Armed with his religion and dedication to “the spirit of social service,” Rev. John Byron Diman founded St. George’s Episcopal boarding school. He continued establishing two other education hubs — a vocational school in Fall River for high school “dropouts” and Portsmouth Priory School.
Diman came from a line of prestigious Rhode Islanders — his grandfather Byron Diman was the Law and Order governor in 1846. Francis Diamond, another relative who used an alternative spelling, served as governor in 1853. His father, Jeremiah Lewis Diman, was a Congregational minister and Brown University professor who graduated from Brown in 1851. He married Emily Gardner Stimson, a member of another prominent Rhode Island family, in 1861. Jeremiah Diman became pastor of the Harvard Congregational Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, where John Byron was born on May 24, 1863. His father resigned in 1864 to accept the History and Political Economy chair at Brown University.
John Diman attended English-Classical School, graduated from Brown in 1885, and entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1888 but never received priestly ordination in the Episcopal Church. That year, he became the first permanent rector of the newly established St. Columba’s Church in Middletown. From there, he went to Providence to teach, an experience that led him to devote the rest of his life to secondary education. In late 1896, with his sister Emily, he opened an Episcopal boarding and day school for boys on Catherine Street in Newport that evolved into the prestigious St. George’s School.
He announced the opening of his day and boarding school with this advertisement in The Newport Daily News on Aug.31, 1896:
Mr. John B. Diman(A.M. Harvard) will open a small Boarding School for Boys In Newport, R.I. on October 1, 1896. Preparation for any college or scientific school. For circular and references, address 22 Catherine St., Newport, RI.
“To teach a reverent attitude toward life, even to the so-called common-place things, respect for all members the human family, truthfulness that is deeper than mere outward expression, the dignity of simple living, respect for hard play and hard work and the value of persistent effort in overcoming difficulties,” Diman wrote in his “Purposes of the School” document in 1896.
He had one master and eleven pupils when “Diman’s School for Small Boys” opened. Tuition was listed as $650 for boarding students and $150 for day students. (Tuition in 2023 was $73,000.) Diman’s sister Emily, the house mother, one other teacher, a cook, and a janitor were on hand for the opening. The residence known as Armistead Cottage on Hunter Avenue, still standing today, housed the Diman School. The school outgrew its residence by 1901, and Diman, with the help of prominent Middletown residents, acquired the magnificent tract of hilltop meadowland where St. George’s now stands. A beautiful Georgian structure was erected at the head of a long driveway to house the new school. By the autumn of 1901, work was completed, and St. George’s School, then numbering 40 boys, moved into its new home.
As headmaster and teacher, Hugh Diman preferred respect to love; he once complained of a picture that did not make him look strict enough. He was kindly to his boys but rarely familiar; at his most informal, he would give them friendly pokes in the ribs with his walking stick. The boys talked about his bad driving (he permanently scarred a driveway maple tree at St. George’s) or his absentmindedness.
With alumni such as Leonard Bacon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet; Prescott Bush, a World War I artillery captain, U.S. senator and father of former President George H. W. Bush; John Jacob Astor, owner of The Times newspaper in London; and several Vanderbilts, including Rhode Island Gov. William Henry Vanderbilt III, it would seem the school, in some ways, lived up to its mission. “St. George’s has had a major influence in my life,” George Bush wrote to the school on its 100th anniversary. “[My father] always told me of the influence St. George’s had on his own wonderful life; how it helped him to understand the importance of volunteerism — of public service too.”
St. George’s came close to the ideal of a general education, but because it taught slowly and tried to teach character and not job skills, it clearly and necessarily had to be a school for rich boys. Diman wanted to do something for working-class boys. The fact that the sons of the mill workers seldom rose above their fathers’ stations and that supervisory employees continued to be brought from abroad struck Diman as tragic. In 1912, the Diman Vocational School opened its doors in Fall River, Mass., the big mill town where Diman’s father had been a minister. Backed by Unionist John Golden, the school trained boys of 14 to 16 (too old for grammar school, too young for the mills) in manual trades. Today, the Diman Vocational School has a national reputation and is part of the Fall River public school system.
In late October 1916, John Diman announced his retirement as founding headmaster of St. George’s after twenty-one years in that post, observing that “perfect harmony exists in the councils of the school.” Diman converted to Catholicism on December 16, 1917, and went to England during World War I, becoming a Captain in the British Red Cross. After the armistice, he studied theology in Rome. This experience and a developing friendship with another convert, Father Henry P. Sargent, led Diman to take his priestly vows at Belmont Abbey, North Carolina, in 1921. Fr. Diman entered the Order of St. Benedict at St. Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus, Scotland, in 1923 at the age of nearly 60.
Though Diman changed religion and his name to Rev. Dom John Hugh Diman, O.S.B., he never wavered in his commitment to education. His Benedictine superiors recognized this passion when they decided to open a school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, on waterfront land called Hall Manor. Father Diman was named founding headmaster when the school opened in 1925. He retired in 1942 and died on St. Patrick’s Day, 1949, at 85.
Rev. John B. Diman was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2009.
For additional reading:
Diman Family Papers, 1801-1954. The Rhode Island Historical Society.
Saint George’s School in the War, Alumni Association of St. George’s School, 1920.