A St. Stephen's Family Returns... and Returns!

July 14, 2009 Alumni Bulletin

Ours has been a St. Stephen's family from the beginning. I am Dan Keller, Class of 1972. St. Stephen's was brand new when my family moved to Rome in 1961. My elder sister Marthe was in SSS's first graduating class (1966). The School was located then in what is now the Bulgarian Embassy in Parioli and the dorms were in the fusty Lord Byron, today one of the most expensive Five Star hotels in Rome. Father Patterson was the Headmaster (though he was called the Rector back then; the School took its Episcopalian heritage seriously) and Chapel attendance was mandatory for every student at the start of every school day. Even in the "new" location (Via Aventina) the auditorium is still today called the ‘Chapel’, per School’s tradition.

Marthe has since moved to New York City where she thrives as an artist. Like me, she maintains a strong connection to the School. She has in the past been the Class Agent for her graduating year and has volunteered her loft in New York City as the venue for various St. Stephen’s events, including a holiday reception in 2006. She held a series of exhibitions around Europe this past summer, one of which was - surprise! - at the St. Stephen's Cultural Foundation run by the delightful Agnès Martin.

I attended 11th and 12th grades at SSS in what I think of as the "dark years" when the School, having been evicted from its gorgeous Parioli digs, found its temporary home on Via Lungro out on the Appia Nuova. The Boonies! Even so, there was a bar across the street where we kids hung out and played - horrors! - pinball and smoked cigarettes. We rode our motorbikes instead of the public buses to school and hid them in the bushes. I hate to admit this to my own kids, whom I forbade to do likewise. Now, there is more than one bar, but the kids' favorite is the one they call the "Yellow Bar" just across the Viale Aventino. If you want to catch your kids breaking some rules, sneak up on them there after classes.

The quality of the education at Via Lungro was not diminished and I felt better prepared than most of my peers at the University of California, where I went afterward. At St. Stephen's I made lifelong (and globe-spanning) friendships with people like Mike Selig, Karen Bowie, and Karen Schur.

During those years, the Headmaster was Dr. Hall. He also taught us integral and differential calculus using a textbook he'd written himself - in longhand! - that was far better than any available commercially. In 1972, my senior year, the School's financial straits became so dire that it could not meet payroll and had to close a month early -- May instead of June. That was just fine with us students, happy to have an extended summer vacation, but alas there was no money for a yearbook. Imagine, no yearbook from my senior year. What a raw deal! But there were other compensations. I had spectacular, unforgettable teachers - Donald Stewart (English - he died of cancer in the mid-70's and wrote me a heartfelt letter shortly before the end that I will always treasure), Franca Camiz (Art History), Steven Schneebaum (Math, Philosophy) who also coached our four-man crew (I was cox) that practiced on spectacular Lago Albano where the Pope has his summer palace, John Runge (Physics), Phil Allen (Renaissance History, who became the headmaster after the school had moved to its present splendid site, and pulled it back together financially), and Dick Trythall (Music) and Edward Steinberg both of whom teach at the School to this day... wow! They even claim to remember me. What gentlemen! (The idealistic Camiz/Allen/Steinberg triumvirate formed the short-lived competitor Forum School, but SSS blessedly regained them later... but I digress.) Dick was nonplussed to learn that for a while I'd been a professional musician and hoped I wouldn't hold him entirely to blame.

My dream was that my kids should have at least a taste of what I had and, in the 2008-09 school year, they got it (both were in 11th grade). My son Alexi even had Edward Steinberg (Economics) who was his favorite teacher as he'd been mine. (Thanks also to Brad Masoni and Scott Berry who were splendidly patient with Alexi and his anxious Dad.)

Evidently I'm not the only one with this ambition. A classmate of mine, Verdella Caracciolo, had her own son, Tommaso, in the same 11th grade. Just as his Mom and I had been pals, so were Tommaso and my daughter Cara. This summer he will visit us in California. Verdella shares my commitment to the School and has indeed even become a member of the Board of Trustees.

Renewing my relationship with the place has been tremendously meaningful and poignant, and the sensation of returning to that miraculous age - this time seen through the eyes of a parent - has been priceless. It's the best gift I could have given my children and I feel privileged to have been able to give it to them.

Cara had a particularly transformative year. Under the tutelage of Pam Christy (Art History) the world of art - ancient, Renaissance, Baroque, Modern - opened wide, a universe was revealed. She is excited by it, speaks sagely, and suddenly knows far more than I ever did. Isn't this what parents dream will happen for their kids in school?

All this took place against the backdrop of fabulous, glorious Rome. Teenage years are tumultuous and challenging (for them and for us!) yet there's no place like Rome to do that. When I was a teen there, it was great to be in a culture that appreciates youthful exploration, and the culture hasn't changed. My kids, too, enjoyed the freedom of Rome and benefited from the caring and attention they received at the School. Cut a class and someone notices? Wow... lesson learned!

For me it was a rich and fulfilling year. I shopped for and prepared dinners -- a joy not a chore in the mercatini, forni, and salumerie of Trastevere -- volunteered on the Parents' Association and at the Protestant Cemetery, played a little jazz in some night spots, and now am project leader for the School web site rebuild (yeesh... what have I gotten myself into?!?) The website needed a little gloss... not much, but a tad more accuracy in representing the quality of what happens at St. Stephen's. It feels good to give back to the place from which I received so much.

Our dream year is over; reality has set in, and we have returned to San Francisco, our City by the Bay, resuming our interrupted lives but with memories still fresh and - I hope for my children - lifelong connections established to Rome, to their new friends, and to St. Stephen's.