The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Eleven Birthday Letters to Celebrate Mrs. Fleming’s 111th

A very happy birthday to our founder, M. Crist Fleming, who would have turned 111 today! Born in Boston on September 10, 1910, Mrs. Fleming was the only child of two school founders and directors, Haldy Miller Crist and Frances Leavitt Crist. Devoted to education from an early age, she would go on to found and direct American international schools and educational summer programs in Switzerland, England, Greece, Cyprus, and France.

Mrs. Fleming was survived by her three children, including current TASIS Board of Directors Chairman Lynn Fleming Aeschliman. Her legacy is best summed up by the poignant words of her son-in-law, TASIS Foundation Board member Dr. Michael D. Aeschliman, who concluded her obituary—which can be read in full in The Wit and Wisdom of Mary Crist Fleming—by noting, “But her larger family numbers in the thousands of people who were touched and inspired by her vision, inexhaustible energy, grace, courtesy, and generosity." 

In recognition of Mrs. Fleming’s profound effect on generations of students and educators, we commemorate Founder’s Day 2021 by offering a look at some of our favorite letters written to her on birthdays past.
 

Living Trophies

A letter written by Lynnae Bramhall Rittenhouse ’78 to Mrs. Fleming on her 90th birthday (2000)

I went to TASIS for an education, and I left with a backbone for my life. I became a member of a small multicultural society built in the most beautiful part of the world where the measures for success were limited only in your mind. We were uniquely different individuals forming our own realm that taught us how to live life by touching and helping others. Learning also that our diversity was not a point of separation, but a source of enrichment we celebrated in developing the wholeness of our lives. I think you made a place for us where we successfully crossed boundaries of cultures, countries, race, fame, and economic status… TASIS still harmonized amidst political chaos and change. And so we carried this peace with us, where I am sure we all strive to share with those we touch today. We learned how to think for ourselves and reach for something higher. We entered the world more healthy and balanced by our experience. I left with the highest standards of life, many close friendships that I still celebrate today, and many fond memories that are always lessons for tomorrow. We are honored, so many years later, to be a part of this and still take the highest pride in your dream of TASIS.
 
Although I am certain that countless certificates of success from educational entities have been awarded you, my prayer is that we alumni are all “living trophies” for you. I hope we have made you proud. The TASIS experience has truly helped us achieve our goals. Our successes are built upon your successes. Thank you for reaching, striving, and acting upon your vision of TASIS. We have all reaped the benefits of your dreams.

Lynnae Bramhall Rittenhouse ’78

 

Turning Point in My Life

A letter written by John Gage ’60 about Mrs. Fleming on her 80th birthday (1990)

My year with Mrs. Fleming was certainly a turning point in every aspect of my life. What began as a summer travel camp became a year away from my family filled with unimaginably rich experiences for a boy from Michigan—first opera at the Roman amphitheater in Verona, midnight mass on Christmas eve in Barcelona, struggling on skis above Andermatt, crew rowing on Lago Maggiore, posing for brochure photographs in every imaginable setting. The list of those kinds of warm memories is nearly endless and they suffuse that year in a warm glow. 

Since mine was the first year of the school, I recall that many aspects were “played by ear.” In some aspects, there may not have been a plan or the plan may not have worked as anticipated, but I remember the excitement of the unexpected and learning that things always worked out one way or another and that, in any event, it was the “experience” that counted.

I also picked up some earthier skills that have proven useful. Mrs. Fleming introduced me to bartending and the art of crushing ice with the back of a heavy spoon so that martinis (or, I suppose, even sweet vermouth) would be perfectly chilled.

I came to love Mrs. Fleming as my own “second mother,” and despite the long gaps in our relationship, that love has continued through the intervening years. That’s one reason it was so special to send my daughter, Lisa, to Mrs. Fleming (I understand she was the first of the second generation). 

My love and best wishes to Mrs. Fleming on her birthday.

