An Archivist Looks Back on (Almost) 50 Years

FCS Discovered with Jim Davis, Archivist

As FCS celebrates its 175th anniversary, I mark an anniversary of my own. Both are occasions for taking pride in accomplishments of the past and reflecting on ways in which the future might be even brighter.  

After my retirement from teaching in 2011, I told former Head of School David Felsen that I was ready to leave the classroom, but I was not yet ready to leave FCS. To my good fortune – and I hope the School’s – he agreed to look at ways I could continue to contribute to the community. Taking over the management of the School´s Archives seemed like a good fit. I had, after all, been mentored by Clayton Farraday ’32 and learned much of the School’s history from him and, after 39 years, I had lived a bit of that history – if no match for Clayton’s tenure (1936-2004 as an employee; 1928-1932 as a student)! But the archives need someone with an institutional memory, however, fragmentary. So, like the fools rushing in where angels fear, I took the plunge. Now, after nearly 50 years of association with the School, I am ever grateful for the work there. It has been a gift to me curating the precious photos, documents, programs, letters, publications, artifacts, and yes, clothing that occupy that all-too-small space designated “Archives.” One aspect of the work has been to help family members, friends, and researchers connect to our School. The satisfaction of finding that picture of a grandmother on a hockey team or an essay in the literary magazine by a recently deceased uncle have been wonderfully gratifying. No further evidence of the breadth of FCS across time is necessary. Archives facilitate connections.  

Jim Davis in 2011 at his final FCS choral concert as a music teacher

This article is a small (and inadequate) way to say thank you to an institution that has given me much. I want to share some memories of my own and some highlights that I have learned from others’ memories.  

Friends’ Central in my first year, 1972, was a very different place. There were some 500 students, one campus, one lunchroom in the basement of the Lower School, no dining hall! There was no separate Middle School. Four concerts entertained the entire School for the year; the Lower School December concert was a Christmas Pageant. The prom was held in the OPA room of the Main Building. There was a football team. Beth Johnson ’77 was a student and sang in the chorus. Our grading used a system unknown to the rest of the western world, and report cards had to be entered by hand and on site. Frustration would flare if two teachers simultaneously needed the 7th grade report cards, or if someone had commandeered the mimeograph machine. Male teachers wore ties, girls could be sent home for wearing red and black, and there was no maternity leave. Meeting for Worship, concerts, assemblies, and sometimes Commencement all took place in the drafty and noisy Rex Gym. A different place, indeed.

Jim showing archival images to alums at Reunion 2017

When alums ask me whether the School has changed since their time, my answer is invariably “of course.” Schools change. Buildings, people, campuses, dress codes all change. But I always qualify that by saying that the School has not changed in the most important measure. If alums were to go into any classroom today, I strongly believe that they would feel at home. Why? Teachers still uphold the Quaker value of modeling respect for each other rather than imposing or demanding it. Classrooms are still places where each child is capable of seeking the truth.  

People often dismiss the Archives as merely enshrining the past. My 10 years in the Archives have taught me that it exists to teach us our past. How can we truly understand how FCS contributed to 175 years of education without knowing the rich, inspiring, and sometimes problematic legacy of the School? Without reading the passionate words of Richard McFeely (Head of School from 1948-1952) calling for the admission of African American students? Without reading the debates within the School every time it considered a change of campus or expansion to a new campus? Without seeing how the School has expanded its definitions of diversity? Without learning about the School’s outreach to orphans in Italy after WWII or the sending of material to war-ravaged Holland? Without appreciating the inheritance of Mary Ann Ramsey’s horrifyingly vivid eyewitness account of the Pearl Harbor attack? The baroque signature of Benjamin Eakins (penmanship instructor at FCS and father of painter Thomas Eakins) in a student’s autograph book from 1872? Or the record of students debating the Vietnam War? We have a rich and textured history which must be not only preserved but handed on. A school that knows not its history cannot shape its future.  

I feel lucky to be a part of the FCS story and immense gratitude for all who have invited me along for the telling of it.

Jim Davis retires from Friends’ Central in June 2021 after 49 years of service to the School as a music teacher, Department Chair, and Archivist.  

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