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200 Years of School Community

Kimball Union Academy Marks Bicentennial

  • The Kimball Union Academy girls basketball team in 1904. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

    The Kimball Union Academy girls basketball team in 1904. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

  • Students gather on the belfry and in front of the Third Academy building, circa 1885. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

    Students gather on the belfry and in front of the Third Academy building, circa 1885. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

  • The Pageant of Meriden, performed in honor of Kimball Unions centennial in 1913. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

    The Pageant of Meriden, performed in honor of Kimball Unions centennial in 1913. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

  • The Kimball Union Fire Brigade celebrates its 35th Anniversary this year. This photo was taken in 1980. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

    The Kimball Union Fire Brigade celebrates its 35th Anniversary this year. This photo was taken in 1980. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

  • The Kimball Union Academy girls basketball team in 1904. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)
  • Students gather on the belfry and in front of the Third Academy building, circa 1885. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)
  • The Pageant of Meriden, performed in honor of Kimball Unions centennial in 1913. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)
  • The Kimball Union Fire Brigade celebrates its 35th Anniversary this year. This photo was taken in 1980. (Courtesy Kimball Union Academy)

Meriden – A timeline of the school’s 200-year history surrounded the Kimball Union Academy students eating hamburgers and M&M cookies Tuesday afternoon. With a large orange sign reading “Kimball Union: 200 years on the Hilltop” as a backdrop, the cafeteria buzzed with excitement for a celebration two centuries in the making.

Next weekend, KUA alumni will flood the verdant Meriden campus to celebrate its bicentennial with an all-class reunion, fireworks display, golf outing and grand gala. The boarding school’s 325 students and 75 administrators and faculty members have spent this academic year digging into KUA’s rich past and more than 500 alumni will wrap up the festivities May 30 through June 2.

Initially proposed as a seminary for “poor and pious” boys, KUA has evolved into a multicultural school with students from 21 states and 20 countries.

The Council of New England Churches envisioned an academy to prepare students for college and drew up a proposal in 1812, according to historical materials gathered by the school. The council chose Meriden as the new school’s location, but only after Daniel Kimball, a Meriden resident and council member, made a generous monetary pledge.

Kimball pledged an immediate $6,000 and the rest of his estate, which had no direct beneficiaries, after he died. Meriden’s location, just 13 miles from Dartmouth College, laid the foundation for a working partnership between the two schools. The Union Academy, named for the New England churches that created it, was officially brought to life on June 16, 1813, when the New Hampshire governor signed its charter.

The academy building was constructed on Kimball’s property, an area called The Hilltop. It was dedicated a year and half later, in January 1815, and the next day instruction began for the first time within the academy’s walls, with 10 pupils.

Both boys and girls were allowed to enroll, but female students could not yet earn a diploma alongside their male classmates. But the early presence of girls in the classroom is a point of pride for KUA.

“From the beginning they had women here,” KUA Communications Director Julia Brennan said.

And from the beginning, female leadership has helped form several KUA traditions that still stand today.

More than 20 years after Daniel Kimball died, leaving an estate worth $34,000 to the school he helped found, Kimball’s wife Hannah pledged another $10,000 in 1839. The trustees had already honored her husband by renaming the institution Kimball Union Academy, but Hannah wanted to give more money to start a separate seminary for young women. But with a coeducational facility in mind, the trustees decided to add a female wing to the existing academy structure.

The program took off in 1840 and just a few years later 154 young women were enrolled. Around the same time, KUA admitted its first black student, Augustus Washington, who would later become a famous photographer.

On the heels of the Civil War, after 215 KUA men left to serve, the school continued to expand until new area public schools provided competition for students. For three decades the school struggled financially until 1890 when former KUA teacher Myra L. Everest proposed the “One Hundred Dollar Plan,” which allowed students to pay just $100 for room, board and tuition in exchange for an hour’s worth of labor each day.

In the years that followed, the student population grew and the campus expanded. New structures sprang up and KUA rolled into its centennial year, 1913, as a thriving institution.

Not Always Co-ed

For the next 40 years, two world wars and the Great Depression would bring financial and enrollment woes. The campus experienced a brief period of prosperity in the early 1920s, marked by the addition of athletic programs and several new buildings, including a new library, an infirmary, a swimming pool and an amphitheater.

But in the midst of the Great Depression, many female students dropped out because their families could only afford tuition for their brothers. By 1935, KUA eliminated coeducation.

Female students would not walk the halls again for 39 years.

A donation of $1 million kick-started a period of post-war growth. The money, given in 1957 by the children of KUA alumnus Charles Ransom Miller, a longtime editor of The New York Times, funded the building of several structures on campus.

One such building, a new hub for student activity, was named the Miller Student Center in honor of the unprecedented donation from Miller, an 1867 KUA graduate. The center opened to students in 1962.

The end of the Vietnam War brought social change to the American landscape, and in 1974 the academy reopened its doors to female students. With an influx of females at a school entwined with rich male traditions, Elva Mikula, wife of KUA’s 16th headmaster, spearheaded the effort to create parallel female traditions.

One tradition, Senior Tea, is held at Munro House at the beginning of KUA commencement week to signify a rite of passage for graduating female seniors.

KUA has also had a long history of attracting students from overseas, drawing students from Korea back in the 1940s. “We’ve had an international presence for a surprisingly long time,” Brennan said. “Having an international presence at Kimball Union has always been important.”

