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Decades of Delectable Dining

Students dining
Students dining
Students in Tabor's Dining Hall
Mike Sirianni and his dining hall staff
Dining staff on the waterfront
Decades of Delectable Dining

In 1897, the cost of a Tabor education was $8.00 per term. This included room but not board as the school lacked dining facilities. “Good table board,” the school catalogue told prospective families, “can be procured in the village at a cost of from $3.50 to $4.00 per week.”

By the early 20th century the school had dining rooms in Heath House and Tabor House, each one capable of feeding 25 students at a time (enrollment in 1900-1901 was 60 students, and only 44 in 1910-1911). 

“The diet is planned carefully to meet the demands of growing boys with excellent food, ample in amount,” boasted the 1920 catalogue. “The milk comes from a registered herd in a modern dairy … the water is from artesian wells in Marion and is officially rated as one of the two best supplies in Massachusetts.” 

After Walter Lillard became Tabor’s fifth headmaster in 1916—the second date inscribed on the school seal—enrollment swelled. New facilities were needed to accommodate the growing student body. A few weeks before Christmas 1925, ground broke on a project that would transform Tabor forever. Sited on the waterfront, the new building promised to centralize the residential experience while marking a huge step forward in Lillard’s vision of turning Tabor into the School by the Sea.  

To oversee the project, the school hired Charles Coolidge, a prominent Boston-based architect. Coolidge and his family spent summers in Marion, and he had a keen sense of the town’s aesthetic. His firm had designed several dormitories for Harvard, so he understood the importance of melding stately elegance with utility.

“It is to be two stories high and will accommodate ninety boys,” The Log reported in January 1926. “The second story will be devoted entirely to bedrooms while a large living room will be located on the lower floor in the center of the building. A dining room, which will provide for the whole school, and a thoroughly equipped modern kitchen will take up the lower floor of the south wing.”

Construction finished in late spring. A large and merry delegation of trustees and alumni arrived in Marion to commemorate the occasion, which coincided with the school’s 50th anniversary. Walter Lillard was under the impression that the building would be called “Harbor Hall,” but the trustees surprised him when
they announced a different name, one they had unanimously agreed on: Lillard Hall. 

Its classic Tudor Revival style and red roof radiated an aura of distinction, and its curving half-timbered walls formed a welcoming courtyard. The Tabor community could not have been happier with their new building. Local residents also took pride.

In their June 1926 newsletter, the Sippican Historical Society called Lillard Hall “one of the finest boys’ prep school dormitories anywhere” and praised it as “a notable addition to the fine buildings of Marion.” 

Beyond its curb appeal, Lillard Hall quickly achieved the desired effect of uniting the community, which had grown to 125 students by 1926-27 and 149 students two years later. Its living room hosted a number of events ranging from lectures and award ceremonies to dances and holiday parties. A brick fireplace and plush sofas made it a coveted spot for friends to converse and play games. Mailboxes were located in the corner of the room, prompting opportunities for students and faculty to mingle outside the classroom. From the top of the building, the ship’s bells in the Lillard clock tower rang throughout the day, a pleasant metronome to guide the rhythm of campus life.  

At no time was the community more united than meal time. Until the mid-1970s, every dinner was a sit-down affair. “Meals were served family style with a faculty member at the head of table,” says Jay Winburn ’65. “We'd switch tables, I believe, once a week, and we'd all take turns serving.”

Seated table service was gradually phased out in favor of cafeteria style, which gave students a better opportunity to get to know members of the dining staff. 

Kenneth Briggs was one of their favorites. “He came to Tabor 21 years ago and began work as a dishwasher,” The Log said in 1954. “In the time that Ken has advanced himself to the position of Head Chef, he has observed numerous improvements in the efficiency and equipment of Tabor’s kitchen.” A new stove and electric dishwasher were two appliances that helped modernize the facilities during Chef Briggs’s tenure. A fun fact he shared with The Log is that Tabor’s student body consumed 90 gallons of milk every day. 

While no dining hall menu is immune from criticism, Tabor students have always eaten well. “So far this year,” The Log noted in 1956, “students have had steaks, delicious roast beef, excellent lamb, and southern fried chicken.” Even the more standard cafeteria fare was memorable. Jeffrey Landsman ’70 says everyone referred to hamburgers as “hockey pucks” and recalls eating a sandwich known as “the trainwreck,” essentially a sloppy joe with potatoes. In addition to everyday meals, the dining staff demonstrated a consistent knack for pulling off big events. 

