Gardner Mundy's 2019 Distinguished Grotonian Acceptance Speech

Headmaster, members of the faculty, fellow graduates—especially members of my form because, as I am about to show, it is you who set me up for this—and others gathered here; I am honored to be standing before you.

Before I start, let me say that it is apt that this space has a Latin word in its name, “Sackett Forum,” because from my perspective down here looking up at all of you it has the aspect of the Coliseum in Rome. If any of you wants to know how the Christians and lions saw things, just find me afterward and I’ll tell you.

I believe that the two seminal events in my journey to this podium occurred while I was still an enrolled student here. I say this because, by a remarkable coincidence this past winter, while sorting through some family records, I came across my grade report and teacher comments from my Third Form year. I have them with me—yellowed paper and all. Remember how dreaded these things were?

The first event took place in my Third Form Latin classroom. Hugh Sackett, for whom this magnificent space is named, arrived on the Circle the same time I did—in 1955. He was my Latin instructor and had the challenging task of teaching the Third Form C Division, which was the repository for my form’s Latin dummies. We found the subject difficult and sometimes were raucous in class. I felt sorry for Hugh, because our deficiencies as Latin scholars weren’t his fault, and he didn’t deserve poor behavior in his classroom, so I tried to set an example of good behavior by creating the illusion of being serious and studious.

Hugh apparently wanted to thank me for this because in his year-end comment slip he wrote cryptically: “Mundy . . . has been a useful member of this rather slow division.” Note that word, useful, because you will be hearing it again in these remarks. Jack Crocker’s overall summary comment was also cryptic and stated that I had made “satisfactory progress during the year.” So, there you have contemporaneous written evidence of how inauspiciously my Groton life actually began: as a satisfactory Grotonian who also could occasionally be a useful Grotonian, but certainly not a distinguished Grotonian.

Things got a little better by Sixth Form year, when the second event occurred at a meeting of the Sixth Form in Jack Crocker’s study shortly before Prize Day in 1959. Jack informed us of the existence and purpose of the Annual Fund and described the role of Form Agent, a position which until then I didn’t know existed. Among other things, he explained that the Form Agent’s job was to write letters to his formmates each and every year for the rest of his natural life to request donations to the Annual Fund. In those days, the position was filled by vote, and when my name was put forth, I got nailed. This happened because my formmates had seized on the letter-writing aspect of the role and knew that I was the only one in the group who owned a typewriter.

And write letters I indeed did. For many years, they were typed on the same typewriter that I had here. In an effort to make them interesting, I informed myself about behind-the-scenes stuff at the school, including its finances, and shared that information with my form. I felt that if I was asking people to donate money I should explain why it was needed and how it would be used. My form thus became exposed to some of the school’s inner workings. It must have found this information interesting and useful because it always responded well to the annual appeal. We consistently had participation rates in the range of 75 to 80 percent.

I continued writing letters to my form for forty-two years, until I finally gave up the Form Agent role shortly before Bill Polk retired. However, that doesn’t mean I stopped writing letters. I simply found new victims: the school’s headmasters. During Bill’s remarkable twenty-five-year run as Headmaster, he and I corresponded periodically, but very little of it was about substantive issues, because I didn’t know anything about the school that he didn’t already know ten times over. I couldn’t be useful to him in the way that I learned I could be to his successors, Rick Commons and now Temba, because, unlike Bill, they arrived on the Circle as newcomers. Rick started a practice, which Temba has continued and greatly expanded, of giving me stuff to read. It took both of them a while to realize the grave risk of giving me something to read about Groton, which was that I would actually read it and then write a comment, sometimes in a lot of detail. I was always careful to avoid being meddlesome and acted only when invited, but they kept the invitations coming, because apparently they found my comments useful.

Now, I have to tell you that my good wife, Diana, hasn’t always approved of this activity. She would see me at my desk reading or writing something instead of doing what she thought I should be doing and would demand to know why I was spending so much time at the computer. I would always answer nonchalantly with words like “Oh, it’s nothing. Temba just sent me this thing to read and I’m trying to give him a few thoughts that he might find useful.” One day she finally expressed her true feelings in a stern voice: “You know, I’ve come to realize something. You have two wives: me and Groton School.”

This involvement with Rick and Temba exposed me to many of the consequential developments in the school’s recent history. Selfishly, I like to think it has been good for me by slowing the aging process, because it has kept the little grey cells active, but that’s not really why I did it. I did it for the same reason that every graduate here today comes back to a reunion. Of course, we return to see old friends. But another reason is that we believe deeply in the school’s ethos and in the sense of worthwhile purpose that it imparts to its students, causing so many to apply themselves in their later lives to the service of something larger than themselves. We want this experience to remain available to future generations. By returning here, we signify our support for all that Groton School is and does.

Well, there you have my Groton story, very highly abridged, but I think it explains why I am standing here. If there is a lesson in this story, it is that, yes, we who are fortunate to attend this school should all try to be distinguished in whatever we do after we graduate. But if we can’t be truly distinguished, then it’s OK to be merely useful.

Temba, before returning the podium to you, I would like to shift attention away from me and back to where it really belongs—on you and all other members of the school’s remarkably talented, committed, and dedicated administration, faculty, staff, and trustees, as well as the predecessors of all of you.

There’s a line in the school’s Graduate’s Prayer which has stuck with me all these years. It starts with the words “Watch over our School, O Lord, as its years increase.” My form hasn’t exactly watched over the school the way a deity does, but we have kept an eye on things. This is because we consider it our school—not in the sense of dominion or possession—but because of the unbreakable connection that we have with it and through it with one another. We have been doing this for sixty years now. That nearly 75 percent of our surviving members are here this weekend attests to how much we cherish this connection. Were it not for medical issues and other commitments, our turnout would be even larger.

It also attests to how strongly we applaud and thank you, along with everyone else who works with you in the endeavor, for keeping Groton’s preeminent standing in American secondary education so acknowledged and secure. This is a truly remarkable human accomplishment. It hasn’t happened by chance. It has happened because of hard, diligent attention to the tasks of each day and the imagination to see the possibilities and the necessities of the future. Your success ensures that the ranks of Groton’s graduates will continue to increase; and that sixty years from now, a future Distinguished Grotonian will be able to stand here and say the things I am trying to say today; and then again in another sixty years, and again and again, for as long into the distant future as the Groton experience—which my formmates and I were so fortunate to have during our formative years on this Circle sixty years ago—remains relevant and needed in a constantly changing world.

Great job. We’re with you all the way.