By Mark Thompson
“What’s so funny, Mr. Thompson?” That was my introduction to Louis (did anyone ever call him that in the 65 years since he arrived in East Greenwich?) Lepry and it came during my first days in 7th grade in September, 1965. I hadn’t actually “met” him in the formal sense. Rather, the fingers of his right hand pushed horizontally, and kind of hard, into my chest in what generations of young East Greenwich boys came to know as a “Lepry chop.”
I have no idea what had been so funny, and—truth be told—I was a little intimidated by this lean and lanky high school and college track star. He was, after all, the disciplinarian on Eldredge’s second floor, where town’s junior high was crammed until it moved to the old high school on Cedar Avenue in the fall of 1967. He was a constant in the hallways, the lunchroom and at school dances, working hard to ensure that his charges made it as far as they could in this world.
Every town has a handful of people—calling them “characters” doesn’t do most of them justice—and Mr. Lepry was one of the most beloved. He died Oct. 9 at Brentwood Nursing Home in Warwick after a brief illness. He was 89.
Mr. Lepry was born on New Year’s Day, 1929, in Apponaug. He was a 1947 graduate of La Salle Academy in Providence, where he became the fastest mile-runner in New England. He went on to attend Notre Dame University on a four-year track scholarship.
But his track record in East Greenwich was far more stellar.
After serving as a soldier in the Korean War for two years, he came to East Greenwich in 1953 as a 6th grade social studies teacher. (“One group [of my students] has constructed a partially-completed pyramid with a number of Egyptians hauling large stones from boats on the Nile,” he said in a first-person report in the Pendulum early in his career.) He’d become president of the East Greenwich Education Association—the teachers’ union—by 1961, as well as commissioner of the school’s intramural basketball league and safety-patrol director. He picked up a master’s degree in administration from the University of Rhode Island in 1960.
By 1962, he had become a math teacher and guidance counselor for grades 7 and 8, as well as being tapped as the East Greenwich High School’s inaugural cross-country coach. In 1963, he became Eldredge’s assistant principal. “Mr. Lepry will combine his new duties with his regular assignment of seventh-grade mathematics instructor,” the Pendulum reported.
In 1967, the School Committee picked him to become the principal, for $11,500 a year, after the junior high school left Eldredge for the old high school on Cedar Avenue. Despite his new responsibilities, he never eased up on his extra-curricular activities. He became faculty adviser for the Ping-Pong Club in 1970, and pushed to create a junior high baseball team. “He offered to pay a coach for the team with monies from the ice cream fund,” the Pendulum said. “The team is needed…because the present junior high team is monopolized by high school freshmen.” He also was serving as president of the private East Greenwich Ambulance Association in his “spare” time, along with spearheading roadside cleanups, and serving as president of the Parish Council at Our Lady of Mercy Church. He ran the town’s high-school equivalency program and the junior high school’s Rhode Island Heart Association’s “Ride for Heart” cyclethon.
Mr. Lepry championed a greenhouse for the junior high, ran the school system’s summer school program, and shared his boat so junior high students could explore Greenwich Cove. In 1971, the graduating class left a crab apple tree as its class gift. “I hope it isn’t indicative of the class attitude toward their principal and school administration,” Mr. Lepry dryly observed.
He may have set records for the mile, but as an educator he was a true marathoner.
In October 1970, Mr. Lepry attended a junior high confab in Boston on “Education for the Seventies: Where Are We Headed?” He reported back, after attending the session, that working for the East Greenwich school system was like “teaching in Paradise.”
Little did he know what was coming.
The mid-1970s were tough times for Mr. Lepry. A brash new superintendent set out to prove that Mr. Lepry’s old-school pedagogy was ill-suited to the striving bedroom community that East Greenwich was becoming. The new boss was backed by a School Committee determined to retool the way the town taught its students.
By the fall of 1975, the Pendulum was full of stories, letters to the editor and advertisements pitting Mr. Lepry against Superintendent Robert McCarthy and the School Committee. McCarthy was trying to ease out Mr. Lepry by sending him to the high school as assistant principal to replace Domenic Iannazzi, who McCarthy wanted to make the school system’s business manager. It was his way of trying to sideline a pair of old-school educators. Mr. Iannazzi, who passed away a year to the day before Mr. Lepry, relented. But Mr. Lepry did not.
