Your Hometown: Manlius Pebble Hill, Part I
Tucked away in the town of DeWitt is Manlius Pebble Hill, an independent private school for grades pre-K through 12. But, it's story is really one of three schools that, despite a tumultuous past and divided loyalties, have merged into one. In the first of a two-part series, Katie Gibas takes us back in time to the Manlius School, a military academy which graduated generals, senators, famous entrepreneurs and business moguls, and even a commander in chief of Aerospace Defense.
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MANLIUS, N.Y. -- Academy Place might just be apartments and townhomes now, but it used to be home to one of the most prestigious military academies in the country with world-renowned alumni. Its history dates back to the mid 1800s when it was founded as a boys' boarding school.
"The Reverend Huntington was an Episcopal Bishop and he founded the school in 1869. The original mission is talking about founding a school to 'rear young men ready in battle, quick to jump to attention and ready to help in any situation.' So he really emphasized character, and it wasn't military when it was founded," said Tina Morgan, the Manlius Pebble Hill Advancement Director.
St. John's School as it was named, faced tough times and the military component was added in 1881 to reinvent its image at the St. John's Military School. But by 1888, enrollment dwindled and the school faced closure once again. That's when the trustees brought in General William Verbeck to run the school. He assumed all financial responsibility and in lieu of a salary, he was allowed to keep any profits he could make.
"He started with 17 boys, 11 of whom he had to expel that first year. But it was turbulent times and he came in and did what a truly great educator does. He inspired the young men who were here and by the end of his first year, there were 60 plus students," said Morgan.
Things flourished under Verbeck's leadership. In 1924 Verbeck renamed it the Manlius School. After Verbeck's death in 1930, the school continued to gain momentum and attracted students from all over the world.
"One alum was telling me, his father sent him to Manlius from Ecuador. And he had to catch two flights to get to Panama. From Panama, he went to Miami, and from Miami he and his sister took a train to Rochester where she was in school. And then he came to the Manlius Military School. It was that important, the education and reputation of the Manlius School," said Maureen Anderson, the Manlius Pebble Hill Alumni Relations Director.
Even though the school was preparing students for military careers, many just came for the structure.
"A typical day was like a typical day in the Army. There was a trumpet that blew readily at six in the morning. You were up in class B uniform, which was a full uniform, shirt, tie, jacket, everything squared away, shoes polished and we were in formation by 6:30 in the morning outdoors," said Bill Rezak, who attended The Manlius School from 1958-1959.
His brother, David Rezak, attended The Manlius School from 1965-1967. "The experience here was needed in my teenage years. I needed the discipline and structure of this place. I had some great teachers here and it certainly saved me from illiteracy," said David Rezak.
Bill Rezak added, "This was a great stepping stone for me. I don't think I would have been successful in college without having come here first."
Despite the austerity, the graduates known as "the old boys" look back on those fond memories, such as going to see movies in the village or their senior pranks.
"There was a little red mail truck that went down into Manlius and picked up the mail that came to campus. Our senior prank was going out in the middle of the night, picking up that truck and carrying it into Thompson Hall and putting it in the fireplace in the dining hall where we had breakfast.. So when we marching in formation the next morning, the mail delivery truck was in the fireplace," said Bill Rezak.
David Rezak added, "We actually took the entire contents of Knox hall which was the chapel, including all the pews, and the pulpit and all that and brought them to Thompson Hall, to the dining hall and took all the dining hall tables back to Knox hall and set them all up in both places. About a half an hour later, hearing the voice of the commandant of cadets saying, 'Gentlemen, I fail to see the humor in this situation.' At which point, we all got up out of bed and he made us switch them back before breakfast."
Despite appearances, the school was in trouble. They were racking up debt, the oil embargo increased heating costs, and the anti-military sentiment caused by the Vietnam War.
"There were protestors here on campus every day. For the first time, they allowed cadets to go into town in their civilian uniform because they were getting harassed. The school was going to change regardless. There used to be 125 military schools in the Northeast. I think today there are only three or four. So a lot of schools were in the same situation," said Morgan.
In the late 60s, it was the beginning of the end for the Manlius School as cadets knew it. Its board voted unanimously to demilitarize. And just 12 months later, it merged with DeWitt's Pebble Hill School.