Perched atop a telephone pole in rural Vannes, France, Thomas C. Hudnut strung wires, redirecting electricity to farms that had remained virtually untouched since the 15th century.
“The lintels of the doors were about 5-foot-4 reflecting how short people were during the Middle Ages and the barns were still attached to the house and meters deep in dung,” Hudnut said.
An employee of the National Electric Company the summer after his freshman year in college, Hudnut climbed down from the telephone pole, hopped in a deux chevaux truck with co-workers Guy and Claude and continued his immersion into the French language and culture he had studied since high school.
“It was sink or swim,” Hudnut said. “But it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
Far removed from his summer as an electrician, Hudnut is retiring after 36 years as a headmaster. Yet when he applied to travel abroad in his first year at Princeton University, he had no intention of pursuing a career in education lasting nearly half a century.
Hudnut’s original career plans had him studying foreign languages and cultures to become a member of the state department.
After receiving his master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, he moved to Washington D.C. to begin climbing up the ladder of bureaucracy.
“I had romantic notions of what the life of a diplomat was.” Hudnut said. “It was based on the Graham Greene novels where it would be ‘Our Man in Havana’ and ‘Our Man in Moscow.’”
He accepted his first teaching job at St. Albans School in Washington as a European history teacher and stayed there seven years before becoming headmaster at the Norwood School for five years. Following that, he moved to Marin County in Northern California to take on the same position at Branson School for five years before transferring to Harvard School, “and the rest,” he said, “is history.”
Besides teaching, Hudnut maintained a side career as an opera singer, performing with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, D.C. for almost 10 years.
“We were Leonard Bernstein’s favorite chorus so we sang several times for him in Carnegie Hall in New York,” Hudnut said.
Hudnut left the group to become a member of the Washington National Opera, where he sang until he moved to Marin County.
Hudnut was raised in a religious household, his father a Presbyterian minister. In Washington he was a church soloist as well as a member of the professional quartet of the Washington Hebrew Congregation of Shabbat Friday Nights. He regularly attends the Tuesday morning service led by Father J. Young in St. Saviour’s Chapel.
Hudnut said his voice is now out of practice, although he performed with the Chamber Singers this weekend as part of the Cabaret show.
“Singing is like being an athlete,” Hudnut said. “If you’re not in shape, you can’t do it as well as you want to.”
Still, his love for opera also served to expand his repertoire of languages as it sparked his interest in learning Italian. Hudnut is now setting out on teaching himself Spanish because “an educated American in the 21st century ought to be able to speak Spanish,” Hudnut said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Lauded as a linguist, opera singer, teacher, scholar and administrator, Hudnut considers his greatest personal accomplishments to be his three children, two granddaughters and 43-year marriage.
A 22-year-old Hudnut met his future wife at a Janis Joplin concert in 1969, proposed two months later and walked down the aisle five months after that. They were preparing for a move to Boston, Hudnut to pursue graduate school, Deedie to start a new job.
“It’s a different world nowadays,” Hudnut said. “We were through having children at a younger age than our youngest is now and he’s just getting married this summer. We’ve gotten to see them grow up and see them get married and have children. It’s nice.”
Hudnut had received a student deferment his sophomore year of college and scored well on a multiple-choice test where exempted him from the draft. The soon-to-be-married Hudnut had already began the paperwork to join a National Guard unit in New York when the lottery drew his birthday 325 th out of 366, which made it highly unlikely he would be sent to war.
“I like war history,” Hudnut said. “I’d be interested to know how many men my age have a tinge of regret as I have about not having gone to Vietnam. We all let other people do it. The tinge comes from my fascination with wars and war heroes and people who have done heroic things. It leaves you wondering what you would be like in similar situations.”
Hudnut’s interest in wars led him and a friend to pursue independent research, writing a book on the role of a French army in politics during the Algerian revolution from 1954 to 1962.
“The movie I’ve seen the greatest number of times is ‘Patton,’” the war buff said. “It’s the story of General George S. Patton in World War II and it was a magnificent performance by George C. Scott. Patton was an incandescent character, very objectionable in a lot of ways, but admirable in others. I could go on for a long time about Patton.”
Hudnut enjoys fishing in his free time even though the lake closest to his heart is not conducive to fishing. Hudnut spends his summers at his family compound called Windover in the mountains of upstate New York, the centerpiece of which is a lake and an old farmhouse built by his paternal grandfather in 1928. In the years since, the Hudnuts have expanded the original property from 160 acres and single farmhouse to over 600 acres and nines houses.
“None of the houses are visible from any of the other houses,” Hudnut said. “We don’t allow motorboats on the lake. It is very peaceful.”
The Hudnuts also spend their winter vacations skiing on the mountain near the compound.
“My wife used to be a ski instructor,” Hudnut said. “She’s a beautiful skier. I get down the mountain. There is a difference.”
Hudnut knows nothing but life on campus. He has gone to school as a student, teacher of headmaster non-stop since his first day of nursery school when he was 3-years-old. Even upon retirement, after he relaxes for the summer at Windover and sees his youngest son get married, he will still be going to school. He plans to maintain his connections with international schools he has made over the years. So, his training in diplomacy, despite the divergence of his career path, has proved useful after all, as he noted, “there has been an awful lot of diplomacy required in schools.”