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The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield

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Starting in 1902 at a country school that had an enrollment of fourteen, Frank Boyden built an academy that has long since taken its place on a level with Andover and Exeter. Boyden, who died in 1972, was the school's headmaster for sixty-six years. John McPhee portrays a remarkable man "at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who...created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with their own personalities." More than simply a portrait of the Headmaster of Deerfield Academy, it is a revealing look at the nature of private school education in America.

160 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1966

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About the author

John McPhee

103 books1,559 followers
Princeton University and Cambridge University educated John Angus McPhee. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association since 1965 with the New Yorker as a staff writer. In the same year, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1968), Levels of the Game (1968), The Crofter and the Laird (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards. Selections from these books make up The John McPhee Reader (1976).

Since 1977, the year in which McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the bestselling Coming into the Country appeared in print, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published Giving Good Weight (collection, 1979), Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), La Place de la Concorde Suisse (1984), Table of Contents (collection, 1985), Rising from the Plains (1986), Heirs of General Practice (in a paperback edition, 1986), The Control of Nature (1989), Looking for a Ship (1990), Assembling California (1993), The Ransom of Russian Art (1994), The Second John McPhee Reader (1996), Irons in the Fire (collection, 1997), Annals of the Former World (1998). Annals of the Former World, McPhee’s tetralogy on geology, was published in a single volume in 1998 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The Founding Fish was published in 2002.


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5 stars
187 (32%)
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246 (42%)
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124 (21%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 69 reviews
Profile Image for Tony.
920 reviews1,556 followers
September 29, 2019
If John McPhee finds a subject interesting then he will unfailingly make it interesting for me. This subject is Frank L. Boyden, a man who essentially molded an educational academy (Deerfield) in his own image. The book (really a lengthy magazine article made into a book) was written in 1966 when Boyden was still the driving force at the school, and it seems a bit quaint now. Certainly Boyden would not be allowed to do now what he did then. There is pithy wisdom: If you make a lot of rules, they never seem to hit the fellow you made them for. And plenty of anecdotes or quotes that explain the man: he has always been able to identify a problem drinker at sight. How? "There is something in the face of a man from the lips up."

Without going to the mirror to verify the assertion, I can still safely predict I would not have done well at Deerfield. They had mandatory church services. They were populated primarily with overachievers. That eponymous headmaster would nudge dozing students. And they had no girls.
Profile Image for Stacy.
1,004 reviews91 followers
April 16, 2018
What a great story of the most unlikely leader! Frank Boyden became headmaster at Deerfield Academy in 1902, fresh out of Amherst at 22 yrs. old and the town of Deerfield thought he wouldn't last a day. Of the 14 boys enrolled as students at Deerfield Academy, a school on its last legs and which the board of directors was seriously closing, several the town were very afraid of, and Mr. Boyden was a slight man, standing at 5' 4" and they thought he didn't stand a chance. He might not have been large in stature, but he was in character and heart. His dedication to the school and his students elevated the school from oblivion to being internationally known for turning out exemplary young men. His devotion to all thing regarding his school was well known, and there was nothing he wouldn't do for it-- in the early years, when the sports teams were short of players, he played with them. In an effort to get boys from the community to go to school, many of them from farms that could little afford to have the boys gone-- he would pay for farm labor out of his pocket so the boy could get educated. A large proportion of the enrollment was on scholarship because he could not bear the thought of turning one away, and the scholarship recipients never were allowed to know that they were on scholarship because he did not want those students to feel there was any difference between them and the regular boys. The scholarship students did not have extra duties either, as is common in many educational institutions, for the same reason. In his 62 years as headmaster, he only had to expel 6 boys as he was famous for "extra chances" and determined that the offender would amount to something, and the boys for all those decades, in spite of his willingness to give extra chances, never saw him as a pushover. He commanded respect, and many of his students went on to greatness, and remembered with fondness their headmaster who took a deep interest in each of their educations. He wanted to be constantly aware of what was going on with the students and in the school that he didn't even have a separate office-- his desk was set in the middle of the entrance to the school so he could talk to boys in passing to their classes. It was a family affair as well-- his wife was the chemistry teacher and renowned in her own right for her brilliance in teaching the subject. The couple were so committed to the school, that every evening, their living room was packed, many times with over 50 present, with faculty for after dinner coffee and talk, or other times with the students themselves after a game. As well as running the school, he often taught some of the subjects and for 60 years coached the baseball, basketball and football teams himself, even at 87 when he was still headmaster. The man was amazing and an inspiration as too what vision, passion, and concern of one person can accomplish if the desire and persistence are there.
3 reviews11 followers
November 26, 2007
This is an awesome profile of longtime Deerfield headmaster Frank Boyden. Recommended especially for New Yorker enthusiasts (read: everyone I know), people who think the New Yorker is crap now but long for the pre-Conde Nast days when it was unimpeachable (read: everyone else I know), and prep-school fetishists who like repp ties and argyle. When I picked this up, I was blown away by how it reads like fiction. McPhee always reminds me of Didion in how his writing seems so straightforward but is actually the height of craft. I'll probably never write a sentence as good as the weakest one in here. Seriously, his ability to avoid cumbersome hyphenated words without using tons of conspicuous prepositional phrases is amazing. Plus you can knock this one out in the time it takes to bake a pie.
60 reviews3 followers
July 8, 2019
Fascinating look at the growth of a man and a school. Good book for anyone interested in education.
Profile Image for Rose.
394 reviews40 followers
October 10, 2010
My brother acquired this for me from his university library, as I couldn't otherwise get hold of a copy. (Anyone trying to guess my brother's discipline from his library requests would have a hard time, because of all the books he gets for me.)