On October 3, 1976, the school hosted more than 1,200 visitors for Tabor Day. It was essentially parents’ weekend and reunion rolled into a single event. Although it was ambitious, it could not have gone better. The football and soccer teams earned big victories, parents and teachers had productive conferences, and hundreds of alumni were thrilled with the state of the school under first-year headmaster Peter Webster. According to The Log, one highlight from the day was “a very pleasant buffet luncheon held in the dining hall.” Even though the kitchen facilities proved more than capable of feeding such a large group, the benevolence of a grateful Tabor family would soon lead to another transformational moment. 

General Bruce E. Johnson, whose son Evans graduated in the class of ’72, wanted to do something special to thank the school. He contacted the advancement office and pledged a generous gift. It was initially earmarked for a swimming pool, but after consulting with headmaster Webster and the trustees, General Johnson gave his blessing for the funds to be used for a more impactful project, serving the student body which grew to over 500 by 1977-78. 

The Johnson Dining Room opened in 1977. Construction was overseen by Don Wing, Tabor’s legendary head of grounds, and expanded the available dining area while making significant cosmetic upgrades. A wall that had divided the old room was knocked down, the floors were sanded and varnished, and a refurbished ceiling included wood beams that tied into the building’s Tudor Revival style. Mrs. Webster led the efforts to redecorate the interior. Trestle tables and Windsor chairs replaced the old furniture, and a fresh coat of paint with accents of Wedgewood blue brightened the entire room. Coinciding with this project, an anonymous gift provided for the construction of a patio overlooking the harbor. On warm days, the sliding doors would be opened for everyone to enjoy the breeze, like dining on the deck of a sailboat. 

In a dishwashing room known affectionately as “The Pit,” students worked regular shifts. It was good character-building work, with students still wiping tables just before COVID began. And it also enabled some occasional mischief. A long strip of switches on The Pit’s wall controlled all the lights in the dining hall. One swipe of a ruler would plunge the entire room into darkness. Every now and then, this would trigger the outbreak of an epic food fight.

Just as fondly as many alumni recall these playful shenanigans in the Johnson Dining Room, it is also the setting for some of their most poignant memories. Traditions and themed/holiday meals, including the 100 Days Dinner and Senior Banquet, some of which we explore in “Memorable Meals” on page 24, are remembered as nostalgic celebrations.

Another major renovation occurred in 2001. Carried out almost exclusively by members of the school’s grounds staff, the project added 1,500 square feet of kitchen and dining space. Food storage capacity was nearly doubled thanks to a new freezer, and expanded serving areas made everything run more smoothly. 

“We can now serve 300 students in less than 12 minutes,” Mike Sirianni, Tabor’s long-standing director of food services, told The Log in 2001. 

In addition to the improved efficiency, enhancements to the kitchen let the dining staff showcase their culinary abilities. Students raved about the new pizza machine and stir fry stations. It wasn’t lost on them how good they had it.

“We have salmon once a week,” one senior exclaimed. “What school has salmon?”

The following year, Tabor became the first prep school in the region to have another delicacy when Lee Pokoik ’63 donated a soft serve ice cream machine. It was quite a sensation at the time and remains well appreciated and utilized to this day. 

An important chapter in the dining hall’s story involves its role in campus sustainability initiatives. In 2009, Allie Evarts ’09 and Frances Robinson ’09, co-heads of the EA@TA club (Environmental Awareness at Tabor), organized a student-led campaign to stop using trays. The simple change made a substantial impact on efforts to conserve water and reduce food waste.

The Johnson Dining Hall’s most recent renovation occurred in 2018. Self-service stations improved circulation and enhanced the dining experience for all, particularly those with food allergies. The addition of floor-to-ceiling windows increased the room’s natural light while maximizing the unique oceanfront views. 

Tabor’s dining experience has come a long way since students had to procure their own food in the village. While Lillard Hall has changed over the years, it has only moved closer to the vision of its namesake, a beautiful and unifying anchor for the school by the sea.