Thursday, December 31, 2015

Albert T. Sprague

Captain Sprague, March, 1945, commanding the Cebu invasion
My mother visited us last night and we got her talking about her father, Albert T. Sprague Jr, who was a Captain in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Mom was born in 1941 just before the United States entered the War, and so didn't see much of her father as a result. The war ended in 1945; Grandpa retired not too many years later and eventually moved the family to central Alabama where he taught in the Department of Engineering at Auburn University. My mothers' first complete memories of her father begin in Auburn, but she remembers he never talked about the war, and there was a sense growing up that asking about it was off-limits.

I thought it would be interesting to delve more deeply ito my grandfather's life. Albert Tilden Sprague, Jr. entered the Naval Academy during World War I. That he joined the Navy is not surprising given his ancestral history: His great grandfather, Seth Ford (1798-1891), was captain of the "Smyrna," a merchant ship, for 25 years, while his grandfather, Albert T. Sprague I (1843-1922) commanded the "Annapolis" before retiring from sea life early, upset with the increasing prominence of steamships (!). His father, Albert T. Sprague II (1870-1943), stepped away from that tradition, becoming an engineer, marrying Ella Worster Baker, and together they had four children: Albert III, Elizabeth (who died in childhood), Willard Ford, and Barbara. My grandfather was technically the "third" Albert of his line, but must have assumed the title of "Jr." during his adult life when his grandfather passed away. Combining the professions of his ancestors, he graduated from Annapolis in 1919 as a naval officer with a degree in Engineering, 28th in a class of 199 men.

Not much is known about his early professional career in the Navy, but he married twice: First, to Ebba Briand, with whom he had three children: June, Evie and Albert Tilden IV. Upon Ebba's death, he married my grandmother, Marie Ancona Robertson, and had two children: my mother, Katharine, and Caroline. Thus my grandmother "inherited" three teenage children and was soon pregnant with my mother, just as the War was breaking out and her husband was away at sea--no easy task!

U.S.S. Beaver, 1943
During World War II, my grandfather was first a Commander of the USS Beaver, a Submarine Tender, from October of 1941 to April of 1942. "Commander" is a rank just below "Captain," and "submarine tenders" were ships that supported submarines, carrying necessary supplies and equipment that subs were too small to carry for themselves. He was then elevated to "Captain" in April of 1942 and given command of the Cruiser USS Raleigh. The rank of "Captain" is the senior most commissioned officer rank below a "flag" officer (Admiral), and in time of warfare especially, to be in charge of a warship was a grave responsibility and a high honor. 

U.S.S. Raleigh

Though there were different "types" during WWII, "Cruisers" were large warships, approximately 550 feet in length, designed to work in tandem with smaller "Destroyers," typically 350 feet in length. They featured big six inch guns and were surprisingly quick for their size, with top speeds of 35 "knots" or about 40 mph. During WWII, it was typical that "Omaha class" Cruisers had a crew of approximately 450 enlisted men and 30 officers.

Naval Operations in Cebu, WWII

That he must have earned respect in his role as Captain is evidenced by the fact he was given even greater responsibility, when in March of 1945, he was asked to lead an invasion of Cebu in the Philippine Islands. Cebu was in the southern Phillipines, regarded as the second most important industrial island in the Phillipines and an important harbor for future Allied operations. It was under Japanese control, garrisoned by 14500 to 15000 Japanese troops. 

"Task Group 78.2" was the name of the Cebu Naval operation, to be done in conjunction with the U.S. Army's "Americal" division, under the direction of Major General William Arnold, which had won earlier fame by its victory at the Battle of Gaudalcanal. Captain Sprague's mission was to lead an amphibious assault on the island, secure the shoreline and provide landing and support for the Army's fight inland. At least three Cruisers and six Destroyers supported the Naval efforts. It's worth noting that typically, "flag officers" commanded these kind of missions, not Captains, and in fact, Rear Admiral Fechteler was originally named the task commander, but he was unexpectedly detached for duty as Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel in Washington, D.C. and my grandfather was chosen to lead in his place. 