It was presented in 1968 as a thank-you gift, "With best wishes and appreciation for a delightful dinner. Also to remind you of Deerfield." by someone whose name I can't decipher. It was later presented to the University by Harry Armytage, Professor of Education there until 1980, although I'm not sure whether he was the original recipient. He wasn't a Deerfield alumnus, but maybe he visited there, as he did live in the US for a time. The book was obviously given to the University some time ago, from the appearance of the bookplate - maybe on the Professor's retirement or his death in 1998. Yet I am the only person who has ever borrowed this book from the University library - and I'm not even a student there.

This is sad, because it's a charming time capsule of a world that, although not so very long ago, seems in some ways far removed from our world today - yet in other ways much closer to nowadays than we might suspect. Modern educators could do far worse than to absorb some of Boyden's wisdom: some things never change.
Profile Image for Charlie Harrington.
175 reviews12 followers
September 30, 2020
A portrait of a leader. I’m always a sucker for anything about schools, and I badly want to go back and attend Boyden’s school to meet and learn from him and his wife. This is my second McPhee book, and I expect I’m now about to go deep down the McPhee rabbit hole of narrative non-fiction, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Profile Image for Melissa.
Author 3 books21 followers
January 26, 2015
I read this in our first few weeks here at Deerfield and it's very insightful not just regarding Boyden but the whole educational philosophy/history. McPhee is a fantastic writer who can make even a seemingly unpromising subject interesting. A quick and informative read.
Profile Image for John Lim.
121 reviews4 followers
June 1, 2021
A weird little character study of a headmaster who developed a cult of personality. He managed to create a culture of conformity that, in many ways, still exists at Deerfield and other boarding schools.
Profile Image for Luke Fowler.
20 reviews1 follower
October 15, 2021
What made Boyden a good high school principal according to this extended magazine article?

1. He dumped every iota of his personal life & time into being a high school principal
2. Don't worry about it, he was good, it's a je ne sais quoi, he had "presence", don't worry about it

