In the Spotlight: Ernest Skillings, Former Headmaster
The Bulletin drove up to Medford, Massachusetts to check in with former headmaster Ernest Skillings, one of Dumbarton Oaks Reformatory School’s most beloved educators—and one of its first. Ernest enjoyed recounting the founding of the school. “It was created by the Department of the Interior to imprison Indians for life,” he told us. “We spent most of our time getting them to cut their braids off, and then searching their rooms to make sure they weren’t keeping the braids in a ceremonial pouch.”
But after Native Americans became fully integrated into United States society, the school was faced with a problem: “We still had a group of buildings specially made to hold in bad people,” recalled Skillings. And so, at his suggestion, the school began to accept troubled youths. “Back then, you got into trouble, you’re going to the Boy’s Pound. Well, as it happened, my brother owned a pound and he said ‘have at.’”
And so, with the introduction of a new student body, new chapter opened in the history of Dumbarton Oaks on September 2, 1963. The campus was burned down almost instantly. Thus began the storied “tent phase,” which Skillings describes as “a lot of sad kids living in tents, angry.” It took a while for the new campus to be built, but some of the students added to their tents and made them better with wood they found. One boy even made a flag.
Flag construction is just one of the many things Skillings remembers, however. “You see it at all at Dumbarton, the good and bad, the tragedy and triumph,” he says. “I’ve seen them get enraged and violent because of some small thing but then later act relatively normal. I’ve seen them I’ve seen them kidnap kids from other schools when they were playing them in sports, and I’ve seen them take the kid out and give him back because we made them do a lot of pushups. I’ve seen them go to prison and then when you visit them they suddenly reverse they bars and you’re the one inside.”
The feeling of being “on the inside” is one that Skillings is certainly familiar with—in 1983, he was picked to be headmaster of Dumbarton Oaks, a position he held until 1999. Under Skillings’ guidance, the school saw a drastic reduction in the number of deaths resulting from shower handle head-hits done to keep the order system going, and it became the first school in the nation to implement a program of horse-assisted therapy.
“The idea was for them to kill the horse, get their evil out that way,” Skillings says. “But then we saw how much how much happiness caring for the horses brought them, so we switched things around. What we didn’t know was that they were developing their horse skills so they could rise up against us.”
That revolt may have displaced him, but even at 94 and with the injuries he sustained, Ernest Skillings manages to stay active: two to three times a week, he reports, “a man holds me up in a pool while I move my arms around.”