The Aiglon College We Remember

...a school where friends learned so much, loved so much, and went on to do great things.

Recollections of Aiglon College Alumni

Photos courtesy Line Stump Magnin

The Recollections of Chas MacLean Cochand

John Corlette
A memory

It is almost impossible to describe the impact of going to Aiglon. I was a pudgy bespectacled 14-year-old youth from Canada, unsophisticated and un-travelled and nothing prepared me for [John Corlette] and the first meditation of the September term in 1965; but I will come to that.

The school was unprepossessing, though as new boy I had a warm welcome from Group Captain and Mrs. Watts [Group Captain Roy Watts flew with the RAF in The Battle Of Britain in WWII], and some disdain from my new roommates, Tom Fehr, Jonathan Cogswell, Mike McCabe and Steve Axon (I think).

I’d flown from Brussels, alone. The school had advised that as a 4th former, normally I’d be expected to make my own way from Geneva to Chesieres-Villars, but as happenstance would have it, a school master, Mr. Phillips, was collecting a 3rd former, Gray Muzzy, off the same flight and was able to collect me as well. Thank heavens for that!

My first few hours were passed in a panic. My parents had offered me Aiglon; as Canadian friends and neighbours were sending two boys I knew quite well. Derek Morton and Nipper Dunn. Of course I knew Bobby (he’d been rusticated [Brit: expelled/suspended] the previous year for some unexplained exploit with Bharat Jhangiani); but when I checked the list of students on the Alpina [an Aiglon dormitory/house] notice board, Nipper and Derek’s names were not there. I was devastated. I had no idea that they were safely tucked up in Belvedere under the charismatic care of TBO’H and Miss Trott (or that there were two other houses, Clairmont and the mysterious ‘Chalet’ somewhere in the village).

Fortunately Bobby was in Alpina. He came in at some point to kick the lock off Cogswell’s bedside cabinet and ‘borrow’ his peanut butter. The only thing that appeared to be standing between Bob and total chaos in the house was the quiet spoken house captain Martin Yates who seemed to have everything under control and a direct line to 'the Boss'. 

The concept of cold showers was novel, and the idea of an early morning run followed by ‘beer and cigarettes’ parade’ of physical jerks worse. And why a cold shower? And green soap? And that tiny towel? It was cold. I didn’t fully appreciate the dangers of the obligatory open window at 2,000 metres until November when I found the water in my glass had frozen.

But nothing prepared me for John Corlette. I’d seen his photo in the brochure and read it from cover to cover, but as I filed into Belvedere for ‘meditation’ I had no idea. The hall was tired and needed painting, the metal chairs were battered and creaky and the noise as old chums met and chattered was phenomenal. Then there was hushing and a modicum of order as everyone finally sat down.

J.C. was slightly stooped, and wore a tweed jacket over a sleeveless jumper. He seemed too small for his clothes, but he was tanned and when he mounted the stage and turned to look at us, the silence deepened. The stage was bare but for a lectern, a table and a bizarre speaker for the phonograph. J.C. explained that the heart of Aiglon was the Meditation and then with a soft penetrating voice proceeded to hypnotise 128 noisy, smelly boys and young men.

It was his manner of total command and confidence. He radiated power and his eyes drew you in, deep pools of thought, windows on his spirituality. He began with toes, and then feet shuffled, bottoms squirmed, hands folded, shoulders straight, cough (and everyone coughed) breathe deep and listen with his mellifluous voice and slowly the testosterone was stilled and there was real, deep silence and he spoke, and we listened. I wish I could remember but it was profound and like the pebble in the quiet pool it rippled through your mind.

He played music and then, slowly we awoke. Noise and boys resumed. A burly Mr. McColville shouted incomprehensible nonsense about basketball. A nut-brown little Mr. Berry announced something about expeditions. The head boy warned something about church on Sunday and then we were filing out. I had maths with Mr. Roddy in Alpina, followed by history with the Group Captain and French with Mr. Agier.