Cebu landing
The invasion is well documented in the WWII historical accounts. After bombardment by Cruisers beginning at 2 a.m. and minesweeping along the coastal waters in the very early morning, the first amphibious group began landing at 8 a.m. Military historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, in his book the Liberation of the Philippines, describes the early invasion thus:

Ferdinand Magellan landed at the site of Cebu City on 7 April 1521 and promptly made an ally of the local Rajah. He lost his life on the nearby island of Mactan on 28 April 1521 when personally leading an amphibious assault against one of the Rajah's enemies. The natives caught him in shoal water covering the retreat of his men, who were beyond the then very limited range of gunfire support, and with their spears did to death this greatest of navigators. Four hundred and twenty one years later, Captain Sprague, walking almost in Magellan's steps, was also troubled by shoal waters, but not hampered by lack of gunfire support. Yet he had to surmount one hazard which Magellan never had to face--land mines. (p. 235, Liberation of Philippines, Chicago, 1959)

In fact, ten of the first fifteen LVT's ashore were knocked out by mines only a few yards inland, and adding to the distress, submerged log booms held beaching craft up for several hours. But by the afternoon, the Navy had secured full access, allowing the Army to land and press inward. The Japanese chose not to engage U.S. soldiers on the shoreline in direct fire, but instead created barricades further inland, believing it gave them a strategic advantage. Unfortunately for the them, much of their fortifications were within range of the guns on the naval ships, which blasted away at them as the Army advanced. The eyewitness accounts are telling: "Destroyer fire is excellent," and "Pillboxes destroyed on the ridge, the Japs were smoked into the open, and we mowed 'em down with automatic fire."

Indeed, as with most of the Philippine island wars, it was a brutal, bloody battle. The fighting continued for almost a month, becoming more intense as the Army pushed inward, before all the Japanese fortifications were eventually destroyed, and the few remaining Japanese soldiers retreated to the hills of northern Cebu, deemed "without menace." By the end of the fighting, the U.S. Army had lost 410 men, with 1700 wounded and 8000 "non-battle casualties, principally victims of various jungle diseases." There were just a few Naval casualties, victims of land mines. Some 5500 Japanese were killed, and 8500 more surrendered at the end of the war, including three generals and an admiral. For  youtube video of the Cebu invasion, with actual historical footage, go here.

At some point shortly thereafter, Grandpa was promoted to "Commodore." The rank of "Commodore" no longer exists in the U.S. Navy, but was briefly revived in WWII due to the rapid expansion of the Navy during the war, requiring Captains like my grandfather to assume command responsibilities far beyond that of a single ship. The rank of "Commodore" was the equivalent of a "one-star" Admiral and somewhere around 100 men had that rank in the Navy and Coast Guard by the War's end.

After the War, Grandpa taught at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA and later was name C.O. of a Naval Munitions Dump in Dover, New Jersey, before formally retiring from the Navy in 1948. The Navy honored him at retirement by promoting him to "Rear Admiral" (two stars), and his service to his country now complete, he began civilian life with his family in Auburn. I was only six years old when he passed away and have very few memories of him, but my father credited Grandpa in teaching him how to "play" with us kids. Dad grew up in a rather formal family, but recounted visits when Grandpa would get down on the rug on all fours with my sisters and me, barking like a dog or wrestling with us, as we squealed with glee. At first, he was somewhat taken aback, but realized if a decorated, World War II Sea Captain could do it, then it was probably OK for him to do, too. My sisters and I have fond memories of wrestling with my father, just as my grandfather had done.

Grandpa died in 1968 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, together with his two wives. He is survived today by his third child, my Aunt Evie, and his fourth and fifth child, my mother and Aunt Caroline. Tom Brokaw, speaking about the men of WWII, said they were America's "greatest generation." It's hard to argue with that. I am simply honored to be his grandson.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Faus, Kate and Josie
May the LORD bless you from Zion;
may you see Jerusalem’s prosperity
all the days of your life, 
and live to see your children’s children.
Peace upon Israel! (Psalm 128)

My greatest worry as a Catholic high school teacher starting out was my ability to provide for my family. I had just finished graduate school, was beginning my first year of teaching, and was engaged to be married in June. Some time that fall, I remember going to my principal and saying, rather directly, “I love high school teaching and might want to do it as a career, but I don’t think I can support a family on $15,000 a year (my first contract).” “No,” he said, smiling. “You can’t. If you want to stay in Catholic education long term, you need to think about becoming a principal.” 

