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Barbara and Ralph Erickson: Unbeatable Team

An occasional look at former Loomis Chaffee community members whose work helped shape the school.    

Barbara Wishart was teaching and coaching in Windsor, Vermont, in 1936, on a staff that included fellow teacher/coach Ralph Erickson. They would marry in 1937, the same year Ralph was offered a job at Trinity College in Hartford, so they moved to Connecticut. 

Barbara would have been out of a job anyway in Vermont. At the time, the Board of Education in the small town of Windsor, near the New Hampshire border, did not permit its female teachers to be married. 

That unjust and shortsighted policy simply meant Barbara would have to build her career elsewhere, and that opportunity came quickly. In late fall of 1937, an unexpected opening came up and Barbara started as a teacher at The Chaffee School. Ralph came to Loomis in 1946 after time at Trinity and in military service during World War II.    

Barbara would spend 39 years at Chaffee, 21 years as the head of the school. She retired in 1976, four years after Chaffee and Loomis joined as Loomis-Chaffee. Ralph was a multi-sport coach and athletic director for Loomis from 1946 until his retirement in 1969. Few people had a greater impact on Loomis, Chaffee, and Loomis Chaffee than Barbara and Ralph Erickson.   

When Ralph arrived at Loomis, Barbara was firmly entrenched at Chaffee as a teacher and coach. The head of Chaffee at the time, Florence Sellers, had increasingly turned over administrative duties to Barbara. Florence died in 1954, and the Trustees named Barbara as her replacement in 1955. 

Barbara was a force in the educational field. She was secretary of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools for eight years and a member of the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls. She was a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, where she also became a trustee and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law. She was a member of various organizations, including the Windsor Historical Society, and was on the advisory board of the former Society for Savings.  

When Chaffee and Loomis merged, she made sure that the girls retained their class officer positions, believing girls should have leadership experience, according to a 1976 story in The Hartford Courant as she was nearing retirement. She had remained at the school to help ensure a smooth transition as the girls and boys came together as one school community. 

“I am sure that compared with her earlier years, steadily building Chaffee on her own campus, the inevitable turbulence of our merger often called on her extraordinary reserves of patience and courage,” Loomis Chaffee Headmaster Fred Torrey wrote in the January 1976 LC Bulletin. “Fortunately, for all of us, her resilient strength carried her and the school through, and with it her vision of quality in young women’s education.” 

Barbara Erickson at her desk in 1958.

Barbara, at her desk in 1958. In her letter to the Trustees, dated November 25, 1975, announcing her intentions to retire at the end of the school year, Barbara wrote, “Working at Chaffee and then at Loomis-Chaffee has been a joy and a special sort of education for me — I might call it graduate study at the highest level.”  

Barbara, like Ralph, was a fine athlete. She was captain of her Vermont high school basketball team in 1932 and played field hockey at Middlebury College. Both knew the value of teamwork, supporting one another.   

“During Ralph's years of directing the Loomis athletic program, Barbara enthusiastically supported all his teams. If a count could be taken, it would probably show that over the years Barbara attended more team games than any other person, players included, for the Ericksons played their parts in the sports of all three seasons,” according to a story in the 1972 Loomis Bulletin. “In turn, when Chaffee was enjoying a particular event such as Spring Day, or Commencement, or a dance, or whatever, Ralph was counted on always to be there, keeping everyone in good humor while keeping every kind of traffic in good moving order.”  

When Ralph came to Connecticut in 1937, he was hired as a coach of freshman football, basketball, and baseball at Trinity College and became varsity basketball coach for two years before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in World War II, directing physical training stateside. He came to Loomis in 1946, coached baseball, football, and basketball, and became the school’s athletic director. His football and basketball teams each had multiple unbeaten seasons, and he had 351 victories in the three sports. 

When Ralph had a scholarship named after him in 1978, the late Hartford Courant sports editor Bill Lee wrote a column that included a few of Ralph’s admonitions to his players. One was “hustle, keep your feet moving and use your head, but don’t concentrate on the part that eats, drinks, and talks too much. Talk is easy, work is difficult.” 

