Here there must be a school: The founding of TASIS in Mrs. Fleming's own words

When TASIS turned 20 in 1976, founder M. Crist Fleming reflected on the School’s origins in this wonderful letter, which was originally printed in the 1976 Alumni Magazine.

In 1776 our ancestors started a country; in 1956 I started a school. One event is 200 years ago—and one is 20 years ago. Now I’m almost old enough to have been present on both occasions but my memory is clearer regarding the second event.

It was getting on past midnight and I was crossing the Alps. The elephants were missing, but I had some of everything else—a blue Volkswagen bus, an MG TC, 70 suitcases full of books, linens, games and peanut butter, a German shepherd dog, a spare husband, and some of those things belonging to someone else that I am most noted for having—namely, children. I had two of my own with me, to be sure, but the others I seem to have acquired somewhere between Philadelphia and Paris.

I had wanted to stop the caravan at some nice sensible Swiss town like Brig for the night, and cross the Alps in daylight, but my charges were so excited about reaching their destination that even though they all fell fast asleep, we drove on to arrive at three in the morning in Locarno, Ticino, the southernmost and only Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland.

To many, TASIS has been not merely a second home, but a spiritual home. It has often been the most cherished period of their young lives.

We arrived at the Villa Verbanella, which had been rented sight unseen in December, to be the home of Swiss Holiday, the first TASIS program. The villa was located high atop a series of hairpin curves demanding such driving concentration that the spectacular view at the summit caught you unaware because it burst upon you so suddenly. Even in the half-light of morning and totally exhausted, I was so stunned by the beauty of the vast expanse of Lago Maggiore stretching out below that I determined at that precise moment that there must be a school—an American school—here on this very spot.

This was the 30th of June, 1956, and in sheer intoxication with the startling loveliness I opened TASIS ten weeks later with 12 children and six faculty. Three of the children were mine, three were day students from Locarno, three were somewhat homeless waifs, and one very nearly made me a correspondent in a divorce case. Such was the young man’s determination to become part of the new school and so shocked was his mother that anyone would have the audacity to create a school in two months’ time that a family feud ensued, with the boy’s father championing my cause to the extent that I became highly suspect. Be it said that the young man is now a very promising lawyer, and his mother and I have built a fast friendship of these 20 years’ standing.

I was to drive again over those hairpin curves in November, two months after the opening of the infant school. I drove to Paris in the MG, all dressed up in a black velvet hat with a veil, to advise the US Embassy and Art Buchwald, then a reporter for the Tribune in Paris, of the historical significance of the opening of TASIS. They were, unfortunately, not impressed with either the event or my hat, so I drove back dismayed, but proud of a 30-pound frozen American turkey that I’d conned out of the Embassy lunchroom.

The turkey sat straight up in the seat beside me all the way back, cold comfort as we crossed the Simplon during such a heavy snowstorm that as I started up they closed the pass. The Swiss military, bivouacked at the top, stopped me in disbelief at the open-top MG, the hat with the dotted veil, and the suspicious-looking lump in the passenger seat. Happily, they let me through before I got snowed in for the winter. On my return to Villa Verbanella, I learned of the Russian invasion of Hungary and that 30 refugees who had managed to escape had been installed in the villa next door. Sharing our American bird with them gave a new and special significance to Thanksgiving dinner.

The entire first year of TASIS was sailed in uncharted waters; having passed America’s most important feast day in fitting fashion, Christmas holiday loomed as “What do I do with this one?” Transatlantic flights were still exorbitantly expensive and had not yet become sky buses. The whole school could still be contained in one Volkswagen bus, so into the little blue wagon they were all shepherded and off we drove headed for Spain. In the back seat was a lone Christmas tree in a pot in case Christmas had to be spent in the bus. Spending the second night in Aix en Provence, I secretly acquired a creche for each child, made up of ten santons, small ceramic figures of the holy family, the wise men, shepherds and small animals.

We arrived in Barcelona on Christmas eve at about 4 pm, just in time to shop for ten-peseta gifts for each other and trimmings for our four-foot friend, the tree. My room at the hotel was a purposely spacious Spanish-style chamber, and here we set up our first Christmas. There was midnight mass at the Gaudi cathedral, followed by champagne and the opening of the gifts around our potted friend who occupied center stage. It was one of the loveliest Christmases I ever spent, my ten children around the candlelit tree, their eyes reflecting the candlelight and each setting up his private shrine, the creche from Aix.

