Beulah Hepburn Emmet

NOTE: This is #9 in my series of most unforgettable people. I knew Beulah Emmet and she was both a benefactor and guiding influence to me as a troubled teen in the 60's. Mrs. Emmet (as she insisted on being called) was a true pioneering woman in education in North America and opened the first Waldorf School on the Western side of the Atlantic Ocean. Her influence and gifts have inspired many generations of students and continues to do so.  I have never met anyone else that was both as scary and wise as she was.

Beulah Hepburn Emmet, 1890-1978, was the founder of and inspiration behind the High Mowing School.

In 1929, the Emmet family purchased a farm that later became the school. They called it a “high mowing” due to its elevation and surrounding farmlands. At first, the long line of soft-grey, weathered buildings — built in 1763 and enlarged by David Cram in 1838 — was their summer home.

In the spring of 1942 Mrs. Emmet decided to build a school here: “This was in April 1942 and to make a farm into a school from May to October was the problem. Before starting any building operations I called the New Hampshire State Board of Education and over the telephone asked a New England voice for permission to start a school at my home in Wilton. I was told categorically that no woman could start a school in New Hampshire. I said, "I think that a bit arbitrary.”

Clarity of vision prevailed and High Mowing opened its doors in September 1942. At the time, it was the first and only Waldorf high school in the U.S. It gained accreditation in 1944. For many years, until 1957, the school remained the personal property of Mrs. Emmet. In 1957, at a faculty and trustee meeting, she handed over the buildings and the land to the school. In gracious gratitude, the faculty gave her the right to live on campus, in her house, as long as she wished.

“Little by little we realized that our task at High Mowing was to face and meet the needs of students, to awaken an interest in learning… so that they could stand on their own two feet and go forward into the world, directed and alive. High Mowing was a home before it was a school—and becoming a school it still stayed a home. It was a home for young people from any type of background, of any race.” Beulah Emmet.

I met Mrs. Emmet in 1968, some time after walking out of the first day of my junior year at the local public high school in 1967 for violating the dress code. Over the summer, I had grown a full Fu Manchu mustache and they said it went or I did. I walked.............and drifted around for almost a year until the summer of 1968 when I ran into a former teacher from the public high school who asked me, "What are you doing with your life?" I was floored; no one had ever asked me that question. In fact, no one had ever asked me any questions - adults typically just told me what to do.

He said, "Do you want to come along as I go up to High Mowing School?" Well, this school was famous locally as the "hippie" school and I jumped in the car. As we arrived and walked around this beautiful farm turned school, I was impressed by all of the students that walked up to my companion, and addressed him by his first name, Dave; further, how friendly they were to each other. He excused himself for a meeting with the principal of the school and left me in the company of several students. They proudly showed me around their school and their excited chatter about going to school every day really impressed me. I had never met anyone that was happy to go to school.

Dave found me an hour later and said he wanted me to meet someone that wanted to meet me! I was confused as I had never been there before and had never known anyone that had even attended there - it was a very expensive private school.

He ushered me into an elegant Colonial home on the campus and told me he was going to introduce me to Mrs. Emmet. When we entered into her presence, she was reclining upright on a Turkish divan, with a lit cigarette in a holder, and almost pure white hair. I will never forget her gaze - it seemed to go right through my brain like a hot light. I felt helpless to be anything but truthful to this person as she turned her head toward me and said, "You are taking too many drugs and we will not tolerate that here, but I think we can help you."  She was right; I was doing a lot of recreational pharmaceuticals, but I still didn't get why I was there. She concluded the meeting with, "Bring your mother to come visit with me, dearie." And, the meeting was over. As walked back to Dave's car, I asked him what had just happened and he replied, "It is your lucky day; you are coming to school here."

With my head spinning, I went home and told my mother, a single mom with three kids and the sole breadwinner. She almost dismissed the whole idea as one of my drug fueled fantasies, but I convinced her that we had nothing to lose and we may as well go and meet with Mrs. Emmet.  She and I went back to the school the following week and while I sat outside the room where they met, I listened to a lot of laughter coming from within. When my mother emerged, she said, "You are definitely Irish because you just found the pot 'o gold at the end of the rainbow." Mrs. Emmet had provided me with a full scholarship for the remaining two years of my high school education!

I was enrolled for my junior year a few months after that meeting and graduated two years later on a beautiful day in May 1970. There is nothing that can quite compare with the adventures I had in those two wonderful years; rich with new friendships and truly unique learning experiences.

At the time, I certainly had "nary a whit" of the gratitude I have now for Mrs. Emmet and the academic exposure that the school gave me, but I do remember something she said to us all at one of our daily morning gatherings. She always ended her daily greeting to us all with a passage from a book, a poem, or something she herself had been inspired by in her 78 years on the planet. On this one particular day, she said, "High Mowing (School) is a beautiful place, full of lovely people and wondrous learning opportunities. When you leave here, take that beauty with you and make wherever you go as beautiful as you find it here."

Thank you, Mrs. Emmet.