A. Baker Duncan ’45: In Memoriam


Several months after I was appointed as Woodberry’s ninth headmaster but long before I began, the phone rang in my office at Randolph School in Huntsville, Alabama. “I want to come see you,” he announced. And I recognized the voice right away. He wasn’t yelling, but he was emphatic. Baker Duncan ‘45, Woodberry’s fourth headmaster and a fellow Texan, gave me several dates that worked for him. I checked my calendar and said the first would work well for me, but that my wife, Jennifer, might have a conflict. “Well that won’t do,” he concluded. “I want to see her, too.”

So on the appointed day Jennifer and I drove out to the Huntsville airport and greeted the tall, lanky former headmaster as he came through security. We chatted informally on the drive back to my office at Randolph, but once the door closed, he was ready for business. Baker pulled out a yellow legal pad. He had questions for Jennifer and me, and they were direct and occasionally uncomfortable. At one point I remember thinking, “Doesn’t he know that they’ve already offered me the job?”

And then, when we had been interrogated to his satisfaction, Baker turned the sheet over and started offering advice and letting me know what he hoped I’d do, or, more to the point, what he expected me to do. I liked this part of our conversation, mostly because I appreciate candor and transparency, even when I don’t always agree with the counsel. We went back and forth for a while about Woodberry and the path forward. And then he looked straight at Jennifer and then at me and said directly to me, “Take time for her and for your family.” I assured him I would try and he replied, “Well, that’s it. You can take me back to the airport. I’m ready to go.”

What a man, and what a life! Baker was Shakespearean in his dimensions, and he was absolutely unforgettable. He served as headmaster here from 1962-1970, but he had an outsized influence on the Woodberry community and our culture that far surpassed the length  of his eight year tenure. I’ve heard from many alumni that Baker terrorized them, and he loved them. He demanded excellence, and he expected the boys to deliver. He had high expectations for everyone in the school, starting with himself. Boys learned to believe in themselves because their headmaster had believed in them first. Baker built upon his understanding of J. Carter Walker’s leadership, namely that the headmaster’s primary responsibility was to help boys “do the best they can with what they have.”

Baker’s vision for Woodberry was to reach for national excellence. He hired superbly, attracting extraordinary faculty to the school who would advance his belief in academic excellence. He believed in the arts, and he committed resources beyond athletics as the school’s primary extracurricular activity. He launched Woodberry’s sports camp and hired Red and Cathy Caughron to run it. He worked with the board to build Woodberry’s endowment so that the school could be strong in perpetuity. And at the close of his tenure, he put his job on the line by requesting that the board integrate Woodberry Forest or accept his resignation. As headmaster, Baker brought Woodberry into the modern era, and all of us are in his debt.

His no-nonsense style was brusque and sometimes hard to handle. He was a workaholic who occasionally made his family feel like he might love Woodberry more than he loved them. His modus operandi was control, and he sought to exercise as much of it as he possibly could. He signed boys up for mixers, whether they wanted to go or not. He called up college admissions officers and told them whom they should accept into their freshman class, and he told the boys where they should go to college. Whether they wanted to go where he directed was of little concern to him. He knew the boys and knew where they would thrive.

After leaving Woodberry and heading back to the business world in Texas, Baker’s passion for Woodberry never faded. He was built for community and togetherness, and he worked hard to bring people together for meetings, meals, and discussions about the school and its future. He mentored scores of men for years, and they mentored him in return. I’ve always admired Baker for working hard to confront the shadow side of  his own life, and he did so until the very end.

He last visited Woodberry in 2017 to celebrate the fiftieth reunion for his beloved class of 1967. It was emotional and cathartic for both Baker and the alumni. I called him consistently for quick telephone chats, and he never ceased to tell me what I should do as headmaster. My last visit with him in person was at the Forum in San Antonio. I arrived punctually at the appointed hour and sat across from him. He pulled out his yellow legal pad and checked off the items that he wanted to cover. And when the hour had passed and we had completed the list, he looked up and said, “Goodbye.” Meeting over. Godspeed, Baker. You were one of a kind, and I’ll miss you.   


Which Star Will you Follow

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“Unseen” by Spencer Doerr ’20 is a digital photograph of the night sky in Dilly, Texas.
It appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The Talon.

The following sermon was given by Dr. Byron Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Monday, January 7, 2019, for the Feast of the Epiphany.

My great aunt Miriam was a hard but big-hearted woman who lived with her sister, Mary, for many years, and then alone in a primitive log cabin west of Fort Worth, Texas until a couple of months before she died at the age of 100. Mary and Miriam were dairy farmers and school teachers, and they were tough, fearless women raised in the spirit of the pioneer west. My father has a dining room table with two gashes in the middle. Legend has it that a rattlesnake fell out of the ceiling rafters during lunch one day and one of my great aunts felled it with a hoe that they kept behind the couch to deal with snakes that might make their way into the cabin. Miriam’s reddened hands were calloused and gnarled from years of manual labor on the dairy farm and in the kitchen. As a schoolteacher, she poured her best years into the education of children, even though she never had any of her own. She is one of the heroes of my life.

And she was born on January 6, the date that Christians around the world celebrate the feast of the Epiphany and the last of the twelve days of Christmas. As a boy I grew up knowing all about Epiphany, in part because it was Miriam’s birthday, but also because my father was an Episcopal priest, and he was determined to honor the sanctity of the Christian calendar. In our household, we were strictly forbidden to turn on the Christmas tree lights until late on Christmas Eve, because to do so would be to shorten and therefore cheapen the season of Advent, which precedes Christmas like Lent precedes Easter. And in my family we never, ever took down a decoration until January 6 and the twelfth day of Christmas and the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany and Miriam’s birthday.

So, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday to Miriam. We’re here tonight with mixed emotions. We’re happy to see our friends, and we may be looking forward to portions of the year to come, but we’re also prone, almost programmed, to feeling a little glum and a little gloomy. This is undoubtedly the toughest time of the school year. It has been for the whole of Woodberry’s 130 years, and it is for schools across the nation. Most of us were pampered and coddled by the comforts of the Christmas holiday. We revelled in the chance to be with family and friends; you got to sleep late and play Red Dead Redemption and Fortnite for as long as you could stand it. Being back at Woodberry comes at a cost: Here we call on you to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other. And here we live in community with each other, expected to step up for the common good and advance the interests of the whole, even when it runs against the grain of what we would individually like to do.

