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2004: Tobias Wolff '64

Thursday, March 25 marked the sixth annual Hill School Sixth Form Leadership Award ceremony in which Tobias Wolff ’64 was honored for his work in literature. Mr. Wolff is a professor at Stanford University and author of many short stories and novels, including This Boy’s LifeIn Pharaoh’s Army, and the new, critically acclaimed novel Old School, a tale of a young boy at an East Coast boarding school. The prestigious Sixth Form Leadership Award is given annually to an exemplary role model for today’s students; the honoree is selected from leaders in government, industry, education, the arts, and/or community service. 

Headmaster David Dougherty welcomed Mr. Wolff back to the School, where 40 years ago, he was asked to leave due to his poor grades in subjects (other than English), and for breaking rules such as “eating potato chips before a meal” and keeping an “untidy room.” He was invited back to the School in 1990 and was granted an honorary diploma bearing the year 1964. 

In his introduction of Mr. Wolff, Headmaster Dougherty claimed, “Toby Wolff – through determination, good humor, and empathy – through the rebukes of a painful childhood and the anguish of war in Vietnam – has lived, observed, felt, and recorded life in prose that is refined, clean, even pure. He has shared that life with a candor and clarity admirable to anyone who can read and enjoy the English language, and with an honesty respected by anyone who has lived on this earth….As a writer and teacher with an audience in the study and classroom, he has been a true leader.” He then exchanged a smile with Mr. Wolff and said, “Tobias Wolff, welcome home to this good old School!” 

A modest man with a keen sense of humor, Mr. Wolff first stated, “As I left the grounds of this School, I probably wasn’t thinking I would be standing here 40 years later.” In response to Headmaster Dougherty’s remarks, he replied, “I just couldn’t seem to study algebra too much.”

Aside from his aversion to math, Mr. Wolff enjoyed his time as a student at The Hill and recalled memories of great friends and skating on the Dell. “It was a great time I had here; it was a very literary place,” he said. The Hill was a place where he learned a lot about himself as a writer and a person. With an unassuming manner, Mr. Wolff said he was “very touched to be given this award,” yet he declared, “I haven’t always thought of myself as a leader.” To him, the leaders who influenced him were those who “defied conventional ideas of leadership” and “had a quiet authority about them.” “It is that kind of quiet leadership – leadership by example…someone being the best you could be” that most impresses him, he stated. Mr. Wolff credited his accomplishments in literature as being a group effort. He said, “Everything I have done, I have done in collaboration with other people.”

He was greatly influenced by the works of many distinguished leaders in writing - authors whom he claims “informs everything I write” – including Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Jack London, O. Henry, Leo Tolstoy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. To emphasize the impact the authors had on in his life, Mr. Wolff read excerpts from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and from his own novel, Old School, in which he makes a reference to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. One of the key writing techniques he learned at an early age was the power of imitation, and he often imitated these great writers in his own work.

As he matured as a writer, Mr. Wolff looked closely at the biographies of the authors he was imitating and discovered “they allowed the truths to infuse their work…allowed those things to inspirit the work they were writing to give it a moral and human quality.” He then began incorporating this notion of self-expression and into his own writing. After a standing ovation, Mr. Wolff opened the floor to answer questions from the audience. When one student asked him what was his favorite literary work, Mr. Wolff compared it to him asking which of his three children he liked best. He mentioned Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Mary McCarthy, but stated, “All are closely connected…I couldn’t say one was my favorite.” At the conclusion of Mr. Wolff’s speech, Sixth Form President Matthew Rafferty presented him with an elegantly framed collage representing his life at The Hill and as a successful writer, husband, and father. Before the unveiling of the award, Matt thanked Mr. Wolff for his “brilliant work” and his ability as a writer to “influence how we think and how we feel.” On Friday morning, Mr. Wolff met with a small group of students to talk about the art of writing. 

The evening also marked the School’s first ever Posthumous Sixth Form Leadership Award, which was presented in honor of Edmund Wilson ’12. A Princeton graduate and WWI veteran, Edmund was an accomplished editor, book reviewer, and author. His articles appeared in such magazines and newspapers as the New YorkerNew York Republic, and the New York Sun. In the 1940s, Edmund began writing books about the literature of the Civil War, the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the plight of the Iroquois in New York State. His works include: Axel’s Castle (1931), Travels in Two Democracies(1936), The Triple Thinkers (1938), To the Finland Station (1940), The Wound and the Bow (1940), The Boys in the Back Room (1941), Classics and Commercials (1950), and The Shores of Light (1952). He also published two autobiographies, A Piece of My Mind (1956) and Landscapes, Characters and Conversations (1967).

Previous Sixth Form Leadership Award recipients include James A. Baker III ’48, former Secretary of State; S. Roger Horchow ’45, Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and founder of the luxury mail-order catalogue, the “Horchow Collection;” Douglas “Sandy” A. Warner III ’64, former chairman of the board of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.; F. Barton Harvey III ’67, CEO and chairman of the Enterprise Foundation, which works to revitalize impoverished city neighborhoods; and Norman Pearlstine ’60, editor-in-chief of Time, Inc.

 

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