Featured Alumnus: Stephen Sumner ’59
For many of the men that have walked through Alumni Gate as graduates of Avon Old Farms School, the lives that they have gone on to live, the careers they have gone on to pursue, and the aspirations they have persevered to achieve, all took root during their time as a student here.
For some students, like Stephen Sumner ’59, those roots go a little bit deeper than most. For him, that is partly due to being a member of the last class of six-year students, back when there was a “lower form” at the school that included seventh and eighth grades. This means the Brotherhood that most join in the ninth grade or later had already been a part of Sumner’s life for years.
“We formed some strong bonds; we were all so close,” Sumner says of his fellow six-year classmates. “We went through six years doing everything together. It’s made for some really deep-seeded ties that I think about often.”
The other reason that Sumner’s ties to the school run deeper than most is because his father, Bob Sumner, was the school chef for more than 15 years beginning in 1951. “A lot of my memories of Avon revolve around my dad. He probably enjoyed being at Avon as much as I did.”
Sumner says that after a long day of classes and extracurricular commitments, he would always end his evenings in the Refectory, telling his dad and any other nearby kitchen staff all about his day. “Those are some really wonderful memories.”
When Sumner arrived as a seventh-grader in 1953, the school was a bit different than it is today. The dress code required a gray flannel suit jacket during the day and a navy one at night. Chalkboards and typewriters were the norm, and the rare disciplinary measure for a student that broke any rule was decided by a court system where the lawyers and judges were fellow students.
Sumner says his role as a lawyer and then a judge in this court system helped prepare him for his career as a school administrator. “I think Avon really formed the basis for a lot of the work I did in higher education,” he explains. “Avon really taught me how to do a lot of things that have to be learned through experience.”
His career in higher education included stints teaching fine art before serving as the president of Rocky Mountain College of Art in Colorado. He says as a student at Avon he had dreams of becoming a fine artist, and despite the school not having as robust of a visual arts program as it does today, he was able to set a foundation for himself that allowed him to spend the first half of his career as an independent and exhibiting visual artist.
“I’m keeping very close tabs on the arts programs happening now at Avon. There are so many wonderful things going on. As a student, I knew I just loved photography, and I learned a lot of the technical stuff I would need to know while at Avon.” Sumner was the photography editor for the school yearbook his senior year. Almost every photo in the 1959 yearbook was taken and developed by him.
Perhaps the biggest change during Sumner’s time as a student was the introduction of the Boar’s Head Festival. “I worked on the very first one,” he explains, adding that he found a way to include his dad in the festivities. “I made the suggestion that my dad should incorporate carrying in the desert as part of the ceremony. He came out carrying a big bowl of plum pudding, and that continued to be part of it.”
After leaving Avon, Sumner matriculated to the University of Michigan where he studied photography and graphic design. His passion for the arts has never relinquished. In the decade leading up to his retirement in 2020, Sumner served as the executive director of the Center for the Arts Evergreen located just west of Denver.
Although he now enjoys retirement by exploring with his wife and spending time with his family, who mostly live nearby in Colorado, he says he is always willing to return to the Farm. He was at the last two Class of 1959 reunions in 2014 and 2019, and recently participated in an Old Guard Zoom call where several alumni spent time reminiscing, something he hopes to do more of.
“Avon’s history is just so rich. The more I think about it, and the more I hear stories from others, the more I think how wonderful it is.” He concluded by saying he next hopes to be able to attend the school’s centennial celebration in 2027, when we mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of Avon Old Farms School.