At the start of the fall trimester here in St. Andrew’s Chapel I likened the coming school year to a journey into the unknown on a massive ship. Each of us has an important role to play on this ship, but we knew when we started that we’d make our way through twists and turns and tempests we didn’t see coming followed by stretches of fair winds and following seas. We expected moments of joy and triumph and moments of deep disappointment. We understood that we’d be tested, we just didn’t know how and when or where or to what extent. All in all, I like where we are, and I want to thank the senior class, the prefect board, teachers, coaches, and advisers for the sacrifices you’ve made for the good of our community and for the care and support of every boy in the Tiger Nation.

And while I am proud of the school year we’ve had thus far on our journey into the unknown, I am, like many members of the faculty and so many young alumni and older boys, heavy hearted at the recent loss of two Tigers, Christian Magnani from the class of 2015 and Charles Vieth from the class of 2017. I am reminded through the pain and despair of young lives cut way too short that the trappings of the world don’t prepare us for periods of grief and uncertainty or for the journeys that we all must take through the valley of the shadow of death.

For these trials and tribulations we need community, and we need the undeserved gift of God’s grace that passes all understanding. That message resonates fully for me as we celebrate tonight the feast of the Epiphany and take time to hear again the Gospel story of the wise men who came to see the baby Jesus in a filthy stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. I am reminded of the true message of Christmas, namely that God revealed Himself to us through the baby Jesus not in a palace or a temple or with fanfare or pomp or circumstance, but in a rustic stable, a place fit for animals and humble farmers, not kings, priests, or princes.

Tonight’s Gospel reading and the radical nature of Jesus’ birth grant us the undeserved gift of grace that binds us all together in equality as God’s children. But tonight’s message also creates questions that aren’t that easy to answer. First of all, we’re told that the wise men followed “the star” to the baby Jesus. I’ve often wondered, “How did they know which star?” On clear nights at Woodberry I see hundreds of stars, and I’m puzzled at how the wise men would know exactly which one to follow.

So as we bid farewell to 2018 and greet the new calendar year, which star in the sky will you follow? In the sweep of countless stars in the universe, how will you know where you’re going or what you’re doing and why you’re doing it? The world, of course, has plenty of answers: We often equate money and the trappings of wealth as indicators of success, happiness, and fulfillment. Closer to home at Woodberry, we might incline ourselves to follow the stars leading to academic success, athletic triumph, or artistic accomplishment. Acceptance to the college of your choice is often a star that Woodberry boys are motivated to pursue, a golden calf that young Americans and international students chase every year, sometimes at the expense of their true selves. If it’s not college acceptance, maybe it’s your vision of the good life, the commercials we see on TV, or the shows we watch on Netflix, or the Instagram posts from the cool guys… surely those are stars we chase as well.

But the hard truth of the matter is that the trappings of the world, even when you are a young man of good character, are rarely enough for a life of health and wholeness. I was reminded of that just after Thanksgiving when I learned that Christian had died. Many would have said that Christian had it made at Woodberry: He was a prefect, a varsity letterman, an accomplished actor, a strong student, a good friend, and blessed with an extraordinary sense of humor, a young man who was so talented and so naturally funny that even teachers attended pep rallies to see him perform.

But something invisible to most of us was missing. Not long after I got the news I saw a YouTube video of Christian bravely sharing the story of how he got addicted to drugs in college. At one point Christian describes leaving Woodberry and joining a college fraternity and says, “All of a sudden I was not the cool kid anymore, and I had to find my avenue to become cool. So I started smoking marijuana and I got in with that crew.” Looking for a star to follow, Christian put on a mask that hid the light of his true self from himself.

Charles’ struggles were materially different but worthy of our consideration as well. He battled demons that became too much to bear. I know his parents would agree that he never knew true peace in his life. His mother told me yesterday that “Charles was too tender for the world,” a heartbreaking reflection from a parent that saddens me beyond any words that I could ever convey. Charles’ mom’s comment suggests to me that Charles was the star, and that truth got lost in the blizzard of anguish and fear and pain that he endured. And in that despair and that in that pain I’m called back to one fundamental truth from tonight’s Gospel message, a truth derived from the radical, underserved gift of God’s grace through His son: Each one of us is enough; each of us, as a child of God, is enough. No matter our grades or test scores, no matter where we got into college, no matter where we are from or who are parents are, no matter if we won or lost the biggest game of the season or had the lead role in the play or never got in the game… each of us, as a child of God, is enough; each of us is worthy, and we’re all equal in the eyes of God. The conservative thinker Peter Wehner makes just this point, noting recently that “(Grace) is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving.” There is, he writes, “a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth, or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and unheralded, the rule followers and rule breakers.”

I urge you to be open to the possibility that the true star to follow lies enfolded in your innermost self, and I urge you to be open to the possibility that you’ll need to give it space to flourish in the midst of the distractions and the world’s many masks. And I urge you to be open to another truth from tonight’s Gospel, namely that it wasn’t one wise man who went alone to the baby Jesus; it was three. We’ve been created by God to live in community, one to another. You’ll likely find your truest self in community and through the lives of others who give you the strength and unconditional love necessary to take your mask off. The three wise men, in community, one with another, traveled from places of power, wealth, and privilege to meet the baby Jesus in a ramshackle stable, a humble dwelling place for the Son of God. I’m not sure one could have done it alone. Together they bowed down to the lowest of the lowly, a lesson for all of us as we live in community here at Woodberry Forest.

I often wonder if I’d recognize Jesus in the world today. I’m afraid I’d be looking in the wrong places. Tonight’s Gospel message makes clear that the Son of God more likely than not resides in places and in people we wouldn’t expect. For me it came through my great aunt Miriam and her unconditional love for our family in that humble log cabin in central Texas. It covers me up at Woodberry, too. It came through clearly after Thanksgiving when Mr. Larry Washington, who drives for Woodberry, showered me with wisdom and insight on a late-night ride to Reagan airport. “You put nothing into nothing,” Mr. Washington reminded me, “you get nothing.” And “Just because you’re knocked down, that doesn’t mean you’re knocked out.” Or it’s from groundsman Calvin Tucker, a man who’s worked here 35 years, who stopped me the other day and said, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Hulsey, but how’s your wife, and how are your children?”

