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Mr. Watts

In memoriam: Mr. Frederick D. Watts (1927-2020) was a true legend

Adapted from a story in Academy World, Spring 2017 

Wilbraham & Monson Academy is deeply saddened to announce the passing of Mr. Frederick D. Watts. Mr. Watts died peacefully at his care center in Salem, New Hampshire. He was 93.  

Mr. Watts served the Academy for 40 years, from 1952 until his retirement in 1992. He was Master of English, Geography and Mathematics, Master of History and History Department Chair. He served as Citizenship Advisor, Director of Residence, Senior Master of Rich Hall, Dean of Students, Director of Alumni Relations, and Head of School. It would, in fact, be easier to list the things Mr. Watts didn’t do at the Academy. 

"I enjoyed everything to do with prep school life," Mr. Watts said during an interview in July 2016. "I did not find it restraining or limiting of my social life, and I think being fundamentally curious about other cultures is what kept me occupied at Wilbraham. I've always been interested in other cultures, and I found that rewarding at Wilbraham." 

After graduation, Mr. Watts was offered a teaching position at his alma mater, Cushing Academy. He turned it down because "my father had a standard ruling that you don't get your first job in the family."  

The Cushing Head knew Wilbraham Academy was looking for a history teacher and contacted Headmaster Charlie Stevens. After meeting in Boston, Mr. Stevens hired Mr. Watts for $1,800, including room and board.  

"I liked Wilbraham because of the element of the foreign students, and of course we got more and more as time went on," Mr. Watts said. "I got to like the place. It was very comfortable."  

Mr. Watts dove in right away, and soon made a profound impact. He was actively involved in the Student Project Association with fellow teacher Allen Phipps in the mid-1950s, helping bring students from throughout the world to Wilbraham through fundraisers. The school had some students from Thailand and a few children of foreign diplomats, but that was it. Long before being global was a "thing," Mr. Watts helped turn the Academy into a global school.  

"That's something I'm very proud of because it was unique," said Mr. Watts, who recalled bringing in students from Hungary, Germany and South Korea, as well as a Native American. "Phipps was exploratory like that as well. We were interested in getting the kids to do things. The Student Project was a remarkable thing. I appreciated the headmaster agreeing with many of the things we did to promote that." 

Also, soon after arriving at the Academy, Mr. Watts started doing alumni and development work ... on his own accord and terms. When the school had extended breaks, he would buy a train or bus ticket and visit whomever he wanted to see.  

"When I first got involved in the Alumni Office, schools and Wilbraham never really had much of an Alumni Office in that regard. I was cutting it the way I saw it," said Mr. Watts, who often would not notify the people he was going to visit. "I think I learned surprise was on my side. I did that a couple times and it was wonderful, and I was with graduates I knew well." 

During his time at the Academy, Mr. Watts knew the school as well as anyone. Along with teaching and working as the Alumni Director (1977-1991), he served as the Dean of Students for 16 years.  

"I never received a threatening letter, so that was a success for the Dean of Students," Mr. Watts said. Mr. Watts coached what he called "trash can soccer," and he started the Debate Team. When the Academy found itself in a pinch in 1988, Mr. Watts agreed to step up to be the interim Head of School so the Academy could do a thorough search. 

"I could have been head of a school long before, but I never wanted to be head of a school," he said. "But someone had to do it when a situation came up at Wilbraham & Monson, so I did it. I was asked to be 'acting' head of school. When you teach or hold a role, you're not acting. So it was changed to interim."  

Often, Mr. Watts could be seen on the first floor of Rich Hall, sitting in a comfortable chair facing the door, with a cigarette in hand and a book in his lap, and music playing in the background. He loved talking to students as they entered or exited the building. Mr. Watts had a standing rule that any faculty member was welcome to come see him in his campus residence at any hour. Often Mr. Watts and faculty members would stay up into the wee hours of the morning, then bounce right back and teach a full load of classes the next day. It took a special person - specifically, a person with a special perspective - to do that.  

Mr. Watts took all of his roles seriously, but none more so than teacher, mentor and friend. His influence on the lives of countless students and fellow faculty members over the years cannot be overstated. More than 300 people attended his retirement party. He became a legend in his own time and will be deeply missed by everyone who had the good fortune to know him.  

"I suppose you have to be happy where you are to give it the best you can," Mr. Watts said. "For some strange reason, I was always happy at Wilbraham."  

Mr. Watts was born in Brooklyn, New York. Not long after he moved to Methuen, Massachusetts, where he spent most of his childhood and attended E.F. Seales High School. He transferred to Cushing Academy for two years before enlisting in the United States Navy. After serving his country for two years, he received an honorable discharge and left the Navy with the rank of third class petty officer.  

Mr. Watts returned to complete his studies at Cushing Academy and then enrolled in the Woodrow Wilson School of Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He left UVA after his third year of study at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, where he conducted research work on Near Eastern Affairs. After completing a year in Lebanon, he returned to UVA and received his degree in 1951.