An occasional look at former Loomis Chaffee community members whose work helped shape the school.
When Joe Stookins started as a French teacher in 1936, he lived in what was known as Maher House. At that time the dairy barns were on campus, basically across from where Maher House stood, which is the current site of Harman Hall.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with the workings of a dairy barn, but each cow has its own little drinking basin, and the way the cow keeps the water in the basin is that there is a little plate in the bottom, and a cow punches her nose against the plate,” Dave Haller, a former faculty member, recalled in a 1977 interview about Joe shortly before Joe’s retirement. “It opens up a valve and the water pours in, and as soon as she takes her head out, the water shuts off. Of course, this is not an easy turning of the faucet. It's a shock like this [Dave claps his hands]. Well, Maher House’s water line was hitched up through the dairy barns, and Joe’s description of his first night was hilarious. He kept hearing this banging all night long, and he couldn’t figure out what the hell it was. Ah, it never went away. He learned to live with it, the cows [drinking] water all night long.”
There wasn’t much that Joe could not figure out in a career dedicated to students. He retired in 1977 after 41 years, 25 as head of what was then called the Modern Language Department. He was past president of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French, the New England Modern Language Association, and the National Association of Independent Schools. He also was a former chair of the Advanced Placement Committee in French for the College Entrance Examination Board.
In retirement Joe and his wife, Margaret, lived on Cape Cod, in an East Sandwich, Mass., home they had built years before. In a 1977 interview, Joe recalled when the land was cleared, the house was built, and “there wasn’t a blade of grass.”
Joe’s good friend, then-Science Department Head Howard “Squirrel” Norris ’28, had referred to the yard as an arboretum. “That’s a bit ambitious, but we do have a wide variety of trees and it’s a great satisfaction to us,” Joe said. “Margaret and I both love these things, and the house has been a great satisfaction to us and now we’re putting a second floor on it. … We have quite literally sunk our roots there in more ways than one. We’re going to miss [the Hartford] area. We found it very stimulating.”
Joe was asked in that interview about hobbies. He was a man who built a career by using his mind.
“I love to work with my hands,” he said. “I don’t think I would want to only do that. But to work with your hands when you are mentally tired is great, it’s refreshing. ... I don't pretend to be skilled at it. I’m a hacker, but I enjoy doing it. So, it will take us a long, long time to finish what we want [with the house], and probably we never will finish it because we’ll keep thinking of something else.”
Less than two years later, on January 24, 1979, at age 67, he died in the East Sandwich home. Joe had gone to get the car serviced in preparation for a trip to Florida and was changing his clothes to do some chores when he collapsed, his wife Margaret noted in a letter to the Loomis Chaffee community.
“He had seemed well, a little tired perhaps after completing work on the renovation of two rooms on the older first floor of our home,” Margaret wrote. “He was pleased with the result of his efforts and was looking forward to the Florida trip. Other jobs were being planned for spring.”
She also wrote, “To those who might say ‘He must have overworked,’ I would answer that he wanted to do just what he did. His was a life of constant effort and fulfillment. … Why did he die within a year-and-a-half after retirement, and with a record of no absence from illness in his entire teaching career? Who knows?”
What Margaret did know was that Joe was loved and fulfilled.
“The wonderful letters that Joe's colleagues, friends, former students and parents have written, the home that he worked on so competently, and our completely happy marriage bear witness of true fulfillment in my Joe’s life,” she wrote.
On February 22, 1979, more than 200 people attended a service for Joe in Founders Chapel. Former colleague Edith Treadway’s remarks for the service were in a letter. She wrote that Joe knew how to read the mood of the faculty room, and if a joke was needed, he delivered. She went on to write, “Your language was musical in tone and perfect in cadence. Your scholarly mind … gave us all pause. Your life’s work and love for the etymological became our love. Your love of France became our passion.”
Of his many degrees, one was a diploma in the study of French civilization from the Sorbonne in Paris. Joe and Margaret also spent a sabbatical year in France in the late 1960s.
Once he got to Loomis Chaffee in 1936, he felt no inclination to leave for another job. World War II did take him away for four years, but he came back. Certainly one reason was Headmaster Nathaniel Horton Batchelder.
“Mr. Batchelder, if you had his confidence, and to get his confidence you only had to do your job, there was nothing that he wouldn't do for you,” Joe said. “I had the opportunity to try all kinds of things in the teaching of language that I might not have been able to do somewhere else.”
In the late 1930s Joe used puppets as a teaching tool. There were shows on campus and at regional modern language conferences. One student manipulated the puppet, one spoke the part. Joe said the puppets were “a gimmick, if you will, but a good one to encourage students to speak their parts well enough in a foreign language to be heard through the theater.”
What Joe took on as a teacher went beyond the classroom. He started a school band in the 1930s. Joe had played saxophone in high school and college, and he saw that other rival prep schools had bands. He remembered leaving rehearsals with a headache during the early days, but that changed. “I do think that we eventually sounded pretty good, and we had a wonderful time,” Joe recalled.
Joe also was instrumental in creating the Humanities Program for seniors and participated in the Special Projects Group, a student activity that in part was about beautifying the campus. It’s little wonder that he took great pride in the grounds of the East Sandwich home.
In a letter to Margaret on February 19, 1979, the faculty unanimously approved a “minute” honoring Joe, the final paragraph reading: “Paradoxically, though he was a modernist in his methods and his constant willingness to look ahead, he was truly a scholar and teacher of the old school, and one who never forgot his dignity and that of his calling, nor ever ceased to sacrifice himself for his students. He was, finally, a warm and loving friend and a good man. With his passing, we are all poorer.”
The faculty then rose for a moment of silence.