Be mindful; stay watchful; know that you are enough; look for the wise men in your midst and follow your own star to the baby Jesus. Amen.

We Have the Watch

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Like many Americans, I’ve spent part of the past week mourning the death and celebrating the life of President George H.W. Bush. Just hours after he died, the United States Navy posted a photograph of the the World War II aviator and commander-in-chief, along with an emotional farewell: “Fair winds and following seas, Sir. We  have the watch.” Reading remembrances, listening to eulogies, and reflecting on his life and accomplishments, it’s clear to me that President Bush, the father of alumnus Marvin Bush ’75, was a full manifestation of the timeless ideals and values we seek to instill in our boys.

In his eulogy at the National Cathedral last week, presidential historian and Bush biographer Jon Meacham noted that the President lived by a simple code: “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.” I’m not sure there’s a better description for what we might call the Woodberry Way and our own charge to the boys to “work hard, build your character, and take care of each other.” The outpouring of emotion for President Bush from every sector and demographic in our national culture is testament to his authenticity, integrity, and faithfulness to the code by which he led and by which he lived.

Not long after he eulogized Barbara Bush in Houston last April, Mr. Meacham was here at Woodberry, speaking to the boys about leadership and character. He noted that the best presidents have shown three important qualities that defined their leadership: curiosity, humility, and empathy. He praised Thomas Jefferson as a voracious learner and model of curiosity, a product of the Enlightenment and the swirl of republican ideas that established the foundation of the American experiment and the engine of democracy that followed.

Mr. Meacham then extolled the importance of humility as an essential quality for our best chief executives, and he pointed to John Kennedy’s growth in the Oval Office in his short tenure as president. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy owned the failure and did what he surely would have liked to avoid. He called his predecessor, a man he had derided in the 1960 campaign as old and out of touch, and sought advice and counsel. Dwight Eisenhower happily obliged, and in a private conversation asked Kennedy if he had ever assembled all of his advisers to make sure that every perspective was on the table before the launch of the invasion. When Kennedy acknowledged that he’d neglected to do this, Eisenhower recommended that he should always draw upon the best and most wide ranging advice at his command before making a decision. Kennedy’s humility, and his openness to listen to Eisenhower, inspired the President to establish the ExComm in the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This decision, according to Meacham and other historians, was instrumental in the President’s ability to defuse the most ominous crisis of the Cold War.

For Meacham, George H. W. Bush was the purest embodiment of empathy in the White House. He told us the story of the end of Bush’s eighth grade year at Greenwich Country Day School when the students participated in a field day of events that included an obstacle course. The athletic George Bush excelled in these kinds of games and even allowed his teachers to give every other student a head start so that the race might be a bit more competitive. In this particular year, Bush, having started later than his classmates, came across a heavy boy stuck in the barrel. Rather than leaving him and racing ahead, the otherwise hyper-competitive Bush pulled the boy out of the barrel and they concluded the race together, in last place.

Meacham made sure to emphasize that this school boy story of empathy extended to the code for life that inspired President Bush’s leadership. At the end of the Cold War, a joyous moment in world history punctuated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush’s advisers were calling on him to celebrate the nation’s triumph with a dramatic speech to a joint session of Congress. He demurred, observing privately to his staff that he didn’t want to do anything to make life even more difficult for Mikhail Gorbachev, which might derail Bush’s radical plan to reunify Germany despite the opposition of France, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Bush’s empathy was an indispensable part of his character and his leadership. His friend and former Secretary of State James Baker noted in his eulogy last week in Houston that President Bush understood the difference between “humility toward, and not humiliation of” an adversary.

Curiosity, humility, and empathy are baked into Woodberry’s vision statement and represent the values and ideals we seek to instill in the boys. And when I reflect on President Bush’s life, I’m struck most by the fact that he was true to himself and to his ideals in both victory and defeat. More than most public figures in the 20th and 21st centuries, he lived and led without a mask, just the way we aspire to live, learn, and lead, an impulse consistent with the messaging of a film on masculinity that we watched at school this past week. George Bush made his share of mistakes and surely missed opportunities, but he is a model for every American and a touchstone for who we are and who we wish to be here at Woodberry Forest. Godspeed, Mr. President. We have the  watch.

The Journey Ahead

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“Look Further” by Spence Whitman ’21 is a water color and colored pencil on 8 x 11 inch paper. It appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The Talon.

The following is the Opening of School Address to the Woodberry Community in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, August 26, 2018

This summer my family and I made the trek to New Zealand and Australia and on one unforgettable day we journeyed three hours into the waters of the Pacific onto the Great Barrier Reef for a magical afternoon of snorkeling in the company of dozens of species of fish and spectacular coral formations. Though I’ve never owned a boat or been on a cruise or even spent the night on a seafaring vessel, I’ve always been drawn to the water and the beauty and magnificence of the open seas.  

And I’ve begun to believe that the start of any school year at Woodberry Forest is not unlike a great ship embarking upon yet another voyage across the oceans. Over the summer months the ship has been restored and renewed by our extraordinary staff whose work is often unseen but whose devotion to our school knows no bounds. Dorms have been cleaned and made ready for your arrival; Hanes Hall has been renovated into a magnificent dormitory for sixth formers; the post office and and student store are open for business. Each of us is on his or her own adventure, a journey or a quest into the vast unknown.

As we prepare to push off from the dock, we’re aware that some of the faces from previous journeys have changed. The class of 2018 has graduated, the class of 2019 is now leading the school, and we’ve welcomed 127 new boys on board. We mourn the death of twenty-year veteran Jim Robertson in the dining hall, just as we celebrate his life and give thanks for the gift he has been for us. Two long-term members of our faculty retired at the end of last year; several others left to take on opportunities beyond the school; new teachers and coaches have joined our community for the journey ahead. As we greet old friends and meet new ones, we’re a cauldron of swirling emotion: excited, anxious, scared, overwhelmed, and, in some cases, already missing the lazy days of summer. I love the start of a new school year: the anticipation is thick with possibility and the canvasis blank for each of us to leave our mark on the moment that we have, fleeting though it may be, to leave a legacy for the next voyage a year from now.

