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What happened at Deerfield

I was a teenager at the elite boarding school in the 1980s. He was my teacher, coach, and dorm parent. He was also a sexual predator.

Author Whit Sheppard.

Adam Ewing

Author Whit Sheppard.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” once wrote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I suppose in that sense my life may really just be starting now, at 48. For nearly three decades, I chose to remain largely silent about events dating back to my adolescence, but in June 2012, I wrote Deerfield Academy’s head of school, Margarita Curtis, disclosing that a venerated faculty member had sexually abused me during my senior year at the elite Western Massachusetts boarding school in the winter of 1983. It was a hard letter to write, and I imagine it was difficult to read, but the things I spoke of needed to be said, and said by me.

“I have not ever named the teacher, coach and dorm master who molested me,” I wrote in that e-mail. “But when I see the photos of returning alums at reunions being led in joyous song by the much-beloved ‘Czar,’ Peter Hindle, the same man who molested me as a Deerfield student living on his corridor, I feel a measure of sadness and chagrin.”

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Now 78 and living in South Dartmouth, Hindle graduated from Deerfield in 1952, before heading to nearby Amherst College, where he earned a degree in math four years later. He then joined the Deerfield faculty and became a revered campus figure during his 44-year career, receiving praise from a reigning monarch — King Abdullah II of Jordan, class of ’80 — in a commencement speech upon Hindle’s retirement in June 2000. Hindle’s regal nickname originated from his role as major-domo of the soccer program. Clutching a well-worn clipboard and shiny whistle and decked out even on warm Indian summer afternoons in a pine-green windbreaker with CZAR emblazoned on the back, he made his daily rounds of the soccer fields that dotted the lower level of the campus.

For years I had hesitated to speak up because of my own shame and embarrassment about the abuse I had suffered, the concern that I might not be believed, and the potential for significant pushback from a legion of Hindle admirers. Whatever anger and outrage I may have felt had been largely pushed down inside, leaving me melancholy and often depressed. I had written to the school’s previous headmaster, Eric Widmer, in March 2004, detailing a pervasive culture of student bullying and the sexual abuse I had suffered at the hands of a faculty member, without naming Hindle. Widmer responded sympathetically but didn’t press for additional details. Another decade passed.

Reading a steady drumbeat of abuse stories involving the Catholic Church, Penn State, and other elite private schools eventually convinced me to give a full accounting of what had transpired, primarily for my own peace of mind, but also perhaps for other potential victims of Hindle’s. Before sending the e-mail, I paused to consider whether I was ready to live with the consequences. I kept returning to the idea that I had two good reasons to come forward: I knew that what had taken place was wrong, and I knew that the truth was with me.

From Deerfield’s 1983 yearbook: Teacher and coach Peter Hindle posing with his dorm charges (with pipe), including author Whit Sheppard (front row, far right).

***

  

I was 14 when I arrived on Deerfield’s bucolic, all-boys campus in the fall of 1979, the eldest of three children from an upper-middle-class family in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I was intellectually and athletically gifted but lagged my peers in self-confidence and self-esteem and had a difficult time fitting in. Just a couple of inches taller than 5 feet, barely north of 100 pounds, and sensitive to criticism, I quickly became a frequent target of bullying.

The teacher who was my corridor master freshman year, a Kipling-quoting Englishman, was known for driving misbehaving boys deep into the neighboring fields at night, leaving them to find their way back on foot. The development of character was a key element of the Deerfield mystique, and his take on mine was clear, as evidenced in the comments he sent home at the end of my first term: “Whit arrived full of brightness and enthusiasm. . . . It soon became evident, however, that Whit’s enthusiasm was shallow and hedonistic. . . . He seems to have an excuse for everything but a reason for none of it. . . . He wants to have his way, and it’s always the other guy who is wrong.” I was off to a rough start many miles from home.

