David McCullough Address

Shady Side Academy's 125th Anniversary Celebration

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I entered the eighth grade, the Second Form, at Shady Side Academy in the long ago year of 1946. It was September. I was thirteen. The Second World War had ended only the year before and Harry Truman was president, as he would be through all of my five years at Shady Side. Eventually our class would number about sixty students. The tuition, I believe, was five-hundred dollars. It was a different time, a different world.

Erdman Harris was the headmaster, and Dr. Harris, in his snappy dove colored vest, was an impressive presence, an ordained minister, an engaging speaker, a man of many talents whose good times at the piano keyboard, playing his own lively compositions -- he wrote both words and music -- added much to the atmosphere of the school. Some of us here today still know the words to one song in particular:

When the five o'clock bell goes ding, ding, ding,
That's the bell that sounds for us.
All the day-boys swish their Coca-colas down
And rush for the day-boy bus.
Did I say one, they're three of them.
And they're painted just the color of the sunset
And the big black letters on the side
Are the ones that bring our joy and pride
As the drivers take us for a ride to Shady Side...

As day boys we had the full five-day life of the school, but also that of home and the city -- home each night after school, the city and our own social life, so to speak, on the weekends.

I was one of four brothers, and dinner began at the dining room table promptly at 6:30 when our father, regular as clock-work, arrived home from the office. And the conversation at the table got going almost from the moment we sat down -- with talk about my father's day, or old Pittsburgh stories of fires and floods and famous labor battles, or tales of eccentric relatives (which I liked especially), or the politics of the moment, which interested me more and more. The night of the '48 election I remember keeping to my homework with one ear tuned to the radio, not wanting to miss any of it. As the night dragged on and there was still no decision, I finally had to give up and go to bed.

The next morning I called into my father, who was shaving, "Dad, who won?" "Troooman!" he groaned.

Thirty years or so later, I was back home visiting my father and he started lamenting how the country and the world were going to hell. It was a refrain I had heard all my life. But then he sighed and said, "Too bad old Harry isn't still in the White House!"

I tried to remind him gently that he had not always felt that way.

The weekends at home and in and about the city also meant going to ball games at Forbes Field or the movies in East Liberty or downtown, all on our own. And to the theater -- the real thing --- at the Nixon. I saw "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Marlon Brando and "Harvey" starring Frank Fay, which to me was pure magic. My old friend and classmate Bill Hill and I were reminiscing the other afternoon about a night during our senior year when a bunch of us went to a roadhouse called Johnny Green's, where we heard Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald live, and went backstage between sessions to shake their hands. Now that was living!

And yes, we went to bars, and the burlesque house -- the legendary Casino, the Big C. We had freedom, unimaginable freedom by today's terms, and including, importantly, the freedom to do dumb things, to make mistakes, and we did, you may be sure.

Helicopter parenting was still far in the future. As I said, it was a different time, a different world.

I don't recall my father ever coming to watch a sports event in which I was taking part or any other fathers on hand, except perhaps on a Saturday. It never occurred to us that they should be. They had jobs to do after all.

Sports at Shady Side then were immensely important and the star athletes were "the big men" on campus. There was Dick Pivaroto, who was several classes ahead of us. (The greatest heroes were always several classes ahead.) All the Lynch brothers were terrific athletes, and the Heppenstalls. Steve Swensrud in our class, the Class of 1951, was a star in every sport.

But the extracurricular part of school life counted tremendously, too, and it was a strong, important part of our education. I thought so at the time and appreciate even more in retrospect that the athletes took part in the extracurricular activities no less than the others. Tom Warner, the captain of the football team, was a very good artist. Steve Swensrud was one of the editors of and contributors to the literary magazine, The Egerian. Joe Reineman was an avid photographer. Ned Heppenstall loved music. Bill Hill was a skilled fly fisherman, which is, let us not forget, definitely an art form. Pete McCance played a mean game of pool, another of the fine arts.

Just about everyone who could carry a tune sang in the glee club under the direction of Mr. Howard. And the cast of the school's annual stage production was always traditionally a good mix of boys of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities, though if I remember correctly Ted Scheetz wound up in the lead parts because he was hands down the handsomest.

I did, however, once land a big part in a spoof of a nineteenth century melodrama. I played the hero, Jack Dalton. My big show-stopping fine went like so: "You may sneer, but beneath this flannel shirt there beats an honest heart."

My mother loved it!

What might have been done differently or better, judging from hindsight?

There were no girls. That clearly was the most regrettable flaw in our minds. And there were no African Americans. In fact, the only African American I remember was Mr. Jackson, the greatly beloved custodian of the gym. And there were disproportionately few Jewish students.

There were no students of Polish, or Ukrainian, or Croatian background. It was hardly a representative cross-section of Pittsburgh. But then we knew something about that just being part of Pittsburgh, just riding the streetcars and seeing people reading newspapers in other languages or hearing them talk.

Foreign language instruction in the classroom, alas, was focused almost entirely on reading, vocabulary, and everlastingly conjugating verbs. In French, we were seldom ever called on to say anything in the language, never put to the test in conversation.