The anticipatory excitement I have about the school year is tempered by an awareness that uncertainty, disappointment, and difficulty are inevitable. We’ll travel together through the hottest days of August through the bleakest and darkest days of January and back again. You’ll have tests, quizzes, and papers that might feel overwhelming. Friday night study hall and Saturday morning classes may cause you to question why you’re here. Sixth formers may not be accepted into your first choice college. New boys will surely struggle through bouts of homesickness. Very few of you are likely to play on an undefeated team, and some of you may suffer through a very difficult loss or endure an injury that you never wanted and certainly didn’t deserve. The seas ahead will be rough and stormy, and you may on occasion wonder why you ever stepped on the ship.

Given the perilous uncertainties of the journey ahead, what sustains us? How do we know that we will prevail? Each of us will answer those questions differently, and for many it will be some combination of faith, family, and friends. Part of becoming a man is wrestling with the demons that exist in each of us so that we might come to know, as Lincoln famously offered in his first inaugural, “the better angels of our nature.” It’s important for each of you to know that even though you may on occasion feel lonely, you are never alone here. Every boy in the Tiger Nation has a team around him who wants each of you to make the most of the journey. But for us as a larger community, I want to focus this evening on the power of culture and the resonance and constancy of what we know as the Woodberry Way.

The most important and most distinctive gift for the journey ahead is the trust that has been freely extended to each and every one of us here at Woodberry by those who’ve come before. Mr J. Carter Walker, Woodberry’s first headmaster, was unwavering in this belief, making clear that the “Honor System rests upon the conviction that boys want to be honorable andwant to be trusted.” He went even further and stated, quite radically in my opinion, that “it is a fundamental right of every boy to demand that he be trusted and that his word be accepted at all times and by all persons.”

I want us to reflect briefly on the essence of trust and to consider how rare it is in the world beyond and therefore how even more extraordinary it is to us at Woodberry. The trust that we enjoy is an undeserved gift from every alumnus who cherishes his journey here as the most formative of his life. Trust is akin to a kind of secular covenant between us and the alumni and former faculty and previous headmasters on whose shoulders we stand today. When it is real and more than mere rhetoric, trust makes the school unique as we aspire to a kind of oneness that binds us all together.

I urge you to care for and nurture the gift of trust as one of the most most precious and priceless that you will likely ever receive. Now that you have received the gift of trust, you are responsible for exercising it thoughtfully and judiciously, understanding that it is the foundation of your character and the bond that ties you to your brothers and to us on the faculty. With trust in ourselves and each other, greatness is within our reach. Without it, we are doomed and our community will be cheapened. Trust is the engine that makes us far greater than the mere sum of our parts.

Trust is the essence of the brotherhood that connects each of you to one another in equality as a Woodberry boy. Earlier today I shared with the parents of our new boys that we on the faculty have renewed our annual pledge that every boy under our care will be known, challenged, and loved. Trust makes that goal attainable, and that goal becomes actionable when you have the courage to trust us enough to allow yourselves to be known, challenged and loved. Old boys know that we call on you to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other. When you trust and are trusted, working hard, building your character, and taking care of each other become more natural and the school gets stronger and the brotherhood thickens for the journey ahead.

I thought a lot about trust when I read Beartown and assigned it as the headmaster’s book for summer reading. Throughout the book I was asking myself a question that I’ll pose to you: What kind of community do you want to live in? Like the residents of Beartown, we all know the comfort and belonging that we feel when we’re connected to friends and family we know and with whom we’re bonded. We know the thrill that comes from rivalry games and a tribal belief that it’s us against them and we’re David battling against Goliath. Many old boys and veteran faculty know the positive power of community expressed through the help we draw from one another when we’re down and the support we can give each other in a time of need.

But a healthy community can turn rotten at its core when it calcifies into an impenetrable inner ring that won’t allow for difference, that can’t have itself questioned, that demands loyalty over truth, that champions worldly success and material riches over character and integrity and that demeans the courage that Amat summoned in Beartown to act on the hard right over the easy wrong. Beartown captures the best and worst of who we are as individuals and as communities, and I call on all of us to be mindful what we’re doing this year to be a vibrant and open brotherhood of all and for all, shaped and forged by values like truth, integrity, grace, empathy, and curiosity.

To all 127 new boys who come from all over the nation and the world, as well as to our new faculty, a heartfelt welcome. A special word of welcome in St. Andrew’s chapel to our new chaplain, the Reverend Tyler Montgomery. I hope that each of you comes to know Woodberry as a second home, a community shaped by place and defined by values that are bigger than we’ll ever be, a culture that empowers us to trust one another, gifts us with the grace to be trusted, and provides foundational beliefs that call on us to be bigger and more noble together than we would have been on our own.  

As we look to the horizon, we don’t know what the future holds, but we’re fortified for the work ahead by the 129 years at our back and the culture that we’ve inherited. We’re the beneficiaries of more than we could ever count or even completely understand. And we’re humbled by the fact that for the journey ahead we’ll have our chance, our moment, to leave a legacy and shape a message for those whose names we’ll never know but who will benefit from the oneness of our brotherhood in the coming years.

We have pushed off the dock and the open seas lay ahead. Our journey will be ours and ours alone. The values and ideals of Woodberry Forest, however, are constant and they are timeless. And the mission remains the same: embrace intellectual thoroughness, live into moral integrity, practice good sportsmanship, hold dear a reverence for things sacred, and, on the voyage, take down St. Christophers and beat Episcopal.

There Is No Finish Line

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The following is the Baccalaureate sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Saturday, May 26, 2018, preceding the formal Woodberry graduation ceremony. 

Just over a year ago three elite marathoners took off on a staged attempt to do what has never been done before, namely to run a 26.2 miles in under two hours. To shatter this otherworldly barrier, the runners would have to break the world record by almost three minutes, or 2.5 percent. Nike conceived of the idea, which was dubbed as Breaking2 and the attempt turned into a marketing bonanza for the company, which live-streamed the race on Twitter to enraptured fans around the world. Nike did everything possible to optimize conditions: the men started the race in the dark in near-perfect conditions, no wind and about 53 degrees. They ran around an almost completely flat 1.5-mile Formula One race track in Monza, Italy without any sharp turns; they were paced by a Tesla and a rotating group of runners positioned to block any breeze; and they sported cutting-edge, high-tech Nike shoes said to improve running efficiency by as much as 4 percent.