In the 2014 publication Cherished Hopes and Honorable Ambition, which was a centennial history of Loomis Chaffee, Allen Beebe, who took over as baseball coach in 1969 when Ralph retired, said, “He seemed hard-bitten but really had a heart of gold, embracing his players with a kind of tough love.” 

And with a touch of humor mixed in. This from the Bill Lee column: “Once a Loomis catcher complained, ‘Coach, I’m hurting all over.’ Try stopping the ball with your glove instead of your belly,” Ralph told the player. 

Ralph Erickson in a golf cart given by students.

When Ralph Erickson lost a leg due to cancer, the Loomis alumni presented him with a golf cart, “The Moon Wagon,” and he would coach on crutches until retirement. 

His most famous baseball player might have been pitcher Moe Dabrowsky, who in 1966 would see his name splashed across many sports sections in the country. Moe, who grew up in Windsor, threw 6.2 innings of scoreless relief, striking out 11 in Game 1 of the World Series, as the Baltimore Orioles beat the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Orioles would go on to win the World Series in four games.   

Ralph also had other catchy phrases, all designed to motivate. 

“Never get fat-headed. An inflated balloon may burst.”  

“Never let your problems on the field interfere with your studies. Wash your problems off in the shower.” 

“Remember to work for the good of your team, family, community, and school. And kwitchersdambellyakin! 

“You play the game. I’ll do the arguing.” 

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog.”  

He had to use the latter two when he developed hip pain in early 1965. At first, there were no answers, but in late June a small hole in the bone of his left hip was discovered and a biopsy showed a malignant tumor. Cobalt treatment began. Complications would lead to the amputation of his leg. Loomis alumni presented him with a golf cart, “The Moon Wagon,” and he would coach on crutches until retirement. 

A Springfield College alumni story noted that losing a leg did not stop Ralph. “If anything, he worked even harder after his setback. His rasping voice heard at every athletic contest grew louder … his piercing whistle became even more piercing … and the ever-present cloud of cigar smoke over his head became thicker.” 

And in a testament to what the Ericksons meant to the community and how the school treated its employees, a lift was built in Chaffee House, where Ralph and Barbara lived. The Chaffee House is located in the center of the Palisado Avenue Historic District.   

The respect for Ralph went far beyond Loomis. In 1949 he was elected president of the Eastern Preparatory School Athletic Association by reps from the 75 EPSAA schools. He received a Gold Key Award, which recognizes excellence in athletics, from the Connecticut Sports Media Alliance in 1966. Springfield College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in physical education, inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame. (He starred in baseball and basketball there, captaining the basketball team.) The Erickson League in football, of which Loomis Chaffee was a member, was named after him. So is one of the gymnasiums in the Loomis Chaffee athletics complex.   

“I’ve received some fine tributes, but this has to be the biggest of them all,” Ralph said in a May 1969 Hartford Times story on the gym’s being named in his honor. “It will keep the Erickson name alive as long as there is a Loomis school. I cannot put into words my thanks to those who made it possible.” 

Similar respect and honor always followed Barbara, too. A scholarship was named in her honor when she retired. A testimonial dinner was held May 1, 1976, at which the guest speaker was then-Governor Ella T. Grasso, a 1936 Chaffee graduate.  

In her letter to the Trustees, dated November 25, 1975, announcing her intentions to retire at the end of the school year, Barbara wrote, “Working at Chaffee and then at Loomis-Chaffee has been a joy and a special sort of education for me — I might call it graduate study at the highest level.”  

Barbara and Ralph were advocates for the students their whole careers. That commitment only heightened for Barbara after the merger was announced. But by the time of her letter to the Trustees, she felt what she described “as a sense of completion.” 

“The girls hold a strong position in the Loomis-Chaffee School,” she wrote. “The women members of the faculty are firmly established in the academic, extracurricular, and administrative areas of the school; the decision to provide for girl boarders in 1976 has been made, and dean of the boarding girls has been appointed; one office has been created to handle the admission of boy and girls; the two parents’ associations have merged into one as have the alumnae and alumni associations.” 

The woman who lost her job in an antiquated era had helped lead Loomis Chaffee into a new era. 

Barbara and Ralph in front of Chaffee House.

Barbara and Ralph Erickson in front of Chaffee House.


 

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