PLUMFIELD SCHOOL AND PLUMFIELD CAMP 1931 – 1996
THE EARLY YEARS
In 1930 Mrs. Hilton lived at 181st Street in New York City with her husband, Charles O. Hilton, and their two young children, Jean and Ted. The economic depression was at its height. First, her husband lost his job with the Literary Guild Publishing Company; then the banks failed, and they lost all their savings. They were divorced and Mary Rose was left with two young children to support.
Somehow she persuaded the Riley family, who lived down the hall in the apartment building, and had a farm in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, to build a rustic cabin on their farm. She would start a summer camp for young children. She was able to enroll about a dozen children in her camp. This was in the depression when most people did not have extra money for camp, but parents wanted their children to experience the wholesome country far from the city.
When the summer was over, so was camp, and any income was nonexistent. Mrs. Hilton decided to get a job as a live-in governess. She reluctantly left her children with a friend and camp counselor, Violet Schulie, in Oak Ridge, N.J. and obtained a job with the LaMotts on Pear Tree Point Road, Darien, Connecticut. Mr. LaMott was a vice president of IBM. After a few months working with young Peter LaMott several people said she should start a Nursery School, because she was such a genius with children. Peter LaMott was a changed child. Mrs. Hilton had no capital and no formal educational background. There was an abandoned farm next to the LaMotts, owned by the Sacred Heart Convent on Long Neck Point. Somehow she persuaded them to rent it to her for a small amount, about $75 a month I believe and she would take care of their property. She took in children by the day. I guess today it would be called Day Care.
Thus Plumfield School was established. Two of the first students were Peter LaMott, who later became a surgeon and the doctor for the Mets, (his older brother, “Reddy” LaMott, was in the Navy and was killed at Pearl Harbor) and “Dicky” Pierson. Mr. Pierson helped Mrs. Hilton with financing at some point. One time Amelia Earhart was a guest of the Piersons.
The main farmhouse on the property was livable. Mrs. Hilton painted and repaired it and mowed the fields that became lawns, mostly herself, so that her family could live there and she could start a school. Jean and Ted learned by example to work hard and do any job that needed to be done. Later she took in a few boarding children as well as starting the nursery school.
Gradually she increased the enrollment so that she needed help. During the depression there were very few jobs for teachers, especially those just graduating from teachers’ colleges. New graduates were delighted to work for a small salary and room and board. Miss Estelle Kruese was one of the first teachers. She came from New Jersey and had a model A Ford she named “Betsy”. She also had a lively Irish Setter named Shanty Meginnus. Miss Kruese almost became a member of the family. Another early teacher was Myra Johnson, and then Rowena Postels who stayed more than twenty years and was a valued member of the staff.
When the summer came school turned into a camp. Over the years the wonderful reputation of the school grew and the number of pupils expanded. It was also clear that there were children who needed a home for various reasons. Perhaps both parents worked, or one had passed away. For one reason or another they needed a home and she provided it, and the house became a boarding school, usually not more than 5 or 6 children
The school needed a name. “Plumfield” was taken from Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Men, a book that was very popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s. So many people said, “This school is so like the Plumfield in Little Men”. In fact, Mrs. Gordon Aymar, who lived on Rings End Road, called Mrs. Hilton, “Mrs. Plumfield”. She seemed a little confused. (Mr. Gordon Aymar was a successful illustrator.)
For many years horses were kept at Plumfield. One was “Blackberry” and another one was named “Dinner Kettle” because if you rattled any pail she would come running. She was never tied up and did not need to be. She just wandered around the school property like a dog. Many times she was seen looking in one of the school windows, much to the delight of the students. At another time there was a goat that was a real nuisance. If you turned your back, he would butt you from behind.
So from very humble beginnings Mrs. Hilton became well known in Darien and the school prospered and grew. Several years later she was asked to run the children’s summer program at the Tokeneke Beach Club and the Wee Burn Beach Club. Both were very successful.
In the early years Plumfield School was always in transition. Gradually Mrs. Hilton converted the farm buildings into classrooms and the school kept growing and had grades Nursery through Eighth. There was a building near the water that was once a boathouse and she converted it into a Nursery School. In place of the large doors that opened one end of the building, she replaced with a large factory sash window and added heat and a bathroom.