John Gage ’60

 

Beauty Makes a Difference

A letter written by Suzanne Price ’77 to Mrs. Fleming on her 90th birthday (2000)

Dear Mrs. Fleming,

For your 90th birthday, here is my short story “gift” to you about one of the clearest gifts you and TASIS gave to me. It was 1973, and we were convened in the salon at Vezia for your welcome address. We had arrived—several of us whose American families were living in Saudi Arabia—a night or two before, when it was dark and raining and frightening to climb the wooden staircase to the girls’ dormitory. There we were, though, a day or two later, in the salon, in the daylight, sitting in brass-framed fold-out chairs with worn green velvet on the seats. 

You told us then about the importance of learning and living in a place of beauty. I believe you told us that you were deliberate in choosing to put TASIS in just such a place. And in every respect the environment of TASIS could not have been more beautiful. Lugano is, of course, the epitome of scenic and cultural beauty. The buildings that comprised the TASIS Switzerland campuses then (Montagnola and Vezia) were equally beautiful (the prefab dorms, perhaps, excluded). They even had/have melodic Italian names as if to underscore their charm. The furnishings in the buildings, too, were rich and textured. I wish I could sleep every night on the heavy, starched, white linen sheets with which we made our beds (the boys wouldn’t know about this, given the regularity with which they changed their sheets.) 

The gift in this lesson—in your address to us that day in 1973 and in the learning and living we did at TASIS in those surroundings—was understanding that beauty makes a difference. Whether it’s an ability to feel good in a beautiful place, or a keener sensibility to beautiful things, or the passion to fight for the preservation of beautiful spaces, the beauty of it all does matter. Thank you and Happy Birthday, Mrs. Fleming.

Suzanne Price ’77

 

How Many Lives Have You Swept Into?

A letter written by Jim Durham, former TASIS English teacher, to Mrs. Fleming on her 80th birthday (1990)

One evening during the winter, 1958, someone knocked on the door of my small apartment at Berkshire School. I suspect I was grading papers or reading some assignment— maybe about Ethan Frome, who was feeling “all snowed in”. I probably was feeling that way myself. I opened the door to find Guy Tolman. And then you, Mrs. Fleming, swept in. “How would you like to travel in Europe this summer?” you asked. 

I wonder how many times you have been described as “sweeping in”? I wonder how many lives, perhaps otherwise snowed-in lives, you have swept into? 

And then, fresh out of the Army and all “barracks’d in”, I rode with you on a train from N.Y.C. to Philadelphia. Not even my interview with you was stationary. Next thing I knew I was on a train winding its way through snow and night to Andermatt. I wonder how many people have taken that train-ride to one of your schools, and from that point on have been caught up in your perpetual motion—not just during the school years but for the rest of their lives? 

What adventuresomeness you have woven into the fabric of many lives! And what an adventure your own life has been! Eighty Fleming-years must equal about ten lives. 

Happy Birthday. And many, many thanks. 

Jim Durham

 

Birthday Wishes from the White House

A letter written by George H. W. Bush, 41st president of the United States, to Mrs. Fleming on her 80th birthday (1990)

 

The Gift of Innumerable, Delightful Memories

A letter written by Jennifer Haldeman ’83 to Mrs. Fleming on her 90th birthday (2000)

On the occasion of this momentous birthday, Mrs. Fleming, we hoped to give you a gift which could in some way equal the gift you have given each of us—the gift of innumerable, delightful memories. Each of us has our own memories of our TASIS experience, but they all share one thing in common—none of them would have been possible without your vision, passion, and determination. Thank you for the gift of the following memories that I hold dear:

  • That first view of TASIS coming up the winding road from Lugano
  • Thanksgiving dinner in an Italian villa
  • A Christmas candlelight concert in the small church of Montagnola
  • My first introduction to Gauguin on a visit to Villa Favorita
  • Raclette in St. Moritz and gorgonzola pizza at Mary’s on the Lugano lakefront
  • My first trip to the French Riviera and the Picasso Museum in Barcelona
  • Graduation on the lawn, a sea of white-clad maidens and dark-suited young men

It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child—but you took it one step further—you created a village, our global TASIS village, and you raised us all very well. Thank you for one of the greatest gifts of our lives.

