John Meigs of the Hill School
"He was a great craftsman [this] John Meigs. The material he worked upon was not wood or iron, stone or clay, pigment or even impalpable sound, but the bodies, minds, and souls of boys.
"John Meigs was born in 1852.1 His father, Dr. Matthew Meigs,2 formerly President of Delaware College, had the year before founded at Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a boarding school for boys which, because of its position on a hill above the town, was called The Hill School.
"At the age of nineteen John Meigs, who had been prepared at this school, was graduated from Lafayette College, and was immediately engaged by the college authorities as an instructor. For four years he remained there, becoming assistant professor. In 1876 he left Lafayette College to succeed his father as head of the school.
"It was still a little boarding school with only ten pupils. Slowly and healthily, the school grew in size and in reputation. In 1882 John Meigs married Miss Marion Butler, in Berlin, Germany.3 His father and mother were then still living, and so John Meigs and his wife, in distinction from Dr. and Mrs. Matthew Meigs, were called 'Professor' and 'Mrs. John,' and ' Mrs. John' and 'Professor' have been their real names ever since.
"In the thirty-five years of John Meigs' administration 'The Hill,' as it is known to all its boys, has become one of the great secondary schools of the country. It might be said to bear the same relation to the English public schools of Rugby and Eton and Westminster that the American college bears to the English universities. It has the traditions of scholarship, good breeding, and moral ideals characteristic of the English-speaking race, and with them it has the spirit of American democracy. It has become what it is, however, because it is the projection of a great man. It is what John Meigs has made it. Schoolmaster is what such a one is called in the English tongue. It is a good word, and fitted him. He was master of his school. It was, by his instincts, his splendid gifts, and his habit, a ruler as truly as was any of the greatest kings or governors. But he was more than that. He was an architect and builder of character. He took the raw, crude boy, and, if there was in him the making of a man, he made a man of him. He was a sculptor. working on living clay. He was a surgeon, patiently setting right the pliant moral frame. He was a physician, giving food to the undernourished will. From him flowed not only law and order for the school community, but, somehow, lasting power for each member. That the source of his power was profound religious faith was no secret to the boys; for he showed them the way to this spring of conduct and life.
"The tools that he worked with are now laid aside. What men call death has overtaken him. In giving of his strength to his boys he shortened the course of his life. The end of it came suddenly, through heart failure, on Monday of last week.4
"Even those who owe most to him cannot explain his power; they can remember, however, certain things that might help to describe it. They can remember that he never appeared suddenly upon them, but that always his heavy footfall, every ounce of his great frame telling at each step, resounded through the corridors as he approached; and in the memory of that sound they got their most vivid impression of what is meant by the hatred of sham, subterfuge, and unfairness. They can remember the silence that fell upon the gathering of boys when they saw in his face the suppressed anger at some meanness or pretense, and awaited the words that would fall like cudgels on the offender: and in the memory of such an occasion they find their most vivid impression of what is meant by the searching of conscience. They remember that even while still wincing from some just rebuke they were willing to go to him, if need be, with their confidences; and in that memory they have their best example of what it means to be chastened as a son. They can remember those evenings when, it might be by the reading of some passage of the Bible, it might be by some words of his own, they caught a glimpse of a strong man's affection for them; and in that memory they find still a standard of virile gentleness. They can remember the rigidity with which he held them to their work in the classroom, and in that memory they have based their test of accuracy and workmanship. They remember the times when they were alone with him of which, even after the passage of years, they cannot trust themselves to speak. They remember now, though they did not realize it then. that it was his spirit that infused their games. their school life, their whole environment.
"Those teachers, who wonder sometimes whether their work is not limited and confining, cannot have known John Meigs. Surely no words of honor surpass those that may be inscribed under his name-Schoolmaster and Maker of Men."5
For more on the life of John Meigs, read "The Master of the Hill, a Biography of John Meigs," by Walter Russell Bowie, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1917.
John and Marion Meigs had five children.
Copyright (c) by Rick Meigs