McCarthy said Mr. Lepry was headstrong and intent on running the junior high school his way, even if it didn’t mesh with the town’s elementary and senior high school programs. Mr. Lepry “seems to have a lack of knowledge on early adolescent education,” McCarthy said, and didn’t seem interested in learning new ways of teaching. “He had not come forward to discuss initiating any new programs with me.” Mr. Lepry received minimal pay raises during McCarthy’s tenure, and in some years, none at all.
That set off an uproar in town. “The career of Louis Lepry, a proven competent administrator, is threatened!” read a half-page ad taken out by Mr. Lepry’s supporters in the Oct. 1, 1975, Pendulum. “Mr. Lepry, Principal at East Greenwich Jr. High School, is threatened with removal by East Greenwich Superintendent of Schools Robert McCarthy and our School Committee. Outstanding as a person as well as an administrator, Mr. Lepry has given our community and children twenty-two years of dedication and competence!”
Former School Committee Chairman George Blackburn, a backer of Mr. Lepry, echoed many townspeople when he declared that “education is much too important to be be left to professional educators.”
Two weeks later, the School Committee renewed McCarthy’s contract despite a petition signed by 1,269 people against the move. It came after a lengthy session that had nothing to do with what the 175 citizens in the room cared about. “Finally, in the last two minutes of the evening (at 11:10 to be exact), a quick announcement of Superintendent McCarthy’s appointment, the gavel, and School Committee fannies hustling out of the room,” Pendulum publisher Bill Foster groused in an editorial under the headline “Incomprehensible!”
Tensions continued to rise, and on March 26, 1976, hundreds of East Greenwich High School students drove and marched the two miles back to their junior high. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Mr. Lepry told his former students, urging them to return to the high school. But many chose instead to head to McCarthy’s office at the nearby Hanaford School.
While McCarthy initially declined to address the students outside, he did meet a delegation of six high school students, accompanied by the East Greenwich chief of police and this reporter. “I think I’m very much aware of what the student view of Mr. Lepry is,” McCarthy told them. “I’m aware of your genuine concern for this man.”
When word arrived that Mr. Lepry would be meeting with the students at the junior high, the EGHS students at Hanaford headed back to Cedar Avenue. “That’s unfortunate,” McCarthy sighed.
The junior high gym was jammed with kids from both the junior and senior high schools, waving banners supporting Mr. Lepry. At one end of the gymnasium, the junior high band was playing a single song, repeatedly: “Shaft,” by Isaac Hayes. Band director Chet Goutaco said the selection was coincidental. “It’s easy to walk out of school” on a sunny springtime Friday, Mr. Lepry told the assemblage. “I wonder how many of you would have walked out if it had been raining?”
The students then returned to Hanaford, where McCarthy agreed to speak to them before cameras from WPRI-12 and WJAR-10. The superintendent said legal restraints on personnel matters meant he couldn’t say much about Mr. Lepry’s fate. “The School Committee and I are desirous that nobody is hurt or damaged by the proceedings,” he said. Legal proceedings were intended “to guarantee that fairness prevails.”
The issue came to a head the night of July 29, 1976, when the School Committee voted 4-3 to keep Mr. Lepry in his junior high-school post before nearly 400 people in the high school auditorium. A cheer became a standing ovation as Mr. Lepry, seated in the front row, turned around to face the crowd. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for your support,” he repeated as jubilant residents shook his hand and offered kisses.
McCarthy left East Greenwich shortly thereafter for a similar post in New Paltz, N.Y. A pair of his supporters—both of whom voted to remove Mr. Lepry from his junior high post—quit the committee.
It had been a nasty, churlish battle, one that struck me—a reporter at the Pendulum by then, after college—as a clash between old and new. That fight seems like a premonition of the turmoil now racking East Greenwich.
The following year, when he could have been taking it easy, I accompanied Mr. Lepry on a trip to Pinetop (remember that, old-timers?) with the East Greenwich Junior High School ski club. He was riding herd over 50 students and loving (almost) every minute of it. “Like Clint Eastwood of `Rawhide’ fame, Mr. Lepry corralled the students into a somewhat orderly line,” I reported in the next week’s Pendulum. He retired from the East Greenwich school system in 1988 after 35 years of service, the last nine as an administrator at the high school. Mr. Lepry’s final graduating class there presented him with an honorary EGHS diploma.
