Love Letter to Walnut Hill: An Interview with Elizabeth “Betsy” McClendon '65
August 9, 2021
Betsy Paine McClendon ’65, outgoing President of the Walnut Hill Board of Trustees, has been a critical part of the School’s transformation since joining the Board over 25 years ago. During her tenure, Walnut Hill School for the Arts has grown into one of the preeminent independent arts high schools in the world, attracting talented and diverse students from the four corners of the globe. She advocated for major campus improvements and construction, including most notably the Conant and Bigelow building transformation into what is now the Academic Technology Center building, and the stunning Delbridge Family Center for the Arts project. She also has championed program advances such as the addition of the Writing, Film & Media Arts major. As she prepares to depart from her Board role, we asked her to reflect on her experience and impact.
How did you first get involved with Walnut Hill?
I’m from Wayland, Massachusetts (the next town over from Natick), and was happy enough to go to Wayland High School. But my parents had sent my brother to an independent school, and I was lucky that they wanted to afford me the same opportunity, even if I wasn’t convinced! I made a deal with my father that I would try Walnut Hill out until Thanksgiving— and of course I ended up loving it. Within five minutes of going to a first-day picnic, I met someone who remains one of my very best friends to this day. That was the start of my love for Walnut Hill.
What was Walnut Hill like when you were a student?
Back then it was a school for girls only, but there was still that spirit of great camaraderie and friendship. We actually created our own uniform of sorts: a blue jean skirt and a turtleneck, and that's what we wore every day. That in itself was such a stress relief—not to worry about what I wore to school every day! I was athletic, and I spent a lot of my time at Walnut Hill playing field hockey, lacrosse, and tennis or playing inside the huge gymnasium, which is now a historic part of our Dance Center.
A moment that stands out during my tenure is when JFK was killed, during my first year at Walnut Hill. I remember being in the Library when I heard the news, and having the sense of everything and everybody just stopping. We had a special service of remembrance at the School, and I could palpably feel how many other of my classmates and faculty were experiencing the same devastation. That awful shared experience helped me feel even a tighter bond with the School community. To this day, I remain very close with five of my classmates (and I graduated 56 years ago!). It’s a joy that so many of us still keep in touch.
What were some of your favorite classes?
I remember well Ms. Carpenter, an English teacher who really taught me the beauty of building a large and varied vocabulary. Her method was this: she asked us to discover three new words every day, look them up, and write the definition on note cards. It seems so simple, but I found a real joy in it—both in the process of the exercise and in the result. I also remember reading Macbeth and acting out the scene of the witches circling the cauldron—maybe a harbinger of the Shakesperean art that we’ve brought to the School since!
How has Walnut Hill’s character changed over the years?
I loved it when I started and I think it's gotten even better since. The teachers today are amazing, and so dedicated to the mission of the School. Not all students have the motivation to come to Walnut Hill and work so hard—and the combination academics and art program is such hard work. But every one of the teachers recognizes the special qualities our students bring to campus, and dedicates their time in the classroom toward nurturing those talents as well as encouraging creativity and curiosity and discipline. Today there's also a much more defined and more comprehensive community program, which helps students feel a part of a campus “family” and know that the adults on campus are here to support them. Something that we've boasted about over the years is that at Walnut Hill, you are truly welcomed as you are. Today that is even more the case than when I was a student.
What drew you to join the Board when you did?
I knew that the School had transitioned from being a girls’ school to an arts school, but I didn't know about the details of the transition, or how that manifested itself on campus. I was invited to a Board of Visitors Day, and when I saw the kids performing, and saw some of the visual art they were currently making, I was just amazed. I stayed engaged with the School in small ways, and continued to meet with a few Board members here and there, and then they invited me to join the Board. I was honored and very surprised. I was new to board service and there was definitely a learning curve. I’m happy to say that members of the Board share the same welcoming sense of community that the students have with each other. If you have a challenge, there is someone along the way to help problem-solve and find a solution.
How many years have you been on the Board? What has changed?
I joined the Board in 1995. And in 1997, the current Board President was a wonderful gentleman named Bob Keiter. Bob had said he would be President if I would be the Vice President. At that time, I was working full-time at a demanding position at Fidelity and didn’t think I had the bandwidth to succeed as a Vice President, but Bob was very convincing! And then he said, “When you decide you've had your fill of working at Fidelity, and are ready to retire, I want you to serve as the next President.” He chaired the Board for three years, and we had a really fruitful and productive partnership. I retired from Fidelity on June 30, 2001, and on July 1 of that same year, I became the President and have served the School in that role for 20 years.
What do you feel most proud of in your role as Board President?
