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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Stepping into the past at Prep

Art Stetson, the director of admissions at Flintridge Prep, fascinated me as he spoke about the brilliance of metaphor and the elegance characterized by wordsmith Thomas Hardy.

Stetson and I are colleagues of sort; I’m a substitute teacher at the school. We are also like-minded. He too has a habit of collecting quotes from others.

“Here’s a quote from Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles,’” he said. He reached for an antique box, pulled out a piece of paper, and read: “‘The drops of logic Tess had let fall into the sea of his enthusiasm served to chill its effervescence to stagnation.’”

“Who speaks that way?” he said.


It was an aha moment for me. I felt I was in an old castle-like preparatory school with creaky wooden oak floors sitting in a professor’s office that was laden with books, ancient mementos and the musky smell of antiquity. But the fragrant candle burning in his office kept the scents at bay.

Stetson’s office is a place of wonder. I sat and perused a kaleidoscope of antique memorabilia that sat silently and reverently paying homage to a philosophy that honors the past.

“Your office can be a great wonder instead of a mere place to do business,” he said.

“What is your favorite piece?” I asked.


He paused and pointed to an old steamer truck that had belonged to his grandfather’s brother, Ellery, who fought and died in World War I. “My father’s uniform that he wore in the Korean War and his sister’s prom dress are in there.”

Stetson has been at Prep for 19 years, facilitating the admissions process.

“What’s your criteria for admission?” I asked.

“Prep’s ethos is to recruit good students and nice kids,” he explained. “I want every kid to leave Prep feeling great about themselves and the school. I like to think I have a positive impact on the students.”

I’m an old soldier; subsequently I was drawn to pictures he had of doughboys standing proudly together in silent sentinel. I stared at them and they stared back at me. What were they trying to say? I wondered about the hellish experiences they endured. However, they appeared serene; soldiers have a way of masking pain. Stetson has made them immortal by hanging them on his office walls. Their message is the same message that ghosts of the past are eager to share with the living. “Carpe diem!” Seize the day!

I observed the picture of his great-great-great-grandmother, his Rin Tin Tin hat, the old music boxes, the violin case carved out of a solid piece of wood, his father’s scooter, his grandfather’s toy wheelbarrow, and old wooden skates. He pointed to a picture of a young girl that he had found in the attic of his grandparents’ house. “I think this is my great- grandfather’s twin sister who was missing and never found.”

Mark Baker, the school’s Latin teacher, once remarked, “The Oracle of Delphi is hiding somewhere in Stetson’s office.”

The office evokes a plethora of thoughts, feelings, and a way of thinking about the past. It’s quite contemplative as most of these memories were created by someone else, someone you never met, someone who has long since passed. What I find haunting is the whisper or the invisible hand that extends and grabs you and draws you into the artifacts’ ancient past. There is a vivid connection to Stetson’s personal life in his office. Regardless of what item I point to, he offers a historical soliloquy connecting it to someone or some distant memory. He allows himself to be seen and deeply known through this plethora of antiquity. Sitting in his office, I realize that life is about connection.


Stetson had to work and I needed a cup of tea at Starbucks, so it was time to end our visit.

“One more thing, Art: What do you want me to tell a reader?”

He appeared a bit contemplative and said, “To love what you do and feel that it matters — how can anything be more important?”


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at