The making of a mentor
Disappointment and failure marked Donald MacJannet’s post-college years. What changed?
By HERBERT JACOBS
In the spring of 1916, Donald MacJannet had just turned 22, a handsome, blue-eyed, persuasive young Lochinvar armed with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, a jangling Phi Beta Kappa key, and a zeal to conquer the academic world. But the academic world, he found, was indifferent to his credentials. Private school recruiters said they were impressed by his academic record but cautioned him to contact them only after he had some teaching experience.
His persistence paid off when he serendipitously encountered William H. Church, head of St. Albans in Washington, D.C., a prep school founded in 1909 as an Episcopal school for boy choristers at the National Cathedral. At the end of their lengthy interview, Church surprised Donald by asking, “Would you sign a contract to come to St. Albans in September, teaching lower school subjects—everything?”
“I would be very happy to come,” MacJannet replied. “But would you mind telling me why you hired me at once, when all the other schools where I have applied demanded that I get some teaching experience first?”
Church replied that when he arrived at St. Albans the previous year, “it had an experienced staff, but that staff was under the thumb of the athletic director. St. Albans was famous for its football team, basketball team, baseball team, and the athletic director ran the school. He told me what I should do and what I should not do, just as he told the other staff members. And I said to myself that I would have my own staff, men that I can train myself, and who will do what I think is the right thing to do.”
Thus, thanks to the school’s overemphasis on athletics, in which he himself had been so inadequate, Donald started teaching in Washington’s leading preparatory school, most of whose students were the sons of high-ranking government officials. Two were Elliott and James Roosevelt, sons of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then serving as undersecretary of the Navy under President Wilson. When Eleanor Roosevelt drove to the school in her Model T Ford to pick up her sons, Donald (who taught Elliott Roosevelt but not James) often assisted Mrs. Roosevelt by cranking her car (Fords were not yet equipped with self-starters). It was perhaps the first example of Donald’s knack for cultivating friends in high places. Mrs. Roosevelt amply repaid all that Ford cranking a quarter-century later, when as First Lady she helped Donald obtain financing after he turned over his camp on Lake Annecy in France to house French war orphans during World War II.
Jonathan Daniels, son of Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, was also enrolled at St. Albans. Neither he nor Elliott Roosevelt did very well as students, MacJannet found, though Daniels later performed ably as editor of his father’s newspaper, the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer.
Donald’s lack of teaching experience soon became evident when he encountered difficulties maintaining order in his classroom. His boys would throw things and yell, to the point where the mild-mannered next-door teacher protested. At a time when teacher guidebooks were unknown, Donald was at a loss until Headmaster Church came forward.
Usually, Church suggested, just one boy was the bad actor: “Take him up to the classroom with you when it is empty and you are preparing lessons or reading,” Church said. “Have him sit in a corner, facing the corner, and go ahead with your work. Don’t speak to him. Let him just meditate there. If you do that for a few days, he’ll be quite different.” Donald tried this remedy and found that it worked. Since he was already philosophically opposed to physical punishment, bullying, and violence in education, Donald made this practice one of his principles when he opened his own school nearly a decade later.
Donald’s salary that first year was $800, plus room and board and free laundry service— up to 21 pieces of laundry each week, with each sock and handkerchief counting as one piece.
Two critical lessons
When his contract was renewed (at $900) for the second year as head of the school’s French department, St. Albans sent Donald to the Harvard summer school to brush up on his French. For the rest of that summer of 1917 he became hut master for the Appalachian Mountain Club at the organization’s hut on Mount Madison, in the Presidential range of the White Mountains. Here he cooked simple meals for the climbers scaling the rugged slopes.
One guest at the hut, Dr. A. A. Crane, had just returned from the World War battlefronts in France. The U.S. had formally entered the war in April, 1917, and American industry was busy producing armaments for the Allies, but Donald had absorbed the prevailing view among his fellow St. Albans teachers that this was “Wall Street’s war.” Crane’s descriptions of the fighting, as well as the threat posed by a German victory, changed Donald’s view. Able-bodied American men like himself, he began to feel, had a duty to join the war effort. The prospect of a free trip to France reinforced those feelings.
Meanwhile, back at St. Albans, Donald was commandeered against his will to direct a student variety show to raise money for a war charity. Throughout the preparations, he agonized that the whole venture would fail abysmally. The variety show’s subsequent success brought him no satisfaction— only the fear that he would be saddled with more such tasks in the future.
Profanity in the barracks
That fear may have provided the final push that caused Donald to tell Headmaster Church late that fall of 1917 that he planned to volunteer for the U.S. Air Service, then a branch of the Army Signal Corps (at a time when America had no separate air force).
Church appealed to Donald’s conscience: “You can’t leave the students in the lurch,” he said. “At least you must stay with the school until you are actually called into service.” Donald agreed, so every week he told his classes, “This is perhaps my last week, so let’s make it a good one.” But as the weeks wore on, this plea to the students wore so thin that Donald had to discard it. He wasn’t called to active duty until mid-June of 1918.
