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The Rev. F. Washington Jarvis III, headmaster who treated Roxbury Latin ‘like his parish,’ dies at 79

The Rev. Jarvis led Roxbury Latin for 30 years.
The Rev. Jarvis led Roxbury Latin for 30 years.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2004)

As Roxbury Latin’s inspiring headmaster for 30 years, the Rev. F. Washington Jarvis III viewed every student as a singular project.

“Each takes infinite time and patient effort to unlock,” he wrote in 2001. “Searching for the key that unlocks the mystery of a student is something that never fails to fascinate and challenge. I never tire of it.”

The Rev. Jarvis, who was 79 when he died Oct. 7 of cancer, and who was known to all as Tony, liked to remind colleagues and students that Roxbury Latin is the oldest school in continuous existence in North America.

“A young teacher recently referred to me as ‘the oldest headmaster in continuous existence,’ ” he quipped in a 2001 recollection, 27 years into his tenure.

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That accumulated wisdom prompted administrators in Boston and elsewhere to seek his guidance and learn from the example he set.

“Truth be told, Tony reinvented the school,” Kerry P. Brennan, who succeeded the Rev. Jarvis as headmaster, wrote in a message to the Roxbury Latin community. Brennan added in an interview that the Rev. Jarvis, an Episcopal priest, treated the school “like his parish, and he was an attentive pastor to his extended flock.”

The Rev. Jarvis “created the Roxbury Latin we have today,” said Dennis Kanin, a former president of school’s Board of Trustees and a principal at the New Boston Ventures residential real estate development firm. “Under him, the guiding philosophy became ‘every boy is known and loved,’ and he meant that.”

“I know that I can sometimes actually make a difference in a boy’s life, and that is the greatest feeling in the world,” the Rev. Jarvis wrote in 2001 for the 40th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

Colleagues said he helped shape the lives of students while they attended the boys’ school and the approach each took to his adult life working in Greater Boston and beyond.

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Robert J. O’Connor Jr., a lawyer and current president of Roxbury Latin’s Board of Trustees, attended the school and took classes from the Rev. Jarvis, who was his faculty adviser.

“He really listened,” O’Connor said. “He really made me feel like I mattered. He gave me confidence — he made me feel like I could do the things I wanted to do.”

As headmaster, the Rev. Jarvis also emphasized the school’s commitment to admitting students on a need-blind basis, regardless of their ability to pay, O’Connor added: “He really cared about education being available to everyone.”

The Rev. Jarvis believed just as strongly in keeping schools small. Roxbury Latin currently enrolls slightly more than 300 boys; the average class size is 13.

“He thought that intimacy — everybody knowing everybody by name — was essential to the community feel of the school,” said his longtime friend Richard Hawley, with whom the Rev. Jarvis formerly taught at University School in Cleveland.

“He would seek out the kids who were having a hard time or not thriving and get to know them,” said Hawley, a former University School headmaster. “Tony was a savior of some of these kids. He modeled to me the notion that you don’t have to wait to intervene in a boy’s life. You don’t have to be their teacher or their adviser or their coach. You just get to know them and get to work.”

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Along with working as an administrator and teacher, the Rev. Jarvis wrote books, served on the state Ethics Commission, and held leadership positions in organizations representing headmasters, private schools, and independent schools. After retiring from Roxbury Latin, he taught at Yale University, where he was founding director of the Educational Leadership and Ministry Program at the Berkeley Divinity School.

“Such concrete ‘achievements’ have their place and provide some external validation for our lives,” he wrote in 2001. “But such trophies, dust covered, are eventually hauled off to the dump.”

Those “glittering” accomplishments, he added, are not as gratifying as the “far realer ‘callings’ in our lives.”

Chief among his callings were Roxbury Latin and the Parish of All Saints in Ashmont, where he was priest associate for the past 42 years. Of his roles in church and school he wrote: “I am not a real headmaster. I am a parish priest masquerading as a headmaster.”

All Saints, he added, “is the center of my life, the place I can pray best, the place where I recharge my batteries, the place where, as Isaiah said, I can ‘wait upon the Lord and renew my strength.’ ”

The older of two siblings, Frank Washington Jarvis III was born in Pittsburgh and grew up outside Cleveland in Mentor, Ohio. His mother, the former Prudence Crandall, was a homemaker. His father, Frank Washington Jarvis Jr., was an executive at a chemical company. His namesake grandfather won the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris.

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The Rev. Jarvis graduated from St. Mark’s School in Southborough before attending Harvard College, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in history. He finished a master’s at Cambridge University in England and returned to Massachusetts to attend what was then Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge.

Ordained as a priest, he became a curate at a Cleveland church “just as the world began to fall apart,” he wrote in his 25th anniversary Harvard class report.

Active in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, he “was often ‘in the paper’ and frequently spoke at public meetings.” He wound up working 20-hour days, every day. “Prayer alone kept me going,” he wrote. “I came to realize that I was drowning in commitments and that I had to alter my life.”

The Rev. Jarvis began teaching history at University School and left in 1974 to become headmaster at Roxbury Latin, at age 35. “I love this school with every fiber of my being,” he told the Globe 30 years later, when he retired in 2004.

That had always been the case during his years as headmaster. “People say you’re happy if you like 50 percent of your job,” he wrote in 1986, a dozen years into his tenure. “I love 99 percent of my job and think I may well be the happiest person on earth.”

His younger sister, Faith Crandall Jarvis Smith, who died in 2012, lived in Hingham, where the Rev. Jarvis spent time with his nephews and niece — Ned and Benjamin Smith, and Cricket Smith Segaloff.

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“We were basically his only family,” said the Rev. Jarvis’s brother-in-law, Craig Smith, a friend since their years growing up together in Ohio. “The kids loved him as their uncle.”

A service has been held for the Rev. Jarvis, whose cancer diagnosis initially was successfully treated. He became ill again in 2015 and retired from Yale.

“We are not permanent residents of earth; we are passing through,” he wrote two years ago for a Harvard class report.

“No one in all recorded history has had a happier and more fulfilling earthly life than I have had, a life richly blessed by family and friends,” he added. “For that I am profoundly grateful, even as I look forward to the great pilgrimage ahead.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.