An interesting profile I suppose, maybe more relevant if you're an NE boarding school fancy lad
Profile Image for Stephen.
Author 3 books7 followers
March 27, 2022
A good profile of a truly impressive man! For those in education, Boyden shows the value of being present, working hard, investing in the lives of students (and helping unlikely students to succeed), and caring about details (yet giving faculty the freedom to teach as they knew best).
Profile Image for David.
52 reviews1 follower
September 25, 2017
Good book that describes how Frank Boyden expanded Deerfield from a small rural school to a nationally known secondary boarding school. Boyden, who was a good headmaster, seemed more like a politician than a teacher. He was active in athletics and able to attract big donors from places like New York to build the school. Andover, Exeter and Taft Presidents donated to save the school. He was able to get donations from friends from Amherst College as well. Boyden was compassionate and only expelled a few students over the course of his career. He expelled students because they would not apologize. Deerfield Academy accepted a more diverse group of students than other prep schools such as Andover, Exeter and Taft. Boyden was more involved in athletics, administration and building relationships than teaching. It was not easy to keep trustees happy. Teachers worked at Deerfield because they were given more freedom. Boyden, who graduated from Amherst College, was known as a hard worker. Amherst considers Boyden one of their most successful alumni. Many Deerfield graduates go on to schools like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Swarthmore, Brown, etc. Princeton would admit students who Boyden recommended. Deerfield only had a few students in the early 1900s. He expanded the school to over 500 students. Boyden grew up on a farm in Foxborough, Mass. His father owned a foundry with 70 employees and was a state senator. The library in Foxborough is named after his dad. The book also describes the colonial days where indians killed Deerfield residents with tomahawks. There is still a memorial from one indian massacre at the school. His wife taught science at Deerfield as well. Politicians and Presidents of Schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wesleyan, etc. sent their sons to Deerfield. Boyden devoted most of his life to Deerfield.
5 reviews
November 25, 2009
In The Headmaster by John McPhee, there isn't really a general issue in the whole book, but instead the theme of nostalgia and the sense of remembering your old friends, teacher or perhaps your principal or headmaster. The whole book takes place in the college of Deerfield Academy in the 1940s in the perspective of a student or perhaps an assistant of the headmaster himself, Boyden. Throughout the book, which was published in 1966, the persona of the author tells every explicit details about the headmaster, what he does and is relationship with the boys in the college. Throughout the rest of the book, he usually concentrates on the boys athletically and scholarly, but mostly athletic. The book itself is actually a really good one, and can either pierce through one's memory of their own headmaster in college, or to kids like myself to know how headmasters are like, or how they were like. In fact, it is very focused to those who were either in this school, people who want to go to the college itself, or someone who just wants to go to a reletively small college, much like Deerfield Academy. This book gives every sense of nostalgia towards the reader, even if you have not faced a headmaster yourself.
60 reviews
October 8, 2011
Granted, I've only read a couple of dozen pages, but I am thoroughly disappointed in this book. So far it sounds like the kind of list of pandering accolades one might hear at a retirement dinner. Every time McPhee hits about a story that would illustrate some super-human trait of Frank Boyden's, he veers off to list three more unsubstantiated kudos instead. It is below McPhee's talent and skill, at least as far as I have read. Not quite as bad as McCullough, so I'll wade through a little more of it.
Waiting for this book to show some value, some writing skill, some substance, some justification for killing the trees necessary to print it, was a task in vain. The book is 108 (dreary) pages long, and it got barely interesting on page 96. If I were John McPhee I would sue to change the name of the author. If I were Frank Boyden, I would make a mental note to get a new memoirist.
This book is one long, poorly cobbled and boring testimonial dinner speech. Someone told McPhee "the dancing girls are stuck in traffic and aren't going to arrive for thirty minutes. Kill the clock till they get here!" If they served dessert before the speech was over, it would end in an empty room. Trust me.
Profile Image for Carin.
Author 1 book103 followers
April 12, 2010
Written with Mr. McPhee's masterful skill, this is a top-notch biography. Mr. McPhee is brilliant at being a true master of the word but not coming across as the least bit pretentious, which is very appropriate for the story of Frank Boyden, who still used to drive his horse and buggy for fun through the 1950s. Although a graduate of Amherst himself, Mr. Boyden was no snob and he went to great lengths to be sure that as Deerfield's reputation and fame grew, that the local farm boys still could go tot he school for free. an indefatiguable man with an unerring instinct for education and discipline, Mr. Boyden is a man to be admired and rememebered.