I was a little taken aback by Alan Kitz in French. His world of chaos seemed a far cry from J.C.’s spiritual depths. But slowly and effectively I was won over by one man’s view of preparing for life. It was an engaging and heady mix of muscular Christianity tempered by Kurt Hahn and a frontal assault on all my senses and prejudices at the same time. Who could explain the magic of exploring the mountains under the scrutiny of D.? How could you understand the undercurrent of mysticism and mystery that emanated from J.C., Lady Forbes and Dr. Doris Odlum?

Aiglon was a magical collection of misfits and that included the staff. Cowboy Bob taught art. Mr. Harris told war stories and drank in the Chalet. Tiffer Reynolds was sane and charming while TBO’H was quite sensible and terrifying. Black Mark! Mr. Phillip’s geography classes were chaotic.

Compared with my quiet rural school in remote Ste.-Adele, Quebec; Aiglon’s students all seemed to have escaped from somewhere. All those eccentric English boys! Who could explain Edwin Pollard and Harry Summers? Simon Murray-Wells and Robin Bayford entertained Fritz Koch to sherry most evenings in the top floor of Clairmont and I certainly remember Taylor Dinerman running away just before Meditation. He flitted past me completely buck naked and into the village. Alastair Crooke!  How was Louis de Veauce able to be so good at chess? Music was exploding from England, but we asked: Was the Sixth Race better than Just a Few (or was it the Esthetics?) and where did Mike Leonard get the sitar? Why were there so many asthmatics? Hugh Astley? Richard Trafford had a cavalry sabre and would practice slashing thrown fruit. Very messy. In the basement at Alpina, a boy called Jago was building a huge black Czech motorbike. There was some consternation when in the summer term, he completed his work, fired it up and left for England. I knew he was going. We all knew. ‘Groupie’ was astonished.

Why did John Moodie come from South Africa and Chris Master from Oz? Did all the heads of state of emerging African nations send their sons to Aiglon? Was Phillip Mackonnen really Haile Selassie’s grandson? Edwin Nasser? Robin Mycock?

Even the Americans were interesting. Did Todd Barbey and Karl Clark really know how to surf? The Yeagers were very odd and what about Rob Donnell? Or Randy Tucker and Pat McDonnell? Why did Louis P want to run a shop? Was Stephen Dizard’s father really the CIA spy chief in Warsaw? Was what's-his-name, the Crown Prince of Rumania, really allowed to wear a gun for P.T. in case he was attacked?

I went to Milan with Mr. Boas, Antony Haggi and Eric Friedl to hear von Karajan direct La Cavalieri Rusticana at La Scala. On another outing, with a group of some 30 schoolboys, I climbed on [seal] skins to the fabled monastery of St. Bernard. The weather turned and we were trapped there for two days and food had to be dropped from a ski plane. I still remember the net baskets of school bread breaking on impact.

What was a Long Expedition ( and why Dijon?), a Bouquetin award and why was the Dependence out of bounds? How could J.C. afford a Bentley? What about Green badges, pocket money and fines for tipping chairs, leaving lights on, and flicking towels. Why did Dr. Méan have to check my testicles? Were the Armaillie de Conche really local musicians?

I learned to ski in deep powder, to taste and breathe the snow. I embraced the mountains in my blood. Dom, Monte Rosa, Allalinhorn to name some embedded in my heart. Broke my leg training for the ADISR ski race. Monsieur Gysin apologised and said I was too heavy to carry and sent Tom Clark for hot chocolate and a blood luge. In the summer term, I swooped down the 27 kilometres of the Col des Mosses on a bike. It was freedom and responsibility.

There was a rhythm to the school. A deep thread that grew in me as I woke each morning to see and enjoy the Dents du Midi. No boy of 14 is spiritual by choice, but the focus of the school and the dream of its founder was burrowing deep in my soul. The heady mixture of mountain and mysticism and rough boyhood captured me and keeps me still. Through the years, I spent more time with J.C. There were ups and downs, mistakes and triumphs. Initial fear turned to puzzlement and then respect. Deep respect. I never knew him, or understood him, but I knew he was sure, his vision bright and his command total. He became more frail, and skiing with him became rare, but there were moments of total, blissful thralldom when in conversation, he’d smile and his eyes twinkled and his charm and intellect flooded your senses and you just marvelled. He was extraordinary.

