Our History

Mr. Taft's School
Pelham Manor
In Every Respect, a Big Step Forward
Educating the Whole Boy
Ushering in a New Era
A New Leader: Paul Fessenden Cruikshank, 1936—1963
Change Agent: John Cushing Esty, 1963—1972
Building for the Future: Lance Odden, 1972—2001
Leadership in Our Second Century: William R. MacMullen '78 2001—2023
Taft’s Sixth Head of School: Peter Becker ’95, 2023

Mr. Taft's School

"Mr. Horace D. Taft will open a boarding and day school for boys on September 25th, 1890 at Pelham Manor, Westchester Co., N.Y." So read the leaflet drafted by Mr. Taft, he said, to "let the world know what an opportunity was open to it." The youngest of three Taft brothers to graduate from Yale, Horace Taft had done a bit of private tutoring before answering a call to return to his alma mater as a Latin tutor. He had already begun to dream about starting his own school when he traveled west in 1889 to visit a friend, Sherman Thacher, who was building a school in the Ojai Valley; seeing his friend's work brought both clarity and imperative to Mr. Taft's dream.

Not long after and quite fortuitously, Mrs. Robert Black, a friend of the Taft family, invited Horace to head a new school she would open in Pelham Manor to honor her late father.

"The school was called Mr. Taft's School at the beginning," noted Taft in his Memories and Opinions, "but as a matter of fact it belonged to Mrs. Black and I was on salary, though, of course, the complete management was mine."

Taken in 1892, this is the oldest known photo of The Taft School, then in Pelham Manor, on the Black family compound. Mary Grace Witherbee Black (Mrs. Robert Black) asked Horace Dutton Taft to start a school for her two sons, including Witherbee Black, the young man in the back row, holding a tennis racquet. Photo courtesy of David Reiss

Pelham Manor

Horace Dutton Taft with students

"It was a most comical beginning of a school," wrote Taft. "The furniture arrived at the same time the boys and their parents did, and I put both to work on the front porch opening boxes… Considering how few they were (seventeen), there was an extraordinary variety among the boys. An undue proportion of them had been in other boarding schools and knew more about the inside of one than I did…In my stay at Pelham Manor I learned a great deal about a head of school's work, even if a large part of it consisted of learning how not to do it."

In addition to managing the school, Mr. Taft taught Latin and mathematics, and served in the dormitory, available to his charges at any hour of the day or night. It gave him the opportunity, he wrote, to influence the boys' "ideas and ideals." Said Taft: "I found close association not only agreeable, but often inspiring, for I began to think that I was achieving some results that had nothing to do with the marking book or college examinations."

In its second year, Mr. Taft's school grew from 17 students to 20, and from two rented buildings to four. Still, the facility seemed wholly inadequate for the important work—the education of the whole boy—that Taft envisioned:

"We had nothing fit for a school, I think, except ambition."

In Every Respect, A Big Step Forward

"Before the end of the first year at Pelham I came to two important decisions," wrote Mr. Taft. "One was that I would marry a certain lady in New Haven, if she consented. The other important decision was that Pelham Manor was no place for the kind of school I hoped to build."

At the end his second year in Pelham Manor, Horace Taft married Winifred Thompson, a teacher at New Haven High School. Together they considered three possible sites for Mr. Taft's school in Litchfield, Connecticut, a town they had come to know through visits to a friend, and where they were assured "a very warm welcome." But in March of 1893, an acquaintance from Yale offered the Tafts a ready-made facility: His family's hotel, The Warren House, was languishing in nearby Watertown.

Horace and Winnie immediately traveled to Watertown, where they spent a frigid day inspecting the 30-year-old Victorian ark. It was, in Taft's words, "a forsaken place." Still, Horace and Winnie decided to lease the building and its six acres with an option to purchase the property in five years. And with a $10,000 loan, they set about refurbishing the great old building.

Despite the tremendous disparity between the room sizes, oft-mentioned parental fears about the "firetrap," and well water of dubious quality for drinking, the property seemed to the Tafts like "Paradise" after Pelham Manor. "In every respect it was a big step forward," wrote Taft.

The Warren House, a 'languishing hotel' in Watertown, CT, became the new home of The Taft School in 1893.

