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His Life


September 21, 2010

Stephen Hinrichs, 92, died peacefully with his family by his side on Sunday, September 19, 2010, after a brief illness.  Born in South Orange, New Jersey, March 7, 1918, the son of Louis Ernest and Vera McEnery Hinrichs, he spent his childhood and early school years in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.  In 1936 he graduated from Exeter and enrolled at Yale University, where as an English major he most enjoyed his role as technical director for drama productions and as a dancer in musicals, and received his degree in 1940.

After a summer as cabin boy on a schooner, he toured New England ski areas and wrote articles for the Newark News before taking a job as a copy boy at the Washington Post. He appeared to be on his way to a career in journalism like his father, who was the New York correspondent for the Times of London, but World War II intervened. In 1941 he joined the Army, served for four and a half years, most of it as an infantry platoon leader, and fought three campaigns in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. He had many stories to tell of camping in bitter cold winter conditions and surviving terrifying near misses with German soldiers.  While still in the Army he married Nancy Chapman, an Army nurse he had met in Ireland.  Their first child, Victoria, was born before his discharge in November 1945. 

Although he had wanted to be a writer, to be financially responsible he decided to pursue a Masters degree in American History from Harvard University so he could teach. He taught history for two years at North Shore Country Day in Winnetka, Illinois, and then for fifteen years at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri, where he also coached football and golf.  In 1963 he was named Headmaster of the Harley School in Rochester, New York, and in 1977 became Executive Director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools until his retirement in 1986. From 1955-68 he also served as Director of Alamoosook Island Camp, a coeducational summer camp in Orland, Maine. 

As a headmaster he said that classroom teaching was a far more important and noble profession than any role in administration.  His philosophy of education was influenced by his experience at Exeter, where he often said that discussions around the “Harkness table” gave him the best academic experience of his life.  He believed young people learn best by discovery and that discussion rather than lecture should be the chosen teaching method, so students learn to think for themselves.  As leader of the Harley School, he increased enrolment from 267 to 450 students and oversaw the building of a new expanded campus, but his proudest achievements were building a superb faculty, diversifying the student body, and turning the school into a resource for the whole community.   

His commitment to giving students responsibility and developing in them a sense of independence was evident in the programs he ran at Alamoosook Island Camp.  Campers were free to choose from a variety of island activities, to venture out on camping and ocean sailing trips, and to be responsible for managing the island community as a New England township, in the process discovering that what they did as individuals mattered.  At a camp reunion in 2002, thirty-four years after the camp closed, former campers and counselors spoke of their summers at AIC as the most transformative experience of their lives.  “Everyone felt treated like a special, capable, competent person,” said one. And another: “AIC shines out as one of the very few experiences of my childhood where I felt it was OK to be me – in fact that it was a positively good thing to be me.”  As recently as December 2005, a renowned psychiatrist, who had been entrusted with responsibilities as a young counselor fifty years before, wrote on his Christmas card to Stephen: “Thanks for tolerating me and allowing me to learn by making countless mistakes.”  No greater compliment could be paid to a teacher or mentor, and Stephen Hinrichs was both.  The success of this philosophy which permeated Steve’s contacts with young people is also evident in the creativity and individuality of his own four children – Victoria, Kate, Christian, and Ibi. 

A description of his professional career does not begin to convey the range of his interests and abilities.  As a friend from his Rochester days once said, he was “a Renaissance man.”  At John Burroughs School, besides coaching golf and football, he took students on ski trips to Aspen, Colorado, during spring vacations.  He remained an avid golfer into his 90s and was a familiar figure on the Samoset golf course.  He was a builder: in the summer of 1948 he had designed and built a summer house on Christian Hill in Lovell, Maine, and years later built a solar-heated house overlooking Canandaigua Lake, New York, where he and his second wife, the former Grace Eames of Bangor, Maine, lived for ten years before moving to Rockport, Maine.  They married in 1985.

He was a sailor who spent many summers on his yawl in Penobscot Bay, and in 1982, as the celestial navigator, he helped sail a friend’s 42’ sailboat across the Atlantic.  He was also a writer, a master of elegant, crystal-clear prose, the author of essays, newsletters, memoirs, and letters to family, friends and political figures, always much admired.

And he was a devoted father and grandfather. To say that devotion was returned many times over would be an understatement, as the letters and cards his children sent to him year after year bear witness. They loved being with him whenever possible and loved all that they had learned from him and they told him so.

He is survived by his wife, Grace, three daughters and a son: Victoria Silks and her husband Robert Santacroce of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Kate Hinrichs and her partner Kenneth Culbert of Boothbay, Maine; Deborah Hinrichs and her husband Booth Dyess of Reston, Virginia; Christian Hinrichs and his wife, Mary, of Oregon House, California; his grandson, Christopher Santacroce, and a daughter by marriage, Rebecca Bernen Lake of Arlington, Virginia, and  her two children, Virya and Indranila Nowakowski.

At his request there will be no service. His ashes are to be spread on the Penobscot Bay waters he loved.  His family has set up a website where messages, memories and photos can be shared:

 He was a passionate believer in the wisdom of using wind and solar energy, and those wishing to make a donation in his memory are asked to consider: 

The Education Fund of the American Solar Energy Society


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