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.