In the fall of 1950, the first alumni sons entered the School: Bill Elwell ‘54, son of William P. Elwell ‘27, in Form II and yours truly in grade 5. By then, there remained only three teachers who had served under Dr. Howe: Finch Keller, Charlie Jenney and Angelo Togneri. Another, Henry Sawyer ‘32, had been a student under my grandfather.
I had them all: Mr. T from 5th grade art to Sixth Form panel carving; Henry Sawyer for Second Form latin and coach of Junior Hockey (8th & 9th grades); Finch for Second and Third Form algebra; and Mr. Jenney for Third Form latin. Being friends of my grandmother and my parents as well as occasional visitors to 49 Tyler Road, all were familiar figures to me long before I became their student.
To my mind, one other teacher fell into this select category: Prentice G. (“Spike”) Downes. Although he did not join the faculty until 1933, the year after Dr. Howe’s death, Spike occasionally spoke to me as though he had known my grandfather. Whether he had met or interviewed with Dr. Howe before his death, I never knew. Regardless, Spike’s early years at the School must have been filled with stories about Dr. Howe from those who had known him best. I had Spike for Second Form geography, Sixth Form American history, and coach of JV Hockey (Fourth Form).
Roger Duncan described Spike as “the School’s most colorful master” (Duncan, p. 68), and his death in 1959 as the “most serious loss which the School had suffered since the death of Dr. Howe” (Duncan, p. 164). He continued:
Scholar, athlete, explorer, physiographer, and writer, he had led and inspired Belmont Hill boys for years. Fearlessly honest, he insisted on honesty from his students. He asked the hard questions, too, and demanded considered answers. He always gave the impression of one really in touch with reality, of one who had seen the real world and had thought about it. One of his memorials is the booklet assembled by Mr. Calder quoting from Mr. Downes’ writings, examinations, and speeches, formal and informal. His best memorial is in the hearts of his students and of his colleagues.
In my day, the Sixth Form course in American history covered the period from 1900 to 1950, coming about as close to a course in current events as was possible at the time. Spike, recognizing that many of his students came from families with conservative, not to say Republican, leanings, purposely exposed them to a more sympathetic view of the New Deal than they were likely to receive at home. Indeed, there were more than a few reports of family dinners seriously disrupted by ideas picked up in his American history course. One has to wonder whether today—for pedagogic purposes—Spike might have cast a favorable eye on at least some aspects of the Trump administration.