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Remembering Bill Aiken

Ned Groth, Spring 2018

(Author’s note: This biographical remembrance is based on documents and personal communications, including yearbooks, class newsletters, letters from Bill, my own recollections, a few anecdotes from classmates and other alumni, and some conversations with others over the years. I have also drawn on published obituaries. My goal, as always, is to create an honest and loving portrait of our former master, as we knew him. While I’ve striven for factual accuracy, I take full responsibility for any errors. –NG)



Bill Aiken was one of the first masters I got to know at Darrow, in the fall of 1958. He taught freshman English, and it did not take me very long to fathom that he was an engaged and interesting teacher, whose class I much enjoyed. We studied everything from Middle English poetry—"Summer is Icumen In, lhude sing cuckoo"  (and of course Bill also taught us Ezra Pound's bastardized version, "Winter is Icumen In, lhude sing Goddamn"), to Shakespeare—Romeo and Juliet was part of our freshman course—to Hemingway. No matter what the material, Bill seemed knowledgeable and enthused about it and we (I anyway) couldn't not want to learn it.


I also quickly met another side of Bill. He found out that I was from Bound Brook, NJ, and one day early in the fall he took me aside and told me he had lived there too, as a child, perhaps a decade before I did. While that was an interesting coincidence—for the rest of my life I have met only a couple of people from Bound Brook whom I didn't know when I lived there—his telling me that also conveyed a subtler message, unspoken but pretty clear: "You and I have something in common. If you ever need something from the faculty, you can come to me." Now, at that point in my life, I was barely 14 years old, stood 4 foot 10 inches and weighed 85 pounds. Some of the faculty—and Mr. Heyniger in particular—might have worried that I was fragile or would be targeted by bullies. They needn't have. But officially or unofficially, I think Bill was letting me know, "I've got your back, if you need it." That was the first—far from the last—time I experienced the comprehensive way Darrow teachers kept track of our lives and mentored our growth.


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As all teachers did, Bill wore multiple hats. In 1958-59, he coached JV football in the fall and JV baseball in the spring. I played JV baseball for him and vividly recall that Bill was confident in my abilities—more so than I was myself in those days. For the next two years I stayed at the JV level (Rabbi Wright was the coach both years). By our senior year, Bill coached the varsity (pictured here), and I made that squad (as a back-up infielder; Coffee, Lapp and Griswold had the starting slots nailed down.) As a Hands-to-Work project Bill's crew had built a couple of wood-framed, fish netting batting cages out adjacent to the ball  field, and I remember long hours of practice in the cage, Bill throwing fastball after fastball, teaching me to hit to right field. "Keep that elbow in, level your swing, stride into it." He was a talented coach and a good handler of young athletes. Patient and confident—sure he could teach us needed skills, sure we could learn them. That confidence certainly flowed into me. Years later, when I was coaching our son's little league teams, I'm pretty sure I tried to "channel my inner coach Aiken."


Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Aiken\Yearbook portrait 1959.jpeg

Bill had first come to Darrow in 1956 (when he was much younger, as in the photo at left, or maybe it's just the glasses in the first photo, from the 1961 yearbook). He was a preppie at heart; as a boy he'd been sent first from Bound Brook to St. Thomas Choir School in NYC (at the age of eight!), then on to St. George's in Middletown, RI (Class of 1949). He earned his BA from Trinity College in Hartford in 1954, and had been doing graduate work at Harvard for a couple of years when he first came to Darrow. He took a leave of absence in 1959-60, to finish up his MA, and returned the following year. His Darrow biosketch says he also "studied in France and England, 1958-60."


I had gathered more biographical bits and pieces from various sources. Bill had finished St. Georges at  16, and not feeling ready for college, he took a year off and roamed around. Obviously he had some musical ability—choir school—and he had a yen to travel, so he hopped a train to California (one could still do that in 1949!), and once out there, worked in a bank, sang in a barbershop quartet. When he settled down at college the following year, he played baseball, joined the ROTC and learned to box. Someone, perhaps Charles Brodhead, told me Bill had been a Golden Gloves boxer—the highest level of amateur boxing outside the Olympics. Yet he found himself inevitably drawn to literature and poetry; when he eventually found his vocation, it was teaching English.


Peter Gorday says he did not know Bill very well but has an impression of him "walking to and from class, deep in some kind of reverie, very inwardly focused. Maybe depressed, maybe wounded in some way." A Golden Gloves boxer with the soul of a poet. Quite an interesting combination. Don Sutherland calls Bill "a wonderful person, a great friend, a talented teacher and writer, who cared deeply for faculty and students and loved what he did." Don said it was widely rumored that Bill was working on a novel when he was at Darrow, but those suspicions were never confirmed. "He would slip a stack of papers out of sight when I'd come into his apartment," Don says. "He was very modest."


Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Aiken\HTW candid 1961.jpegLiving at Darrow was not the healthiest environment for a young bachelor in those days. For the half dozen or so teachers who fit that description—McCracken, Durfee, Goff, Beaver and a few others—often the only "entertainment" was to gather at one of the masters' apartments, watch or listen to a game on the radio (Friday night fights, Des's beloved Maple Leafs), play cards, and drink. Most of us knew a lot of drinking went on among some of the faculty, and Bill was part of that scene. He was also a big, strong guy, as this Hands-to-Work photo (Bill's at right) shows.