Jennifer Haldeman ’83

 

Never a Dull Moment

A letter written by Marc Schreiber, former director of Swiss Holiday, to Mrs. Fleming on her 80th birthday (1990)

It is with great joy that I can congratulate you, Mrs. Fleming, on your 80th birthday. You can imagine that at a moment like this my heart is full of fond memories—do you remember Thanksgiving Day 1956? Sometime in between the turkey and 11 p.m. I walked into the Villa Verbanella Alta in Minusio, hardly speaking any English. Early next morning we took off to Florence, I was the driver of one of the famous blue VW buses. 

That was the beginning of a fascinating period of my life—an experience I would never have missed. First of all there was Florence, a city I fell in love with the minute I got there. Then I realized the great idea behind this trip—the idea of M.C.F. for an American School in Switzerland, and I also realized its foremost purpose: to give young people the chance to understand other people and countries, other mentalities—to show them ways of life different from the way of life in their own country. To this idea you gave all your intellectual, physical and economic capacities available. And I had the chance to find out that Europe was not necessarily the navel of the world. This experience is of great value to me for making up my own mind and to judge what is happening in the world and in Europe today. 

There was a young staff working at the School those days, young people from the United States and from Europe, most of them having something in common: not simply to start a career or their own business, but to look around in a world which taught you a lot when you were ready to see and to learn. 

And of course we had good times too—and certainly never a dull moment. I remember that once during a Swiss Holiday camp I dared to take off on my own for two days. When I came back the school was dead silent, no students— no counselors were around. Only a maid was there explaining that M.C.F., on coming back from a trip, found some of the students at home (probably recovering from a camping trip), and immediately organized ad hoc trips for them. Nobody should ever get the idea that there could be a dull moment. 

Do you remember the Bishop from Gibraltar, who thought he could walk across the water and ended up in the pond of your patio? 

During the early years of the School there were moments when some of us had some doubts whether the School could really become a success and whether the budget could ever be brought back into balance. It was thanks to your strong belief in your idea that you could highly motivate all of us again. 

The way you opened your home to us was an example of your way of thinking, of your idea of hospitality which you followed constantly. This also made me feel that I worked not only for the School’s director, but for a friend.

Dear Mrs. Fleming, I am very happy to send you my heartiest and most affectionate best wishes for your birthday, wishing you many happy returns in good health. 

Marc Schreiber

 

You were Vogue Personified!

A letter written by Marian Courtney to Mrs. Fleming on her 80th birthday (1990)

To Mary Crist Fleming—on her very special day and year! 

We go back a long way together. When we first met, you came with your parents to the Headmistresses’ Association meetings, usually held in a big city, or at a resort like Atlantic City. I was always interested in the Mary Lyon School, since Mount Holyoke College was my alma mater, but you were the belle of those “balls,” with your beautiful and striking gowns at the formal dinners. 

Then there was your Frog Hollow period, when you wore perfect country clothes. 

I can’t possibly cover in a few sentences your achievements in your schools abroad, starting with TASIS. It was a real thrill for me to visit your school in Lugano, the one time that Vogue, my employer, sent me on a school-visiting trip on the other side of the water, in the fall of 1962. I arrived late, at 8:30 p.m., but was welcomed warmly, in my travelling suit (plaid, I believe), at your perfectly lovely dinner party. I was the one who worked for Vogue, but YOU were VOGUE PERSONIFIED! 

My former associates in Vogue’s School Department, Helen Weist and Judith Hine, join me in sending affectionate best wishes on your birthday. Long may you wave!! 

Cheers and more cheers, 

Marian Courtney

 

A Spark of Vision

A letter written by Rick Mullen ’77 to Mrs. Fleming on her 90th birthday (2000)

You provided all of us with the magical learning environment. You gave us the opportunity, and we seized it… You had a vision years ago. That vision bore fruit. That fruit is a spark of vision that you put in all of us that we carry with us in our journey through life.