THE LATER YEARS
One of the boarding students was Alexis Fuller; Her father was Buckminster Fuller who invented the Dymaxion Car which had three wheels and the Dymaxion Dome that was the pattern used on some building constructions (i.e. in NYC: the Hurst Publishing Tower) and the dome playground structure for children. I remember well Mr. Fuller coming to Plumfield and giving us a ride in the Dymaxion Car. Mr. Fuller drove up Rings End Road to the Post Road and did a complete circle under the traffic light. It was quite amazing.
Another student and camper was Reeve Lindberg, youngest daughter of Charles and Ann Morrow Lindberg. I remember one time when I was picking Reeve up in the school station wagon, Col. Lindberg came down to the end of the drive with her. Usually it was a bodyguard. One of children in the car said to Reeve, “Who is that?” Another student said, “Oh, that’s Reeve’s daddy”. Col. Lindberg was very pleased to be called that. He was usually called Col. Lindberg and he hated publicity. Mrs. Lindberg came to the parents meeting at school. He never did.
Kirk Douglas’s son, Joel Douglas, attended Plumfield. Linda Hunt, a well known actress, was the drama teacher at one time. Also, the granddaughter of Igor Skikorsky, the inventor of the helicopter attended Plumfield. William F. Buckley’s [Yale ’49] son, Christopher Buckley, who is now a well known author in his own right also attended. Another student was Ann Madeleine Heiskell, whose father ran Time Life Inc. Dr. Potter the retired president of Dartmouth College, Dr Potter’s grandson also attended Plumfield . Dr. Potter was heard to say to his grandson, “You’re so fortunate to go to a school like this. I wish I could have attended Plumfield.”
Names of other early boarding students were: Jimmy Bingham, Rita Mary Schoen, Joan Collins, and the three Whelan children: Bill, Betty and Molly. Sometimes children with special needs were also boarding students.
Barbara (Fisher) Brown remembers: PLUMFIELD SCHOOL
Jean gave me my first teaching job, starting in the fall of 1975. As I recall, it was a combination 3rd-4th grade class with about 14 students. In math, reading, and language arts, each student had an individualized program. Before school started, Jean gave the teachers curriculum notes for each student, so teachers knew exactly who was doing what and which books students were to use. For example, there were four reading groups for my class of 14 kids. There was one reading group with four very high achievers, two reading groups with average and slightly below average readers, and one reading group that had just one student. He was severely dyslexic and had always had a very tough time in school. As a new teacher, it sometimes pained me to listen to him read, but he worked very hard and never gave up. He blossomed at Plumfield, and I believe he is now a doctor.
“Teachers wrote extensive reports on each student at least twice a year, and Jean read all the reports and edited them herself. She knew the children just as well as the teachers did. Jean often dropped by class, though it was usually to ask me a question. She usually wrote her question down, handed the note to me, and then waited for an answer. Then she would leave without saying a word. One of the boys once asked me, “Have you ever heard her voice?”
“Plumfield had the reputation of being a school that would meet individual needs, and of course that was Jean’s whole philosophy. In later years, she had a sliding scale for tuition based on how much individual attention a student would need and thus how many teachers/tutors she would need to have on staff. She told me once that some desperate parents were begging her to take their child, who had some difficult learning challenges. Jean told them that she couldn’t do it because she would have to hire a teacher just for their child, and the cost would be too high. The parents didn’t care. They were willing to pay anything just to enroll their child at Plumfield”.
“Jean was very loyal to her long time teachers. If they had some sort of family issue or something else that was impacting their performance negatively, she would work with them and try to adjust their schedule or workload in order to help. One teacher, Betty Parker, who had been with her for years and years lived right in the school house, and worked with individual students well into her advanced years. Jean was also very aware of her teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and always tried to build on their strengths. That was just one of the valuable lessons I learned from Jean…building on others’ strengths”.
Barbara Brown remembering PLUMFIELD CAMP
“In many ways, Plumfield was a traditional girls camp with all the activities – horseback riding, swimming, water-skiing, tennis, arts and crafts, canoeing, sailing, music and drama, hiking and mountain climbing even fencing for a few years. It seemed to get more tightly scheduled as the years went on, with activity groups moving from activity to activity most of the day. The rising bell rang at 7 am (except Sundays when it rang at 8) and the big bell also signaled meal times, the end of rest hour, changes in activity periods, and evening activity.”
“Jean was a legend at Plumfield, and she seemed to be everywhere. She was always observing, and campers and counselors often knew she was coming because she liked to whistle as she walked. She had more stamina than most counselors and campers, and we all knew she could beat any of us in a footrace. A real treat for campers was to have Jean riding her horse Pirate and leading a trail ride. Jean liked to roam the camp at night without a flashlight, and there were many times when I suddenly realized that she was sitting outside my cabin in the dark listening to what was going on inside.”
