Richmond Mayo-Smith, 92 educator, world literacy group head

From the Boston Globe

By Bryan Marquard Globe Staff  January 24, 2015

In the turbulent late 1960s, Richmond Mayo-Smith sent a letter just before Christmas to the parents of boys attending Roxbury Latin School, saying students would no longer be required to wear coats and ties.

Some 45 years later, such a change hardly seems revolutionary, but for a school on the cusp of its 325th anniversary, it was a radical move to let teenage boys, absent their requisite knotted neckties, roam the halls with long hair and bell-bottoms.

Mr. Mayo-Smith, the school’s headmaster since 1965, made even more far-reaching changes in the classrooms.

For the first time, girls were allowed to attend seminars at Roxbury Latin. An attic room was converted into an art studio, and seniors took several weeks midyear for independent projects. One went to New York City in late 1969 to work with filmmakers producing a documentary on the Rolling Stones, while another traveled to a Head Start program in Florida.

The teaching and learning of skills will become more individualized,” Mr. Mayo-Smith wrote in a memo to teachers, adding: “The faculty will be different. They will help students learn skills, but they will spend less time in class and more time being accessible to students as resource people and colleagues.

Mr. Mayo-Smith, whose career as an educator included teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy, preparing curriculum and textbooks in India, and chairing the board of the World Education literacy organization, died Jan. 10 in his Boston home after a period of declining health. He was 92.

He really was the heart and soul and history of the organization,

 said Joel Lamstein, president of World Education. In the early 1960s, Mr. Mayo-Smith worked at Literacy House in Lucknow, India, which evolved into World Education. In 1975, he began serving on the board, including time as chairman.

He was the one who kept us on track to understand the social mission of the organization. He was a man who was intensely interested in social justice,” Lamstein said. “He was just an extraordinary guy, someone you rarely meet in life, but when you do, you know you’re in the presence of someone special: a man of vision and courage.

At Roxbury Latin, Mr. Mayo-Smith “made decisions by consensus — very different than a top-down boss,” said Robert Ryan, a former teacher, coach, and dean of students at the school. “He gave everybody a voice. This was true of students and faculty. He encouraged everybody to participate.”

Among Mr. Mayo-Smith’s innovations was hiring an athletic director who was open to sports beyond the traditional football, basketball, and baseball, Ryan said. Mr. Mayo-Smith, Ryan added, was fond of the verb “co-adventuring,” which he thought described the ideal relationship between teachers and students.

He listened to everybody,” Ryan said. “He found common ground and was very accepting and supportive of all kinds of different students and parents and faculty. He was a good soul, in addition to having a great mind.

Richmond Mayo-Smith Jr. grew up in Dedham, where he graduated from Noble and Greenough School. His father was president and chairman of Plimpton Press in Norwood, which published the poet Robert Frost, who became a friend of the family.

Mr. Mayo-Smith graduated in 1944 from Amherst College, following in the footsteps of his father, who had chaired the college’s board of trustees.

During World War II, Mr. Mayo-Smith was an Army field artillery staff sergeant, seeing combat in Belgium, Germany, and France, an experience that stayed with him. On Veterans Day 1990, as US troops prepared for the Persian Gulf War, he told the Globe he opposed that military action and wanted a peaceful solution because he had fought in World War II and “I would not say it was the best years of my life.”

He began teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1946 and married Nancy Fox in 1949.

He was an intellectual,” she said. “He really liked to learn and teach, and that directed everything he did. We had a very adventurous life.

In 1962, they left Exeter with their children to live in India, where at first Mr. Mayo-Smith worked at the University of Delhi, preparing science curriculum and textbooks for grades 1 through 4. After a year, they moved to Lucknow and Literacy House.

He wanted to go stretch himself and go somewhere where we would have to work hard to understand and to participate,” his wife said. “I was all for that too. It was quite an experience, especially with three little ones.

Offered the headmaster position at Roxbury Latin, Mr. Mayo-Smith returned to Boston with his family. He led the school for eight years until the trustees, more wedded to tradition and less ready to accept his changes and innovations, voted in 1973 to not retain him at the end of the term. That action prompted two teachers to resign and two trustees to quit the 20-member board.

At the time, the Globe reported that angry parents and students were talking about “revolution,” and that during Mr. Mayo-Smith’s tenure as headmaster, the student failure rate dropped dramatically, while the number of black students rose.

During his time as headmaster, his family also provided Kuncho Palsang, a Tibetan refugee, with a place to live and with a job, and he became part of the Mayo-Smith family.

After Roxbury Latin, along with working with World Education, Mr. Mayo-Smith chaired the board of Common Cause in Massachusetts. He also served on the boards, often as chairman, for several organizations and institutions, including STOP Nuclear War, an organization of students and teachers that opposed nuclear war; Educators for Social Responsibility; and the Center for Psychology and Social Change.

He had received a master’s in education from Harvard University in 1950.

His whole life was in education,” said his son Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith of Franklin, N.H., the network director of VA New England Healthcare System. “He liked working with younger people and really felt this was a way he could impact the world.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Mayo-Smith leaves another son, Richmond III of Singapore; a daughter, Katrina, of Sonoma, Calif.; a brother, Worthington, of Bedford, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Exchange Conference Center in Boston.

In recent years, Mr. Mayo-Smith worked with a variety of spiritual leaders to expand his understanding of the world.

He’s always been concerned with the state of the planet and trying to get people to work for a better future, as corny as it might sound,” said his son Richmond. “But he’s actually somebody who did it and dedicated his life to making the world a better place.

To help his family prepare a memorial service, Mr. Mayo-Smith wrote notes about his life.

Watching young people grow up has been my greatest pleasure,” he wrote. “The possibility of making the world a better place for the next generation is for me both the major challenge of the human species and its unique capacity.