School to honor philanthropist McLean
Sarah Hickerson, a 2012 graduate of Harbor Country Day School's eighth-grade class, doesn't precisely recall her favorite line from her lead role in a school play mapping the life trajectory of Alice Throckmorton McLean, the noted patrician-turned-patron of charity whose old St. James mansion houses the private school.
The play, performed four years ago, centered largely on McLean's work as founder of the American Women's Voluntary Services, a groundbreaking and the largest-ever female auxiliary that, at its peak in 1945, enlisted more than 325,000 women nationwide.
Its members included the less known, such as housewives and professionals, and celebrities such as actresses Betty White, Joan Crawford and Hattie McDaniel, one of the black women enlisted at a time when the races barely mingled at all.
The auxiliary members tended to the various needs of active servicemen and veterans during World War II — running emergency kitchens, driving ambulances, doing aerial photography, sitting at bedsides of the injured — and the years after. McLean's self-styled endeavor serving the American military was an idea born during a trip to Britain, with her beloved horses and their groomsmen in tow, where she was struck by the safety net the British had woven for their own returnees from battle.
"Alice was an amazing woman, and the fact that she worked so hard to share her wealth and talents with others is inspiring," said Hickerson, 14, of Northport, who will enroll in ninth grade this fall at Friends Academy in Locust Valley.
Hickerson first learned of McLean, whose charities also aided civilians from various other sectors, while a fourth-grader at Harbor Day.
"Her dedication and commitment to those around her was incredible," Hickerson said. "She never took what she had for granted. She was constantly sharing, a very admirable thing to do."
Born a blue blood
McLean, the youngest daughter of copper mining magnate James McLean, was born in 1868 and was his seeming favorite of three children, all girls, said Brad Harris, president of the Smithtown Historical Society. She shared his fascination with horses.
After her divorce from Poquott lawyer Edward Laroque Tinker — McLean had married young and divorced relatively early — she returned to the family's mansion on 50 acres in the Smithtown hamlet of St. James.
When she was not traveling internationally, she shuttled between St. James, the family's Upper East Side town house and an expansive farm in South Kortright in the Hudson Valley. She hosted foreign dignitaries and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Several years after her divorce, McLean's father bequeathed to her that St. James property. There, as a single mother, she raised her two sons, an effort that back then was another rarity, particularly for a woman of her class and social stature, Harris noted.
"She was determined to regain her freedom, demonstrated by how she legally changed her name back to McLean after her divorce," Harris said, adding that she dared to play polo with the men and wielded a pretty mighty mallet.
"Her father reared her almost as a boy — and perhaps I shouldn't say it like that," he said. "But he taught her to ride and got her interested in horses and took her all over the world. She got quite an education."
And, Harris noted, McLean was quite successful in her philanthropic endeavors. "At one point she and the women's auxiliary had sold more than $1 billion in war bonds. That's a pretty sizable effort for a group not funded by the government."
A life of service
McLean, Harris added, forsook wealth for a life of service — particularly but not only for veterans — that extended almost up until her death in 1968 in the Baltimore home of one of her sons.
"She'd given up the upstate estate in 1948 to aid European children displaced by the war," Harris said. "She was a remarkable woman, willing to give almost everything she had to help others."
This fall, a plaque commemorating the life and philanthropy of McLean will be hung at Harbor Country Day. And following McLean's example, Harbor preaches to its students, in preschool through eighth grade, a gospel of giving back. Their community service projects have included hand-delivering items from their clothing drives to patients at the Northport VA Medical Center and asking to hear their personal stories. They also sing at local nursing homes and have shipped supplies to survivors of Haiti's 2010 earthquake.
"The students very much have had a sense of who Alice Throckmorton McLean was," said Charles Mugford, a former history teacher and communications director at Harbor Country Day. "Alice had a pivotal moment when she became less — and I don't want to say 'shallow' — but less of a blue blood. She became more erudite and selfless."
A living legacy
Placing that plaque on Oct. 11 to honor McLean, who also was fluent in French, German and Italian, will be the first outward sign of what has been the school's fairly steady commemoration of her and what her life represented. There are no portraits or photos of her in the facility.
"She didn't found the school, but her legacy is still very much alive there," said Robert Antonacci, a member of Harbor's board of trustees and the father of 9-year-old twin daughters who are students there. "Part of that legacy is about creating the leaders of tomorrow. We picked the school because it is so focused on leadership.
"For us," he said, "it's not just about education. It's about the arts and charity. Alice was born into wealth, but she gave back to the community on Long Island and to the world."
For a time, the St. James estate she left behind was a school run by Christian Brothers of Ireland. By 1956, with the property for sale, 38 families raised $20,000 and won assorted grants to buy the old estate. In the fall of 1958, they opened Harbor Country Day School with 38 students.
"I admire her for her dedication to helping others and for getting so many involved in the efforts, particularly in support of our country at a time of great need," said Essex, who is going to Marymount School in Manhattan this fall. "She was truly a leader. Although she already had so much, she never took anything for granted."