Global Citizens & Spectators
International school trips in the 1920s and ’30s included visits to the Games
Two dates are inscribed on Tabor’s seal: 1876 and 1916. The former, of course, is the year Elizabeth Taber founded her school. The latter’s significance might not be as readily identifiable, but there’s a good chance Tabor would not exist today without the changes that started in 1916.
The school enjoyed steady growth over its first few decades, but its fortunes faded as a wave of financial catastrophes swept across the country around the turn of the century. By 1915, Tabor had fewer than a dozen students enrolled. Fearing insolvency, the Board of Trustees considered relinquishing control of Tabor to the town to run it as the local high school. Three of the Trustees, however, proposed another solution. A visionary headmaster, they believed, could chart a new course.
Walter Lillard became Tabor’s fifth headmaster in 1916. Working with the Trustees, he wasted no time reorganizing the school. In order to position Tabor more competitively with other prep schools, the girls boarding program was discontinued. Girls were still admitted as day students as part of a new division called the Tabor Academy Girls School. Marion’s geography, Lillard discerned, was the key to distinguishing Tabor––promotionally and programmatically. During his tenure, Tabor became the “School by the Sea.” Even before the Trustees brokered a deal with the town to move the entire campus to its current waterfront location, the water became a vital part of Tabor’s identity. The rowing and sailing teams started, the Tabor Boy program launched––initially with Black Duck, a ship borrowed from the Forbes family––and the curriculum incorporated a nautical science component.
The 1920 school catalogue, an admissions brochure of sorts, trumpeted the merits of the marine program. “The cutter drills, the sailing of small boats, and the cruising are most valuable experiences for any boy to have––especially in view of the timely preparedness of present-day problems when international barriers are being smashed and the man with a broad vision counts for so much.”
The shadow of World War I weighed heavily on Lillard, who ultimately served in both world wars, and he felt a duty to ensure his boys graduated as conscientious global citizens. He fervently believed that international contact between students promoted world peace, and he introduced several foreign exchange and travel programs to advance this belief. As early as 1919, Tabor students visited Central America and Europe, working as merchant marine cadets on the voyages––directly applying the seamanship skills they had learned in Buzzards Bay––and engaging in cultural exchanges once they reached their destinations.
In 1927, Lillard was instrumental in founding the International Schoolboy Fellowship (ISF). Other schools perceived the value of Tabor’s international outreach and were eager to join these efforts. “Believing that misunderstandings and quarrels between nations often arise through long-distance misjudgments,” Lillard wrote in the ISF’s handbook, “the headmasters of some American schools are now cooperating in the development of contacts that will tend to promote cordial relations and lasting friendships.”
Athletics were a recurring motif in Tabor’s own early travel programs. All-A-Taut-O, a book published by the Trustees in 1936, includes various accounts of the “friendly competitions” that Tabor boys participated in around the world: soccer in Costa Rica and Guatemala, basketball in Mexico and Puerto Rico, baseball and tennis in France and Germany, and rowing at England’s Henley Royal Regatta. Given this background, it’s not surprising that athletics were a critical part of the ISF’s first overseas trip in 1928.
On July 7, the SS Adriatic steamed out of New York Harbor. Among the passengers were 21 students, including four from Tabor. Lillard was the head chaperone. Eight days later, they disembarked in Liverpool and spent a day in London before crossing the channel. At l’école du Montcel, a school near Versailles where Lillard had cultivated strong relationships, the American boys studied with French teachers and fraternized with French teenagers. Day trips to Paris, picnic dinners, and evening dances were just a few of the highlights. The climax of the summer came at the end of July.
The train to Amsterdam was shorter than the boys expected. That was a good thing. Any longer and they would have struggled to contain their excitement. They were going to the Olympics! They spent four days in “the Venice of the north,” watching a number of events and exploring the city’s fairytale architecture during their downtime. The 1928 Games were historically significant because Germany was allowed to compete for the first time since being banned in 1920. Just as Lillard hoped, Tabor students had front-row seats to witness and absorb the promise of peace.
The success of this first ISF trip fueled tremendous growth. Over the next decade, membership expanded to include 25 American and 29 French, English, and German schools. Yearlong exchange programs began, and the summer transatlantic journey became an annual fixture. When the opportunity arose to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Lillard and the ISF leaders adjusted the itinerary. The mounting aggression of the Nazi government made this a complicated decision, but Lillard believed deeply in the power of diplomacy and international engagement. He held an eternally hopeful faith that the seeds of cooperation and understanding sowed through the ISF’s schoolboy contacts would bear fruit in future times.
The ISF group crossed the Atlantic on the Berengaria, sailing from New York on July 2. (Coincidentally, the Berengaria was the same ship that transported the rowing team to Henley in June; Roderick Beebe’s boys won the regatta’s Thames Cup when they defeated Kent in the finals.) This voyage was particularly spirited. Four members of Tabor’s jazz ensemble were present, and, along with musicians from other ISF schools, they serenaded passengers with daily concerts.
After two weeks of classes at Montcel, the students left for Berlin. Frank Jewett ’34 and Frank Righeimer ’25 were already there, representing the United States on the sailing and fencing teams, respectively. When the ISF boys weren’t busy watching the Games, they hiked and biked through the countryside with English and German students. Before returning home, they traveled through Switzerland. It was a blissful time.
Sadly, the 1936 Olympics are remembered as the prelude to one of the darkest chapters in modern history. Although Jesse Owens’ four gold medals spoiled Hitler’s dream of using athletics to advance the fallacy of racial superiority, the Nazi dictator soon forced the world into another calamitous war. Despite Lillard’s ardent hope that such a conflict could be avoided, he recognized the moral imperative of standing up to evil. In 1942, he left his school to serve his country. The Tabor community was crushed by his resignation, but forever strengthened by his presence.
After the war, Lillard became the Director of the US State Department’s newly formed International Refugee Organization. “Until we learn how to prevent war,” he said, “we shall have to deal with its aftermath.” The ISF struggled to regain its momentum and was ultimately subsumed by the English Speaking Union, a similar organization that facilitated transatlantic student exchanges. Although the ISF quickly receded into Tabor’s history, its mission, anchored in Lillard’s commitment to building global bridges, laid the foundation for the robust international programming that continues at Tabor today.