David Bolmer Interview
This is file #20, cycle 4. Today’s date is August 22, 2019. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing David Bolmer who is a math teacher at Hotchkiss School. He grew up at Hotchkiss School so he is going to tell us all about Hotchkiss School. But first we are going to start with…
JM:What is your name?
JM:I am going to start with your dad because he worked at Hotchkiss before you did.
JM:When did your father come to Hotchkiss?
DB:My father served in the Navy, finished college on the GI Bill, graduated in 1947 and came to Hotchkiss in the fall of 1947 right out of college. He worked there for 44 years until he retired in the spring of 1991.
JM:What did he teach?
DB:He taught mathematics, all kinds of mathematics.
JM:Wasn’t he Director of Admissions for a while?
DB:He was the Director of Admissions in the early 1960s, roughly 1961-1966.
JM:You grew up on campus. Were you in a dorm?
DB:There were three boys in my family. I am the youngest. We all lived in Beuhler Dormitory when we were all born. In 1958 we moved to a different dormitory, Van Santvoord which was brand new at that point. We lived there until 1961 when we moved into a house of the corner of Route 41 and 112.
JM:Since you were growing up in a dorm, were there restrictions or places you couldn’t go or times you could not be out?
DB:No not really. In the first dorm Beuhler I was too young to remember anything. We moved when I was 3. I do remember in Van Santvoord at that time the basement was just a big old concrete basement with a laundry room and that sort of thing. It was big and open and we would go down there in bad weather or in the wintertime to play. The attic was an attic which stored boxes and things like that. That is where our TV antenna was. If the TV wasn’t working terribly well, we would form a chain, as we were on the second floor. If we needed to fix the TV, someone would be in the hallway, someone upstairs, and someone in the attic to turn the antenna to get reception which was back in the 1960s. Then we moved to the house at the corner which at the time was a brown shingled house. Now it is a white house. There used to be a big old tree in front which now has gone. My parents lived there for 30 years so that was home growing up.
JM:What was it like to have your dad working at Hotchkiss?2.
DB:When I was growing up, Hotchkiss was all boys. One of the things I remember would be the times when I would see my father at breakfast one morning: the next time I would see him was at breakfast the nest day. When I came back from school, he would be off coaching or something like that and then he would have a study hall or dorm duty. Since I was in bed by 8:00 PM, he would come home after I had gone to bed.
JM:As a child could you eat in the dining room?
DB:Faculty children were not allowed to go to the dining room until they were about eleven years old. Sunday dinner if you were 9, you could come because usually there were students on weekends that would not come back until later on Sunday. There were only so many seats, so if they were all taken, you couldn’t come.
JM:If you could not go to the dining room until you were 11, then your mother had to feed you at home.
DB:Yes we would eat at home. There were times when mom would go to the dining room for meals so she would feed us early like 5:15. There were faculty children who were older who would come and babysit with us. It didn’t happen very often. Every Saturday there was a movie or a play or something in the auditorium: we would often go to those when we were older.
I also spent a lot of time at the gym watching the games. I wasn’t a very good athlete but I enjoyed playing sports. I remember going down to the track. In the old days they had a hammer throw. It was like a big cannon ball from the Civil War days with a chain and a handle. Back then when I was 10 or 11, we would sit off to the side: they would throw the hammer and we would run out and drag it back. We couldn’t pick it up, but we could drag it back. Nowadays you would not be left within a mile and a half of something like that. People would be afraid that someone would run out and try to catch it or something stupid like that. I remember growing up in the summer time during vacation we would just go play in the woods. The only bad thing in the woods then was poison ivy. After breakfast we would go out and play: we might make a lunch and go off and play in the woods and get home for dinner. Parent would never let you do that today. To be off on your own or to play in the woods or do things like that.
When we got older we would ride our bike out to Lion’s Head on our own.
JM:You attended Salisbury Central for the first six grades.
DB:I attended Salisbury Central through sixth grade. Both of my brothers went there too. I was the third son to go to Salisbury Central. I think at that time my dad was on the Board of Education, and one time they send home my 6th grade report card: my name was spelled wrong. They had spelled Bolmer wrong! That was funny. All the report cards were hand written back then.
Our bus would get to school a little early so we would play kick ball before school would start. Our bus home was usually the first one to leave so right after school we would get the bus and head back home.
The bus route was around the lake, over towards Millerton, did a U turn and came back around the lake. That was the whole trip. The bus would drop us off right at our house. We would run inside, change our clothes, drop off our books, get a snack and go to sports practice, depending upon the season of the year. That was back then, now the kids don’t seem to go anywhere without their parents with them.
JM:You attended Indian Mountain for 8th grade.
DBI went to Indian Mountain for 8th grade.
JM:Who was Head at that time?
DB:It was Bill Doolittle. (Listen to Bill Doolittle’s interview) He was near retirement. I don’t remember when He actually retired. He had been there for a long time. I was there in 1968-69. It was a good change. Nothing against Salisbury Central, but I don’t remember doing any homework. I wasn’t a genius or anything, but it was easy. Indian Mountain forced us to do more work.
