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Three photos of the MacJannet Campers from the 1930s

At the heart of the MacJannet legacy are the values of international exchange, tolerance, enlightenment, and cultural understanding. These are the ideals that Donald and Charlotte MacJannet lived and taught as they created structured, educational experiences for youth and adults that promoted hard work and discipline, mutual respect, experiential learning, and cultural exchange. 

A black-and-white portrait of the MacJannets in front of the Priory.

A native New Englander, Donald MacJannet did not initially seem destined to be the friend and educator of world leaders, nor the donor of an ancient priory. He was born in 1894 in Sterling, Massachusetts to Robert McJannet, a fundamentalist Scottish-born minister, and Irene Waters, of old New England ancestry. Donald was orphaned at age 15 and was sent with his sister to live with a family friend in Medford, Massachusetts, not far from Tufts College (as it was known at the time). She was a widow of modest means and MacJannet became the sole support of not only his younger sister, but also of the woman and her son.

MacJannet attended Tufts, partly on scholarship, and partly through his own propensity for earning his keep, working after school as a church janitor and cookware salesman. MacJannet thrived at Tufts, and in many ways, the college became his family. He won a varsity letter for track, sang in the glee club, and took up languages – French, German, and Latin. When he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1916 with a degree in French literature, his classmates bestowed on him a rare distinction, voting him both Class Day and Commencement Orator.

After his graduation from Tufts in 1916MacJannet worked briefly at the St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. before joining the military to serve as a pilot in WWI. After the war, he went to Paris to continue his studies at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, MacJannet began providing lessons to the children in the expatriate community who, because they were foreigners, were not allowed to join the French school system. In Paris, MacJannet discovered that his real passion was teaching and, in 1924, he founded his first school, the MacJannet School for Young Americans, just outside Paris.   

With the success of his school, he was inspired to create an American-style summer camp for his students and, in 1925, he acquired a piece of land at Angon/Talloires on Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie where he opened the MacJannet Summer Camps – Camp L’Aiglon for boys and Camp Alouette for girls. Camps such as these were then virtually unknown outside America. The MacJannet Summer Camps embodied MacJannet’s own philosophy of education, one that emphasized experiential learning while teaching tolerance, teamwork, and mutual respect.  

In 1932, MacJannet met German-born Charlotte Blensdorf while attending a conference. Charlotte had been a student of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, whose philosophy of movement and musical expression is known as eurythmics, and started her own school in Sweden after WWI. After hearing Charlotte talk about her school, MacJannet invited her to see his camps in Lake Annecy. Two months later, they were married. 

The confluence of their philosophies made for a successful camp environment. They were devoted to young people and operated the camps from 1925 until 1964, closing them for a brief time during WWII when they used the camps to lodge French war orphans. Hundreds of children attended the MacJannet schools and camps over the years including many prominent figures such as Prince Philip and Indira Gandhi 

An old doorbell, now rusted, with the word "MacJannet" above it in stoneIn 1958, as Donald was nearing retirement age, Charlotte, who was looking for a facility where she could teach her movement classes, heard that the old Talloires Priory was for sale by auction. The building was in ruins, having been abandoned for 150 years. Nonetheless, the couple saw great potential there as a place to bring people together for learning and exchange, a place that could be a positive force for world peace and prosperity. They purchased the building and throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, slowly and lovingly renovated it as they hosted educational sessions, concerts, and ecumenical conferences.

After his 80th birthday, Donald MacJannet started to think of the future of the Priory. Because of the strong allegiance to Tufts that he had maintained all his life, he began to imagine the building as part of Tufts’ educational mission.  

Tufts President Jean Mayer shared Donald MacJannet’s vision for the Priory and on May 27, 1979, French Prime Minister Raymond Barre and a small group of academic, business, and government figures joined President Mayer in inaugurating the Tufts Center for European Studies.  

Thanks to Donald MacJannet’s gift, the Tufts University European Center now serves not only Tufts undergraduates, but also college students, high school students, alumni, and professionals from around the world. It remains a place of international education and cultural exchange, a place such as the MacJannets dreamed it could be when they purchased it. 

To read more about the MacJannets and their legacy, please visit the Tufts University Library Archives.