I am honored to receive this award and thank you for thinking that I deserve it. It was suggested to me that I take a few minutes to discuss the impact of my Groton experience on my life and career.
I arrived here, a homesick twelve-year-old, in the fall of 1939 as World War II began, and graduated six years later a few months after the Germans surrendered. The war was constantly with us, the deaths of Groton boys mourned in Chapel day after day. My fear was that the war would be over before I could join up. I enlisted in the Navy and was called up on my eighteenth birthday in July 1945. My classmate Dan de Menocal and I went to boot camp together. As we stood naked to receive our medical shots, a voice boomed out. “Has anyone here ever sung in a choir?” My hand went up. My years in the school choir landed me in the Choir Company, a choice assignment—160 men and boys who performed on Sundays for the five thousand inmates of the camp.
We were being trained to man the landing craft that would go ashore on the islands of Japan. Half of us would be killed, we were told. Of course, it would be the other guy, not me. On August 14, 1945, we were rehearsing the Hallelujah Chorus. Our director came in: “Well boys, the Japs must have heard you. They just surrendered.”
The next moment when my Groton years changed my life was after boot camp. Hopes for sea duty had been replaced by washing soup bowls in Newport, Rhode Island, for three thousand men a meal. My records got lost so it appeared that soup bowls would be the peak of my naval career. Each morning, walking back to the barracks for a short break between meals, I noticed a sign on a building: “Navigation and chart correction.” I went in. At the end of a long hall in a small office sat a full commander in dress blues. He looked like Ronald Coleman. I stood in the doorway in my egg-smeared dungarees. “What can I do for you?” he said. I stuttered rather badly then but managed to say that I knew six different methods of celestial navigation. Philip Nash, my math teacher, had taught me this in a Sixth Form tutorial. “Can you compute sunrise and sunset?” the commander asked. I could, I said, and within minutes I was out of the scullery and teaching sunrise and sunset. I wrote Mr. Nash my thanks and got a nice letter back.
The student body in my time bore little resemblance to the remarkable boys and girls you have here today—some of whom have dazzled me in my Harvard classroom. But we had magnificent teachers—Doc Irons, Paul Wright, Bob Moss, Phil Nash, Zoo Zahner, Fritz Deveau, and many more. Two nights a week, I would go to Bob Moss’ house to discuss Gunnar Myrdal’s The American Dilemma, the first thorough analysis of racial discrimination in the United States. There was born my propensity to protest. In 1960, I was thrown out of the Metropolitan Club in Washington for taking a black friend to lunch.
When I was thirteen, Fritz Deveau was starting what became the Groton School Band. He confronted me one day with his icy blue eyes. “George, you will play the clarinet. A teacher will be here from Ayer next week.” I played second clarinet. Today I joyfully and gratefully play third clarinet in the Dane Street Community Concert Band in my hometown.
We were, of course, inundated with religion. Daily chapel, twice on Sundays, sacred studies. I’m ashamed to say that on the faith or creedal side of things I have not done well, but Groton gave me what has become a lifelong interest in the history of religion and theology. In fact, most of my books deal with applied theology—what I call ideology. It gets us into a lot of trouble in the U.S. We don’t practice what we preach and we have hard time preaching what we practice. You may recall the Tea Party fellow who said: “Don’t let big government take away my Medicare.”
Groton has shaped my life in many ways. Perhaps most of all, in teaching me how to write—not great writing, but serviceable writing. My stutter, for many years, excluded a career that required talking. So I was a newspaper reporter. I went to Washington as a speechwriter. My first book landed me at Harvard where writing is part of the job.
Looking back on my school days, I see enormous gratitude mixed with the remembrance of stifling rules and much punishment for violating them, entailing lots of forced labor, washing windows and shoveling coal. Individualism was not encouraged. One of my friends was caught running off one day to take flying lessons. The next thing we knew, he was going to Brooks.
Groton was demanding, rigorous, tough. When I joined the Navy, I felt oddly liberated. But I shall always be grateful for the extraordinary efforts of my teachers and for all they did for me. The school was hard, but it made life easy. Life after Groton was a piece of cake.