JM:In a more structured learning style.
DB:We had to write papers for English and history. I was taking French: the teacher wasn’t very good. I was an athlete there. I played quarterback on the football team because I was the only kid on the team who could throw a football and I was tall. I was six feet tall and 140 pounds.
In winter time at Indian Mountain you had 2 choices: downhill skiing or play ice hockey. That was it. There was a gym, but the gym was set up like an auditorium with chairs. We taught ourselves to skate from the years when I was growing up so I played ice hockey. In the old days the hockey rink at Hotchkiss was an outdoor rink, which most places were. Back then it was fun. All the kids at Hotchkiss had to go to dinner at 6:00 so we would go up and have dinner and then race over to the hockey rink. It had this one light at the end. We would just skate. In the beginning it was how many times did you fall? There was almost more times on the ice than to stand up. The fun part was when it snowed. You would get a shovel and you would make paths on the ice and you would skate around on the paths. We didn’t play much ice hockey: we used tennis balls instead of pucks. Sometimes we would be there and it was so cold, I could not get my skates off so I got to walk home with those clunky plastic skate guards on.
JM:When you attended Hotchkiss, I am going to ask you about some of your classes. Whom did you have for chemistry?
DB:Chemistry was in my junior year and I had Neil Scott. (See Neil Scott interview)
JM:Whom did you have for Geometry?
DB:Geometry was in my lower mid or second year and that was Art Eddy. (See Art Eddy interview)
DB:As a 9th grader I had Bob Hawkins for English and George Kellogg for General Science. (See Robert Hawkins and George Kellogg audio interviews) For freshman prep English was Bob Hawkins “the Hawk” which every kid too with him. I got a D plus and that was “Good Job!” For him a D plus was average. Usually I was a B minus student what was about average for that time.
JM:How about languages?
DB:When I was at Hotchkiss, my brother was one year ahead of me. It used to be you had to take Latin and another language so Latin and French or Latin and Spanish, German, or Russian. My brother had to take Latin, but they changed the rule for my particular grade. We still had to take two languages so I took French and Spanish rather than Latin. They were so similar that I would write excellent Spanish on my French test and visa versa. The teacher would say that was good French, but this is Spanish class. I took French, Advanced First Year French. I wasn’t ready for second year French. I also had George Anastasio for Spanish. He taught me first year Spanish, I think (See George Anastasio interview). Language was not my forte. The rule was two years of one language and three years of another language or four years of one language. That has changed now you can take three years of one language.
JM:When you were going to the dining room for meals as a student, was there a dress code.
DB:Oh absolutely everything was coat and tie. You had to wear a coat and tie. As a student meals were all sit down, three meals a day from Sunday dinner until Saturday lunch we were assigned a table with one teacher and eleven students. Each teacher was assigned a table and they were expected to be there breakfast, lunch and dinner.
JM:When did you graduate from Hotchkiss?
DB:I graduated from Hotchkiss in 1973. The school was all boys until 1974-1975. In 1975 was the first year we had girls there.
JM:Where did you go to college?
DB:When I graduated from Hotchkiss I went to the US Naval Academy on July 5, 1973 and lasted not quite 2 years. I left in the first week in April of my second year. The military was not going to be for me. I came home for one year because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at that point. I did odd jobs. I went to the old University of Connecticut at Torrington and took a couple of courses. Then I decided I was going to try to be a teacher, just like dad as it turned out. I went to Springfield College. The academics at Springfield were relatively simple. I did my homework as I was used to doing that. I was used to studying. I filled the rest of my free time with sports.
JM:When did you graduate from Springfield College?
DB:I graduated in 1978.
JM:You taught away for eight years.5.
DB:I taught 2 years in Virginia at a private boys’ school, all boys. Four years in New Jersey at a co-ed private boarding school and then 2 years in Hawaii at another co-ed private boarding school. I came back to teach in 1986. 1987 was my first year of teaching at Hotchkiss. My father was still teaching and we taught together for 5 years. In fact when I got hired, he was the Head of the Math Department.
The Head of School at that time was Arthur White, a former Math teacher who came to Hotchkiss in the mid to late 1950s. He and Cynthia had 3 boys and there were three boys in my family: we all grew up together and went Hotchkiss together Art later became the Dean of Students and other different things.
JM:You have been at Hotchkiss continuously since 1986.
DB:I am starting my 34th year of teaching there. My plan is to retire this June.
JM:You teach math, but what do you coach?
DB:I have coached a lot of different sports. Last year I coached 3rd field hockey for freshmen, JV squash and varsity girls’ golf.
JM:What is squash?
DB:Squash is an indoor sport. You are in a box with 4 walls. You are allowed to play off all walls. If the ball bounces a second time on the floor, you lose the point. There are some barriers on the walls. You can’t hit above a certain line or there is a penalty. There is a tin which is generally made of tin, so when you hit it, you can hear so you lose a point.
JM:Is it a team sport or a single player sport?
DB:It is like tennis or golf. It is a team sport: for matches it is 7 members of a team versus 7 members of another team. #1 team member plays #1 team members from the other team and so forth. You need to win 4 or more of the sets to win the match.
