A Life: Jessie Carver English, 1915-2012; ‘She Was Able to Laugh And Enjoy the Fun Parts of Life’
Jessie Carver English is pictured with the Kimball Union award given to her by Kimball Union Academy, where her husband, Frederick Carver, was once headmaster. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph)
Abigail Heim of Cornish shows her grandmother Jessie English one of her new chickens in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Jane Carver Fielder)
Meriden — One night in mid-December, a small group came together in Jessie English’s living room. The cast members of the Shaker Bridge Theatre’s Sylvia did, too.
They were there for a brush-up rehearsal of the play, delivered specifically to the 97-year-old host, who was too weak to go out and see the play live. After the performance, the cast members, two of whom are members of English’s church, apologized for the profanity.
“No, please, please, please, I loved it,” English responded, cast member Bill Chappelle recalled. “I lived in a boy’s school for 50 years, so I’ve heard everything.”
To those who knew her, the response wasn’t surprising.
“In her 97 years and all her wisdom she was able to laugh and enjoy the funny parts of life,” said Susan Gregory-Davis, a co-pastor at the Meriden Congregational Church. “And there wasn’t much she hadn’t heard before.”
English died at her house on Dec. 17, not long after the performance. She had suffered a small stroke in October, and was released from the hospital in early December. Her daughter, Jane Carver Fielder, lived with her for her final few weeks.
English was born in 1915 in Adams, Mass., but moved to Lebanon as a young girl. She graduated from Lebanon High School in 1934, and went to the University of New Hampshire for two years. She married Fred Carver in 1936, and the two moved to Meriden, where she would live for the rest of her life.
She began to settle in. Fielder listed off the groups her mother was a part of and the activities she enjoyed. The list kept growing.
She played golf and the recorder in her later years, but played the saxophone in her high school band. She did crewelwork, a style of embroidery using wool and flowers. She read often, taking on books by James Patterson and Alexander McCall Smith. She was part of the Meriden Library’s book club. She loved to travel, at one point visiting Fielder when she lived in Scotland years ago.
She was a member of her church for 77 years. She was the wife of Kimball Union Academy’s 14th headmaster, and paved the way for future spouses in her role.
After she married Carver, he took a job teaching at KUA, and ascended to the headmaster position after about a decade. English’s job, as outlined by more than 100 years of precedent, was to play the part of social maven, entertaining and serving tea to trustees.
But she took the job further, Headmaster Michael Schafer said, by opening her home to the boys — it was a boy’s school at the time — and being a matriarchal figure to them. A boarding school is meant to impart more than just educational development, Schafer said.
“There was a lot of parenting,” he said. “There was a lot of love. There was a lot of interaction. Young kids were coming from quite a distance to be looked after.”
The legacy lives on — Schafer said he and his wife open up their home to KUA students as well.
Fred Carver died in 1969. English would remarry twice, to Stanley Nelson and Robert English, both of whom predeceased her.
She stayed in the community the entire time, remaining a presence at KUA long after she was no longer formally attached to the school. She helped Fielder, who is the school archivist, put together the program for KUA’s bicentennial, which is this year. When there were disagreements between the town and school, such as the latter’s desire to buy town land several years ago, English would take on an ambassadorial role, flitting between both communities.
“She has always been viewed as among the most level-headed people,” Schafer said, “who can sort through the various emotional issues that sometimes can, rather than bring people together, pull people apart.”
English may have had her biases like anyone else, said John Gregory-Davis, the other co-pastor at Meriden Congregational Church, but she would never cast judgements. She would always take the thoughtful approach, even as she grew older, he said. In the church, she was an inspiring and stabilizing force.
“Jessie,” Rod Wendt, a congregant, would often say to her. “When I’m 95, or 96, or 97, I want to be just like you. You are my heroine.”
She would smile lightly in response. She would thank him. Her eyes would twinkle and then drop toward the floor.
Those eyes, brilliantly blue, would always be twinkling, said Jeannie Hines, a member of the church and the Sylvia cast member who organized the living room read-through. They showed English was listening, as she did so well, even later in life. When her body was in its mid-90s, Wendt said, her heart and her brain were in their 20s.
Said Hines: “She was sharp as a tack.”
Said Susan Gregory-Davis: “You couldn’t put anything past her.”
Said Fielder: “She was very sharp, right to the end.”
And English told them how happy she was that, as she approached her late 90s, the children in her church realized her physical frailty belied her mental acuity.
During Sunday services, Hines said, English would often pop into youth services unannounced to spend time with the congregation’s younger members. She nurtured relationships with them, as she had done decades before with students at KUA.
For her 95th birthday, a group of children put together a short YouTube video wishing English a happy birthday. And then, during services, they brought her up to the front of the congregation.
“All the children came up,” Hines said, “and decorated Jessie.”
They outfitted her in rings and slippers. They slipped a pink boa around her neck and put a fancy hat on her head. They each gave her a hug.
For English, every person, despite their age, brought the possibility of a connection, John Gregory-Davis said. And she became such a permanent fixture in the community by not wasting those opportunities.
In 2003, English was interviewed by the Valley News regarding a lack of senior housing in Plainfield.
She was resolute that, even if the housing did exist, she wouldn’t have gone near it.
“You grow up in a place, and that’s where your friends are and that’s where you want to be as long as you can,” she said, a decade before the cast of a play she loved descended upon her house, in a village that had been hers for nearly 80 years.
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.