The pace was lightning quick, and had to be. The men knew they’d have to run each mile in an average of 4 minutes and 35 seconds. Let’s put that into local context. Robert Singleton holds the school record for the 1600 at 4 minutes 16 seconds. Kevin Bennert holds the Woodberry record for two miles at 9 minutes 16 seconds, already eight seconds slower than the pace needed to run a marathon under 2 hours. For almost two-thirds of the race, Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya hit every split. Only after 20 miles did he begin to fade, and though he fell short in the end by a mere 25 seconds, he crushed the previous record by over two minutes. Kipchoge’s brave attempt, even though he came up short, is testament to his courage, to incredible technological advances, to the power of marketing and the lure of social media, and to a fascination that we humans have long had with the notion of time, how it’s used, how it’s measured, and ultimately what it means.

Time’s on my mind for sure, and I’m certain that you’ve thought of it lately, too. Saturday morning, May 26. You (and your parents) have planned for this, worried about it, and almost certainly yearned for it. The suggestion here, of course, is that graduation can’t get here quickly enough and that freedom and opportunity await on the other side of the pillars when you roll out of Woodberry later this afternoon. Time crawls by on a Friday night study hall, or in the depths of a 90 for a class you never wanted to take that just won’t end, or through the whole month of February that leaves you limping your way to Spring Break. Rest assured that you are not alone. Almost every one of the school’s 6,637 living alumni have felt exactly the same way about their graduation day and what it felt like to make it through Woodberry Forest.

And yet you get to this last stretch and, at least for most of us, our notion of time flips. Having progressed so slowly for so long, time rushes forth way too fast, just when we want it to last a little longer. You’ve sensed the sweetness that comes with deliberately slowing down the flow of time: late night poker games on dorm; lingering after a meal on the patio of the Terry Dining Room just to hang with your friends; the gift of extra time necessary to complete a senior distinction project, to see something you would not have seen at first glance or worked your way through an idea that puzzled you at first; one-clubbing as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge; camping out on the Rapidan on one of the last Saturday nights of the spring.  Here at Woodberry we often make the case that we’re a counter-cultural community, and perhaps that’s most obvious when we think about time. Like the technicians and athletes doing everything possible to run the marathon in under 2 hours, the ways of the world accelerate at every turn and in every subsequent iteration. Faster, faster, and faster, jumping from here to there, indulging in a quest for immediate gratification and instantaneous resolution in our push-button, turbo-charged society.

But Woodberry’s culture pushes back against the quest for speed. Sure there are exceptions—timed tests, track meets, buzzer beaters, and precious little free time between study hall and check in. But all in all the power of this place slows us down. Here we work hard to not confuse motion with movement or meaningful action. Here we practice a spiritual belief that what sustains us in life comes from a source that far surpasses a single moment of triumph or disappointment. Instead it’s rooted in the purpose of place and it springs forth from our alumni through shared bonds of hard work, enduring character, and deep devotion to our alma mater and to each other. None of that happens quickly, and it doesn’t happen in fabricated conditions on a Formula One racetrack with a Tesla pace car to show you the way. Instead it’s built over time through twists and turns, through accomplishment and disappointment, through joy and sadness. The culture here is akin to the strong roots that hold up the tallest trees. In this special place we’re held up and buoyed by beliefs and values that last beyond our days here, and we give thanks for that culture together this morning.

We on the faculty are grateful for the class of 2018 and for your families. We celebrate this morning the magical and mysterious alchemy of a connected class of one band of Tiger brothers, full of individuals who have pushed the edge in such a wide range of endeavors–in the classroom and in the worlds of athletics and the arts, as well. The broad-minded span of senior projects speaks to your varied interests and passions: building guitars, writing a full-length screenplay, canoeing the Rapidan to Fredericksburg, constructing a self-balancing cube, putting on a two-man play, and producing a film to honor the 50th anniversary of Woodberry’s integration, just to name a few. Beyond the formality of the senior distinction program, sixth former William Jordan created a community composter, and, like many of you, added his own contribution to the legacy of the class of 2018.

People, place, and beliefs shape us and generate the memories that bind us all together, but Woodberry calls on you now to bring the best of yourselves to the world to make it better. John Carter Walker, the school’s first headmaster, was clear about Woodberry’s ultimate purpose when he wrote that “we try teach that education is training for service to others rather than success for one’s self; to give rather to get; for sacrifice rather than gratification.” Today we hold those same beliefs and adhere to those same hopes. Now you take the torch from those who’ve gone before to leave this place and embrace the ideals of a servant leader, to serve others in ways that help them become who they were meant to be so that they might follow you in service to others themselves.

There may be a few of you this morning who aren’t sure you want to leave. Your emotions may be all twisted up: proud of what you’ve accomplished, exhausted by what you’ve endured, and anxious about the uncertainty that lies ahead. I get all of that, and I feel it deeply, too. If there’s any portion of you that doesn’t want to leave, please know that I’m not sure I want you to go–for you’re all I’ve known here as headmaster, and I’ve come to respect and admire your contributions to the school and our community. But whether we’re ready or not, our time together is nearly complete.

In the midst of uncertainty and apprehension about the path forward, I hope you might turn to the Old Testament prophet, Micah, who wondered about the meaning of it all nearly two thousand years ago. “With what,” he asked, “shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Thankfully it’s simpler and clearer than that, and Micah concludes that “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. As you bid farewell later this afternoon, I urge you not expect the rest of the world to care right away that you went to Woodberry Forest. Instead, let your actions show them the difference Woodberry has made in your hearts and through your character as you lean into the world beyond. Know deep to the core of your being that the truths of this place will hold you in good stead for the rest of your lives, but avoid the temptation to project yourselves with hubris or arrogance on those around you. Be humble and hungry always. Wear your experience here lightly on the outside and hold in your heart the true value of what you gained here slowly, day after day, week after week, trimester after trimester. Take time to be curious, inquisitive, tender-hearted, and open-minded on the path that lies ahead. Have confidence in your ability to reach beyond yourself, but always have something to prove, or else you’re settling for a life of mediocrity that falls short of your potential. Stay rooted to the story of Jesus after the Transfiguration that Crawford read: be not afraid, and come down quietly from the mountain-top that has been this transformative experience without lording it in any way over those who just don’t know and won’t likely care.