Church became more and more meaningful and the hymns will stay with me to the end. Steak and all the frites [french fries] you can eat Sunday night. Molasses stirred into yoghurt for breakfast. Very smelly sleeping bags. English comics like The Dandy. It was always cold in the ‘bogs’ [lavatories].

I never understood the bread, baked once a month in Clairmont. The school was eclectic, such a mixture of odd and unexplained. Mr. Linde was a worry. Bretaye was glorious. I still like Sugus. D.B. introduced me to Socialism, the Labour party and the Financial Times. I never bought it, but he opened my mind. How do you quantify the importance of a Bibi or Joyce?

I was amazed, sceptical, and then consumed. The wonder of it all. A disciple and defender by the end. Committed to a man and his ideal and what he built in a small village in the Alps. Look at what he sent forth across the world and marvel.

Thank you.

C.M.C.

4.12.08

It's not just about our luck in life; it's also about the luck we create for others.

Koome Martin Gikunda, a scholarship student from Kenya, graduated from Aiglon in 1999.  He says his time on the Mountain completely changed the trajectory of his life. Certainly, Koome's subsequent journey has been nothing short of remarkable. Last year, he was asked to deliver the school's commencement address. Here is his story in his own words:

Thanks to Steve McCrea for editing and forwarding the video.

A tribute to longtime Aiglon English teacher "Teddy" Senn

Teddy Senn was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1928 and moved to the UK as a teenager. He acquired English as a second language but learned to speak it flawlessly. He arrived at Aiglon in the 1960s and taught English language and literature there for several decades. Actor Michel Gill (House of Cards, Mr. Robot) credits him with first getting him on a stage, to perform a Shakespearean play. The following is an obituary for Teddy written by Wall Street Journal editor Eric Gibson, one of his students. It gives the reader a good sense of the sort of education young men and women received at Aiglon back in the day. 


Gustav Theodore "Teddy” Senn (1928–2013)

There's a memorable exchange at the beginning of "A Man For All Seasons,” a play filled with memorable exchanges, and one that Teddy taught at O-Level [a British standardized exam]. It occurs between Sir Thomas More, the doomed protagonist, and Richard Rich, a young opportunist who sees More as his ticket to fame, fortune and power at the court of Henry VIII. 
  
Recognizing that Rich is bad news, More tries to steer him out of his orbit into teaching, assuring him that he would make "a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great one.” 

"And if I was, who would know it?” Rich asks. Replies More: "You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.” 

Teddy was not a world-renowned figure—nor did he wish to be. But as the postings on Facebook and the many e-mail exchanges in the wake of his passing have attested, to his students Teddy was a legend, one of that rare breed of educator whose mark and memory stay with you down the decades. 

Gentle, courtly, erudite, and possessed of an impish wit and a taste for the well-turned pun, Teddy arrived at Aiglon with his family in September 1966. Over the next 33 years he would teach O- and A-Level English and serve as a Houseparent in Alpina, Clairmont and Exeter, Deputy Headmaster and Senior Master. Retired, he undertook to write the official history of the school. But this brief sketch scarcely captures the extent of Teddy's contribution. He was one of the Aiglon stalwarts, that group of singular personalities who, along with John Corlette, did so much to define the character and tone of Aiglon in its early decades.

As a teacher, Teddy did double duty. On the first day of our Fifth Form O-Level English Literature class, he announced that since exam success depended not only on what you knew but how you expressed it, he would cover both. So where other teachers would have confined themselves to the explication of Shakespeare, Milton and the other assigned texts, Teddy coupled that with instruction in expository writing. Our papers would come back marked up with notes to use fewer words, choose more appropriate ones, avoid repetition, eschew the likes of "very” and "nice”—"meaningless words,” he called them, dismissively—and much else. It was hard going, but this revelation of language as a precision tool as well as a marvelously rich and supple creative instrument instilled in some of us a lifelong love of words and writing. Even without igniting that spark, Teddy's injunctions equipped his charges with an indispensable skill. The written word still matters, even in the age of Twitter. 