The entire school community, students and faculty alike, on the steps of the Warren House in 1893. Horace Dutton Taft, himself, is in center of the back row.

Educating the Whole Boy

Revered as the embodiment of all the school stood for—character, intellect, hard work— the consummately dignified head of school was also beloved for his humanity and sense of humor. His students called him "The King."

Mr. Taft's School opened in the fall of 1893 in The Warren House. There were five teachers, 30 boarders, and a handful of day students; the boys were divided into five classes. The curriculum included Latin, mathematics, English, history, and science, with Greek and modern languages (French and German) available to the older students. 

In 1898, Taft changed the name of the growing institution to The Taft School, and a period of slow but steady growth followed. The teachers were almost all Ivy League graduates who pushed their students relentlessly in their quest for excellence and, beginning with the College Board's founding in 1899, high test scores. Most graduates in Mr. Taft's time went on to Yale, where many became class leaders and earned Phi Beta Kappa distinction. According to a student at the time, while the classroom atmosphere was "rigorous and unyielding, there existed quite a close and warm relationship out of class between us boys and our [teachers]. Perhaps that was due to the amazingly high ratio of one [teacher] for every ten boys... We knew them well, and they us, and the net result was very good indeed."

In the first years in Watertown, Mr. Taft instituted the monitorial system as a way of teaching responsibility and introducing student self-governance. He also began having "Sunday supper" in his apartment, and encouraging informal gatherings in individual boys' rooms, to discuss anything from "European politics to the last unpopular rule adopted by faculty." Students played football and baseball games against schools like the Gunnery and Hopkins Grammar, while music, drama, literary, and other club activities provided outlets for other talents, and an alternative context for student-faculty interaction.

"We were gradually growing nearer to the attainment of our ambition to educate the whole boy," wrote Taft.

Ushering in a New Era

Horace Taft's older brother, William Howard Taft, had been politically prominent as secretary of war under Theodore Roosevelt, but his career reached its pinnacle in his election as president in 1908. Thus the year 1909 opened with great excitement for the Taft family. Will's second son, Charles Phelps, was among the younger boys in the school when his father was elected president. Horace felt it only right that Charles should be allowed to attend his father's inauguration. But how to justify to the rest of the school Charles' absence? Mr. Taft's solution was to rule that no boy could leave campus except to attend his father's inauguration as president of the United States.

Later in that same euphoric year, Horace Taft suffered a tremendous personal blow: Winnie fell ill and passed away. She had played a critical part in the operation and sustenance of the new school, supporting her husband in his ideals and work, managing the school's finances, and in the myriad activities she planned with and for the students. She had also developed close friendships and associations in Watertown, and become a literary and intellectual leader in her circle. Mr. Taft described her death as "the kind of blow that divides a man's life in two." There was nothing to do, he said, but to throw himself into the work of the school.

Winnie Taft was a gracious and popular presence in the early days of the school. Her passing in 1909 was a blow to both Mr. Taft and the school community.

The Tafts had envisioned a proper boarding school campus, and planned to build it on their land on Nova Scotia Hill, some two miles from The Warren House. During the last years of her life, Winnie collaborated on architectural plans for a new school building with the New York firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson. Mrs. Taft's illness made the relocation impracticable, and the campus developed in situ, just off the Watertown Green.

The school's first building project was The Annex. Construction started in 1908, opposite The Warren House. The large, gambrel-roofed building served as a dormitory for students and faculty for the next 50 years. In 1911 a wooden gymnasium was built where HDT Hall stands now.

The sole owner of The Taft School, Horace Taft chose to incorporate in 1912: He retained five-sixths of the stock, with the other sixth going to Harley Roberts, head of the Latin department, then second in command at Taft. "His whole soul was wrapped up in the school," wrote the founder and head of school. Major construction soon followed, with the building of Horace Dutton Taft Hall (1913–14), based on designs drafted from Bertram Goodhue's earlier work with Winnie.

In 1926, when the school's debt was paid in full, Taft and Roberts began to think about what would come next. They decided on growth—a new, more suitable campus. The two made a "clean gift" of the school to 15 trustees in 1927; the trustees spearheaded a campaign to raise the funds (estimated at $2 million) needed to develop the campus. The first construction initiatives included the Martin Infirmary (now McIntosh) and a staff residence (now Congdon). By 1930, the Warren House had been torn down and replaced with Charles Phelps Taft Hall and Bingham Auditorium. The student body had grown to 323 boys, the faculty numbered 27.

