Editorial: The educator behind the name of Anne T. Dunphy

Last modified: Wednesday, June 04, 2014

When an educator manages to fire students up about learning, those students are changed forever. That kind of transformation inspires fierce loyalty. This might explain why from New Hampshire to Northfield to Hilltowns closer to home, there is a hue and cry for the name of the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg to remain unchanged.

We understand why suggestions to change the name of the town’s elementary school set off alarm bells for many in town, and can see no reason to change the name of a school that honors a woman who was a lion in her field, ahead of her time and a leader in the town where she was born and raised.

Dunphy, a native of Haydenville who graduated from Smith College, was a longtime and well-loved educator who was named principal of the Williamsburg High School in 1918 when she was a 28-year-old teacher. That achievement was impressive, coming at a time when few women rose to administrative ranks — and she went on to become one of the longest-serving female high school principals in the state.

Many people in town credit Dunphy with going way beyond her role as principal to help them pursue higher education. They have stories to tell about Anne T. Dunphy and the transformative power of education and they want to tell them. Feelings about her are strong long after 1955, when the town named the school after her.

There is some logic to the suggestions floated before the Williamsburg School Committee to consider changing the name of the school.

The school has been closed during a $12.6 million expansion and renovation. As the School Committee looked to its reopening in September, some parents suggested reconsidering the school’s name. With essentially a new school about to open, it is an apt time to rethink its name.

School Committee Chairman Duncan Laird said committee members knew the suggestion would hit a nerve, but they felt obligated to facilitate a town-wide conversation about the idea.

They are conducting a survey, and say any process involving the name will be inclusive and transparent. School faculty and staff say they have no opinion on the matter, instead saying this is an issue for the town and its school board to decide together.

Meanwhile, some promoting the name change have said they’d like the school’s geography reflected in the name or that they want the name to be recognizable to those outside Williamsburg. Others have said they think the name of the school may have lost its meaning because people no longer know who Dunphy was.

Among the suggestions for a new name are these: the Anne. T. Dunphy Community School, Williamsburg Anne T. Dunphy School, the Anne T. Dunphy Academy, Williamsburg Elementary School and Mill River Elementary School.

The Select Board has made no secret of the fact that its members are opposed to a name change, as have many other current and former town officials. There may be a compromise acceptable to everyone, but likely it will only be if the new name still keeps its focus on the beloved educator, such as the Anne. T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg.

If town leaders want to keep the memory of Anne T. Dunphy alive, they ought to consider including a monument in her honor, an educational display about her at the school, perhaps in the school library, and integrating an explanation of who she was and why she was important to the town into school information sessions and orientations. A biography of her appears on the school’s website.

If nothing else, what might appear to outsiders to be a tempest in a teapot has highlighted the important role Dunphy has played in this town. The Anne T. Dunphy School is a good name because it refers to a woman who placed supreme value on education and inspired everyone else to do the same.


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