I first came across Hindle, then in his mid-40s but seemingly much older, on an early September afternoon in my first week of school, waiting with a group of more than 100 boys as he called off our names and divided us into soccer teams. Like many other boys, I was struck by the Czar’s charisma and all-around aura of coolness. I suppose I hoped that some of it might rub off on my adolescent self when I was in his orbit. He had a way of fixing his gaze on you that was disarming. Always available to offer extra math help during evening study hall, he would slowly wag a chalk-stained index finger and playfully chide “we don’t” to students who failed to grasp correct answers. Hindle taught me Algebra II in my junior year and was my JV squash coach when I was a sophomore and junior. I still play competitive squash, and he was instrumental in my early development as a player. Today it strikes me as creepy that he showered with our team in our small locker room after practice.

Hindle’s corridor was notorious in student circles for its permissiveness. One could drink and drug with impunity on Barton III, or B-3, as it was known, with just a modicum of discretion. I listed it as my first choice when housing forms were passed out in the spring of my junior year. As a 17-year-old senior in the fall of 1982, I was assigned one of two large single rooms at the end of the hallway with more privacy than others. In keeping with his reputation, Hindle gave us ample nightly warning of his impending trips down the corridor at check-in. He would bellow from his spartan quarters, “I will be coming down the hall in one minute,” giving us just enough time to spray some Ozium, stash our paraphernalia, and remove the rolled-up towels we placed underneath our doors to keep the pungent odor of marijuana from seeping into the hallway. One Saturday night, he turned in a classmate from the Texas oil patch who was blatantly intoxicated, but otherwise it seemed nearly impossible to get written up on his corridor.

Beginning midway through the fall term of my senior year, the Czar initiated an insistent campaign to give me a back rub. I shrugged it off the first few times with a casual “Thanks anyway.” I wish I could say that I understood his aims, but it never crossed my mind that Hindle was anything other than what he appeared to be: a highly esteemed “man’s man” who was genuinely interested in the well-being of his charges. He was the last person I would have suspected of being sexually interested in adolescent boys, or in me.

I turned 18 in early December. Eventually, Hindle wore me down, and one night before fall-term exams, a little high, and for reasons that I can’t consciously explain, I answered affirmatively when he said I looked tense and seemed as if I could really use a back rub. Nothing of a sexual nature occurred; it’s clear to me now that he was probing to see if I was amenable to a sexual approach.

When I returned from Christmas vacation in early January, Hindle offered another back rub and I assented. The Cowboys and Vikings were playing a Monday night game in Minneapolis, and Dallas’s Tony Dorsett set an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown run late in the game. I had been drinking on the plane back from Texas, where my family had relocated, and my inhibitions were lowered. That was the first time explicit sexual contact occurred, the Czar massaging my legs and buttocks and then masturbating me to climax. The abuse continued over the next several weeks, more than eight times, wordless exchanges that escalated to include Hindle performing fellatio on me. I would climax, roll over, and feign sleep. He would gather himself up, close the door, and walk down the hallway to his apartment. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

In hindsight, I believe Hindle “groomed” me over time, fixing upon me because I was troubled, vulnerable, and craving positive adult attention. I considered myself quite savvy, a budding Holden Caulfield, but like Salinger’s protagonist, when it came to the sexual and emotional arenas, I wasn’t so sophisticated. Hindle and I never spoke about what took place, and I didn’t tell a soul.

Hindle.

***

After graduating in May 1983, I returned to Texas and enrolled at Southern Methodist University. I looked forward to a fresh start, hopeful that a change in geography was all I needed to finally step into the potential that many saw but that had so far proved elusive. I felt like a huge failure, though, and embarked instead on a dizzying 14-month bender. I was slugging down drinks by myself in a Dallas nightclub just hours after leaving Deerfield for the last time, and the ensuing months were a blur of intoxication, degradation, and humiliating episodes. It’s hard to say how linked my alcohol and drug use was to what I had experienced at Deerfield, but looking back, the juxtaposition is striking. I’m extremely fortunate to have emerged from that period without having permanently harmed myself or someone else.

