In Print

Scratching the surface

By Dan Cabot - August 9, 2007

On Martha's Vineyard, it often happens that a person you thought quite ordinary turns out to be someone important, or someone famous, or someone who has done great things. Sadly, you often learn these interesting facts by reading an obituary. "Gee, I wish I'd known that," you say. "I'd have liked to talk with him [or her] about some of that stuff."

Among the interesting (and still living) neighbors is West Chop summer resident F. Charles "Chuck" Froelicher. You may know that Mr. Froelicher, with a long history of Vineyard summer connections, was active off-Island in a number of conservation organizations and was for a time on the board of Sheriff's Meadow Foundation. You may not know that as a young teacher he took over a failing Denver military academy, serving as its headmaster from 1955 to 1975, dropping the military trappings of the school and building it into a large and successful independent school, one of the most well-respected in the mountain West. You may also not know that he was one of a handful of people who were responsible for bringing the Outward Bound Schools from Great Britain to the United States.

"Because the Rivets will Scratch the Seats," handsomely printed with dozens of photographs, is a biography of Chuck Froelicher and a history of Colorado Academy. Mr. Froelicher told The Times in a telephone interview that he began a memoir, which Rosemary Fetter later condensed into the book, as an account of Colorado Academy for his grandchildren, some of whom attended the school.

Although 3,500 copies of "Rivets" were printed, it was always intended as an archival record and is not for sale. But even if it should it appear in local bookstores, it would probably not sell widely. Only those with a direct connection to Colorado Academy are likely to be interested in reading capsule biographies of the school's loyal and generous trustees or about the innovative and multitalented teachers Mr. Froelicher persuaded to come to Denver to build a school.

However, anyone who has worked to rescue a struggling independent school will find a responsive chord in the challenges of neglected buildings, overworked faculty, fires, tragedies, and near-bankruptcy. School people generally will find interest in the educational and practical decisions that attracted boys to the school and brought it to national prominence. Anyone who works with young people will sympathize with the school's struggle in the 1960s to deal with drugs on campus, a problem so severe that in 1970 Colorado Academy closed its boarding department and became a day school, at the same time opening its doors to girls as well as boys.

Moreover, "Rivets" will also find an audience among those interested in Outward Bound and what came to be known as "outdoor education": mountaineering, rock climbing, whitewater paddling, orienteering, wilderness survival, and rescue - in short, useful skills which develop the students' mental toughness, resourcefulness, and self-confidence.

Every school has its stories

I suspect that the public generally will find itself skimming many sections of "Rivets" or skipping them entirely. Vineyarders who decide to find out something about their West Chop neighbor, however, will find many entertaining nuggets along the trail. Every school has its lore, its famous pranks, its clever solutions, its amusing blunders.

For example, the story Ms. Fetter calls "The 'Bill Jones' Incident." Mr. Froelicher, usually a perceptive recruiter of faculty talent, had a last-minute opening in the math department. He hired Jones on the injudicious recommendation of Henry Poor, headmaster of the Fountain Valley School and a friend of Jones's family. When Jones came to school the first day frightening students with a .45 caliber Colt six-gun in a shoulder holster, Mr. Froelicher called him in.

"Oh, I just carry it to make sure I have no disciplinary problems," Jones explained. It turned out that he had spent the past three years locked up in a mental institution, which Mr. Poor had neglected to mention. During the armed confrontation, Jones eventually was connected by phone with his therapist, Mr. Froelicher was able to get the gun away, and the brand-new teacher was led away in handcuffs by the police.

A sidebar tells of a knock on the headmaster's door one evening. Weeping and bleeding, a young woman told the Froelichers that she had been assaulted. Mr. Froelicher wanted to call the police, but the young woman asked him to call her brother, who she said knew her attacker. The Froelichers got her cleaned up and gave her tea and one of Mrs. Froelicher's shirts to wear. The brother eventually came and got her. A few minutes after she left, the sheriff knocked at the Froelichers' door, looking for a young woman who had just escaped from the Colorado Women's Prison.

Another sidebar asks, "Where's Wahoo?" When Colorado Academy was a military school, the riding program was its pride. In the early 1950s the school's equine star was Wahoo, who led all the parades and won numerous Western Stock Show blue ribbons for his riders. A few months before Mr. Froelicher took over as headmaster, one of the school's horses became so sick that the vet recommended that he be put down. When the knacker's truck arrived, the school's maintenance man "led the poor creature to its final destiny." Later that day, the riding master found the terminally ill horse still in its stall. The champion Wahoo had been accidentally sent to the glue factory.

Read more at the Vineyard Haven Library or the West Chop Club.

Dan Cabot is a Times contributing editor.

Rosemary Fetter, "Because the Rivets will Scratch the Seats: Chuck Froelicher and Colorado Academy." Argent Books LLC, 2007. Hardcover, 185 pages. This book is not generally available in bookstores. However, a copy may be obtained from Colorado Academy for $50 plus postage by e-mailing Copies are in the Vineyard Haven Library and at the West Chop Club.