Fred Ayer Verplanck: From One-Room Schools to All the Schools

by Harold E. Turkington (written 1953-1954)
reprinted from Old Manchester II ... The Storytellers, published 1995 by the Manchester Historical Society

The Verplanck Story

In reviewing his life, Fred Veplanck said, "I would say as did the late T.R. (Theodore Roosevelt), I have had a 'bully time.' If I had my life to live over, I would teach school."

Three score year ago, Manchester noted the birth of its first high school. Sixty years later, at the age of 93, Fred Ayer Verplanck vividly recalls the meager beginning of the system that had outlived two buildings and will have new quarters within a four year period.

Enjoying the twilight years of his life at his home at 23 Elwood Road with his wife, "Zip" (an affectionate nickname) reviewed his life's history with us.

"It was 60 years ago that I first came to Manchester" he said. "I don't recall the exact date, but it was on a Thursday, sometime around the 20th of August. Charles D. Hine, who was secretary of the State Board of Education, reached me by telegraph on the Massachusetts shore and told me he wanted me to go down to Manchester and look over a position that was open in the school system."

Hitched Mare to Buggy

"I did. Mrs. Verplanck and I hitched our roan mare to the buggy. When we arrived in Manchester, I went to Cheney Bros. to see about the new post. It was vacation time and I returned here the following Monday and set to work preparing the foundation for a high school that opened two weeks later."

The first high school class contained 38 students, Verplanck recalled. Classes were held in the old 300-foot long wooden building, the Ninth District School, that housed 30 classrooms and school activities on four floors. The school burned in the great fire of October 23, 1913. It was located on School Street and reached from Vine Street almost to Main Street.

Found Only One Senior

When he had completed separating the students into classes, Verplanck found he had only one senior, a girl. Through interrogation, he discovered that five classmates had left school. Verplanck lost no time in visiting these students and enlisting them in his first senior class. In 1894 when the first senior class received their diplomas, there were six graduates.

Verplanck laid the foundation for a trade school here. With the cooperation of Cheney Bros. The class was a course in silk. The school was limited to the work of the weaving department. Two practical workers from the silk mill did the teaching.

Practical academic subjects were provided and taught by high school teachers. It was the only trade school in silk in the country, Verplanck said.

In 1902, Cheney Bros. built a new and up-to-date high school building. Verplanck told the Cheneys what he wanted for his school and he got it. The school was completed for occupancy in 1904. There were 16 classrooms, laboratories, and rooms for art and drawing. The assembly hall seated about 900.

Served Town For 42 Years

With the high school well established by 1905, Verplanck was made superintendent of the South Manchester Public School System. In 1932, when the schools of the town were consolidated, he was made first superintendent of schools in Manchester. He held this post until retiring in 1935 after 53 years in Connecticut schools, 42 of them in Manchester.

Teacher at 17

His first teaching job was at the age of 17 when he taught in the one room school in Franklin. He had received his elementary education in a school of similar type and had one year of freshman grade at Natchaug High School in Willimantic.

In the summer of 1878, Verplanck "hired out" to a neighboring farmer and worked the prevailing seven hours, that is, seven hours before dinner and seven hours after. The farmer left on an unexpected business trip and Verplanck was left in charge for the remainder of the summer. He had to plan and carry out the work. Looking back, Veplanck says he laid a successful foundation in two esential trades -- school teaching and farming.

After a year in an elementary school in Lebanon, Verplanck opened a private "select" school in Lebanon, organized by parents who wanted their childres to have something more of education than could be obtained in the elementary school.

A year later, he taught upper grades of a two-room school in Hanover, a village in the Town of Sprague. Having now taught for six yers, Verplanck clearly realized if he were to continue to teach, he needed a college education. He spent a year preparing for entrance to Yale at Norwich Free Academy and graduated from the New Haven college with a BA degree in 1888. Following a year teaching in Colchester at Bacon Academy, and three years as principal of the high school in Thomaston, he came to Manchester.