One amusing note: this book was written in 1966, and already there were laments about teaching to the tests, about students loading up on academics at the expense of extracurriculars to impress colleges, and a regret with the turn secondary education was taking, as solely a means to an end: the ivy-league. And I think if you interviewed the president of Deerfield today, 44 years later, I think you'd hear the exact same concerns. Those problems have only worsened in the intervening years.
Profile Image for Mark Wilkerson.
165 reviews38 followers
March 6, 2016
This book offers a quick glance at the first real impactful boarding school headmaster in the U.S. While I appreciate much that was shared in this profile, too much time is spent on the quirky habits and mannerisms of Boyden, like his incessant letter-writing habit and his love of horses, rather than on the substantive philosophies of him and his school. In covering these areas, McPhee simply dismissed Boyden's philosophy, saying Boyden never had to write down any policies and never had a real educational philosophy. It seems Boyden simply got by on his work habit, force of will, and sheer charisma. Maybe it is as simple as that, sometimes. Maybe some people have such strength that they are just able to make whatever they want to happen, happen. Working in education now, I don't know that a person like Boyden could exist in the here and now. The stakes and the pressure is too high; the parents are more involved, as are the boards, the government, and the media. It's nice to read about the erstwhile leaders who have shaped and influenced so many independent schools today, but I wanted more substance.
Profile Image for Kate.
1,894 reviews1 follower
August 4, 2013
"Starting in 1902 at a country school that had an enrollment of fourteen, Frank Boyden built an academy that has long since taken its place on a level with Andover and Exeter. Boyden, who died in 1972, was the school's headmaster for sixty-six years. John McPhee portrays a remarkable man 'at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who ... created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with their own personalities.'"
~~back cover

It seems obvious to me that the author must have been a Deerfield boy. He speaks so fondly of the headmaster and his philosophy of running a prep school, and how well it all turned out that he must have experienced it all firsthand. For me, who had never heard of the school or Frank Boyden, it seemed glib but only because I didn't have the background knowledge to appreciate what I was reading.
Profile Image for Mike.
56 reviews14 followers
May 27, 2008
Unfortunately, I had to dock McPhee's classic biography of this old-school headmaster one star (from 5 down to 4) upon re-reading it recently.

McPhee's prose style and uncanny knack for portraiture are absolutely compelling, of course. And Mr. Boyden is a fascinating biographical subject. We surely won't see his likes in secondary education again.

The dated nature of this profile is perhaps part of its appeal. And I'm sure that histories or biographies like this make Deerfield alums immensely proud.

Educationally, however, this story now strikes me as a full two centuries past its prime. I had (mis?)remembered it (fondly!) as being anachronistic by merely a century.

Next time I feel like another dose or booster shot of Mr. McPhee's apt and trenchant prose, I'm pretty sure that I'll reach for a different title. Given his prolific productivity, that won't be hard, of course!
Profile Image for Ryan Boomershine.
342 reviews20 followers
June 10, 2014
**Epically awful book cover. The author's name takes up more than 50% of the cover, the pen drawing is not representative, and there is so little remainder space that the title has to be hyphenated. In the words of the ancient prophet, "Gag me with a spoon."**

Boyden is a hoot. He shaped the school by his persistence on careful, excellent, simplicity. He was a quiet tyrant who had high expectations for everyone, beginning with himself.

I'm not sure what the author was trying to do with pages 81-109, but it was sure no pleasure trying to follow along.

Addendum: Ah, I now see that many of McPhee's books have the same signature cover. I'm thankful for the ease in spotting them, now. #telling
Profile Image for Karen.
524 reviews61 followers
November 4, 2015
A great little local history read for me. Make no mistake, this is definitely a time capsule read of laudatory "dead white guy history", but at its quirkiest and finest...and I found it fun! Because I currently live close to Deerfield and have read a lot of its history, this was an interesting supplement that included some surprise friends from the archives (George Sheldon, for example). Others without connection or interest to Deerfield and its academy, but who are involved in education and educational theory may also find this book of some value - if only to reflect on how times have changed!
Profile Image for Tim.
1,232 reviews
March 3, 2012
This portrait of Frank Boyden, headmaster at Deerfield Academy for 66 years (1902-1968) offers a lot of praise and description, but seems to be missing something to make it entirely engaging (to me with no connections to the school). McPhee is a marvelous writer and is adulatory here (he should probably have mentioned his position as a Deerfield graduate at some time) Education is in the background of this account, which is about institution building and the benignly dictatorial powers necessary to be efficient at it.
Profile Image for Jamie Cain.
61 reviews3 followers
August 12, 2015
A light but great biography of Frank Boyden, who served as head of Deerfield for 60-odd years. The portrait drawn by John McPhee is episodic but rich--and encouraging to this headmaster! Boyden exemplified the dinosaur, and his methods would be frowned upon today (perhaps even at Deerfield). But his contention that what education required was attention to the child, and an awakening of joy for learning, still rings true. Sadly, it is not much practiced outside of the private school arena--and not even there, especially in the elite schools that emulate Deerfield.
Profile Image for James.
169 reviews2 followers
December 20, 2008