So if you happened to encounter Bill when he'd been drinking, it could be a volatile situation. One of our schoolmates found himself in such a jam. He lived in Brethren's, where Dick Nunley was housemaster and Bill was an assistant housemaster. One night this kid had been at Nunley's apartment, working on an assignment, and Dick went out for a while, but told the young man he could stay there. A few minutes later, Bill Aiken walked into the apartment, and he'd been drinking. He asked the boy what he was doing in Nunley's place while Nunley was out, didn't believe the answer he got, and threw the kid out, handling him rather roughly. Needless to say, the student was terrified. He said Bill found him the next day and apologized quite sincerely, but the trauma has stayed with him these many years, because as a child he had been beaten by his drunken father (which Bill may not have known, and  which was one reason why the kid was at Darrow to begin with.) This reminds us that our interactions with faculty mentors were not always wonderful and happy. But what didn't kill us, made us stronger….


After we left Darrow, Bill taught and coached there for another year. He left in 1963 to go back to grad school, at Boston University, where he completed all the work except his dissertation for a PhD in English Literature (American Poetry and Middle English, "Llhude sing cuckoo" redux.) I began writing our class newsletter in 1968. Bill missed the first edition, because by then the school had lost his address, but Charles Brodhead kindly sent me a card saying Bill lived on Pamet Road, in Truro, MA, out on Cape Cod. I wrote him there and he replied, to fill us in for the following year's newsletter.


Bill brought us up to date on his graduate studies, but the bigger news was that in 1962, "As soon as the Class of '62 left Darrow, I got married. There must be a moral there."  His bride, Jane Barrett Andrews, was a Wellesley grad (Class of '60) and had earned her master's degree, in art history, from Columbia. They had met in Truro, and were living there in January 1969, with two daughters, Katherine and Elizabeth, then 5 and 4; Bill reported that another child was "due in May." (That turned out to be Matthew.) Bill had been at Lowell Technological Institute (now known as UMass Lowell) for three-plus years, an assistant professor of English "teaching modern poetry to nuclear engineers and the like." Jane was "studying for a PhD at Harvard" and Bill was doing quite a bit of writing, "some fiction & scholarly articles but especially poetry, which has found its way into a variety of fugitive magazines across the country." Of his poetry, he said, "It is a vice, of course, but an interesting one."


Don and Marie Sutherland were faculty colleagues of Bill and Jane for their year at Darrow after their marriage, and Don calls them "a very gracious couple." He recalls visiting the Aikens for a week one summer, after they had moved to Cape Cod. While Don and Bill dug quahog clams in the Pamet River (75 in an hour—"Bill knew exactly where they were hiding"), Jane and Marie went into Provincetown and came back with "4-pound Maine lobsters, just off the boat." They feasted on fresh, tasty seafood, corn on the cob, and martinis. "Wonderful days with great friendships," Don reminisced.


While the kids were young, Jane focused on child rearing, and helped establish the first pre-school in Truro. Once they were mostly grown, she finished her PhD, earning it in 1985 at the age of 47, and was hired to teach Renaissance Art History at Virginia Tech (once known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute, but officially shortened long ago), in Blacksburg. The family moved to the hills of SW Virginia, but kept the house in Truro—Bill, his brother Dick and some friends had essentially built it by hand, and he had spent 18 months making a tennis court. They'd spend the academic months in Blacksburg and summers on The Cape. Bill retired from teaching to focus on writing. Jane established, then directed, the Art History Program at VT. She published numerous scholarly articles (you can Google them), and retired in 2001. After that, they still kept up their two-homes-for-different-seasons lifestyle.


Bill was not much for writing letters, and although I had his address and sent him the newsletters, he rarely sent news. He invited me to come visit if we were ever on Cape Cod. As he put it, "We have an ocean, a bay, and a tennis court—all that a young man might Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Aiken\Jane, 8-87.JPGwant." The summer of 1987, Sharon had a "media internship" at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. WHOI gave her/us a cottage, where she, Sarah (then 2) and our au pair lived all summer, while I commuted up from NY on weekends. One Saturday in August, we drove up to Truro to visit Bill and Jane. They welcomed us to their home, let us walk on their (ocean) beach, enticed us into a game of tennis on that court Bill had built. This was the only time I met Jane, and the only photo of her I got. (Bill was also in the shot, but overexposed, so he got cropped out. The dots all over Jane's clothes and skin are from mold growing on the emulsion; this slide spent too long in a damp basement before I digitized it. Sorry about all that.)


It was good to catch up with Bill after all the intervening time. Earlier that year, we had invited Bill and Jane (plus other past teachers) to join us for our 25th reunion, but their obligations in Blacksburg hadn't ended by reunions weekend, so they couldn't make it. I was happy that things worked out in August, though one short visit couldn't really fill the gap. We vowed to stay in better touch, but of course life often has other plans. Every five years or so, when another major reunion rolled around, I'd try to contact everyone, including the "lost sheep," and seek to persuade them to come this time.  I had phone numbers that worked and two valid addresses, so I was usually able to reach Bill. We spoke on the phone a few times, and exchanged letters now and then. But we were never actually in the same place at the same time again, after that 1987 encounter in Truro.


