Chapel Talk Archive

Ian Gracey (Director of Admission)

This is a talk about beginnings.  But I'm going to begin with three endings-- the endings of Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton.  On October 26th, 1881, these men died on the streets of Tombstone, Arizona.  They were gunned down by Doc Holliday and Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt Earp-- a confrontation that has come to be known as the gunfight at the OK Corral. History portrays this as a battle between good and evil—the lawmen as protectors of civil order and the cowboys as ruffian miscreants with too much money in their pockets and too little sense in their heads.  The truth may be a bit more ambiguous.  The real troublemaker on this fateful day in the Southwest was Billy Clanton’s loudmouth brother, Ike, who spent the morning making idle threats in bar after bar about bringing harm to the Earps.  The Earps were viewed by some as duplicitous, self-serving and anxious to make names for themselves before an upcoming election for marshall.  Who fired first?  It’s not clear, but Doc Holliday, a callow and impetuous young man most certainly hit the first target, blasting a round of buckshot into the chest of Tom McLaury.  The cowboy tried to run but Wyatt Earp brought him down with a shot to his abdomen and he died in the middle of Fremont Street.  Wyatt also put a bullet through the navel of Frank McLaury and brother Morgan finished him off with a gunshot to the head.  Ike Clanton ran away.  His brother, Billy, lasted the longest in the fight, taking a series of bullets from Morgan and Virgil before dying in a house across the street, gasping accusations of murder that would follow the Earps to the end of their days.  
 
From the pulpit of St. John’s Chapel at Groton School, I am telling you about a nineteenth century gunfight.  Do you wonder why?  You’ll find out.
 
This is a talk about beginnings, not endings.  Tombstone was founded only two years before the famous shootout.   A prospector named Ed Schiefflen made a fortune mining silver there.  Word got out quickly and by the time of the battle I have described so graphically, Tombstone had become the second largest city in Arizona.  Despite this rapid growth, there was no Episcopal church in the city.  There was, in fact, no Episcopal church in Arizona.  The owner of the Empire Mine, Grafton Abbott, was a Bostonian who thought he knew someone who could bring some religion to the Southwest.  The product of an English public school, the young man he had in mind had studied law at Cambridge University, but promptly lost his desire to be an attorney after graduation.  As he was a member of a proud Massachusetts family, the young man decided to return to America to join a banking firm in Boston.  That career lasted only a year before his life swerved in an entirely different direction.  After studying law and working in finance, the young man enrolled in an Episcopal seminary.  That man was Endicott Peabody, the founder of Groton School.  In 1881 he was 24 years-old.  He had not yet been ordained, he knew nothing of the West, but he was so determined to make his mark in the world that he accepted the challenge of bringing God to Tombstone, “the town that refused to die.”
 
Peabody arrived in Tombstone only three months after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  He knew Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp.  He knew Doc Holliday.  He didn’t know the men they killed but he undoubtedly knew the pile of rocks that covered them in Boot Hill Graveyard.  He walked by the rocks when he laid miners and stillborn babies to rest beside the gunslingers and cowpokes.  You can see those stones today if you go to Tombstone as I have done.  They are on a bluff on the edge of town next to other stones with markers that read such things as “Here lies Lester Moore, 4 slugs from a 44, No Les, No More.”  Surprisingly, the town today looks remarkably like the town that Endicott Peabody and Wyatt Earp knew.  I visited Tombstone with baseball players from Lawrenceville, my old school.  We were in Tucson for spring training this past March and we decided to see a bit of the Old West.  My players wanted to see gunslingers.  I wanted to see a particular 125 year-old building.  While the boys went off to a re-creation of the gunfight at the OK Corral I walked down 3rd Street to St. Paul’s Church--a structure built by Endicott Peabody-- the first Episcopal church in Arizona.  
 
I went into the church and it was an oasis of adobe bricks, hand-hewn rafters and the purple tones associated with Lent.  As I was living through a period of preparation and penitence amidst my transition from Lawrenceville to Groton, it felt quite natural to sit quietly in this place.  Thoughts of Peabody’s experience in a new world naturally led me to consider the greater  responsibilities I would have in moving to Groton.  Peabody raised money for a church in one of the wildest towns in the West.  He solicited card players in gambling halls to accomplish his goal.  He defied an outlaw who threatened to “make the preacher dance” if he held services again in his town.  What would be an equivalent accomplishment in my line of work?  Convincing trustees to provide more money for financial aid?  Fervently, I hope the analogy is not quite apt.  Peabody was absolutely out of his element, and I am not.  When he first came to town the local paper wrote of him, “Well, we got a parson who doesn’t flirt with the girls, who doesn’t drink behind the door, and when it comes to baseball, he’s a daisy.”  No one has ever said that I’m a daisy on the baseball field. Once, Peabody was taking a bath and had pulled a curtain over the bathroom window.  A passing miner pulled the blanket aside, explaining, “I want to see what you’re so darned private about.”  Actually, now and again my eight year-old has been known to pull open a shower curtain, but she is no wizened miner.  
 