In 1936, after 46 years as head of school, Horace Dutton Taft retired. Since his inauspicious start at Pelham Manor he had come to be regarded as one of the most revered head of schools in New England.

A New Leader: Paul Fessenden Cruikshank, 1936–1963

Horace with his successor, Paul Cruikshank

In February of the following year, a search committee named Paul Fessenden Cruikshank as Mr. Taft's successor. Cruikshank seemed a perfect fit: a Blair Academy and Yale graduate who had majored in law and history, a past teacher and coach at Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven and at the Gunnery, and founder of the Romford School in nearby Washington, Connecticut. In the summer of 1936 Paul and Edith Fitch Cruikshank and their four children moved in to the Head of School's quarters in Horace Dutton Taft Hall.

Horace Taft gracefully "exiled himself" to California during the first year of his retirement. On his return to Watertown, Taft's new head of school invited Horace to take an active role in the life of the school. In addition to teaching his favorite civil government class, Horace Taft spoke weekly at Vespers and hosted Sunday suppers for seniors at his home. Cruikshank later wrote: "Close as he was to the school and active as he was in its life, he never once offered me gratuitous advice."

While he was a strict and serious head of school known for his unrelenting emphasis on moral standards, respect for authority, and his famous insistence on gray flannels and wingtips over khakis and loafers, Cruikshank believed deeply in the ability of the upperclassman to "regulate" himself so as to find his own balance between work and play. New privileges were extended to seniors and upper middlers even as life was highly regimented, with three compulsory meals each day, daily Vespers, and church on Sundays.

Cruikshank with students

Cruikshank's great legacy was the expansion of the curriculum and the increase in academic standards at Taft. While student enrollment stayed fairly steady at 345 boys between 1930 and 1960, the faculty grew by 50 percent, and the course selection by 200 percent, including the introduction of Advanced Placement courses. In 1961, Cruikshank hired a 20-year-old teacher named Lance Odden. Fresh out of Princeton, Odden began offering a course in Far Eastern history; Russian history and Asian studies courses soon followed.

During the 1940s and early '50s the number of student clubs expanded as well, owing in part to wartime advances in technology and skills. Chemistry, navigation, radio, ski, and outing clubs were founded, while established clubs flourished, including the Triangular Cup debate competitions against arch-rivals Choate and Hotchkiss, as well as other New England Prep School teams.

Learn about the impact of World War II on campus life

Edith and Paul Cruikshank

One of the most exciting and enterprising events of the time took place during the 1949–1950 school year, when hockey coach and math teacher Len Sargent decided to build an artificial ice rink for Taft. After traveling the country on a fundraising trip that summer, he returned to Watertown and mobilized students and faculty to construct the first such facility in the independent-school world, a project that took more than 3,000 hours. After the structure was given a roof, the resulting quantum leap in practice time helped to ensure Taft’s dominance in the prep school ice hockey league for the next decade.

There were many other additions and improvements to the school during the Cruikshank years, including the purchase of faculty houses, construction of a then state-of-the-art science center in 1960, a language lab, the “new gym,” and the interior rehabilitation of several of the main buildings.

The boys universally regarded Edith Cruikshank as a gracious, maternal figure. She was known for her tea and cinnamon toast gatherings in the Head of School’s quarters, and appreciated particularly for her special efforts to study the photo and file of each new boy before he arrived on campus in the fall, so she would know every student’s name and something about their background. Her kindliness may have been most appreciated by the youngest members of the community, the eighth graders, until the level was phased out in 1958. As with all head of school’ wives, Mrs. Cruikshank’s job included hosting visiting parents, dignitaries, and athletic teams, and accompanying her husband on frequent school-related travels.

Change Agent: John Cushing Esty, 1963–1972

The third Taft Head of School John C. Esty

When Cruikshank announced his retirement in 1963, Taft’s Board of Trustees tapped John Cushing Esty to be his successor. A Deerfield grad with a master’s from Yale, Esty was a dean and instructor in math at his alma mater, Amherst College, before coming to Taft. He and his wife Katharine, an author and mother of their four children, arrived on campus at the dawn of he tumultuous 1960s.