“I’ve since realized that many camps have a hierarchy of administration: director, assistant director, program director, head counselor, head of CITs, etc. Jean had none of that. She did it all herself, and paid the bills, too! She relied on certain trusted counselors and part time office help, but she was really a one-woman show.”
“Speaking of CITs, Jean didn’t have them. What the rest of the camping world calls CITs, she liked to call “half-ways” – halfway between a camper and a counselor. Eventually, there were several levels of halfways – step 1, 2 and maybe even 3. Halfways still had their own cabin with their own counselors, but they also helped out in activity areas and assisted counselors with the younger kids at rest hour and so on.”
“Perhaps different from other girls’ camps, Plumfield had strong music/drama and tripping programs. Deedy Lederer essentially led the music and drama with Heide Eberhardt’s assistance. Eventually, Heide headed the program with musical support from the very talented Becky Smelser. Every activity group put on a play, usually an adapted version of something well-known like “The Sound of Music” or “Oliver.” Most of these were adapted by Heide Eberhardt and later by Becky, when she became head of both the music and drama. Unbelievably, on every Visitors’ Day (the last day of camp) there were 4 or 5 or 6 plays performed down in the lodge, one right after another. These productions all had their own sets, their own costumes, their own musical scores, and somehow they went off without a hitch.”
“Plumfield was probably a little ahead of its time when it came to trips. The girls backpacked and took day hikes in the White Mountains (often without a man present), took overnight canoe trips on the Saco River or Lake Winnipesaukee, and camped in Maine near Monhegan or on the wilderness property that Jean and her brother Ted owned in Warren, NH. “
“Sundays at camp were special. All the campers and counselors wore their “whites” – white shirt and white shorts. (On other days, there was no uniform.) We slept late, had a special breakfast and then headed to the lodge for a non-denominational church service. The service consisted of hymn-singing and a short sermon, usually by Jean and occasionally by one of her trusted counselors. Church originally included the Lord’s Prayer, but when more non-Christians enrolled in Plumfield, Jean changed the prayer to Psalm 23. She always ended the service the same way, with a verse from Zephaniah in the Bible, “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save; he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love. He will joy over thee with singing.” Recently, someone had heard that verse and told me she always thinks of it as “The Plumfield Verse.”
“Sundays were more relaxed than the rest of the week. There was free time after church and after rest hour. Sometimes the boys from Deer Hill would come over for a tennis tournament or other activities.
Having boys around created a stir – some of the girls then felt they needed to pay attention to their hair – but things were back to normal by dinnertime. Sunday night there was a campfire down at the lodge, with some sort of entertainment followed by s’mores.”
“Singing was big at Plumfield. We sang in the dining room; we sang at Sunday night campfires; we sang on trips. For several years we had something called “Sing Along with Rich.” Rich Lederer, who worked at Deer Hill Camp, (Jean’s brother’s camp) would lead the Sunday night singing down in the lodge, playing his ukulele. Every breakfast started with a small group of campers singing a hymn, and the same group of campers sang that same hymn again at the Sunday church service. Even campers and counselors who weren’t and aren’t religious at all came to love those hymns.”
“What really made Plumfield special was the atmosphere. The campers felt loved and safe. Mrs. Hilton and Jean set that tone right from the beginning, and it lasted right to the end. There were always about always 2 or 3 campers who had some sort of learning or physical challenge – and all the rest of the campers learned to be kind and inclusive. It was expected. Not only did the campers gain confidence by learning so many new skills, they gained confidence because they were loved and cared for. They could be themselves. Jean treated everyone with respect and kindness and good humor, and we learned by example.”
“A number of counselors come to mind: Janet Smith and Nancy Moos were the long time riding counselors, Wendy Fisher Rau was in charge of swimming with Debbie Laver McNeil and Fran Sykes and Lisa Calloway; Olivia Morgan sailing;; Sue Bagger worked with the younger children; Janet Fisher took care of the camp office and anyone with bumps or scrape;. and ,any more over the years.”
“Several years after Plumfield Camp closed, I was back on the property when a former camper and a ”halfway” stopped by. Almost with tears in her eyes, she told me that her years at Plumfield were the happiest years of her life. She’s not the only one who has told me that. I think it’s because Jean and Mrs. Hilton had the knack of bringing out the best in others. They believed in us, and somehow we felt it and tried to live up to it. Plumfield taught people what goodness looks like, and for many-that was an unforgettable lesson.”
