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Volume 40, Number 4July/August 1989

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A Reunion in Boston

Written by William Tracy

For most Americans, a high school education is a birthright and graduation is a rite of passage. Each summer, in hometowns across the nation, old grads gather for their class reunions, an institution as American as apple pie, and an experience infused with sweet - if occasionally tart - nostalgia for those best of years.

Since early this century, young Americans who grew up in the Middle East - the children of missionaries, educators, diplomats, oil workers, bankers, and journalists - have turned to the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon, for their quintessential adolescent experience. Some students, from American families many years in the region, learned their earliest lessons about their native land and heritage at the school; others, older when their parents traveled abroad, first encountered the richness of Middle Eastern culture in its classrooms. The American Community School prepared its graduates for American colleges and for a return to adult life in the United States; it also instilled in many of them a lifelong, life-shaping interest in Middle Eastern civilization.

Now, every third year on one coast of the United States or the other, far-flung American Community School alumni and their one-time teachers, from classes spanning much of the school's 80-year history, come together for a grand reunion of young and old. In August 1988 nearly 500 met in Boston. Like schoolmates and their mentors everywhere, they rekindled friendships and caught up on each other's careers, families and growing reliance on bifocal lenses. But also, uniquely, they relived their experience as a community of Americans abroad and reminisced about Beirut, their second home - the place that Clare Kittredge, writing about the reunion in The Boston Globe, called "the nurturing, cosmopolitan city that launched them in life." They also learned how their distant alma mater survives - and still serves its original purpose - in Lebanon's present troubled times.

In the spring of 1905, a group of men and women associated with Beirut's American Presbyterian Mission and the Syrian Protestant College, or SPC, lingered after a customary Monday-evening prayer meeting to discuss a problem familiar to expatriate parents of every generation. The concern they shared was that their children, growing up in what was then a province of the Ottoman Empire and cutoff from their American roots, should receive an education that would prepare them for their eventual enrollment in colleges in their distant homeland.

From this concern was born the Faculty School, today the American Community School, which for over 80 years has served not only the children of Ottoman Syria's original missionary and academic families - Blisses, Dodges, Dormans, Posts and Wests among many distinguished namesbut which also, as independent Lebanon's capital grew into the commercial and communications hub of an evolving Middle East, served American and other expatriate families from throughout the entire region.

In 1901, the Rev. Howard Bliss, pastor of the Union Congregational Church in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, was elected to succeed his father, Daniel Bliss, as second president of the SPC (See Aramco World, March-April 1966). Enroute to Beirut in 1902, Bliss and his wife Amy stopped in England to engage a governess for their children. Miss Winifred Thornton, a graduate of the Aberystwyth Teachers' College in Wales, agreed to accompany the family to Beirut, and soon a room in Marquand House, the president's campus home, was transformed into an informal school for the five Bliss children.

When the broader group of parents started the Faculty School in 1905, Miss Thornton was appointed principal. At a "town meeting" held at Marquand House in June, they agreed that "the lower classes follow as closely as may be, the course of study of American schools as represented by the Montclair [New Jersey] and Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] schools." Tuition was set at the equivalent of about $80, and classes began Monday, October 23, in a house on what was later called Bliss Street, fronting the college campus in Ras Beirut. There were 18 pupils and three teachers.

In 1908 the Faculty School moved to the grounds of the SPC Hospital - later the American University Hospital. Enrollment had climbed to 31, but for many years alternate grades would be combined because the number of pupils couldn't justify offering an entering class each year. A few children from mission families outside Lebanon attended the school, boarding with Beirut families.

The school's first graduate was Margaret Bliss of the class of 1911, a granddaughter of SPC's founders. In 1949, as Margaret Leavitt, she wrote this about her school days in Beirut:

The program consisted mainly of the three R's; music wasn't taught until after 1909, although we learned some French songs. We recited Bible verses at prayers each morning and took our places in the class line each week according to the "order marks" or demerits we received for unsatisfactory conduct. There were no school athletics, although the boys organized their own soccer team. In the spring of 1907 there were 12 boys in school and 11 of them were on the team. Extracurricular activities were in the hands of the pupils, and we spent hours wading in pools on the Mediterranean shore catching sea creatures and afternoons searching for fossils or becoming acquainted with the flora of Lebanon. To paraphrase Daniel Webster speaking of Dartmouth, "It was a little school, but there were those of us who loved her."

