A Conversation with John LeFevre ’37

Ed. note: Mr. John LeFevre ’37 passed away on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 in Hamilton, NY. He was 97. Read his obituary.

MarisJohn LeFevre is one of the oldest living Northwood Alums. I had the privilege to interview this sharp 96 year-old in October when he came to visit.

– Maris Van Slyke ’16

How did you first come to be at Northwood?

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John LeFevre ’37 in the Flinner Auditorium in October 2015

My story is vintage to me. So having finished 8th grade in New Paltz, New York, there was in my household, all women. My mother who was very smart about these things, maybe everything, thought that I ought to have more male relations. My father died when I was very young, 5 years old, and that meant I had only lived in a house that had women in it – my grandmother, my aunt, my mother. So she, I think, made the decision based on what they thought would be good for me growing up, and I think she was absolutely right, I think it was time for me to get out … It was a known school… I continued the tradition of Northwood for New Paltz, I just coined that …I don’t think I was ever homesick when I came up. I must’ve had a suitcase, I don’t remember, so I was never homesick, that was the point of that story I guess …

So your next question ought to be, could be; did it work and was it right for you? And the answer is, it was right for me, then I get to a place at Northwood where there are no girls, and residence, no women on the faculty then. I can’t remember the first year very well, I can’t remember any of the years very well, but the male faculty were very strong and very friendly, most of them, and I made good friends with several. Jim Fullerton Sr. was then the coach of everything. That was a tremendous experience for me because I hadn’t had any of that previously. So it was a new world, and it worked, and it did what it should have done. I don’t know if that’s a complete answer, but that’s me.

Can you tell tell me how dining at school was back then.. I imagine that it is different than today?

In those years, we ate in the same dining room that you have, but there were waitresses. I don’t know where they came from, I suppose Lake Placid, and so you got to see at least some waitresses. They were kind people and they served us when we probably were mean. I don’t think mean would be a good word, but the tables, we must’ve been changing tables from time to time. The dining room was somewhat formal in the sense that everyone wore ties. We were dressed all the time, and with a coat, a sports jacket. So you wore a tie and shirt and you were dressed. There were plaques on the walls, and there’s been an attempt I guess to replace them, for colleges to which Northwood seniors have gone. They were mounted in various paces. So that was true then, and we were served, we didn’t go into where you get food now. That was probably always the kitchen. I think it worked very well, I don’t know what year that changed. But at some time it changed, and you became self-service. Do you ever get Adirondack pancakes now?

What’s an Adirondack Pancake?

Your answer is no. An Adirondack pancake was a special dessert that was served infrequently. A stack of pancakes, brown sugar, and pancake syrup, that’s how I remember, anyway. For special occasions they served Adirondack pancakes, and we didn’t have to do anything, they came to us. They must’ve come to us in stacks of maybe 3 or 4 pancakes with a lot of sweet things on top, and that was a special meal. I don’t remember much about other meals. I don’t think they were good particularly, or bad, I just have no recollection.

I heard a story about you walking across a frozen Mirror Lake, I’d love to hear it…

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John LeFevre ’37 as a senior at Northwood School

I’d be glad to, it’s memorable for me. In those days…God that sounds awfully old, we could go to a movie over town. It seems as if it was Monday afternoons or Tuesday, until we had to start classes Monday evening. This was obviously springtime, and I was with three or four friends, and we were walking across the ice from Lake Placid village to The Club entryway. I don’t think I was more than ten feet away from the shore, and under me the ice gave way and I dropped. Now I can’t remember touching bottom, but I didn’t stay down very long. I popped up like a coke bottle or something and had my hands flat on the ice on both sides. Happily, it was strong enough to hold me. So, got out, my friends took me to – and it was cold – took me into the Club and called Northwood, and someone – maybe the good Ira Flinner – somebody came and got me so I wouldn’t get any colder. That was really the point. That’s really all to the story, except I pop out fast, and didn’t hurt myself in any way, and I don’t know what would’ve happened if I’d been someplace else farther out. It could’ve been serious, and I suppose it was avoidable, but happily nothing bad happened at all.

I’ve heard about the winter house parties? Is there some story about a train?

The house party… that was a fairly big deal. It was a spring thing. I know I have my picture out there, but I don’t remember much. I got a blind date. House parties, there was encouragement to make them successful both with evolving events and dog sleds and those kinds of things and hockey games. They were a welcome event in most kids’ lives here because it got a little old after a while not having any women around.

