Boston Latin School is the oldest school in America. It was founded April 23,
Establishment of the school was due in great measure to the influence of the Reverend John Cotton, who sought to create in the New World a school like the Free Grammar School of Boston, England, in which Latin and Greek were taught. The first classes were held in the home of the Master, Philemon Pormort (see Footnotes). From the earliest years the town assigned public funds to the support of the school. It was eventually voted “to allow forever fifty pounds to the Master, and a house, and thirty pounds to an usher” (assistant teacher). In 1638, Pormort’s assistant, Daniel Maude, succeeded him as Master, and conducted classes in his own home until 1643.
Little is known of Maude’s successor, John Woodbridge, except that he is supposed to have been the first minister at Andover and that he remained in office for approximately one year. In 1650, Robert Woodmansey became the schoolmaster with a salary of “fifty pounds a year.” He was followed in 1667 by the famous colonial poet and physician Benjamin Thompson.
On December 29, 1670, the celebrated Ezekiel Cheever was invited to become Head Master. Cheever was well known throughout the colonies, for he had written the famous Accidence, which was the accepted Latin grammar. Upon his death on August 21, 1708, Cotton Mather, the renowned divine, remarked, “We generally concur in acknowledging that New England has never known a better teacher.”
Nathaniel Williams, the first pupil to become Head Master, succeeded Cheever. When he re-signed in 1734, his assistant, John Lovell, was appointed to the vacancy, becoming “the pride of Boston’s parents and the terror of its youth.”
Admission to the school during Lovell’s regime was determined by reading a few verses from the Bible. Members of the six or seven classes of the school sat at different benches. The students studied Latin and Greek and the “elementary subjects.” The morning session started at seven o’clock in the summer and eight o’clock in winter, and ended at eleven. School resumed at one o’clock in the afternoon and ran until five. After either the eleven o’clock hour, the five o’clock hour, or both, the pupils attended a writing school nearby. On Thursdays the school was dismissed at ten o’clock, in order that the pupils might have the opportunity of attending the “Thursday Lecture” — another heritage from Boston, England.
In 1760, Lovell’s son James was appointed usher. He was an ardent patriot, whereas his father was a strong loyalist. They taught from desks at opposite ends of the schoolroom, and voicing opposite political convictions, they typified many a Boston family in those trying times.
In winter it was not unusual for the boys to bring their sleds to school with them and, as soon as school was over, to coast down Beacon Street, across Tremont, and down School Street. During the winter of 1774-75 General Haldimand (see Footnotes), a commander of British troops under General Gage, lived on School Street and had one of his servants ruin the coasting area by putting ashes on it. “The lads made a muster” — probably of the first cIass — “and chose a committee to wait upon the General, who admitted them, and heard their complaint, which was couched in very genteel terms, complaining that their fathers before ’em had improved it as a coast from time immemorial.” He ordered his servant to repair the damage, saying that he had trouble enough with Boston men, and wouldn’t have any with Boston boys. He “acquainted the Governor with the affair, who observed that it was impossible to beat the notion of Liberty out of the people, as it was rooted in ’em FROM THEIR CHILDHOOD.” (See Footnotes.)
On the morning of April 19, 1775, one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the school occurred. John Lovell angrily announced, “War’s begun and school’s done; deponite libros.” When the British evacuated Boston in March, 1776, both the Lovells sailed with Lord Howe to Halifax, Nova Scotia: the father as Howe’s guest, the son as his prisoner. James was later exchanged and became a delegate to the Continental Congress. The Elder Lovell died at Halifax in 1778.
School was resumed under Samuel Hunt, who ruled with some difficulty until 1805. He was succeeded by William Bigelow, who resigned after nine trying years.
Benjamin Apthorp Gould, appointed Head Master in 1814 while still a senior at Harvard, restored order and scholarship. Many features of the Latin School of today — among them the “misdemeanor mark” and the practice of declamation — were initiated under Gould. He also fostered the beginnings of a library and issued regular reports of scholarship to parents, placing squarely on them the responsibility for the pupils’ conduct.
The Third Latin School,
South Side of School Street, 1812
Gould resigned in 1828 to enter business and was succeeded by his assistant, Frederic Percival Leverett, the author of the famous Leverett’s Latin Lexicon. Leverett left in 1831 to become head of a private school. The next Head Master, Charles Knapp Dillaway, was in office until 1836, when ill health forced him to resign.
Latin School owes much to Epes Sargent Dixwell, who succeeded Dillaway, for during his fifteen years as Head Master, he founded the Boston Latin School Association and made Gould’s dream of a school library a reality.