That all came to a screeching halt with an early-afternoon DUI arrest in August 1984 in the parking lot of a popular package store near campus. Forty-eight hours in jail knocked some sense into me, a seven-week stay at an Arizona treatment center got me dry and exposed me to the 12-step recovery model, and a three-month sojourn in a halfway house cemented the notion that there was a better way for me to live. I’ve been sober and active in recovery since early 1985.

In spite of what I experienced in that far-off dorm room, I count myself as somewhat lucky. The abuse I suffered did not involve overt threats or force, nor was it physically penetrative. Still, the harm done by Hindle’s manipulation, abuse of power, and betrayal of trust has become clearer over time. An abiding mistrust of authority figures has lingered, occasionally wreaking havoc in my professional life as a writer and journalist. I have found myself accommodating others’ needs to my own detriment at times. And my personal relationships have suffered, despite ongoing efforts to address issues in therapy. The bottom line is that I have found it hard to really trust people, as frustrating for them, I imagine, as it was for me.

Hindle with the squash team (in suit).

***

Margarita Curtis responded within hours of receiving my e-mail in June 2012. Later, she phoned and asked me to share with her in greater detail what I had experienced. She displayed a clear moral authority and offered unconditional support from the start. At the end of nearly every conversation we had — more than a dozen over the next several months — she would ask me some version of “Are you doing OK? Is there anything I can do for you?” In August, at her behest, Curtis flew down to my home in Virginia. We made small talk over lunch at a local Cuban restaurant before walking to a nearby park, where we spent the next three hours having one of the most meaningful conversations of my life. She saluted my courage in coming forward and offered a sincere and heartfelt apology on behalf of the school. Hers was the first acknowledgement I had ever received that the school bore some measure of responsibility for my troubling experience there.

Over the next few months, I got updates on the steps the school was taking, including its questioning of Hindle. In January, I told Curtis that I would like to meet with the president of Deerfield’s board of trustees, Philip Greer, and vice president Rodgin Cohen before they broke the news to the full board at an upcoming meeting in New York. Aside from the school lawyer, the two men were the only other principals aware of the situation from the outset, and I felt it was important for them to put a face and presence with a name and story. I met with them at Greer’s house in backcountry Greenwich, Connecticut, less than a mile from my childhood home. I was well aware of the power and position of my dinner partners, and I wanted them to see that in many ways I was just like them: poised, articulate, socially aware, and cultivated. I was treated with kindness and respect throughout.

A few days later, on January 28, Deerfield released a letter to the school community stating: “Mr. Hindle has admitted sexual contact with a student, and we are now conducting a detailed investigation of Mr. Hindle’s years at Deerfield. We have retained an independent law firm to assist, and we have informed law enforcement authorities.” The letter included a request for any other victims to contact Curtis or the school psychologist, Stuart Bicknell.

Despite resolving to ignore any ensuing media coverage, I found myself monitoring the school’s Facebook page, Twitter, and the Boston newspapers. It was unnerving as a journalist to observe from 500 miles away as my peers began to report the story. As the storm swirled, I was grateful that my identity as the source of the allegations remained undisclosed.

Sheppard in a shot from the 1983 yearbook.

Many Deerfield alumni rushed to Hindle’s defense. Despite his reported admission, some were troubled by the notion that he was being presumed guilty without due process. Scores of alums posted incredulous messages on Deerfield’s Facebook page. One post summed up the feelings of many: “There is not one thing ever that I experienced or witnessed that would lead me to believe this accusation.”

The evening that Deerfield’s letter went out, Hindle told a Boston Herald reporter: “I think it’s all in interpretation. It depends on what you mean by sexual contact. . . . I gave someone a back rub. I don’t even know who it is.” He added, “I’ve given a number over the years.”

