Laying the Foundation for an Exceptional School
When the founders purchased the 400-acre tract, they took on the daily struggle of living in a no-frills rural setting.
Ground-breaking ceremony with Bishop John E. Hines, headmaster William Brewster, Trustees, and other participants.
Neighbors were goats, cattle, and a variety of critters. Water was pumped from a 1,017-foot well. This is the first administration building.
One can only imagine the impression the scene would have made on a wandering cedar chopper or a fence-riding cowhand from nearby Davenport Ranch.
It was a bleak, wintry St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26, 1949, in the sparsely populated Hill Country west of the state capital. A pilgrim caravan pulled up at a remote plateau, and from the cars issued a stream of ladies in calf-length coats and furs, gentlemen in suits and wool overcoats, and clergy in bright vestments.
That memorable afternoon the group witnessed a ground-breaking ceremony in which Bishop John E. Hines
, headmaster William Brewster
, Trustees, and other participants turned spadefuls of rocky soil on a spot that would come to be known simply as the “Hill.” Biting winds did not cool the enthusiasm of Hines, Brewster, the Trustees, their families, and other dedicated folk, who saw their dream of an Episcopal school in Central Texas finally realized.
“This is a happy day for all of us,” the Rev. Brewster said. “We promise to dedicate ourselves to education that concerns the whole person: body, mind and spirit.”
Hines was also touched by the experience. He later wrote in his diary: “St. Stephen’s Day. Broke ground for St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. The sun came out just as the ground was being turned . . . symbolic, we all hope of the warmth and light which a Christian school is destined to create for the whole Southwest.”
On Oct. 23, 1999, St. Stephen’s, a coeducational boarding and day school, commemorated the 50th anniversary of its ground breaking in a ceremony on campus attended by alumni, parents, Trustees, and other friends. Although much has changed since its founding, the school remains true to its origins.
The Rich History of St. Stephen's
|400 Acres and a Bishop|
Following World War II, many Texas Episcopal families expressed interest in a top-quality boarding school closer to home. A questionnaire sent to congregations in 1947 showed 63 children attending boarding school outside the Diocese.
The Rt. Rev. John E. Hines, then Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Texas, and later Bishop of the Diocese and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, launched a campaign to create an Episcopal boarding school that would provide a rigorous academic and moral education for the children of families in towns and ranches across the state.
The school site eight miles from Austin was chosen because of its proximity to the University of Texas and the seat of state government, as well as its remoteness from the corruption of city life. A look at vintage photos reveals the wilderness quality of the sparsely populated Hill Country location in the early years.
When the founders purchased the 400-acre tract, they took on the daily struggle of living in a no-frills rural setting. Their neighbors were goats, cattle and a variety of critters. Water was pumped from a 1,017-foot well. The only telephone was a mobile unit in an old car. When incoming calls caused the horn to honk, someone had to go outside to the car to answer.
The school’s original buildings blended southwestern ranch and mid-century modernist design. The native stone chapel, unadorned save for a huge timber cross hanging over the altar, exemplifies the school’s architectural esthetic, which is meant to merge the campus with the natural setting. The Chapel, at the center of campus, symbolizes the place of Christian spirituality in the life of the St. Stephen’s community.
The scenic Hill Country and its unique flora and fauna continue to frame the daily experience at St. Stephen’s. Although urban sprawl has brought several neighborhoods to the perimeter, the campus still offers hundreds of acres with hike-and-bike trails, as well as access to streams and the Colorado River along the school’s western boundary.
|The Early Years|
St. Stephen’s Episcopal School was founded by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas after years of dreaming and planning on the part of the Rt. Rev. John E. Hines, then Bishop Coadjutor, and many dedicated laymen and clergy. Their dream was to establish a school dedicated to Christian education. Its charter was granted by the State of Texas in July 1948 and the Rev. William Brewster, headmaster of St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., was invited to become founding headmaster. After two years of much hard work and many gifts, the school opened for classes on Sept. 18, 1950. There were 54 charter students and seven teachers that fall, and only six buildings: Brewster, Freeman, Ives, the old Dining Hall (which later became the Student Center and is now Gunn Hall), the Office, which is now part of a faculty residence, and Mr. Brewster’s house, where the Head of the Upper School’s family currently lives.
That spring the Class of 1951, consisting of three students, graduated. From its first year St. Stephen’s has been accredited by the Texas Education Agency. It was the only coeducational Episcopal boarding school at the secondary level in the United States. It was, therefore, something of an experiment in the church, and many people have followed its development with great interest.
The first years were particularly exciting ones for the student body. They selected the school colors and took the name “Spartan” for athletic teams. They published the first yearbook and named it the Deacon, a title that it still bears. The close relationship between students and teachers is a tradition started in those first years by the Rev. Brewster and the school community. Brewster’s leadership was cut tragically short by his illness and death in November 1953. His funeral service was the first service in the Chapel.
|Heads of School|
The Rev. William Brewster
Robert M. Kimball
Dr. Allen W. Becker
A. R. (Tad) Montgomery, III
The Rev. Charles Rowins
E. K. (Charlie) Salls (interim)
Christopher T. Mabley
A. Jon Frere (interim)
A. Frederick Weissbach
The Rev. Roger Bowen
Robert E. Kirkpatrick
Christopher L. Gunnin
Never underestimate the treasures to be mined from an old, forgotten box.