When Donald received the Army’s telegram to report for aviation ground school training at Princeton, N.J., he stepped into a new and, for him, shocking world. After two years in the refined atmosphere of St. Albans, with its morning and evening chapel, he was horrified by the barracks profanities of military trainees. “They were all college men,” he later recalled, “but they had a vocabulary that shocked me. At first I was quite turned off from them. But I soon found out that they were wonderful fellows, and I forgot their language.”
Instead of France, Oklahoma
By this time, the German drive on Paris had been halted, and the subsequent infusion of fresh American troops was beginning to turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor. Of the 200 recruits who entered the class with Donald, only 54 survived the cuts. Donald finished the ground training course as head of the class in all divisions. The new cadets were transferred to an Army camp in Dallas, Texas, where Donald and his group found themselves quartered at the agricultural fairgrounds, in the section reserved for prize hogs. Here their biggest concerns were the boredom produced by constant drilling, and the fear that the war would end before they could reach France.
The word passed down from the higher-ups was that any airman could get to France in a hurry if he volunteered to go as an observer. MacJannet and some of his colleagues promptly volunteered. Soon they found themselves on a military shuttle train that took them to Fortress Monroe in Virginia to train in handling heavy artillery.
They were still at Fortress Monroe on November 11, 1918, when the Armistice ended any hope of their seeing France. Instead, the group was transferred to Post Field, Oklahoma, a forlorn place where pedestrians crossed the muddy streets on stone boats hauled by oxen, at a dollar per crossing. Here the trainees performed light artillery work and Donald received one silver wing, certifying him as a trained observer. But nothing more.
Then these flying enthusiasts decided to take training as aviators. At a pleasant stretch in Memphis, they roved the countryside on weekdays, loading crashed planes on trucks to be hauled away. Among these fledgling pilots was Ralph Damon, who remained a friend of Donald years later when he became president of TransWorld Airways.
Next the trainees were shuttled to Carlston Field, in Arcadia, Florida. Here Donald found himself badgered by a savage instructor who repeatedly assured Donald that he would kill himself because he was such a terrible pilot. Coached by a friend, Donald improved until the instructor begrudgingly asked Donald for a handkerchief, which he affixed to the plane’s tail, signifying, “Pilot starting first solo flight. Give him a wide berth.” Soon Donald completed the necessary work for his second wing. But with the war over, and no academic job available so late in the session, he had to remain in the service for several more months.
At this point Donald was stricken with the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the U.S. and Europe in 1918. In a roomful of 40 other victims, where the chief remedies seemed to be Epsom salts and whiskey, he nearly died.
Scrambling out West
In March, 1919, MacJannet, now a reserve second lieutenant, and a comrade with the same rating set off, resplendent in their uniforms and glistening aviator’s wings, to tour the American West. When their money ran out en route, Donald took a job harvesting wheat in the Great Plains, which he found much more rugged than piloting a plane (although he found the $10 a day pay fabulous). After resigning as a harvest hand, he journeyed to Colorado, where he found work as a chef at Pike’s Peak, a job that entitled him to call himself “the highest paid chef in the world.” Later that summer Donald moved on to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, where he ran a team to haul wood and ice and fetch hot water from Old Faithful.
Returning to St. Albans in September, 1919, Donald encountered both the benefits and drawbacks of postwar inflation. His pay increased to $1,200 for the year from the previous $900, but he had to replace the civilian clothing he had auctioned off when he joined the Army Air Corps. A new suit, he discovered, would cost $100. To pay for it, as well as other expenses, he obtained the football schedules of nearby colleges and arranged to print them on 2,000 desk blotters. He sold the blank squares next to the football schedules to Washington department stores for advertising, rented a motorcycle and sidecar, and delivered the free blotters to the college campuses.
Opportunity, or scam?
With his school’s approval, Donald arranged to leave St. Albans at the end of the 1919-20 academic year to seek further training in French at the Sorbonne in Paris. His last year at St. Albans— teaching French, German, and English— passed smoothly, and he was gratified when, at the end, all his students fared well on their college board exams.
In the spring of 1920 Donald noticed an advertisement placed by a teacher in an Eastern private school. The man sought assistants to help guide a group of college students through Europe, but he demanded $1,750 for this privilege. When Donald wrote that he had only $400, the promoter agreed to take him for that amount, which should have aroused Donald’s suspicions. At the New York rendezvous that July, Donald and the students found that the promoter had switched ships and signed up with a tour agency in order to save money.
For the English segment of the tour, the tour agency provided three aged taxis at Southampton; but two of the cars broke down near the end. The promoter frequently disappeared and finally vanished altogether in Rome, having reimbursed Donald’s $400 fee in depressed Italian lira, which brought Donald less than $300. Fortunately for the 13 students, Donald had their return boat tickets in his own possession. In Genoa he found a ship for them to return on. But he had never bought a return ticket for himself. After seeing the students off, Donald took a solo sightseeing tour through Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Holland before arriving in Paris in time to register for the Sorbonne’s two-year course for potential instructors in French. Donald presumed that this course would lead to a teaching post in some American college. Instead, it led to a career as an educator in France that would last— with only a World War II interruption— for more than 60 years.
Excerpted and edited from Educator of Kings, the biography of Donald MacJannet.
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