Pete Seeger Honored At Avon Old Farms School

| Courant Staff Writer

On Saturday, Seeger, Class of 1936, returned to the campus of the boys’ boarding school to collect an award and sing a song.

“I’m speechless,” he said upon receiving the school’s first Distinguished Alumnus award. Noting that he is “famous for talking and talking on end,” Seeger, now nearly 90, said he was overcome with gratitude and emotion.

Then he grabbed a banjo and launched into a song. It wasn’t one of his classics, such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer” or “Turn, Turn, Turn,” but rather a relatively new composition that he wrote after 9/11.

“I had an idea for a chorus,” Seeger said. But it took him eight months to work it through and make sure the lyrics weren’t too “teachy preachy,” he said.

Seeger encouraged the audience to join him, reciting the lyrics before singing: “Don’t say it can’t be done. The battle’s just begun. Take it from Dr. King, you too can learn to sing. So drop the gun.”

The crowd, which included scores of Avon Old Farms students in rumpled khakis and navy blazers adorned with the school’s crest, enthusiastically joined in. Seeger, looking strong and rugged, wore blue jeans and a denim jacket and was accompanied on stage by one of his daughters.

In his three years at the school, Seeger acted in “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. “At 13, I played the female parts, with my hair curled and falsies,” he told New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson in a profile published in 2006. After Avon, Seeger attended Harvard, but left after two years.

Seeger has received a number of accolades recently. He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 and, in 1994, was feted by President Clinton at the Kennedy Center.

“Pete Seeger has changed millions of lives,” said Art Custer, chairman of the history department at Avon Old Farms. In addition to presenting him with the alumnus award, the school dedicated a tree — a stately European beech that grows just outside the performing arts center — in his honor.

Seeger’s gutsy stand against his congressional inquisitors during the McCarthy era is enough to ensure that he be remembered as a “great American,” Custer said.

The students seemed to grasp that they were in the presence of an American icon, although some of them may have been a bit unclear about the exact details of Seeger’s multifaceted career as musician, political activist, civil rights protester and environmentalist.

Nick Biekert, a junior from Avon, knew that Bruce Springsteen recently recorded an album of Seeger’s songs. Ford St. John, a junior from Canton, knew that Seeger was active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era.

“He’s a good role model,” St. John said. “Everyone is really focused on sports here. … Here’s someone else who did something great.”

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3 Comments »

  1. Winston McKellar said

    As an Avon Old Farms class member from 1969, I had the privilege in seeing Pete Seeger (class of ’36) receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award last Saturday. It was a honor to see Mr. Seeger receive this award, but then bust out with a new tune of his that involved the entire audience in singing along with him.

    It was with great inspiration and perhaps with awe to see some of the class members of 1936 scoot around the campus at the ripe old age of 90. People like the Pete Seegers of the world give us hope for the future and that being old doesn’t mean one needs to sit in a rocking chair.

    Amen.

  2. Jon Van Doren said

    I just want to say that I have loved pete’s music, his style, his kindness, and his toughness for a long time now.

    I played the five string banjo for awhile as a result of listening to his music.

    Thank you Pete Seeger for being on the same planet during my life.

    You don’t know me, but you know me.

    Jon

  3. Charles Hurley said

    Pete,

    I love you also, congratulations.

    Charles

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