Not so long ago, I stopped by Eldredge during a summer trip to East Greenwich and, as usual, pushed on the basement-level door at the back of the school where we used to mill around, awaiting the start of a new school day. For the first time in decades, the door opened. Only when you’re older can one appreciate what a fine place for learning, via the curriculum and otherwise, this 1927 building was.
I quickly climbed the stairs to the second floor and peeked into the rooms where I learned so much from Mr. Lepry, Mrs. Behan, Mrs. Beirne, Mr. Monks, Mrs. Dunphy and Mr. Woodbury, all now gone. Peering down the long corridor, I could almost see Mr. Lepry acting like a between-period traffic cop outside the library. He leavened his insistence that we get to our next class on time with humor that greased the skids on some long days. At the western end of the second floor was a door that overlooked the gymnasium grandstand and the basketball court far below. I could almost hear the grunts and howls that sounded there when we played “murder ball” under Mr. Kershaw’s guidance. More than a half-century later, there is as much chance of playing a tough game called “murder ball” in junior high as there is of being hit in the head by the gym’s falling ceiling (oh wait, that happened in April).
Standing there outside the science classroom, I remembered the day when a fellow seventh-grade boy asked Mrs. Keane how come babies only happened after marriage. The class, most of us more worldly, were aghast and felt our classmate’s pain. “Well, I didn’t know a cow couldn’t give milk until after it had a calf,” Mrs. Keane deftly responded like the science teacher she was. “Talk to some of the boys for more details later,” she kindly suggested.
My reverie evaporated when I suddenly heard shouts—and shots!—from elsewhere in the building. A hefty man was striding toward me, asking me what I was doing inside. “Remembering,” I told him.
“Well, you’d better leave,” he said. “We’re conducting active-shooter drills in here today.” All of a sudden the Burrillville Police Department squad car at the rear of the school—and the unlocked door—made sense. I quickly took my leave.
Mr. Lepry, along with several other teachers, stopped by the EGHS Class of 1971’s 40th reunion at the Dunes Club on Oct. 8, 2011, seven years and a day before he died. “God, I love Mr. Lepry,” a female student said that night. “I’ll never forget how he made me go and take my makeup off in 7th grade – one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Memories began flooding the Hill Funeral Home’s website, Facebook and even Twitter as news of Mr. Lepry’s passing reached the East Greenwich diaspora. “Sad to learn that my old ski racing coach has passed,” wrote Jim Revkin, a 1972 graduate.
“No one knew how to deal with teenagers like him—especially when we broke the rules,” Ulrich Steckelberg posted on the Hill website from Bamberg, Germany. “A stern admonishment with just the slightest trace of an impish smile. He always had a supporting word if you needed it. He was great role model for teachers like myself.”
“Mr. Lepry was retired by the time I got to EGHS (1988) but he was still a huge presence there,” Bob Plain tweeted. “He was known as a very tough disciplinarian. Later in our lives we became friends and it turns out he was also one of the nicest, kindest people in town.”
“Mr. Lepry was just an awesome person and respected by all,” added Donny Nicholas on Facebook. “He just had a way about him to listen and ability to explain. RIP my friend.”
The last time I saw Mr. Lepry was as startling as it was sad. He showed up at the Feb. 11, 2012, funeral of my younger brother, Josh. The gathering was at the Hill Funeral Home in East Greenwich, where Mr. Lepry’s own service will be held Oct. 18.
I don’t believe Josh and Mr. Lepry had a special relationship beyond that of educator and educated. Yet judging from the delight shown by Josh’s many pals upon seeing their old disciplinarian that wintry afternoon, there was a deep mutual fondness. I heard that day that he regularly attended such events, as some of the thousands of pupils he mentored over the decades left East Greenwich, for good, before their time.
It was only that afternoon that I realized that what we all called Lepry chops more than a half-century ago had actually been love taps, all along.
Mark Thompson grew up in East Greenwich (EGHS Class of 1971) and returned to work at the Pendulum from 1975 to 1978. He now lives in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C.
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