By Missy Craver Izard
There was a buzz about campus as students filed into Pingree Auditorium at Christ School in Arden, North Carolina. Music director, Jim Casserino and 20 students or more packed the stage with a variety of instruments, each voice belting out the lyrics to “Twist and Shout” as students and teachers danced in the aisles and their seats.
Enthusiasm was high in this Friday Assembly — one that rocked the tower and made for a wonderful send-off into the weekend. Jim “Goody” Goodrum, director of student engagement and summer programs, announced a variety of weekend activities: Hikes, camping trips, climbing, kayaking, entertainment and a costumed themed Halloween dance with St. Mary’s School on Saturday night.
Three students representing the ASSIST Program shared their goals for this year at Christ School. ASSIST is a non-profit organization which matches academically talented, multi-lingual students with independent schools across the United States. The ASSIST experience hosts students for one year before they return to their home country.
Hailing from Hungry and Germany, these young men were all about taking advantage of the opportunity of spending this year in America to seize the day — to become a better version of themselves, to experience new customs and traditions and to travel. Each one felt that they had built lifelong friendships at Christ School, and the bonds made in just a few months were phenomenal. The standing ovation and fervent applause following their presentations were a fitting testament to this camaraderie.
The atmosphere was contagious, and I could see why: Dan Stevenson, Senior Endowment Gifts Officer, says the school environment is one of the major factors that draws Christ School alumni back to their alma mater.
The Founding of Christ School
For more than a century, Christ School has offered boys the opportunity to acquire moral and ethical principles through an environment of academic intensity, hard work, athletic challenge and spiritual nurturing. Founded in 1900 by Father Thomas C. Wetmore and his wife, Susan Allen Wetmore, the dream of Christ School began in the mind of Fr. Wetmore:
“Fr. Wetmore envisioned a boarding school that would also serve as an industrial training school for surrounding mountain children and a college preparatory school for those boys who came from across the state or elsewhere. He foresaw a school that would provide sound education and religious training at a minimal cost for those boys and girls who wanted to improve themselves.”
The campus’s initial four acres were deeded to the school on October 10, 1900, from his wife Struan’s ancestral home. A descendant of wealthy rice planter and Charlestonian Alexander Robertson, Mrs. Wetmore’s family purchased 1500 acres in Buncombe County at a tax-foreclosing sale before the Civil War and built a full-sized, self-contained plantation — a rarity in the western mountains. It was in this manorial home that the Wetmores lived.
One necessary ingredient to the school’s success was money. The mountain folk were unable to pay the cost of such an undertaking, so other sources had to be found. Fr. Wetmore was an energetic, natural salesman who had no trouble selling his dream to church groups in the North and South to support this enterprise in an area where public schools were not to penetrate until the early 1920’s. Beside him was his wife who was totally committed to his dream.
Students came on horseback, in wagons and by foot in rain, snow or sleet, two to six miles each way from eight surrounding communities. Several students came from afar including Thomas Dugan Westfeldt of New Orleans, Louisiana and The Grange in Fletcher, N.C.
He was among the first few boarding students, although he lived in a home off campus. Little did Westfeldt know that he was the beginning of a Christ School family legacy and a long connection between New Orleans and Christ School. His great nephew and namesake, Thomas Dugan Westfeldt (Tommy) was in the class of 1970.
“I thank my great Uncle Thom for allowing me the privilege of attending Christ School. It truly changed my life, and I will remember the school, the memories and the experiences for life. My great uncle’s brother and my grandfather, George Gustaf Westfeldt, Sr. along with the children of his sister, Louise Westfeldt McIlhenny also attended. A cousin, Gustaf Reinhold McIIhenny, was in my class and we became close friends through our Christ School experiences. We thank our forefathers for allowing us to carry on a tradition that I hope will last for generations,” said Tommy.
By about1904 or 1905, Fr. Wetmore felt the key element missing from the school was a chapel, which would point to Christ as the center of life at the school. To this day the chapel remains the heart of the school and the place that ties all generations together.
“When I think of Christ School, my mind and heart are drawn to the chapel. Every evening in the Chapel we gathered to worship God and offered praise and thanks for the successes of the day and for help with the failures. We celebrated every conceivable event in the church calendar and raised God’s name in song. I still get goose bumps playing the memories in my mind,” says Tom Beck (class of 1969).
