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Tribute to Herbert E. Pickett

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Drawings by R. Jack Garver
Edited by Alex Armstrong, Gilman '33

H. E.  Pickett
Herbert E. Pickett
(From the Gilman School Bulletin)

Curtain raiser: Walter Lord, '35:

     G. C. Ligon gave the all-clear signal. I folded, double-folded, then triple-folded a note and prepared to hand it across the "K" Study Hall aisle. It was 5:15 p.m.-about midway through the late afternoon study hall that marked the winter term of 1932.

     My hand moved cautiously out from the desk-Ligon's did the same-then we both paused and glanced over our shoulders to make sure that Mr. Pickett wasn't watching. Ligon and I had exchanged perhaps five hundred notes that term, yet with Mr. Pickett in charge, one had to be careful. He had a sharp eye, and our last backward glance seemed a sound precaution. It was too little and too late.

     "Well, hurry up and hand it to him," boomed an all-too-familiar voice. With his uncanny way of being on the scene, Mr. Pickett was standing at the head of the aisle, looking-or rather, breathing-directly down on us. Ligon retreated pell-mell to his algebra, and I did the same, but it was no use.

     "Go on, give it to him," thundered Mr. Pickett. Helplessly I poked my hand out again, but Ligon couldn't be paid to take the note now.

     "Maybe he's bored," Mr. Pickett rumbled. The first of a growing chorus of titters rose from the rest of the room. All eyes were by now happily riveted on this scene of agony and frustration. Garver01

     Ligon never did take the note, and my arm seemed to hang eternally over the aisle-a limp, rejected rag-until Mr. Pickett finally ended the scene with a gift of ten demerits.

     After this nightmare-this public disgrace, this total humiliation-I often wondered how I ever forgave Mr. Pickett at all, much the less came to consider him as the dearest of friends and one of the finest human beings I have ever known. He was a man of so many wonderful facets that I am sure everyone has his own reasons for setting Herbert Pickett apart from other men. For me, I think it was the great discovery that behind that majestic facade, that awesome presence, there lurked a man with a positive passion for the simple virtues, a man whose greatest delight lay in waging war on anything that smacked of pretentiousness or pomposity.

     There was nothing half-way about his attitude. He dreaded fancy parties, loathed getting dressed up-his groans and Mrs. Pickett's heroic efforts to rig him for important formal occasions are an indelible memory. He hated cities and uniforms and bugles, all of which he considered the trappings of a fettered society. He was darkly suspicious of official ceremonies and the orators who appear at them. Here he showed his distaste in a characteristically whimsical fashion: he usually made a point of marking Bastille Day. Above all, he hated petty bumptious bureaucrats. With his basic simplicity and love of an earlier, uncomplicated democracy, he simply couldn't abide with the exasperating red-tape government today. As a camp director, his Olympian struggles with the local laundry inspector remain an epoch.

     The omniscient teacher also belongs to this large cast of villains, and he always delighted in those rare occasions when the boys showed the faculty up. A memorable instance came in senior year, when G. C. Ligon got in a measure of revenge for that harrowing afternoon in "K" Study Hall. It was April Fool's Day, 1935, and Ligon gave his Sixth Form Speech on one Milton J. Reynolds, purportedly a munitions czar but actually a figment of G. C.'s imagination. The whole school was taken in, including Mr. Pickett-which didn't for a moment lessen his enjoyment of the hoax. To him, it was the perfect come-uppance for an omniscient attitude, and if he too happened to be a victim, he deserved his fate. It was no coincidence that Mr. Pickett's favorite historical character was Socrates, because-as that booming voice so often told us in Room 16-"Of all the Greeks, he alone knew that he knew nothing."


 When Herbert Pickett died in April, 1961, an editorial in the Evening Sun made the following comment:

" ...workaday administration did not suffice to grip his creative, quizzical and sometimes faintly sardonic attention." So little did it suffice that he was already a legendary figure when he left Gilman in 1940 to become Headmaster of Cooperstown Academy. He had taught history and Bible at Gilman for about twenty-five years. He had been faculty adviser to the News, director of the school play, mentor of debating, and coach of the J. V. football team. These outlets proving insufficient for his talents, he had been for many years a leading actor with Baltimore's theatrical group, the "Vagabonds."

