MEET THE ARCHIVISTS: Preserving Severn's History

From its founding in 1914 to now, Severn has been known for many things: a Naval Academy prep school, a co-ed day school, and a rigorous college prep school. It is also the largest and oldest independent school in Anne Arundel County.
While the buildings and the layout of the campus may have changed over the years, the core values of the school have not. Severn has always been a vibrant place where students are encouraged to discover what matters, take a stand, build community, and continue to build upon the legacy of those who have come before them.

It is also a place where community matters and where the contributions and experiences of Admirals from every decade are honored and celebrated. Take just one step into Severn’s impressive Teel Campus entryway – the Rotunda – and all 109 years of the school’s past immediately greet you. The name of every Severn School graduate since the school’s single graduate in 1914 is etched into the walls, stretching from floor to ceiling. While those names are just one small piece of Severn’s storied history, they might be the best representation of it, save for the diligence and resolve of two enthusiastic volunteers.

Now officially recognized as Severn’s volunteer archivists, former Severn teacher Carol Duncan and Severn alum Nina Paradiso ’98 dedicate time each week to gathering, organizing, and cataloging Severn’s rich history. They are occasionally joined by other retired teachers as well.

This effort initially started with Duncan in 1999 in the school’s basement and, mostly due to her persistence, has evolved into a dedicated archive situated on the top floor of the Alumni House. “Things were scattered all over the campus,” said Duncan, referring to her early days building the collection. “From garages of some of the school’s houses or way down in the basement, I would find things all over.”

After deciding that she would take up this cause, Duncan started small, asking for just one room and some shelves to begin organizing this growing collection related to Severn’s history. Because she was doing this part-time initially – she was still working as an art teacher then – Duncan rallied some additional support to start cataloging and organizing the sheer volume of items. “Students sometimes took it on as their senior project, and the administration for a time offered one hour of paid time a day so other faculty members would come down there to help for an hour here or there,” she said.

“I’m just so impressed with the Teel family,” added Duncan. “To think, this couple in their 20’s started this school! I feel like I’m doing this for them.”

Duncan retired in 2008 and stepped away from the archives for about five years. But the lure of the past and excitement around the preparations for the 100th anniversary eventually pulled her back in. In 2013 she took on a more active role with the archives. “There was a really big push 10 years ago because we were getting ready for Severn’s Centennial celebration,” said Duncan. “I went down there to look for something for a play they were doing for the celebration, and I got absolutely hooked on being in there with all that history.”

Eventually, she found that she needed to install a better system to organize the many items she found or that were brought to her. They had time and volunteers, but no real plan. To solve that, Duncan arranged to speak with an archivist from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and learned the secret to organizing and maintaining an archive. “He told us the trick of how to build an archive. He said whatever you have needs to fit into three categories, and that’s it,” said Duncan. “It is up to you to decide those categories, but everything must be able to fit into one of those categories.”

She began speaking with other members of the Severn community who had volunteered with her previously or had an interest in the archives to help determine those three specific categories. After careful consideration, Duncan had her three categories: community, programs, and governance. “Community, because that is who we are,” said Duncan. “The students, the parents, the faculty, alumni—there’s a connection that stays with you at Severn.”

Photos and yearbooks comprise a significant amount of the community category, going back several decades. These are often on display in the glass-fronted cases at the reception area on Teel Campus, which Duncan and Paradiso update several times a year. This past spring, they highlighted old theater productions in conjunction with the Upper School spring musical, The Little Shop of Horrors. They found old photos, props, programs, and memorabilia from several plays and musicals over the years, which were a big hit for theater alums who came back for a special reception before watching the musical.

Programs include anything related to academics, theater, and athletics. “Mr. and Mrs. Teel really believed that we had to have a balance between academics and athletics and other programs,” said Duncan. “We’ve kept that balance for students to be well-rounded since 1914.” Items in the programs category include old faculty résumés and relics from teaching before technology. They also have Severn athletics memorabilia from years past. “We have an old Severn cheerleading uniform,” said Paradiso, referring to the now-defunct Severn cheerleading program. “We also have a few old blankets that students used to huddle under to watch football games on the old fields.”

The third category, governance, relates to the running of Severn School and previous headmasters, board of trustees, buildings and grounds, and more. Duncan and Paradiso admit that this is the hardest one to file things under, as they only have a few items that typically fall under this category. However, they still look forward to categorizing every item they come across. “We’ll never be through [organizing],” said Paradiso, admitting that for her that is part of the fun.

Paradiso, a former student of Duncan’s, jumped at the chance to return and work with her in the archives—
something she’s been doing since 2016. “Every day is different working where we do,” said Paradiso. “We may be looking through old photographs or meeting with alums who come back to campus and tell us their Severn story.” Both Duncan and Paradiso emphasize how much they enjoy meeting with Severn alums who are on campus for a meeting or special occasion or who simply drop by the Alumni House for a visit. “We always welcome visitors, current and past,” said Duncan. “We love just talking to people about their stories and their time at Severn. You never know what you will learn about Severn that you didn’t know before.”

They also encourage Severn students to come by, especially those who are interested in history. They find that there is a certain percentage of the student body that really enjoys looking back into the past and encourage them to make use of the archive. “We are absolutely a resource for current students,” said Paradiso. “We really want to be there for the kids.”

The Alumni House and the Archives are open to all members of the Severn Community.

Lower School

Upper School