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How smart do you think you are?

Mensa conducts testing in quest for new members to its society

TOWNSHEND—Local chapters of Mensa, the discriminating society for smart people with high IQs, are testing across the country during October.

Windham County will play host to a Mensa test on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 1 p.m., at the Townshend Library.

Why Townshend? Because it is the home of Stephen McConnel, who is Mensa’s local proctor and testing coordinator, and has been a member for more than 30 years.

Formed in 1946 in England, Mensa has more than 110,000 members, about 58,000 of them American.

Vermont claims 99 members, McConnel said, but just four years ago that number was as low as 15. Energetic recruiting expanded the roster, he said.

Mensa’s constitution lists three purposes: “to identify and to foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity; to encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence; and to provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.”

American Mensa “is an organization for people of IQs in the top two percentile,” according to the American Mensa website (www.americanmensa.org). The group runs 134 local chapters throughout the 50 states, groups as small as 37 and as large as 2,400.  The main office is in Arlington, Texas.

The literature gives countless examples of membership diversity, from Rockettes to professors, and presents a generally encouraging picture of what fun it is to be a member. All you have to do is pass a test or two, of the IQ sort, to join to the club. Test examples are available on most of the Mensa website, as are instructions for supplying scores from previous tests. You need only score in or above the 98th percentile to qualify.

A Mensan life

McConnel, 70, is an investor by trade and a woodworker by hobby. He lives what could be called the typical and slightly eccentric Mensan life.

Divorced twice, he remains close to his second wife’s children; he calls their four kids his grandchildren. Pictures of them are everywhere in his hilltop home, which he proudly points out is Townshend’s oldest house, an early 18th century structure moved in 1947 to the property from the center of town, on a property landscaped with several gardens and a pond.

McConnel’s parents, who were Connecticut residents, had bought a summer home in West Townshend many years ago across from what is now the Dam Diner. They sold the home when Route 30, according to McConnel, “was built in our backyard.”

His parents then bought the place off Deer Valley Road, where McConnel has lived since 1993.

In his collapsed narrative style, McConnel tells this story: “Dr. Otis came in after dinner and said, ‘Murray, I want to start a hospital. How do I do it?’”

McConnel is talking about Dr. Carlos Otis, the founder of Grace Cottage Hospital, and McConnel says that’s the way the hospital started in 1949. His father Murray, an investment banker, did all the financing for the hospital and became a trustee. His mother served as a volunteer. 

One old house, McConnel says, was in the way of a parking lot that Otis wanted to create. He gave Murray McConnel the house as long as he moved it.  That house, now cozily situated on the McConnel property, is a guest cottage.

* * *

Stephen McConnel says that Mensa was invented for people like him. 

Articulate and funny, and educated at Westminster, a private school in Simsbury, Conn., McConnel said he hated high school.

“The biggest challenge was getting through class while the slowest students finally got it,” he said, acting out his exasperation. “I’d sit there calculating the speed of light in inches per century.”

Nor did he want to go to college, although he finally did spend two years at Hobart in upstate New York. “The first year was a repeat of high school. I had one teacher who would say ‘okle dokle’ after you said anything, like b equals c.”

McConnel liked some of the jobs he had after college, such as working at a concrete company started by a friend of his father’s. There, he was responsible for practically running the place. 

“Best job I ever had,” he says.

He was in his early 20s and in a very long-term relationship with a young woman. Then McConnel fell in love with someone else he met through his father’s company in Connecticut, then followed her home to Dayton, Ohio. He finished college there, married her and moved back to Connecticut, where he took a job at Kaman Aerospace.

He didn’t want her to work, which he concedes was a mistake. The relationship lasted seven years. He says the break-up was amicable, but admits that it was the most “brutal thing I’ve ever been though.”

In the interim, McConnel learned to fly and to drive a race car; activities he said that were undertaken just for themselves. His major project at the time was building the largest privately-owned O-Scale model railroad in New England. He spent six years and built it all himself, including his own power supply.

McConnel also married again and began making his living in investments. That marriage lasted about 13 years.

At some point, McConnel said, he decided he wanted to have conversations about something other than “women, booze and fast cars in all their permutations,” which was what he was mostly talking about with his pals at the fire and rescue unit he belonged to in Connecticut.

This led him at age 38 to Mensa, and to the activities and camaraderie it offered. At the time, he was working on a degree in clinical psychology at the University of Hartford, but his studies were cut short when the school’s accreditation was withdrawn.

The Vermont chapter of Mensa offers multiple social gatherings for Mensans, including a monthly games night in Brattleboro, where all IQ levels are welcome. The next gathering runs from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in the Community Room of Brattleboro Savings & Loan at 221 Main St. Susan Misnick of Newfane is in charge of the event. Mensans and their friends and family will also gather in Barnard for a Halloween party.

The range of activities is clearly limited only by imagination and prodigious intelligence. “ Ideas are now being solicited for interesting stuff we can do as a group,” the Vermont chapter’s website reports, suggesting “Sport parachuting?  Cave exploring?  Museum trips?  Wine tasting?”

McConnel is closely connected to the Townshend population, partly through his Republican Party affiliations, but mainly from his connection to the Townshend Business Association, of which he was president for 15 years.

“Now I’m president consularis,” he explained. “It’s the only word I could come up with. Walter Meyer is president emeritus, and I’m president consularis.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #72 (Wednesday, October 20, 2010).

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