PLUMFIELD CAMP MEMORIES BY
Heide Eberhardt and Paula (Eberhardt) Kuiper-Moore
“Paula and I started attending camp when she was 8 and I was 5 years old. We continued for over 20 years, enjoying being campers, half-ways and then counselors who headed cabins and various activities. Starting out in Darien, we have many memories of those early years including: sleeping in classrooms, walking behind Mrs. Hilton to the nearby Pear Tree Point beach to go swimming, listening to bedtime stories by her about special chipmunks and eating lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As time went by, we then attended camp for a few years for part of the summer at the “outpost” where we slept in tents and the rest of the summer at the Moultonborough Neck property where the number of cabins grew from about 4 main ones to over 8 as the years went by. Eventually, we stayed the whole summer on Lake Winnipesaukee on the beautiful property where we played tennis, rode horses, swam, water-skied, put on plays in the lodge, did arts & crafts in a wonderful old barn across from the farmhouse, took day trips to climb mountains, and canoed and camped overnight on an island, where Jean would motorboat over to check on us at night. She would stretch out under the stars with the counselors and we would talk and try to laugh softly (so as not to waken campers) until after midnight when she would slip away in the motorboat back to camp.”
“Jean was devoted to bringing out the best in each of us – teaching by example the importance of caring for everyone and being joyful and grateful. I loved her Sunday Sermons – and will always remember one particular one about two people sitting on a wall as a passerby asked about what the people in the next town were like. It taught me to always bring to each experience a receptive, loving attitude. Jean’s joy and humor, understanding and supportiveness was clear us all. Her vivacity, insight, deep appreciation for each individual made us all want to follow her example”.
“Jean and Mrs. Hilton made Plumfield a very special summer home for us. It was always fun (even rainy days). We even had fun when she came to my cabin late at night to help capture a bat that was flying around. She held the wastebasket and broom and I the flashlight. Jean kept shushing me because it was truly hilarious watching her scurry around trapping the bat into the basket, which she did! Only one camper watched wide-eyed from beneath her blanket. (Alice Davis)”
“Life at Plumfield was also inspiring. Watching and learning from the Hilton’s led Paula and me into long teaching careers. Paula taught at Plumfield School for several years before moving to Holland and then England to teach where she also directed school plays. I was inspired by Jean to go on to graduate studies in elementary education and theatre (eventually directing and producing my own plays as well as adaptations of authors like Roald Dahl in my classes and for the school.)”
“Many of the friendships we made at camp, have lasted to the present. Involvement in multiple activities promoted confidence and skills in us and gave us many opportunities to grow as leaders and teachers, blessing and enriching and our lives. We will always cherish our memories of Jean and Mrs. Hilton with great love and appreciation for all they did for us and others.”
THE NEXT GENERATION - PLUMFIELD SCHOOL
Jean remembers, as a first year teacher, she planned to show her very young students how bubbles are formed. So she made a pan of soapy water and gave each student a straw to blow bubbles. They were very young and didn’t quite understand and so they sucked in on the straws, as they usually did with their milk, and got a mouth full of soapy water! They were very surprised, as was Jean. Sometimes a new teacher learns by experience.
Lorraine Bottini, a teacher, (later Mrs. Ted E. Hilton) remembers Jean telling her that any time a new teacher asked, “What were the most important things to know about teaching?” Jean would tell them; “There are just three things that are most important: First, Observe the child. Second, Observe the child, and Third, Observe the child.” Lorraine remembers that when she was teaching and Jean came into the classroom Lorraine was a little nervous at first, until she realized that
Jean was not there to observe the teaching. She was there to observe certain children. Names of other teachers were Pat Grinnell, Leslie Wagner, Ruth White, Ann Matheson, and Orda Crawford.
Paul Hilton (who was Mrs. Hilton’s grandson) attended Plumfield for a few years and his teacher was Ruth White. She was a remarkable teacher with at least three grade levels in her classroom. Paul remembers “doing individually graded Square Roots longhand, first thing, every morning to ‘warm us up.’ And having her read to us Ernest Thompson Seaton’s, founder of the Boy Scouts, I know now, adventure story: Two Little Savages about two boys who spent the summer in the woods.”
