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George Trautman: The Man and His School

By Peter Evans

You can’t talk about a dedicated architect without talking about what he builds—because he is part of it, and it is a part of him.

It was August of 1969 when the newly-appointed headmaster took up residence in the quiet Cotswold Village of Avon Old Farms. Thirty-six-year-old George Trautman was resolute, bold, and braced for a campaign. The campus was physically magnificent—heavy sandstone, hand-hewn beams, slate roofs in pre-Elizabethan forms poised in 1500 rolling acres of idyllic Connecticut woodland. Avon Old Farms School, however, was in trouble: empty beds, red ink, deferred maintenance, and philosophically adrift since the death of its former headmaster, Don Pierpont, a year earlier. In firmly binding his future and destiny to that of a floundering vessel, George Trautman, in essence, had consciously undertaken a do-or-die challenge. What was the mettle of this man?

Born and bred in Baltimore, a graduate of St. Paul’s School there, George Trautman attended the University of Pennsylvania where he left his mark on both the football and lacrosse fields—All-East and All-Ivy as a linebacker in football, and All-American as a center midfielder in lacrosse. In investigating his past, one is drawn to certain conspicuously consistent threads. He was a tough man, an indefatigable competitor, a ‘winner’—always! George’s capacity for hard work, his dedication, his propensity for embracing responsibility, coupled with his relentless pursuit of worthy goals generated a continuous source of energy and growth in him and those around him. George inspired. He reached those around him. George Trautman was the self-made man writ large. While instinctively worshipping at the altar of common sense in dealing with life’s ever-changing puzzles, George managed to meld an ingenious blend of rigidity in his adherence to fundamental principles with resiliency in their practical application to unique and complex problems. Supremely confident in where he was going and what was right, George, nonetheless, always maintained a remarkable capacity to listen to and learn from others. He knew people, and more importantly, he knew himself. If the measure of a leader lies in the fruits of his labor and the devotion of his following, then George Trautman was a leader par excellence.

At the youthful age of 21, George began his career in education at Tabor Academy, in Marion Massachusetts, where he taught history and coached football and lacrosse. George quickly gravitated to positions of responsibility and authority. He ran a major dormitory. He ran the dining hall. He became an operative force in the area of discipline. He was appointed director of the Summer School. In all areas, he ran a tight ship, made decisions, and solved problems. He gained a reputation for firmness and fairness which was often translated into considerable difficulty for those who overstepped established and well-defined boundaries of propriety. It was said that you always knew where you stood with George Trautman. If there was any doubt, he certainly would not hesitate to tell you. George thus inherited a nickname over the years—Nails—which was heralded with respect, admiration, or trepidation depending upon one’s situational relationship with “the man.”

The man and his mission merged in 1969. Having only begun to explore his potential after some 14 years at Tabor, George seized an opportunity to take over the reins of a school which, like himself, suggested vast unrealized potential. George had learned much during those formative years at Tabor under Headmaster Jim Wickenden. The latter, a disciple of Deerfield’s Frank Boyden, had imbued him with a sense of style and effective leadership. Put in the most definitive terms: the headmaster must run the school. At this juncture in its development, Avon Old Farms desperately needed such a headmaster.

From the moment of George’s arrival, Avon became a school committed to a kind of institutional dynamism. Directed change was perceivable in every nook and cranny of school life: philosophy, curriculum, athletics, facilities, admissions, college placement, and atmosphere. George Trautman was omnipresent. In the trenches with the faculty and the boys, his guiding hand touched all. The fundamental formula was simple and as unshakeable as a school constructed in stone and oak: work hard! Sweat, spirit, and caring provide the chemistry for success.

George was at once the architect and the exemplar. Caring requires commitment and time, he would suggest. In order to teach, one must spend time with the boys—in the classroom, on the athletic fields, in the dormitories, and elsewhere. George thus unabashedly maintained a calculated aversion to faculty meetings. “We’re here to teach these boys how to read, write, do their sums, and help them grow up—he would say—not waste time flapping our gums in meetings.” Consequently, faculty meetings were brief, to the point, and infrequent.

George built a traditional, structured, and supportive school. He felt strongly about and vigorously supported athletics. Why? Because athletics provide training for life. Their purpose is to promote the development of the well-rounded, self-confident young man who knows how to work effectively with others.

