Sunday, November 9, 2003

Charles Maitland Dean

In the fall of 1967, at the age of 15, I went off to St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island for what turned out to be a very short and terrible attempt at a boarding school education. Coming from a small suburb of a small city in Ohio, I was not prepared for the rarified and stuffy air of the New England prep school. It didn’t help that in the previous year I had shot up six inches, my face had broken out like a pizza, I had acquired thick nerd glasses, and I weighed all of 115 pounds. It was a combination for disaster, and it didn’t take long for homesickness to set in. Within a month I was miserable, my grades were in the toilet and the other students soon found I was an easy target for the typical boarding school tricks and torture.

The school’s student council was made up of prefects elected from each class, and the Senior Prefect, who served as student council president and role model for the students. The Senior Prefect for 1967-1968 was Charley Dean. He was the younger brother of Howard Brush Dean III, Class of 1966. I met Charley when he held a meeting with the freshman class at the beginning of the year and instilled in us a very strong sense of his pride of the school, and his tone was serious. As a senior, he was a god on Olympus, and as the Senior Prefect, he was right up there with Zeus. But he did tell us that if we had any problems or questions we could come to him. None of us, including myself, believed that we were worthy of his attention.

But I was wrong. I don’t remember what caused me to end up hunched over a desk in the corner of a classroom – a failed quiz, perhaps – but I do remember that it was a cold, grey, rainy, and miserable afternoon in November, the kind of day only New Englanders can tolerate, and I was thoroughly miserable. I heard voices in the hall. I did not look up, but I know it was a group of seniors passing by, and I hoped they would not see me. One of them was Charley. He must have glanced into the classroom because the next moment he was standing next to my desk, asking what was wrong. I don’t know exactly what I told him, but he knew I was homesick and friendless. He patted my shoulder, told me he had felt that way too when he was new, and that he was sure things would work out. “C’mon,” he said, “I’ll walk you back to the dorm.” He did, and on the way he asked where I was from, what sports I liked, and other small talk. He left me on the steps of the dorm, told me not to worry, it’ll get better, and feel free to come to him any time. He shook my hand, gave me a grin, and said, “See you around.”

That moment of kindness stayed with me for a lot longer than my career lasted at St. George’s. I left after that one year, but I never forgot Charley Dean’s small gift, and when I heard he was lost in Southeast Asia, I bent my head in prayer and remembrance.

In 2001 I returned to St. George’s for what would have been my 30th reunion with my former classmates. I went out of a sense of needing to put that one year of my life in perspective, and in doing so, I found that a lot of the things that shaped my life had been forged in that tumultuous year: learning how to rely on myself, my awareness that spirituality is not limited to a twice-weekly chapel service and thus leading me to the Quakers, the discovery of my love of writing – first as a refuge, then as a source of perspective, and finding that there can be solace in a very small but kind gesture of friendship. And at that reunion, for his 35th, was Governor Dean. I went up to him, shook his hand, introduced myself, and said very simply, “Charley meant a lot to me.”

To talk about Charley Dean’s merits as Senior Prefect is to belabor the obvious. His election bespeaks his popularity, his handling of the post to bring about more student privileges bespeaks his acuity, his rapport with both faculty and lower forms [classes] evidences his diplomacy, and his many extracurricular activities witness his multiplicity…. He circulates, assimilates, manipulates. He is as ready to chew the fat as to chew someone out, yet his authority is so inherent that he uses it with more forethought than furor. Charley is no solon; he tells as many bad jokes as the rest of us. In fact, he is as human and easy going as a Senior Prefect is allowed to be while still keeping the school out of dire peril. – The Lance, 1968, (St. George’s School yearbook)

Sounds like presidential material to me. And I know where he got it.