You may have heard what I hear, too, that Woodberry’s not like the real world. This obvious truth is, in many instances, a thinly veiled critique of our quaintness, our idealism, and an Honor System that runs on trust: no locks on the doors, no worry or concern if you leave a backpack or computer untended, a naïve assumption that when we ask a question, we’ll get an honest response. If you don’t watch your back in the real world, someone will surely take advantage and the trust erodes pretty quickly. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve let you down by not preparing you for the real world. Instead, you’re armed now with the muscle and sinew to make trust, truth, and integrity the essential foundation for how you spend your time in college and beyond, who you spend it with, and how you lead when you get the chance. Each of you has the capacity to bring the best of Woodberry Forest to the world beyond. Here you helped shape our culture for the better, and you are poised to do so wherever you go. I see a better world in the future because I have faith in you and faith in what we believe. Trust, truth, and integrity are necessary to address the world’s problems and these values are foundational for a happy family and a meaningful life. Nothing endures or lasts without relationships rooted in faith and fidelity. Always seek to surround yourselves with men and women who will make you better, and better you will become.  

Earlier this year I shared a Native American parable that is worth repeating. “A fight is going on inside me,” the Native American said to his grandchildren. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, ego, and unfaithfulness. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, forgiveness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faithfulness. This same fight is going on inside you and every other person too.” They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked, “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”

My hope for you is that you’ll feed the lamb of love that resides in the hearts of each of you. The central power of this weekend is the magical mix of individual pursuits that construct the core of a connected and integrated class. Forged by trust, tempered by sacrifice, and smoothed by compassion, love is the tie that binds. Nearly four years ago when you came to Woodberry I shared with your parents a quote from one of my favorite writers, the Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, who wrote about an individual’s education when he noted that “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become a common bond and we cease to be alone.”

The paths of self discovery at Woodberry have been varied and, for many of you, have been profound. But it’s love that binds you to each other, and that, far more than an award or accolade, is what we celebrate today. In his beautiful novel, Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry speaks to the redemptive power of love and reminds us that we’re part of something much larger and more mysterious than we will ever know. You might think of your own time at Woodberry as I share the following quote from Wendell Berry. His elderly female narrator experiences extraordinary love in an ordinary life, and then endures unspeakable sadness before she states at the end of the novel that, “I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

Sometimes I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once, we too went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering it all again, I think I am still in there with him too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude.”

Many years ago Nike ran an ad campaign far different from Breaking2. I remember one poster in particular. It was a photograph of a lonely runner on a deserted road amid rolling hills covered with a canopy of trees. The cryptic caption captured my imagination and intrigued and mystified me. “There is,” the poster stated boldly, “no finish line.” It’s taken me years to grapple with the meaning of this assertion, mostly because we’re conditioned in our culture to see life as a race, a series of constant finish lines where faster, faster, and faster win the day. The school year ends. The businessman closes a deal. The attorney wins a case. The surgeon saves her patient. The athlete wins the championship or endures a bitter defeat. The mother gives birth, and we mourn those who die.

And in our culture we mistakenly see graduation as a finish line. The diplomas you will hold in your hands later this morning are undoubtedly testament to what you have accomplished over the years to make your way through the heavy challenges thrust upon you here—to live on your own, to take the toughest courses, to struggle through defeat and disappointment, to choose the hard right over the easy wrong when no one was watching.  Surely May 26 is a finish line for you. But more and more I’ve come to see the wisdom in the notion that “there is no finish line.” At our best, we are never complete, we are always under construction, and we are forever learning what we can do to live a meaningful life and to make a contribution to others. It’s the prevailing message in the parable of the prodigal son that Mac just read. Just like the terrible fight between the two wolves, we’ll all be conflicted in life and part of us will always be the prodigal son, the one who leaves home with ambitious dreams about hitting the big one and making it on our own. At various times in your life you will likely find yourselves succeeding materially, but at other times you might be slipping, searching for a toe-hold and yearning for material success. And when you struggle, you’ll have a choice: either to see your failure as a measure of your worth, or a chance for a new start.

And no matter how successful you may become, or how frustrated or disappointed, I hope and I pray that for you, just as it has been for me, Woodberry is a place of undeserved grace which calls us home like the prodigal son and reminds us that we are known, challenged, and loved. Here we are one and here we are welcome and here we are the beneficiaries of an abiding grace that we did not deserve, but instead exists as a gift from God and the faculty and alumni, and now the class of 2018, who have shaped this place for 129 years. Amen.

Who We Are


The following is a sermon given by Dr. Hulsey on Sunday, May 20, ahead of the annual “Senior Shake.”

This past February I was attending a headmaster’s meeting in Durham and found myself sitting next to the former headmaster at Episcopal High School. Rob Hershey retired from Episcopal two years ago, so I know him well. In fact, his first teaching position out of Williams College was at Woodberry, so he knows Woodberry well. I had on my Woodberry tie and explained to him that I would be leaving the meeting early in order to fly to New York for an alumni gathering that evening. Those of us who know Mr. Hershey know that he is fiercely competitive and that he rarely gives an inch, especially when it comes to his passion for Episcopal and his eagerness to take it to the Tigers whenever he can. But when I mentioned our alumni, Rob nodded, and after a pause said, “You know, Byron, I love Episcopal, but there’s no doubt that the Woodberry alumni love your school more.”

Now it’s impossible to measure exactly the love, devotion, commitment, and passion that an alumni community has for its school, and I understand that I’m about as biased as I could ever be, but I can’t imagine any school in the nation that is loved like Woodberry is loved by its alumni. I feel it everywhere I go: It comes through clearly in alumni stories about the unpredictable twists and turns of life on dorm, memories down the hill of games played in the freezing cold, early morning Saturday classes with quizzes and tests that no one thought they deserved, the primordial belief in the power of the bonfire, and the drudgery of Saturday night demerit hall. I remember visiting with an alumnus, now in his 80s, who was caught smoking at Woodberry without permission. He recalls that his punishment was to run 100 miles, and he still loves the school — maybe he even loves it more because of that formative experience. I feel the endurance of that love every April when teary-eyed alumni come back on campus and pick up with their friends exactly where they left off, five, ten, twenty, and fifty years ago.

