Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An Ecstatic Historian and An Inspiring Teacher Who Deserve to Be Remembered

I never met Edmund Schofield face to face, and I only met him over the telephone six days before he died unexpectedly on April 17, 2010.  He was calling, he said, because he wanted to talk to my husband, author Nicholas Gage, but when I replied Nick was out of the country, he started asking me questions.

Ed Schofield was a passionate scholar, researcher and historian.  He spent his life unearthing secrets of the history of his hometown, Worcester, MA, and he did it out of his love of knowledge—no one was paying him.  His goal, as he told me, was to complete the book he was writing about Worcester’s history.

I recognized a kindred soul in the voice on the phone.  Ed was as excited about unearthing a nugget of information as I was when I learned the sitter’s identity or the story hidden in an antique photograph (such as the ones in the list at right.)

When Ed called me, he was on the track of a deceased high school English teacher named  Anna Shaughnessy, (1896-1985), an Irish spinster who taught for 45 years in Worcester’s Classical High School.  Ed was set on rescuing her from obscurity after he discovered that Miss Shaughnessy had taught and inspired several of Worcester’s most celebrated authors and poets, including Stanley J. Kunitz (one-time Poet Laureate),   poet Charles J. Olson and Milton Meltzer, author of more than 100 books on such subjects as Jewish, African-American and American history, primarily for young people.

The reason he was calling, Ed said, was to ask if by any chance my husband, Nicholas Gage, an author who had attended Classical High School, had been a student of Miss Shaughnessy as well.

I didn’t know the answer, I told him, but I’d ask the next time Nick called from Greece. 

Our conversation continued, because I learned that Ed was an expert on the subject of historical photographs, especially the daguerreotypes taken of Henry David Thoreau in 1856 by the Benjamin Maxham studio in Worcester.  In fact, Ed used to be president of the Thoreau Society.  The three Thoreau daguerreotypes are now in museums, he told me, but one of two ambrotypes made of him in New Bedford in 1861 has gone missing, firing the dreams of photo collectors like myself.

As soon as we hung up the phone, Ed e-mailed me a half dozen of his articles on Worcester abolitionists, John Brown and Harper’s Ferry, Thoreau and “Miss Anna Camilla Shaughnessy, Poets’ Muse.”

The next day, after my husband called from Greece, I sent a quick email to Ed, with the following message: 

“Hi Ed, I talked to Nick this morning and he said that, yes, he had Miss Shaughnessy for 10th grade and she made him editor of the paper and he was one of her favorite pupils and he thinks he was in her class in 11th grade too.

So you have another Worcester writer mentored by her…”

Seven minutes later he replied: 

Dear  Joan,

Wonderful, wonderful wonderful!

Yes, yes, Nicholas will be in my article—a coup.  What a school that must have been…

More later, after I ponder and am able to absorb your message.

I’m ecstatic!  I’m sure you know how writers can become ecstatic—not to mention collectors like you.

O happy day.


 Ten minutes after that, having pondered, he sent me another e-mail:


S. N. Behrman, Stanley Kunitz, Charles Olson, Milton Meltzer, Donald Baker, Nicholas Gage---omigosh, what a "haul." Those in color I know had Miss Shaughnessy. Behrman was too early for her; Baker I'm still working on!

I'm absolutely thrilled to have Nicholas in the lineup. His “A Place for Us” will now be in the list of autobiographical works having to do with growing up in Worcester, along with Behrman's “The Worcester Account”  and Meltzer's “Starting from Home”. I wonder if there are more.

Really, I feel there was a kind of magic in Worcester in those days, and I'm thrilled to be in contact with one of Miss Shaughnessy's former students.


I could see that Ed was falling in love with the Irish spinster who devoted her life to teaching and mentoring high school students who would become notable authors and poets.  I understood perfectly.  It’s how artists fall in love with their models, biographers fall in love with their subjects, and antique photo collectors fall in love with long-dead people, especially those they’ve identified and researched.  It’s an intimidating feeling to hold in your hand the image of someone who sat in front of a camera 170 years ago and to realize that you are the only living being on the face of the earth who knows the identity and significance of that person.

That’s sort of how I feel about Edmund Schofield.  Five days after he wrote “I’m ecstatic!  O happy day”,  Ed died as he was sitting on a bench in Worcester’s restored Union Station, waiting for a train to take him into Boston—no doubt to do more research. 

His obituary said that Ed’s only close family member was a sister. I was pleased to learn that his papers and research were going to  “The Walden Woods Project” Library at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, MA.  On its web site is written: “The Edmund A. Schofield Collection consists of materials collected and created by Edmund A. Schofield Jr. – botanist, ecologist, educator, editor, writer and conservationist; former director and president of the Thoreau Society; a founding director and president of the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance; and president of Walden Forever Wild.”

So all his research and his unfinished masterwork about Worcester history are in a library where they can be accessed.  But he left me with six of his articles on my computer, including the one about Miss Shaughnessy, to which he was never able to add his latest discovery—that she mentored author Nicholas Gage as well.

Having Ed haunting my computer for three years has troubled me, because I know that his eloquent article on Miss Shaughnessy deserves to be read.  She was an extraordinary woman (and a Worcester treasure) who deserves to be celebrated, not lost to history.  So in my next post, on Friday, I will publish “Anna Camilla Shaughnessy, Poets’ Muse” by Edmund A. Schofield.

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