Following the sudden death of Fr. Wetmore in 1907, the management of the school was left to his wife, Susan. The school could have easily folded. Out of this circumstance, an advisory board was formed to assist with the future of the school. To help secure operating funds and an endowment, Bishop Horner, president of the advisory board arranged a deed conveying the lands upon which Christ School stood to the Episcopal District of Asheville.
The Harris Years and Christ School Traditions
Who was Fr. Ruben Rivers Harris, the man who sustained Fr. Wetmore’s dream so faithfully and transformed Christ School into an all-boys boarding school? Duncan MacBryde (class of 1928), who became a Presbyterian minister and professor, describes Fr. Harris as “a saint waiting to be canonized. He had an enormous hold over the boys — much like the Pied Piper — except that his tune was directed toward good. The students in the 1920’s described Fr. Harris as their best teacher.”
Just as the chapel was the center of life at Christ School, it was the Angelus Bell that awakened the school and community to life each day. It was given to the school in 1913 as a memorial by an unidentified donor. With the coming of Fr. Harris, the Angelus rang three times daily, at six in the morning, at 12 noon, and at six in the evening. Its purpose was to announce worship services and to provide three moments during the day when everyone stood still to meditate and offer prayers of thanksgiving to God.
Today the tradition of the Angelus Bell still holds true to its meaning. It is sounded by one of two students who fill the roles of Sacristan and Verger. There are times when you may hear sporadic ringing late in the evening: It is the way generations of Christ School athletic teams have heralded their victories and safe arrival home.
“In the morning and in the evening, the ring of the Angelus turned Christ School into a still life portrait of quietness. Wherever we were and no matter what we were doing, we stopped and stood in silence, bowing our heads,” recalls Jack McDuffie (class of 1941).
Christ School was a coming of age for many of its students. It was a place where countless numbers of boys grew into men. Built on a foundation of the Four Pillars, as Graylyn Loomis, Director of Communications, and a member of the class of 2010 explained, these four pillars, academic rigor, leadership, spirituality and the dignity of manual labor, encompass Fr. Wetmore’s original vision for educating boys. The Four Pillars define Christ School and its community. They help set their priorities and guide them.
“The Dignity of Manual Labor: No task is too small or unworthy of a Christ School boy. We believe that involvement in the care and maintenance of our campus fosters a sense of ownership, pride and service. The dignity of manual labor is a tradition and ethos not lost on the Christ School boys of today.”
Bru Izard, a member of the class of 1969 and one of many students from Charleston, S.C. including his two brothers, Chuck and Philip Middleton and first cousin, George Palmer, reflected on some of the values he learned through his Christ School experience. “The work program — jobs — was fundamental. Everybody had a new job each week. Student work kept the place clean and the maintenance costs low. It was a core part of the school’s founding and for decades strengthened through the leadership of different headmasters including David Page Harris, the son of headmaster Fr. R.R. Harris and known to all as “Mr. Dave” (headmaster, 1927-1967).
“For my generation at Christ School, there was the Trinity and there was Mr. Dave — The Man — a profound leader and headmaster — the guiding light of the school. He was larger than life. Mr. Dave orchestrated many projects built by students including a stone walkway that runs in front of the chapel to the dining hall. He didn’t tell us what to do, he showed us — we learned to level the stone as it was laid,” recalled Bru. He took the dread out of worklists because he worked beside us. He taught us to value manual labor and to not look down on it.”
“Mr. Dave was constantly moving. If you looked up, he was there. His shadow was long and pronounced. His gray hair, gray shirt and pants earned him the name of The Gray Ghost,” said Dan Stevenson (Class of 1972) and current Christ School Senior Endowment Gifts Officer. Alumni consistently tell stories of Mr. Dave being about at night — catching someone up after hours doing something — he was the master of the unexpected and understood boys. He knew when to be a disciplinarian and when to be a friend.”
“There were teachers who remained at Christ School for 30 to 40 years during Mr. Dave’s tenure,” said Dan. “Academic Rigor, one of the Four Pillars of the school and a founding principle, challenges each student to develop their academic potential to its maximum. Mr. Dave expected no more of the students than their best. He was insistent on them being self-reliant.”
“Christ School was able to recommend two students for a Morehead Scholarship and they got it, recalled Bru. No paperwork or interviews were needed — the school’s reputation for academic excellence spoke for its students. One such student to receive the Morehead was Cameron Vaught, a classmate of mine.
