Edith Blakeslee Phelps became the head of the fifth administration in Dana’s 82-year history during the turbulent 1960s. She felt that academic excellence was critically important to the school and that Dana must not only nurture the minds of its students but also their hearts and souls. She succeeded in this mission by instituting many remarkable and innovative academic and social changes at Dana.
Mrs. Phelps was the head the history department and then assistant headmistress at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts before she came to Dana. She arrived at Grove House in 1963 with her three daughters and her dog, Posie. Posie was probably the most beloved of all Dana dogs. She was a “pure mutt” and used to shoot out of Mrs. Phelps’ office at the sound of every passing motorcycle.
Mrs. Phelps made Dana a human place. She brought with her a relaxed atmosphere and a new informality. She quickly became know as “Edie” to the faculty and everyone on campus discovered everyone else’s first names. At eight o’clock each morning outside Mrs. Phelps’ office, Dorothy Maynard, Posie’s official godmother and also Study Hall Supervisor and Advisor to the Day Students, fed Posie her breakfast yummies. In 1964, Mrs. Phelps felt the time had come to replace housemothers with young married couples. These house parents, many of who had young children, brought an exuberance and excitement to Dana. The students felt at ease and enjoyed talking to enthusiastic adults who were not that much older than they were. This sense of community was a new way of rekindling the Eastman sisters’ original intent of having Dana be a “family school.”
Mrs. Phelps was a firm believer that people made a school great. She was fortunate to have Dorothy Farmer as her Associate Principal and Charlotte Puffer 1929 as Assistant Principal. Together they made a great team, each intriguingly different and equipped with unique skills. Mrs. Phelps hired younger faculty with varied backgrounds and points of view and introduced an advising system that fostered a strong academic link between students and faculty.
A wide array of academic choices was offered to students in order to bring the outside world into the classroom. Mrs. Phelps wisely realized that it was important to allow students the opportunity to experience the “vaster campus.” In 1968, seniors were allowed to pursue an independent study. After faculty approval, a senior could devote five to six hours a week, equivalent to a half credit course, to a project based on her own interests and talents. The Pilot Program was another option open to students. Seniors who participated in this program lived in a separate house, prepared their own meals, and spent half of their school time in a supervised apprenticeship in the Boston area. They learned first-hand what it was like to rise early in the morning to commute to jobs in Boston and Cambridge.
Seniors also participated in the Boston School Volunteer Project under the direction of John Schuler, the Head of the History Department. The girls taught two periods a week on a one-to-one basis with children in five elementary schools in Boston. This program required a tremendous commitment on the part of the students and also on alumnae and parents who drove the girls into Boston and volunteered as teachers’ aides themselves. The students in both of these programs received academic credit. Peter Walsh from the office of Boston’s Mayor Kevin White commended Dana Hall for “…lending a hand in making Boston’s neighborhoods a better place to live.” Referring to the student protests of the 60s, Mr. Walsh said that the school and the community “… should be proud of these young people who have quietly and effectively stopped talking and started doing.”
February Week was another of the “Phelps Firsts.” In 1969, Mrs. Phelps realized that her students’ spirits could use a lift from the intense academic pressure and the tedium of winter. February Week was a time when student and teacher roles could be reversed as all members of the community had the opportunity to offer and participate in instructional workshops on a wide range of topics. The theme of the first February Week in 1969 was “The Inquiring Mind; Shaping Tomorrow and Today,” with Peter Schrag, the Executive Editor for the Saturday Review, as the keynote speaker. Elma Lewis, the director of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and the Founder and Director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and poet, author and editor David McCord were some of the other featured speakers.
Dana strived “to grow in sensitivity to the environment and in concern for people both in and beyond the Dana Hall community; and to value the life of the spirit as well as that of the mind and body.” (Post 71) Mrs. Phelps expanded the Dana Hall Service League to include the House of Carpenter and the Harriet Tubman House. Every Sunday, students accompanied a bus to collect children to participate in Bible lessons at the House of Carpenter. Following the classes, the students and children were driven to the Church of Christ in Brookline where a member of the congregation was responsible for the same child each week. At the House of Carpenter “each person involved is the pupil, the giver and the receiver; no day holds for him what it did last Sunday, or will the next.” The Church of Christ also sponsored a program to provide low-cost housing for some of the 500 new families in South End of Roxbury. Dana’s Service League purchased twelve apartment units and every Friday and Saturday Dana girls stripped linoleum and wallpaper, painted, and cleaned as they rehabilitated these units.
Each Friday at the Harriet Tubman House in South Boston, fifteen girls tutored underprivileged children. The girls tutored one-on-one and the director of the Tubman House was very enthusiastic about the success of the program. The grades of the tutored children and their attitudes towards school greatly improved.
Co-education was one of the toughest decisions that faced Mrs. Phelps. It was the fashion of the 1960s for many single sex schools to become co-ed. After much discussion, she agreed to a nine-week experimental exchange with St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. In 1970, seventy juniors and seniors from Dana traveled to St. Paul’s for the winter term and an equal number of boys from St. Paul’s arrived at Dana. The experiment was deemed more successful in the social realm than the academic. The following year, Dana decided to remain a girls’ school. Mrs. Phelps had seen many girls’ schools lose their names and identities when they merged with boys’ school and she stood fast in her belief in the value of single sex education.
In 1970, Mrs. Phelps was elected president of the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. In this capacity, she was particularly interested in fostering educationally innovative ties between independent and public schools. Mrs. Phelps was awarded the Smith College Medal in 1972 for those “who exemplify in their lives and service to their community … the true purpose of a liberal education.” After she left Dana, Mrs. Phelps became the National Director of the Girls Clubs of America. Her daughter Catherine graduated from Dana in 1968. Mrs. Phelps was first elected Corporator in 1975 and was an Honorary Corporator.
Edie Phelps left behind a legacy not only of a new campus, the Dana campus having moved entirely onto the former Pine Manor campus in 1965, new buildings—the Alnah Johnston Hall, the Dining Center, and the Dorothy Dunning Mudd Gymnasium—but also of a school firmly committed to the individual student, her education and the preparation necessary to enter a complex and challenging world.
Edie Phelps, photograph. Dana Hall Archives.
“Extending a Helping Hand.” Dana Hallmanac, Mother’s Day 1966: 6+.
“For a Week in February.” Dana Hall Bulletin 31.2 (February-March 1969): 2.
“From the Office of the Mayor of Boston.” Dana Hall Bulletin 32.2 (July-August 1970): 20.
“To Help Themselves.” Dana Hall Bulletin 30.6 (October-November 1968): 2+, 18+.
“The Phelps Years.” Dana Hall Bulletin (February Newsletter ): 1+.
Post, Winifred Lowry. Purpose and Personality. Wellesley, MA: Dana Hall School, 1978.
“Profile of Edie Phelps.” Wellesley, MA: Dana Hall Development Office.
Originally published as Person of the Week, April 17, 2006