The Exam

The overtime goal in March 1962 was the last instant I played hockey for Peter Bragdon. In hockey, the first to score in overtime ends the game.

Before anyone worried about participation trophies and hurt feelings, this was called “sudden death.” Neither golden goal nor sudden victory quite captures the finality.

It did not occur to me that I would never again play for Coach Bragdon. Nor did it occur to me that he would teach me history and spark an interest in government and how we choose those whom we have to obey.

We rarely think of elected officials as “those we have to obey” because the rules we favor tend to be those that apply to other people, though of course they don’t.

About a year and a half after the goal, Coach Bragdon became history teacher Bragdon. I was in the VI Form (12th grade), and American history was the requirement.

He taught the course with a textbook written by his father, who had been a famous teacher at Exeter. Pete and Dottie Bragdon have since retired to his father’s old house.

Of course, we progressed from Plymouth Rock and Jamestown to about the New Deal. If there was anything about World War II, I have no recollection, but two things did stand out.

On November 22, 1963 (56 years to the day before sitting at my computer and writing this anecdote), I was walking to hockey practice in the early afternoon with my stick and skates over my shoulder.

I learned that President Kennedy had been shot. Later we would learn that he is been killed. No Internet, not even color TV so news traveled slowly. Same-day awareness was thought to be pretty good until instant awareness became available.

At our class the next day, Bragdon departed from his coverage of the revolution or, by then maybe the War of 1812, to teach us about our new president, Lyndon Johnson.

I doubt any of us had the slightest notion of what he might be like. I know I didn’t, but Bragdon had stayed up all night trying to figure out what to tell a class of clueless 17-year-olds about the assassination of the Boston Catholic Democrat — we could understand the Boston part — and the ascent to the presidency of a Southern Baptist Texan, three groups about which we knew nothing.

There were no grief counselors or people to worry about how we felt so, if Bragdon had any idea that was even a role, I suppose he filled it. I don’t remember what he said but I don’t think he predicted LBJ’s civil rights success or how much our generation would come to hate him by the time he announced that he would not run for the presidency on March 31, 1968. Vietnam was a college thing not a boarding school thing.

The history equivalent of the overtime goal was the final exam. It was a single essay in which we were asked to select eight oarsmen and a coxswain for two rowing shells from among all the presidents we had studied.

Even those, like me, who did not row as a spring sport knew enough about it to get by with a sufficient understanding of the skills required for the position of each oarsman.

The coxswain faces front and yells at everyone to tell them what to do. Since he has no oar, it is best that he be small and authoritative. The stroke faces him at the rear of the shell and sets the pace for the others. Strength and power are required in the middle seats and, for some reason, the bowman is always tall and lanky.

Our assignment was to fill one shell with the best presidents and the other with the worst, then explain our reasoning and provide a commentary on a race between the two. All this was to be based on the history we had learned and the extrapolation of presidential qualities to the required rowing skills for each position in the shell.

My picks were pedestrian. George Washington at stroke of the best boat Abraham Lincoln in the bow. William Howard Taft, at 300+ pounds, as coxswain of the worst boat. Nothing in any way special.

Most of the way through the essay, I was probably headed for a solid B or maybe a B+.

Among the dozen or so students in the class, my exam was the only one in which the worst presidents won the race.

Just before the finish, George Washington stood up in the boat.

The solid B turned into an A, and a career in academia gave way to the prospect of a life lived through a different lens.

It was likely that class that led to a lifelong interest in politics and government and to the eight years of writing about both for LibertyPell.

Not many on today’s political stage would have made the better boat for any of the dozen soon-to-graduate boarding school seniors in the Spring of 1964.

9 Responses to “The Exam”

Terry Vogt, November 29, 2019 at 7:36 pm said:

Knew the father as a venerated figure at Exeter. And I believe I once attended the performance of a jazz combo in which the son played bass. But the again, I might be wrong!


Haven Pell, November 29, 2019 at 8:10 pm said:

Maybe we’ll get a reply from the only son of Henry Bragdon I know. Would not be surprised if he was reading these.


