Lyle B. “Blair” Torrey ’50, P’74,’80,’84, remembered by many for his interweaving of classroom teaching with the natural environment around the School and on the playing fields and rink, died earlier this week. He was 88. At the time of his retirement in 1997, he had been a member of the faculty for 41 years and held the Huber G. Buehler Chair, a title he was awarded in 1977. The L. Blair Torrey ’50 Chair in English at Hotchkiss was established in his honor, as was the L. Blair Torrey ’50 Hockey Fund.
In a 1997 interview in the Hotchkiss Magazine, Sports Illustrated writer E.M. Swift ’69 wrote about his former coach: “In the spring of his final year teaching at Hotchkiss, Blair Torrey leads his senior English class across the campus, beyond the golf course, past a storage shed that is cluttered with piles of tires and rusting pipes. This is an outdoors course of Torrey’s invention, dedicated primarily to the business of seeing and the close observation of nature, subjects dear to his heart. …”
'''It’s what we English teachers do,’ Torrey explains. ‘Try to get the kids to see more than the obvious. Good writing is seeing things other people don’t ordinarily see.'''
Blair Torrey spent his childhood in Bermuda, until World War II broke out and his family moved to Ridgefield, CT. A Ridgefield neighbor was a Hotchkiss trustee, and on his recommendation, young Blair was sent to Lakeville as a prep in 1946.
Torrey played on football, hockey, and baseball teams all four years, beginning with a Taylor championship football squad in 1946-47. He was captain of the baseball team in his senior year. Active in a number of clubs, he served as class secretary and class treasurer, secretary of the Student Council, and chairman of the Auditorium Committee.
At Princeton he continued as a three-sport star – a guard on the football team, catcher in baseball, and goalie in hockey. Torrey did not start out with a plan to teach, but at Princeton he volunteered for the platoon leadership corps of the Marines. After graduation in 1954, he trained in Parris Island and then served two years as a platoon instructor at Camp Pendleton in San Clemente, CA.
In 1956 he heard from his father about a job opening at Hotchkiss teaching English. He applied and was hired. He went on to earn an M.A. at Middlebury College. His first marriage having ended in divorce, he later married Ellen Rainbolt, who was studying ballet at the Juilliard School in NY. She is credited with starting the dance program at Hotchkiss and served for a time as its chair.
In the 1997 interview, Torrey told Swift, “I didn’t choose teaching; it’s almost as if it chose me. I fell into my identity by accident.” He received some guidance from English colleagues Dick Gurney and Bob Hawkins, but mainly he followed his own instincts in teaching.
He also loved coaching and served 30 years as varsity hockey coach. “The lessons they learn on the playing fields are life lessons,” Torrey said. “Sportsmanship. Not being too self-occupied. Sacrificing self-interest for group interest. Encountering difficult situations that teach stamina and courage and how to fail. They remember those lessons more clearly and easily than they do the lessons in the classroom.”
Torrey is survived by his wife, Eugenia, of Charleston, SC; daughter Katharine Torrey Philhower ’80; son L. Blair “Bo” Torrey III ’74; and daughter Kimball T. Kraus. He was predeceased by son, Matthew Torrey ’84, and wife, Ellen R. Torrey. Other Hotchkiss relatives include brother Richard D. Torrey ’56, P’01 and nephew Yuta T. Torrey ’01.