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December 1942 War Department Letter Spelled The End For Los Alamos Ranch School

on January 26, 2019 - 1:15pm
The Los Alamos Ranch School boys of Spruce Patrol, Spring of 1942. Courtesy photo
Los Alamos Historical Society
The last days of the Los Alamos Ranch School were rushed and heartrending. A letter from the War Department in Washington had arrived in early December 1942 and confirmed what the staff and students already knew or suspected after a visit in early November by Robert Oppenheimer, Gen. Leslie Groves and others.
The letter began, “You are advised that it has been determined necessary to the interests of the United States in the prosecution of the War that the property of the Los Alamos Ranch School be acquired for military purposes.”
Emotions were already running high by the time the letter was received. The older students at the school that December knew that they were soon to be involved in that war. The director, A.J. Connell, and senior staff members had been at the school for more than two decades, having put their hearts and souls into the development of a fine school. It was also their home.
“Therefore, pursuant to existing law, a condemnation proceeding will be instituted in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico to acquire all of the school’s land and buildings, together with all personal property owned by the school and used in connection with its operation.”
Connell had requested enough time to complete the first term of the regular school year without interruption, and that was granted in the letter. All students and school personnel were to be off the premises by Feb. 8, 1943, but that would give the masters enough time to see the students through their course of study. Students remained in classes rather than going home for the holiday break, and the coursework was accelerated.
Those boys going on with their education would have grades from a complete term to offer for admittance to a new school. The four young men who were to graduate in 1943 were awarded their diplomas in late January, but the date of the presentation of those diplomas is uncertain, owing to the hurried schedule and the precarious future hanging over the heads of all involved in those last days.   
Headmaster Lawrence Hitchcock had been called to active duty earlier in 1942, but he returned from his post as Secretary General of the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington to hand out the last four diplomas to Collier Baird, William “Bee” Barr, Theodore “Ted” Church and Stirling Colgate.
In a letter to a former student, Connell wrote, “They did permit us, however, to finish the first half-year by cancelling the Christmas holidays and working right through until January 21st.
Stirling, Bee, Ted, and Collier all graduated on January 22nd, having qualified for our diplomas and passed special college boards, given in Santa Fe a few days before.”
However, Church’s diploma is dated Jan. 21, and according to Wirth and Aldrich in Los Alamos: The Ranch School Years, the ceremony was held Jan. 28.
No matter which date is correct, the four graduates were given a brief ceremony. They received their diplomas from Col. Lawrence Hitchcock, the headmaster they had known and admired, and Col. John M. Harman, the first post commander at Los Alamos, gave a graduation address. There was no entry on horseback by the student body, no dancers from San Ildefonso Pueblo entertained, and no family members applauded the achievement as had always occurred during the school’s graduation ceremonies.
The ending for the school came quickly and was difficult to endure. In Hitchcock’s memoir written years later, he referred to that last graduation.
“I borrowed from Horace for a closing thought,” he wrote, “and told the boys, ‘We have raised a monument more enduring than bronze.’ Comments at reunions and on other occasions have borne me out.”
While other sources have different dates for the last graduation, Ted Church’s diploma shows the date to be Jan 21, 1943. Courtesy photo