When Dixwell resigned in 1851, Francis Gardner, one of the most celebrated men of mid-nineteenth century Boston, was appointed his successor. Gardner edited the famous series of Latin School textbooks. A rugged, forthright character, he made both friends and enemies. During the last six years of his Head Mastership, he unsuccessfully opposed the imposition on the school of a “general culture” curriculum. He died in 1876, the first Head Master to die in office since Ezekiel Cheever.
Augustine Milton Gay was chosen as his successor, but he lived only a few months after his appointment. Dr. Moses Merrill was appointed next and continued in office until 1901. His contribution to the school was the reorganization of the curriculum on a more modern basis.
Arthur Irving Fiske became Head Master in 1902. One of the ablest scholars in Massachusetts, he was loved and respected by his pupils.
He resigned in 1910 and was succeeded by Henry Pennypacker, who brought to the office of Head Master not only the mind of the scholar but also the rugged personality of the athlete. He resigned in 1920 to become chairman of the Committee on Admissions at Harvard. His work there made him a figure of national importance. He died in 1934.
In 1920 Patrick Thomas Campbell, ’89, became the first graduate of Latin School to sit in the Head Master’s chair since Dr. Gardner. Enrollment doubled during his tenure. Even with this rapid growth, the school for four years in succession, from 1925 to 1928, obtained the highest average in college entrance examinations. This secured for the school permanent possession of the trophy given by the Harvard chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In 1929, Mr. Campbell left to become an assistant superintendent of schools and in 1931, was elected Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, a position he held until his death in 1937.
Joseph Lawrence Powers, ’96, a Master in the school for twenty-three years, was appointed Campbell’s successor. A soft-spoken, courteous man, Dr, Powers exerted an incalculable influence for nearly fifty years. He sustained the school’s excellence through years of depression and war. He was also an energetic champion of the economic welfare of the Masters. From his retirement in 1948 until his death in 1955, he was dedicated to the prosperity of both the school and its alumni.
George Leonard McKim, ’18, succeeded Powers in 1948. A veteran of two world wars, Mr. McKim gave over thirty years of service to the Boston Public Schools. During his tenure of office, the school received a great deal of publicity. National magazines reported favorably on the methods and standards of the school. The performances of the students on the National Merit Scholarship Examinations proved that these commendations were justified.
John Joseph Doyle, ’12, became Head Master of his alma mater in 1954. Under Mr. Doyle’s capable leadership, many changes were made in the school’s curriculum. Four distinct courses — language, science, mathematics, and history — were set up in the upper classes More electives and accelerated courses were also offered. The Advanced Placement program was established, giving many students the chance to receive credit for college courses on the freshman level. Mr. Doyle retired in June,1964, after having served in the Boston Public School system for over forty years.
Dr. Wilfred L. O’Leary,’25, a veteran of World War II, was appointed Mr. Doyle’s successor in September, 1964. As Head Master, Dr. O’Leary devoted himself to preserving the high standards of the school. Dr O’Leary was the recipient of several awards for his outstanding educational leadership. During his tenure, Boston Latin School welcomed women students for the first time in September, 1972. He was honored by teachers, alumni and friends of the school when he retired in June, 1976. Mr. David Miller, a teacher at the school for over thirty years, assumed the position of Acting Head Master in September of 1976.
Michael G. Contompasis
Michael G. Contompasis, ’57, was appointed Head Master in April, 1977. Continuing the tradition of excellence, Mr. Contompasis broadened the educational vistas of the school. As a result, national attention was focused once more on Boston Latin School. In the fall of 1981, Money magazine rated BLS as one of the twelve top public schools in the country. In 1992, 1994, and 1995, Redbook magazine rated BLS the best school in Massachusetts. Sumus primi.
Dr. Joseph F. Desmond, ’44, both teacher and department chairman at his alma mater for thirty-four years, assumed the position of Acting Head Master during the 1986-1987 academic year, when Head Master Contompasis was on sabbatical for study at Harvard University. Upon returning to his position in September 1987, Mr. Contompasis oversaw both the renovation of the main building and the construction of a new physical education building. In recognition of his outstanding leadership, Mr. Contompasis in 1988 became the thirty-fifth recipient of the BLS Association’s prestigious “Graduate of the Year Award.” He served until appointed Chief Operating Officer of the Boston Public Schools in August 1998 before becoming Superintendent of the district from 2005 to 2007.