I remember being surprised by that comment. “Principal” was certainly not what I had envisioned for myself while in graduate school. I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I wasn’t sure I had the “stuff.” And even if I did, would it truly be enough to raise a family? I simply didn’t know, and I remember asking God to provide, somehow, and enrolled in administration courses shortly thereafter. 

That was 31 years ago.

I became a high school principal four years later, at 27, and am now in the middle of my 27th year as principal, president or headmaster of a Catholic high school. Diane and I have been blessed with four children, mostly grown now, and we live comfortably in a middle class neighborhood. Our two oldest married wonderful spouses, the kind you pray about for your children, and both have become parents themselves, so we are now officially “grandparents.”

Cynthia, Grant and Justina
Our son and his wife visited us this Christmas, with their four month old daughter, “Josie.” It was a glorious week. We walked down the State Pier, watching fishermen pull strange things from the Gulf, such a stingrays, sea urchins, and sharks. We spend a full morning at a Civil War settlement in Blakely, AL, walking through trails, along rivers, and viewing remnants of a Confederate fort.  Mostly we spent a lot of time with our children and with Josie, who began to recognize us and smile when we greeted her. It doesn’t get much better than having your baby granddaughter smile at you! 

May you live to see your children’s children,” says the psalmist, and as new grandparents, we are beginning to understand the great depth of that blessing prayer. I consider myself in “mid-career” now, and yes, I have “miles to go before I sleep” (Frost), but it is good to “stop by the woods” every now and then and reflect, with gratitude, the fullness of God’s blessings to me, my wife and my family thus far.  He has indeed, “provided.”  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rev. Mr. Holcombe Pryor

I learned yesterday that Holcombe Pryor, the long-time band director of McGill-Toolen, and later a deacon in the Archdiocese of Mobile, passed away.

I was a student at McGill from 1976-1980 when the band program at McGill, under the leadership of “Mr. Pryor,” was at its zenith, widely regarded as one of the best high school bands in the southeast. I was NOT in the band, and sad to say, being a teenage boy preoccupied by all those things that worry us at that age, I'm not sure I paid too much attention to it. The band was really good--we all knew that-- and I do remember being impressed with some of the school sponsored concerts in the gym. Many of his students, I recall, made “all-state” band in that era. But the band had been so good for so long, it was easy for everyone to assume that “excellence” was simply the norm.

For the last twenty-seven years, in contrast, I’ve been a Catholic school principal, trying to build a band program as good as Mr. Pryor’s.  I can say, with authority, that an excellent high school band is NOT the norm!  In fact, good high school bands are quite rare and difficult to create. They require an exceptionally versatile musician who is simultaneously patient, optimistic, encouraging, demanding, hard-working, organized, savvy in the music he selects, and wise in pairing students with the correct instruments to match their "talents" with the needs of the band.  He must doggedly and bravely “conduct” fledgling younger students as they screech their way through the instruments they’re learning to play,  always with an encouraging smile on his face, while the musician inside him recoils within. He must conduct fund-raisers for band needs, sweat with marching bands on the fields during the summer months, keep track of uniforms (and alterations!), and a thousand other micro-duties, and at the same time, communicate the great love for music that marks his life--always with joy, always with enthusiasm, always with an ear to make things sound even better.   

People who can do all these things well are rare talents. In a different life, they could have been wealthy C.E.O’s of multinational corporations. But they are teachers, instead, nobly doing their best to pass on the great gift of music to those they lead and those who may listen.

I didn’t know Holcombe when he was a deacon in his later life, as I was living out of the area. But I do know-- now as principal-- that living one’s life to inspire a love for music is itself, a vocation of great love.

We’ve lost a prodigiously talented, generous and good man. We who live here, or who attended McGill during his years as band director, owe him a great debt. May his soul, and all the souls of the faithfully departed, rest in peace. Amen.

Saturday, June 27, 2015


The house of my childhood, 51 S. Julia St.
As I drove down Government Street in Mobile, Al  last week under the canopy of live oaks which so defines this city, I found myself smiling, remembering when I was sixteen and learning to drive with my mother in the car. Because the city so treasures these trees, they’ve widened the major streets as far as they could without tearing them down, leaving very little room in the right median. “Over to your left! Left! Left!” my mother would say repeatedly, convinced I was going to crash into those trees. And so I learned to hug the middle lanes, a practice I continue unreflectively, thirty five years later.

