Giving His All: 98 Years of Service and Counting
Voltaire once said, "God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well." How fortunate we are tonight to recognize former Rectory faculty member and trustee Jay Milnor, at the ripe age of 98, for having used this gift so wholehearted and to the benefit of so many. His distinctions span military theaters, school campuses, and decades, though while the setting or era may change, Jay’s valor and altruism have been constantly and eminently present.
The child of a boarding school education himself, Jay shared with me during a recent visit fond memories of his time at school where football dominated his days. Jay summed up this experience by sharing, “I loved the life of a boarding school community,” a statement that epitomized his professional career as Jay would go on to serve the private school academic world with distinction. But first, there was the war to tend to.
While one would always hope for peace, there are points in history where maintaining that peace requires a call to arms. Jay, like so many, felt it his duty to defend freedom regardless of the cost, and he served with legendary valor. A radioman and a gunner in the 725th Squadron of the 451st bomber group during WWII, Jay’s unit saw some of the most intense aerial fighting and exacted some of the most impactful damage on strategic military targets such as oil fields, ball-bearing factories, airplane factories, and airfields. These sites were key to the German war effort and were defended vigorously with hundreds of heavy flak guns on-site in anticipation of Allied planes. For their bravery, their effectiveness, and their durability—22 missions in 26 days during one stretch of the war— the 451st earned 3 presidential citations for commendation of unit. Jay and three of his squadron mates received even higher recognition when the French government awarded them the Legion D’Honneur, the most revered decoration in France, for their exemplary service. Towards the end of the war, with the Germans desperate, rather than riding out the final days, Jay volunteered for missions that were essential to bringing about a successful and expedient conclusion to the war effort. The chances of a safe return were in grave doubt, but Jay, fortunately, defied those odds and helped reclaim France.
Having weathered the storm in Europe, Jay was well prepared for what came next: a teaching stint at Rectory School. If he could survive the war, he was more than prepared to take on the challenges of life at a junior boarding school. Accompanied by his wife Ann, who assumed our head nurse role at Rectory, Jay now had his foot in the door of an educational career that would span four schools, one consulting agency, and four decades. It all began at Rectory.
When Jay arrived in 1948, he formed an immediate bond with then-Headmaster John Bigelow. The relationship was so strong that Jay and Ann asked Mr. John to serve as godfather to their daughter Nancy, who was born while the family was living in the school infirmary. John proved to be a great mentor and Jay a great pupil as he assumed his first headship less than a decade later when he was appointed Principal of Robert College in Istanbul. Robert College, considered the premier school in Turkey, was well served by Jay’s passion for private school education. But the lure of the Quiet Corner remained strong, and Jay returned to Pomfret School in 1961 as Headmaster. Pomfret School’s website notes, “Mr. Milnor’s tenure produced an indelible mark on the social and political consciousness of the school.” During this period, Pomfret graduated its first African American student and admitted its first female students earning Jay recognition for his efforts to promote diversity across race and gender lines.
School leaders have the opportunity to impact a broad constituency that includes students, teachers, staff, and parents. In his typical understated, humble way, Jay connected with all. Described as a great humanitarian and a person of absolute integrity, Jay led by example. He could be tough when needed, including on the squash court where he was a fierce competitor, but he was also open-minded and willing to take risks that stood to benefit the institutions he led and the people with whom he worked. Maybe one of those greatest risks was hiring my father, who came to teach at Pomfret School with zero years experience, but other valuable qualities to be fair.
John Bigelow stated that the goal in life is a simple one that all can attain: to be kind. Jay Milnor, one of Mr. John’s many mentees, clearly succeeded in attaining this goal and so many more. Asked why he chose to work at schools, his response was simple, “Because I could do it.” He never sought to run a school, just as he never sought to be a decorated veteran. He simply accomplished the tasks in front of him in a way consistent with his nature. The result: distinction in all areas, including the many boards he served on, which included twenty years as a Rectory trustee where he rejoined Mr. John and then served with Mr. Green.
Jay Milnor stands before us an example of the greatness all can achieve if you care about others, develop and follow a human-based set of principles, and follow your passions. The formula is simple, and Jay executed it to perfection.
It is with great honor we award this Distinguished Service Award to Jay Milnor.
- Distinguished Service