Recently, Tom Beck (class of 1969) and Dan Stevenson arranged for a group from our class to travel in a Christ School van to visit Cameron who had cancer. Shortly after the visit, Cameron passed away. It goes without saying that our visit with Cameron that day was a spiritual moment — we may all have gray hair now, but because of Christ School, we will forever share the bonds of our youth.”
The Christ School football team first wore green jerseys in 1919, and since then Christ School’s athletic teams have been known as the Greenies. The oldest high school rivalry in the Carolinas is the Christ School-Asheville School football game. First played in 1911, the whole week leading up to the game is filled with “Greenie” spirit in anticipation for the game of the season.
“When you are involved in a highly competitive contest against an archrival, there is emotional involvement and some amount of fear and animosity. What meant the most to me was the hope and determination to do our best for the school, our team, and our teammates. To me it was the ultimate in team spirit,” recalls Nace Few (class of 1969 and # 45 on his team). “Rarely do I miss this game.
It is one of the CS events that brings me back to campus. Students, parents and alumni are clad from head to toe in green attire and some even body painted green. Enthusiasm is always high and fortunately for a dozen reasons, this year’s game will go down in Christ School history as the twelfth win in a row.”
A current junior at Christ School, William Hughes of Charleston had this to add: “The Christ School-Asheville School game week activities are some of my favorite traditions. It was during this week my freshman year that the fellowship of this place was reinforced, and I felt united with the student body in a shared brotherhood.”
The week before Thanksgiving, I attended the Wednesday Chapel program and Thanksgiving Feast in the dining hall. Peter Hartwig, director of spiritual life, delivered a sermon of gratitude and various students assisted throughout the service.
When I sat down with my daughter, Katharine Izard Hoffman, a member of the Christ School faculty and some of her advisees, I experienced firsthand the spiritual character of this amazing school. When we walked out of the chapel, two mothers behind a table full of homemade goodies greeted us with warm smiles as a reminder of home.
Lillian Montgomery Lilly, one of the mothers, is a current Christ School parent and the daughter of Christ School alumnus, Walter Montgomery (class of 1947). She felt her father’s Christ School experience was pinnacle in his development as a young man. Her brothers, Scott and John were also graduates of the school. When looking for a boarding school for her sons, Collier and James, the small community and traditions of Christ School supported through the four pillars confirmed this was the place for her boys and a family legacy worth keeping.
This week students, faculty, staff, and parents will decorate St. Joseph’s Chapel for the annual Christ School Candlelight Service of Lessons and Carols, a tradition that is almost as old as the school. I’ve heard alumni share stories of digging up stumps, a consequence for breaking a rule and dorm inspections that determined privileges.
Others have shared memories of riding the coal car with Mr. Dave and being a furnace boy; The Frat House, school dances, the choir, the newspaper and the farm; the relationship of faculty and students; the importance of sports and outdoor activities.
I’ve heard current students tell me why they like Christ School and about the importance of servant leadership — that they all want to contribute in some way to their shared campus community and to the community at large building houses for Habitat and working in soup kitchens — and at the center is academic excellence taught in an environment of Christian nurture — the mission from the start that contributes to the mission of today: “To produce educated men of good character, prepared for both scholastic achievement in college and productive citizenship in adult society.”
I am reminded that the headmasters of the past included beloved Charlestonian Henry “Heno” Hutson (class of 1945 who had also been a teacher and coach and that the excellence of Christ School today is because there is strong leadership under current headmaster, Sean Jenkins. I think of this gem of a school nestled on 500 acres in Arden, N.C. and I understand why Dan Stevenson (class of 1972) says, “Christ School is the happiest, most wholesome environment I’ve ever lived in. Infrequently in life do we get to play on a winning team. Christ School is a winning team.”
Postscript: For more on the story and history of Christ School, please visit their website: https://www.christschool.org/
Without these two books and the many contributions of alumni, faculty, staff and students this article would not be possible:
Three Score and Ten by David McCullough — A history of Christ School 1900-1970
The Centennial Angelus — Christ School Celebrating 100 Years: 1900-2000
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, S.C. She is a mother, grandmother, speaker, entrepreneur, artist, author, journalist, teacher, community leader and the recipient of several awards including the White House Champions of Change. A retired Summer Camp Director and art teacher, she resides in Flat Rock, N.C.; The Little Charleston of the Mountains.