Ted B. Hilton remembers visiting one class. After the early morning opening, he asked what grade they were in and they all said “Third Grade.” And then they all went off in different directions, one to a 5th grade Math class, another to a 6th grade science group, and so forth. Very few were studying the Third Grade curriculum. That meant that every student had an individual schedule. There were about 100 children in the school and Jean Hilton prepared and revised these schedules for each child as the year went on. Extensive use was made of individual achievement tests administered as often as deemed necessary to keep careful track of a student’s growth. He remembers once Jean thought that one of her students had not made enough progress so she returned the tuition.
Sometimes people were confused and thought the school was only for gifted children. This was absolutely not so. There were children in the whole range of achievement, including some with dyslexia or other academic challenges, as well as gifted and mainstream students.
Susan Maddox: (teacher) Jean Hilton “accomplished great things through the students she nurtured and the staff she guided. She made a difference in my life”
Ralph Parks: (Founder of Pear Tree Point School) “ I have never before or since met a person of her greatness of heart and fierce passion. It is indeed fortunate for thousands of students, and their families, that this astonishing natural force was channeled into the worthiest of causes: helping children of all abilities and potential. I felt myself privileged to be mentored by a gifted and knowledgeable expert in education, most particularly in the highly specialized field of meeting the needs of those with different learning styles and needs. This neglected area of American education was of particular passion of hers, and one in which she was the forefront of theory and practice.”
Elena Tossti (Plumfield student ’75 – ’79) “ I came to Plumfield School in the fall of 1975. Prior, having a difficult and long, hard journey in the beginning of my education. Back then, it is hard to describe what were my real problems as far as learning went. Here I was, someone who had an average IQ, but somehow I learn differently than others. By the time I arrived at Plumfield I was 12 years old. I was confused and scared and did not have much hope that anything would be much better. After all, it is hard to be 12 years old and finding yourself in the fifth grade. Luckily I did not look my age so that helped. Little did I know now that learning and the problems I had were about to change. Sure it was hard, after years of impatient teachers and teasing from fellow students. My self-esteem was practically zero. Oh, how I wish things could come easy for me. But now the problems were going to be corrected for me and help was on the way. First year there I will admit was hard, but by the third year I was at Plumfield I was starting to feel better about myself and the way I could learn. Plumfield School took me from a person who learns differently and provided a safe and caring haven for me. Jean Hilton gets to the root of a student’s problem. She had a grace and kindness to her. She didn’t give up on the rest of us.
I owe a lot to Jean Hilton and Plumfield School because I feel, in many ways, without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. Those of us who learn differently, while others close the Book on us, Jean Hilton opens it up, gets to the root of it, and gives us more pages possible. I owe a lot to her. She made me feel as if I could do anything.”
Peter Hawkins (parent and coach): “I have nothing but wonderful recollections of Plumfield and the love that surrounded each and every student at that school. What a blessing. It was sad that only a relatively few children got to go. What is interesting is that whether they are now (2004) 60+ (Dan Richter), 50+ (Chris Buckley) or any of the many, many younger students I run into (mostly 20+) they have nothing but warm and happy memories – truly a testament to the leadership at the school.
James (Jimmy) C. Palmer (student) “I have many special memories of Plumfield School as it was like a second home to me as a child growing up. At Plumfield, I always felt welcomed and comfortable and Miss Hilton was responsible for this. (Mrs. Mary Rose Hilton, too, who I remember with great fondness.) Miss Hilton always fostered an atmosphere of mutual respect among all her students despite their different academic capabilities; indeed this was an integral part of what made Plumfield such a wonderful place. Miss Hilton made an impression on me as a student and later as an adult, when she gave me the opportunity to explore my interest in teaching after college. Allow me to share some of my fondest memories. As a youngster I viewed Miss Hilton as one of the most important people I knew. She commanded my respect. I learned about her spirit of adventure and that she was a pilot, and used to keep an airplane at the same place as my uncle did. Miss Hilton seemed to have boundless energy and enthusiasm, a trait I admire more and more as I get older. But what impressed me most was her dedication to her field and her students – her Plumfield kids – many of whom would come back to visit through the years because they realized what a special place Plumfield was. Moreover, I was always left with the impression that Miss Hilton lived a life she loved. I am grateful for Plumfield for giving me a special place as a child. Without doubt, my academic successes later in life were a direct result of Plumfield and Miss Hilton’s expertise. “
Mary McIntire (parent) Jean Hilton “was known to say that Plumfield was a place for the gifted, those with learning challenges, and those in the mainstream. In a very broad sense, our three boys could each fit into one of those groups On the other hand, they, like so many individual children , have all three attributes within them – giftedness, challenges and mainstream abilities. Plumfield’s individual attention could address all that. In high school our boys made high honor roll building on the strong base provided by Plumfield.”