Another early student, Archie Crawford, remembered that in April 1917, when the United States entered World War I and broke relations with Turkey, Asmi Bey, the Turkish vali, or governor, of Beirut, immediately closed the SPC "and presumably the Faculty School too." But within two weeks the American ambassador, still in Istanbul, was able to convince the Turkish government of SPC's humanitarian, non-political role, and obtain approval for its reopening. SPC became the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1920.

In 1921, the Faculty School association reorganized so that its trustees officially represented AUB and the Presbyterian missions, and its name changed to the American Community School, or ACS. A small boarding department was planned for the first time. By then the school had moved once again, to a large house on Rue Jeanne d'Arc, a few blocks from the university campus - purchased, as Crawford remembered, with another benefaction from the Bliss family. In 1923, when most ACS graduates aimed at Ivy League colleges, six students sat for the College Entrance Examination, precursor of today's SAT's.

By the 1930's, American-sponsored schools and colleges were founded in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt (See Aramco World, November-December 1969). The children of the founders of these institutions, for the most part, attended ACS in Beirut. It was their link with the childhood they might have experienced had their families never ventured abroad - and it was something more.

In the first edition of the ACS yearbook, Al Manara, The Lighthouse, published in 1949, principal Richard Ford wrote, "ACS students and faculty are united by the feelings of being strangers far from their own homes.... The newcomer is comforted to find he is not alone in his aloneness ... sensing immediately that he is in an American atmosphere, and made welcome."

The yearbook lists some events of the typical school year: a Sadie Hawkins Day dance, a trip to the Crusaders' Beaufort Castle, Thanksgiving, Christmas vacation, a boarding department scavenger hunt, a ski trip to Dahr al-Baidar, a visit aboard Hitler's yacht, Easter vacation, a trip to the Roman ruins at Baalbek, a performance of the operetta Trial by Jury, a field day, a beach party, senior prom and commencement.

American involvement in the Middle East, broad but unobtrusive in the 19th and early 20th centuries, expanded greatly in the years following World War II, when most of the region had gained political independence. Lebanon's statehood came in 1943. In the late 1940's, the largest American workforce in the region was employed by the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia, on its way to becoming one of the world's major oil producers. In its various desert communities, Aramco provided an American education through the ninth grade for the children of its expatriate families, but high schools - or perhaps it was teenagers - presented challenges the company's managers preferred to leave to specialists. In nearby Lebanon, they knew, was a small college-preparatory school of sound reputation, the offspring of a union between university and mission establishments - a good place to entrust one's children.

Aramco and its sister company Tapline, the Trans Arabian Pipe Line Company, become ACS's third sponsor, and the school arranged to buy a parcel of land beside the university near Beirut's seaside Corniche, and to build what became the nucleus of the present ACS campus. The old school in Ras Beirut was sold and, by 1950, two new buildings were completed with space for 300 students, including 90 boarders.

The school had an enormous impact on the young American teachers who went out to Beirut on three-year contracts. Anne (Avantaggio) Meyer was on the faculty at the time. "The easy informality and genuine warmth of ACS made all the difference to students and teachers," she recalls. (See "A Teacher Remembers," page 32.) "They brought their skills and a fresh viewpoint while learning first-hand about the area. Some of them went on to have Middle East careers - James Akins, for example, who ultimately became US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, or Erika (Cruikshank) Dodd, who went on to get a Ph.D. in Islamic art." And of course there were also long-term staff members "who gave ACS direction, quality, character, style, stability: Edith Truenfels was one, remarkable as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Elsa and Will Turmelle ('Coach' and 'Mr. T') labored there from the early 50's into the 80's, as teachers and then administrators, really helping to hold ACS together."

By the mid-1950's more land was purchased and the boarding department grew to 120 students. No one then could foresee either the remarkable growth of the Middle East over the following decades - or the tragedy that befell lovely Lebanon.