Bob Timpson, November 29, 2019 at 8:40 pm said:

Also at the Bragdon house at Exeter were two stepsons of Henry’s. His wife Helen had previously been married at the beloved and somewhat famous longtime Dean at MIT, Everett Moore Baker, and she had had sons in 1932 and 1936 Dave and Sid. Sid, a doctor, has become of of the “names” in the field of autism and particularly its connection to the gut and vagus system. I think maybe Dave was into music.


Haven Pell, November 29, 2019 at 8:52 pm said:

Bob, That is so interesting. In all the years I have known Peter, I am pretty sure I never heard of any step-siblings. Thank you.


John Austin Murphy, November 29, 2019 at 10:02 pm said:

Fine story. Good stimulus for introspection.


Haven Pell, November 30, 2019 at 10:52 am said:

Thanks John. Glad you are enjoying these.


Peter W Bragdon, November 29, 2019 at 11:25 pm said:

I do not recall asking the students to create a boat of the worst Presidents: I think that was your imaginative creation.
Yes, I did predict LBJ’s success regarding civil rights — I turned away from hockey practice when I heard a student yell, “The President has been shot!” — went straight to John Walker’s apartment to be with him and Maria. John had met LBJ and had been assured by him that he intended to prove that a Southerner could be a national leader. I had the weekly American History lecture on November 23rd — the previous week I had ripped into America and all the students in the course took notes — not one student challenged any of the garbage I had been handing out — to a person, students dutifully took notes. At the conclusion of my lecture I asked, “Do you really believe everything I have said?” I told the students I was claiming the lecture a week hence and asked them to bring some kind of rebuttal to the extremity of my lecture that day. (I thought I was going to be able to drive some students to explode at me during this lecture on November 16th.) One point I had made was that there is an attempt on a President’s life every twenty years — Garfield, McKinley, TR, FDR, Truman….. So, then I had to somehow rebuild the confidence of a stricken group of students, and I sure as hell was shattered. I stayed up to 3:00 AM in that fine Library and learned all I could about the good in LBJ, such as locating a grave for a Hispanic American soldier killed in Korea who was denied a location in the graveyard of his Texan home town. I learned about how much he did for his own district, such as bringing in electricity to poverty stricken farmers. I learned about the power he wielded in the Senate. On that Saturday I gave an optimistic lecture about our new President — maybe providing more hope than I really believed. I did not anticipate his acceleration of the Vietnam war. The source of that move was actually Dean Rusk. An American Ambassador, who grew up with my Mother and was a regular at our summer Adirondack location, told us that JFK intended to run his foreign policy and have Dean Rusk serve him. This Ambassador claimed that, upon entering the Presidency, LBJ told Rusk he would guide American foreign policy, while LBJ guided domestic policy, Well, Rusk was from a Confederate military heritage — he became the source of the policy of acceleration. A contrast: Tran Van Dinh — I believe he was a Second Consul for the South Vietnamese regime in 1963, Second Consul in NYC or DC — was invited to Kent School by me — I was Head of the History Department there after leaving SPS. In his lecture to the Kent student body he said he asked JFK what he was going to do about the US commitment to South Vietnam? JFK’s response? “I intend to dissolve that situation after I dispose of Senator Goldwater.” To return to the world of hockey: that was one helluva winning goal you delivered for “The Doormats” — the club’s predicted label in the school newspaper — rushing up the middle, splitting the defense and drilling in the winning shot during the waning moments of a March day — just memorable, Haven. I had you ticketed to be a Harvard star.


Haven Pell, November 30, 2019 at 10:51 am said:

As to the worst Presidents boat, I doubt my recollection exceeds yours but it is definitely integral to my narrative to the exam. Besides, I need a spot for William Howard Taft.

Whatever the question on the exam, thank you for not asking for the description of what you said about LBJ on November 23. I would have gotten a D on that one but knowing it now is far better than not knowing it at all.

Alas, the less said about being a Harvard star, the better.


Temple Grassi, December 02, 2019 at 7:14 pm said:

Greetings from one of Haven’s court tennis pals. You mentioned that you taught at Kent in the 1960s- do you have any Giff Foley stories? A truly interesting fellow! About 10 years ago, I sat next to Hart Perry, Kent’s vaunted crew coach ( RIP). I asked him if he knew Foley, knowing full well he did as Giff was the stroke on The Kent Crew. ‘Yes, I knew Giff!’- with a tear in his eye.
Temple Grassi


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