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  • Harrison Wilmot

Stevenson’s Early Years: The Storm Before the Calm

Once upon a time, a previous head of Stevenson School shot a gopher and almost scared a student to death. Although—if you try to picture it—the description doesn’t do the moment justice nor does it encapsulate our school’s struggle before it became prosperous.

Above, construction workers demolish Benbow dorm, a process that followed construction of the first phase of Day Hall (right), the boys’ wing; the girls’ wing (now Day West) .

In founding headmaster Robert Ricklefs’ journal of the beginnings of Stevenson, “The Early Years,” he describes the encounter he had with the wild gerbil, setting a tone for the expectations Stevenson initially only aspired to meet. “On a fine Spring afternoon in 1954, while working at my desk, I noticed a little rascal nibbling away at the goodies and decided to do something about it. Hanging on the wall was a double-barrel shotgun (a reminder of happy hunting days during my boyhood in Iowa) and there were, by chance, some shells in my desk drawer. I loaded the gun, quietly opened the door, took aim, and blasted him out of this life. At once I realized that some mothers were holding a meeting in the hall just outside my office, and I felt that I must explain the explosion. So, with smoking gun in hand, I opened the door and announced, ‘Well, that's one that won't give us any more trouble.’ The faces on all in the group turned deathly pale.” (11)

Robert U. Ricklefs was no stranger to disgusted faces. A visionary looking to start a school in northern California, Ricklefs found that a property was available in Pebble Beach — the defunct Douglas School for Girls. He bought the property and opened Stevenson — known for the first two years as The Del Monte School for Boys. However, his idyllic utopia in the Pebble Beach forest didn’t start quite the way he anticipated. Three stories illustrate the storm before the calm in Stevenson’s early years..

Number one:

One student touring the newly-founded school in the summer of 1952 was quite surprised when he first set foot on campus. Frankly, the campus was but a mere scatter of old buildings (just Douglas Hall, a tumbledown U-shaped dorm called Benbow, and a cluster of buildings across Forest Lake Road housing a few more dorm rooms and small classrooms) and it was already known by the administration that the waste disposal system was non-existent. Due to these issues, the student who had come with his father simply remarked,

“Frankly, the whole set-up stinks as bad as your sewer system!” (8)

Unfortunately, the kid had made a point and the reality of the situation was that the early days of Stevenson was a bit of a dump. With no funding from donors and a starting enrollment at 15, Ricklefs’s vision for the school seemed like wishful thinking.

Number two:

Two fires devastated the early construction of the school. The first fire took place in 1957 at the school barn. Packed with horses and saddles, one entire wing of the make-shift stables was decimated by the flames; thankfully, no animals were injured and the barn was rebuilt a couple years later.

The second fire was much worse. On a sunny spring day in 1962, Ricklefs and his friend were rudely interrupted when they were playing golf at Monterey Peninsula Country Club by a guy screaming on a golf cart, “Douglas Hall is on fire!” (36). Playing one of the best rounds of his life, Ricklefs considered not even abandoning his game, letting his Stevenson creation go up in flames. This seemed an unhappy metaphor for the struggle of “The Early Years,” but Ricklefs ultimately decided he needed to save what was left and sped back to campus. Here’s how he described the ruins: “The flames had been extinguished and only the smoldering mess greeted us. The kitchen was completely gutted, the main hall was severely damaged, the beams were scorched, and the entire room was a shambles of smoke and water” (36-37).

A bulldozer tears down Casco, one of the original dorms at Stevenson. It was replaced by Silverado and opened up space to begin building Day Hall.

After three signs that the campus facilities were subpar (though Ricklefs would argue he was not subpar on the day of the second fire), rapid construction commenced.

Number three:

The final story is thankfully a positive one. It tells the tale of the first graduate of Stevenson, Peter Golden. Accepted into Pomona College right before his graduation, he and three other seniors left a mark on Stevenson that future generations would look up to as community members and leaders in the dorm.

A group of Stevenson residents gather around a pool table in the first student center, Simoneau’s, located where Rosen stage is now. This was one of the few entertainments that kept the students sane in the early years.

Ricklefs describes how the boys transformed the amphitheater to stage their four-person graduation: “Before the first rays of sun on graduation morning these boys gave me a pleasant surprise. I was awakened by the sound of hammering, sawing, and subdued laughter, and went out to see what in the world was happening. I found all the seniors and half of the other resident boys working like a family of beavers installing new seating in the Outdoor Theater. The old rustic log seats were pretty much rotted away, and the boys, led by Bob Williams, had engineered a plan to provide new seating for their graduation. The job was completed a half hour before the program began, and it provided a happy experience to start off a happy day” (23).

Reflecting back on Ricklef’s imagination, vision, and implementation of Stevenson, it is important to understand that our school was not built overnight. More than seventy years later, our school stands as a beacon across the globe and a feeder for some of the top colleges in the nation. In short, Stevenson’s early chaos shaped the legacy of a school that stands as one of the best in the country..

The film (above), taken in February 1967, shows the colorful bliss of Stevenson School; this peace was only possible with the chaos that happened during the school’s early years.


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