Headmasters and headmistresses, as the heads of private schools are called, are vital. Not only do they run the school, including hiring teachers and administrators, raising money to keep the school going, and deciding on the future direction of the school, but they also set the tone for the school's culture. In years past, they had fewer administrative duties, allowing them to have a lasting and important impression on the students in their care.
Perhaps the most famous example of a headmaster who had a great effect on the students in his charge was the legendary Endicott Peabody, who founded the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, in 1884 and remained its headmaster until 1940. Few headmasters served as long as he did and left such a large impression on an institution. During his tenure, several future statesmen attended Groton, and Peabody served as the headmaster when Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the school. Roosevelt would remain connected to Peabody for the rest of his life (until Peabody died in 1944, a year before Roosevelt), and Peabody officiated at FDR's wedding to Eleanor Roosevelt.
According to his obituary in Time magazine in 1944, Peabody was an Episcopal priest whose great-grandfather, Joseph Peabody, had made a fortune importing pepper from Sumatra and opium from the Far East. Peabody's family were true Boston Brahmins; one of his ancestors, John Endecott, had been a governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony whose decisions resulted in the hanging of Quakers, though Governor Endecott befriended the renegade Roger Williams, a heterodox thinker who was later exiled from the colony. Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1857, Reverend Endicott Peabody moved to England when he was 13 and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge.
Returning to the United States, he found religion and broke with his family's Unitarian beliefs to study to become an Episcopal priest. After attending the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he journeyed to Tombstone, Arizona, to take charge of an Episcopal Church in 1882--only three months after the fight at the O.K. Corral. Peabody was quite popular in the West. He befriended Wyatt Earp and collected donations for his new church at the town's saloon.
Returning East, Peabody founded Groton in 1884, and he presided over it with minute attention to detail. He oversaw every aspect of the school, including what the students, who were then all boys, ate, and he ensured that they were meticulously groomed. Unlike earlier boarding schools that had been founded in the early Republic, such as Phillips Exeter Academy, which was founded in 1781, Groton was a thoroughly Victorian school that paid obeisance to the day's belief in "muscular Christianity." In England, the idea of "muscular Christianity" was popularized by writers such as Thomas Arnold, who was the headmaster of the Rugby School in England. To make his boys Christian, strong, and scholarly was Peabody's goal, which he pursued with early cold baths, sports, scholarship, and rituals. The school had a decidedly Spartan air, and the Rector, as Peabody was called, did not believe in privacy. Instead, the students lived in spare cubicles and hung their clothes on wooden hooks, according to writer Louis Auchincloss's account of his years at Groton. Peabody believed in using sports to create Christian gentlemen, and headmasters from other schools came to ask his advice about how to establish strong sports programs at their schools.
Given his belief in muscular Christianity, Peabody did not coddle his students, and he had no taste for catering to the wealthy. Even the wealthiest student was only allowed a 25-cent weekly allowance, and students who arrived on campus with pretensions were quickly disabused of them. Many Groton students in the Rector's day were from poorer families, who attended the school along with famous Massachusetts families like the Sedgwicks. Given Peabody's imposing personality, many students were terrified of "the Rector," including Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Later, however, Roosevelt credited Peabody for having had more influence on him than anyone else, aside from his mother and father. Roosevelt and Peabody maintained a life-long correspondence, and the President even asked Peabody for his advice. As FDR's relationship with Peabody attests, the Rector balanced his tough attitude with an intensely personal relationship with each boy at Groton. He and his wife, Fannie, personally wished each boy goodnight, and Fannie hosted teas for the boys at which she read selections from literature.
Though Peabody did not encourage religious diversity at Groton (of course, the school today embraces diversity and has done so for a long time, after having admitted the first African-American student long before integration became popular), Peabody had ideals that stressed the importance of service for people of privilege, and it was perhaps his emphasis on serving the poor that at least in part inspired FDR to relieve the burdens of suffering Americans during the Great Depression.