A Neighbor “ ‘Plumfield Taffy’ was so named because of our golden retriever who used to visit frequently, making off with a mitten or a lunch. When she had 7 puppies Jean brought some of the classes to see them. Taffy would also go down the slide and what’s more, would wait her turn. That I really had to see, and I did!”
Liz Hanes: (parent) “My twin girls had the privilege of attending Plumfield and having such a wise, caring and gifted woman to guide their education and care for them in their early years. I have never met a more understanding and genuine woman; It was an honor to know her.”
Anne Baynes Hall (camper) “What a wonderful, amazing person! Aside from giving me a chance to enjoy summers in New Hampshire, I will always remember what she did after the car accident. I know my parents appreciated her vigil in the hospital until Mom could arrive. “
Zoe Richardson (teacher) “I taught at Plumfield for 17 years. I will remember Jean for her energy, dedication and intelligence as she guided Plumfield staff and students. Jean was the heart of the school and she’ll always be remembered for her positive spirit.”
Fifi Scoufopolous (camper) “ I always considered Jean ageless – her energy, mischievous eyes and laughter combined with her influence, encouragement and love which she gave to so many, so generously will always be felt and remembered.
Peggy (Herdig) Mason (Camp counselor and Teacher) ”Jean Hilton was an example of everlasting wonder – joy and discovery! What a wonderful example she set for the rest of us. She was “unflappable” too, when the rest of us might get uptight about something – she always kept ‘her cool’ with love, patience and good will. She was a very dear friend for me for the past 50 years.”
Debbie Gross (camper and counsler) “I know that I am one of hundreds whose life she touched. Jean had a major influence on my development, spending my summers at Plumfield Camp. She taught us all the meaning of goodness. Her words of encouragement to me as a child, and as an adult will always be with me. “
Ellie Madlie ( Parent) “My two sons, Adrian and Bill, were fortunate to attend Plumfield School in the 1980’s. I can still hardly believe that such an extraordinary educational opportunity ever existed and that it was right here in Darien when we needed it . Jean Hilton was truly an outstanding educator and I haven’t met many that I would consider educators at all. What a remarkable woman – we were blessed that she was in our lives.”
Orda and Rick Crawford (Care giver for MRH and teacher) “Jean was such a strong influence on our family and lives. She had such a positive outlook.
Catherine and Allen Haight (parents) “What a comfort it was to have her in charge of our children’s education. I have complete faith in her capabilities as an educator. She was a wonderful woman who made a large difference in so many young lives. Both our sons went to West Point after turning down Princeton, Duke, Rice and other equally good schools. Their foundation at Plumfield was so important in their latter years. Both have returned from Iraq. Both are majors; one a doctor for the 1st Bat. of the 5th Special Forces. We admire Miss Hilton very much.”
Laurie and Mike Gaudino (parents) “Lindsay graduated from Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. I feel Jean Hilton was part of this achievement. She will always be in our hearts and we will always be grateful for the time she was in our lives. She was one of the finest educators I have ever met. She was a beacon and champion of children. I know she saved my Lindsay.”
Lindsay Gaudino (student) “Jean Hilton made learning so much easier for me. If it wasn’t for her I never would have made it all the way through college. I know I would have given up if it wasn’t for her help when I was young. I think of her often, and thank God for the way she impacted my life.”
Sandra and Bob Lovegrove (parents) “Education was her life and she imparted that to all her students. You could visit her unannounced and she could tell you exactly where your child was in studies, that was her gift, nurturing and loving every student. She touched and help to shape the lives of our four sons.”
Dan Lovegrove (student) “Miss Hilton was an extraordinary woman. I will never forget her. I have many fond memories of Plumfield School.”
Lisa Callaway (camper, counselor and student) For many of us who came under the influence of Jean, she became a rescuer. For some, she enhanced and improved the experience of academic learning. For some she modelled a single woman’s competence, in running a successful school and summer camp pretty much single-handedly. For others, she was a gifted teacher, who inspired both students and other teachers. For me and some others, she rescued us by providing a safe place to grow and feel welcome and valued. She did that providing an atmosphere of love and respect for everyone equally.
Personally, I came from a family in which much of the available love went elsewhere. I guess it went to Plumfield Camp, because that’s where Jean established a healthy place for children to grow and thrive in the summers. That’s where I found the love and acceptance that my world lacked. It was wonderful: it was the happiest time of my life.