What must the citizens of Tombstone have thought of Peabody?  It could be fairly claimed that he was more English than American.  He had impeccable manners.  He was clearly a blue-blooded patrician but he reached out to everyone, impressing them with his absolute sincerity and honesty.  He may not have been a great ballplayer but he was known in Tombstone as a good boxer who never lost a round.  He provided these people with a church and contributed significantly to the welfare of the town, but he was essentially homesick and, truth be told, lovesick during his whole time there.  How did he persevere?  How does anyone persevere in such a situation?    Upon seeing the barren landscape of Cochise County, the destitute mining communities and the questionable behavior of those who had struck it rich he must have thought, “What in the world am I doing?”  
 
The re-creation gunfight had heated up at the O.K. Corral up the street and I thought of my charges watching a 21st century Billy Clanton getting shot in the belly.  They were good kids.  I would miss them when I left Lawrenceville.  And it occurred to me, “What in the world am I doing?”  My wife, our children and I have been perfectly comfortable in New Jersey.  Why were we headed off to Groton, a school of similar renown?  Why does anyone leave that which is comfortable?  Why did you do so in choosing to come to this school?
 
The mock gunfight had apparently ended up the street, but still I sat there in the pew.  I tried to recall whether or not I had ever had this feeling of leaving the familiar for the unknown before.  A memory came to mind.  When I was younger than Peabody, I went to England, a land where I didn’t know a soul and decided to seek employment in the moribund British film industry… in the midst of a recession.  I still remember the jet-lagged feeling of aloneness amidst the whirl of Piccadilly… and the inevitable question that came to mind, “What in the world am I doing?”  I didn’t build any churches in England, but I got a lead on a teaching job and returned to the States.  After having signed the contract I went down to the baseball field to discover that the infield flooded so often that no one had even bothered to build a diamond.  And my housing was a bedroom above the infirmary in which I shared a bathroom with three boys.  “What in the world am I doing?”  “was I going to be sick all year”  Indeed I was sick all year, but I learned a lot about teaching, coaching and directing theater at that school…and I met my wife.  We went off to different graduate schools—I, heading to New York— big city, kind of scary-- “What am I doing?”--  Martha heading to Hartford, little city, kind of scary—“What is she doing?”  And then we got married.  Again -- “What in the world were we doing?” 
 
My point is that there is a good deal of self-questioning in the course of a life and self-doubt is actually natural and healthy.  If you lack self-doubt you probably lack ambition, too.  The founder of this school experienced his share of misfires throughout his early adulthood.  What I admire about Endicott Peabody during this period is his persistence.  Think about how hard he worked to find his life-- from Boot Hill Cemetery to this remarkable chapel in which we are gathered.  Peabody returned from Arizona and finished his seminary work.  In so doing, he just happened to give teaching a try and therein discovered his life’s calling. 
  
Persistence and dedication get us through hard times, particularly if we are thoughtful of others and reflective about what we value deeply.  And it helps to be courageous.  One of my favorite lines from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes to mind, “Whether fate be foul or fair, Why falter I or fear?  What should man do but dare?”  Each one of you who sit here is capable of finding success.  I am not going to list all the accomplishments of the new members of this congregation.  Rather I would ask you to trust me on this:  If you have made it in the door of Groton School, you are capable of finding success.   The sweetest victories, and those that will sustain you throughout your life, will be those you win on your own terms—not those of your parents, your friends, or Groton.  Be true to yourself.  We want the real you here at Groton—a person of opinions and ambitions and adventures.  It’s not easy being true to yourself.   It’s hard work.  You have to think a lot.  In the end you will be altered here at Groton, but you will transform yourself more than any mentor will.  
 
I think this phenomenon of transformation may be particularly evident at Groton because this school asks you to take on more responsibility than many other institutions do.  With this thought I turn to the sixth form.  Though you have been here longer than anyone else, you are entering a new stage of your lives.  Each of you is expected to lead this School in one way or another.  You have been given responsibility.  Take this charge seriously.  It comes from Endicott Peabody who said that, “At Groton, the sixth form runs the school with a little help from the faculty.”  What a gift.  The responsibility I have been given here at Groton comes from a different headmaster.  Other than the well-being and health of my family, it is the greatest gift of my life.  I’ve decided to take my responsibilities seriously here and I hope you do, too.  With some luck we may end up with fates different from the outlaws resting under piles of rocks in Tombstone, Arizona.
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