By Wendy Carlson
Flipping through a magazine one afternoon in March 1954, Meredith "Mark" Gall came across an article about Hotchkiss that would change his life forever.
In the spring of that year, Gall was a bookish seventh grader at a Catholic school in San Francisco who rarely ventured beyond his tight-knit, blue-collar neighborhood. His parents, like millions of people across the country at that time, subscribed to LIFE, one of the first American photo weeklies of its kind. When the magazine arrived in the mail, Gall and his mother would pore over it, carefully turning over each of the 50 pages of glossy, black-and-white photographs. For young Gall, each photograph was a window to a world of possibilities, and of places far beyond his block.
"We had radio, of course, but television was just coming into its own, and it wasn't very good at that time. LIFE connected me to what was happening in the rest of the country and the world," says Gall, 75, who lives in Eugene, Ore.
One particular photo essay in that March issue caught his attention. "Boys' Prep School" was the third in a series of LIFE articles on secondary education in America. For millions of readers, including Gall, the article was their first glimpse of a private boarding school, lavishly revealed in the 8-page photo spread. Dominating one page was an image of a student hiding in a dorm shower stall, cramming for a final exam after lights-out; on another, history instructor Thomas Stearns, looking every bit the ex-marine sergeant he was, surveyed his class over his glasses. A portrait of the venerable Headmaster George Van Santvoord, Class of 1908, smoke curling out of his pipe, ran with the subhead "A Tough Diet of Learning." Yet another photo captured Van Santvoord walking through Chapel, reprimanding students: "'You are barbarians,' he growled. 'You are uncivilized.'"
That LIFE chose Hotchkiss to illustrate boarding school life was no coincidence. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, both from the Class of 1916, founded Time magazine in 1923. Luce bought LIFE magazine in 1936, turning it into a weekly news magazine with an emphasis on photography. Newspaper and magazines had long been using single photographs to illustrate stories, but LIFE pioneered photojournalism, a new form of storytelling in which text was often condensed into captions, allowing photos to tell the story. The LIFE article, with those sumptuous photos, placed Hotchkiss in the national spotlight. But the attention rankled Van Santvoord, who, perhaps, thought the story portrayed the School as cold and austere in some ways and chaotic in others. In response, he commissioned a student photographer, Ned Lambrecht '54, to create the School's own photo essay in the style of LIFE, which he mailed to parents and prospective students.
Gall and his mother found themselves more and more mesmerized by the LIFE photos: boys in tweed jackets and starched shirts and ties, studying intently, skating on the pond, performing skits, trudging across the snowy campus — even the looming portrait of Van Santvoord, whom the article described as an "overzealous father."
Lambrecht, who was photo editor of the Misch and The Record at the time, recalls rushing to set up the School's first darkroom in a dorm basement and arming himself with a 4x5 Speed Graphic and a Leica to record student life. Van Santvoord then selected the images to create a more curated portrayal of student life at Hotchkiss. Absent were some of the candid, carefree scenes that ran in LIFE, which showed young men cheekily holding dinner plates in front of their faces and jostling each other on the way to class. Several of Lambrecht's photos — including a shot of students attempting to roll a VW Bug into a dorm building — never made it into Van Santvoord's photo essay.
A Day in the Life at Hotchkiss, Then and Now
But this sanitized version of life at Hotchkiss never reached the Gall's mailbox. Instead, Gall and his mother found themselves more and more mesmerized by the LIFE photos: boys in tweed jackets and starched shirts and ties, studying intently, skating on the pond, performing skits, trudging across the snowy campus — even the looming portrait of Van Santvoord, whom the article described as an "overzealous father." The article gave Gall the impression that Hotchkiss students were driven hard academically, and that appealed to him — and to his parents. His father was a supervisor in a machine shop with an eighth-grade education, and his mother worked occasionally at night as a hatcheck girl at the big hotels in San Francisco. They could never afford private school tuition, but one sentence in the LIFE article had given them hope.
"I remember reading that one out of every five Hotchkiss boys is on part or full scholarship," recalls Gall. So his mother suggested that he write Hotchkiss for information about scholarships and admissions testing.
"I suppose I performed well on the tests, because someone at Hotchkiss asked me to be interviewed by one of its graduates. I remember going to downtown San Francisco and being interviewed by a graduate, who, fortunately, was friendly and not intimidating. It was the first time I had ever been in an executive's office," Gall says.
Ultimately, Gall was offered a scholarship to Hotchkiss. He still remembers attending an orientation with his father, and when it was time for him to leave, Gall started sobbing. "I remember my father saying, 'You don't have to do this if you don't want to.' But something deep inside me said I'd be okay," Gall says. He said goodbye and walked up to his dorm.
As a scholarship student in those days, Gall was required to work in the Dining Hall, serving meals. He also earned extra cash working at the soda fountain for an hour or two each day — "I think the administration knew I had no money," he says. And much like the LIFE photo of a student furtively studying in the shower, Gall also received demerits after getting caught reading in the lavatory after lights-out. Looking back, what he remembers most is not those daily chores or demerits, but the relationships he formed with other students "who were brighter than me, and whom I looked up to as role models," he says.
After Hotchkiss, Gall went to Harvard, where he earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in education. After earning a Ph.D. in psychology from UC Berkeley in 1968, he began a career as a psychologist and teacher educator. In 1975, he joined the faculty at the University of Oregon, where he currently holds the title of professor emeritus in the College of Education. Throughout his life and career, Gall, who serves on the School's Board of Governors, has remained grateful to Hotchkiss for the opportunities it gave him. In 2003, he established the Gall Family Scholarship at the School to help economically disadvantaged students. He keeps a dog-eared copy of that LIFE issue, and he sometimes tells friends and acquaintances about the article that changed his life.
"One little thing can come along, something we could never anticipate, and it could be life-changing," he says. "As the saying goes, 'Our lives can turn on a dime.'"
This story appeared in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.