I traveled to Boston in early February to be interviewed by the lawyers conducting the school’s independent investigation. Recounting the abuse in minute detail was difficult and painful, but I was eager to cooperate. The aftermath of that questioning was probably the lowest I felt in the entire process. That night I waited, exhausted and emotionally spent, at Logan Airport for my flight home, having reexperienced aspects of the original trauma in the recounting of it.             

On March 30, Deerfield released a five-page report of the investigation’s findings, saying that it had “confirmed that sexual conduct by Peter Hindle occurred with the student who came forward and there is evidence that such conduct occurred with at least one other student.” According to the report, a second student had complained to school officials while enrolled in the 1980s about “inappropriate behavior by Mr. Hindle, and at that time his mother sent a letter expressing serious concern about a ‘deviant deed’ committed against her son.” Administrators confronted Hindle back then, and he denied the accusations and was given only verbal and written warnings. The report acknowledged that prior administrations could have done more to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Hindle, including after my 2004 letter to Eric Widmer.

In response to my charge, the report noted that “Mr. Hindle claimed the sexual contact was against his will, yet he neither resisted nor reported the incident. The detail Mr. Hindle provided to the investigators was explicit and, in no conceivable way, could it be described as a simple ‘backrub.’ Further, Mr. Hindle made several statements to the investigators that proved to be untrue, raising serious questions about whether his admission was too limited.”

Sadly, there was more. The school said another former revered teacher, the late Bryce Lambert — an exacting yet inspiring instructor who helped cultivate my interest in journalism — had “inappropriate sexual contact” with two former students during his tenure. The report noted that “Mr. Lambert is unable to defend himself, but there is sufficient evidence to name him.”

In the initial e-mail I wrote to Curtis, I asked her to consider two initiatives: first, ensuring that programs were in place to support any students who may have been sexually or emotionally harmed at the school, and second, considering discreetly easing Hindle out of the largely ceremonial role he continued to play at Deerfield. The March report concluded with a pledge to review and enhance the school’s policies on sexual harassment and misconduct, to strip Hindle’s name from an endowed mathematics teaching chair and one of the school’s squash courts, and to bar him from campus events. I have been heartened to date by the current administration’s clear-eyed, straightforward response to the allegations I raised. Other institutions could surely benefit from doing the same.

Adam Ewing

Sheppard.

***

  

After watching the story unfold for more than a year, I’ve decided to reveal my identity in the hopes of lessening the stigma associated with being a survivor of sexual abuse and encouraging others on their own path of healing. Nothing about this process has been easy, but it has given me a renewed sense of integrity and self-respect. It was the right thing to do, and I’m glad I did it.

What happened to me all those years ago doesn’t define me; I try to view it as part of the mosaic of my life. Today I can feel angry about the abuse and the lax oversight that allowed it to occur without being consumed by resentment and bitterness. I choose to accept the entirety of my experience, knowing that it’s helped me become a more compassionate person, a better friend and father. As a flawed human being myself, it’s not for me to judge Hindle or pronounce his sentence. That’s better left to others.

Deerfield’s school motto, in the spirit of its folksy standard-bearer, longtime headmaster Frank L. Boyden, is articulated in plain English rather than the Latin used at peer institutions like Andover, Exeter, and Groton. It reads: Be Worthy of Your Heritage. My hope is that in choosing to speak up about events that significantly impacted the trajectory of my life, and in attaching my identity to that narrative, I have answered for myself a vital question: whether or not I am worthy of my own. It turns out I am.

 Whit Sheppard, a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, is a Virginia-based writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

 EDITOR’S NOTE

 Prosecutors are examining the sexual abuse allegations reported by Deerfield Academy, a process that began earlier this year. “We are independently investigating whether abuse allegations at Deerfield Academy decades ago were criminal in nature and, if so, whether or not the statute of limitations or other factors would preclude criminal prosecution,” says Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan. He would not say when the investigation would wrap up.

Accused former Deerfield teacher Peter Hindle told the Globe: “I don’t want to comment. I don’t believe any of the story and I never will.”

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