Looking back, I wish there had been a few field trips to the Carnegie Museum or the Pittsburgh Symphony. Or that we had been led on a visit to the Carnegie Library with someone on the faculty who could have given us an idea of the infinite, wondrous possibilities in a great library.

But then the weekends offered ample chance to go to the museums and the library on our own steam. And in our household, because of my oldest brother Hax's love of music, Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera were heard at full blast, like it or not.

And Shady Side's own library, as run by the wonderful Betsy Botsett, was a treasure house of the kind any school would be proud to claim. Many were the books I read because Miss Botsett recommended them.

There was no program that encouraged community service, and I think that part of being a good citizen ought to dawn on one and take hold by that stage in life.

Were we sufficiently aware of how "the other half" lived? No, we were not. Were we spoiled? Somewhat, but not greatly. Nor was snobbery tolerated, at school or at home. Indeed, I don't remember ever encountering a certifiable snob until I went east to college.

Were we well prepared for college, for that next big step in our education by this small hometown preparatory school? Yes, very well prepared. Speaking from my own experience, I can say that I found my first year at Yale something of a disappointment, in that it was less stimulating intellectually than my senior year at Shady Side had been. And certainly I and those of my Shady Side classmates who also went to Yale were able to keep pace with the work quite as well as any of those from the big, better-known eastern prep schools.

Then as now Shady Side had the great appeal of its beautiful setting. The red brick buildings were no less handsome then than today. The grounds were always superbly cared for. The facilities for athletes were as good as any we had ever seen. There was even a golf course. The swimming pool came later.

Nor was there anything like this magnificent Hillman Center for Performing Arts.

There was besides, then as now, a strong proud feeling of continuity -- of fathers and brothers who had gone to Shady Side before us. (My own father was in the Class of 1918.)

But what mattered above all were the friendships and the teachers. The friends made at that particular time in life are, as we all know, like no other friends. Forty years or more can go by with little or no contact. Yet once together again, after five or ten minutes, it's as though nothing has greatly intervened. The talk and memories, the self-same personalities, all kick right into gear.

As for teachers, I've come to the conclusion that there are no more important members of our society, that no one's work counts for more in the long run than that of teachers and that their capacity to instill the love of learning, not to say the old bedrock verities is infinite. And how blessed we were, in my time at Shady Side, with marvelous teachers!

They are still with me. I remember so much that they said. Some of it still shapes my outlook.

I've never forgotten, for example, Bob Abercrombie, who taught the American history course for seniors, saying that, "what people believe to be true is often more important than what is true."

Lowell Innes, the ultimate teacher of English literature and writing, said again and again, as a guide to writing, "Don't tell me, show me." Don't tell me someone was a mean old miser, show him being a mean old miser. As words to the wise go about writing, that's pure gold.

And I remember the legendary Cap Palmer, the director of athletics, in his efforts to make a high hurdler out of me, saying time after time, "Take the hurdles as they come." How much wiser can advice get than that!

Nor have I forgotten the blow it was missing a question on my first-ever quiz, after only a few weeks into my Second Form year. It was in history. Walter Jones was the teacher. "Who was the builder of the Suez Canal?" I had no idea. If I had read the name Ferdinand De Lesseps in what I was supposed to study, it had gone entirely out of my head.

So I have wondered since, Walter, if maybe I have you to thank for my taking up the story of De Lesseps in my book on the Panama Canal!

And what a great deal of lasting value we read under the guidance of our teachers -- the classic, two volume history of the United States by Morrison and Commager, a college level text. Only Yesterday, by Frederick Lewis Allen, in which the story of the 1920's is written with life and immediacy. And the great novels Drums and Green Mansions and Ethan Frome. And Shakespeare, of course, and no end of poetry. I remember the thrill of reading Langston Hughes for the first time, and Grey's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," some of which I memorized.

I loved the reading and I loved Lowell Innes and the other superb English teacher, Carl Cochran. We all did. Nor can I remember either of them ever reprimanding or punishing any of us. They didn't have to for the simple, obvious reason that the last thing any of us would ever wish to do was to let them down.

The closest I ever had to stern direction from Mr. Innes happened after I returned from a spring vacation visit to Charlottesville, and I told Mr. Innes that I was thinking I might go to the University of Virginia. He looked me in the eye, put his finger to my chest, and in his never-to-be-forgotten Maine accent said, "You're going to Yale, McCullough, and I don't want to hear any more about it!"

Mr. Innes I should add had gone to Yale.

Carl Cochran, in addition to English, taught painting and drawing and, one year, a course in the history of art. And as I loved to paint and draw, I spent all the time I could working with Mr. Cochran, who also guided production of the yearbook and worked with the most wonderful spirit and imagination in helping us in the elaborate decorations for our senior prom. He was a jewel of a human being and remained a friend long afterward.

I feel it no exaggeration to say I loved the entire time at Shady Side. In truth, though I could never have said so at the time, I loved every day here in all seasons. Every year, in the last weeks of summer, I couldn't wait to go back, to see my friends and get going again. I still think of early September as the true beginning of the new year.

I know now how very lucky we were in so many ways, we who were students then. It was at Shady Side that the love of learning took hold, and may it ever be so for all who are lucky enough to be part of this school, now and for a very long time to come.