We are shaped powerfully by our hometowns, in smaller and larger ways. Arriving here in mid-June I was instantly reminded of the heat and humidity, which hits you like a wave that washes over you when you step out of the house. I am convinced that’s what causes everyone down here to slow down and be a little less concerned with punctuality, lest we arrive at our destinations on time but dripping in sweat. My wife, a veritable northerner from Montgomery, fussed at me the first three or four years of our marriage for being consistently 3-5 minutes “late” for things, and I would argue that five minutes was well within the margin of error in “coastal time,” but she eventually won that battle, and now we and our four children are practically O.C.D. , arriving five minutes early. That’s OK--we’re living here now, and I fully expect the pace of this place to win my wife over.

Though I grew up in Mobile, I spent a large portion of my summers near Point Clear with my good friend Vincent Ho, whose parents owned (and still own) a house and pier on the bay. Fishing, playing guitar, sailing, catching crabs, arguing and laughing--I have fond memories of those days. Now I will be living nearby, three and one half decades after the fact, and it feels like a story in which the later chapters begin to enlighten the earlier ones, bringing the disparate parts into a whole.

My father is no longer with us. What weighs on me about that, apart from simply missing him, is I am now the oldest male of my family, the “heir apparent,” though I am keenly aware that I fall miles short of Dad on many fronts. Still, being here gives me the new opportunity to be the son to my mother, the big brother to my sister and her family, and to be connected to the family “hub” in a way that was impossible when I was living away these last three decades. I welcome the opportunity to reintegrate with them, with old friends, and with new ones I’ve not yet met. And I look forward to building my life here with my wife, tying her together with my past, and forging our futures together.

There is no place like home.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fond Farewell

It’s 7 a.m. Thursday morning, two days before we leave Hendersonville, TN, our home for the last seven years.  I am sitting on the deck of my house and it’s cool outside, with a gentle breeze blowing. Inside, the house is in complete disarray, with random boxes laying half packed in the living room, some of the familiar furniture missing, already packed from a hard week’s work, and miscellaneous items strewn about the floor.

As has been typical through-out my life, I find myself writing so as to bring order to the disarray of thoughts jumbling around in my head. Or maybe it’s just to get away from the boxes.

My wife Diane feels these transitions more than me, but even I have been tinged with dueling emotions of excitement for our next adventure, mixed with the melancholy of leaving JPII. For me, “place” is inexorably wrapped up in “job,” and I am keenly aware that I am leaving what I still believe is one of the best Catholic high schools in the country. For Diane, it’s about the quality of the relationships she’s formed--with fellow teachers at the school, with her Church music group, with a wonderful group of women she’s come to know socially.

Even so, I am returning home to Mobile, Al to begin a new Catholic high school there.  That word “home”  resonates even more powerfully in the wake of my father’s death last spring. I was eighteen when I left Mobile, a wide-eyed freshman on my way to Notre Dame, and I’ve been back many times since, but but only as a temporary guest, visiting my parents and my sister’s family. Now we return to put down roots, and there is something cathartic about that, almost as if our lives have run full circle. Being there for my mother in her golden years will also be a great blessing.

I am grateful for these last seven years as headmaster of JPII. I found it a deeply challenging school to lead, so much so there were moments of self-doubt, something my wife will tell you (with a wry smile) is a pretty rare thing. The level of expectation that falls upon all parties-- students, teachers, administration, headmaster--is so high as to be at times crushing, but I think that’s the flip side of a school that is also exceptional in helping kids stretch beyond their capabilities and the fantastic results that follow. Jacob Telli, a recent graduate and winner of the “scholar-athlete” award that recognizes one male and one female who have excelled in both the classroom and playing field, achieving “balance” in their commitments to both, said during his acceptance speech that he “never felt balanced a single day of his life at JPII.” He then added “But I learned in Physics that things have to be out of balance to move, and so I want to thank my teachers for making me so uncomfortable all of these years and moving me forward.” I think Jacob summarizes the sense of JPII quite beautifully. High expectations are not a bad thing in the long run. In the short run, there’s going to be some stress.  