In the early 1960's, an ACS board member wrote, "With the development of Beirut as a business and transportation center of the Middle East, due to its new airport and its favorable location and climate (both in the physical and political sense)... hordes of American families began to arrive, and it soon became evident that students from the sponsoring groups were about to become a minority."

Two 1966 graduates recall ACS at the time. Carol Williams, an Aramco student originally from Texas, remembers the boarding experience as exceptional. "The world was our community. We had all traveled and had an international awareness. Later, when I returned to the United States, I found that a small town was the community [for most people]. Kids there were dragging Main Street - and I didn't learn to drive until I was 21."

Her classmate Lesley Pierce, a southern California girl, lived in Turkey, Iran, Germany and Kuwait before going to Lebanon. "For kids like me who had grown up in an international setting, ACS was like a family, conservative and sheltering. And in those formative years, moving towards adulthood, I felt stretched intellectually."

Increased tuitions and a special "expansion fee" enabled ACS to meet the needs of Beirut's burgeoning expatriate community without relying exclusively on the three sponsors for funds. For most of the 1960's the campus was a construction site. An auditorium and gymnasium were built, then further additions to the dormitory; next, a new elementary school, and then additions to that. By the 1969-1970 school year, enrollment topped 1,000.

Parent and ACS board chairman John Kelberer, later Aramco's chairman of the board and chief executive officer, told a parents' meeting in November 1969, "We have 172 students from the sponsoring organizations: 112 AUB and mission and 60 Tapline-Aramco. We have 838 students from non-sponsors, including 182 non-Americans representing 35 different nationalities." The non-Americans, for the most part, were children of English-speaking expatriate families with diplomatic, educational or business links to the United States.

The exhilaration of the 1950's and 1960's continued into the early 1970's; then, in 1975, civil strife tore Lebanon apart. The American Community School, like institutions throughout the country, entered a period of severe readjustment. With expatriate families being evacuated from Beirut, only six seniors graduated in 1976. The next year the boarding department closed; Aramco's high-school contingent moved on to other boarding schools in Europe, the United States or elsewhere. Some ACS buildings were rented to neighboring International College, another venerable American-sponsored institution - and ACS's keen sports rival - which offered a Lebanese educational program as preparation for AUB. (See Aramco World, September-October 1973).

In the years after 1975, ACS's fortunes fluctuated with the situation in Lebanon. The size of the graduating class ranged from as few as four to a high of 24. In 1985, the two original sponsors, AUB and the Presbyterian mission, decided that ACS could best continue if it adapted its program to prepare students for the Lebanese baccalauréat exam as well as for American college entrance. Enrollment stabilized and began to climb again.

Catherine Bashshur, the American wife of a Lebanese professor of education at AUB, is the present headmistress. For the 1987-88 school year, she reported last August in Boston, ACS enrolled 450 students, 80 percent Lebanese and the rest from 16 other countries. The only Western students were those with dual nationality, including 35 holding American passports - many of whom were the children of international marriages like the Bashshurs'. Despite difficult finances - Bashshur joked that teachers hand out paper one sheet at a time - 40 families were helped with scholarships. The school operates on a dual track, continuing to teach an American program with American textbooks, but with the addition of the required baccalaureate courses. Besides English, there are courses in Arabic, French and Spanish.

Bashshur told the alumni who had gathered to celebrate their alma mater that ACS has endured the kidnapping of two board members, the occupation of its playing fields by a local militia, random shelling of its neighborhood as the city suffered foreign invasion, and - most recently - rampant inflation. But ACS is still there. In some ways, she said, today's smaller ACS again resembles a close-knit family, the institution it was in the 1920's and 1930's. And alumni from the early 1950's would still recognize two human institutions: Elias the concierge and Fawzi the custodian, still at their jobs and growing gray together.

Longtime traditions such as the Sadie Hawkins Day celebration continue, she told alumni. And, in the best American tradition, ACS retains its sense of community amid diversity, its role as a haven of tolerance. "Our student body now comes from every faction within Lebanon," Bashshur said, "but politics and sectarianism stay outside our gates. We work together. Our spirit survives." As the student editors of the combined 1986-88 Al Manara wrote, "ACS has been an island of security and sanity in a sea of turmoil, a place where we can behave like normal teenagers."