Over the years, Bill kept writing poetry. He published both as "William Aiken" (not "Bill M. Aiken Sr.," that's someone else) and also under a pseudonym. As he once told me, "Through a complex turn of events, I was writing under the name of Julie Lechevsky, whom you can Google. She had a lot better success than I ever did, and it was diverting to follow her career." I have indeed Googled, and several of Bill's poems (under both names) can readily be found on various poetry web sites. We may never know how Julie became his alter ego, but she/he did publish at least one book of poetry, titled Kiss.  (And you can buy it on Amazon.)


I asked our very own English teacher and poetry maven, Carl Sharpe, to give us a critical evaluation of Bill's poetry. He found and read a bunch of poems and responded, "[They] are of high quality. He had a gift for some startling but apt imagery. His voice (persona) comes through as immediately accessible and attractive. There is excellent choice of detail and some fine sensual imagery. Finally, his poems are well-crafted in their use of the language—rhythms, sounds, etc. On the whole, he is very good, and I would have published his work in a heartbeat." You can find them on the internet and enjoy for yourself.


From Bill's letters, I got a sense of their life in Blacksburg. Beyond academia, they were both involved very much in church and community, concerned with social justice and ministering to the needs of others. Habitat for Humanity was one of Jane's favored causes; she funded an entire house. Bill spent many happy hours (and possibly a few "happy hours") playing "NY style lounge piano" at several assisted living facilities. As he put it, "I try to get the old folks to remember songs by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, etc."  He also made pick-ups and deliveries each day for the local food pantry, and was still "playing tennis a couple of times a week, with guys my age."


Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Aiken\Jane.jpgIn 2006, we got the sad news that Jane had passed away, far too young, at 68.  (This photo is from an online obituary.) Bill wrote in 2008 that he still had both homes, and was splitting each year between Blacksburg and Truro. Community activities kept him busy and helped sustain him, and he had a large family support network. Their kids had grown up and mostly flown the nest, as kids tend to do. Katherine was married to Daniel Sullivan, and living in Blacksburg; Matthew was married to Patricia (nee Bowman), living down in Birmingham, AL; Elizabeth was over in North Carolina. Bill and Jane had nine grandchildren by 2006, ranging in age from 5 to 20 then. So Bill was able to stay busy and mostly fulfilled. In a 2008 letter, though, he did tell me, "Since [Jane]passed away, I haven't been writing much poetry."


In 2012, I tried get Bill to attend our 50th reunion. He said he'd be in transition from Blacksburg to Truro at that time of year, but also he was embarrassed to think he might not remember the names of people he had taught 50+ years before. (I explained that some of us can't remember the names of people we saw last week, but he remained averse.) However, by then our class web site was thriving, and Bill had been browsing the material posted there. He said "I marvel at what time has done to us," and after absorbing several memorials, confessed that reading about former students who had died made him feel really old. Although he said not to expect him at a reunion, he promised to follow our class through the web site, and said "Maybe you will all become more vivid to me."


That letter he wrote me in 2012 was the last I heard from Bill.  At that point he reported being "in pretty good health, with occasional lapses in balance and memory." He was still keeping very busy with his piano playing, community service and tennis. Aging gracefully, and as adjusted as one can expect to be to living alone, after almost 44 years of marriage.


When the Winter/Spring Peg Board arrived, it contained the news that Bill had died, in November, in Portland, OR, where Katherine and Dan now live. He was 85. The photo below is from an obituary that appeared in the Roanoke Times, the Hartford Courant, and several online sites. Among the new facts garnered from those eulogies, we learned that Bill was a naturalist, foraging in Truro for mushrooms and fiddleheads, identifying birds by their songs, picking constellations out in the night sky. That he favored gin and tonic, peanuts and Tums. That his community service included traveling to hurricane-ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast to help rebuild. The three kids have scattered further; in addition to Katherine and Dan's move to the west coast, Elizabeth is now in Nashville, and Matthew and Patricia are still in Birmingham. Bill devoted a great deal of energy to "supporting his grandchildren in their various artistic, musical and athletic endeavors." He also left four great grandchildren, several nieces and nephews, and his brother Dick. He will be missed by myriad friends and neighbors in both home towns.


A memorial service will be held on July 7 at St. Mary's of the Harbor, in Provincetown, followed by interment at a cemetery in Truro. (A service was held in Blacksburg in December.)


Bill's years at Darrow were a significant phase early in his career, but perhaps not one that bound him as firmly to the place as it did for some of us. Nevertheless, he felt ties to our class, and followed our lives, especially in this internet age. Fair turnabout now for us to recognize the many ways he impacted our young selves, as a teacher, mentor, coach and role model. He no doubt had similar impacts on many hundreds of students, over the years. In the long run, his poems may have a more lasting effect on the world, but that call will probably be left to posterity. So long, Bill, it was good to know you.


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