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Great-grandson of Norwich Free Academy founder tours his ancestor's legacy

Norwich — It was a coincidence that friends of Dr. Ashabel G. Gulliver, Jr., arranged his first ever visit to Norwich Free Academy on Thursday, the exact 165th anniversary of the opening of the academy founded by his great-grandfather, the Rev. John P. Gulliver.

Ashabel Gulliver, 88, who now lives near Vero Beach, Fla., and spends summers in Shelton, spent most of his life in Litchfield. He had an obstetrics practice for years in Torrington.

“I delivered a lot of babies over the years,” he said, sitting in an NFA campus safety golf cart and sporting a new NFA baseball cap.

Gulliver, his wife, Madelyn, and friends Sally Budds and Robert Huntington received VIP treatment as they toured the campus that grew out of Gulliver’s great grandfather’s vision of creating an endowed academy.

The Rev. Dr. Gulliver lobbied 37 of the city’s wealthiest businessmen to donate to a new endowment to fund the academy and pay the teachers. Among the donors were men named Slater, Huntington, Hubbard, Norton, Backus and Buckingham.

Noted local architect, Evan Burdick, who designed City Hall and other prominent Norwich buildings, designed the first academic building that stood where the Tirrell Building is now. The academy opened on Oct. 21, 1856.

“My great-granddaddy was John Gulliver,” Ashabel Gulliver said. “I often wondered about this place. My reading about him was that he was an abolitionist, and he was very strong on temperance.”

At the first stop Thursday, Slater Memorial Museum, interim Director Dayne Rugh brought the group to the Founders Gallery, with portraits of Gulliver and other academy benefactors.

Rugh pulled out a graduation book listing the NFA graduates of 1865. The name of William Curtis Gulliver, Ashabel’s grandfather, stood out.

Rugh read a passage from a newspaper account of Gulliver's memorial service recalling how Gulliver had “a wildcat scheme” to create an endowed academy.

The NFA sports teams are the Wildcats, but Rugh and other academy leaders said it’s not known whether that phrase was the origin of the sports mascot.

“Dr. Gulliver left us a legacy,” Rugh said. “He left us a legacy of excellence in education. He left us a legacy of not being afraid to pursue dreams, not being afraid of pursuing your own wildcat schemes. That’s certainly evident in the records that we have left here, and it just makes it really special there are still family connections that are still with us today.”

Ashabel and Madelyn Gulliver lingered inside the entrance of the Cranston Building, built as the commercial education building in the 1930s and now the site of freshman classes. A display panel depicts a photograph of Gulliver with the school’s mission statement in italics.

“Since 1856, Norwich Free Academy has adhered to the philosophy of its founder to ‘return to our hamlets and our homes its priceless freight of youthful minds, enriched by learning, developed by a liberal culture, refined by study of all that is beautiful in nature and art, and prepared for the highest usefulness and the purest happiness.’ ”

Madelyn Gulliver took photos of the display.

“Isn’t that wonderful,” Ashabel Gulliver said. “Thank you for sharing that. That’s a beautiful quote.”

“That’s a statement that we open every meeting, we think about our curriculum. We think about how that statement impacts everything we do,” Head of School Brian Kelly told the Gullivers.

After a ride along through the Navick Garden and along the athletic field, where members of the football team and cheerleaders were practicing, driver Kathy McCarthy, executive director of the NFA Foundation, stopped outside the Bradlaw Building. There, members of the NFA marching band performed the NFA alma mater. Freshman mellophone player Erin O’Farrell greeting the guests, and drum major Jackson Bell presented Gulliver with gifts, a book, the “Sesquicentennial Celebration of the Norwich Free Academy” and his new red NFA hat.

“I’m speechless,” Gulliver said. “It’s one of the nicest places, it really is remarkable. I really did not expect to have such a wonderful tour.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Ashabel Gulliver's name and of the Tirrell building and Navick garden.

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