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Thanks Alex, Thanks Classmates, Thanks Gilman

By Patrick Smithwick '69

OK—five fresh sheets of lined paper on the old scarred and graffiti-encrusted wooden desk top, books for the rest of the morning’s classes stuffed (Richard Jones, on my right, has his perfectly stacked and tightly wrapped in a thick rubber band) in the holding shelf beneath the seat. It’s Alex Armstrong’s English class. All fourteen of us are in the starting gate. Tom Whedbee on my left. Dickie Gamper and Jack Machen in the front row. Todd Taylor back row. Reed Huppman by the door.

Mr. Armstong writes the topic with crisp white chalk on the clean and jet-black blackboard—the bell rings and off we go: four or five paragraph essay. Forty-two minutes. Introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph—don’t repeat yourself; structure the essay like a cursive Q, that is, let it circle around and end with a twist.

Forty-two intense, focused minutes when classmates—even the one by the window who won’t be with us much longer, who does spend an inordinate amount of time looking out the wide open, third-story window at the football field—are quiet. Discipline. Working under the pressure of the clock. No excuses. At the end of the period, the bell rings. Fold the sheets, in my case more than a few, in half, and write the honor code. The full honor code. And then sign it. No short cuts, such as just signing your name. “On my honor as a gentleman and a scholar, I have neither given nor received aid on this test. Patrick Smithwick”

As one writer in Gilman Voices put it, this honor code is tattooed on our souls. Mr. Armstrong collects the papers, puts them in a neat stack on the battered, gray World War II Army surplus desk. The race is over. We’re off his track and on to the next class.

This essay is a thank you note to Alex—and so many of my teachers, and to my classmates, for Gilman gave and gave to me. It promoted in me the love of writing I have today.

Graham Menzies, Lower School, that legendary and exciting Sixth Grade European history class with a concentration on England: he had us write essays, and full paragraph answers to tests and homework questions, every week. And then, he surprised us by reading a few, graded and marked, to the class before he handed them back without revealing the author’s name.

 “Lord, Patrick, he’d always read one of yours and we could recognize it right away. It went on and on.” Thanks Reed.

Warren Magruder. That’s Three Star General Magruder. Fifth grade. Full paragraph history explanations. Quieter. More serious. I’d feel fulfilled if he read one of mine to the class. When he returned the folded papers, each would have specific comments neatly written on the front about our answers. He engaged us, relating directly to each of us as an individual.

On to Percy Reese. Eighth grade Ancient History. What an incredible course. And those tests—I was the last to leave. First, we had to fill out the date boxes, then the short answers, then the matching. At the end, the essays. I couldn’t stop. Mr. Reese would unsuccessfully attempt to pull the stapled test portfolio off my desk as George Fenwick and Teddy Rouse deserted me, filing out into the hallway, rushing to the next class. Three minutes “passing time” in those days. Hustle-bustle up and down those hard cement stairs with the shiny, slippery steel edges, in the dark stairwells yelling to friends, dodging the big-shouldered seniors and juniors. I’d keep writing, on the back of the mimeographed test, flipping pages, on the back of another and another, Percy fussing around by his desk, Rob Deford and Tom Iglehart stopping by the door, telling me to hurry up.        

Ten years later. I’m sitting in the battered office of an afternoon newspaper at 6:30 a.m. sipping a gritty cup of black coffee. Rakish reporters and foggy-eyed editors are pulling up chairs to their desks, unfolding the competing morning paper, reading and analyzing it. A few roll sheets of cheap, newsprint-like paper into their old manual typewriters, start tapping away, no rush. Suddenly the Editor in Chief, sober at this time of day, is standing in the newsroom. A big story has broken. A huge drug bust. Millions of dollars involved. Drugs being smuggled across the ocean in sailing yachts, unloaded onto speed boats late at night and driven at high speed up the Chesapeake Bay, then loaded onto high-powered inflatable rubber boats and brought to shore. It has to be written by 8:00 a.m., faxed to the printer, set in hot type, ready for the presses to roll at 10:30, and to be on the street by 1:00. We have inside information. We’ll scoop all the competition. Volunteers?

Everyone looks down, or reaches for their typewriters and scrolls a sheet of paper through. My hand shoots up. “I’ll do it.” What the hell—it was just like being back in Alex’s class. Hour and a half! Twice the time of his class. I make calls, gather material, other reporters slap notes on my desk, and with forty-two minutes to go, I start pounding the keys of the old Royal typewriter I loved, and as I finish each page the Editor in Chief pulls it out, marks it up, and faxes it to the printer.

