The Gunnery announced today that it is changing its name after 170 years to The Frederick Gunn School. The change honors the vision and ideals of school founder Frederick Gunn, an outdoorsman and naturalist recognized as the founder of camping in the United States, a courageous abolitionist, a leader of the Underground Railroad in Washington, and a pioneering educator.
“We are today recommitting our school to the ideals that Frederick Gunn lived and taught 170 years ago because they remain inspiring today,” said Head of School Peter Becker, who noted that the name change is the culmination of a process begun several years ago. “Although we could not have foreseen it, this change takes place at an extraordinary moment. In six weeks, we will welcome students for the fall term in a vastly different world — one reshaped by a global pandemic and one coming to grips with the history of race in America. Frederick Gunn modeled both resilience in the face of unanticipated challenges and a willingness to stand up for the rights of all people. His message is a message for our time, and for all time.”
When Mr. Gunn founded his school in 1850, he challenged the way people thought about school. In addition to academics, he emphasized the importance of athletics, spending time in nature, as well as using performing arts didactically and to connect the school with the town of Washington. Like his contemporaries, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mr. Gunn was deeply moved by the natural world. Experiencing nature was essential to life and essential to the formation of character in his students. Mr. Gunn recognized that character, the kind of person you are, is not only shaped by how students compete on the playing field, perform on stage, and conduct themselves in the dorm, but it ought also to compel a student to action.
After graduating from Yale University in 1837, Mr. Gunn returned home to Washington. He was converted to the abolitionist cause by his oldest brother, John Gunn, and became a leader in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Unwilling to compromise his beliefs, and unable to sustain a living in the face of public condemnation, he left his family and community until the tide of public opinion shifted. Returning to Washington in 1849, he established his school as a place that welcomed boys and girls, students black and white, as well as international students, in defiance of social norms.
“He was a principled man, who stood up for what he believed in, even when it cost him dearly,” said Patrick Dorton '86, Chairman of the Board of Trustees and co-founder and managing partner of Rational 360, Inc., a communications and public relations firm in Washington, D.C. “He was an ardent abolitionist. And he put belief into action when he became a porter on the Underground Railroad.”
Today, the students at his school are carrying that legacy forward. They are encouraged to think for themselves, to express their beliefs confidently and persuasively, to stand up for themselves and for others. “They leave prepared to make a difference in the lives of others, to be a force for good,” Becker said. “They are active citizens—active in changing the world in the same entrepreneurial way that Frederick Gunn changed the world so many years ago.”
The name “The Gunnery” was not chosen by Frederick Gunn, but affectionately bestowed by his students and townspeople and later officially adopted as an expression of universal fondness for its founder. While well intentioned, its ambiguity ultimately obscured Mr. Gunn’s vision and ideals.
“At first, this may feel to many alumni like a departure. In reality, it’s the opposite. We’ve always been a school named for Mr. Gunn; becoming The Frederick Gunn School just removes the uncertainty for people unfamiliar with the man,” said Jon Tisch '72, Chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels & Co. and co-owner of the New York Giants.
According to Becker, the new name symbolizes the school and culture that have been built over decades. “The results are clear to see. We are in the midst of rebuilding our campus. We have built a new dining hall, new dorms and athletic fields, created a College Counseling Center and bought the historic home that was Mr. Gunn’s first school on The Green. We just opened the $22 million Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center – an inspiring home for the risking, creating, making, and wonder that happen in the visual and performing arts. It is also a new hub for our campus and for Litchfield County, and a vital place of community and culture-making. It demonstrates the type of facilities we will build going forward.”
In addition to approving the name change, in January the Board of Trustees adopted a new strategic plan that calls for the renovation and expansion of the current science and math building into a Science, Math and Technology Center. The school has made a commitment to build a new and modern athletic center and to integrate renewable energy sources and sustainable systems into every element of campus and operations, reflecting Mr. Gunn’s appreciation for the natural world.
“And it’s not just about buildings,” Becker said. “The Outdoor Program will become a cornerstone of The Frederick Gunn School experience. Students at our school will connect to the outdoors in personally challenging and exciting ways in order to graduate. The Center for Citizenship and Just Democracy launches this year, funded by the E.E. Ford Foundation and matched by school donors. It will be a place where students explore and practice active citizenship animated by the ideas and example of Mr. Gunn. Our community already celebrates character, courage and risk-taking. We will more formally give our students opportunities through this center to practice what it means to change the world around them.”
The school has established an innovation track for students called the IDEAS program, which allows them to explore robotics, engineering and technology as a first step toward pursuing those passions in college and life. Investment in the Gunn Scholar program, in which students explore social and cultural change emanating from the school’s unique history, will continue, while a new Center for Entrepreneurship will help students connect to the innovation economy and start learning about changing the business and civic world through creative and pragmatic entrepreneurship.
The school is equally committed to making an investment in its faculty and staff, who “are the heirs and stewards of Mr. Gunn’s vision in their work with students,” Becker said, and will lay the groundwork for a fully integrated commitment to developing a diverse and inclusive campus.
“We will be the inclusive, love-oriented community that Frederick and Abigail Gunn always envisioned and committed their lives to,” Becker said. “We are proud of our history and will always celebrate The Gunnery. We’re changing the name but our history, our principles,and our mission will always guide us.”