How Hemenway Speeches Came to Be

By Sophia Lichterfeld

As Winsor graduates look back on the last few times when their whole class was together in the same room, one moment that likely comes up is the Hemenway Speech delivery day. Every April, the members of the senior class gather in the theater for a whole day to listen to each person deliver a “speech of substance” to the rest of their class. Six speakers are then selected by their classmates to present their speech to the whole school during an assembly block, and one of them ultimately receives the Hemenway Speaking Prize at the end of the school year. 

Winsor alumna Abby Groom ’22, reflecting on the day the class shared their speeches with each other, recalled, “It left an even stronger bond between us as we ended our time at Winsor and headed our separate ways. Everyone was so vulnerable yet fearless. One moment I would be tearing up and hugging my best friends close, and then the next I would be cracking up, laughing so hard I was almost brought to tears again.” Similarly, when talking about giving her Hemenway Speech to the whole school, Nadia Piecyk ’22 remarked, “I appreciated the opportunity to share some of my personal truths and to witness how my words resonated with so many people. I didn’t consider myself to be much of a public speaker, but I was able to connect with others and use my voice on a broader platform.”

This Winsor tradition has truly withstood the test of time. Established by Harriet Hemenway (1857-1960), the founder of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, in 1912, it has been a core feature of the Winsor student experience for longer than the Class I play, which has come and gone since 1919; the Class IV Shakespeare play, which started in 1931; and UTL, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary 2018. How did Hemenway speeches come to be, and why do we continue the tradition to this day? Archivist Mrs. Warren provided several documents to explore the history of the Hemenway Speaking Prize. 

Augustus Hemenway, the husband of Harriet Hemenway, was the father of four Winsor graduates, and Mrs. Hemenway was part of the Winsor School Corporation from 1910 to 1921 as the vice president of its Executive Committee. Mrs. Hemenway, in a letter to Winsor’s second Head of School Katherine Lord, wrote, “Where are the women who can express themselves with care and with intelligence and with grace? It will have to come!” After establishing the prize for the 1912-1913 school year, Mrs. Hemenway added an addition $25,000 in 1920 to create the Hemenway Fund “for the improvement of the speaking voice.”

At first, students were not allowed to write out and memorize their speeches but were asked to speak with only a few notes. The purpose was “to give many opportunities for practice in informal speaking [that] gradually develop the assurance and poise which helps the child to think on her feet and to be able later to meet more easily [many] situations,” Winsor’s third Head of School Frances Dorwin Dugan expressed in a letter to Mrs. Hemenway on June 26, 1939. 

Indeed, these goals have persisted throughout the years, and, in the opening to the Hemenway Speaking Assembly on April 19, 2001, then Head of School Rachel Friis Stettler recalled that “teachers here understand that speaking is a key component in a person’s effectiveness in personal and professional life… Winsor students are encouraged to find their own voices in expressing their knowledge, ideas, and opinions.” 

Yet the structure changed in 2009, after careful evaluation by the Hemenway Faculty Committee, which wanted to ensure that students felt more supported so that the speeches could be of higher quality. They gave each student two 40-minute blocks to speak with a teacher about their speeches and about writing techniques. While a Panel article from March 13, 2009, portrayed this change as largely welcomed, it also disapproved of some guidelines added for the possible topics of speeches. Previously, students were given few constraints on the contents of their speeches. The Committee, however, decided that Hemenway speeches must “go beyond personal experiences and reach beyond Winsor’s walls”; they asked seniors only to use less than one-third of their speaking time to tell a personal anecdote. As many seniors got their speeches rejected and felt unable to express themselves authentically with these limitations, this restriction was later reversed. Seniors now write a speech that they may memorize or read to their peers. 

The Hemenway Speaking tradition remains one cherished by Winsor graduates. Isabella Liu ’22 shared, “I most appreciated the chance to listen to everyone else’s speeches. It’s comforting to sit in the auditorium with my friends and listen to them. Winsor is a tight-knit community, and Hemenways provide the opportunity to learn more about the members of my class.” Kayla Springer ’22 concluded, “It prompted me to reflect on the ways that I’ve grown, things that I’ve learned, and meaningful experiences that I’ve had before going off to college and entering a new stage of my life.”

We wish the seniors luck as they are currently in the process of composing their speeches, and look forward to hearing this year’s Hemenway speakers during Assembly next month!