I often ruminate on why the Woodberry alumni love the school as much as we do. Now I take it as a given that not every alumnus had a supremely positive experience and certainly not every single alumnus loves or even likes the school. And I’m very well aware of the fact that not every one of you loves the school and that a few of you have even decided that you won’t return next year. I get that, and yet I’m still struck by how deeply committed and emotional so many Woodberry alumni are about the Tiger Nation. As we anticipate this year’s Senior Shake, I thought I’d offer a few reasons why I believe the school is so deeply loved, and some thoughts about the graduating class and the legacy you’re leaving those of us who will return next year.

It’s the culture that matters most. We’ve never wavered from our mission as an all-boys, all-boarding school. The clarity of that institutional identity, coupled with our location and the beauty of this campus, combine to create extraordinary friendships and relationships with teachers and coaches and mentors that last a lifetime. Because we are all-boys, and all-boarding, each one of you is equal here, in ways you’ve never been before and may never be again. You stand shoulder to shoulder with each other. As equals, everyone’s held to the same high standard. Here you learn together, laugh together, suffer together, win together, and lose together. Here, when we’re at our best, we are one. We come from many places and many backgrounds, now from all over the world. We have wide-ranging and varied passions and interests in academics, athletics, and the arts, but because we are all-boys and all-boarding, and because we buy into the same high standards, we are one single, unassailable band of Tiger brothers.

Last spring in The New York Times, columnist and social critic David Brooks distinguished between thick and thin institutions. The wider national culture increasingly favors the whimsical, selfish preferences of the individual over the sustained power of community. Consequently, national institutions have grown thinner over time. But we’ve thickened here, especially in comparison to what we see in the world beyond. Because there are so few places like Woodberry left in the world, our alumni are more closely bonded to the school than they’ve ever been. Mr. Brooks writes that “a thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul. Thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped (think C-dorm), where members meet face to face on a regular basis, like a dinner table or a packed gym or assembly hall.”

He goes on to write that “such institutions have a set of collective rituals — fasting or reciting or standing in formation. They have shared tasks, which often involve members closely watching one another, the way hockey teammates have to observe everybody on the ice. In such institutions people occasionally sleep overnight in the same retreat center or facility, so that everybody can see each other’s real self, before makeup and after dinner. Such organizations often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink. They incorporate music into daily life, because it is hard not to become bonded with someone you have sung and danced with.”

As social creatures who crave belonging, we feel emotionally about thick institutions like Woodberry. These kinds of communities seep into us and shape us. In a sense, thick institutions and strong communities tweak our social DNA, often for the good. One bedrock element of the school’s culture is our longstanding, unwavering commitment to seeking truth. The value that we’ve placed on the truth resonates with Woodberry alumni from every generation. Too many in the world beyond have a shaky allegiance to the truth. They pick and choose only the facts that support their view, or, even worse, they ignore the truth altogether and live in a made-up world that aligns with their preferences rather than the truth that binds a place like Woodberry together. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy we learn that these charlatans “will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

The commitment to truth runs deeply through our academic lives here: Your science teachers demand that you generate, assemble, and communicate data to advance a hypothesis that you’ve posed; your math teachers often insist that you show the work that yielded an answer; history and English teachers require that you support your opinions with historical facts and references to the text. The truth matters here — it always has and it always will. Over time a boy learns here that the truth liberates him to be his best self, as opposed to being chained to a fake self in an unreal, fabricated, even dystopian world.

Truth, of course, is the essence of the student-run honor system, and it’s foundational to our common commitment to ourselves and each other that we’ll tell the truth, complete our own academic work, and respect what belongs to others. When we practice a reverence for the truth we present our best and most noble selves, and that standard has bonded generations of Woodberry alumni. We benefit here from a standard that we inherited, one that sends a message near and far that a Woodberry alumnus is a man of honor and integrity. Jameel Wilson’s father, Alfred, told me a story last year about closing a business deal. At the very end everything was stymied and progress had slowed to a crawl. Then the attorney from the other side, the father of an alumnus, called up and said, “Our sons are Woodberry boys. I know what you believe and we’re gonna get this deal done.” That’s the power of trust that comes from an unwavering devotion to the truth.

A commitment to the truth also demands that we understand that life at Woodberry is full of disappointment and even failure. If you’re going to be a Woodberry boy, you will be roughed up and bounced around, and it’s in these moments that you’re faced with an opportunity to grow through the disappointment to reach higher than you could have reached if you’d never failed in the first place. This year’s senior prefect captured it beautifully when he shared with me that “the only way to succeed is to become comfortable with failure.” If you’re devoted to the truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.

Truth flows through our social relationships and our friendships at Woodberry, too. A sixth former shared with me earlier this winter that “you have to be yourself” if you’re going to make it here. In our community you can’t fake it and hope to escape the poking and prodding and occasional ridicule that comes with trying to be someone you’re not. I recently shared this observation with an alumnus from the class of 1985, and he said, “That’s exactly why I love Woodberry so much. You have to learn to stand up for who you are, and if you do, your classmates will love you forever.” The Woodberry experience offers each of us multiple avenues for self-discovery. The place has the power to reveal who we are, full of strengths and weaknesses, and–when we’re at our best–accepting of each other and full of hope that tomorrow each of us will be a little better than today.

129 years. 106 in this chapel. It’s obvious that we inherited the culture that we enjoy today. Woodberry’s culture is an extraordinary blessing, an underserved gift, one that has elevated my life, and I hope yours, too. Clearly we should be grateful. But God calls on us to be more than mere inheritors; we are creators, too. In our fleeting time, each one of us is faced with daily opportunities to restore and renew and revitalize Woodberry’s culture, just as each one of us can fritter those moments away and let the place grow stale and warped and ossified. In closing, I want to pay tribute to the class of 2018 and the legacy of brotherly camaraderie you have grafted onto the culture here.

