Catlin-Hillside and Gabel Country Day Merge in 1957

posted in
Send by email

This article and "Honey Hollow Farm" are excerpted from 1997 articles by Peter S. Eddy, PhD. marking the school’s 40th anniversary

Through the 1950s both Catlin-Hillside School and Gabel Country Day School were struggling financially. The Second World War had presented serious financial challenges for independent schools across the country, and the postwar years offered little relief. In 1945, school founder Priscilla Gabel summarily discontinued the high school at Gabel.

Catlin-Hillside faced similar difficulties. In 1945 the new principal, Esther Dayman Strong, skeptically gave her blessing for an improbable money-raising idea, a rummage sale. Apparently, desperate times called for desperate measures. To most people’s astonishment, the first Rummage Sale raised over $8,000, a substantial amount in 1945, and launched a Catlin-Hillside—and eventual Catlin Gabel—institution.

By the 1950s, even the legendary Rummage Sale could not save the day. Most independent schools in Portland came to regard merger as the only way to survive, but with trepidation.

In fact, Catlin and Gabel had been flirting with the prospect of merger through the early 1950s. At one point, Catlin-Hillside, Gabel Country Day, and Saint Helen’s Hall [now OES] were considering a three-way merger, until the Episcopal Church insisted that the Bishop head the board of the new school. That stipulation eliminated Saint Helen’s Hall as a partner, but Catlin and Gabel continued to circle one another. In fall 1956, discreet merger discussions resumed in earnest. Careful diplomacy was called for, as neither school wanted to succumb to an overwhelming partner, real or perceived.

On Wednesday, February 6, 1957, Portland woke up to a startling Oregonian headline: “Merger set for schools: Gabel and Catlin Schools meld.”

Henry Failing Cabell, L, and Esther Dayman Strong, R, during the merger period

According to the Oregonian, the consolidated schools would maintain their two campuses for the 1957–58 school year with grades one through five at Gabel on SW 78th Avenue and grades six through eight at Hillside on Culpepper Terrace. The Catlin building would continue as the high school on Culpepper Terrace, but boys would be admitted to ninth and tenth grades as a step towards creating a new, coeducational high school. [Gabel’s high school had been coed. Catlin- Hillside’s was girls only, a legacy of its origins as the Ruth Catlin School for Girls.]

The Oregonian explained that this merger plan had been approved by both boards, and that a letter “announcing the consolidation” was mailed to the parents of both schools. Unfortunately, the announcement was premature.

Although the leadership of both schools had discussed merger in considerable detail, the Gabel parents had not formally voted on the proposal. When Cyrus Walker, Catlin-Hillside board chairman, and Spencer Ehrman ’35, Gabel board chairman, learned about a pending merger article, they tried to dissuade the Oregonian from publishing it. They feared a merger announcement before the Gabel parents actually voted could jeopardize the merger. The editor refused to delay the article, so Walker and Ehrman provided enough information at least to ensure the article’s accuracy.

When the Gabel parents did assemble to vote a few weeks later, Ehrman faced a disgruntled audience. More than a few parents were angry about the prospect of a merger, and angrier still about the newspaper article. The Gabel parents had an active role in running the school; a merger was impossible without their vote. Ehrman began by apologizing for the merger article in the newspaper and then appealed to them to approve the merger.

Both Ehrman and Walker realized that their teachers were grossly underpaid. Ehrman acknowledged that many Gabel parents believed the Catlin teachers were paid considerably less than the Gabel teachers. He quickly addressed this misperception: “The salary scales are almost identical—and both certainly too low.”

Even with the embarrassingly low salaries, Gabel was struggling to stay open. Ehrman summarized the precarious finances: “We face an annual deficit of approximately $100 per pupil. We do not feel we can raise tuition to cover this amount. The only other choice is to ask the community for funds to cover our deficit. Catlin is in the same position.”

Ehrman contended that the merger would help the necessary fundraising efforts. As he pointed out, several Portland foundations were reluctant to give to one school without giving to the other, and thus gave to neither. Just as importantly, Catlin benefited from the hugely successful Rummage Sale and the loyalty high schools in general enjoy over grade schools.

“As a united institution, we will be far stronger in our money raising attempts,” he argued. Merging the two schools had more immediate financial benefits. Ehrman explained to the Gabel parents that the treasurers of the two boards and the principals had calculated an annual savings of $10,000 with a combined operation. This savings was predicated on eliminating three full-time teachers and having some part-time teachers.

