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Strength In Humor

Rick Carey
No solemnity was safe when Jim Hammond was in the room. But the laughter was a means to an end, and it made everyone who shared in it feel good to be alive.
Was Jim Hammond really who he claimed to be? Generations of new students at Holderness first met him in an all-school assembly. During my own first assembly in 1991, after I rose to introduce myself as the school’s inaugural director of communications, I was pretty well upstaged when the man in the next seat rose to say, “My name’s Jim Hammond, and I’m the strongest man in the world.”
Certainly Jim was strong. In 1996 a snow machine piloted by Jim—also carrying English teacher Mike Henriques ’76, and hauling enough peanut butter and yogurt for eighty kids—spun out on ice in Sandwich Notch during that year’s Out Back. That meant heavy boxes of those supplies had to be humped on foot uphill.

“We take the same number of trips up the hill,” wrote a young, barrel-chested Mike in a 2000 issue of HST, “but Jim, long known as ‘the strongest man alive,’ carries one or two more boxes than I do each trip and he’s singing ditties. I look at his gloves as we carry. ‘Ham’ he has written on one, ‘Dog’ on the other.”

Certainly he was bold as well. In 1980 the school hired young instructors from the Dartmouth Outward Bound Center to teach winter survival techniques to faculty going out on OB. The problem was that many of these young outdoor enthusiasts displayed a condescending attitude to a Holderness group that included many skilled and experienced in the outdoors—such as Jim, for one.

When the DOBC folks—out in the winter woods of Moosilauke, beside an open stream—described a familiar stream-crossing technique as though it were a revelation, Jim said, “Well, this is how we cross streams at Holderness.” Then he took a running, boots-and-all leap into the icy water and started swimming.

And certainly, Lord help us, he was funny. When Head of School Phil Peck was out of college and looking for work in 1984, he got advice from John Mott, a Dartmouth buddy then teaching history at Holderness. “Phil, you’ve got to come work here,” John said. “Why? Because every morning I have breakfast with the funniest guy I ever met.”

Matched with his wife Loli, Jim was also one half of one of the most beloved pair of dorm parents many Holderness students ever met. Jim had been one of those people who grew up in several different places and had attended several different colleges. Eventually he earned a B.A. in Spanish and Spanish literature from Tufts, an M.A. from Middlebury. But that was long after he and Loli had met as teenagers in the summer of 1953 in Falmouth, MA.

“He was a dishwasher and I was a waitress at one of those old-fashioned resorts,” said Loli. “And he looked like Marlon Brando.”

The romance endured through Jim’s various colleges, his switch from geology to Spanish, his stint in the Army during the Korean War. They came to Holderness in 1962, hired by Headmaster Don Hagerman, living in and presiding over Rathbun. “We stayed four years, and it was wonderful,” said Loli.

They were tempted to stay forever, but they also wanted to see what else was out there. They spent a year in Barcelona, where Jim both taught and studied, and then worked happily at the Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. Jim resisted Don Hagerman’s several invitations to return to Holderness, but he couldn’t resist an appeal from his good friend Bill Clough ’57, another faculty member there with a wicked sense of humor and a pronounced sense of boldness.

The Hammonds came home in 1976. Over the next 24 years Jim would coach football and lacrosse, chair the language department, serve as president of the school’s chapter of the Cum Laude Society, become a pillar of Bill Clough’s OB program, and forge his own magnificent fusion between classroom instruction and the theater of the absurd.

“It was my privilege that for over twenty years my office was directly above Jim’s classroom in the old Schoolhouse,” said Headmaster Emeritus Pete Woodward. “That provided me daily exposure to the laughter, excitement, and joy that filled that classroom each day. Jim brought all that with him wherever he went—to assemblies, faculty meetings, the playing fields. He’d say things that would raise the roof and just make you feel good to be alive.”

It was Phil Peck’s dubious privilege to have his table next to Jim’s during family-style dinners. “I always wished my table was as fun to be at as Jim’s,” he said. “But that was impossible.”

As razor-sharp as Jim’s wit could be, its sole target was pompousness—which made it also warm, self-deprecating, and empathetic. He inspired as much devotion as he did laughter, and Loli no less so. “It’s remarkable,” Pete Woodward said. “If there were thirty alumni weddings over the course of a summer, Jim and Loli would be invited to twenty. That’s the sort of connection they had to kids.”

Phil Peck is grateful for the connection he had to Jim. “How blessed I was, as a new teacher at Holderness in the 1980s, to have had giants like these to learn from: educators like Don Henderson, Jim Brewer, Don Hinman ’55, and Jim Hammond not least among them.”

Jim retired in 2000. He and Loli went to live in Waterville Valley, and then Falmouth (the one in Maine, not Massachusetts) to be closer to family—daughter Heidi Hammond O’Connor ’79, her husband Michael ’79, and son Fritz Hammond—as his health declined. On July 3rd, shortly before his 85th birthday, he was claimed by Covid-19.

So he spent his last days in quarantine, but friends and family could talk to him through a window. “We’d speak, but we couldn’t be sure that he heard,” Loli said, “until Fred and Cindy came.”

Fred Beams had taught math at Holderness for 13 years, and had helped Bill Clough invent OB. He and his wife Cindy had also become dear friends of the Hammonds. “When Fred spoke, Jim opened both eyes,” Loli said. “So we knew he had always been listening. Soon after that he died peacefully.”

Then they poured in, the fond remembrances of Jim from faculty and alumni, volumes of them, all of which so heartened the survivors of a man who may or may not have been the strongest man in the world, but who quite likely had the most fun—and he was generous enough to share it with us all.

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