Rick Mullen ’77

 

You Changed Our Lives

A letter written by Hope Stevens to Mrs. Fleming on her 80th birthday (1990)

“May I call you Hope, my dear?” With that simple query you walked into our kitchen and my life. The year was 1975, the place: the kitchen of our Loomis-Chaffee apartment, the excuse: you were looking for a new headmaster for TASIS. We had deliberated, Peter and I, about this occasion because, in fact, Switzerland sounded pretty enticing. Peter had returned from meeting you in New York the previous Thanksgiving full of descriptions and the assurance that you wanted somebody experienced and in his mid-40s. “She’ll never call me,” he stated, “but I wish you could meet her.” After your call, I began to wonder about “the elegant woman in perfect black knits and mink with huge gold bangles on her bracelet” who would take a Trailways bus to Hartford for a two-hour visit. It was a memorable visit: Abby wandered down from her nap without any clothes, Josh alternately wailed and cooed, the dog insisted on licking your bangles, the kids from the dorm kept interrupting, and the phone kept ringing for you. It was In-Program Travel time and some students had abused the rules and were in the process of suspension. Your mission must have been accomplished, nevertheless, because after two hours we wanted to know a lot more (fortunately Ken Blessing was there too—he stayed until 2:00 AM) and a few days later you called back. You persuaded me to drive you to the seedy Hartford Bus Station so you could interview me (“What do you think, Hope, about a woman who interferes in her husband’s affairs?”) alone. I doubt I’ve ever fielded more double entendres! 

You entered our lives permanently—even after eight years away from TASIS we leap for news of you and the school. You left your impression on us—not just Peter and me, but on Abby and Josh as well. One time, while playing Botticelli in the car, Abby was in control. No matter what Peter and I guessed, we could not discover who she was thinking of. Her triumphant smile as she crowed “Mrs. Fleming!” was great indeed. Josh still keeps “doggie” which you gave him for his first birthday, on his closet shelf. Neither child will ever forget the huge chocolate Easter bunnies you sent. You introduced innumerable culinary treats into our household: cappuccino, prosciutto and melone are frequent reminders. I suppose you know that Peter and I refer to you as “Mama” with enormous affection and respect. Indeed, you taught me many things that my mother seems to have missed. Grace under fire, enthusiastic hospitality, a “can do” attitude and style are but four things I particularly treasure. You are one of my favorite role models because you are determined, considerate, gracious, kind, energetic, and above all, an educator. Again and again I watched you begin your dinners in Lugano formally but end them with your arms around the students, chatting as equals. Do you remember offering Middle Schoolers cigarettes, or Seniors gin and tonics? I bet they do, not because of the illegality of it all, but because you were so engrossed with them you forgot they were kids. They loved it. So did we. 

My stories, like those of others, go on and on. I remember actually reassuring ourselves that we needn’t worry if the Red Brigade kidnapped you on one of your forays up and down the “autostrada del sole.” We were sure that like Red Chief, you’d be ransomed by the Brigade which would pay us to take you back! More recently, I remember your impetuous invitation to entertain eight students from Maumee Valley at Phene Street, or last January, our hour-long phone call at the end of which my roommate asked “Was she your best friend in England?” rather! I hope this book is fìlled with many affectionate loving MCF stories. I'll close with thank yous for unending generosity, hospitality, affection and concern, friendships which will last a lifetime, for thousands and thousands of memories which range from Capitignano to Phene Street, from Lugano to Thorpe. We could not have planned seven more wonderful years! 

Finally, thank you for being the only person who has made me feel good about going grey: “My God,” you gasped, “where do you have that streak done? I’ve spent thousands and never had such a striking one!” Only you, Mrs. Fleming! 

Happy Birthday! and much respect and love, 

Hope Stevens

 

What a testimonial to life is your life!

A letter written by Peter Stevens, former Headmaster of TASIS, to Mrs. Fleming on her 80th birthday (1990)

How do I add to Hope’s eloquence? How do I write adequately to and about one whom I hold so dear? one who has challenged me so well for so long? one who has been employer, colleague, model, “mother,” teacher, inspiration, advocate? I could add thousands of memories to Hope’s; I’ve entertained them all so often. Instead, I’ll try two approaches. 