I am grateful not just in the abstract, but for specific people I have come to know and work with these last seven years. Karen Phillips and Mike McLaren are two of the finest people I’ve ever met and are the heart and soul of JPII. Laura Thigpen, Betsy Pierpoli and Vicki Dorr are exceptionally gifted women who lead the school’s business office. Michelle Barber has been a great blessing to the school and to me in the short time she’s been there. Behind the scenes, there are magnificent women such as Sheree DiMenno, Jolind Weaver, Sharon Hager, and Karen Brown In the classroom, one would be hard-pressed to find better teachers than Betty Mayberry, Jennifer Dye, Andrew Griffith, Jennifer Smith, Paul Saboe, the Pepers and so many others. Deacon Edwards, Fr. McGowan and Melissa Vaughn have done a magnificent job in campus ministry and I’m very proud of the community of faith we’ve formed. I am grateful for my relationship with Alan Mila, Justin Geisinger, Scott Shaver, Michael Brown, Bob Page and Kip Brown--exceptional men first, and excellent coaches second. I am proud of our fine arts program and faculty. I want to thank Dr. Barrow for the special kindness he’s shown our son Daniel. Special gratitude to my executive assistant these last two years, Lori Jones, who has been my “left brain” in keeping me organized even while juggling many other tasks. I am only sorry I didn’t ask her to become my assistant much earlier.

Thank you, too, to Bill Wood, who led our Board of Trustees during my earlier years with the school. Bill was a great confidante of mine and spent innumerable hours helping me lead the school--frankly, I’m not sure how he also maintained his business during those years. I will always remain humbled by and grateful to the Carell family for their magnificent generosity to JPII--to Monroe and Anne, for their original gift to create the school and their philanthropy to our students for tuition assistance thereafter, and to Jim Carell, for his gifts that helped us re-design and complete our athletic facilities.  Dr. Williams, superintendent of Catholic Schools, was always supportive of me, and I am grateful to her. From the beginning, Bishop Choby was both friendly and pastoral, and I can only hope to forge a similar relationship with Archbishop Rodi in Mobile.

I am aware that by naming those people I am grateful for, I am unwittingly forgetting many people who are unnamed and rightfully deserving of my explicit gratitude, so please forgive me. Suffice it to say that what makes for an excellent school is NOT the headmaster, but the many, many people who labor out of love for our students and for our school, sometimes in public, but more often than not behind the scenes, in private--preparing excellent lessons for class the next day, planning an event just right so that it goes off without a hitch, grading an essay carefully, writing recommendation letters for college admissions, working with kids after school in tutorials, throwing extra pitches after practice, editing a document for publication for the umpteenth time, designing a school web page, monitoring after school detentions, giving kids extra studio time to finish an art project, or counseling a student after hours. I am filled with gratitude for all of you.

I will miss you. May God bless you, and may He continue to bless this magnificent school.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Alma Mater

Student assembly address, my last as headmaster of JPII

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, so I thought it appropriate to share three stories about mothers facing difficult circumstances that I came to know in my role as principal. 

In the early 1990’s, I substituted for our freshman Geography teacher some time in early September. She was teaching students  to understand maps, and as one of the first assignments, she wanted them to map out our campus, which was pretty easy, because at the time our campus consisted of two buildings: a long, narrow rectangular main building that ran horizontal with the street, and a rectangular gym behind the main building, perpendicular to it, to the left, in effect making an "L." So we went outside and studied it for a few moments, then came back inside and students drew what they saw. There was one kid in the class, we’ll call him Jim, who handed in a “map” with two perfect squares on top of each other. It wasn’t even close to being correct. So I suggested he go outside and look again. He did so, then came back and drew a square and a circle on top of the square.  He just couldn’t see it, and I remember thinking, Jim had very little chance of making it through our curriculum. 

But I had not yet met his mom. She was amazing. She knew her son had serious learning disabilities, so every night she sat down with him,  reviewing what they had studied in school that day, helping him with his homework. She didn’t want her son to be treated any differently than anyone else, and she asked for no “favors” or considerations from Jim's teachers, telling me once “When my son has to get a job, he must compete along with everyone else, and he won't get accommodations.”  For sure, Jim struggled during his years of high school, and along the way, failed many tests, and even had to go to summer school for a few of his classes. But his mom kept him from feeling sorry for himself, kept him from giving up or getting discouraged, and because of her, Jim became an alumnus of our school.