     Behind this bare and partial list of activities looms the many-sided figure of Herbert Pickett himself, a figure held in affectionate awe by generations of Gilman students and Hyde Bay campers. On the occasion of his death, the staff of the Bulletin wished to pay him a tribute in this issue. As Walter says in his comments above: "...everyone has his own reasons for setting Herbert Pickett apart from other men." The Bulletin invited contributions from certain alumni and faculty members who had been close to Mr. Pickett.

     The response was immediate, generous, and as varied as the man himself. It was, in fact, so overwhelming that for reasons of space we cannot print all of every word-sketch we received. _______________________________________________________________

In what might be termed "anecdote on the level of daily routine," Billy Lynn, '36, submits the following account of a skirmish over discipline:

      Many Fridays ago in the days of Mr. Bartlett, one of the antagonists seated at Josh's table asked for another piece of dead fish and was promptly banished from the room.

     In the course of events the demerit slip was delivered to Mr. Pickett for the administration of what should have been at least ten demerits for such a heinous offense. After due deliberation Mr. Pickett dismissed the charges without penalty.

     To say the least, Mr. Bartlett was quite upset, and a conference was called in Mr. Morrow's office. Mr. Bartlett charged that when Mr. Pickett let the boy off, he was undermining the entire discipline of the school. Mr. Pickett countered that the case hinged on a simple question of fact: whether or not the fish was actually dead. Justice triumphed again when Mr. Bartlett responded, "Of course it was, you damn fool!"


The outlines grow firmer in the following football reminiscence from Ed Russell:

     Herbert Pickett had just completed a debate that involved the whole Sixth Form, a group that he held in a perpetual state of hypnosis that was caused by amusement, some terror of his satirical observations, and deep respect. An hour later he and I were putting the "Third Team," now known as the Junior Varsity, through a final light practice. The next day we were to play McDonogh for the J. V. football championship. I recall his costume perfectly-old tennis shoes, khaki pants, gray sweater, and battered brown felt hat. After many vain shouts and pleas to one of our guards I turned to Herbert and asked, "Is Jack deaf or am I crazy?" My coaching partner replied, "Probably neither. Just try calling him Charlie. That's his name, you know. His brother Jack graduated last year." Herbert spared me no embarrassment, but he did establish a means of communication for a very nervous coach. Garver Drawing 02

     "Schools more than most institutions owe their character to outstanding personalities. Herbert Pickett was one of these personalities." Thus Jim Pine, '21, begins his comments on Mr. Pickett's teaching. He continues:

     As a teacher he added color, humor, and wisdom to his instruction; as a colleague he was unusually helpful and understanding. His ideas on teaching were original, often markedly in advance of the times, as evidenced by his early emphasis on the topical treatment of history. I can remember his prediction that history examinations would ultimately involve the use and analysis of fresh material printed in the examination itself. Modifications of this idea were later adopted by the College Board examiners in both English and history.


Francis Beirne, '08, adds this sidelight on Pickett penetration:

     For many years he was a history examiner for College Boards and during the service got a pretty good idea of the sort of questions that would be asked and sometimes spotted them. He mentioned one occasion when the question asked for a comparison, let us say, between Plato and Aristotle. A fellow examiner got some of the Gilman papers and expressed his astonishment at the brilliant manner in which the question was handled. Herbert kept discreetly silent, having spotted the question and told his students what to say.

     "A Pickett history lecture was no ordinary thing," says the Evening Sun editorial; "it was a compound of learning, of earthy illustration, and of instinctive understanding of his boyish audience-all of it gleaming with an uncommon wit."


Henry Lee Smith, Jr., .31, adds this out-of-class story to complete the picture:

     When I was asked to submit an anecdote or reminiscence about Mr. Pickett, my problem was one of selection. But one stands out that, in a very special way, sums up for me the unique understanding he had of boys of school age, his unfailing sense of humor, and his real kindness. It took place during the final school examination period of my Sixth-Form year.

