Heads of School
Maria Bowen Chapin
Maria Bowen Chapin, an educational leader ahead of her time, founded Miss Chapin’s School for Girls in 1901 with the steadfast mission to educate girls and young women. One of seven children, she was born on September 13, 1863 in Wickford, Rhode Island. Because her family traveled extensively, Miss Chapin was tutored at home, with the exception of the single year she spent at Miss Abbott’s School in Providence, Rhode Island. Miss Abbott’s had a profound effect on Miss Chapin, and she would later adopt many of its traditions in her own school.
In 1888, when she was 25 years old, Miss Chapin came to New York to become a teacher, one of the few jobs available to an educated woman. In keeping with the custom of teaching young children at home, Miss Chapin’s first students were six little girls whom she taught in the parlor of a private residence. These girls would eventually enroll at The Brearley School, and thus Miss Chapin kept in contact with James G. Croswell, Headmaster of Brearley, and his secretary, Alice Wetmore. In 1894 Miss Wetmore asked Miss Chapin to join her in starting a school. The partnership seemed ideal: Miss Wetmore knew the mechanics of running a school, while Miss Chapin was a gifted teacher who could attract new students through her many friends and acquaintances.
Their new venture was called Primary Classes for Girls. Beginning with 18 pupils initially, enrollment soon doubled. For the next seven years, Miss Wetmore and Miss Chapin held Primary Classes for Girls, and the School was a resounding success. With her bright personality and enduring vision, Miss Chapin charmed the parents and inspired her students, preparing for the day when she would establish a school of her own.
After ending her partnership with Miss Wetmore, Miss Chapin borrowed $2,000 to pay the first year’s rent on a house at 12 West 47 Street, and in October 1901, she opened Miss Chapin’s School for Girls with 78 students and seven teachers. The School, which added one class each year, offered academics, lessons in moral development as well as physical education, which was largely unheard of at the time. By 1904, with 100 students and 12 teachers, the School had outgrown its quarters. Thus, Miss Chapin leased two houses – 46 and 48 East 58 Street – and in 1905 the School moved again. The first two students graduated in 1908, and Miss Chapin’s School’s reputation continued to grow. In 1909, to accommodate her ever-expanding student population, Miss Chapin purchased two brownstones, at 32 and 34 East 57 Street, and the School relocated again in 1910. In 1928, Miss Chapin’s School settled into its current location at 100 East End Avenue overlooking the majestic East River.
Along with her accomplishments as an educator, Miss Chapin was ardently dedicated to social issues, particularly the advancement of women. She edited “Far and Near,” a monthly periodical that addressed the concerns of working women around the country. She also proudly marched in the first women’s suffrage procession.
Miss Chapin retired from active management of her school in 1932, paving the way for her loyal colleagues Ethel Grey Stringfellow and Mary Cecelia Fairfax to become joint Headmistresses. Maria Bowen Chapin died on March 8, 1934, and honoring her wishes, the School’s name was changed to The Chapin School, Ltd.
An innovative, highly competent administrator, Ethel Grey Stringfellow devoted 50 years of her life to Chapin as a teacher and administrator. With Miss Chapin and Miss Fairfax as her mentors, Miss Stringfellow was the perfect choice to move The Chapin School forward through its next stage of growth. She became the School’s third Headmistress in 1935.
Under Miss Stringfellow’s leadership, Chapin entered into its “golden years” and soon became a model for other private schools to follow. Known for her hearty laughter and kindness, she operated Chapin like a close-knit family. Focused on enhancing the curriculum, Miss Stringfellow increased the number of science courses, offering new college preparatory and general classes in chemistry, physics and biology. A passionate believer in the importance of physical education, she secured the use of the city fields at Randall’s Island in 1946 as well as a field in Central Park for hockey. Zealous about health and wellness, she oversaw student health inspections and implemented the School’s first full-time nurse.
Further, Miss Stringfellow revitalized News, enabling her students to enjoy regular lectures on current events, musical and dramatic performances and readings of popular literature. She also encouraged the girls to take advantage of the cultural offerings of New York City.
In 1936 Miss Stringfellow introduced the new Chapin uniform, designed by Louise Hoadley James ’14, a parent and trustee. It consisted of a green A-line skirt and bolero in dark green and a long-sleeved aqua linen blouse with a Peter Pan collar. The younger children wore the same blouse material for their tunics. This uniform remained in place for 35 years.
Among Miss Stringfellow’s important contributions to the school was the enhancement of the Alumnae Association. She helped establish the first Alumnae Day in spring 1935, which proved to be a rousing success. Two years later, 100 alumnae attended the first Alumnae Luncheon, a proud tradition that continues today. Also, the widely read “Alumnae Bulletin” resumed printing in 1937.