I have coached volleyball for 28 years, our varsity volleyball team.
JM:Over the 34 years I am sure you have seen lots of changes. Could you give me some examples?
DB:Changes at Hotchkiss? When I showed up to teach in 1987, there were girls there. The girls came in in 1975. 34 years ago I still had the feeling that it was a boys’ school with a whole lot of girls. There was that feel which came from the boys. Then with all boys you played sports and talked about sports. Now with girls around there is more social life and less talk about sports. Back then the boys took sports more seriously. Everything was serious and the girls lightened the atmosphere. When I first go there I was coaching more girls’ sports than guy sports.
JM:How have the trustees’ attitude changed?
DB:When I got there in 1987, the trustees were a bunch of cigar smoking rulers of the world. They owned companies. They were rich and successful. They told people what to do and where to go. Their job was to come in and make sure Hotchkiss had money. If a new dorm was to be built, they would have to OK that and the budget. I think the only thing officially they did was to hire the Head of School. They did not really get involved with the teaching, the coaching, dorm life and things like that. Over time that has changed. Now the trustees are much younger in general. They are not all CEOs of big time corporations, but we still have some. They are much more interested in and involved in what do you teach/ why do you teach that? What do you do in the dorm? They are much more engaged with the day to day activity. Now we have committees with faculty members and trustees. They want to learn about the school.
JM:How about the curriculum? How as that changed?
DB:The big thing with the curriculum is about 10 years ago we put in a Humanities Program which is a combination of English, history, philosophy, religion, and arts. The arts can include drama, music, painting, photography, or ceramics: you have to pick one of those. That is true for the 9th and 10th graders. The 11th and 12 graders were taking in general 5 classes: English, math, history, language and science. For the last number of years computers are much more involved. There are some teachers in English and history, especially, require that every paper you write is on the computer: the teacher grades them and sends it back to you on the computer. Since I am about to retire they didn’t force me, but I am old fashioned I use paper and pencil and I grade that way.
My father who taught here before me used to “stand and deliver”. You lecture and the kids take notes, you ask questions and that is it. I never liked that method but did it that way for a number of years, but now I used the white board and group work 3 or more together. The kids have to work together to solve the problem. I will say, “It’s wrong. So you figure it out.” You have to vary the skill level so you don’t have the three best kids together.
JM:How about the diversity of students?
DB:When Hotchkiss was all boys it was very monochromatic, all Caucasian, a lot of kids from Darian, New Canaan, Greenwich and New York City. We had a few kids from around the world and all over the country. Since I have been here teaching the school has worked hard to become much more diverse. You don’t need an 800 SAT to get into Hotchkiss. You should be a good kid and willing to work hard. I think the best thing about Hotchkiss is to be able to sit down at a table and have 5 different countries represented. You can have wonderful discussions and respect each other’s point of view.
Another thing I have noticed about Hotchkiss is with other schools there is art work on the walls but it is behind glass, not at Hotchkiss. Our kids don’t go around putting moustaches on someone else’s painting. When I first came if you could play an instrument so what? It has changed over time. We have some amazing musicians, the other kids, like the jocks now appreciate how good their classmates are.
We had a girl about 10 years ago, a 10th grader, who was an amazing violinist. They had a Christmas concert and she played this solo piece with the orchestra. It was unbelievable. Unfortunately not a lot of kids went. That was sad to me. I wrote a letter to the Head of School and the head of the Music Department. I felt that the orchestra and this girl should play before the whole school so others could see how talented she was. They did it. The kids were just amazed. “I can’t believe how good she is!” They understood her talent.
JM:To have her talent appreciated is the important thing.
DB:When I was a student here, if you were not a jock, other talents did not matter. Now we have so many talented kids in so many different areas that they are all valued.
JM:How have the parent changed over the years?
DB:My father used to say and the old Head master George Van Santvoord way back when. “Drop them off and come back in 2 day in October and then we’ll see you when they graduate.” Now there are a number of international parents who buy or rent a house in the Lakeville-Salisbury area and live here. Helicopter parent have become live-in parents. I have actually suggested to parents, as I am an old timer and can get away with this, “You know you have got to let them live alone and have problems on their own.” Parents want to fix everything. Some 9th graders already have a college advisor. So if I suggest something, the response will be, ”I need to check with my parents and my college advisor.”
JM:Is there anything you would like to add about Hotchkiss that I haven’t asked you?
DB:A couple of things. #1 back in the day the school was faculty run. Pretty much every decision that was made for the school was made by faculty. Now almost nothing is decided by the faculty any more: the Deans and also committees make the decisions. There are times when those of us who have been there for a long time know if something will not work because it has been tried before and failed.
#2 we tend to give the kids everything they want just because they want it. We used to shut off the internet access in the dorm rooms at 11:00 PM for underclass students. The rule was for 10th graders you had to be in bed by 11. Now we have given them more time. Then we complain they do not get enough sleep. It is the kids’ job to push the boundaries because they are teenagers, but it is the adults’ job to set the boundaries and mean it.
JM:Thank you so much.