After the Fire
"A lightning bolt had struck — first literally, and then figuratively — and with it came the prospect of new possibilities. "
By J. Timothy Richards P '15 | Head of School
On a pristine Sunday afternoon this past August, Anne and I hiked out to High Cliff Cove on Digby Neck in Nova Scotia. For the entire two-hour trek, we didn't see another living soul. The blue skies and calm breeze that defined the afternoon, however, were in stark contrast to the ferocious thunderstorm that had roared through Pomfret, 450 miles to the southwest, twelve hours earlier.
As we approached our car after the hike, my phone rang, a remarkable event given the isolation of our location. History teacher, assistant dean, volunteer firefighter, emergency responder, and state representative-elect Pat Boyd was on the other end of the line. He hurriedly explained that Eastover, the head of school house on campus, was in flames. A lightning strike had started a chain reaction, ultimately leading to a blaze that required several local fire departments to extinguish. The fire was eventually contained, but not before a great many of our personal belongings were destroyed or damaged, including most of our books (pretty rough for two lifelong readers and educators), furniture, photos, some artwork, and about half of our clothing. Our hearts sank in that moment.
The days, weeks, and months that followed were unusual for us. We moved into a rental house three miles from campus: the first time in my professional life that I had to commute to work. We replaced lost items as we needed them, and tried to patiently bide our time as we wondered when we might be able to rejoin the community.
Eventually we settled into new routines, living largely out of bags and boxes on the floor of our rental home. While dismissing pity parties, we felt the pain and sadness of loss: of valued personal property, of routine, and of our sense of continuity and certainty. Once settled, we began to take stock of what had happened and set our minds on the future. A lightning bolt had struck — first literally, and then figuratively — and with it came the prospect of new possibilities.
Eastover had been a fantastic home for us, and we had been incredibly happy there. But the house is enormous: at nearly 8,000 square feet, it has far more space than two people could ever need, and we quickly realized that Eastover had the potential to make a great new dorm.
The downside of turning Eastover into a dorm, of course, was that Anne and I would need a new place to live. As luck would have it, we found the perfect place less than a hundred yards away, right next door to Eastover. Our neighbor was ready to sell, and by late December, Anne and I had moved in. The new house comes with wonderful spaces for entertaining students, colleagues, parents, trustees, and visitors. Even fire has a silver lining! At the same time, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, Eastover Dorm has begun to take shape. It promises to offer a great home for sixteen lucky students.
Sometimes change is linear and predictable, safe and comfortable. Other times it is thrust upon us like a bolt of lightning. Alas, we do not always get to choose the disruptions we are facing, but we do get to choose how we respond to them. In January, Schwartz Visiting Fellow Alec Ross, author of the New York Times bestseller Industries of the Future, reminded the entire Pomfret community that we will need a flexible skin and an iron core to survive in the 21st century.
In the moment, losing our home and the accompanying stuff was a big deal. In hindsight, it's hard to look at that lightning strike as anything other than serendipitous. As American playwright and journalist Katori Hall once said, "serendipity rewards the prepared." Preparedness left us ready to stare confidently into the face of the fire, to stand unbowed by Mother Nature's power, and to emerge battle-scarred but strengthened, ready for everything that would come after.