I think the thing that always stands out front and center for me as a Board member has been making sure that the faculty, staff, and all the other people who support the students are of the highest caliber and really want to be at Walnut Hill. I commend the ongoing dedication of the incredible Head of School and the administrators and teachers who work here. As Board members, we continuously look at whether salaries and benefits are market appropriate, in order to both retain our talent and attract new talent when we need to. We have a small endowment that we are hoping to grow, and we have learned to be creative in spending our budget in the most impactful way for the whole community.
I have also been very committed to enhancing and improving our space on campus. We have amazing students, and we want to make sure we have functional studios, theaters, and community spaces. We realized a few years ago that all of these talented kids needed great places to perform and practice. We had one big theater, a small black box, and some dance studios; but we really needed more performance space. That was why we created the beautiful Delbridge Family Center for the Arts, which is a multi-use building with a gorgeous dance studio, flexible gallery space, offices, and a gem of a black box theater. When I see all of the improvements we have made over the last 20 years, I am very proud of our ability to take a historic campus and continue to make it beautiful and relevant.
Helping to build up the Board is another point of pride for me. We have alumni—some from the pre-arts time and others who were dancers or pianists or visual artists—and we have parents too. Some Board members are friends of the School with no legacy connection to Walnut Hill, but who strongly believe in the mission of the School and the benefit and value of the arts. A thoughtful and strategic Board is critically important to the continued financial health of the School.
Our Board meetings take place three times a year on a Friday, and then after the business portion of the meeting we walk up to the Head's House for dinner and a student performance. Students will come and play the violin, the piano, or the cello, or sing while we're having cocktails, and then we have dinner together. The student performances on those nights are so special—it’s a real treat to experience such an intimate performance. It’s always very moving! Those evenings are also a great way for the Board to get to know one another and the staff and faculty better. Then we continue our Board work on Saturday. We’ve gotten great feedback from Board members who have a lot of experience serving at other institutions, and I’m proud to say that our Board gets rave reviews for being both friendly and effective.
How do you feel the student population has changed over the years?
When I compare it to my own experience, I can say that the students at Walnut Hill today are far more focused and dedicated to their passion and their art. (In high school, I was only certain that I wanted to graduate and go on to college!) When you come and see their art in person, they truly do impress you because we don't expect such a high level of execution from high school kids. Whether it’s watching a dance or a music performance, or viewing a gallery show of paintings and sculpture, or watching a student film or a jazz concert: they are amazing. The kids are the reason everybody loves to stay involved with the School.
What are some of the experiences you have loved most?
If I picked one as a favorite, I would be diminishing the other hundreds I have been able to see. And that wouldn’t be fair, because whatever our students do, they couldn't bring more joy to me . . . and to the audience. But perhaps because it’s most recent in my memory, I have to say that this year’s Senior Musical Revue was a thrilling performance, after such a long year of Zoom meetings and COVID concerns. On a cold and rainy Friday night, 17 of our senior Musical Theater students performed their debut live, outside under a huge tent. It was the first time that they had sung without masks in over a year and a half. You couldn't help but jump up and clap every time somebody finished: it was heartwarming and exhilarating and tearful. The joy radiated from the students and the audience. You could just tell everyone could breathe a sigh of relief: Finally!
What are your wishes and hopes for Walnut Hill’s future?
I forever wish fairy godparents would come and wave a magic wand so the many students who want to come here could have the opportunity to attend. The financial barrier for a lot of potential Walnuts is a very real one, and that’s a barrier I still want to try to break down. We've all learned over the past year and a half that we need art—it’s just what feeds our souls. I would love to be able to bring in students of all backgrounds and of all abilities who aren’t able to pay full tuition. We have a big financial aid budget because we truly try to support all the students who should be here; but it never feels like enough. There’s still a lot of work to be done to help offer access to a lot more motivated and curious kids from around the world.
Anything else you want to share?
We never know what will happen to our students when they move on in their lives. A little story, though, about the value of what a Walnut Hill education can provide: We had one young woman as a student who was a fabulous cellist, and she went on to Princeton, played her cello, then went on to medical school. Most people would be proud to say they’re a doctor, right? But she didn't want to come back to Walnut Hill to tell us that she was now going to be a doctor; she felt that would disappoint us because she was trained to be an artist! But we know that being a doctor IS an art, just a different kind of art in another lane. Here’s the beautiful thing I want students to take away: being trained as an artist will give you so much more than the practical tools to make art—it gives you a sense of curiosity, a willingness to make mistakes, and a creative approach to problem solving. I’m very proud to have been a part of making that happen for graduates over the past 20 years.
- Behind Stowe