Second story: I received a tip from students that a junior boy, Joe,  was selling marijuana at our school, so I pulled Joe out of class and asked him to empty his backpack. Sure enough, he had a substantial bag of marijuana in his bag—too big for his personal use alone. Add to that there were smaller plastic bags in his backpack to be used, obviously, for distributing and selling smaller amounts.  “What’s this?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Joe thought nervously for a moment, then set his jaw, steeling himself for the lie. “I have no idea, Mr. Weber.  Someone must have placed it in my bag.” “Why would someone do that?” I asked. “People don’t like me, I guess.” And so we went back and forth for a while, and as he continued to weave together this long lie, he became more confident, even cocky, admitting no wrong doing.  I brought in his parents, and began asking him the same kind of questions in their presence, getting similar answers. Finally, his mother, with fire in her eyes, looked fiercely at her son and said, “Joseph, cut the crap. You are my son. Our family isn't perfect, but we're not liars. You tell Mr. Weber the truth.” And as that  young man looked into his mother’s eyes, he crumbled, teared up some, admitted he was selling and told us the whole story.  Yes, I had to expel him, but I am happy to report there's a good ending to the story: Because of this mother and her insistence that her son be truthful and take responsibility for his mistakes, that hard moment served as the beginning of a real turnaround in Joe's life. He's now happily married with children of his own. 

Third story: There was a senior boy, CJ, who played basketball in our school—one of the best athletes in the school. He had been raised all his life by his mom; his dad left them when he was an infant. She was a nurse and worked extra shifts so she could pay for her son to attend our school. She was a tough, uncompromising woman, having to play the role of mother and father in her son’s life, and she lived a hard life.  The last home basketball game, we did senior recognition the same way we do it here: seniors were introduced with their parents and walked out to half court together. The problem was this boys’ mother had become very sick,  even hospitalized at one point, and wasn’t supposed to come to the game.  She couldn’t really walk, even. But nothing could have kept her away, and she showed up in a wheel chair. When the boy was announced, instead of walking out with his mom, he walked across the court to where his mother was sitting, and very tenderly, helped her from her wheelchair to her feet. It took some time for her to stand, and the gym went silent. When she finally stood up, the boy took her arm  into his and stood with her, proudly. The moment was very moving to everyone in the gym, because this young man, who played basketball with such toughness, treated his mom with such reverence.

So three stories about three moms. But what do they say about motherhood? First, as in the case of the boy with learning disabilities, a mother’s love and attention can empower us to achieve great things, far beyond our natural abilities. Second, mothers compel us to be honest—with others, but just as important, honest with ourselves. Third, moms inspire us to be reverent and kind. 

Seniors will graduate this Saturday, and JPII will become their “alma mater.” That’s an interesting Latin term, which means literally “nourishing mother.” I think long ago people realized that good schools are a lot like good mothers. I hope, in any event, that's been true of your experience of JPII--that you've been nourished to achieve and to extend yourself, that you are challenged to be truthful with yourself and others, and that you appreciate life, revering the people you meet, grateful for the opportunities and blessings God has given you. 
Post hoc--We sang the alma mater one last time!

As we close out the year and begin to prepare for exams next week, I hope you’ve found JPII to be a true “alma mater” this year and over the course of your high school careers so far. This is the last assembly that I'll be part of as your headmaster at JPII. I'd like to ask as we move on, that we sing our alma mater one last time together. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

“Embracing the Optimism," Part II: Our Teachers

Student assembly address

Last week I mentioned that as I prepare to leave as JPII’s second headmaster, I wanted to reflect with you on why I believe JPII is such an exceptional school. Last week, I focused on you, the students, who embrace the optimism of this place, living out our renaissance ideal whereby you strive to become scholars, people of faith, athletes, and artists. This morning, I want to reflect on the people who set the bar and the context for this optimism: your teachers.

