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Polly Stone Buck on the Master’s Tea

An Excerpt from The Master’s Wife

Polly Stone Buck was the wife of Norman S. Buck, master of Branford College at Yale University from 1942–1959. This excerpt on the tradition of college tea and the importance of providing students with a home-like environment is taken from her delightful memoir The Master’s Wife (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1989). Another excerpt, on general pastoral care, is also available. Despite the changes in manners over the years and the advent of coeducation, anyone with experience inside a residential college will immediately recognize Mrs. Buck’s world. For additional publications on residential college life and administration please visit the Collegiate Way’s recommended reading page.

This excerpt begins on page 99, and my own editorial insertions in the transcript are enclosed in {braces}:

Every Sunday afternoon all year was given to our tea party for whoever wished to come.… {page 100} To tell them that we would be at home every third Sunday, or the first one in every month, would have registered with them about as clearly as expecting them to figure out for themselves when Easter would come—something like the high tides after the second full moon in April, or some such rigamarole. They would never have kept such dates straight, nor would we. It had to be every Sunday, or none. So Every Sunday it was.…

Although “tea in a faculty home” is a stock subject for ridicule by campus cartoonists the world over, we had from {page 101} thirty to fifty-five boys every Sunday. Many of them turned up every week. These teas were a godsend to boys whose dates didn’t know enough to go home and were still hanging around Sunday afternoon. Occasionally there were visiting parents to do something with, and what better than to introduce them to the college master? Bachelor Fellows were steady customers, often we had a married one with his wife. A boy giving a weekend to heavy studying would welcome a break in the middle of the afternoon. A lonely, homesick boy was happy to get into a family atmosphere, gregarious boys to have a whole gang to talk with, and always, boys of any age who liked to eat were happy to have the opportunity. For a boy who wasn’t an easy conversationalist, there were spread around a number of cartoon books—collections from New Yorker people like Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Chan Day, George Hill—and often some student would ensconce himself at the end of a sofa and spend the entire afternoon chuckling his way through them, and honestly tell me when he left—although he may not have spoken twenty words the whole time—that he had had a wonderful afternoon. Lying around on the small tables were also a few of those geometric wooden or plastic puzzles to work out, such as the well-known “mystic star” that fell to pieces if you touched it and that was the very dickens to fit together again, and somebody was always working on them or giving suggestions to the manipulator.

There was no way that I ever found to predict how many boys might show up. Three is the least number we ever had, and that was during a spring vacation when everybody was out of town. After one of the big football games, we were surprised to have only eight. Everybody must have been {page 102} exhausted and was sleeping, or had to prepare Monday’s assignments, neglected so far in all the hoopla of the weekend. On the next big game weekend I expected our tea-drinkers to follow the same pattern; we had sixty. A beautiful weekend when I figured they’d all be playing tennis or taking sunbaths, they came to tea. Other pretty weekends they played tennis or took sunbaths, and the family ate stale sandwiches and cake the rest of the week. On chill, gloomy days, just made for a cup of tea before an open fire, they slept. Or else dozens of them came trooping in for tea. There was no earthly way to foretell which it would be, or at least if there was I never found it out. On one never-to-be-forgotten day we had seventy-two. The food gave out early, of course; the cook worked frantically all afternoon making more sandwiches, and a couple of boys went back and helped her. Before it was over we had even opened boxes of Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers and raided the children’s supply of Fig Newtons. The last twenty-five to come didn’t even know that earlier in the afternoon there had been three huge cakes.

The boys could get plenty of cocktails in their own rooms and those of their peers, for there were numerous small student parties on Sunday afternoons where more powerful drinks than tea flowed freely. But for those among the three hundred or so in our charge, for “whosoever wants to come” there was a welcome in the master’s house with food, hot tea, and good talk, and a homelike atmosphere they wouldn’t get elsewhere, sometimes not even in their own homes. I didn’t fool myself into thinking that food didn’t play a large part in bringing the boys, but a leaping fire on a winter Sunday afternoon, and lively conversation with the master and with each other, was the real drawing card.


© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014