Feature: The Infamous Letter
After 50 years, the architects and supporters of the Sixth Form Letter of 1968 reflect on its impact – then and now
Jana F. Brown
In the spring of 1968, America was deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Unrest and the seeds of change saturated America. Though students at the time lived in the so-called St. Paul’s School bubble, they were not immune from the turmoil that had engulfed the rest of the country. A feeling of isolation permeated the student body. That feeling is what prompted two then anonymous members of the Form of 1968 (now known to be Sixth Form President Rick King and Lloyd Fonvielle) to pen the now infamous Sixth Form Letter.
The three-page, single-spaced harangue, signed by 82 of the 98 members of the soon-to-be graduates, outlined the students’ grievances, including too many restrictions, the formality of the teachers and the rules, the expectation that each boy adhere to the status quo, the lack of co-education, the eight Chapel services per week, and an overly traditional curriculum. The authors accused the School of resting on its laurels, of living in isolation, and demanded to be included in the process of change. St Paul’s, the letter asserted, “cannot attract an intelligent and varied student body and at the same time expect them to accept everything that goes on here.”
Though the Sixth Form Letter, in its blunt and scolding tone (which King today calls “naive”), was not well received by all – particularly the longer tenured faculty, who felt it as a personal attack, to his credit, Rector Matthew Warren listened. That summer, King, Fonvielle, and others remained at the School to discuss the institution’s future. August Heckscher wrote about the turbulent era in his 1996 book A Brief History of St. Paul’s School: “When the ferment subsided, St. Paul’s was a changed place. A single-sex school had become coeducational, and minorities made up a sizable portion of the student body. A church-oriented school had to a large extent become secularized. A relatively narrow course of study had been expanded to offer almost a hundred courses, while the students’ field of personal choice had been enlarged in every sphere.”
Over Anniversary Weekend 2018, five members of the Form of 1968, including Sixth Form Letter co-author Rick King, sat down with Alumni Horae editor Jana Brown to reflect on the era, their words, and the difference the letter has made in the School’s history.
Tell me about the genesis of what provoked discussions about writing a letter for your form.
Rick King: I wrote it with Lloyd Fonvielle. It was coming to the end of the year, and we had this vague sense of discontent and a feeling that we were leaving the School and there were certain unresolved problems that we felt were there and were not being addressed. Lloyd and I, inspired by Martin Luther, we just sat down and wrote the letter. We were dissatisfied in an adolescent way. Lloyd wrote the first half; the more angry and incoherent part was the second half, which was written by me. Then various people just immediately went out, dorm to dorm, put the letter on people’s desks and said, ‘Sign it.’ So, overnight, we basically got it signed.
Jim Robinson: We were talking to a classmate last night who didn’t sign it and he said he was afraid if he signed it he wouldn’t graduate. He said, ‘I literally was afraid my mother would kill me, so I didn’t sign it.’
Will Whetzel: Were we just this amazingly smart, perceptive, prescient group of individuals? No, or a little bit, but I think we were feeling this and I bet classes ahead of us were feeling this, but the outside world was compressing on us. It was sort of like there’s no more time. We can’t just pretend that this is okay, we’ve got to say something.
Rick King: Lloyd had gone as a fellow to Columbia and his trip was canceled because the students had taken over the college. We thought about taking over the Upper like in the film by Lindsay Anderson, where the kids take over the school. I had a visceral, very strong reaction, sort of like, yeah, that’s the thing to do. I think our naïveté on a certain level shines through in the letter. We were very isolated, came from very privileged backgrounds, but I think there was a sense that there were things wrong that were just not being addressed. Really the letter is, when you really get down to it: Can’t we all get along? It’s pretty innocuous on a certain level.
