Yesterday on a sweltering afternoon within an ivied hall of Georgian brick, there was a ceremony to unveil this portrait of Millbrook School's 5th headmaster: my Dad, Don Abbott. The event was part of the School's 75th anniversary celebration and one that my father approached with some trepidation. Although he had been Millbrook's headmaster for 14 years (1976-1990), a graduate of the school himself and the son of one of its longest serving and highly respected faculty members, institutions and individuals have lives of their own and sometimes one takes a direction where the other cannot follow. Millbrook the place and the school is right at the core of our family, and yet it has been 17 years since we lived there and it is no longer home, nor my Father's place now to lead.
Dad is not someone who puts great stock in appearances or the trappings of success. His real gift as the leader of the School community was inclusion, and an ability to value and relate to the individual no matter whether she taught AP calculus or drove the snowplow. The idea of a gallery of headmasters, from "The Boss" - Ed Pulling, the Founder of the School - down through his successors, is a relatively new one for Millbrook and not entirely comfortable for Dad. Portraits are loaded with meaning but what meant more to my parents about their tenure at the School was the spirit of the place and the difference that this learning community made in the lives of those it touched. Dad spoke about that spirit yesterday and grounded it in gratitude to Ed Pulling, who told him as a young man whom he had known from boyhood, now returning to the school as Headmaster:
"that we must look ahead and move forward without undue loyalty to the past. He gave us our roots, but then he granted us the gracious freedom, as only the best teacher can, to go on ahead and join others in trying to articulate the meaning of those roots for the next generation."
Dad put in words what he had 30 years ago felt empowered to articulate:
"(T)he cornerstone of Millbrook's comprehensive curriculum became the intellectual conjoining of three moral concerns - community service and social responsibility, active concern for the natural environment, and the development of a global perspective. We believed it was our responsibility to teach and learn what non sibi sed cunctis* means for the complex, interdependent and threatened world we now have fully entered."
For a person with this outward focus and so much of himself dedicated to being the kind of educator who emphasizes the awakened curiosity and growth of others, the honor of a formal portrait prompted conflicting emotions. One hopes to be recognized for what one values about oneself and feels to have been significant contributions, and it would take a particularly sensitive and skillful portrait-artist to capture those qualities for my father.
He was extremely fortunate to be able to work with an exceptional artist and a fine human being who understood that to portray the spirit of his subject meant taking time with the person whose likeness he would captured in oil. Chas Fagan is a gifted sculptor as well as a nationally renowned landscape and portrait artist, and each of these forms of artistic expression seem to animate the shape and form of my Dad's thoughts and personality in his portrait. It is a skillfully rendered painting, but those who know my father well find that what brings the image to life is his signature upraised eyebrow as he looks up from his reading to give the viewer his complete attention and interest.
A scanned image can only suggest the technical elements of the painting itself, but as an insider I find myself drawn to its composition as well. Dad is seated in one of the Shaker chairs of my parents' dining room set, but it has been moved to a corner of their living room. On the shelf behind him is a picture of my Mom from the late 1980s - and throughout their marriage of 41 years they have been an inseparable team. I can also see some of the clay African figures we brought back to Mom from Zimbabwe, and the painting on the wall in the upper right hand corner is a Woldemar Neufeld painting of the culvert and bridge over the wetlands at the entrance to the School. Dad tells me the book he was reading was Wendell Berry.
The real blessing yesterday was not the honor of this portrait, as humbled and gratified as I know my parents feel, but a reconnection with people and with the school that affirmed in unmistakable terms that there is a place for them in Millbrook School today. The entrance hall to the Schoolhouse was packed with current and former faculty, staff, parents, students, friends and trustees. It was good to see my parents among so many members of the school community who value what they gave to Millbrook, and I smiled to see them at peace in a place that was central in their lives for many years and a time that continues to shape the outward focus of their lives.