Although she announced her plans to retire at end of 1955-1956 school year, Miss Stringfellow didn’t actually retire until 1959, the same year she received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from New York University. The following year, Smith College awarded her an honorary degree.
Miss Stringfellow did not wish to follow her predecessors by having her official portrait painted. Instead, the funds raised by alumnae were redirected to build the Ethel Grey Stringfellow Art Case in the front hall of the school, which continues to showcases prominent art, and for an ongoing lecture series in her honor.
Arguably, Miss Stringfellow’s most successful young hire was Mildred Berendsen, who came to Chapin fresh from Smith College and eventually succeeded her as Headmistress. Ethel Grey Stringfellow died on May 8, 1970.
Sandra J. Theunick
Head of School, 1993 - 2003
A nationally respected educator, Sandra Theunick became Chapin’s fifth Head of School in 1993, succeeding Headmistress Mildred Jeanmaire Berendsen. Born in Michigan, Ms. Theunick graduated from the Stone Ridge School in Washington, D.C., and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Newton College of the Sacred Heart, a women’s college in Boston. She completed advanced certification in mental health studies at Georgetown University and earned a master’s degree in divinity at Washington Theological Union.
Ms. Theunick spent her entire career as an educator. Her work as a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart – a teaching order of the Catholic Church – provided unique and valuable training. She rose to the position of head of the Forest Ridge School in Bellevue, Washington, and then head of Stuart Country Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. Both are all-girl schools encompassing elementary and secondary education. At the time she came to Chapin, she was chair of the School Heads Advisory Committee of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools and chair of the Trustee Committee of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools. Later, she became chair of the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education, a national organization that focuses on moral, ethical and spiritual education for independent schools.
Distinguished by her warm demeanor and extraordinary energy, Ms. Theunick was a generous and available administrator whose door was always open. Colleagues described her as a “generous spirit,” who was thoughtful and concerned about faculty, students and staff. She considered everyone associated with Chapin to be family, urging the community to be “shareholders in the life of Chapin.” She married Dennis Arthur Fisher in 1999.
Ms. Theunick, who continued teaching while serving as Head of School, was deeply committed to teaching girls and young women and helping them realize their ambitions. “Chapin girls, as citizens of the world, should be able to face any challenge,” she notably remarked.
After her first year, she told the board that she wanted to introduce more social and coeducational opportunities, including community service and a life-skills program to help students make responsible decisions and develop leadership skills. She also recognized an increased need for psychological support and helped put in place services to help students cope with various issues. Moreover, under her leadership, a strategic plan outlining goals for the 21st Century took shape. Other noteworthy accomplishments include overseeing the opening of the Annenberg Center for Learning and Research and celebrating the School’s Centennial in 2001.
After a successful decade as Head of School, Ms. Theunick departed Chapin in 2003 to become head of the Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Mary Cecelia Fairfax
Mary Cecelia Fairfax, the second Headmistress of The Chapin School, was born in 1871 in Prince George’s County, Maryland, into an aristocratic family of Scottish descent. A determined child, she decided early on that she wanted to be a teacher. When, at the age of seven, she was asked where she was pulling her tin wagon, Miss Fairfax was said to have replied, “Why, to New York to seek my fortune.” And so, after attending private schools in Baltimore and Teacher’s Training School in Potsdam, New York, she went to New York City in 1894 to teach mathematics with Alice Wetmore and Maria Bowen Chapin. Despite their opposite personalities, the reserved Miss Fairfax and the outgoing Miss Chapin became close friends. When Miss Chapin left Miss Wetmore to start her own school, Miss Fairfax followed her in 1902.
Focused on the practical details of academic life, Miss Fairfax created the class schedules at Miss Chapin’s School and saw to it that her students followed the rules. Although known for her angry outbursts, she was considered to be a fair administrator who also had a warm and humorous side. She and Miss Chapin worked well together, and the school mostly flourished. After a discouraging period when many students in the higher grades left to attend boarding school, Miss Fairfax was instrumental in promoting a rigorous, college-preparatory program to retain more students through graduation.
In 1910, after Miss Chapin returned to school after a six-month leave to recover from the death of her Lower School Head Mary Barstow Pope, who was killed in a steam pipe explosion, she chose Miss Fairfax to be her Associate Headmistress. When the School moved to 100 East End Avenue in 1928, Miss Fairfax became chair of the Building Committee, managing every detail of the two-year facilities project. An avid gardener, Miss Fairfax gave Miss Chapin’s School a beautiful greenhouse overlooking the East River. It is still in use today.
In 1931, Miss Chapin and Miss Fairfax toured Europe together, leaving Ethel Grey Stringfellow in charge of the School. On their return, Miss Chapin began to decline, and Miss Stringfellow was made Associate Headmistress with Miss Fairfax. Although Miss Fairfax, too, was ill, she remained in the position until her death in 1935, just one year after the death of her friend, Maria Bowen Chapin.