     I had been taking American History under Mr. Pickett and had been enjoying it and him hugely. But, before the exam was to be given, I was taken sick and my family asked Mr. Morrow if Mr. Pickett could come down to our house and administer the exam. Permission was granted and Mr. Pickett arrived and sat by my bed. We had a wonderful chat for about an hour. I had been feeling very sick and more than a little depressed, but that hour restored my spirits and made me realize the world was not at an end. We talked about every subject except American History.

     When the time came for him to leave, he said, "Oh, by the way, what do you think you would get on the kind of exam I would give you-you know, just like the College Boards ?" I thought hard for a moment and said, "I think I could get an 86." "No," he said, "you're wrong. I'd say you should get an 85 and that's what you get." I thanked him and he left. Later on that month, I took the College Board exam and got an 87. I never tired of kidding him about his inability to evaluate the work of his students and he always looked lugubrious and said he just couldn't understand how the Board examiners and he could be so far off after all his years of experience.

     So many of our contributors made at least passing reference to Mr. Pickett's oratorical and dramatic abilities that momentarily I am jarred loose from the editorial "we" to recall a certain rehearsal of It Pays to Advertise in my senior year. I was playing the father of my classmate, Edgar Smith. The action called for us to storm angrily toward each other from opposite ends of the stage and then engage in a violent argument. In this situation each of us found the sight of the other too ludicrous to bear; instead of clashing in the center of the stage, we collapsed in laughter. The Great Stone Face gave us another chance. Same result. " We will skip this scene," said the Director , "and get on with the rehearsal." An hour later the rehearsal was over and we prepared to leave. "Just a moment," he said. 'Smith and Armstrong will remain until they can do their scene properly. I am quite prepared to remain all night if necessary." There was an ominous restraint in his tone.

     In the words of Twain, it is best to draw the curtain of charity over what followed. Mirth died slowly. It is enough to say that an eternity later, beaten and exhausted in mind and body, we staggered through our paces to the Director's satisfaction. The recollection of this agony stayed with us and removed all tendency to laugh; the scene became one of the most effective in the show.


A second classmate, Cooper Walker, also remembers Herbert Pickett on the stage:

     My earliest recollections of Herbert Pickett go back, strangely enough. not to the Gilman School but to the old Vagabond Theatre, where he enjoyed acting at night more than marking papers. [We would give a great deal to learn how he managed it.-The Editor.] . . . His interest in the stage made him a good dramatic director at Gilman, one who influenced and developed the capabilities of some who are now there on the teaching staff. In fact, his dramatic tendencies were quite evident even in class. Surely it was the actor, with a bit of the "ham" in him, who stopped Dicky Janney once when he was being obstreperous. Calling upon Janney to stand, he asked him in a persuading manner, "Dick, what kind of noise does a goose make?" And when Janney made his best goose call, Mr. Pickett remarked, "Precisely." There was a touch of Mark Twain in Herbert Pickett.


George Chandlee, '32, continues:

     He was a master of the controlled vocal explosion, and all of his acting was not done on the stage. Many can testify to this mastery, but none better than a Cooperstown Academy teacher who, in a sort of breathless awe, told his colleagues, "1 just heard Mr. Pickett bawl out John W., and I was so upset that I went right upstairs and washed the apartment windows that Marjory has been after me about for a month!" John W. had just thrown a shoe which narrowly missed the Headmaster's head, to my knowledge the only time a boy made a physical attack upon him.

     To speak in public was not a chore but a delight for Mr. Pickett, and he could charm, amuse, inspire, or enlighten a filled hall or a small group. He loved to tell stories and enlivened many a Gilman Christmas Dinner with his wit. He could deliver a meaningful and inspiring sermon, in a church or seated on a stump on the edge of the lake, to a congregation whose legs dangled overhead from the branches of a willow tree.


George points out that "running a camp was the real lifework of the man whom many, many people called Director."