As an effective complement to the rigors of academics, athletics challenge the body, mind, and spirit of the maturing individual. Physical development, mental exercise in the creation of strategies, and social interaction are critical by-products of competitive athletics. The young athlete must learn to cooperate with teammates and cope with a broad spectrum of emotions ranging from the elation of victory to the frustration of defeat. Self-discipline is promoted in a highly visible context of immediate accountability. Surrendering one’s ego to something larger than oneself is the goal of team athletics. And finally, a strong athletic program stimulates school spirit, a positive atmosphere, and enthusiastic, ‘happy boys.’

At the same time, George was promoting an ever-expanding academic curriculum while laying the foundation for outstanding programs in the arts—visual, performing, and music. Education of the whole boy was the goal in all of this.

George Trautman began his tenure at Avon with basic educational premises from which he did not deviate. In a capsule, he was advocating a revitalization of the Protestant work ethic. Keep the boys busy, productively occupied. They will learn much, make progress, and in so doing, become sturdy citizens.

The architect was busy. He surrounded himself with a capable and supportive administration and faculty who, in spite of George’s pervasive authority, were not just allowed but encouraged to pursue their work unstifled. Imagination was constantly rewarded. During this time enrollment doubled. College placement expanded. Admissions exploded. The curriculum matured. The teams did well. Facilities were added: a new library, auditorium theater, hockey rink, two new dormitories, a new art/music center, and more. Pride exuded. The school reflected the antithesis of the ‘Paper Chase’ for all members of the Village—a place promoting the healthy growth of people—students and adults. Whether described as a sense of community or of an extended family, Avon Old Farms had successfully created a humanistic environment and thus a very effective school—one that would have an enduring impact on all those who worked within and contributed to the fabric. The bottom line was caring, and behind it all was the architect, George Trautman.

How did one get to know George Trautman? It wasn't easy for two reasons. First, he was a very private man, by nature, and utterly self-sufficient. Second, like all effective benevolent despots, he kept his distance. If he had weaknesses with respect to dealing with the people in his domain, he didn't expose them. In fact it is appropriate to say that he was a political genius in balancing the sometimes countervailing forces of trustees, parents, alumni, faculty, and students—while never losing sight of what was best for the school.  

George remained a very physical and athletic person—the quintessence of masculinity. Age did not diminish his intimidating stature, and one was drawn to the conclusion that he could still inflict considerable damage on the playing fields of football and lacrosse. He played squash regularly and rarely lost. While relishing the opportunity to play, faculty and students tended to get nervous on the court with the man, and of course, he was relentless. George loved to fish. Whether he appreciated the solitude associated with the enterprise, or he simply enjoyed going one-on-one with the oceanic elements, it is hard to know.

George was not an intellectual in the professional sense. Yet he read much, knew much, and was a master of reason. He spoke his mind, always. Nothing fancy—but invariably clear and penetrating. His candor and honesty were overwhelming. In an interview, he once conveyed to a prospective teacher whom he was anticipating hiring: “I’m not sure about you. Do you think you’ll be able to earn the boys’ respect? I want to know what you’re going to do when one of the boys tells you to stick it in your ear.”

There was nothing soft about George Trautman. One was confident that he could render an extended limb useless with a handshake. He was not one to be backed into a corner. To be on the receiving end of a disapproving George Trautman stare, magnified by knitted brows, was a withering experience. Yet deep beneath this rugged exterior was a man whose compassion and sensitivity were boundless, subtly permeating his entire being. And it is only over the years that one began to realize that this hidden dimension was quietly operating in so many of his actions. Perhaps, herein, was the secret of his magic. He conveyed a father-image to the community at large—boy and adult. If you had a problem, you went to George. His door was always open. Yet like a father, he would not hesitate to come to you—with good news or bad—because he cared. The elements of trust and mutual respect provided the underpinning to his charisma. He was proud but exceedingly humble. He was not generally comfortable receiving compliments or recognition, perhaps because he sensed that there was always much unfinished business. The architect never completes his work. George believed that a man must prove his worth daily. Life is a permanent testing ground. Thus he has molded a school reflecting this view with its paramount emphasis on the building of character—a school dedicated to the ethos of the self-made man.

George Trautman was the ‘ultimate difference maker’ in our school, and the people in it, students and faculty alike. Looking back through the lens of my 47 years at Avon Old Farms, I cannot imagine another headmaster in this country having a greater impact on a school in the process of defining itself than George Trautman.

At this solemn time of reflection, our hearts go out to George’s family—his loving and supportive wife, Barbara, his sons, Tim '75 and Courtney '81, and his daughter, Emily.

The George M. Trautman Scholarship Fund