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Herbert Schacht, who ran his parents' Waterford Country School for decades, dies at 94

Waterford — When students at the Waterford Country School would run away, Herbert Schacht wouldn’t chase them. He wouldn’t yell at them, and he wouldn’t kick them out.

The longtime director, whose parents founded an early version of the school in New York in 1922, would simply follow them.

Eventually the students, many of whom had disabilities or mental illnesses and had come to the school after being kicked out of the public school system or other private facilities, got too tired to keep running.

So Schacht would sit down next to them and talk, his son Robert said Sunday, three days after Herbert died at the age of 94.

“He would talk with them, and when it was all said and done, and they decided to get back to the school, instead of punish them he would feed them,” Robert Schacht said.

Schacht leaves behind his wife, Emily — a nurse who met and married Herbert at the school in 1951 — plus seven children and 11 grandchildren.

But his impact is felt well beyond his immediate family.

Schacht was born in 1922 to his mother Ettie — whose family fled Russia when she was a baby and who taught George and Ira Gershwin in a New York elementary school — and Henry, also a teacher and an actor and Cornell University graduate.

The Schachts founded a school of their own in their home in New York, later expanding it to two buildings in Brooklyn and a summer program in Far Rockaway, N.Y. In 1929, they bought more than 500 acres of farmland in Waterford and established a summer camp for children with disabilities and mental illnesses, now the Waterford Country School.

Herbert Schacht would go on to serve as director for 40 years and continued to advocate for children long after he retired, though he never intended to work at the school.

He graduated from high school at age 15 and earned a degree in animal husbandry from the University of Connecticut.

“I was going to be an adventurer, traveling the world over,” he wrote in a history of the school. “I certainly did not want to be a teacher. I hated school.”

But when his parents had trouble finding a director for the Waterford summer program as they got ready to retire, Schacht stayed, helping to look after its six students and finding ways for them to help maintain the schools grounds, carrying wood, milking cows and gathering eggs.

“Need produced effort, and effort produced growth,” he wrote.

Soon juvenile courts and parents around the country were sending their children to Waterford. Schacht ran the school for decades after his parents retired, transforming it from a summer camp to a private school to a non-profit organization, all without professional training or educational philosophy except an unofficial motto: “everybody is somebody.”

“He treated it like a family,” said Eileen Olynciw, a member of the school’s board of trustees. “And to this day (the school has) kind of like a family feeling, throughout the organization.”

“He truly cared,” said Ray Johnson, another longtime school trustee. “I think everything that the Waterford Country School represents is as a result of the initial vision that Herb and Emily had.”

In his later years, when Schacht would express remorse that he had never used his agricultural degree, his son Robert insisted that he had, both literally and figuratively.

“I would constantly remind him that (he) had a working farm at the school,” Schacht said Sunday. And, he added, his father nourished the souls of the countless children he mentored just like a farmer.

“He planted seeds in them, and then would water them with the love and the support they needed,” he said.

Paul Eccard, who served as Waterford’s first selectman, said Sunday that he first met Schacht when Eccard was a 16-year-old employee of the town’s parks and recreation department.

He remembered driving to the Waterford Country School grounds to pick up food for a summer picnic and seeing Schacht stop for a moment with a student amid preparations for the 300-person meal.

“Herb gently and quietly moved through all the human chaos, and stopped to attend to one of the residents of the Waterford Country School,” Eccard said.

Decades later, as the town’s first selectman, Eccard would find Schacht in his office asking for help with off-road motorcyclists tearing through the woods behind the Waterford Country School.

Schacht wasn’t angry, or worried about his property, Eccard said. He was only concerned that the motorcycles would do environmental damage, or that their riders would be injured too far in the woods for anyone to help them.

In the winter, Robert Schacht said, his father would wait at the S-curve on Vauxhall Street with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a chain, ready to pull out drivers stuck in the snow.

“He just had that quality of sharing a human spirit with other people,” Eccard said. “I believe it was natural — that part doesn’t come from education and training. It came from his heart.”

m.shanahan@theday.com

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