Gilman instilled in me the love of writing that has carried on to this moment. Roy Barker engrained in me the passion of keeping a journal. Our senior year, we turned in a weekly journal to Roy. My entries were mostly about weekend activities. After describing one of the wildest weekends in Maryland racing history, with all kinds of late-night activities—brawls, wrecked cars, emergency rooms, the police, a woman called Pony—I turned it in on Monday. A few days later, Roy’s comment: “Sounds like you had an interesting weekend, Pat.”  Over the past half a century, I’ve solved many a dilemma, worked my way through many a problem, and come up with all kinds of writing (as well as riding) ideas—through the keeping of a journal, sometimes therapist, sometimes muse.

Gilman also drilled into me the discipline and the stamina and the perseverance that has gotten me through the deadlines and tough times in life.

Sports—running!  No matter which of my Gilman sports—football, wrestling, lacrosse—we were running. We ran laps before lacrosse practice. We jogged around and around the fields after football practice, and then did wind sprints. And in JV Wrestling, at the end of practice, we ran suicide sprints, though they were not called that then, up and down the stuffy-hot, claustrophobic room, over and over, one weight class against another, until we were staggering and seeing stars. Then, for some of us who might have misbehaved, and who pleaded and insisted we could not come in for Saturday detention because we had to gallop racehorses from 5:30 to 10:30 at Pimlico, then ride horses all afternoon at the farm, what was the punishment Mr. Gamper would hand out? Running.

No one was there to check on you. Honor Code Time. Three miles (one mile for each “strike”) around and around the boring, black cinder track, not my favorite. It was always on Friday afternoon, carpools leaving, campus cheerfully clearing out, and there I was: running. I can distinctly remember being sick, having a temperature, walking out into the cold, onto the ice and snow-covered track, stopping to vomit, then staggering around—it was on my honor—twelve times, the full three miles, every inch, not cutting any corners.

Enough of that running, I thought, when I graduated from Gilman. I stopped for one day. Then I realized I had to keep it up in order to lose weight to ride steeplechase races, to stay fit, and to maintain my sanity, and because I loved it.

I ran four or five miles a day, every day for the next forty years, early morning, or before lunch, or after work, or in the dark at night. (Now I bicycle, row, ride horses, ski, walk, swim.)  I loved the cleaning out of my thoughts, the going cross-country, cross-city, cross-anywhere as long as it wasn’t on a track that reminded me of serving those demerits, and I loved the runner’s high.

Running and then the calisthenics. If you’ve attended Gilman from the fourth grade to the twelfth, you can’t let a day go by without calisthenics, especially pushups and sit-ups. How many times in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades did we watch as Mr. Hilliard knocked off fifty to eighty perfect pushups without taking a deep breath. That’s been the height of my ambition ever since. How many thousands of push-ups and sit-ups did we do at Gilman every day as warm-ups for sports? Classmate and co-conspirator Ken Marshall could do sit-ups all day.

Three feet to my right are my Dan Lurie free weights, which Reed Huppman talked me into getting in the eighth grade. Trey Sunderland and I were in the same weight class and we’d hit a stalemate. We were built similarly, we liked many of the same wrestling moves, we were friends, and we either tied or he won. “Patrick, you need an edge,” Reed said. “Lift some weights.” This was a new concept at the time, introduced by Reddy Finney coming to our practice and demonstrating, exactly, and with amounts of weight that shocked us, the different lifts.

I secretly bought a set of barbell and weights from the back of a cereal box, had them shipped to our house, and quietly, without my parents knowing, lifted every night. What do you know, our first match of the new season, I actually won, (though matches in later years may not have had the same result). Thanks Reed. Then I had to face the uncanny steely-armed strength of Brent Whelan, the precise technically-perfect holds of Cletus Baier, and the wild, whiplash, unorthodox moves of Teddy Rouse. Wrestling is an intimate sport; we got to know each other well.

These weights are as good as new. I’ve lifted them, off and on, for fifty-five years:  to be strong for riding races, to be strong for writing, to be strong for life.

That’s what Gilman did: made me strong for life. During Hell Week in my Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Washington and Lee, where they tormented us at 2:00 a.m. by having us do crazy exercises and hundreds of pushups, sit-ups, squats until we were trembling and shaking and some dropped out and some cried, it didn’t bother me much; I was fit for riding races, and besides it wasn’t much worse than wrestling practice with Eddie Brown.

To my right in this writing room in the barn hangs my Gilman diploma, signed by Reddy Finney, whom I took out to a wonderful lunch a few months ago, and about whom I worked on a documentary which was just shown on MPT last weekend. I think of him often; Reddy is an active part of my conscience.