First, Mrs. Fleming, you changed our lives. You taught us—forever—the meaning of grace and style and truth and beauty. At leisure or under fìre, right or wrong (more often the former, even as minority positions), ecstatic or angry, you simply define style. There is no neutral. No one ever doubts that you are there (and often we know you are there even though you are physically off in Italy or Greece or somewhere). 

Your wrath is formidable; your affection and love are mighty, too. And you do it all with style and flair that reminds us daily of this world’s need for taste, dignity, presence, aura, charisma and leadership. You hold opinions and we hear all of them, and we are reminded, too, that we think, and therefore we are! What a testimonial to life is your life! So should we all be expressive, bold, sharing, open, dedicated, heard, seen, effective! 

If some people wondered how these two strong personalities, yours and mine, managed to get along so well (how many of your ex-headmasters would say as unabashedly as I do that I love you?), perhaps it’s really because I recognize greatness and consciously submit myself to its embrace. Sure, I’ve fought it, too, and I gave my share back now and then, but you were really the power that brought out of me whatever was best. I know that now even more than I did when I worked with you in Lugano and in England. And whatever successes I’ve had since TASIS in this profession (as you know, I’m about to enter my second headship since England) I enter at least in part on the MCF side of the ledger. And I am grateful.

Secondly, a few of my favorite MCF-TASIS tales can’t bear not to see the light of this birthday of yours, for they are certainly the stuff of legend. How often I recount your clear assertion that The Pill destroyed your early summer program in Lugano! How many times did I hear of your mad dash over the Alps in the sports convertible with the Thanksgiving turkey riding shotgun? I remember your telling me of your own attempts to ski, just as I remember your utter astonishment that any sane human being would try to ski 42 kilometers cross-country as Hope and I and others did in the Engadine Marathon for many years. I remember others’ incredulity that we had left the infantJosh Stevens under your care when we first came to visit in Lugano (it seemed so natural!). And I remember your appearing one day in your work-out leotard during that visit (an early example of your continuous treatment of us as “family”). I’ll always remember the trembles that would go through Villa De Nobili when the news would come down from Sarah that you were on your way up from Capitignano, and we’d rush to pull in the towels and the underwear off the balconies and Myriam would hustle about and grumble, augmenting her own legends at the same time! 

How many times have we chuckled over your entertaining the carabinieri on the autostrada, drinks kit out and open! Or your first words in Greek, “poh pagos” for a lot of ice. You said, “If you can say ice in any language, my dear, you can survive!” Or rambling on and on through the Tuscan hills seeking the precisely right picnic spot; for second best would never do. I remember one excursion that nearly ended them all: the great train ride to Scotland to find a home for the new school! And I pair that with the far more elegant forays into the Geneva hinterland and Divonne-les-Bains on a similar mission. 

I learned a lot watching you work the crowds in Stateside reunions. (Few people can hush a crowd so effectively just by entering the room! I know you studied the mug books, but even so, how do you ever remember all those names?). I have nocturnal visions of careening around the British roads in the black mini, you at the wheel, basic black, furs and bangles (“always dress as if you’re worth a lot of money when you go asking for something.”) 

And, of course, I remember meeting you in the Hartford, Connecticut, bus station for our second-ever meeting, you standing imperiously center stage, derelicts with brown bags strewn on the benches, paper cup of coffee in your hand: they gawked, and stared and rubbed their eyes. (No one in Lugano ever believed that you’d taken a public bus to Hartford to meet us! That was an apocryphal trip!) Doting on little kids (your grandchildren, ours). Catering to wealthy Iranians (et al) because they all represented something for the future of TASIS, but reminding them all the same that you, not they, were in charge (hardly easy for them to grasp!) 

The legends roll on, and you endure, central to them all, to the lore, the wonder, the success, the force that is TASIS. And we are grateful, for you’ve enriched our lives; we are better because we spent time with you. And I could pay no higher compliment. 

I send my love, and thanks, and Birthday wishes. 

Peter Stevens

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