ACS alumni live today in every American state and the District of Columbia, and in 40 countries around the world. The largest concentrations are in New York and the New England states, in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, in Texas and, above all, in California - areas that reflect, respectively, the rockribbed origins of the founding AUB and mission families, the diplomatic ties of many of the students, and the home states of many families in the Middle East oil business. Many alumni also still live and work in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia is home to at least 25, for example, some of them second-generation employees of Aramco.

Onetime classmates or teaching colleagues keep in touch through a quarterly newsletter, an alumni directory and the triennial reunions. The newsletter, The Diaspora Potrezebe or simply "The Pot," is now edited by Connie Scott ('76) in St. Louis. Its somewhat exotic name refers to a stone cannonball liberated from some ancient Lebanese castle by anonymous student pranksters in the 1950's and christened, for equally obscure reasons, with a nonsense word from Mad magazine. In legendary times, as dormitory students burned the midnight oil during exam periods, Potrezebe was heard rolling mysteriously - and very loudly - down lengthy, darkened, stone-tiled corridors

The directory, now going into its third edition, is the work of Sam Constan ('53) of Dayton, Ohio, who has tracked down some 50 percent of an estimated 5,000 names and an impressive 33 percent of their current addresses.

An informal group of alumni organized the first reunion in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1982. The second reunion, at which the structure of the alumni association was formalized, drew over 300 people to San Diego in 1985. The third triennial gathering - back on the Atlantic coast - was in Boston, and the fourth, now planned for 1991, will aim for another Pacific-coast city.

In Boston, 465 ACS'ers sat down for dinner together on a Saturday night last August. Some had come from Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, England or Alaska. Probably not coincidentally, the class of reunion organizer George Salm ('68) was best represented. The youngest alumnus present was Michael Bashshur ('86), son of the headmistress; the oldest was Dr. Harry Dorman ('22), a great-grandson of SPC founder Daniel Bliss, longtime Beirut resident and former ACS board member. The assembled guests applauded as outgoing association president Melanie Brechtel ('72) of San Diego passed the heavy symbol of responsibility to her successor. It was Potrezebe, the venerable stone cannonball. It had crossed the North American continent in Brechtel's carry-on luggage, and now would make a return trip to Arroyo Grande, California, with newly-elected president Mary Ann (New) Hjalmarson ('68).

All through the reunion weekend there were yearbooks and photo albums to pore over, and mugs, T-shirts and posters to buy and take home with the memories. But most of all there was talk - with old friends and teachers, certainly, but also with relative strangers from other classes: people who had shared a place if not a time, who had experienced important, even formative, events and emotions in common. Just as the idealistic missionary educators who planned for their children's futures at the turn of the century could not have envisioned the changes which would overtake the Middle East of their time, they probably did not foresee that the school they founded would do more than prepare their children to return to an evershare of doctors, scientists, soldiers, teachers and lawyers. In most cases, however, it has also given its graduates a love and respect for the land and the region in which they spent their school days - and an enduring attraction to that part of the world.

Many alumni have returned to the Middle East over the years to work, as did their parents, in diplomacy, commerce, the oil industry, education and humanitarian endeavors. Others, at home in America to stay, find themselves speaking with expertise to neighbors on vital Middle Eastern issues, writing concerned letters to the editors of their local papers, preparing Lebanese specialities in their kitchens or seeking out Middle Eastern students at nearby universities.

Every high school graduate, American or not, understands the deeply felt and sometimes mixed emotions stirred by class reunions. If the American Community School reunion in Boston was different, it was not because its graduates have accomplished so much or dispersed so widely - what small high school doesn't have successful alumni, or see them scattered to the four points of the compass? Rather, it was because current events have made the school itself, and the extraordinary city in which it is located, inaccessible, for the present, to Americans. For few alumni anywhere is it more true that "you can't go home again." But like old grads everywhere, ACS alumni carry "home" with them in their hearts.

William Tracy ('53) also studied at Duke and AUB. Formerly an assistant editor of Aramco World, he has also taught English in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He is now a lecturer and free-lance writer based in Austin, Texas.

This article appeared on pages 20-31 of the July/August 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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