With his energetic intellect and ambitious ideals, Esty set out to renew the educational experience at Taft. The school, he said, should “provide a firm intellectual and social structure as a base of security for an increasing number of forays into new knowledge and new awareness of self…We must seek new insights, admit new knowledge, experiment with new methods, and be willing to accept new forms of old truths.”

Esty recast the mold of the head of school and asked new things of the faculty. Like other young educators of his generation, Esty encouraged critical thinking and active discussion both in and out of the classroom. He believed that the student, himself, should discover good work habits and achievement, and that the learning therein would be its own reward. Accordingly, the Independent Studies (IS) program was Esty’s earliest and most innovative contribution to the academic side of school life. First outlined in the spring of 1964, it was set in place that fall, with Lance Odden as director.

John Esty with students in the late 1960s

Esty’s IS program allowed the more mature senior boy to follow a chosen field of interest with a teacher’s guidance, and to exert some control over his own life at school. He was not required to attend classes, or the job program, or athletics. IS students were exempted from some of the dormitory rules, but expected to complete all regular course work and behave responsibly. The early IS projects ranged from literary criticism and playwriting to an analysis of American foreign policy in Latin America and the construction of a harpsichord. The program brought a host of distinguished visiting speakers, professors and artists to campus, such as Robert Penn Warren and Archibald MacLeish.

Esty also changed daily life at Taft. The Sunday schedule was loosened considerably, allowing boys to sleep in and to attend the church of their choice in the afternoon. Where Vespers under Horace Taft and Paul Cruikshank had been a formal function with only the head of school, the most senior faculty, or a guest speaker presiding, Sunday Vespers was eliminated, and the weekday Vespers format was opened to students, faculty, and outside presenters.

During his time as head of school, Esty, working with the school’s trustees, laid the groundwork for, and built a structure to support co-education, welcoming 82 girls to campus in the spring of 1971.

Building for the Future: Lance Odden, 1972–2001

Head of School Lance Odden and his wife PatsyLance Odden, the 20-year-old Princtonian who changed the face of Taft’s history department in 1961, became the school’s fourth head of school in 1972. Odden’s intellectual passion for history and Asian studies was balanced by his career in coaching the boys’ varsity lacrosse and hockey teams. His wife, Patsy Odden, would become assistant director of athletics and establish an enormously successful and widely respected girls’ varsity hockey program.

Odden’s mission at Taft was to put the school on a comparable footing with the top New England prep schools, at a time when admissions were becoming increasingly competitive. For the next 29 years, the first couple directed and oversaw Taft’s transition to coeducation, the diversification of the student body, the extraordinary growth of Taft’s arts programs and offerings, and a meaningful increase in the institution’s endowment. Odden shepherded the school through several major building projects, including the construction of the Arts and Humanities Center, the Wu Math and Science Center, the renovation of the library, Centennial Dormitory, and the expansion of the athletic facilities, which included the addition of a second hockey rink, known today as Odden Arena.

Lance Odden continued to teach history classes until his retirement in 2001. In his years as head of school he repeatedly echoed Horace Taft's mission to educate the whole student, and to urge students to understand the importance of using their educations to contribute as responsible citizens and humane leaders in the world. During his 30-year tenure at Taft, Odden became a leading figure in the roster of New England secondary school head of schools.

Leadership in Our Second Century: William R. MacMullen ’78, 2001–2023

Pam and Willy MacMullenIn February 2001, the Board of Trustees appointed its first Taft-educated head of school: William R. MacMullen, Class of 1978. MacMullen, only Taft’s fifth head of school in its more than 125-year history, earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale and his master’s from Middlebury. He returned to Taft in 1983 to teach English, and at the time of his appointment as head of school had served as dean of faculty, dean of academic affairs, a college counselor, a class dean and boys’ varsity soccer coach. His wife, Pam, is also an English teacher, dean, and coach at Taft. “Mr. and Mrs. Mac,” as students affectionately know them, have two sons who are both Taft alumni.