The second year, TASIS grew from 12 to 30 students, so that another large villa had to be annexed. Faculty and courses were added, and the tradition of going to ski country was initiated when we moved to the hotel Helvetia in Andermatt for a month. But in the summer of the second year enrollment was heading for 50 students, and no house large enough to hold us was available. I was offered three different grand hotels, and I mean “grand”—200 beds. Terrified, I inspected the special kitchens for breakfast, for soup, for sauces, for pastry, ovens for roasting, deep-bellied pots for frying, wine cellars for 3000 bottles in dusty bins, and walked past attic bedrooms for a domestic staff of 50.

“Thank you very much, but I’m afraid it’s a little large for the school,” I stammered to the gushing real estate agent. Thus, on the first of September, when I accompanied the departing Swiss Holiday [summer school] group to the Zurich airport, there was still no roof to be had in Locarno to cover the heads of a confirmed [autumn] enrollment of 50 students. Desperate, I returned from Zurich to Lugano to seek possibilities there since Locarno offered nothing. With the dear Lord taking care of those who call upon him, a deserted house was produced. Weeds in the park were waist high, windows were gaping holes, paneless with even the metal frames twisted, and dust, dirt, and rubbish had accumulated for three years. But it was available—and very empty.

Grabbing a contract for only a single year, but with an option to buy at the end of that year, I went to work on September 1 to prepare for the opening of school on the 20th. Workmen thought me insane, but fell to with a vengeance, they being Italians and I being a woman. Carpenters, painters, ironworkers, gardeners, glazers, masons, electricians, plumbers–they swarmed over the building, bumping into each other, falling down stairs, but working at breakneck speeds. Simultaneously began the transport of two years’ accumulation of school furniture and supplies from Locarno to Lugano. Our then fleet of three Volkswagens had to make the move to save hiring a van. Thirty–five voyages, with the valiant little blue busses loaded as high on top as inside, puffed and panted over the Ceneri Pass to Lugano.

I fervently hope and pray that TASIS will go on forever, for the most strategic challenges for any country or civilization will always be the education of its young.

By the 20th of September a small lab had gone into the laundry room, a woefully scant library had moved into the greenhouse, the tower and a few bedrooms became classrooms, and then came the shocking realization that sleeping room for only 20 was left. Where to house the other 30 due to arrive any hour? A small hotel was leased for a month, but on the strict condition that we move out then as they were closing for the winter!

With this deadline hanging over us, two pre-fab pavilions were begun in the lower garden. There was of course no money to finance the project, and local Swiss bankers were so scandalized that anyone would attempt to build two houses in six weeks that they promptly refused any loan to that crazy American woman.

My image was not helped in a Catholic canton when I had to move a statue of the Virgin Mary to make room for the boiler for hot water. But my students would shortly be on the street, so I was impervious to demands for money and just pushed for the pavilions’ completion. Completed they were, but heat was missing, paint was still wet, the cement foundation hardly dry. The pioneer spirit indeed was called upon from the students!

Two years later, an enrollment of 85 and the same problems. Where to house the students? Again at the last moment, destiny delivered Villa de Nobili in Montagnola, our present, and I desperately hope, permanent campus. But again it was September 1 with a deadline of only three weeks for conversion to school needs. History surely does repeat itself—again workmen falling over each other, this time extending beyond the actual opening so that students too were tripping over electric wires, falling into cesspools being prepared, getting stuck in wet paint. And even then there was no time to install central heating, so all 85 students had to be shipped to the Monopol in Andermatt for January and February so that the entire Villa de Nobili could be piped from top to bottom.

I might go on for countless pages recounting 20 years of challenging adversities and moments of near failure, but matched by those glorious moments, felt particularly deeply at graduation, when each crop of wonderful young people marches slowly across the TASIS stage into their unknown futures. All the reward is there when you sense what TASIS has meant to them. To many, TASIS has been not merely a second home, but a spiritual home. It has often been the most cherished period of their young lives.

I fervently hope and pray that TASIS will go on forever, for the most strategic challenges for any country or civilization will always be the education of its young. And human understanding must advance to match and surpass that of our too materialistic technology. This can be achieved only by a heightened dedication to internationalism and to learning.

We hope you can join us on campus this August for our 60th Anniversary Celebration, which will include a special anniversary performance of the musical MCF: What a Life!

We also ask you to please consider joining us in honoring Mrs. Fleming’s legacy by making a gift today to the M. Crist Fleming Endowment for International Understanding and Leadership.