Mildred Jeanmaire Berendsen served as Chapin’s fourth Headmistress, a position she held for 34 years. She was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of Swiss parents who immigrated to the United States after World War I and attended P.S. 197 and James Madison High School. After high school, she entered Smith College to further her studies.
While at Smith, she decided to become a teacher and diligently typed letters applying to more than 50 schools. Only two were encouraging: Brearley and Chapin. After her interview at Chapin, she returned to Massachusetts, feeling that the job was perfect but unattainable. A few weeks later, however, she was surprised to receive the job offer, accepting so readily that the startled Lucy Powell, Miss Stringfellow’s secretary, asked her if she wouldn’t like time to think it over. Miss Berendsen emphatically replied, “No.”
And so in the fall of 1949, she joined the history department and began a long and joyful association with The Chapin School. At Christmas that year, she and Charles Berendsen became engaged, and her students hummed “Here Comes the Bride” every time they saw her until their wedding in the spring.
Seven years passed happily. One day in 1956 Mrs. Berendsen was summoned to Headmistress Ethel Grey Stringfellow’s office. To her shock, Miss Stringfellow asked her to become her assistant, which required her to represent Miss Stringfellow in organizations such as the Guild for Independent Schools, the Head Mistresses Association of the East and the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls. Everything Mrs. Berendsen did for Chapin, she did exceedingly well, earning the respect and admiration of faculty and students. In 1958, when Miss Stringfellow’s retirement was announced and the Board began a search for her successor, Mrs. Berendsen became Associate Headmistress. When the search was concluded in 1959, Chapin’s new Headmistress was none other than Mildred Berendsen.
In addition to advancing the curricula at Chapin and raising educational standards for all young women, Mildred Berendsen – known as Millie – dedicated herself to recruiting exceptional faculty members, fostering relationships between Chapin’s colleague schools and increasing the endowment. She also doubled the size of the School during her tenure. Especially important to her, as well, was advancing diversity at Chapin, and she served on the boards of A Better Chance and Early Steps to help effect change on a national level.
Above all else, Mrs. Berendsen cared deeply for her students and colleagues and shared her enthusiasm and wisdom with others easily. She was also known for her prolific correspondence, writing many letters to her former students and colleagues in her elegant handwriting. She made all who knew her feel special and valued.
Mrs. Berendsen was widely esteemed as a talented independent school leader. She was a member and past president of organizations such as the Guild of Independent Schools of New York, the Country Day School Headmasters’ Association, the Head Mistresses Association of the East and the New York State Association of Independent Schools. She also shared her expertise in service to the boards at Allen-Stevenson School, The Browning School, St. David’s School, Trinity Episcopal School and Trinity-Pawling School.
Shortly after her appointment, Mrs. Berendsen met her own high school English teacher in a Brooklyn bakery. Naturally, she was curious to know whether her former pupil was still involved with “that school in Manhattan.” When Mrs. Berendsen told her she was not only involved but the headmistress, her teacher was incredulous, remarking, “but you were such a shy and gentle girl.”
Upon Mrs. Berendsen’s retirement in 1993, the Board of Trustees elected her Headmistress Emerita. Mildred Jeanmaire Berendsen died on May 25, 2016. Her extraordinary life was remembered at an exuberant celebration on November 3, 2016 at the Church of Heavenly Rest, a short distance from Chapin.
Dr. Patrica T. Hayot
Head of School, 2003 - present
Patricia Hayot, Ph.D., a consummate educator with more than 30 years of experience, was appointed as the sixth head of Chapin in 2003. She has taught in the United States; Geneva, Switzerland; and Paris, France. She served as head at both the International School of Paris, a K–12 school offering the International Baccalaureate, and Columbus School for Girls.
Dr. Hayot has held leadership positions in many independent schools associations, including the National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS), Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY), and Country Day Schools Headmasters Association (CDSHA). She was most recently elected to the Robert College Board of Trustees.
A former Klingenstein Fellow at Teachers College, Dr. Hayot earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Michigan and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Marquette University.
She and the late Fernand Hayot, who was a professor of neurobiology at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, have two grown children, Eric and Danielle, and two children-in-law, Lea and Scott. Eric is the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. He is a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies and the Director of the Center for Humanities and Information at the Pennsylvania State University. Danielle is an administrative judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington D.C.’s field office. Lea and Scott are an Assistant Professor of German at Stanford University and the Director of Knowledge and Engineering at Expert Systems, respectively. The Hayots’ grandchildren, Frankie, Lola, Jules and Tristan, fill every family reunion with joy.
Among Dr. Hayot’s favorite quotations is this from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” At The Chapin School, she has countless opportunities to experience the beauty of the dreams of her colleagues and the girls.