But what made Teddy's teaching unique was its moral dimension. There was no separation between who he was and what he did for a living. He didn't puncha clock; English literature was the warp and weft of his life. It shaped his worldview, informed his Meditations and inflected his personal interactions outside the classroom. This meant that, more than simply communicating a body of knowledge, Teddy imparted a set of values. You need to know this canon, was his unspoken message. It is a bedrock of civilization. We all have a stake in keeping it alive. 

Then there was what you might call the Joseph Conrad factor. The author of "Lord Jim” and other masterworks was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland in 1857. He didn't become fluent in English until he was in his twenties, but went on to become one of its greatest prose stylists.

English was Teddy's second language, too. He was Swiss, and had started life speaking Swiss German. Yet to us young tyros he seemed to know every word in the Oxford Dictionary, and was so intimately familiar with Shakespeare that, as a group of us demonstrated one day in a brief, after-class parlor game, when quoted a single line of dialogue he could instantly identify the play, character, act and scene to which it belonged. Faced with such a sweeping command of your own language and literary culture in someone not native to them, you felt a certain pressure to step up your game. 

Teddy could have taught at a university but undoubtedly shaped more young minds by getting to them earlier at Aiglon. At a reunion in the late 1970s I found myself chatting with Mike McCabe and Richard Sears, two graduates of my era. Mike was then on the staff of a U.S. Senator in Washington, Richard was a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and I was beginning my career in arts journalism in New York. The conversation turned to our old English teacher, and soon we were comparing notes on his influence. One saw the same thing in the recent testimonials on Facebook. Dozens of different people, dozens of completely different lives, each one touched in some way by Teddy. Not a bad public, that. 

Godspeed, Teddy Senn.

Eric Gibson
Aiglon College, Class of '72

There Are Always More Mountains To Climb

One of the most important things I learned at Aiglon was how wonderful it was to meet people coming from all corners of our planet. My roommates were from Borneo, Zambia, Germany, France, Canada, etc. We all learned that we loved the same music, had similar interests and hobbies. We all learned to appreciate the gift of the great outdoors, and those long and short expeditions taught me I could carry all I needed in a backpack and set up our camp anywhere we found a good place on the map to do so. We had freedom of education in choosing our elected courses, we had freedom of where we wanted to map our expeditions, too. Some expeditions were tough, and yet pushing through we learned just one more step after another could get us home or take us far. We made everlasting friendships and now meet at reunions all over the world to reminisce, exchange stories about our families and sometimes even work together. There was always a support system in place, worldwide. I ended up travelling a lot with my family, living in London, Florida, France and LA before finally settling here in Quebec City, Canada. My children are now living their own lives and I have dedicated myself to making films that make a difference.
 
I just completed an 8-year odyssey (talk about a long expedition!!) to get a documentary made called You Belong To Me: Sex, Race and Murder in The South. In fact one of the interviewees, Cliff Adams, who is featured in my film, informed me at a cast and crew screening after the wrap that he had attended Aiglon College with someone who had the same last name as I have. When I told him it was actually me, we were both stunned. He was just a couple of years in front of me!! We didn’t believe each other at first. It was sharing our memories of early morning PE and jumping jacks in the snow that made us realise it was absolutely true.
 
Our world is small and our planet is extraordinary and yet not small enough to hide the nearly 36 million slaves that exist or subsist on our planet today. More slaves than at any other time in our planet’s history. My brother Steven and my sister-in-law Tamara placed their children at Aiglon, and during visits I saw how much Aiglon had expanded and grown. Not only within the school walls but with their outreach into other parts of the world. Tamara became involved with supporting and volunteering at a Nepalese Orphanage called NOH and arranged to have volunteers and students from the school experience first hand what can be done to help these poor children who have been trafficked and are now rescued. NOH does extraordinary things, but it is not the only institution that is doing so. So like any well-trained Aiglonite, I decided to see what more can be discovered.
 
