A Thank You Gift
Bob Edmundson ’68 credits his grandparents for having the dream that their two grandsons from Louisiana Cajun country might one day attend St. Albans. He recently made a leadership gift to the campaign as a way to honor his grandparents and to thank his parents for the sacrifices they made in sending him here.
In 1965, at age 14, Robert Diggs Edmundson left behind his hometown of Crowley, La., about 80 miles west of Baton Rouge, and headed to Washington, D.C., to move into the St. Albans dorm and enter Form IV.
He knew a little about St. Albans from his older brother Ernie, who had graduated eight years earlier—but not much. He had never visited his brother’s school.
His maternal grandparents, the Rev. and Mrs. Robert R. Diggs had encouraged his parents to send both boys to St. Albans. Edmundson’s grandfather was the Episcopal priest in New Iberia, La., and Mrs. Diggs admired the cathedrals under construction in the United States. “My grandmother loved the concept of the cathedrals—St. John the Divine in New York [begun in 1892 and still incomplete] and the National Cathedral [1907-1990]. She started tithing a modest stipend to the National Cathedral every year after they started construction. She would talk about the Cathedral—she was a wonderful story teller—and, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ As a kid, I didn’t fully understand that the hope was for me to go there.”
When Edmundson arrived early that fall, for preseason football practice, he was stunned. “It was a ‘Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore’ kind of experience.”
Located in the heart of Cajun Country, Crowley was a vibrant, diverse town that had burgeoned in the late 19th century through the success of the local rice industry. By the 1960s, the “Rice Capital of the United States” was home to the traditional French Cajun Catholic culture as well as diverse Protestant, German Catholic and Protestant, Jewish, and Lebanese communities. Edmundson grew up in Crowley and for most of his childhood he attended the local schools. “Crowley was one of the more eclectic and intellectual of the small country towns in south Louisiana. I was lucky to be exposed to some interesting things there.” Summers at St. Albans he’d return home to work with his father in developing rice farm properties across Louisiana and in the family rice milling business.
Yet the transition to St. Albans was, in his words, “daunting.” “It was overwhelming in every aspect, starting with the coat-and-tie lifestyle. Everything was new to me. On the first day of football practice I was in Georgetown staying at the home of teammate Gene Williams ’68, who would become a lifelong friend. We’d known each other about twelve, fourteen hours, when we heard a beep out front and we ran out, and there was a guy grinning at us from a green Triumph TR4. Bill Graham ’66, a senior, was there to drive us to football practice. It beat the hell out of bicycling in Crowley!”
Glancing through the Saint Albans News from the late 1960s, it’s hard to believe Edmundson felt out of place. There he is on the front page of the News, starring as Lennie in Of Mice and Men his junior year and the next year taking on the lead role in Billy Budd, the inaugural performance in the newly opened Trapier Theater. Turn to the back of the paper, and there he is again—heavyweight champion in the St. Albans wrestling tournament. The former three-sport athlete, cathedral server, and flag raiser confesses: “I focused on the gentlemen’s B, and once I had that, I had fun with extracurriculars.”
He attributes his success at St. Albans to several individuals, including his inspirational friend from day one—Gene Williams—and the Williams family, who welcomed him into their family. He also credits a long list of teachers and coaches:
- Drama and English teacher Ted Walch, who was in his first year teaching theater at St. Albans when Edmundson arrived. Thanks to Walch, Edmundson went on to major in theater at Tulane and continued to act – in dinner theater, creative writing programs, commercials, and film—for years, all while holding a career managing the family agribusiness and oil and gas interests.
- Track coach and assistant football coach Brooks Johnson, with whom Edmundson bonded, even though Edmundson was on the line and Johnson worked with the backs.
- Wrestling coach Bob Smethurst ’57, an STA classmate of Edmundson’s older brother, Ernie.
- Assistant football coach Gary Gardiner, who took a personal interest in Edmundson’s well-being and who understood dormitory “fire escape dynamics.”
- Athletic trainer, swim coach and future three-dimensional art teacher Tom Soles for just being Tom Soles.
- Carter McNeese ’53, who had a Naval Academy background, taught chemistry and English and who first coached Edmundson in his third sport, lacrosse.
- Art teacher Dean “Fuzzy” Stambaugh whose teaching style encouraged introspection and problem solving. “He didn’t tell you how to do things, he made suggestions or asked questions that led you to solve your own creative problem.” Stambaugh, who remained a friend long after graduation, also shared his love of music with students, whether playing classical or jazz music in class or taking students to the Howard Theater to hear James Brown and many Motown stars. “He helped to instill a diversity of interests in students,” says Edmundson, past president and still board member of WWOZ, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation public radio station
- Marjorie Moore, the school nurse, who watched carefully over the boarders. “We couldn’t have asked for someone more lovely and caring than she was.”
- Dorm master Lawrence Fuller, who, senior year, would lend Edmundson his convertible MGB, so he could “sneak off.”
- William Hogan, who took a personal interest in Edmundson because he had liked his older brother.
- Sacred Studies teacher and assistant headmaster John C. Davis, who lived in the dorm part-time and remained a friend until Davis’s death in 2009.
- English teacher Ferdinand Ruge–just “for the experience.” “His enunciation of ‘Ozymandias—that still sticks!”
And, of course, Canon Charles Martin, headmaster from 1949 to 1977.
The late 1960s were a time of social and political upheaval, and Canon Martin provided a steady presence for many students. “They were turbulent years, and he was candid about issues. He was a role model: steady, intent, focused on problem solving.” One example which Edmundson only learned about this past year: When Brooks Johnson first met and confronted Canon Martin about problems he saw relating to the racial and socio-economic diversity of the student body, Canon Martin said, “To criticize is the easiest thing in the world to do. How are you going to fix it?” As a result, Canon Martin and Brooks Johnson developed the RISK Program (later renamed the Skip Grant Program) to bring to the school and help support students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.
Although Edmundson lives today in New Orleans’ French Quarter, St. Albans has remained part of his life, primarily through friendships made with faculty and fellow students. “I can’t imagine how different my life would have been had my parents not sacrificed to send me there. What a privilege to have had that opportunity.”
“It would be hard to enumerate all of the lessons I learned at St. Albans. I gained a sense of honor and obligation. I gained social understanding and intellectual understanding. I learned about discipline. I came to appreciate inclusion. Canon Martin had an influence on everyone, in many different ways, but his sense of honor, duty, and integrity were especially well imparted.”
He adds: “The reason I support the school today is because of what it meant to me and the changes that it made in my life. I also want to recognize the sacrifice my parents made at the time financially in their intent to try to get the best education and opportunity for me. And I want to honor my grandparents, who had the original vision of sending my brother and me to the Cathedral and St. Albans.”