President's Corner                    Page 72

Honoring Our First President

 David Pennington


When you walk the third-floor hallway of AASA’s offices in Alexandria, Va., you are surrounded by the portraits of every past president of AASA, beginning with our first president, Birdsey Grant Northrop, in 1865.

So who was this man who was selected to serve as the first president of the National Association of School Superintendents — the organization we know today as AASA? When I decided to honor Northrop in this special anniversary issue of School Administrator, I was afraid I would not be able to find much information about him. However, as it turns out, our first president led quite a remarkable life.

Northrop was born in Kent, Conn., in 1817. He was a graduate of Yale University and Yale Theological Seminary. While in the seminary, he was forced to withdraw from classes for a year because of illness. During that time he taught school in Elizabethtown, N.J. After he graduated from seminary in 1846, he accepted the pastorate of the Congregational Church in Saxonville, Mass. It was here that his lifelong involvement in education began.

While in Saxonville, Northrop was instrumental in establishing a high school, an effort that brought him to the attention of a former Massachusetts governor, George S. Boutwell, and led to his appointment as an agent of the Massachusetts State Board of Education. He held this position for 10 years. During his tenure, he was elected president of the National Association of School Superintendents. In 1867, when Northrop resigned his position with the Massachusetts Board of Education to become the secretary of education for the Connecticut Board of Education, the Springfield (Mass.) Republic wrote: “Dr. Northrop has been for many years one of the chief, if not the most efficient instrumentality, in infusing life blood into our common school education.”

Northrop served 16 years as Connecticut’s secretary of education and is considered one of the principal forces in the movement leading to the inauguration of the free school system and compulsory education in Connecticut. He also authored four books on education.

However Northrop did more with his life than help improve the public education system. He is considered by many to be the father of Arbor Day. During his tenure as superintendent of the Connecticut Board of Education, he traveled throughout the Northeast urging schools to observe Arbor Day. When he retired from the state board in 1883, the American Forestry Association made Northrop the chairman of the committee to campaign for Arbor Day nationwide. At the age of 78, he traveled to Japan where he persuaded the Japanese minister of education to adopt the concept of Arbor Day. He also is credited with being the founder of the Arbor Day movement in Canada, Australia and much of Europe.

After living a full and fruitful life, Northrop died in 1898 at the age of 81.

When I reflect on Birdsey Grant Northrop’s life, I see many of the same characteristics that I see in school leaders today: Men and women committed to the children who attend our public schools, always looking for better ways to educate children and being active members of the communities in which they serve.

As a part of the celebration of AASA’s 150th anniversary, the portraits of all of our past presidents will be making the trip to San Diego for the National Conference on Education. Stop by the exhibit hall, sample some AASA history and gaze upon the faces of those who have gone before us to make a difference in the profession, association and public education.

DAVID PENNINGTON is superintendent in Ponca City, Okla., and AASA’s president for 2014-15. E-mail: pennid@pcps.us Twitter: @DavidPennid


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