I have joined a great group of crusaders planning to climb and conquer a huge mountain—to finally help bring an end to Modern Day Slavery. We are bringing together a community of like minded, freedom appreciating, brilliant minds who having reached the peaks of their careers and realise there is so much other work to be done. Work related to gender equality, work in freeing those enslaved, work in bringing down those who abduct, enslave, traffic and utilize those slave workers in the manufacturing of products. Work at creating an App that will put the power back into the consumers hands. An App that will identify if slave labour was utilized in creating the product you wish to buy and giving the public an option to choose another. Busting open and wide those corporate chains of hidden labour. So all this to say I am embarking on a further long expedition and in a way this is a call to arms. If there are any Aiglonites who would like to join me on this latest expedition. Please contact me directly or check out our website http://www.wishingstep.com/. We are raising funds presently and if interested on a personal or corporate level I would be pleased to send you further materials.
 
Aiglon prepped us for so much in life. We didn’t necessarily realise it while it was happening because we were busy making friends, socializing, drinking in the fresh air, climbing the mountains, skiing down them and being fed both intellectually and by wonderful chefs. Yet once we stepped away from those mountains and into the reality of the world, it was truly then we realised the gift of what that education and experience prepared us for, and it gave us the knowledge that we can accomplish so much with just one more step.


H. Saltzman
Aiglon College, Class of 1979

 

For The Record...

At the beginning of 2015, writer Allen Kurzweil published a book called Whipping Boy: A 40-Year Search For My 12-Year-Old Bully. In it, he recounts his traumatic experience as a young boarder at Aiglon College, a British international school in the Swiss Alps. After 30-some-odd pages, the reader is left with the impression that Aiglon was something right out of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days. The school’s rules, its faculty, his Filipino roommate, indeed the entire ethos of the place where he claims to have been "warehoused" appear to have left Allen emotionally immiserated. It should be said that he apparently was not the only student who was bullied. A few others now have stepped forward to tell their stories. Still, of the 200-some-odd young men and women who were there at that time, including myself, I’d wager the vast majority had a radically different experience. Accordingly, "the other side of the story” should be part of the record.

 

When I was 15 years old, after seeing The Sound of Music and reading an article in National Geographic, I began lobbying my mother to send me to school overseas—for just one year. Some in the family staunchly opposed it. They argued it was too far away and too dangerous an enterprise for a boy not yet 16. Still, in the end, I prevailed, and late one September afternoon I boarded a plane bound for Geneva. What was to have been one year became two, and I returned home an entirely different person.

 

The school was Aiglon College. (In Europe, the word “college” often denotes a secondary school.) Contrary to what Allen’s book says, Aiglon is not in fact in the general vicinity of Geneva. It is at the other end of the lake, much closer to Montreux, at an altitude of some 4,200 feet. The school overlooks the Rhone Valley, the majestic Dents du Midi, and on a clear day, Mont Blanc. It is a spectacularly beautiful place.

 

As part of the curriculum, we took annual cultural expeditions to explore major European cities. Some of us took day trips to Milan and Turin to see Italian opera. We also had to participate in long, exhausting mountain expeditions—on foot in the autumn and spring, on skis during the winter. And we skied almost every day during the season. There were times scaling the slopes of mountains, legs burning, that it occurred to me I could be sitting at home, thousands of miles away, eating pizza and watching "Batman." But there are few experiences as satisfying as standing on a mountain peak, surveying the valleys far below, and knowing you got there through your own sweat and perseverance. That sort of hard-won achievement changes you in a profound way. An entirely new self-perception emerges when you discover you are capable of much more than you thought you were.

 

But there was something else that happened to me on the mountain. I have always suffered from the neurological impairment we now call ADD, as did my father and several of my cousins. Of course, nobody knew what ADD was in the 1970s. But after a few months at Aiglon, I found I could concentrate for the first time in my life. I could read a short book in one evening. I stopped procrastinating. My hand-eye coordination improved significantly. I have come to attribute the marked improvement to regular strenuous exercise the school emphasized—I went from chubby to a 28-inch waist. But I can’t be sure. Was it perhaps the food? The altitude? All of the above? Something else? In any event, for the first time in my life I succeeded. I suddenly had many close friends. My grades dramatically improved. I found myself making rapid progress learning a second language (which I still speak almost fluently to this day). And I was accepted to an elite university, an achievement that would have been highly unlikely had I remained at home.