Three years ago, former history teacher Laura Camp struck gold while rummaging through the school archive in the library.
“I was just dumpster diving through old boxes,” she said. “I knew the archive contained materials from the early days of the school, but when I saw that envelope of negatives I knew I had found something special.”
Camp had uncovered dozens of old 2x2- inch negatives of photos taken by Shirley Sherman, one of the first staff members at St. Stephen’s. “Looking at her photographs, you get a sense of the kind of work she was doing to create a record of the school,” Camp said of the images of sporting events, dorm life, special campus programs, even student birthday parties and dances.
“Shirley was the official photographer for the school yearbook for the first five or six years,” said Christine Aubrey, director of Advancement. “All the images from the first years of ‘The Deacon’ were hers.”
Born in 1919, Sherman possessed a rough- hewn spirit, no-nonsense personality and wickedly funny sense of humor. After graduating from The University of Texas at
Austin in 1942, she joined the U.S. Army as a soldier in the Women’s Army Corps. “She was head of the secretarial pool during the U.S. Army’s occupation of Vienna during World War II,” said Aubrey, who believes Sherman bought her camera while stationed in Austria.
Following the war, Sherman worked as a counselor and photographer at Camp Mystic, located 100 miles west of Austin. “Bill Brewster gave a sermon at the camp one Sunday,” Aubrey said of the first head of school. “He recruited Shirley to be his secretary. She started work on the first day school opened in the fall of 1950.”
As secretary to the head of school, Sherman’s ’day job’ involved handling an immense amount of paperwork for the school, including typing exams, recording grades, distributing report cards, and coordinating communications among school staff, parents and trustees. She was also a member of the residential staff and lived on campus in a one-room apartment connected to Freeman dormitory. As a dorm parent, she served duty every third day and was required to attend all meals and daily snack time.
No doubt, her military experience helped prepare Sherman for the rigors of Spartan life. “Shirley was tough as nails,” Camp noted. “She was very self- sufficient and liked being alone. That being said, the school was everything to her.”
“St. Stephen’s was her entire life,” Aubrey concurred. “Shirley was an educated woman who supported others her entire professional life. Luckily for us, she made it her business to witness and record school life.”
Sherman’s tenure at St. Stephen’s spanned an amazing 55 years. Her black-and-white photos of life on The Hill in the 1950s—those discovered by Camp in the school archives— are now on display in various shared meeting spaces across campus, including the Board Room in the student center, a dining hall meeting room and the Admission Office.
Sherman retired from St. Stephen’s in January 2008. Thanks to her tremendous photography skills and dedication to St. Stephen’s, we can all gain insight into the early days of this school on a hill that she loved so deeply.
A Glimpse of 1950s School Life
“Sherman faced many personal challenges in her career at St. Stephen’s,” wrote Kathleen Wilson, former head librarian, in a profile of Shirley Sherman from 2000. “Even answering the phone in her first years on the job was not easy.
“At that time, no telephone line ran to the school. The phone company, however, agreed to install a mobile phone in a car. Ike Fowler, the school handyman and horse stable manager, towed an old junker to the phone company on 9th Street. Once the phone was installed and wired to the car’s horn, Fowler towed it back to school, where it was parked in front of the administration building. Whenever the horn honked, Sherman had to race outside to answer the call from the car.”
|Video produced by and used with permission from the Rev. Charles Sumners and the Episcopal Television Network|
The Metalwork of Roy Bellows
A talented artist and metalsmith, Roy Bellows has a unique ability to create objects and structures that reflect the essential nature of places and ideas.
His artistic expression can be found in the distinctive entry gates, building signs and metal accents that grace the St. Stephen’s campus. That these pieces fit so seamlessly into the school environment and feel like such an authentic extension of the school itself is no accident, but rather a matter of careful consideration and design.
“Metal work is concerned with both form and function,” Bellows explained. “It is very practical, while also being a means of artistic expression. Sign making is largely about making shapes work together; the spacing between the letters and the type of font used are very important.
“Signs tell who we are, who we were and when we existed,” he continued. “They are important because they represent us, they express our values, and they commemorate our place and time in the world. What is more real than our name and our dates?"
In designing the signs that mark the school’s entrance and academic buildings, Bellows used a classic Roman font made of hand-forged letters placed in a natural limestone setting. This combination of formal and natural elements, as well as the use of stone and steel, perfectly reflects the ethos of St. Stephen’s.
When planning the design of the metal entry gates, Bellows asked himself what would best fit the space. “The road that leads into the school is lined with trees, so I created tree-lined, open-work panels divided down the center to mark the transition between the public space surrounding the school and the more private campus interior,” he said. “The open design creates a permeable boundary that establishes the school’s privacy while also reflecting its openness to and connection with the world.”
The parent of two St. Stephen’s graduates, Bellows is pleased that the signs he creates are meaningful to the school and that they play an important part in campus life. “I think there’s something of immortality in these signs,” he concluded. “They embody the school’s past, present and future. Their design and construction reflect the vision and values of the school’s founders, they celebrate the school’s existence, and they provide a lasting physical expression of what St. Stephen’s is all about.”
—Brenda Lindfors '80