George Van Santvoord '08 *
Profession: First Hotchkiss graduate to serve as Headmaster
George Van Santvoord (1891-1975) was graduated from The Hotchkiss School in 1908 and from Yale College in 1912. After a year's graduate study, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford; he took successive degrees of B.A. in the Honour School of English Language and Literature in 1915, B. Litt. in 1917, and M.A. in 1923. He was an ambulance driver with the French Army in 1916 and then taught at Winchester College; when the United States entered the war in 1917, he served first as a sergeant in the 39th Infantry Division, winning the Croix de Guerre, and then as a second lieutenant in the 167th Infantry. After the war, he taught English at Yale from 1919-1925. He then moved to the University of Buffalo as Professor of English, helping reorganize the department there. In 1926, he was appointed Headmaster of The Hotchkiss School and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1955.
During his stewardship, the School grew and prospered. The main campus achieved substantially its present form: Alumni Hall (now Tinker) was built in 1927, the Infirmary (now Wieler) in 1928, Coy and the Chapel in 1931, and Buehler in 1935. The Monahan Gym followed in 1938 (the swimming pool and basketball wing being added in 1953), the Dining Hall in 1948, and the Edsel Ford Memorial Library in 1951.
The Duke, as he was known to generations of Hotchkiss boys and their families, remained a bachelor until 1938, when he married the former Alice Dresel Beal. For the next 17 years she presided graciously over countless social functions at the Headmaster's House: trustee and dance weekends, coffee for seniors every Saturday after dinner and for the faculty every Sunday afternoon, tea parties for each of the classes in the winter, and commencement receptions, to say nothing of the annual Christmas party for faculty children.
Mr. Van Santvoord received many honors over the years, including honorary degrees from Williams and Princeton. He was a life member of the Yale Corporation.
He was a truly formidable figure, some would say a type of the Renaissance man. His tastes and talents were wide-ranging: he was a horseman and a gardener, a poet and an amateur watercolorist, an essayist and a dog fancier (his Great Dane, Rugnir, was a campus fixture for years), an etymologist and a genealogist and a trout fisherman. He enjoyed working with the Woods Squad. He taught a famous senior Bible course in comparative religion; he could and did substitute in any number of classes. He was an accomplished actor: those who saw him as Queen Dollalolla in the faculty production of The Tragedy of Tragedies in 1955 will never forget him. He was enormously learned. One story (probably apocryphal) has it that a group of seniors boned up on pottery of the Ming dynasty from an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica and held forth at length on the subject one night at dinner, only to be informed quietly by the Duke that he had written the article. He was insatiably curious about all manner of things. Preps who sat at this table in the dining room (this was in the days before the cafeteria, when students sat at an assigned table for two weeks at a time) would be asked whether they thought Mickey Mouse should be given a driver's license, and they would not be allowed to get away with a mumbled reply. During his headmastership, an art teacher was hired for the first time, and Sunday evening concerts were a regular feature throughout the year. Boys were required to attend until intermission, when the non-music lovers were allowed to escape to the dormitories or elsewhere.
Some would say that the Duke presented a forbidding exterior (how many former Hotchkiss boys remember walking along the main corridor and unexpectedly feeling a firm grasp under the elbow, hearing that low voice ask some far-fetched question?), but he was possessed of a warm heart, a superb sense of humor, and a fierce loyalty to his family and friends. The farewell banquet that the Alumni Association arranged for him in the spring of 1955 -- it was held in the grand ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria -- was more like a family gathering than a formal dinner for nearly a thousand people. He held them all enthralled for close to an hour as he reminisced (without notes) about his years as Headmaster. "It was all great fun," he kept saying, and he meant it.
He saw the School through the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Korean War, upholding the highest standards of academic excellence and building a sound foundation for the future.
After his retirement from Hotchkiss, he took up two new occupations: first as a dairy farmer at his home, Shadowbrook Farm, in Bennington, Vermont, and then as a member successively of the State Senate and the House of Representatives. He served several terms in Montpelier and was instrumental in revising the wording of many state laws, translating from gobbledygook into the sort of plain and simple English he had written for years in school reports and college recommendations.
He enjoyed nothing more than meeting and talking with old and new friends. He maintained to the end of his life an enormous personal correspondence, writing hundreds, if not thousands of letters, most of them in the distinctive GVS italic hand. Mr. Van Santvoord died on February 19, 1975.
Some of his papers are on deposit in the Beinecke Library at Yale.
By John G. Bowen