I do have a story, thank you for the reminder. The girls came whenever they came, mostly by train, and they come from Boston or New York or Manhattan or Westchester County, or New Jersey even. The party went on, it probably started on Saturday night, dance, and I suppose some activity on Sunday and maybe another day of skiing, whatever. But anyway it closed off on Sunday evening. So the train left on Sunday evening. That particular week would’ve carried people to Boston or wherever they came from, and a fellow by the name of Al Jenks and I, got on the train to say goodbye to our dates, and somehow or another, the train started up without our getting off. I’m sure the conductor tried to get people off, but not until we were well down the track did we finally understood that there was movement underfoot and we were on the train and not going anyplace. We got off at Saranac and again called in and said we need a ride back to school, and somebody, I don’t remember who, got us. So the train started off and we didn’t get off and that was the story. No accident, nobody got hurt. I’ve told it a couple times because it’s sort of a dumb thing.

What advice would you give to Northwood students today?

I’m the kind of guy who has all kinds of ideas about what I might have done differently, but I guess the straight advice would be enjoy yourself, take advantage of your time at Northwood and the next space if you go to college, but take advantage of that. Don’t take too many detours. Do it right, do it in your own business and it will always be in your favor.

And the other thing, Maris, and this is a good thing and I think about it from time to time. A lot of time people are measured, and I ought to be able to snap these things off for you easily but I don’t right now. People are measured by what they accomplish and that’s good, that’s right, but underneath that, what people are is more important than what they accomplish. Now you’d like to have both, you want people who will contribute to society, will pick up their load, do what they need to do to make a contribution and we should all try to do that. But what you are goes on after all those are finished and the example you set, the kind of a life you lead, see this is a stupid kind of thing to say to people your age, really, it is, because they say, “What’s he talking about?” Well the answer is, you leave behind you, lots of trail. They say a skipper is known by his trail, by the wake he makes.

You leave behind you lots of memories in other people’s minds and you say, “How do you want to be remembered?” And we don’t, most of us, me too, don’t take enough time to put effort into taking care of your friends, or your family, and when you get all though and say what’s important? I guess Maris, how old are you? 18, I was guessing 18, see you are old enough to start to think about things like that which aren’t very important to your daily life, but maybe they are and maybe you think about the friends you make and the friends you keep and the people you help, that’s not very well said, but it’s true I think. See you’re going to win, and this is good stuff. And just so you know, part of my job at IBM at one point was to help managers learn how to do their job better, management schools, and so all this stuff about success and failure, I have been on stage sort of and it’s all important, but it’s only important as you use it. It goes often at midair.

You’re going to look back on Northwood as you get more mature and you are mature now. You’re going to look back on your time at Northwood and say, “Did I do all I might’ve done either for the school, for me, or my mom? What should I have been doing that would make me feel good and make them feel better?” That’s the direction I will go in. I have a lot of other directions I would go in, and some of them are right and some of them are wrong. …

I got a wristband from my son’s activity, but the family gave these out a long time ago and he was a runner and he died. Bad time. Anyway, I didn’t grow up hugging people. That wasn’t my style nor was it the fashion. Men didn’t hug men, boys didn’t, so I never hugged people. So the thing says, “Life’s too short for handshakes” and he believed that.

So you have to be careful also, you know this because your mom has told you, be careful the friends you make because they may not all be good friends. Now that’s a terrible thing to say. Find good friends and you keep them.

I would say drive carefully. Don’t drink too much.

If you want to come to Colgate to look at it, tell us and I will greet you gladly. I no longer represent Colgate officially, but I represent it. It followed Northwood at the right time for me. I was well prepared, much more than any in my freshman class, and academically I had a different background and I wasn’t any smarter. Some kids were very smart and you know a few of them perhaps, that wouldn’t make a difference where they were, they were going to be smart at Colgate or smart at Northwood. But I had, my Northwood experience was, I can’t think a bad part of it, now that may be I’m not thinking very well, but I go away with a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction and I think about it a lot more now than I used to, which is probably true about a lot of people. You think about it more as you get older.

Maris, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and I don’t want to keep you any longer. You are very easy to talk with, and I like to talk about these things that you asked me about even when I don’t do it as succinctly as I should, but that’s it. Thank you.

Originally published February 12, 2016. Edited in May 30, 2016.

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