I think it’s worth remembering the ambitiousness of our goals for you here: 32 credits for graduation, service requirements, three years of foreign language, three years of the arts, broad enrollments in A.P. courses; we play in the most competitive athletic division in Tennessee, striving to be an excellent Catholic school in Tennessee’s most competitive market for private schools. We have truly created a school that has tried to live out what Michelangelo once said: "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

But all of these lofty expectations are just meaningless drivel unless a school has a faculty and staff willing to work with you to make it so. The remarkable thing about JPII isn’t our goals, but that you achieve them, and you do so because your teachers help you. You recognize this. In survey after survey, you cite your teachers as to what is truly special here. Here are some of your recent comments:

The teachers are very good listeners and really help us.

The teachers are willing to take the extra time to help a student in his or her studies.

The rigorous academic curriculum is made possible by teachers who are willing to put time into helping students.

Before JPII, I never had a teacher who would stay after school to help with any of my problems in their class.

Teachers give students plenty of opportunities to go to tutorials and get help with their work. The teachers are friendly and understanding.

I love how the teachers at JPII put an effort into making learning new concepts fun and how they’re always helpful and there if you need help with something.

The faculty and staff are just amazing. From those who have been there from the beginning, to new teachers, all seem to be linked in a drive to assist students in their pursuit of learning and academic excellence. Within the classroom, most of the teachers are unmatched on their ability to keep student interest and to convey the information for their subject. It is also apparent that the teachers sacrifice a large amount of time outside of the classroom, both for helping students and for coaching, chaperoning, and leading many clubs and activities.

An outgoing senior said: The strengths of JP II are definitely the powerful relationships that are built between faculty and students. The teachers genuinely care about whether or not their students succeed. I know I was able to develop wonderful and unforgettable connections with most members of the faculty and staff.

I have been honored to work for seven years with teachers who are the very top of their profession— knowledgeable about their subject matter, caring, generous with their time, self-sacrificing, deeply committed to the mission of JPII. When I came to JPII in 2008, I told the Board that when I looked under the hood of JPII, what I saw was a Ferrari. And I am happy to report that all the data says, 7 years later, we’re still a Ferrari. I’ve had the great privilege of sitting in the driver’s seat and steering this race car, but what makes a race car isn’t the driver, it’s the engine—and the engine here is a magnificent group of men and women who work here, who teach here, and who coach here. 

Before I announce those teachers whom you believe are especially worthy of recognition as part of our annual Harvest Awards, can I ask that all of our teachers and staff stand, please, and can we thank them as a school for all they’ve done for us?

The Harvest Awards are annual awards we give to teachers whom you believe are exceptional here at JPII. Teachers so recognized are given a plaque, and through a generous donor, a cash award. The donor insists this award be determined by a vote of the students, so these people I call forward are teachers you’ve chosen. I will only add that I regret we cannot honor twice as many people this morning, because when I do the annual performance reviews at the end of the year with department chairs and Mrs. Phillips, we have many exceptional faculty and staff here who are also deserving of this award.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Embracing the Optimism," Part I: Our Students

Student assembly address

As most of you know, I’ll be returning to my hometown of Mobile, Al in June. The archdiocese of Mobile has asked me to begin a new Catholic high school in Baldwin County. Baldwin County is on the eastern shore of the Mobile bay, and includes Gulf Shores and Orange Beach to its south. I’ll begin working on that this summer, and the school will open a year later in August of 2016. I’ll have the opportunity to do as my predecessor Mr. Broekman did here: to design the program, hire all the teachers, begin creating the traditions that define the school, and hopefully start something as special as JPII.

And this place IS special. For the next couple of weeks, as I prepare to leave, I want to reflect on why I think so—what has catapulted JPII to becoming one of the very best schools in Tennessee--and I would argue one of the best Catholic schools in the country--in just 13 years. Next week, I’ll talk about our teachers, in conjunction with announcing the Harvest Awards that you voted on last Thursday. But this week, I want to talk about YOU, the students of JPII.

We take a lot of inspiration from our namesake, and I think it’s worth remembering who he was every now and then. Yes, he was Pope John Paul II. But before he was pope, he was one of Europe’s brightest minds, with 2 PhD’s--one in Philosophy and another in Theology. He spoke 8 languages fluently, and wrote books that were critically acclaimed by university professors. He was regarded as a world-class scholar long before he was pope. But he was more than that: he wrote plays, he was an actor, a poet, and as our ski-jacket display makes evident, a skier, a kayaker, and even played soccer in his youth. Most importantly, he was a man of deep faith, prayed about two hours each day, and took his commitment as a priest very seriously, preparing good homilies, visiting the sick, trying to live as Christ did. He was a true Renaissance man, a “Man for All Seasons,” and as you know, we talk about that Renaissance ideal for all of us quite frequently around here.