Boone Porter: I felt we were totally missing out on the whole social revolution that was taking place in the country and here we were, isolated. There were no cell phones, I think there were two pay phones, one down by the business office and one in the Upper. The only time I ever remember using those was when there was a little pink slip on that corkboard that’d say, ‘Call home ASAP,’ which meant you were in trouble. When you’d go home for vacation and hook up with friends who were not at boarding school, it was like they had a totally different life experience and it seemed to me like all the things we were learning here were just irrelevant to what was going on in the world and that we were sort of being cut out of it. Matt Warren always had this sermon he gave about characteristics of a St. Paul’s boy, which is sort of an idealized person. I thought, ‘That’s not me; that’s never gonna be me.’ Instead of saying, ‘Ok, here’s who you are, here’s the skills you have, we’ll try to nurture those and you can be the person you’re going to be,’ it’s like there’s one mold and by golly we’re going to pound you through that whether you like it or not. I didn’t like it.
Rick King: The context in ’68 was student rebellion all around the country and they were still making sure we got to Chapel on time, whether that was important or not, but to us that seemed sort of irrelevant and the School was missing the point.
Why do you think the School was so behind the times?
Jim Robinson: My daughter, who ended up going to boarding school, was talking with a teacher. He said that boarding school divides you into three different time blocks; academic, activity, and social. He said the boarding school’s job is to make sure you’re busy so you don’t get in trouble. I think the School’s view was, if we do this we are acting in loco parentis; if we don’t let them off campus they can’t get in trouble in Concord or whatever and I really think that’s what it was. It was their way of protecting us. I’m sure that was the theory; this has worked for 100 years, we get the kids into the right college, we keep them out of trouble.
Rick King: I don’t think the School was behind the times. I think the School was trying to be as progressive and forward-looking as it could be, but we just thought the School was missing the point. It was our plea to say, ‘There are problems. Let’s address them.’
Will Whetzel: One of the common messages that comes out strongly from the letter is this master-student relationship, starting with us calling them masters. The people who could have been the replacement parents, who could have embraced us and challenged us, and created relationships with us saying don’t get close to me and do what I tell you to do and don’t bring your problems to me – I think that might have been one thing that’s key to this whole environment. If you’re going to take on the role of a parent, some part of that relationship has to be parental. And it wasn’t there.
Jim Robinson: It was a very interesting time to be in a situation like we were in because we ultimately became a voice. We wanted to have a say in what was going on in the country. One of the problems with St. Paul’s was we were in a bit of a cocoon – partly because the School wanted it that way and it had been that way forever for safety and partly because the rules were set up where we didn’t have a lot of contact with the outside world. And that was by design, I think.
Boone Porter: What did the School teach us? It said think critically, if something bothers you act responsibly, there’s certain things you can do to affect change, you need to have a solution. So here you had some people trying to implement what they were taught to do, be a leader, be responsible, say what you mean, mean what you say. And instead of saying, ‘Yeah, that’s what we taught you to do, good job. We may disagree with you, but you’re doing the right things.’ Instead it was just this outpouring of anger.
Tell me about the initial reaction, first from peers and then from others once it got out there?
Will Whetzel: I think part of the intent was to hit some nerves. I recently uncovered in one of my files the letter Matt Warren sent out in reaction to the letter. I found it to be an incredibly sober, balanced, thoughtful response. I would think that for whatever we thought of Matt as this white-haired, conservative, proper Rector, that somewhere in there he realized what was going on, and just about everything we wanted to change changed.
Rick King: It all happened extremely fast. We wrote the letter, someone retyped it in a clean copy and then we posted it where everybody went to breakfast and all hell broke loose.
When you say all hell broke loose, what happened?
Rick King: There was a lot of division. A lot of the younger faculty were, I think, in favor of what the letter said and a lot of the more established older faculty were not so enthusiastic. So, there was that division. Then there was a division between students and the faculty who were sympathetic and the ones who took it personally.
Boone Porter: They took it personally, like in their minds they were doing the things that were good for us, to help us the best they could. And we were being ungrateful.
Rick King: You have to look at the context. At that point, we had a society that was just splitting, and we didn’t trust anyone over 30. We had, as a society, been betrayed by the forces of the establishment, which had led us into something that was wrong. That was something that reflected back into the campus and into our feelings. The letter is provocative, but we wanted to be provocative. But as I learn more about how [Matt Warren] was a leader in integrating the School under tremendous pressure, as time passes my respect for him grows. Matt got it in a big way. He said, ‘Rick, I want you to pick two people from your form and people from the form after you and we’re going to sit down and have meetings.’ We sat down, we had meetings [that summer] and we talked about what to do, how the School could be restructured. It was admirable on the part of Matt Warren that he did that.
