A boy, a book and years of memories
Dean L. Gitter ’52 thinks back on John James Audubon’s Birds of America
February 27, 2017
—When Dean L. Gitter ’52 thinks back upon his school days at Andover, some of his fondest memories have to do with a set of rather large books.
“In the reading room of the library, just inside the doors and on the left wall, was a glass case some 40 inches high,” Gitter recalls. “In that case was one of the rarest books ever printed: a double elephant folio of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.
“Every week or so, a trusted librarian would open the case and turn the page. An incredible new picture would emerge. No matter what my mood, the chance to study the newly revealed wonder for 10 minutes or so made my day.”
For anyone who has seen the books up close, it’s easy to see why a young Mr. Gitter—and generations of other Andover students—would be amazed.
The four volumes of Andover’s double-elephant folio (or DEF) set are bound in deep red leather. Each book measures 37 inches in height and 24 inches in width. The books are so heavy, it takes several people to lift each one, and two people must carefully turn each page with gloved hands.
And then there are the images: startlingly realistic and vivid. Audubon artfully posed each bird and placed it in a specific context, whether an American robin taking care of her young or a common buzzard stretching its neck down to attack a rabbit.
The set is a unique and valuable part of Andover’s American art collection; only 120 are believed to exist. It was purchased for Andover in 1928 by Thomas Cochran III, Class of 1890, whose generosity resulted in numerous gifts, campus renovations, and new buildings. The books were originally housed in the Freeman Room of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library inside a custom-made case but were moved to the Addison Gallery of American Art in 1981 for safe keeping.
According to Judith Dolkart, director of the Addison Gallery, the set is regularly put on display, most recently in 2013. The books also are used by instructors such as Tom Cone, who includes them as part of his spring ornithology class. Although most of the students have already seen Audubon’s work online or in other books, Cone says they are fascinated the first time they see it up close.
“The kids are really impressed. They say, ‘Wow!’ I know they’ll always remember it,” says Cone.
As for Gitter, after graduating from Andover, he went on to Harvard College and Harvard Business School and enjoyed a successful—and varied—career as a folk singer, record producer, and real estate developer. He now lives in Taos, N.M., where he continues to write and record folk music and to think back on his Andover days and the delightful anticipation of waiting for the next page of that enormous book to be turned.
This article originally appeared in the winter 2017 issue of Andover magazine.