A Good Neighbor and a Loyal Friend
The sun glittered across Sippican Harbor on a Saturday afternoon in late May 1934. A gentle breeze cooled the students, faculty, and guests who were gathered outside Hoyt Hall for the dedication of Tabor’s newest rowing shell. The ceremony began with a dramatic gesture.
“As the doors of the shell room opened, a group of stalwart oarsmen emerged and held their oars so as to form an arch through which the new shell was carried by the first eight crewmen,” The Log reported. “The Edith Austin, as the new shell was named, is called after its christener in honor of her having been the founder of the Tabor rowing fleet.”
Edith Austin, a jovial pillar of the Marion community, stood near the front of the boat. Following brief remarks from Headmaster Walter Lillard and rowing coach Roderick Beebe, Austin performed the solemn duty of christening the shell. “After Miss Austin had broken the bottle of real champagne over the bow seat,” The Log noted, “there was a mad rush to prevent wastage.”
In the storied history of Tabor rowing, Austin resides on Mount Rushmore. “Not many people realize that at one time, when it was first started, crew at Tabor had little chance of surviving,” a Log reporter wrote in 1951. “It was here, however, that Miss Austin took an interest in the sport and enabled it through her generosity to not only live, but to flourish until it became what it is today. She has donated three of the five eight-oared shells that the school has possessed.”
Tabor’s first rowing shell was a gift from Austin in 1917. She donated several more over the years, including Raybelle I and Raybelle II, which were named after her esteemed dog. When Tabor won the Thames Challenge Cup at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta in 1936 and 1937, both victories were rowed in shells donated by Austin. She cheered the 1937 crew from the banks of the Thames alongside Headmaster Lillard. The following autumn, she helped organize a town celebration to honor the team’s triumph.
“The citizenry of Marion expressed its pride in Tabor Academy’s winning oarsmen by festivities last night in Hoyt Gymnasium,” The Standard Times reported. “A grand march at 10 p.m. was led by Miss Austin and Coach Beebe. Square dances followed.” One highlight of the evening was when everyone watched the motion pictures that Austin had captured of the races.
Austin enjoyed celebrating Tabor’s Henley victories, but she was just as loyal to the team in defeat. After the 1947 crew lost a close race in the final against Kent School, Austin treated the rowers to a lavish dinner in London. The meal was all the more special because Tabor was the only American school to eat the same post-war rations as the British teams throughout the Regatta. For their noble effort, the 1947 crew was inducted into Tabor’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2020.
In 1952, Austin stood next to Headmaster James Wickenden and Coach Beebe during the quarter-final against the University of London. It would go down as one of the most exciting races of the Regatta. After a fast start, Tabor held a comfortable one-length lead as the boats charged down the wind-swept course. The chop intensified in the final 200 meters and Tabor caught a boat-stopping crab. The London team overtook them. “The English spectators, famed for their reserve and self control, were wild,” Wickenden wrote in The Log the next fall. “Mr. Beebe, Miss Austin, and I were nervous wrecks.”
With 100 meters to the wire, Tabor mounted a furious sprint. They closed the gap, but the finish line came a stroke too soon and they lost by four feet. In its recap of the race, The Log noted the impact of Austin’s presence. “It is obvious that, rowing in the shell she had provided and with Miss Austin herself looking on, the crew wanted more than ever to achieve a win.”
Beyond Austin’s staunch and abiding support of Tabor rowing, she made many other contributions to the school’s overall culture and program. In 1927, she helped donate a Steinway grand piano that enlivened social events in the Lillard living room for decades. In 1954, she funded the school’s purchase of a much-needed motor for Bestevaer, the schooner whose name would soon be changed to Tabor Boy.
An avid traveler, Austin was passionate about collecting and studying flags. She amassed a personal collection of over 200, which she shared with the Tabor community in many lively lectures between 1919 and 1953. Tabor’s longstanding tradition of displaying the flags of its international students can be traced to Austin’s influence.
One of the more unique flags in her possession was that of the United Nations. In 1951, she presented it to Tabor as part of a special program to celebrate UN Day. “The banner of the United Nations is new, as far as flags go, yet it already has flown, and is flying, over one of history’s bloodiest battlegrounds,” a Log reporter wrote. “That it should also fly over an American secondary school is of some significance.”
Flanked by Wickenden and various community leaders, Austin reviewed a presentation of the school’s color guard. Military drills and a parade highlighted an event that The Log described as a meaningful chance for the school to thank its benefactor. “This ceremony was, in a sense, an opportunity for Tabor to show its gratitude to Miss Austin for all her kind acts toward the Academy.”
It seems the school was always looking for ways to thank Austin. The inscription in the 1937 yearbook is a poignant example: “In grateful recognition of the service which has made her to the School both a good neighbor and loyal friend, we respectfully dedicate this sixteenth edition of the Fore ’n’ Aft to Edith Austin.”
Austin passed away in 1957 at the age of 83. The obituaries that ran in The Log and local newspapers paid homage to a beloved figure whose kindness permanently altered the fortunes of the Tabor and Marion communities. Both are stronger for having received her love.