Cites Highlights in Life

He considers the highlight of his life the naming of the Olcott Street School in his honor.

Other memorable occasions include the school fire of 1913.

"For 17 years we had been conducting fire drills. In addition to the classrooms, we had a system to check lavatories. I'll never forget the relief when I arived at the scene of the fire, which I heard about over in the North End, and saw on my way back, and learned that all the children had been directed to safety. We were prepared."

Note: For more information on the Ninth District School Fire, please click: Ninth District Fire which is in our web site.

Excerpt from "A New England Pattern"
by Dr. William E. Buckley

... In 1895 the Ninth District obtained a charter from the legislature, exempting it from any supervision from the Manchester Board of School Visitors. The town, however, was still to pay the operating expenses of the District schools, as it did for the other districts. By this date a high school had been set up in the District, and Fred Ayer Verplanck, Yale, 1888, was in charge of all the District's schools. Zip, as both teachers and pupils called him, was a truly remarkable man, physically, intellectually and spiritually, with a deep voice and a commanding presence, endowed with compassion and a sense of humor, both of which he concealed much of the time. As an educator he was in advance of his time, yet he was a true conservative, if that word is defined as one who, in the midst of constant, often unwelcome, but necessary change, tries to adapt to the new situations but to retain as much as possible of time-proven worth. His approach was always forceful and direct. He wasted no words. When you answered the telephone and heard his opening phrase, "Verplanck speaking," you knew that the ensuing conversation would be brief and to the point.

The Ninth District school system under Zip Verplanck was an absolute monarchy, but the monarch was both competent and benevolent. He expected his instructions to be carried out promptly and completely. He had the capacity for righteous indignation whch is a great aid to accomplishment in this imperfect world. His temper, normally under complete control, could explode violently on occasion. One such occasion came the day after the great school fire of 1913. A mother telephoned to complain that her son had lost a cap in the conflagration. (The swift rush of flames had prevented the pupils from going to the coatrooms.) The Verplanck temper flared in a torrent of wrathful words. "Who was to pay for that boy's cap?" Zip would say in recalling the incident, "I told her. By God, I told her." Yet he listened with patience and probably silent enjoyment, when an inspiring and successful art teacher, Harriet Condon, stopped at this office from time to time to denounce his methods of school administration. And not a few of his teachers, faced with domestic calamity or expensive illness, summoned to the office, were greeted with an abrupt question: Did they need any money? If so, could he supply it?

Men of his type present a forbidding aspect to those who do not know them. To young teachers, Zip seemed at first a remote Olympian who was to be avoided as much as possible. A classroom visit from him could be a nerve-shattering experience. But once the barriers of reserve had been broken down, his teachers knew him as a sympathetic co-worker, helpful with advice, understanding their difficulties, expecting "their best but not their utmost" and a strong disciplinarian before whom the classroom troublemaker, when sent to the office, wilted in silent awe.

Manchester was fortunate to have a man of such high character and great ability in charge of its largest school district. Zip was equally fortunate in the setting in which he worked for much of his life. He worked closely with the members of the Cheney family who were interested in education. One of these was usually chairman of the Ninth District Committee. John S. and Howell Cheney held that position for many years, and Zip enjoyed his association with them. He delighted in their willingness to give not only their time and effort but also their money for any special project that he wanted.

Mr. Verplanck remained superintendent of the Manchester schools long enough to clear up the problems of consolidation, and to knead the schools into a unified system. Then he retired to the new home he had built. He continued his interest in the Manchester Memorial Hospital, of which he had been a trustee almost from its beginning, in the welfare work of the Masonic Order, and in the Savings Bank of Manchester, of which he was a director. ... His influence, through those he has directly affected, spreads outward like the ripples from a stone dropped into a quite pool. For more than forty years, Zip had influenced for good most of the youth of Mancheter. More than any other person, he had shaped the life of the community.