 

Equally life-changing in Europe was the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, many of whom remain dear friends, and the acquisition of a new perspicacity that allowed me to see possibilities that were not on the radar screens of most of the people I knew back home. Everything about Europe and the mountain—the food, the local customs, the palpable history, the breathtaking scenery, the skiing—was a revelation to a teenager from the American south.

 

After university, I went on to found several companies that took me routinely to Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, and elsewhere. I was the subject of numerous articles, including two in The New York Times and another in Entrepreneur magazine. In short, I had a career that surely would have been out of reach had it not been for my remarkable teenage experience and early exposure to foreign cultures and languages. Still, one could argue I’m the deadbeat. One of my best friends at Aiglon is now a distinguished poet and formerly the director of the American Academy in Rome. Another is a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal. Several of my classmates are in finance and C-suite offices. Others have made a career of humanitarian work. Make no mistake, our little school had some impressive students all those years ago, students who went on to such universities and colleges as Radcliffe, Princeton, Duke, Dartmouth, Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, Columbia, and Cambridge. And we weren’t all rich. Many kids had parents who worked in the diplomatic corps or for multinationals that helped subsidize the educational expenses of employees living abroad. Aiglon was surprisingly affordable for Americans back in the early '70s, because the U.S. dollar was so strong.

 

Since I have discovered that a few other boys claim to have been bullied during my time at the school, when I was a prefect in their dorm, I have written two of them to apologize. (I wrote an apology to Allen on the school’s alumni site.) It is heartbreaking to know that those boys had such radically different experiences than I did, and worse, that I perhaps should accept some share of the culpability—a sin of omission for not keeping my ear close enough to the track. But less anybody think that Aiglon College was (or is) some sort of “concentration camp” or Slytherin House, know that, for most of us, it was a magical place that bestowed a tremendous amount of grace on children and young adults. To me, it is clear that teens benefit much more from an international experience when they are in high school than at university. It is a time they begin to form their philosophies of life and begin to think about their futures. Aiglon was structured not to indoctrinate, but to expand our horizons, show us our possibilities, build leadership skills, and give us a strong sense of self. For the most part, I think the school was amazingly successful. We didn’t need expensive, flashy facilities. All we needed was a first-rate faculty, a roof over our heads, Alpine challenges, rich cultural resources all around us, and each other. My time at Aiglon was the happiest of my life. It is extremely dispiriting to think that the school’s reputation has been so badly bruised over the unfortunate choices of one young student and another student’s dogged determination to call him to account 40 years later.

 

As I write, Aiglon has decided not to respond to Allen’s book. Perhaps they feel a series of incidents so long ago does not require a response. I’m sure they have their reasons. As for myself, it would be hard to conceive of any school as exceptional as the one I attended, some inevitable shortcomings notwithstanding. (Wherever you have people, you have shortcomings.) Founder and longtime headmaster John Corlette, a friend and votary of Outward Bound® founder Kurt Hahn, was a true visionary. Everything we did was carefully calibrated to bring out the best in us—academically, spiritually, and physically. As I think about it, I wouldn’t know how to begin to put a price on my transformative teenage experience.

 

It is apparent that, forty years ago, the school failed Allen and several others. And for that I am very sorry. It is heartening to see he has gone on to obtain impressive degrees, marry a wonderful woman, and make quite a name for himself as a writer. For my part, it would be an unconscionable act of ingratitude to remain silent and not give credit to all the people—a founding headmaster, teachers, and fellow students—who together created such a remarkable community: a little school on a Swiss mountain where I thrived and where (most of) my many friends learned so much, loved so much, and went on to do great things.

 

W. Green

Aiglon College, 1970–’72

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