Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Superintendent Beatty

Willard W. Beatty, 1936 Bronxville High School yearbook

Rebecca Josephine Butterfield Walcott came roaring out of the internet bedecked with nineteenth-century spiritualism and suffrage. I did not expect her. It was her grandson for whom I’d been searching for nearly two decades. He had been superintendent of schools in Bronxville, N.Y., between 1926 and 1936.

The village’s old-timers recalled the former superintendent as controversial and brilliant. “There were rumors that he was a little pink,” an elderly alumna said, sipping iced tea on her porch.

How incongruous it seems now: the staid square-mile village 30 minutes north of Grand Central Station welcoming a reformer during the 20th century’s most conservative decade. Yet the school board composed of Republican businessmen hired him precisely to make a break with conventional schooling. They wanted their children to be well-educated and happy. 
I encountered the superintendent while researching a history of the school, looking for a few personal details about the man with a whiff of radicalism who had stepped onto the local stage 60 years earlier. So I wrote to the former superintendent’s son whose name appeared in his father’s obituary. The story was ¾ of the way through a reel of New York Times microfilm that snapped and crackled through the groaning machine. 

In the meantime, a school administrator unlocked a closet where old photos and records were stored. Several pictures showed the superintendent in meetings and posing with the faculty. A retired teacher pointed him out. He appeared modest, with a small build and glasses.  

But in 1936, the yearbook editors grandly dedicated a full page to the departing superintendent, whose “assumption here ten years ago marked the beginning of a new era in the world of education.” The accompanying photograph startlingly resembled young FDR. I couldn’t wait to hear back from his son. 

Finally a response arrived. “His mother died when he was six and shortly after his father left San Francisco,” the son wrote of his father. “He was brought up by an uncle from his mother’s side of the family who lived in the city. He had no siblings.” It sounded like a rough start. I concluded that the superintendent overcame a childhood of hardship and struggled to get to college and navigate the world. This turned out to be completely wrong.

Willard Walcott Beatty became the ward of his uncle in 1901, the year he was orphaned. A better guardian could not have been found. Journalist, novelist, social observer, and city official, closely involved in San Francisco culture, Earle Ashley Walcott would see his nephew through grammar school to Lick High School to the University of California, Berkeley, and beyond.  

Lick-Wilmerding High School yearbook, 1909

It was impossible to know this in 1995 because the internet had not yet the habit of yielding obscure documents. Just a year ago, it threw up the fact that Earle – a sickly boy – was the reason his parents left rural Illinois for Santa Barbara. Then Willard’s mother Mabel, his aunt Maude, and father William stepped out of the pages of college yearbooks. And with sufficient poking, the internet revealed that the boy’s grandmother, Rebecca Josephine Butterfield Walcott, harnessed the late nineteenth century like it was her own wild ride.

See other posts: November 11, 2015; January 12 + 16, 2016; August 3, 2016.

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