Under his leadership, the school has added several historic Watertown buildings to campus, including Walker Hall, Woodward Chapel, Hillman House (59 North Street), and Baldwin School. Major renovation projects have dotted the campus, including the new Moorhead Academic Center, the Martin Health Center, Bingham Auditorium, and the installation of two artificial turf athletic fields. Perhaps the most significant change, however, has been a renovation of Horace Dutton Taft Hall that included the expansion of the dining halls and restoration of the founder's residence into the Moorhead Wing. Designed by the Gund Partnership of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the wing includes Laube, Prentice, and East dining halls, as well as the Mortara Academic Wing.

MacMullen’s legacy will also include the creation of the Global Studies Department, the expansion of the office of Community, Justice, and Belonging, a steady increase in financial aid, as well as increased diversity in both our faculty and student body.

In June 2023, MacMullen and his wife, Pam — who was an English teacher, aerobics instructor, and beloved advisor to decades of students — retired after a remarkable career at Taft.

Taft’s Sixth Head of School: Peter Becker ’95, 2023-

Peter Becker began his tenure as Taft’s sixth Head of School on July 1, 2023.

As a Taft graduate, Becker knows, loves, and values Taft’s mission and culture: its insistence on excellence, passion for community and belonging, commitment to improvement and to service, and pride in school spirit. His career has always been about students. As a teacher, coach, advisor, dorm head, department chair, and head of school, he has worked with empathy and caring to help students feel valued so they can grow and succeed. As a head, he has shown a tremendous ability to administer and lead, inspiring others with a strategic vision and working collaboratively to improve and transform the school.

Becker’s educational career reflects a leader who has devoted his life to independent secondary education. He is a distinguished scholar, receiving a B.A. with Distinction in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in History from Yale University. He was awarded a Fulbright Grant to study classical history, architecture, and archeology at the American Academy in Rome, Italy. After working briefly as an investment banking analyst for Harris Williams & Co., Becker first worked with independent school students while on the staff of FOCUS (the Fellowship of Christians in Universities and Schools). He began his boarding school career in 2003 at The Lawrenceville School, where he taught history and interdisciplinary studies, served as department chair, lived in and led Kennedy House, served on and ran multiple committees, and coached squash and tennis. At Lawrenceville, he worked across the school’s academic departments to lead the redesign of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department curriculum.

In 2012 Becker was appointed head of school at The Frederick Gunn School where he left a legacy of school innovation, improvement, and change. During his tenure, Becker worked with the board, faculty and staff, and the school’s leadership teams to translate the life and model of the school’s founder, Frederick Gunn, into core values and curriculum design pillars that leverage the inherent potential of boarding schools.

Becker committed The Frederick Gunn School to significant and sustained work in diversity, equity and inclusion, creating new programs, positions and practices, and led transformational fundraising initiatives. With his team, he oversaw more than $60 million in campus building and improvement projects; prioritized the hiring of a diverse and talented faculty; deepened and broadened the school’s curricular offerings; and fostered a global community marked by caring and empathy. During Becker’s tenure, Gunn created a new Center for Citizenship & Just Democracy; a soon-to-be launched Center for Entrepreneurship; and the school’s IDEAS Program in engineering, robotics, and computer science.

Becker is also a leader of national stature in the independent school educational landscape, attending and presenting at professional conferences, serving on the board of The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, and as a member of the Heads and Principals Association.

A Message from Mr. Taft

As the end of Horace Dutton Taft's tenure as head of school drew closer, he was asked to deliver a message to the school's "old boys," a colloquial term of the day that referred to the school's alumni. Watch his video message here.

The War Years

World War II had a profound impact on campus life. Many of the school’s staff members were called away for wartime work, requiring students to take over much of the daily care of the school. Monitors supervised student KP duty, students waited on dining tables, mowed the campus grounds, harvested fruit at local farms for the kitchen, and cleaned public spaces, including classrooms and hallways. In fact, so much work was done by students that tuition was lowered from $1,450 to $1,250.

Many faculty members also left Taft temporarily to join the war effort. Cruikshank felt strongly that Taft students should finish their secondary education before joining the war effort. To that end, an accelerated graduation program was instituted in 1943, through which rising seniors studied through the summer to graduate in February.

Thoughout the war years, Cruikshank read the names of alumni who lost their lives in service to our country during Vespers; there were 59, in all.