Now nearly 20 percent of the student body is international, coming from countries as far away as Iran, Korea and France to as close as Canada.

“You want to keep it diverse within the diversity,” Brennan said.

Rafeeqah Fataar, a senior in the class of 2013 from Cape Town, South Africa, said all she could think about during the two-hour drive from the Boston airport when she first arrived in 2010 was, “Why are there so many trees?”

This summer she is headed to South Plains College in Texas to pursue a degree in education and play basketball. She credited the opportunity to the three years she spent at KUA.

“To be honest, I tell myself I’m ready, but I’m not,” Fataar said of leaving KUA for college. “This is such a small campus, it’s like home.”

Student body president and fellow senior Ian Gregory-Davis agreed.

“I think it’s really a tribute to KUA that everyone is going to miss it so much,” said Gregory-Davis, who grew up in Meriden and is heading to Skidmore College in New York next fall to pursue a degree in education.

But both seniors hope to return to KUA someday and teach.

“Most likely we’ll be back here in the future,” said Gregory-Davis, whose parents are co-pastors of the Meriden Congregational Church nestled beside the campus.

That kind of genuine tie to the academy is one Head of School Michael Schafer has been pushing for since he was hired in 2003.

Schafer launched a capital campaign in 2009 that has raised $41.8 million, exceeding its goal by almost $4 million, and built a new athletic complex to energize student enrollment.

“Our greatest strength is our community,” Schafer said, adding that he works hard to bring back alumni as teachers. “We like to make sure the special essence of our school is promoted through the alumni.” Of the 75 administrators and faculty at KUA today, 15 are alumni, ranging from the class of 1966 to the class of 2009.

Of the 325 students, two-thirds live on campus and the rest commute to campus daily for classes, sports and other activities.

KUA this year has a $13 million operating budget, and boarding students next school year will pay $49,500 in tuition, day students $29,990. There is also an “international student fee” of $3,500, according to the KUA website.

Campus expansion and academic growth have marked KUA’s first 200 years, and students and faculty have spent this academic year talking about the traditions that define them.

“I think it’s cool that we took this year to look back,” Gregory-Davis said. “It’s the start of a new century and it will be exciting to see what we do with that.”

Ties to Meriden

The alert sounded at 12:55 Tuesday afternoon and half a dozen KUA students dashed from the cafeteria with history teacher John Custer.

Meriden Volunteer Fire Department was calling. There was a reported blaze to tame.

Leaving their lunches behind, Custer and the students in tow fled to fulfill their duty as members of the Kimball Union Fire Brigade, a 35-year-old program that teaches KUA students the fundamentals of firefighting and allows them to contribute to their community in the process.

KUA English teacher and Fire Brigade faculty sponsor Darrell Beaupre said the Tuesday fire turned out to be only burning food, but students who participate in the volunteer fire brigade are eager to pitch in for even the most unglamorous tasks.

“Lebanon loves us because these guys love to roll hoses,” said Beaupre, a 1986 KUA graduate.

He helped the volunteer fire department during similar occasions when they “used to jump in the back of pickup trucks” and chase fires, but he wasn’t part of the Fire Brigade.

He wasn’t allowed to be.

Back then, only students who lived on campus were allowed to participate in the Fire Brigade. Beaupre, a “townie” from Meriden, lived off-campus at home and only came to KUA during the day for class.

But nearly 30 years later, Beaupre emphasized how much the school’s mindset has evolved since the 1980s.

“It’s great,” Beaupre said. “The school is much more integrated between day students and boarding students.”

Town-gown relations occasionally are put to the test at Town Meeting, when Plainfield residents are asked to renew a tax exemption KUA enjoys on its dormitories, dining rooms and kitchens. A few years ago, the exemption was reduced from 100 percent to 80 percent.

KUA supporters have noted that Plainfield taxpayers save money on students who attend the private school — rather than having to send taxpayer-funded tuition to Lebanon High.

And KUA officials say the bond between day and boarding students has been further enhanced by the recently built Barrette Campus Center, located beneath the dining commons. Equipped with tables, a large screen television, lockers, a campus store and a Ping Pong table, the center serves as a gathering place for day and boarding students to study and socialize.

Construction for a similar effort to bring students together outside the classroom, the Bicentennial Quadrangle, will provide a quiet outside area for students to study or socialize.

It’s all part of KUA’s effort to switch its educational model from learning led not only by teachers, but also by students.

“I think that is true for 90 percent of the work the students are doing right now,” said Alex Liston, an assistant dean of students.

The school has moved away from lecture-driven lessons and toward a more Socratic method, Beaupre said, comparing today’s learning environment to the one he experienced in the 1980s.

The development of the student center in conjunction with such teaching methods has allowed for more class unity and school spirit, Liston said. As an alumna, Liston said she sees herself in the students every day. She was student body president her senior year at KUA, and working with this senior class has made her that much more excited about the bicentennial reunion, which also marks her class’s 10 year reunion.

“I’m just really looking forward to having everybody back,” Liston said. “We get the Facebook updates, but it’s not the same.”

With student-led tours throughout the bicentennial weekend to explain KUA’s recent developments, Schafer said he hopes the campus embodies the same spirit that alumni recall from their time on campus.

“What I want them to see is that the traditions and the look and feel of the campus have been lovingly preserved,” Schafer said. “A sense of place.”

For more information about the bicentennial weekend festivities, visit www.kua.org.

Katie Mettler can be reached at kmettler@vnews.com or 603-727-3234.

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