A Tribute to Walter J. Crain, Jr. — Teacher, Coach, Leader
A Tribute to Walter J. Crain, Jr. — Teacher, Coach, Leader

Walter J. Crain Jr., P '86, '89, the first African-American to serve as a full-time member of the faculty, died on March 27, 2017 in Windsor, CT. He was 78. On learning of his passing, saddened alumni and members of the faculty, staff, and trustees spoke feelingly of Mr. Crain's wisdom, his kindness, and his quiet leadership as a role model in the Hotchkiss community. From the time of his appointment in 1970 until his retirement in 2003, he was a dedicated teacher of math, an advisor and mentor to generations of students, as well as an inspiring coach. For more than a decade, he served with note as Dean of Students, imperturbable and effective in that role as well.

Dean of Faculty Tom Drake remembers the effectiveness of his influence. "When I came to Hotchkiss in the early 1980s, Walter was the central figure in the administration who had the confidence of students and faculty alike. Sound judgment was the hallmark of his leadership. I can remember several occasions when I, as an over-eager, young faculty member was counseled by him about ways of supporting kids rather than pushing for punishments. He taught me restraint and greater humanity in working in a residential environment."

Born and brought up in New York City, Mr. Crain spent time in his high school years working with younger students, helping in church groups, and participating in scouting. He earned his bachelor's degree from S.U.N.Y. at Brockport and an M.S. in education at New York University. He had been teaching math at Wadleigh Secondary School in the city when he was recruited in the summer of 1965 to teach in the Greater Opportunity (GO) program. Unique to Hotchkiss, Greater Opportunity was created to provide an educational experience and mentoring for disadvantaged boys from Connecticut and New York cities. The program, which ran for nine years, educated some 250 boys from New York City, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. Eighty-two percent of G.O.'s graduates went to college.

In 1970, Mr. Crain joined the Hotchkiss faculty full-time as a teacher of math and a coach, roles in which he won the respect and gratitude of generations of students. Over the span of his Hotchkiss career, he coached boys thirds basketball, cross country and track, and girls varsity basketball. From 1983 to 1999, he served as the School's Dean of Students.

He and his wife, Tessie, offered a warm and nurturing home as dorm parents for countless students. In all of his varied roles, Walter Crain won high marks. The Walter J. Crain Cross Country Award was established in gratitude by former students, girls who had learned to love running, and announced enthusiastically at his retirement dinner in 2003. But, he only made it all look easy.

In a 2002 interview in the Hotchkiss Magazine, he recalled the surprises that were in store for him and his wife, Tessie, and their two young children when they came to sleepy Lakeville from Manhattan. Late one afternoon, Tessie asked if he would go to the store and get some milk for the children's cereal in the morning. Easier said than done ... the small mom-and-pop store in Lakeville was closed, as was the A & P in Millerton, as was another store. "What the heck am I doing here," he remembered thinking at the time.

If Lakeville had been challenging for him as a newcomer, Mr. Crain made certain others did not have that experience. Co-head of Athletics Danny Smith recalls, "When I first arrived at Hotchkiss, Walter went out of his way to introduce himself and to make my family feel welcome on campus. I'll never forget his warmth, his kindness, or his sense of humor.

"After he retired, he made a point to come over to the bench area to say hello every time the football team played a game at Avon or at Loomis. In fact, he did the same thing whenever a Hotchkiss team traveled to the greater Hartford area, close to his home. I'll miss seeing him on the sidelines next fall."

Board of Trustees President Jean Weinberg Rose '80 also felt the warmth of Mr. Crain's welcome when she first arrived on campus. In a speech at Walter Crain's retirement dinner in 2003, she spoke glowingly of the teacher who had meant so much to her. "It was a warm September afternoon, and, feeling the knots in my stomach, I was wondering why I had let my proctor talk me into running cross-country as my fall sport. Well to be honest, given that she was a senior and my proctor, I wasn't sure I had much choice. As we came to a stop by the stone bench between Van Santvoord and the graveyard, I was truly regretting my decision. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I looked up. A very tall man was looking down at my tennis sneakers. "You can't run in those unless you want to get shin splints. You can stick around and talk to me today. We'll get to know each other a little bit, and we'll get you running tomorrow." I remember three things about that first meeting: first, he had a big warm smile that made me want to smile back. Second, he was incredibly easy to talk to. Third, I remember being truly disappointed and absolutely terrified when I discovered that he was a math teacher. What if he wanted to talk about math? I wondered if he could revoke my acceptance to Hotchkiss. ..."

And, in fact, it was in the classroom where Walter Crain really starred. Instructor of English Charlie Frankenbach observed the effectiveness with which his colleague went about his work. "Walter somehow inspired in students both mild trepidation and deep respect simultaneously! With the scowl and growl came the glint of eye and the slowly emerging grin. Students just knew that he cared for them, as he encouraged, cajoled, and reprimanded them. That's no mean feat; Walter's was an effortless art," he says with admiration.

Ben Gott '97, himself now a teacher, remembers the thrill of accomplishment he felt in math, thanks to Walter Crain. Gott sent a note paying tribute to his former teacher on hearing of Mr. Crain's death. "I had Walter as a teacher in Math 310," he recalled, "a math class designed for those of us who weren't particularly good at math. That year, it was Walter's calm, quiet, unflappable demeanor, incredible patience, and wicked sense of humor that actually made me think, 'You know? Math might not be so scary after all!'

"I've attached the clearest evidence of that shift in my mindset to this email: the only math test I ever took in four years at Hotchkiss on which I scored higher than a 90%. You'll notice the date in the center of the first line: February 29, 1996. I've kept this test in my 'Misc. Hotchkiss' file through a half-dozen moves over the course of the last 21 years. That's how much it –- and, by extension, Walter –- meant to me."

Walter is survived by his sons, Jay and Roger '86, his daughter, Adrienne C. Dedjinou '89, daughters-in-law, Sherry and Maggie (an Associate Director of Admission at Hotchkiss), and his eight grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Tessie.

A service for Walter Crain will be held on Monday, April 3 at the Congregational Church in Salisbury, 30 Main Street. There will be viewing hours from 12:30 – 1:45 p.m., and a service at 2:00 p.m. The family will receive visitors after 3:00 p.m. Visit www.salisburycongregational.org for directions.

In lieu of flowers, gifts in memory of Walter may be directed to: The Walter J. Crain Jr. P '86,'89 Scholarship, The Hotchkiss School, 11 Interlaken Road, Lakeville, CT 06039. If you would rather give online (click to link to the form), please select "Other" and specify the scholarship name. The scholarship was initiated by alumni, faculty members, and parents, and established in honor of a great educator and his 33 years of service to The Hotchkiss School. It serves as a lasting tribute to his shining example of quiet strength, courage, and commitment. Additionally, gifts can also be directed to the Salisbury Volunteer Ambulance Service: www.salisburyambulance.org.

–- Roberta Jenckes