On my left is the small wooden lamp I made in Mr. Hilliard’s fifth grade Shop class, sides of the stem shellacked, beveled and even painted—with the same electrical fixtures. I use it every day.

When I give talks on writing to students I often bring my top-secret Rules Book for the Coo-Coolilly Club. I read Tom Sawyer for summer reading after the fourth grade. Completely under Tom’s influence, I started the club, Gilmanites at the time Tom Whedbee, Rob Deford, Tom Iglehart, Frank Iglehart, all members. (I was president.) We had elaborate initiation rites, all of which were written in my most formal calligraphy in a hardback book I made in Mr. Hilliard’s class out of sheets of precisely cut and stained plywood. It has a strong binding, held together with tiny nails and leather thongs, and is as good as new. I can feel Mr. Hilliard leaning over me, helping to hold the wood in place, as I tapped in those last nails.

The Gilman education lasts. It endures. It continues to inspire throughout one’s life. After Gilman, I first went to Washington and Lee. Then we had a family tragedy, and besides, my father needed me to ride his horses and help start his training career. I transferred to Johns Hopkins. Reddy Finney made that happen. And once at Hopkins, it was Gilman classmate Woody Bennett who showed me the lay of the intellectual land, especially of the English Department. At first, I was intimidated by the professors and their syllabi. Woody encouraged me, made me feel I could keep up with their intense reading and writing schedules.

Meanwhile, I worked my way through Hopkins by going back to my Gilman roots of galloping my father’s horses at Pimlico before classes every morning and by riding steeplechase races on the weekends. Upon graduation, I worked on newspapers. My father died over Thanksgiving the year I graduated from Hopkins, and I went into a tailspin. Luckily I ended up in the Creative Writing program at Hollins College, where I met my wife to be, Ansley Dickinson. It was love at first sight; she moved in that night and we’ve been together ever since.

We married. I got the nicest job on the Star-Democrat in Easton, Maryland, as a reporter and photographer. Quit that just when it was going well, and went to work on the Chesapeake Bay as a dredgehand on a skipjack, the hardest physical work I’ve ever done. Soon, we decided to go into teaching. Ansley got a job teaching French and history at Oldfields School, eventually holding all positions there including Interim Head and Associate Head. I spent the next two decades going back and forth between riding race horses, teaching English and creative writing, and freelance writing, before I was lured back to Gilman by Walter Lord ’35 to write and edit its Centennial history. Soon, childhood friend Arch Montgomery, then Head, hired me to direct the publications and public relations of the School, and to teach a class.

Who were the most influential members of the Book Committee for Gilman Voices?  Past teachers Alex Armstrong ’37 and Nick Schloeder, friend and colleague Cary Woodward ’53, and Walter Lord—who soon became an inspiration and friend. I put my heart and soul into Gilman Voices, arising at 4:30 every morning to work on it before going to my “day job.”  Alex penned editorial comments, and fascinating marginalia, on my first drafts, even using the old Gilman Punctuation Rules, P1, P3, etc. I was back in Alex’s class!  He clearly, lucidly, and with great humor, wrote entertaining anecdotes about past teachers, colleagues and students on every page.

Published in 1997, Gilman Voices led to the The Art of Healing, Union Memorial Hospital (2002), and that book gave me the funds to go out on my won and the time to write Racing My Father, Growing Up with a Steeplechase Legend (2006), which book led to Flying Change, A Year of Racing and Family and Steeplechasing (2012), which is now leading to Racing Time, A Memoir of Love, Loss and Liberation—to come out in July 2019.

And who wrote the best and most important testimonial on the back of any of these books?  Frank Deford ’57.

Who had the most editorial influence on Racing My Father and Flying Change?  Retired Gilman English teacher Cary Woodward ’53.

Who was the most important editor of Racing Time?  Jeff Christ, retired Chair of the English department.

Thank you Mr. Daniels, Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Grimes for inculcating those Ten Gilman Punctuation Rules into my psyche. Thank you Bo Grimes for forcing us to write those précis! Good Lord, that was the most difficult assignment, and the greatest training: to take an already sharp and focused essay by a professional writer, and boil it down to a few paragraphs. I could never get over how Tom Whedbee could perform this exercise so quickly, facilely—making it look easy, the same way he did his math homework for Ned Thompson.