Gabel parents knew that the Raleigh Hills Public Schools needed to build a school for the growing neighborhood and had, in Ehrman’s words, “been casting longing eyes” on Gabel’s new property. Gabel had just recently purchased a parcel of land north of its athletic field. Ehrman feared the Raleigh Hills School Board would begin condemnation proceedings. He argued that a merged school of 300 students stood a much better chance of fighting condemnation than would a school of 150.

Ehrman acknowledged that leadership for the combined schools was an area of great discussion. When the Gabel board first voted on the merger, they assumed that Thornton Moore, Amos Lawrence’s successor as head of the Gabel School, would be director of the combined school with Esther Dayman Strong as principal of the high school and James Angell as principal of the lower school. By the time the Gabel parents met to vote on the merger, the leadership had concluded that Strong should be the director of the new school and Moore principal of the high school.

In summary, Ehrman argued, “We must provide for the children the best possible education, at a price that is reasonable, in surroundings that are conducive to education. The majority of your board is convinced that all of these things can best be done by merging with Catlin-Hillside.”

From a financial point of view, merger made a great deal of sense. As Cyrus Walker lamented, “Our fees are very low, but we couldn’t raise them without having a catastrophe. The faculty deserved more money. We knew that, but we couldn’t do anything about it. Merging just seemed the only logical thing to do.”

After much discussion and some rancor, the Gabel parents voted. Spencer Ehrman did not express his personal conviction that the demise of both schools was closer than most Gabel parents imagined. The merger proposal passed by one vote. Subsequently, when a parent confessed that she had voted twice, Ehrman chose not to make an issue of the extra ballot that passed the motion. Catlin and Gabel had finally merged.

Former Catlin Gabel head Manvel Schauffler, a Hillside 8th grade teacher at the time of the merger, knew too well that the Culpepper Terrace buildings could not meet the school’s needs, so he was all for the merger. He liked the idea of a coeducational high school, but what he really loved was having the Gabel property to build a school on.

“That was 36 acres, and a very nice piece of property, but the moment we merged, the Raleigh Hills School District had the property condemned so it could put its own school there.”

In concluding his appeal for merger, Ehrman noted, “The one thing that we must realize is that if this merger is approved, there will no longer be a Gabel School, a Hillside School, or a Catlin School. There will be one school, the Portland Country Day School.”

Elizabeth Hirsch, a Gabel parent who married Gabel trustee Hal Hirsch, explained the need for a new name: “Neither school wanted to give up its name. Everybody agreed that Catlin Gabel was absolutely unthinkable as a name. Nobody would take on such a big mouthful or be able to pronounce it and it would be a failure.”

Everyone agreed that the new Portland Country Day School would need a strong board chairman to build consensus and resolve differences. With the loss of the Gabel property, the chairman’s role became paramount. Henry Failing Cabell seemed perfect for the job.

Cabell was vice president of the Reed College board from 1946 to 1949 and president from 1949 to 1954, a tumultuous time when the Reed faculty and board were dealing with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. When Catlin and Gabel merged in 1957, he was president of the State Board of Higher Education.

As Charles Wright, who was Catlin-Hillside board vice president at the time, recalled, “Henry Cabell was the key to the whole thing. He was very civic minded, a philanthropic man of high esteem in Portland and had no affiliation with either school.”

Although Cabell had no direct involvement with either Catlin or Gabel, he did have some ties. To convince Cabell to serve as chairman, the schools assembled a formidable team: Cabell’s stepson Peter Cartwright, a Gabel board member; Cabell’s stepson-in-law George Moore, also a Gabel trustee; and Spencer Ehrman. The three persuaded Cabell to serve.

As Kim MacColl, who within a year would become head of the combined school, recalled, Cabell was adept at guiding the board. “Cabell deserves a lot of credit because he really kept everybody together.” He was also very generous and effective at motivating others to give.

The ink was barely dry on the new Portland Country Day School letterhead before both camps began to complain about the name. As Kim MacColl explained: “Portland Country Day School was an ill-fated attempt to put ourselves into an Eastern mold that did not seem to fit Portland. The names Gabel and Catlin had long community acceptance, even if not very euphonious. The Catlin and Gabel names meant something. It seemed important to keep them both.”

Portland Country Day School quickly became Catlin Gabel School. Following the merger in 1957–58 and the Raleigh Hills condemnation of the Gabel property, the Catlin Gabel School maintained both campuses and introduced boys to the upper school. Unfortunately, the Gabel campus was available for just one year, and the Culpepper Terrace campus could not accommodate the entire student body. Under Henry Cabell’s leadership, the search began for a permanent home for Catlin Gabel School.

Peter S. Eddy, PhD, is former alumni director at Catlin Gabel.