Whit Sheppard ’83 returned to campus on Sep. 26, ending 35 years of distance from the site of his traumatic experiences as a Deerfield student. In a sincere address to the community filled with personal anecdotes, he emphasized the importance of embracing growth under the most challenging of circumstances.
During his senior year at Deerfield, Sheppard was repeatedly molested by former faculty member Peter Hindle.
It wasn’t until 2012 that he wrote an email to Head of School Margarita Curtis, telling her specifically what had occurred and finally sharing Hindle’s name.
He described his decision to come forward as a conscious choice to “take control of the narrative,” acknowledging that in today’s society, not many victims have the opportunity to tell their side of the story.
Mr. Sheppard’s story prompted a thorough internal investigation that ultimately revealed that Hindle had sexually abused Sheppard, along with one another student, while he was a teacher at Deerfield.
Mr. Sheppard publicly shared his story in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe, which was published in July 2013.
Dr. Curtis has continued to keep in touch with Sheppard. Given that this year is her final year at Deerfield, Sheppard expressed that he felt compelled to revisit campus before her retirement.
Mr. Sheppard arrived as a “naive, fresh-faced freshman” in the fall of 1979. He emphasized how much more cynical and unaccepting Deerfield was during the 1980s, illustrating his point with his class chant: “Sex, Drugs, LSD. We’re the class of ’83!”
He described his regretful behavior while a student at Deerfield. “I got high at Deerfield multiple times a day. I cheated on tests. I bought an English term paper my senior year for two bottles of whiskey. I didn’t exhibit a whole lot of character,” he said.
Gemma Bishop ’19 said, “His stories reminded me of what my dad says his experience was like at Deerfield. I always thought my dad was exaggerating, but I’m grateful that Mr. Sheppard gave us a strikingly different perspective of Deerfield that most people would never have imagined.”
As a 14-year old boy, short and barely over 100 pounds, Sheppard felt as though the upperclassmen held a lot of power over him. In 2004, he wrote an email to the then-headmaster of Deerfield, Eric Widmer, about the pervasive bullying he endured during his time at the school.
He alluded to incidents of his head getting flushed down the toilet, getting “kidnapped” by upperclassmen and left alone in the middle of the lower fields in the early morning hours, and having inappropriate interactions with a teacher. However, he did not mention Peter Hindle’s name.
Hindle was, at the time, highly revered and honored at the school. He had graduated from Deerfield in 1952 and returned immediately after attending Amherst College to teach. He ended up teaching at Deerfield for 44 years and coaching squash for 38 years.
“This long tenure is perhaps the primary source of the reverence he was once afforded,” said David Thiel ’91, who attended Deerfield when Hindle was a teacher.
Hindle’s name was on a stone bench in Brook’s Garden, just north of the Arms Building, in addition to an endowed math chair and an endowed squash court.
Mr. Thiel added, “Like many perpetrators of abuse, [Hindle] was charismatic, friendly, and engaging. Yet the majority of people with whom he interacted had no basis to think anything but the best of him.”
Due to the sheer extent of Mr. Hindle’s elevated power and prestige, Sheppard was reluctant to come forward as a sexual assault victim, and refrained from naming Mr. Hindle. He remembers that in the email, he ended up protecting his assailant more than speaking his truth. Mr. Widmer was sympathetic in his response to Mr. Sheppard’s letter, but nothing more came of it.
When Mr. Sheppard left Deerfield, he didn’t look back. He tried to make the best new life he could after his experience. But within him, he claimed “he was carrying a heavy bag of sadness, hurt, shame, embarrassment and regret.”
No matter how hard he tried, Mr. Sheppard could never seem to outrun his experience. In the summer of 2012, he read a story in the New York Times Magazine called “Prep School Predators” that detailed a history of sexual abuse in the Horace Mann School. It made him realize that telling his story could prompt more schools to also confront their pasts, which in turn could ensure the safety of more students.
Mr. Sheppard recalls that he started living in truth the day he broke his silence.
Ely Burke ’19 said, “I appreciated his bravery and willingness to accept his mistakes about personal integrity.”
He urged students to live up to the school motto and follow his example. In his Boston Globe Magazine article “What Happened At Deerfield,” he wrote, “Nothing about this process has been easy, but it has given me a renewed sense of self-respect. It was the right thing to do, and I’m glad I did it.
He told students, “I’d like you to be the person who not just knows the right thing to do, but has the courage to do it. Act on your own integrity. The world needs a lot more awareness, it needs more mindfulness, and it needs a heck of a lot more kindness.”
Dr. Curtis reflected, “Mr. Sheppard’s advice to speak up when experiencing or witnessing inappropriate behavior could not be more important or more relevant. Through his own example, he called on Deerfield students to stand up for each other—and for themselves—even when facing people in positions of power.”
Mr. Sheppard stressed the importance of students’ high school years, claiming that while his four years at Deerfield were not the best ones of his life, they were the most formative.
“There was an emptiness in my life, because I was trying to put aside my experience,” he said.
By standing on stage and sharing his deepest vulnerabilities with the community, Sheppard took the lead in battling the societal stigma around talking about sexual assault and abuse.
Mr. Sheppard left the community with this message: “I am grateful for … welcoming me back so comprehensively into the Deerfield family. [You] helped me truly feel a part of the extended Deerfield community for the first time in decades.”