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Remembering Tom West, Headmaster,Teacher, and Mentor

It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Thomas A. West, Jr., who served The Country School for 10 years in multiple roles, including Headmaster, during more than five decades working in education. A published poet and author as well as a transformative educator, Mr. West passed away on September 20 in Colorado from complications of pneumonia.

A graduate of Oberlin College (BA, English Literature) and Tufts University (MA, Education), Mr. West served in a combat zone in Korea before turning to a career in education. He was teaching at the Applewild School in Fitchburg, MA, when he was approached by David MacLane, the Country School's first Headmaster and his former mentor at The Fenn School in Concord, MA. Mr. MacLane urged Mr. West to join him at his newest project, a small, recently founded independent school in Madison, CT, known as The Country School.

Mr. West arrived in Madison in 1963 with his young family in tow, taking on several roles, including Assistant Head of School, Athletic Director and coach, English and history teacher, literary magazine editor, and advisor. The photo at right is from the 1965 yearbook, which students dedicated to Mr. West, "teacher, coach, and friend."

When, after serving as Head for 11 years, Mr. MacLane left The Country School in 1967, Alfred Nicholson was hired to replace him as the school's second Headmaster, a role he held for one year. In 1968, Mr. West was asked to take over the position, becoming the school's third Headmaster. He, his wife, Ellie, and children, Wendy and Kenny, lived in the Farmhouse, with Mrs. West teaching art and the kids attending school as members of the classes of 1977 and 1978.

In 1973, Mr. West resigned to join the teaching faculty at Hammonasset School, a newly formed independent high school in Madison. In a letter he wrote to us last January, Mr. West described his memories of The Country School and the difficult decision he made to leave it:

My 10-year experience at The Country School still lives in my memories as an absolute favorite time in my 53-year-long career as a teacher and administrator. Much good occurred, thanks to an eager Board of Trustees, a fine faculty, and great kids. During the five years I was Head, I realized I needed to return to teaching, where my heart was, and fortunately two of the Trustees started the Hammonasset School. I was asked by Gordon Schofield to join his faculty — a new adventure I couldn't resist, but it was with great regret that I left Country.

Students again chose to dedicate the yearbook to Mr. West during his last year at The Country School, writing:

We dedicate our yearbook to Mr. West, who has been our mainstay. You have advised and understood us and helped us to understand others. You are a warm and wonderful person whom we will never forget. We will miss you. Our tribute and love to you, Mr. West.
 

Mr. West with former students in a newspaper article from the 1960s.


Mr. West taught at Hammonasset until 1981; he later also taught at Independent Day School in Middlefield, CT, and, for 18 years, at a small school in Colorado. When that school closed, he dedicated most of his time to writing. His books include Nonantum Street and The Hungry Man, both poetry collections, and Our Students Can Write, published with a grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation and featuring work by some of his Hammonasset students. His poetry has been published in a variety of literary magazines and journals, including The Literary Review, The Ann Arbor Review, The Connecticut River Review, and New Mexico Humanities Review. At the time of his death, Mr. West was working on a book of short stories. Some of his books are available in the Alumni and Faculty Authors bookshelf in Robinson House.  

Mr. West is survived by his wife, Meva Eringen, also a former educator, and children, Wendy and Kenny. Writing about her father's passing, Wendy said, "I sometimes feel as if we haven't lost him at all. He's still in our memories, thoughts, my blood, his writings, photos, songs, and everything he's touched  especially our lives. He is everywhere now."

Mr. West also leaves a legacy in the memories of his former students. When he received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2014, Stephen Davis '70 delivered a "Carpe Mentor" speech about the lasting impact of an excellent teacher mentor. Steve, associate director of the Harvard Law School Programs on Corporate Governance and Institutional Investors and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, wrote the following:

When I was here I found lots of teachers who encouraged me. But one saw that I could do more — and challenged me to try. Mr. Tom West, my English teacher in 7th grade, later a TCS headmaster, became my first "mentor." The word "mentor" means a lot more than advisor or teacher. A mentor means a friend, someone who teaches you not just facts and figures, but character and integrity; who sees your potential and is in turn a role model. A mentor is different from a parent, who connects to you through love and family. A mentor chooses to connect to you because he or she is drawn to something inside you. Mr. West counseled me to push boundaries, write the best I could, and to go beyond assignments. To be brave. And if I did, he would be there to help.

Here's what he wrote in my 7th grade report card in June 1968 (yes, I still have it!): "Whenever a student desires to volunteer a composition, I am pleased beyond measure, and will always correct it and make necessary changes for improvement. Bring your work to me!"

Go for it, was Mr. West's message. I remember how that played out one night in 7th grade when I found myself writing a very personal poem, not for class, but because I had been seized by words. It was almost as if a force beyond myself had physically taken hold of the pen and words had come out. I was jarred by the wonder of it. But I was also exhilarated because I had discovered something that would stay with me ever since. It is the sense that if I can get a word placed just right, a sentence fit precisely for purpose, a statement pitched morally true, I could feel an almost mystical sense of fulfillment. I treasured the confidence and courage that flowed from Mr. West's care. As my mentor, he helped — in addition to my amazing parents — to give me the strength and determination that led from poetry at TCS to writing I did on South Africa and other subjects. ...

When you find a mentor, do all you can to learn from him or her. Have you ever heard the phrase 'seize the day?' It's better known in the Latin I studied here: "Carpe diem," and it comes from a poem written by the Roman author Horace some 2,000 years ago. He meant: 'take action for the future today.' I humbly offer a variation: "Carpe mentor." Seize a mentor. I don't mean kidnap anyone. That wouldn't be very polite. But find a mentor, stay close, ask to help any way you can, keep eyes and ears open. Through mentors you can take powerful action for your future today.

Robin Jackson '68 made a similar observation when she wrote to us from Birmingham, AL, after reading about Mr. West on the school website:

I saw the interview with Tom West on your website and remember him as a wonderful and inspiring English teacher for whom I wrote "descriptions" and stories. I am so grateful for his teaching and also so very glad to know he greatly enjoyed his years at The Country School. I gave his daughter, Wendy, a guitar lesson when she was about 8 years old. It was my first job! I became a teacher and am now a writing instructor and beginning to take more time for writing — so I reached back in my mind and found his inspiring words on my papers. Naturally, I also remember The Little Owl and the Poetry Contests.

Recently, we heard from another former student, now a teacher himself, who sent an Annual Fund donation in honor of Tom West, a man he described as "the best English teacher I ever had!"

We welcome anyone else who has memories of this remarkable educator and mentor to please share them with us. We would also be happy to forward your tributes and notes to the West family. Please email any photos or stories to us at alumni@thecountryschool.org. To read a tribute Tom West once shared in memory of his own mentor, David MacLane, and to congratulate one of his successors, the then-new Head of School Laurie Bottiger, for "landing in a magical place," click here.

Thank you, Mr. West, for all you gave to The Country School. As Wendy said, you are still with us in your writings, your photos, our memories. And, of course, in each student whose life you touched.
 

A more recent photo of Mr. West from one of his books.