Did the rich and famous have as tough a time in high school as the rest of us?
Did an adolescent Donald Trump or Bill Gates quiver in the face of an algebra final? Did they sit and sulk on the bench during the big game? Did a pimple erupt on their left cheek the night of the prom?
I ask because one of the celebs of the 19th century — the venerable orator Daniel Webster — is back in high school. Well, not his own high school. That was Phillips Exeter Academy, where (to prove my point) he lasted about a half year after failing in one class — public speaking. (Struck with stage fright before a big speech, Webster “wept bitter tears of mortification,” he later wrote.)
He’ll soon be returning to grandeur at Manchester High School Central, where — if you falter at Phillips Exeter — is the next best place to get an education in New Hampshire.
For the time being, Webster’s portrait is in the art classroom of Corey Doherty. Webster has been hiding out there for about a year and watches over Doherty’s art students as they hang out and work on assignments.
Soon, the portrait will leave for restoration. A tear will be mended. A hole poked in it will be patched. A few stains (likely delivered, like a bully’s blows, by Central kids) will be cleaned up. The frame will be polished.
Richard Thorner, a Manchester lawyer with a side business in Americana antiques, has volunteered to pay for the restoration. He hopes the Webster portrait will end up in the Central High library with a short bio.
“I’m green all the way,” said Thorner, a graduate of both the Little Green (Central) and Big Green (Dartmouth College). Thorner jumped at the chance to help after hearing about the damaged portrait.
Webster approaches God-like status among Dartmouth College alumni. He was a Dartmouth alum, and in 1819 he convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to block New Hampshire politicians from taking over Dartmouth and turning it into a public university. He famously argued that it was a “small college, and yet there are those who love it.”
Thorner has traded eight or nine Webster portraits over the years and currently owns a duplicate of the Central High Webster portrait, which used to belong to former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton.
Both are unsigned and evidence of mass production in the portraiture world. Those were the pre-selfie days, when a portrait artist quickly replicated his work once he could convince a busy celeb to pose.
The Central portrait features Webster at middle age. He sits pensively in a chair with red upholstery. A letter is in his right hand, and his left hand is tucked in his vest.
“It’s kind of austere for my taste,” said Sophie Barbarita, a senior who was working this week beneath his gaze.
Were Webster sitting for Barbarita, she would have told him to get his hand out of his vest and look more interesting, she said. It’s obvious the artist was talented, she said; Barbarita points to the shadows and highlights on his face.
Does the portrait deliver inspiration across the centuries?
“Not particularly,” Barbarita said. “It’s nice to look at, but it’s not really idea inspiring. It’s kind of plain.”
Freshman Peyton Sanuth was a little kinder. “He knows what he’s doing,” he said, describing Webster as a successful businessman.
Webster was born and educated in New Hampshire, and during the War of 1812 he served two terms as a congressman from New Hampshire. (I get much of my information about Webster from “Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time,” by Robert Remini, which is in the city library.)
In 1816, he moved to Boston but still (take note, Scott Brown) represented New Hampshire from his Massachusetts home. Webster later represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House and then the Senate.
Webster coined the phrase that the New Hampshire Union Leader holds today as its motto: “There is nothing so powerful as truth.”
It was his summation defending a man in a murder case. The second part of that sentence was “and often nothing so strange.”
He argued many cases before the Supreme Court, and Thorner compares his oratory skills to the great speakers of our time: the Rev. Martin Luther King, President John F. Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan.
Twice he turned down nominations for vice president, and both times the Presidents died in office (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor).
Historically, he’s frowned on somewhat nowadays. His passions were the Union and the Constitution, Thorner said.
So although Webster detested slavery, he wasn’t an abolitionist. He believed the Constitution allowed slavery in southern states, and he wasn’t going to mess with the Constitution.
Of course, Central is an ideal place for Webster, given that the John Rogers statue of another 19th century celeb — Abraham Lincoln — holds sway over the courtyard.
“This school has so many treasures,” said Doherty. She said retiring band teacher Ed Sterling rescued the Webster portrait from the Practical Arts building, where it had been abused and banged up by students.
It seems that Webster never got a break in high school. Until now. At Central.
“Even though the portrait is not particularly rare, its representation is important,” Thorner said. “I can’t think of a better place for it to be than Central.”