First Headmaster Laid Foundation For Los Alamos Ranch School Success

Los Alamos Ranch School’s first headmaster, Fayette Samuel Curtis, Jr. Courtesy photo

By Sharon Snyder
Los Alamos Historical Sociey

With the recent ceremony in Graduation Canyon to honor Los Alamos Ranch School Headmaster Lawrence Hitchcock, it seems fitting to also remember the first headmaster who charted the course in the formative years of the school.

In 1917, Ashley Pond Jr. opened his ranch school with a brochure titled An Outdoor School for Boys that advertised a “regimen to produce complete health and a strong and resilient constituton.” When Fayette Samuel Curtis Jr. arrived the next year as the school’s first headmaster, he must have been as interested in the health benefits as in the salary.

He had recently recovered from tuberculosis. However, he had the qualifications to design a curriculum that would put the ranch school on an academic course that would gain prestige through the years.

Curtis arrived at the school immediately after his graduation from Yale University and taught all classes as well as taking on the duties of headmaster. He immediately had a love for the Southwest.

Not only was it a perfect setting healthwise, it also offered many other opportunities for an avid historian and translator. Fayette became a Spanish scholar and an authority on the weapons used during the Spanish conquest. He loved historical research and was soon serving as Associate Editor of the NM Historical Review.

In June of 1919, Curtis returned to New Haven, Conn., hoping to recruit students and another master for the school. A Yale grad caught his attention. He wrote to Connell:

My dear Chief:—
Good news for once. I have nailed my man, L. S. Hitchcock, Yale B.A., 1919, a man thoroughly satisfactory to me as I hope he will be to you. I have known him personally for more than a year and his qualifications as to personality and character could hardly be better.

Thus, Lawrence Hitchcock became the second master at Los Alamos Ranch School and eventually the headmaster for most of its years.

In June of 1926, Curtis married Rosa “Daisy” Parker in Santa Fe. It was a busy summer for the young couple. Daisy, an accomplished artist, made drawings for illustrations and lantern slides for a paper titled “Spanish Armor and Weapons in New Mexico” that Fayette was to present in November at an Education Association meeting in Santa Fe. He wrote also that summer a scenario and dialogue on Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith for the upcoming Santa Fe Fiesta pageant and completed a translation of Villagras, the Spanish poet-historian, to be submitted to the New Mexico Historical Review.

In late autumn, Fayette became ill, and realizing he could not deliver the paper on Spanish armor, he asked fellow master Henry Bosworth to read the paper for him. Bosworth went to Santa Fe to attend the meeting, but before he could give the talk, he was handed news sent by Connell that Curtis had died of recurrent tuberculosis. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the “end came with unexpected suddenness.”

Fayette Curtis was 30 years old and had much to live for, but in retrospect, he had achieved greatly in his few years.

He catalogued and described the collection of early weapons held at that time by the Historical Society of New Mexico.

His paper, “Influence of Weapons on New Mexico History,” that Bosworth was to present, appeared in Volume 1, No. 3 of the New Mexico Historical Review, but his most enduring legacy was to be the foundation he laid for the development of a fine school that would eventually influence the lives of approximately 550 boys who attended Los Alamos Ranch School and its summer camps.

A grave was blasted into the tufa of the Pajarito Plateau, on the edge of a canyon, and Curtis was buried in his Los Alamos uniform. In the words of ranch school student Richard Myers, “He had left instructions for the funeral. His body was simply wrapped in a blanket and strapped to the back of a horse. We followed behind the horse to the burial place somewhere on the mesa. It was simple but as effective as any funeral I’ve been to since.”

The New Mexican commented that “it had been the wish of Mr. Curtis that none of the students be asked or urged to attend the funeral, but there they were at attention, standing beside their horses, silhouetted against the sky.

In his obituary there was a final tribute—“Mr. Curtis was the soul of honor. Sincere, earnest, gentle, studious, an indefatigable worker, modest, unostentatious and straightforward, he was greatly esteemed.”