But it isn’t just talk. On Friday morning of last week, we received back results from the regional Math competition last week, involving students at all levels in our program. We killed it, winning more awards than any other school. On Friday night I  watched our girls’ softball team lose a heart-breaker to Baylor in 10 innings (they came back and beat GPS 2-1 on Saturday), then watched our girls’ lacrosse team jump out to a remarkable 11-0 lead against a good GPS team (It was a good weekend for them--they beat the #2 team in Kentucky on Saturday). The lacrosse game well in hand, I walked down to watch the baseball team win game 2 of a 3 game series against MBA (they completed the sweep on Saturday). Incidentally, our spring sports teams are having a heckuva a year--we're competitive or very good in every sport. Come out and support them! On Sunday I came back to JPII to support our amazing fine arts program in its annual “Arts in the Round” set of performances: special congratulations to Caitlin Barnes, whose art work won best of show. Our jazz program also performed, as did our theater program and our choral program. You couldn't walk away from Sunday without being impressed.  So taking just a snap-shot of our school based on this weekend--Math, sports and the arts--you get a sense of this school's renaissance emphasis. 

And if I drill down and look at individual students, I see students like senior Jacob Telli, he of diminutive size for a catcher, who blasted a three run home run on Saturday and who has been starting catcher on our baseball team for 3 years. It’s worth remembering that Jacob has been the backbone of our jazz ensemble during his four years here, playing the trombone, and that he’s a National Merit Finalist. Or how about Casey Thompson, another senior, who is an all-state football player but also carries over a 4.2 GPA? Or Madison Taylor, one of the best soccer players in the state, with a cumulative over 4.1? Or Thomas O’Berry, who just signed to play lacrosse next year with Oglethorpe next year, also with a 4.1+ average? Or Rachael Leonard, who plays 3 sports, is one of the leaders of Search in the diocese, and has a 4.1+ average? (BTW, did you know we have 14 signed signed up to play at the college level next year?) Or how about the number of seniors who've done international service work—people like Michael Koen, Grace Wood, Anna Veazey, or Christian Cook? Seniors, you graduate in less than a month now, and it's time to say it: you're really a remarkable senior class. Because you’ve embraced this renaissance ideal, you are living very full lives, very busy lives, but ultimately, very happy lives.  I hope you underclassmen will follow their example and embrace all JPII has to offer as they have done,  as you move your way to graduation. 

Pat Weaver, our former admissions director, used to say we get kids to walk through the door of JPII using their language: they may come to JPII to be a lacrosse player, or an artist, ­or a scholar. But we want them to walk OUT the door when they graduate using our language: not either/or, but both/and—a baseball player, and musician, and a scholar, and a person of faith, or whatever the combination of things turn out to be. St. Irenaeus once said “The glory of God is the human person fully alive,” and I think when we embrace all of these possibilities for our lives, discover talents we didn’t know we had and develop them, we do, in fact, honor God by accepting his gifts for us.

JPII is a special place because you guys embrace the optimism it has in you. You know, by reputation, that if you come to JPII, you’re going to have to work a little harder. Yes, you’re going to have fewer snow days. You'll earn 32 credits for graduation, about 4 more than anyone else. You may be asked to take A.P. courses that stretch you, whereas other schools may allow you to take an easier path. This place will bump you out of your comfort zone. But you came to JPII anyway, and even those of you whose parents made you come,  you eventually accepted the challenge and bought in.

This place is special because you’re special: because you push yourselves, because you want more for yourself, because you know that God is calling you  to do something great with your lives---something great for yourselves and your future family, but also great for this community, this Church, and who knows, maybe even great for this school down the line with a Mr. Carell-like gift when you become rich and famous. 

Jesus said, “To him who much is given, much is expected.” Keep working hard, keep embracing the optimism, and God will bless you. And He will continue to bless this very special school through you.