I can't believe McPhee wrote this book....McPhee!

It's wordy - a wordy 110 page book? ... BY MCPHEE!?

Nothing happens in these 110 pages - but nothing usually happens in a McPhee book, but normally you learn things, and there is some description.

This feels like a hand-waving, vague, sycophantic intro to a precocious letter of recommendation that a below average writer would create for his father.

Biased, and no details.


...and I wanted to like it.
423 reviews
August 2, 2016
After that last travesty of a book, I needed an author I can count on!

Next day
That was a real joy. John McPhee always delivers. His topics, granted, are sometimes odd and always far-ranging, but it is delightful to see how many things he can make fascinating. This is the (short) tale of the life of a good man who, perhaps, didn't do vastly importantly things in the world, but he did positively affect the lives of many, many boys. Charming read.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
151 reviews2 followers
May 25, 2017
A short biography of Frank Boyden, visionary head of Deerfield School. A real character captured in beautifully simple writing. Grew a school of 14 on the verge of closing to one of the best in the country over his 66 years leading the school. Remarkable. Old school head believed in sports, keeping boys busy and was a part of everything. Full of nostalgia and an interesting historical record of the area. A short read that finished too soon.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
202 reviews1 follower
January 5, 2018
Interesting short biography of Frank Boyden, the meticulously dedicated headmaster of Deerfield Academy for the better part of the 20th century. I think I would have given the book three stars if I hadn't grown up in the Pioneer Valley and spent some time in Deerfield. It was fun to read about some of the history of the Valley, and the book even touched on some stuff about UMass, where I completed undergrad. I didn't know that Boyden gym was named after him!
Profile Image for Diana.
348 reviews
January 14, 2008
Well written account of a the long-time headmaster of Deerfield, a private school for boys in New England. The concept of a benevolent dictator appears well outlined, and the text is dated with the gender roles of the time, making it an interesting study of the time period and outlook on private education over the period from the early 1900s to the mid-sixties in middle class small town America.
Profile Image for Joel Schaefer.
175 reviews3 followers
July 28, 2011
A short biography of Frank Boyden of Deerfield Academy that captures the spirit of the headmaster who developed a small country day school in 1902 to a leading secondary school today. He acted as headmaster from his college graduation until well into his 80's and continued to know all the boys by name.
1,430 reviews
August 7, 2011
McPhee captures the spirit of a fascinating and unique teacher. He knew his boys. 45 years after the fact, the Headmaster's admonition to "take a look at the hill" has finally sunk in. His legacy lives on in all the students priviledged to have known him. McPhee allows those who never got to spend time with him access to his drive and wisdom.
887 reviews15 followers
February 14, 2014
I read one essay by John McPhee almost 10 years ago and have been collecting and not-reading books by him ever since. I'm so glad I finally picked this up, and I'm ready to open some more! McPhee is funny, insightful, inspiring, and razor-sharp. He picks the details that speak volumes. I learned a lot from this book about leadership and education as well.
Profile Image for Anurag Ram Chandran.
65 reviews2 followers
May 23, 2021
On a binge reading about the great educators and education institutions of the world - this was insightful, but I felt like I needed more. Great personality, no doubt and his impact is clearly undeniable, but the book didn't help pinpoint what made him so great (and able to transform a dying school to one of the most prominent schoold in the world). Informative read, nonetheless.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 69 reviews

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