The Bodkin Legacy

By Peter Tacy GP’20, Headmaster, 1981-1989, Trustee

Most schools begin as institutions.  They are purposeful but impersonal places, organizations where an explicit mission provides a foundation, an overarching set of goals, and an abiding center.  

But the Marvelwood School that I first visited in late 1980 was not institutional.  At heart, it was intimate, personal, and familial.  

That heart had been beating within two persons: Bob and Cornelia Bodkin.  A childless couple, Marvelwood had provided a throng of surrogate children for the Bodkins, who had discovered they needed to share the experience of bringing up kids at the very center of their lives together.   

Marvelwood had been their “labor of love” for twenty-five years, and as of 1980, it still was.  As a result, the time to retire from their school was both as proud and as painful an experience for them as it is for each of us when the kids we’ve deeply loved must move on to run things for themselves.  That Bob and Cornelia dealt with this transition courageously and generously was, of course, in character for them. That’s the kind of people they were. But they also knew they were leaving behind something they’d created that was very important -- and they made sure I understood this.  A quasi-parental, intimate, profoundly earnest commitment to the growth and empowerment of each and every young person who was a Marvelwood student had been Bob and Cornelia’s objective – and their school’s unique educational method -- from day one.

That commitment was the Bodkin legacy.

Think of it as the school’s “endowment” (for, in fact, no other kind of endowment then existed – what did exist was a mountain of debt that I sometimes called the “dis-endowment”).  If Marvelwood were to survive as Marvelwood, the non-monetary endowment that the Bodkins had created had to be sustained and nurtured, at the same time that the school’s development as an institution moved ahead.

At that moment, Marvelwood was much like one of today’s high-tech “start-up” organizations can be at the end of a successful first phase of development.  It had focused on bringing to the independent-school marketplace a much-needed pedagogical innovation, and had triumphantly proved this innovation’s worth; but it had yet to evolve the organizational and financial structures, or the professional culture, that it would need in order to survive long-term.  

Helping Marvelwood make a transition from Bob and Cornelia’s personal-and- intimate but fragile school to a more institutional and enduring one, while at the same time preserving the unique Bodkin legacy as the core of the whole endeavor, was to be my job description.

I won’t go into the details of what it was like to take on that eight-year job, except to say that much of the time it provided the sort of challenging contradiction on a daily basis that one experiences when trying to pat one’s head and rub one’s stomach simultaneously.  For example, Marvelwood needed to develop an explicit and more formal institutional structure. It needed to work on raising capital, retiring debt, and expanding or replacing a beloved but inadequate campus. The school desperately needed to learn how to operate in the black.  It also had to “professionalize” its faculty culture, and to discipline the way that professional culture shaped instruction. But, just as importantly, Marvelwood needed, at the heart of everything it did, every day, to persist in being the unique, intimate, child-cherishing, supportive place Bob and Cornelia had created.   

To get my transition-to-institutional-life job done, I knew I had to accept from the get-go that Marvelwood should not have another twenty-five year “parent” as its Head of School.  At first, that limitation didn’t trouble me. In the organizational vocabulary of that era, both the Board and I knew that my role was to be a “change agent”. I would air-drop into the school, help it move into its next stage of organizational evolution in the right way, and then briskly move on.  So I was resolved that I would not over-invest in Marvelwood, emotionally. After all, nineteen years of professional/personal boarding-school life had certainly taught me that deep organizational change never happens without friction, and that the heat of that friction can be scorching for even the most skillful change-agent.  It was also obvious that the second Head of Marvelwood could not count on being appreciated, much less loved, as the Bodkins had been; so keeping some professional distance between me and the job, and also being sure I had a draft letter of resignation in my back pocket at all times, seemed a wise plan.

However, in a way that in itself conformed to the Bodkin legacy, the experience of day to day life at Marvelwood almost immediately began to undermine my original intention to keep the school at arm’s length emotionally.  In time, not only did a profound change in how I connected to the school begin to happen for me, but Barbara and I both began to be captured by the “labor of love” aspect of how leading this unusual school could shape both Marvelwood and its leaders.  And ironically, Barbara’s cancer diagnosis at the beginning of our last year at the school and her hospitalization for treatment in Boston during the middle part of that academic year ended up not as a distraction, but as an experience that greatly deepened our bond to the school.  Why? Well, just as, sooner or later, all parents learn that the love for children that originally ties families together has to be allowed to become a two-way care-taking transaction, this school that we arrived to care for had to be allowed to care for us. It did so; that made an enormous difference for us.  Of course, also made it very much harder to move on than we’d anticipated!    

But move on we did.  Just as such inevitable losses tend to be for parents, what was being lost by us simply had to be accepted as a part of a larger and more important process that we’d been part of.  And so time passed; our professional lives evolved in fulfilling ways; and over most of the twenty-nine years since then, we both tried to be disciplined enough to stand back quietly, while we watched Marvelwood pursue the legacy of its founders, through four successive administrations and now a fifth (“interim”) stage of leadership.

And then…and then: another “Marvelwood surprise” happened – or more than one!

Three years ago, Board Chair Tim Carpenter ‘71 asked me to join the Marvelwood Board of Trustees.  For all sorts of reasons, I hesitated. The most obvious was based on what I’d learned in fifteen years of service to many, many other independent schools through CAIS and NAIS: seldom do former Headmasters who became Trustees really help a Board focus on driving the school boldly into the future.

But other reasons were more personal.  Chief among them was that we’d come to love this place so much, if privately; what would it feel like to step back into this relationship, even if, necessarily, in a more constrained way?  

Ultimately, as our decision to move to Marvelwood had been so many years before, we both said “let’s go for it”.

Along with my work as a Trustee, Barbara stepped back into the school, too, in this instance helping Laurie Doss (who’d been at the school since my days as Head) and a group of student volunteers begin what became a permanent campus beautification / science education / service undertaking that’s come to be called “the Daffodil Project”.  

And then…not long after Barbara’s death in 2016, our grandson Owen, who was bored and unhappy in his California high school, told me he wanted a change, and thought that change could happen at Marvelwood.  Owen was right: he began as a Sophomore in the autumn of last year, and has flourished both academically and otherwise, including as a member of a student group that has been producing prize-winning documentary films.

What could be a more complete sort of re-connection?

Well, this.  On Father’s Day, 2018, Owen sent me a link to a mini-documentary he’d created about his beloved grandmother, about Barbara’s “Daffodil Project”, and above all, about what both she and the project on his school’s campus meant to him.  See the video on the science page of the website.

Yes, the Bodkin legacy is alive and well at your, and my, school.  Marvelwood may now be on a different campus. It certainly is a more grown-up and stable institution.  But it is also still and very authentically “intimate, personal, and familial”, just as it was created to be, sixty years ago.

And, you know, that difference continues to really matter…for all of us!

This article first appeared in the 2019 Blue & White: Celebrating 60 Years