Cornelia A. Kelley H’44
Cornelia A. Kelley H’44 was appointed Head Master in August 1998, the first woman to serve in that post. Ms. Kelley oversaw the construction of an addition devoted to the arts, with state of the art music and visual arts facilities, as well as a thorough renovation of the existing facilities. In the old cafeteria was built the Harry V. Keefe Library-Media Center, the most advanced school library in the world. In addition, the entire school was upgraded to the latest technologies appropriate to education.In a time of national, state and local focus on education and standards, with the imposition of broad-based testing and close scrutiny of results, Ms. Kelley was charged with keeping the School at the forefront in curriculum, standards and achievement. She retired in June, 2007 and was succeeded by Lynne Mooney Teta ’86.
Lynne Mooney Teta
Dr. Mooney Teta ’86, P’19 served Boston Latin School for 11 years, two as an assistant head master and nine as head master – its first alumna to serve in this role. During her tenure, alma mater registered substantial gains as it continued the BLS tradition of sending more students (26 in 2016) to Harvard College than any other institution in the world. Our students, faculty and staff received local, state, national and international recognition for their efforts and innovations. During Dr. Mooney Teta’s tenure, BLS greatly increased access to Advanced Placement coursework while students achieved noticeably higher average scores. The expansion of student support services has also been an important hallmark of the head master’s service. Today, many more students reach graduation than in years past. This success results not from a diminution in rigor but from a commitment to providing for the physical and emotional well-being of all students.
Following Dr. Mooney Teta’s resignation in June 2016, after several months addressing issues around racial climate, Michael G. Contompasis ’57 was appointed as the head master ad interim of Boston Latin School. He took on this role invigorated to work with “the entire Latin School community – faculty, parents, students and alumni – to ensure that the school continues its work building a safe, respectful learning environment in which every student has the opportunity to achieve at his or her highest potential.”
In March 2017, Rachel Skerritt ’95, a 2006 Crystal Apple award-winning English teacher (1999-2006) at alma mater, was appointed as the school’s 28th headmaster. A former BPS headmaster at Another Course to College before serving as chief of staff to Superintendent Johnson and later principal of Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C., she most recently served as deputy chief of leadership development for the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, five had been pupils of this school:
- John Hancock, Massachusetts
- Samuel Adams, Massachusetts
- Benjamin Franklin, Massachusetts
- Robert Treat Paine, Massachusetts
- William Hooper, North Carolina
Commemorating those Latin School boys who fought to preserve their country in the Civil War, there stands in the first-floor corridor at the main entrance to the school a statue by Richard Saltonstall Greenough, Class of 1829. This statue, the gift of the graduates of the school, represents Alma Mater holding on her left arm a shield bearing the names of those who fell defending their country and extending in her right hand a laurel crown to those who returned from the conflict. Marble tablets on either side of the main entrance list the names of those who returned.
This statue originally stood in the large hall of the building that housed the school when it was located on Bedford Street It was the first, and for some time, the only memorial to the sons of Boston who served in the war.
Latin School’s service in World War I is memorialized by a bronze tablet on either side of the main corridor. The tablet on the right has inscribed upon it the names of those Latin School boys who died in service. The tablet on the left is in honor of the four hundred and eighty alumni and undergraduates who enlisted in the army or the navy.
During the far-flung campaigns of World War II, ninety-eight Latin School boys in the various branches of the United States armed service laid down their lives
Among the many outstanding Head Masters of the Latin School, these are worthy of note as having had a remarkably long connection with the School:
- Ezekiel Cheever: 1671-1708
- John Lovell: 1734-1776
- Francis Gardner: 1831-1876
- Moses Merrill: 1858-1901
- Arthur Irving Fiske: 1873-1910
- Henry Pennypacker: 1891-1920
- Patrick Thomas Campbell: 1897-1929
- Joseph Lawrence Powers: 1906-1948
- John Joseph Doyle: 1929-1964
- Michael George Contompasis: 1977-1998; 2016-2017
In the first-floor corridor to the right of the main entrance, there is a tablet in memory of Ezekiel Cheever. In 1899, nearly two hundred years after his death, the Boston Latin School Association, through the generosity of Glenville Howland Norcross, Class of 1867, gave the tablet to the school to honor the memory of Ezekiel Cheever, Head Master from 1671 to 1708. The tablet was originally placed in the building that housed the school when it was located on Warren Avenue.
On the 13th of the second month, 1635…At a Generall meeting upon publique notice…it was…generally agreed upon that our brother Philemon Pormort shall be intreated to become scholemaster for the teaching and nourtering of children with us. — Town Records
A tablet has been erected by the City of Boston to mark the site of Maude’s home in Pemberton Square.
A tablet was placed on the site of General Haldimand’s house in July 1907.
Letter of John Andrews to William Barrell, January 29, 1775.