Jean fostered an inescapable atmosphere of love. She gave us a place to learn and succeed: she gave us a place to try to become our best selves.
I vividly remember the energy that was Jean, striding quickly along the path up Mt. Chocorua, climbing nimbly over rocky terrain. She had her hand in her pocket, as if jiggling keys or change or something loose. She whistled, clearly, and sharply and tunefully.
Jean gathered around her other young women who were as kind and loving as she was. She provided all of us a safe place to grow. These women, our counselors, made me feel valuable and strong and capable in the summers. There were no other people who appreciated me as a growing girl the way Jean and her teachers and counselors did.
These were some of our role models: capable, independent and kind. They helped instill in me a few qualities that still serve me well; things that I learned from Jean and her teachers, such as what kindness looks and acts and feels like, and the value of self-discipline and perseverance, and the importance of looking beyond the obvious to understand people. In many ways, Jean helped change the trajectory of our lives.
Ted B. Hilton remembers: “When I was in high school at King’s, I had a Model A Ford that did not have a starter. I had purchased the car for $15. but funds for a starter that cost $25 were not available. Plumfield was on a hill, as was my high school, so to start the car you gave it a push on the hill, and when it was rolling you jumped in, put it in gear and let out the clutch and the motor started. Later I bought a 1924 Harley Davidson motorcycle”.
Bill Whelan remembers” that he and Ted bought 25 day old chicks by mail from Sears and Roebuck & Co. We built a brooder with a light bulb for heat and raised the chicks successfully until they were half grown and in a coop outside. A dog or some other animal finished them off. Bill also remembers that we bought a home made racing car for $5.00 We each paid $2.50. It was built on the chassis of a Model T Ford. We never did get it running.”
Nancy Hilton Briney remembers: My early memories of “Gama” (Mrs. Mary Rose Hilton) was that she was quite strict, but not in a dictatorial way. She made sure you always had good manners, spoke politely and that your clothes and things were tidy. I remember she also enjoyed doing fun things too. She always took us on excursions to Old McDonald’s Farm and we got ice cream. When we went to Howard Johnson Resturant for dinner – a treat – she always got us a caramel popcorn bar. And for breakfast she would make us pancakes in all kinds of shapes. Whatever shape we wanted, if she could. Also, she always had ice cream sandwiches in the freezer in the basement that we could have after lunch or dinner. Teddy, my brother and I loved those ice cream sandwiches. Sometimes they would be in the freezer in the school and we’d have to go over there to get them. That was kind of exciting – to go into school when no one was there – and see all the empty desks and schoolwork on the wall. It made us wonder who all these kids were. I met some of these students from Plumfield School at camp, and one became one of my very best friends.
This is by Dr. Bonnie Dawkins who is a West Side School teacher in Cold Spring Harbor, New York and was a counselor for a number of years at Deer Hill Camp in Center Harbor, New Hampshire. She is the one who loved to drive the waterski motorboat that most of us avoided, because it meant towing skiers in circles for hours on end. Many were just beginners and would fall. You have to stop the boat, slowly circle the skier and pick them up. It got pretty boring. But Bonnie loved it.
THINKING ABOUT JEAN HILTON
December 2004 By Bonnie Dawkins
I remember one of many hot summer evenings in New Hampshire during camp. The kids were asleep, or so we want to believe, and everyone who is an adult is gathered on the porch of the white house after a long day. Everyone is there. Jean has just driven up for the weekend which we all know means just twenty-four hours or so. Jean always comes to visit us in a flash, just as she drove. She’d stay just a bit and then all too soon, head back home again to Connecticut on some other adventure.
I remember how everyone would try to predict how quickly Jean would arrive in New Hampshire from Darien. We’d figure at 80 mph, she’d be here by… at that point we’d always suggest some nearly impossible time frame, grossly miscalculating her actual arrival time. The assembled group breaks into laughter about it. Like her brother, Ted, we’d marvel at the sheer mileage Jean would accumulate on her car as she’d venture out far and wide on her weekend jaunts. She had busy things to do, so I remember she had a momentum about her. I loved that sense of energy, that sense of purpose. Her willingness to get up and go was the subject of numerous conversations over the years.
She’d be happy to see me, always. She’d ask about school, about my students. There would always be a certain knowing twinkle in her eyes, a feeling that from one teacher to another, we’d have things in common. I remember thinking that she took an interest in me; always seemed to know my comings and goings at West Side through Ted, even though I would only see her once or twice a year. Jean made me feel important, being in her presence. She was a good listener and I loved making her laugh, although she was so amiable, I know I wouldn’t have to work very hard to elicit some reaction from her. It would only take a hello to begin the conversation anew, regardless of how much time had passed since we last spoken.
