Anne who? Williamsburg considers changing name of Anne T. Dunphy School; stirs protest



Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014

WILLIAMSBURG — For 60 years, the elementary school now being renovated in the center of this town has borne the name of an educator who refused to let the conventions of the early 20th century keep her from becoming one of the first, and among the longest-serving, female high school principals in the state.

Now, as the town prepares for the fall reopening of the Anne T. Dunphy School after a $12.6 million expansion and renovation, more than a few feathers have been ruffled by an idea floated to change or add to the school’s name to reflect its geography.

Some townspeople speculate that the idea for changing the name of the school was originally offered up by parents who have recently moved to Williamsburg and were unfamiliar with contributions Dunphy made to the town.

But for many with roots in town, feelings for the Dunphy name run deep, and the idea of renaming the school has stirred up strong reactions.

“This is a very emotional issue. There are many people in town who have attended that school and who have paid for the school for many years,” said Select Board member Denise Banister. “We feel that it was named the Dunphy School for a good reason and we should continue to honor Ms. Dunphy’s name.”

Banister said she distinctly remembers seeing Dunphy’s picture hanging at the school and said it had a significant impact on her as a young student.

“I never had her for a teacher, but just knowing who she was and what she had done, made her a great role model, especially for girls and women,” Banister said.

Suggested new names under consideration by the School Committee include the Anne T. Dunphy Community School, Williamsburg Anne T. Dunphy School, Anne T. Dunphy Academy, Williamsburg Elementary and Mill River Elementary School.

Meanwhile, in some quarters in town, people know when to remain mum.

School Principal Stacey Jenkins said she and the teachers at the school have taken no stand on the question.

“This is a discussion that is between the School Committee and the townspeople,” said Jenkins. “They are the ones that will make the decision.”

To that end, the School Committee is seeking opinions on the idea by devising a survey.

“We saw it as our responsibility to facilitate the process that would gauge the interest of the community in changing or keeping the name of the school,” School Committee Chairman Duncan Laird said. “We recognize that this could be a big deal and we want to be inclusive and do this in an open and transparent way.”

The new school building is meant to be a community as well as school hub, designed with space for community events.

Laird said one reason for a possible name change is to make the school more recognizable for out-of-town parents who might choose to send their children under the school-choice program.

“I guess there is some concern that the name should be more informative or descriptive in order to attract students to the school,” Laird said.

As for the nearby Helen E. James School — another building named for a prominent and charitable Williamsburg resident, where the entire student body has been attending classes while the Dunphy school was being renovated — a town committee is looking at how best to put the 100-year old building to use when it becomes vacant in the fall. James, born Helen Field in 1837, financed many philanthropic endeavors after her brother, Marshall Field, of department store fame, left an estate of $155 million in 1906.

Among other town projects, she paid for construction of the Williamsburg Fire House, the Helen E. James School, which opened for all grades in 1914, and a maternity room at Cooley Dickinson Hospital with a fund to provide for its perpetual upkeep.

At Monday’s annual Town Meeting, voters will be asked to approve spending $10,000 on a study that will examine possible uses of the James School and the old town hall on Main Street.

Storied history

Banister said hers was the first class to attend the Dunphy School when it opened in 1955, which is in part why hearing discussion of a possible name change did not sit well with her.

Town historian Ralmon Black, whose family goes back for generations in Williamsburg, is another resident for whom the name change idea is not at all popular.

“Would you change the name of Washington, D.C., or the Lincoln Memorial just because you didn’t know these people or had forgotten their contributions?” he asked, with a heightened intensity in his voice.

“Of course I knew Miss Dunphy!” Black said. “When I went to high school, she was my principal, and she was also my father’s principal.”

He said Dunphy had encouraged his father, Lewis Black, to attend college despite the fact that the family did not have the funds to do so.

“Miss Dunphy drove him to the Massachusetts Agricultural College herself in her Model A Ford so he could take his entrance exams,” Black said. “He passed and got in to school, and when it came time to pay bill for college, the family saw that it had already been paid.”

Black said nobody ever knew exactly who paid the tuition, but it was obvious that Dunphy had a hand in it.

“I have a suspicion that my father isn’t the only person she did that for. It is just the kind of person she was, and it is a great example of the lengths she would go to for her students,” Black said.

Dunphy, he said, was a “principal with principles” — and to this day, he keeps an inscribed portrait of Dunphy on his writing table.

Written by his father, the inscription reads: “If it were not for A.T.D. I would never have gone to M.A.C.”

The Select Board — whose members do not favor dropping Dunphy from the school’s name — has created a brief biography detailing many of Dunphy’s accomplishments. On the board is Paul Dunphy, a distant relative of Anne T. Dunphy.

According to the board’s report, Anne T. Dunphy was born in Haydenville in 1890, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants and the daughter of a lifelong millworker. During a time of widespread discrimination against Irish Catholics, and the stigma of coming from a working-class family of laborers, Dunphy graduated from Smith College in 1913, and later earned a master’s degree in classics.

While other graduates left the area to pursue careers and begin families, Dunphy returned to Williamsburg to join the staff of the Helen E. James School, where she promoted education as a path to opportunities beyond the mills.

As a 28-year-old teacher, Dunphy was appointed principal of Williamsburg High School in 1918, a time when few women held high administrative posts and two years before women gained the right to vote.

When the new elementary school was built in 1955, the town rallied in support of naming the school after Dunphy who was beloved by the community for her dedication to Williamsburg students.

Almost 60 years later, some residents feel strongly about preserving the name and history of the school.

Resident Eileen Stewart, a former town moderator, said it is important to honor the town’s history, especially when it involves influential women whose deeds and accomplishments defied the restrictive traditions of their time.

“It is about a sense of place and history. We already know we are in Williamsburg and we know it is an elementary school, so something like the Williamsburg Elementary School says nothing about who we were, or who we are as a town,” Stewart said. “I think that we should keep the name, and also try to do things that help people really understand who she was.”

Opinions vary

Parent Phoebe Shaw of Adams Road, who has two children at the school, said she has heard the various perspectives on the question.

“I’m on the fence about it,” Shaw said. “I can really see both sides. Some people think the history is important and that is understandable. Others feel the name should include Williamsburg because it makes things clear about our location.”

A lack of name recognition is one reason some say a new name is a good idea.“I think one of the reasons this came up was because nobody really knew who Anne T. Dunphy was, and I am slightly embarrassed to say that at the time, I didn’t either,” Laird said.

Town Clerk Brenda Lessard said a compromise may be the answer.

“I understand that now would be the time to make a change, and personally, I have no problem with them changing the name or adding to it, as long as they keep Anne T. Dunphy in there somewhere.” Lessard said. “But I don’t think her historical significance to the town should be erased.”

For those wanting to learn more about Anne T. Dunphy, an informational forum led by Black will be held at Meekins Library at 2:30 on Sunday. Audience members will be invited to ask questions or share stories about Dunphy.

The School Committee survey is available online at www.surveymonkey.com/LLZS3FD and on paper at the Town Offices and Meekins Library.




 

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