Next in importance at Gilman after The Ten Punctuation Rules, were the Ten Commandments, the lessons from the Old Testament, the parables—drilled into us in morning Chapel by Ludlow Baldwin, by Reddy Finney, by Mr. Russell. What it means to be a man of honor. What it means to be a gentleman. Even the singing of hymns: Onward Christian Soldiers. This was a theme throughout the entire day. We were taught manners. We were taught to think of others. We were taught to help others less fortunate whether it was in the classroom or on the athletic fields. It was an ongoing, insistent full court press of how to live a good, honorable life. We classmates trusted one another. Every single Gilman alumnus has been through this Parris Island Marine Corps training, and there is instant trust between us. Semper Fidelis.

Teaching—I taught at Oldfields School, Gilman, Hopkins, Goucher, Harford Day School. . . I never took an education course. I took the best of my favorite teachers at Gilman and put it to use: Thompson, Tickner, Magruder, Menzies, Verner, Reese, Grimes, Armstrong, Baldwin, Gamper, Schloeder, and Redmond C. S. Finney from whom I learned what would fill three chapters in a biography on him, and included the overriding importance of being able to stand on your head at any moment, something I did for thirty years to gain my students’ (and even parents’) attention, if the energy in the room was fizzling out.

My classmates. Not only were my teachers and coaches role models, but my classmates were a steadying influence through the tough times in my family in the ninth grade when my father, then the greatest steeplechase jockey in America, winning races every day, had a devastating fall and had to stop riding. This threw me off kilter. I was out of whack. I was in bad shape—and had to work hard to help my father come back and gain success as a trainer. Gilman provided my family with financial aid. My classmates kept me moving forward.

I wrecked my Corvair at this time, Pearce Johnson and Reed Huppman along for the fast ride, late one night when I was a boarder. A few weeks later I found a black Ford Falcon with a powerful V-8 for sale for $800. At school, the day I was going to pick up the car, I only had $400. Someone heard. A collection was taken up. I was soon at the Ford dealership slapping down eight $100 bills. No one ever asked me to repay them.

Intellectual firepower: my classmates were fully equipped, ready to achieve perfect scores on their SAT’s, get into the best Ivy League colleges, early admission. They could memorize long passages from Shakespeare in one night. Take a walk along Stony Run with Bugsy Williams and give the Latin name of every plant. Write and give a Sixth Form Speech that was better than the speeches of most politicians. My classmates kept me on my toes.

Athletic firepower: my classmates were winning championships, winning awards, becoming All Americans, performing movements on the athletic field that I could not imagine doing.

They pushed me, cajoled me to do better, try harder, achieve more, and they were, at all times, extremely modest. Thanks classmates for steadying me, for being a calming influence, for laughing and playing and raising hell and making the most of every day at Gilman. Those days, our education, our friendships, our shared experiences live on, and on, deep in my being.

We all got along so well. How is it possible?  I’ve never thought about it until this moment. I cannot remember ever saying or hearing a negative or undermining remark about or by a classmate. It is astonishing. We supported one another, allowed for the eccentricities and differences of others. I can’t think of another time in my life where this has been true with a group of this size, sixty-plus of us. I liked every single one of my classmates, and, fifty years later, still do.

Whoops, I’ve gone into what Frank Deford in Gilman Voices calls Gilman Overtime. Mr. Reese let me keeping writing through recess. Or Mr. Menzies let me finish a paper in study hall. Or Nick invited me to his office to finish my research paper (the first investigative piece of journalism I accomplished, on Planned Parenthood). Or, Alex has just told me, “Pat, you can have another twenty minutes to work on this at home. No more. Honor Code, Pat.”

(Grade and comment from Alex Armstrong below)


“A good, moving piece, Pat. I enjoyed the Smithwickian prose. Still, in future papers, you might try to stay more on topic, to focus. You do have to pay closer attention to P2, P4, and P7. Correct the misspellings (ten times each word) and the marked sentences, and your grade should go up. Keep writing, Pat. There are some nice turns of phrase here. Good luck at the Grand National tomorrow. I’ll be rooting for you.

(P.S. Thanks Alex. We won the next day at the Grand National on a mare called Moonlore in 1968. I was fit as a racehorse myself, from being on Graham Menzies’ and Warren Magruder’s JV Lacrosse Team. And thirty-three years later, in 2001, your daughter Bess told me that the first question you had for her on a late afternoon in April, the day of the Grand National, was, “How did Pat do?”  We won that day too, on a horse called Welterweight. But Alex, winning those two races, or any races, pales in comparison with the honor of having you as a teacher, then getting to know you well as an adult, and having you again, as my editor—and still, and always, to this day, my teacher.)

Patrick Smithwick '69