     When I was hired as his head councilor, this was the only explanation he gave me of my job: "You get blamed for everything that goes wrong, and I get the credit for all the good things." For nearly twenty-five years we worked agreeably together on this basis. Hyde Bay has a spirit that cannot be described, and an architecture that must be seen to be believed. Most of the buildings were erected by the Director's own hands, with or without the help of a series of competent and incompetent assistants.


     Hyde Bay was not run according to the accepted principles of such organizations. Francis Beirne provides the following explanation:

     His camp was exceptional in that he had no set program. It was his belief that the boys got enough regimentation at school; so he left them pretty much to their own devices, providing only the wherewithal such as a machine shop, canoes, horses, etc. When I visited the camp I found the older boys lounging around at the moment, doing nothing and waiting for the spirit to move them. The younger ones were in a game of cops and robbers which I was told had been going on steadily for several days. Naturally the boys delighted in it, and the parents accepted it once they grasped the philosophy behind the programless program. The supreme test was when one boy fell into the lake with his clothes on five times in one day.

     I was also at the camp when a group of the older boys returned from a canoe trip which involved the shooting of rapids and other hazards. Herbert's first inquiry was if all was right. Assured there had been no accidents, he breathed a sigh of relief. He knew the boys delighted in this trip, and he preferred to accept the responsibility for it rather than play safe for himself and deny the boys a popular feature of the camp.


Garver Drawing 03This scene, described by George is a fitting one to take with us from Hyde Bay:

     Those who heard him talk, seated by the fire he carefully tended, on the shore of Lake Otsego, were fortunate, for here was the Director at his best. In the place he loved most, with friends and family around him, a dog at his feet, and sometimes (really) his pet goat on his lap, he would talk far into the night. He would reminisce of his days as a farm boy in New York State, of his struggles and adventures as he made his way through Andover and Yale and a succession of headmasters at Gilman.



The difficult task of final appraisal falls to Page Smith. '36:

     My recollections of Mr. Pickett involve less specific incidents than a style. The style was, of course, the man and yet it was, I suspect like all true styles, the product of consummate skill. No professional actor or mimic ever had a better sense of timing. No anecdotist ever told a story with a keener sense of drama and of humor. All of us who knew Herbert Pickett will always be able to recall the look of comic solemnity with which he began some hilarious story or inspired jape, the deftness with which he led his auditors-two or two hundred-through the windings of a tale to its explosive conclusion.

     His humor gained a large part of its effectiveness from the moral force of its possessor. I think few people ever presumed with Herbert Pickett. He had a kind of Jovian anger; it fell on me at least twice and I can still feel it in my bones. It was not that he was abusive or threatening; it was just that he was magnificently and righteously wrathful. His wrath was that of a man of strong passions who generally kept himself firmly in hand. We would call him in the jargon of our times, "a father-authority figure," but it would be a singularly bloodless way to describe as rich and humane a character as Herbert Pickett.

     Children are instinctively anthropomorphic, and I remember that as a child I thought that God must be rather like Mr. Pickett, a larger and more remote version, full of beneficence and power with always the threat of wrath to heighten the drama and give form and coherence to the world round about . . .

     His interest in amateur dramatics and in speaking and debating followed quite naturally from his own gifts as a thespian and orator. Life needs to be dramatized if it is to be truly experienced. This is a fact that our society has largely lost sight of. When we lose our sense of the dramatic, life almost inevitably ceases to be worth living. It is one of the functions of style to dramatize life. This is what Herbert Pickett did, and this is the way he made himself such an enduring part of the lives of so many people. His style was, like all great styles, universal: the expressive face with the mouth turned down lugubriously and the sonorous cadences of the opening sentences put listeners of all ages on notice that they were about to be treated to some wonderful and extravagant bit of nonsense.

     We live in a world that is full of ingenious contrivances to make us less human. In such a world Herbert Pickett was a special blessing because he showed us a grand style, and through it he constantly involved us in a drama, both comic and cosmic, which refreshed our spirits and deepened our humanity.

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