I remember one time coming up to camp on a long weekend during the school year, just Ted, Helen, and me. We decided to stay overnight at Jean’s house on our way there. I remember rolling in kind of late – about 10:00 or so. The Hilton’s are many things, but they’re not usually late-to-bedders. Jean had her little dogs with her, of course. Neither Nole nor the other grouchy little thing really took to me and I remember being a little disappointed with that – usually animals and children liked me on sight. I remember thinking that from a canine perspective, Jean was well-armed in such a quiet, lovely neighborhood. Those dogs would respond to her smallest command. Regrettably, they eyed me suspiciously throughout our brief visit.
What I remember on that overnight visit too, besides Jean’s hospitality, was the quick tour she gave me of Plumfield that night. I loved seeing for myself that her school indeed was also her home. I was just a new teacher in those days and other than my personal feelings about West Side, the school feeling like home connection was something I’d only read about in books, I remember thinking that it confirmed some age old belief that good teachers really did sleep at their places of work – the childhood myth had been confirmed as we walked through her darkened school-house.
I remember hearing her talk about her teachers. She was very knowledgeable about them and referred to them in ways that let me know that she both understood their strengths and relied on them to take care of the students. I remembered thinking how her teachers were lucky to have her in the same way that I was lucky to have her brother as my principal, because I always knew that Ted understood me so well. Jean knew her students equally well, too. There was an immediate sense that they mattered to her, their learning mattered to her greatly. She would find a way to bridge any gap between the student and what he or she needed to learn to be successful. There was a quiet sense of confidence that she radiated as she spoke about her work.
But the thing that impressed me, such a seemingly small detail that stayed with me, was how she greeted us at her door the night we visited her. She’d probably turned into bed prior to our arrival, but I remember that she had the most beautiful silk pajamas on. She looked very studious and elegant as she welcomed us in, I thought, Gee, now that’s the way I want to look – no old wrinkly flannel, no rumpled T-shirt, no scruffy sweatpants. (At that point in my life, night clothes were just an extension of whatever had been worn that day) She looked beautiful in her wonderfully formal way. There was an aura about her. It’s a funny memory, because it was a passing thought. . . fleeting really. I’m sure she would have never imagined that someone would recall such a small moment in time, but my mind took a picture of her that evening, smiling at us, welcoming us for a brief visit, brief even by her own standards. I learned more about Jean through stories Ted and Helen always told – she flew a plane! She could drive all night! She had boundless energy! She was intelligent! She ran a tight ship! Ted always kept us up to date on her travels, her projects, her interests. Jean’s capabilities grew in my mind because of the way she was respected by the other members of the family, by the teachers in her school I later met and by the counselors in her camp.
I visited Plumfield Camp only once, sometime after it had officially closed. However, the children and the counselors who spent summers there thought it a wonderful place, filled with traditions and memories they wanted to share with me. They seemed powerfully committed to this camp and spoke about it as if it were a living thing. Again, another tribute to her good work.
The Hiltons were the first functioning family who spoke to one another using each other’s first names: Ted, Helen, Jean. For a long time, I couldn’t get used to it. Calling my aunt or my grandmother by their first names was simply not done in the Dawkins clan. At first I though it was a Deer Hill thing, but I realized that it was a Hilton thing. I remember thinking how connected it seemed to make everyone, how attached everyone seemed, how the generations interacted with one another in a way I had never really known in my own family. The kids spoke and referred to their aunt just as “Jean”. It was clear from the outset that I would of course, refer to one and all by first name, and so I did. I insisted my own students attending camp did the same: “Bonnie. It’s okay… you can call me Bonnie. Really, it’s all right”. Interesting with the Hiltons was like being part of a dynasty, and I was happy to be adopted by them in the years I spent at Deer Hill. They were golden years and I’m glad I was there to share them. I am very glad that I have a few memories of Jean which I will be keeping. I miss her, but I will continue to think of her.
* * * * *
Ted B. Hilton, 2016
I wish to thank Bill Whelan for reminding me of some experiences in our youth at Plumfield. And I’m particularly grateful to Lorraine Hilton for suggestions and ideas to improve the writing. If any one who reads this has any thoughts or ideas about Plumfield that they feel should be included I would be grateful if they would forward then to me at: 1572 Laurel Hollow Road Laurel Hollow, New York 11791 or by email to: email@example.com