A Life: Norman Charles Wakely, 1927-2016; ‘It’s a Beautiful Day in New Hampshire’

  • Norm and Bev Wakely with a group of Cardigan Mountain School students in Canaan, N.H., before a camping trip in October 1957. (Family photograph)

  • Beverly and Norm Wakely at a kayak school in Maine on their 55th wedding anniversary. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 2/12/2017 10:59:13 PM
Modified: 2/14/2017 6:42:59 PM

Canaan — “It’s a beautiful day in New Hampshire.”

Norman Wakely used the expression, almost exclusively, to greet people.

The congenial phrase sums up the longtime educator’s outlook on life. To Wakely, who died Oct. 24, 2016, at 89, the inherent beauty of a day in the Granite State wasn’t contingent on sunny skies.

An eternal optimist and the headmaster at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan from 1963 to 1989, Wakely was as an early riser. He would often put in time at both the gym and office before breakfast. The school leader began some of his days by overseeing extracurricular activities.

The Polar Bear Club was one of Wakely’s signature institutions at Cardigan — a school for boys in grades six through nine — and the rugged tradition still takes place on campus.

“Starting in late April, or as soon as the ice was off (Canaan Street Lake), everyone was invited to come down at 6:15 in the morning,” recalled Dave McCusker, a Cardigan alumnus and the school’s headmaster from 2007-16. “If you made it every day, Monday through Saturday for six weeks — and you were allowed one miss — you got a treat. … You got a Polar Bear tie.”

Not all of Wakely’s early morning events were open to the masses. Cardigan alumnus Scott Powers remembers a series of dawn encounters with the headmaster, brought about by the youngster’s rule infractions.

Powers had gone out with friends for pizza and a movie on a Saturday night. The boys were with a responsible adult, but ultimately returned late to campus. It wasn’t the first time such tardiness had occurred and the vigilant Wakely took notice.

“It was three strikes and you’re out,” Powers said. “I had received a warning.”

When he was late for the third time, Wakely grounded the student by confining him to campus (with the exception of school-related activities).

“My sister was getting married a month later and I was supposed to be in the wedding,” Powers said. “Norm said I wasn’t going to be able to go. … I ended up going to ask him if there was any way we could work it out.”

Wakely’s solution was a daily work detail that would take place before school. The task involved Powers and company clearing an acre or so of land with axes and two-man saws over the course of a few weeks.

“The school needed the land and they probably figured they had free slave labor to some degree,” Powers said. “It was the price I had to pay for being able to go to the wedding.”

Cardigan’s iconic leader decided to go above and beyond the simple supervision of manual laborers.

“He was out there every morning working alongside us even though he didn’t have to do that,” Powers recalled. “He was a man that led by example and was as high-integrity of an individual that I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my life.”

Born May 7, 1927, in Lisbon Falls, Maine, Wakely grew up on a farm with a twin sister, Norma, and a set of older twin brothers, Larrison and Harrison. He headed off to the University of Maine after graduating from Lisbon Falls High School in 1945.

Wakely placed his collegiate studies on hold after freshmen year to embark on a roughly 16-month stint in the Army. Stationed in Sendai, Japan, he oversaw a service library.

He ultimately graduated from college in 1951, the year he went to Cardigan for a job interview.

“This little boy came out with his dog and he’s the one who convinced me that I should be there,” Wakely reminisced in a 2013 interview posted on the school’s website. “He was a long way from home. He needed Cardigan and that’s what I think I needed too.”

Wakely married Beverly Bradford of Braintree, Mass, the next year. The couple left Canaan in 1954 and Norman entered Columbia Teachers College where he earned a master’s of science in education administration. They returned to Cardigan Mountain School in 1956 when Wakely accepted the assistant headmaster position. He was named headmaster seven years later.

“When you were a student, he was the father figure,” McCusker said. “I don’t want to say tough, but he was clear. He expected that we toed the line and he was good about showing us he cared.”

Echoed Powers: “He looked out for kids and held us to high standards. If you screwed up on Norm’s watch, he would let you know and you were accountable.”

Norm and Bev raised their four children, Charles, Mary, Jonathan and Melissa on campus. When summer came, the family would abscond to their rustic secondary home — devoid of running water when they purchased it — on the small island of Islesboro, Maine.

“Norm was given one month of vacation and we needed a place to go with the family,” recalled Beverly, his wife of 64 years. “We found this terrible house with 300 feet of ocean front. … Little by little, we turned it into a comfortable family home.”

Beverly Wakely remembers her family picking raspberries, digging for clams and enjoying being off the grid.

“It was pretty isolated and we liked it that way,” she said. “The rest of the year we were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The getaways to vacationland were not entirely recreational. According to Jon Wakely, the family would spend a few hours each day mowing grass and cutting brush on their six acres. Around 3 p.m., it was time to clean up and change venues.

“You could play golf from 4 p.m. until dark for one dollar,” Jon Wakely said. “The only balls we had, we found in the woods. Our clubs were mismatched from different clubs our uncle had given us; he was a high school golf coach. … None of us knew what we were doing, we just hit the ball around.”

Outside of school, the elder Wakely was a board member for some major institutions in the Upper Valley, including Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital and the Montshire Museum of Science, and also a board member and president of the Elementary School Heads Association, a national group for leaders of independent elementary and middle schools. He was also a longtime fixture at the Lebanon Rotary Club.

The Wakelys moved to Lyme, following Norm’s retirement from Cardigan and remained active in the Upper Valley community. He taught cross-country skiing at Dartmouth College and worked on campus at Alumni Gymnasium. The lifetime educator also spent more than a year as interim headmaster at Crossroads Academy.

Wakely found local employment at Dowds’ Country Inn and Event Center in Lyme, working as a part-time server and bartender.

Inn owner Tami Dowd said the two of them worked many weddings together, but one in particular stands out in her memory.

The Macarena was a popular song at the time and Wakely had insisted on teaching the whole staff its requisite dance moves. The choreography came in handy a short while later.

“We went against our policy of not dancing with the guests,” Dowd recalled. “One of them asked Norm and he said, ‘Only if we can all do it.’ … There were at least a dozen of us out there dancing. We all laughed and had a great time.”

If difficulties with wedding guests ever arose, however, Wakely responded promptly.

“He was also the enforcer,” Dowd said. “If a group of young men was maybe not acting the way they were supposed to, he would give them that eye and a grin. It was understood that it was time for them to settle down and act more appropriately. … He was a polite, authoritative figure.”

Wakely remained connected with Cardigan Mountain School and its widespread community for as long as he lived. Back on campus in May for a gathering held to celebrate the outgoing headmaster, Wakely proved to be the life of the party.

“I still can’t believe this happened,” McCusker said, recounting Wakely’s insistence on taking a chilly dip, despite his old age and leg amputation from the knee down.

Jon Wakely and a few others obliged by helping Norm out of his wheelchair, into a car and down to the waiting waterfront.

“That was as representative of a story about Norm that I know of,” McCusker said. “He’s 89 years old, has one leg and what does he want to do? Get out and relive something he did every spring as headmaster, one of the great joys of his life.

“Norm always said ‘It’s a beautiful day in New Hampshire.’ Even if it was the crummiest weather.”

A celebration of Wakely’s life will be held June 4 at Cardigan Mountain School.

Adam Boffey can be reached at boffeyadam@gmail.com.

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