Tell me about what changes you saw in the years immediately following the letter and how it made you feel to have been part of this transition.
Will Whetzel: My younger brother went through six years later and the first word that comes to mind is jealousy. Pretty much everything in that letter had been implemented by those six years. He had no dress code, less Chapel, coeducation, he’d sign out at the end of the night, go to the library, go to his girlfriend’s room, and he turned out fine. It all happened pretty fast.
Do you feel there’s a connection from the changes that were made in your era to what’s happening at the School today?
Jim Colby: My daughter [Kaitlin ’11] came here and she had a really good four years. I talked to her about my experiences and the letter and the changes that had occurred. So, we were exchanging views some 30 years later and it was hard to make the direct connection between what had happened.
How did it change how you saw the School, seeing it through your daughter’s eyes as a parent?
Jim Colby: I felt jealous. I felt the jealousy of not having had that kind of experience. Bill Matthews ’61 and Marcia were running the School with a totally different attitude. They were extremely welcoming to me as well as my daughter, so I felt here is that parental relationship that we weren’t getting, but it was clearly present when she was here.
Will Whetzel: They’ve got a new head of the board doing what probably is moving an ocean liner in the right direction, but it’s all slow and steady.
With all of this said, what draws you back to the School?
Will Whetzel: When I do come I find immense joy in hugging people and drawing on the memories of 50 years ago. I think that’s what brings a lot of us back.
Boone Porter: The overall feeling you have of your experience as a student here is that we had a group of extraordinary individuals, just a wide variety of personal talents and interests, and I find that group of people fascinating.
Jim Robinson: I have a lot of great college friends and they’re dear friends, but nothing like St. Paul’s.
Rick King: I also think St. Paul’s, for the people who sent their kids here, is a tremendous opportunity. But what we were saying then and what I would personally say now is it’s a tremendous opportunity with a lot of resources, but it could be better.
Jim Robinson: And they should continue to work to make it better.
If you were going to write a letter to the School today what would you tell administrators?
Rick King: I would say this school presents an enormous opportunity and it’s understandable that people want their children to go here, but these resources can be better allocated. I think what has happened is St. Paul’s does not have a sense of mission. When I look at the alumni, I’m always impressed by how many students are involved in social justice or in dealing with environmental problems. So, the board should follow the examples of the graduates.
Do you feel like the climate in the world right now is paralleling what it was like in the ’60s? Do you think it’s time for a new Sixth Form Letter?
Jim Robinson: There was a focus on something that people in our generation did not believe in. I think what’s going on now is this divisiveness, Trump sort of throwing away all the rules of good governance and truth. But that’s not a war. You’re not going be marched off and killed for something you don’t believe in.
Rick King: And there’s no draft card to burn.
Jim Robinson: I think it’s a different problem. The country today, I think, is in a bad way. So, the problems are different, but we don’t have that one overriding thing.
Boone Porter: It’s hard to speak for the students today. I have no idea what the students here think. A year ago, I was invited by the School to spend the day here and I did get to meet the newly elected student leaders. And they seemed like a very bright and thoughtful group of people. I hope for them to go on to do great things.
Jim Robinson: At our 20th or our 25th, I was walking and some kid sees I have my ’68 shirt on and says, ‘Excuse me, sir, can I ask you a question?’ He said, ‘Do you know Rick King?’ I said, ‘I am Rick King.’ He said, ‘I’m writing my Independent Study Project on you.’ He asked to interview me and I told him I was not actually Rick King. Here’s this kid 20, 25 years later, who thinks enough of what [Rick] did, or what we did but through [Rick]. It made me feel like this really meant something.
Boone Porter: It would be good to have [student leaders serve as] exit interview critics. This is what we like, this is what we didn’t like – every year from the Sixth Form.
Jim Robinson: Yeah. Here’s what you’re doing great and here’s what we think you could do better. That’s actually a great idea.