was attended by 600 alumni, students, faculty, townspeople and friends as well as many headmasters from area schools, and many members of Mr. Gunn’s family, including his grandchildren.
- He sought to cement the school's relationship with Washington by encouraging faculty and serving himself on many town volunteer committees, participating actively in town events, and pitching in with his students, faculty and his facilities when needed.
Burgess Ayres assumed the headship following Ogden D. Miller’s retirement.
- A 1938 graduate of Choate, he went on to Harvard University, where he received an S.B. degree in 1942 and an A.M. in 1950. He played varsity football, hockey and baseball at both Choate and Harvard and served as an executive officer in the U.S. Navy from December 1942.
- He was assistant leader of the Choate Russian seminar program, visiting the Soviet Union in 1962 and 1964.
- He became headmaster of Shattuck School in Minnesota in 1964, introducing new courses in Afro-Asian Studies, Art, and Russian language and beginning a comprehensive building program.
- Ayres arrived at The Gunnery during a most tumultuous period during the 1960s. His tenure coincided with the civil rights era, the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, protests over the Vietnam War, and the rise of the feminist movement.
- He initiated the coordination of classes and students with Wykeham Rise, the nearby girls school. By 1976, most of the visual and performing arts and language classes were held on the Wykeham campus while The Gunnery hosted math, English, science and history classes, and most of the athletic co-curriculars. Buses ran between the two campuses.
- Also during his tenure, Ned Swigart P'82, who taught biology and served as Director of the Outdoor Club, was teaching the principles of archaeology when his students made a terrific discovery. The Outdoor Club is credited with finding some of the oldest American Indian remains in New England, which led to the establishment of the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington.
When The Rev. David Kern was appointed Head of in November 1976, his charge from the Board of Trustees was to reinstitute academic rigor with the return of co-education to The Gunnery for the first time in 56 years.
- Ordained an Episcopal minister, Kern graduated from New York University with an undergraduate and a master’s degree in education and human relations and from the Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven.
- Prior to The Gunnery, he served for seven years as head of Sphere, Inc., a consortium of 14 schools concerned with moral and religious education based in Hartford. He was also a faculty member and Director of The Greater Opportunity Program at Hotchkiss School. Prior to that he served a number of parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of New York. He and his wife, Peggy, had five children.
- In the fall of 1977, the school welcomed 43 girls and 147 boys. Among the nine senior girls, Nicki Lazare McDonald ’78 was named a prefect and Andrea Wells ’78 was named class valedictorian.
- Early in his first year, Mr. Kern presided over the refurbishment of Brinsmade’s first floor into a student center with a snack bar and an art studio broken into three sections: ceramics and pottery, painting and drawing and art history, and a small library.
- Nine new sports were offered and girls dressing rooms and facilities were installed in Memorial. Bourne dorm was renovated to include a common room and new bathrooms to house the new female students. A new arts program was introduced to take the place of the arts classes previously offered at Wykeham Rise.
Michael Eanes H’90 P’90 GP’20 ’23 had been a member of The Gunnery faculty for 15 years when the Board of Trustees appointed him acting Headmaster in 1979, following the abrupt departure of David Kern.
- He taught chemistry, coached basketball, served as dorm master of Bourne and Gibson, and was Director of Admissions, Dean of Faculty, Director of Studies and Assistant Headmaster before he was named the school's ninth headmaster in 1980. At the time of his appointment, he and his wife, Susan, had two children Laura, 7 and Christopher, 3.
- In 1981, with a substantial gift from the Preston Tisch family, the Rennie library which had been relocated from Brinsmade to the schoolhouse in 1975, was greatly expanded and updated to become the Tisch Family Library.
- At about the same time, a two-phase plan for the expansion of Memorial Gym was initiated. The building was renamed The Ogden D. Miller Memorial Athletic Center in memory of the sixth headmaster, Ogden D. Miller, who died in 1978.
- In the fall of 1984, Adrian Van Sinderen came to the dedication of the new girls dormitory that would carry his name. The building had previously housed the Van Sinderen Infirmary, which was replaced by a smaller health center in Memorial.
- During Eanes' tenure, the school instituted a senior seminar and introduced Advanced Placement courses.
- When a fire destroyed Kempton in 1986, he ensured that a replica would be built in its place, preserving a piece of school history.
Susan Graham H'12 was named the first female Head of School. Under her aegis, the school completed a three-phase Campus Enhancement Plan as well as the expansion of the curriculum, and infrastructure improvements to address the information technology explosion.
- The Emerson Performing Arts Center and the Lemcke Theater were established in 1996.
- In 2000, an alumni center, named for longtime Latin teacher and baseball coach Edward Buxton, was constructed adjacent to Bourne Hall.
- The Gunnery celebrated its sesquicentennial.
- In 2002, an addition to the dining hall was completed and the space was renamed Virginia Hamilton Solley Hall after one of the school’s primary benefactors.
- A student center was established and the post office and school store were relocated from Brinsmade, creating new classroom space.
- Visual arts and photography studios were created on the lower level of Memorial.
- In 2007, Teddy House, a new freshman boys dorm was made possible by a leadership gift from Dick Ebersol and Susan St. James in memory of their son and Gunnery student, Teddy.
- In 2009, the Tisch family, longtime benefactors of the school, made possible the renovation and expansion of the Schoolhouse.
Peter Becker became The Gunnery’s 11th Head of School in 2012 and ushered in a transformative period of growth while seeking to strengthen the school’s ties to its founder in ways that are relevant to a 21st-century boarding school education. He has said the school’s commitment today is “to evolve, as intentionally as possible, our place and our programs. The evidence around campus that we are doing so is plentiful and exciting.”
A native of New Orleans and Manhattan, Peter is a graduate of The Taft School (Watertown, Connecticut) and graduated with distinction from the University of Virginia, where he received a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. He holds a master’s degree in history from Yale University and has studied closely the writings of Frederick Gunn and The Gunnery’s early history.
Peter came to The Gunnery from The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where he served as a master of history and interdisciplinary studies, housemaster, department chair, and coach. He led the redesign of the Interdisciplinary Program’s curriculum, seeking different ways to instruct, encourage and inspire students to learn and communicate. Peter was also the director of the Humanities Program, coached squash and tennis and held Lawrenceville’s Shutt Faculty chair for four years. Prior to his eight-year tenure at The Lawrenceville School, he had a career as an investment banking and venture capital analyst.
Peter is a board member for Washington Montessori School and formerly served on the board of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools and the Parents League of New York (PLNY). Peter is actively engaged in the study and development of character education and has presented frequently on its importance in the moral formation of students, their long-term success and engagement in civic life. He is invited to write and speak regularly for various organizations, including PLNY, about the benefits of a boarding school education.
Peter and his wife, Amy Julia, an accomplished author and speaker, are the proud parents of three children, Penny, William, and Marilee.