Hart Leavitt Memorial Service to Be Held November 15
Leavitt taught at PA for 38 years.
October 29, 2008
- Hart Day Leavitt, a member of Phillips Academy’s English department from 1937 to 1975, died October 10, 2008, at Edgewood, a retirement community in North Andover, following a lengthy illness. He was 98, and for many years had lived in Andover, around the corner from the campus he served for so long.
A memorial celebration of Mr. Leavitt’s life will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 15, in Kemper Auditorium on the Phillips Academy campus. All are invited to attend.
“Hart was a musician, a writer, a friend to many colleagues here at Andover,” said Barbara Landis Chase, head of school, “but most of all and most memorably, he was a gifted teacher, one who epitomized the finest in the Andover tradition. What a loss to us all.”
Mr. Leavitt was born December 29, 1909, in Concord, N.H. Ironically, he graduated from rival Phillips Exeter Academy in 1928, later earning an AB degree from Yale in 1934. He also studied at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.
In a summer 1975 Andover Bulletin article about faculty retirements (including his own) written by Mr. Leavitt, he notes that in summer 1937 he was making $22 a week as a cub reporter for a small city newspaper in New Hampshire. One day, according to Mr. Leavitt, his mother-in-law-to-be suggested he read And Gladly Teach by the brother of the principal at Exeter. He was so excited by author Bliss Perry’s image of what it meant to be a teacher that he went right to the Exeter principal to ask for a job. Lacking in graduate degrees, his request was denied.
Claude M. Fuess, then headmaster at Andover, responded more positively to Mr. Leavitt’s energy and enthusiasm and was, quite possibly, recalled Mr. Leavitt, intrigued with the idea of hiring an Exeter graduate. “I was a bit disappointed not to go back to my old school, but not for long. Professionally and personally, Andover was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said in the retirement article. “I shall miss teaching at PA…. For me it has been a life of marvelous delight, good solid difficulties, and much inspiration.”
After his retirement from PA in 1975 at the age of 65, Mr. Leavitt was appointed to the faculty of Harvard University, where he taught expository writing to freshmen for five years. When Harvard determined it was time for him to retire, Mr. Leavitt would have none of it and got appointed to a teaching position at Tufts, said his longtime friend and colleague Phebe Miner. “Hart was quite a character, absolutely full of beans!” she recalled fondly. Mrs. Miner also said that Mr. Leavitt, her late husband Josh Miner, and several other faculty members shared Exeter roots and reveled in calling themselves “the red cell” among the blue.
One of Mr. Leavitt’s many roles, aside from teaching English, was coaching the varsity hockey team from 1945 to 1950. Mr. Leavitt is quoted in a May 16, 1975, Phillipian story, written by Andrew Morse ’77, as saying, “I was the coach before they built the rink. We played on Rabbit Pond, the soccer field; anywhere and any time there was ice, which wasn’t very often. We spent most of the time shoveling away snow or falling through the ice.”
When Mr. Leavitt left coaching in the early 1960s, he found a new love in heading up the stage crew at the old George Washington Hall theatre. His love of both carpentry and theatre were perfectly blended in this new secondary career at Andover. The many students who worked with him were inspired by his ingenious solutions to unique stage construction problems, and many was the night he regaled his family with stories of near disasters (mostly averted) during wild scene changes back stage. And there was one memorable time when he appeared on stage himself as one of the gangsters in Kiss Me, Kate, singing Brush Up Your Shakespeare, complete with soft-shoe routine and a thick gangster accent—the perfect song for an irreverent lover of The Taming of the Shrew.
Mr. Leavitt, the 1975 Phillipian article said, had a continuing love affair with jazz. A photo of Mr. Leavitt and his jazz ensemble in the Summer 2002 Bulletin—taken Reunion Weekend of that year—confirms this. “When I was 14,” Mr. Leavitt recalled, “my father gave me a sax for Christmas and it changed my life. I played my way through Exeter and Yale. At one point, I thought I’d make jazz my profession.” Fortunately for many young Andover students, he opted for teaching.
Former student Thomas Regan ’51, who later taught with Mr. Leavitt for 20 years, recollected:
“My memories of Hart Leavitt as a colleague in the English department are identical to my reactions to him when I was a student in the late 1940s: he was a man able to reconcile disparate kingdoms with grace and skill. For this teenager it all began with the mystery of how an Exonian could develop such lifelong loyalty to Andover. He was also something of a magician, able to develop fine hockey teams on the undependable ice of Rabbit Pond, before the luxury of artificial rinks.
“To us students the biggest mystery was how a PA English teacher could be a professional jazz musician, linking the ‘outside’ world to our closed society. His clarinet and tenor sax were his joy and our pride, whether he was leading his own group or sitting in on other combos.
“By the time I was fortunate enough to be his colleague, I shared the conviction of many of our colleagues that the commitment to faculty life at Andover left little time for writing or publishing. But once again, Hart made the challenge seem easy. He was the author of three books about creative writing, including Stop, Look, and Write, which sold over one million copies. I remember as a young faculty member attending the magnificent annual Yale Conference of high school English teachers, and there was Hart on the stage delivering an hour-long paper on writing. His books and his teaching established him as a mentor of all of us. Speak of collegial pride!”
One of Mr. Leavitt’s greatest yet least-known gifts to Andover—the town and the school—was his serendipitous role in bringing the Andover Chamber Music Series and its founder and principal flutist to the area. While still teaching at Harvard—and nearing his 80th birthday—Mr. Leavitt decided that in addition to the sax and clarinet, he wanted to take up the flute. He began lessons with a young flutist in Cambridge named Julie Scolnik, whom he helped to find a home in Andover, and local history was made. “The Andover Chamber Music Series would not have been born in 1996 had it not been for Hart,” said Ms. Scolnik, currently the program’s artistic director.
Mr. Leavitt’s wife, Carol, passed away in 2000 after 63 years of marriage. Theirs was a deep partnership of shared enthusiasms and contrasting interests—she loved classical music and inspired him to take up the clarinet after years of saxophone, and he shared with her his love of jazz, dragging her to smoky clubs to hear Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz greats. They shared a passion for literature, gardening, Tanglewood, and all things Italian. They were both very active in the Boston Symphony Orchestra in their later years, serving on the board of overseers. Perhaps their greatest shared experience was the family they raised together and loved.
Mr. Leavitt is survived by their three children, Sara “Sally” Leavitt Blackburn ’58 of Newport News, Va., Edward “Ned” A. Leavitt ’60 of New York City, and Judith P. Leavitt of Wayland, Mass.; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
For those who wish to make memorial gifts honoring Hart Leavitt, the family has suggested that contributions be sent to Phillips Academy, 180 Main Street, Andover MA 01810. Checks should be made payable to “Trustees of Phillips Academy, in memory of Hart Leavitt.” Friends, colleagues, and former students are invited to contact or share remembrances with his daughter, Judy, at firstname.lastname@example.org