Each year, The Ruth Gorham Award is given to a member of the Graland alumni community whose service and dedication embody Ruth Gorham’s lifelong commitment to the school. A longtime educator, Ruth Gorham devoted her career to Graland, teaching French and English from 1930 until 1992. She is remembered as a mentor, a diligent school historian, as well as the de facto head of alumni relations at a time when a formal position did not exist. For this reason, it is particularly fitting that Graland alumnus Ben Duke is the recipient of this year’s Ruth Gorham Award and will be receiving this honor during the Alumni Reunion on May 21, 2022.
Mr. Duke’s journey at Graland started in 1959 when Georgia Nelson was the head of school. “While I was at Graland, what I loved the most were the unbelievable teachers,” Mr. Duke said. “As you probably know if you’ve read your Graland history, the school was very much built on a progressive education model, where everything is experiential. And let me tell you, it was completely experiential.”
Many of the activities that Mr. Duke participated in, such as the knighting ceremony, the Grade 4 musical, and after-school sports, are still part of the Graland student experience today. But the moments that particularly stand out for Mr. Duke were when his teachers went out of their way to make ordinary lessons “out of this world.” At a time when man had not yet landed on the moon, Mr. Duke fondly remembers his third grade teacher, Mrs. Watson, using multiplication as a fun way to take her students to space. “Each time a student mastered a new set of multiplication tables, they advanced to a different orbit until they eventually reached the moon,” Mr. Duke said. “When everybody in the class landed on the moon, we had a moon party! We ate cheese and cake and dressed up like spacemen, pretending that someday someone would go to the moon. It wasn’t many years later when that actually happened. So Graland students, as is normally the case, were way ahead of the game.”
After his time in elementary school had ended, Mr. Duke realized that Graland’s dedicated faculty, hands-on learning methods, and whole child approach left a lasting impression that would ultimately influence his career. “It was actually during my time at Graland that I decided I wanted to go into education myself,” Mr. Duke said. “The teachers were just so magical and wonderful. And so ultimately I did go into teaching.” After graduating with his degree in geology from Williams College, Mr. Duke went on to teach science and American history until he eventually got a call from the school that started it all.
In 1993, Mr. Duke returned to Graland as the director of development. Right away, he realized that his former elementary school was still the same place he knew and loved. “I came back to Graland to work and suddenly realized that the magic of the place was still very much alive. There were even a few teachers, including Nancy Nye Priest, who were still teaching when I returned,” Mr. Duke said. From there, Mr. Duke got to work leading annual and capital campaigns, managing publications, promoting faculty and staff engagement, and establishing the school’s first official Alumni Association. “While I was working as development director, I suddenly realized that just because it’s an elementary school doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cherish the time that we had at Graland. So that’s when we decided to develop the Alumni Association,” Mr. Duke said. Today, The Alumni Association is led by the Graland Alumni Board, which is currently 22 members strong. Together, they work throughout the year to encourage alumni involvement, represent alumni interests, and advocate life-long learning in accordance with the mission and long-standing traditions of the school.
Following this development, Mr. Duke not only added alumni director to his resume (as well as eventually assistant head of school) but also established one of Graland’s most revered honors and traditions - the Master Teacher program. As someone who was positively influenced by so many Graland educators, Mr. Duke wanted to create a way to celebrate the legacy of teachers in a lasting way. Each spring, thanks to Mr. Duke, Master Teachers are recognized for their 20 years of service at Graland, and a portrait of them is added to a highly recognizable Master Teacher wall in the Georgia Nelson Building on campus.
When one passes by this wall, they will notice a portrait of Georgia Nelson hanging by the Master Teacher portraits with the quote, “To lead, to follow, and to share.” This display was also one of Mr. Duke’s long-term impacts at Graland and one of his most cherished as he distinctly remembers Georgia Nelson using this phrase when he was a child. “Teaching our students to lead, to follow, and to share is the most important thing we can do for them,” Mr. Duke said. “I put that phrase on the wall so that nobody ever forgets it because to me, that epitomizes a Graland education.”