More than any other class I’ve known, you’ve practiced what it means to take care of each other. By the way, not a single one of us is perfect in this regard. We all have regrets of missed opportunities to save a friend or advisee or student, but if the truth is told, you answered the call forthrightly and bravely. You’ve taken on the responsibility of reaching out to help one another. This has happened consistently, in ways both small and large, ways that are seen and unseen. It’s an element of the climate here and it matters. One sixth former compared Woodberry to his old school and said, “Here we pull for one another.” He didn’t get that at home. Perhaps even more to the point, it hasn’t always been that way here at Woodberry. But you’ve done your part to make this place better. You pull for one another, on stage, on the court, in the classroom, as peer tutors working with younger boys, and on dorm talking with a friend who needs the presence of your companionship.

Small actions mean more than you might think. It’s when older boys pair up with alumni and judge the physics fights for third formers on the last Sunday of the school year for seniors. It’s when a prefect or a defect or an old boy from home checks in on a boy who’s homesick just to lend a hand. It’s when the hulking Edward Solms picked up the decidedly smaller Daniel Vroon on the second Saturday in November and apologized for not winning the game in Daniel’s new boy year. It’s a cheerleading crew that is more uniformly positive and enthusiastic. It’s a senior class that organized two student-only assemblies this year, the first to address the problem of theft and to restore our community of trust, and the second to take responsibility for making healthy decisions and to rid our campus of nicotine and drugs.

Your legacy won’t be state championships or numbers of Walker Scholars. Along the way, like every class in Woodberry’s history, you’ve stumbled and been bloodied and fallen short. The crooked places have not all been made straight. But it’s been a privilege to watch you grow through the school and I want you to know that I’m grateful for the ways you’ve taken care of each other. When it comes to well-rounded excellence and meaningful contributions to your classmates and the younger boys, you’ve enriched our culture. 

Culture matters most, and at a place like Woodberry, culture often evolves slowly, even imperceptibly. But on occasion there is a group of leaders, some known and others unknown, who step up and step forward to make an enduring contribution. You’ve left those who will return next year an extraordinary opportunity to sustain what you started. Your legacy is a challenge for future classes to make Woodberry an even stronger school going forward, a place where every boy learns to work hard, build his character, and like the class of 2018, take care of each other.

Institutional Adaptability

October  23, 2016.     Woodberry Forest Mountain Bike

The single guiding principle for Woodberry Forest should be wide-ranging and thoughtful answers to a meta-question: What do boys need for their future? Of course boys today need much of what we’ve always needed: discipline, rigor, high standards, decency, respect, and an overriding commitment to character and integrity above all.

And yet we know that the world has changed rapidly and irreversibly since the turn of the century with the consolidation of the Information Age and ubiquity of technology in every area of life. Simply put, boys need the timeless values and the structure of the Woodberry community to stay grounded in the midst of accelerating change; at the very same time, however, they need to hone skills like curiosity and adaptability if they’re to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.

Every boy who thrives at Woodberry has learned to adapt to the challenges of living on his own: he gets himself up in the morning and makes it to class on time; he takes responsibility for completing his work and fulfilling the expectations of his teachers and coaches; and he learns to live with a roommate and hallmates who may be very different than he is. This elemental form of adaptability is basic, yet it shouldn’t be overlooked. Thousands of Woodberry boys have graduated with confidence that they can achieve on their own when they make their way to college and beyond.

Athletics and the arts often emphasize the importance of adaptability. Winning teams make half-time adjustments in response to what they hadn’t anticipated. The boys on the winter climbing team model curiosity at the highest level. They’re problem solvers who fall from a climb, stand back, reassess, and then change their strategy to make it higher on the next attempt. The boys in this year’s winter musical are embracing adaptability. In “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” a musical murder mystery based on Charles Dickens’ last novel, the ending changes each night, depending on the vote of the audience.

We’re becoming more adaptive in our academic curriculum as well. Engineering, an elective for sixth formers, is applied math and science that demands novel strategies for problem solving as boys create Halloween costumes for faculty children and build cardboard boats for a spring regatta in the Ruffin Natatorium. This is the third year that we’ve offered senior distinction projects for sixth formers. In their final marking period at the school, boys take on their own big projects like building a car, constructing a mandolin from scratch, or producing short movies on a common theme.

Finally, I’d like to salute the faculty who model adaptability, curiosity, and life-long learning for the boys. When we offer a new course in response to changing times, it makes a difference. When we coach a boy to see a problem through a different angle, we help him develop the cognitive musculature to take a risk he might not have taken. And when a boy is consumed with an audacious dream and we look for a solution, we change a life forever.

I’m thinking of Efose Oriaifo ’17, a young man who is legally blind and wanted to join the mountain biking team before he graduated. Nolan LaVoie got special permission from league authorities and the pair competed together on a two-man bike, with Coach LaVoie calling out turns while Efose helped pedal.  Like any thriving species, the Woodberry culture must evolve or be passed by. We know, and we celebrate, the myriad ways we stay rooted to tradition that generates meaning and, at the same time, we live into a future that demands adaptability both for the school and the boys.

A Moment to Remember

Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.00.41

Not long ago I was walking through the beautiful William H. White, Jr. Library late on a Friday evening before the St. Christopher’s football game the following day. I came across a senior defensive back deeply immersed in a paper for his philosophy class. I was intrigued by his title: “What Is the Truth and How Do You Know?” We visited for several minutes and I walked away, reminded that the rhythm and routine of Woodberry matters in ways that help boys grow into young men, prepared for the challenges and opportunities of a changing world.

Boys have never needed Woodberry more than they do today, and Woodberry has never been more relevant to the world than it is today. This may sound like headmaster hyperbole, but let’s be honest: adolescent boys are engines of distractibility, and in a culture that celebrates the latest iteration of the iPhone, 24-7 gaming, and the latest social media app, boys are struggling to find their footing and make good choices. Biologists and brain researchers remind us that in these adolescent years the amygdala, which governs our desire for immediate gratification, our emotions, and our fight/flight/flee instincts, often overwhelms the prefrontal cortex, the portion of our brains that governs executive function and self-regulation.

I’m occasionally asked why would Woodberry remains one of the very few all boys and all boarding schools. The quick and easy answer is that we’ve always been so. But a better answer is that in an environment of swirling mass distraction, boys need to learn how to manage their affairs, make good choices, and hold themselves accountable. At Woodberry, we provide them with the environment and the support to establish healthy patterns for a successful life, exactly at the time when the plasticity of the brain is at one of its most formative peaks. For third and fourth formers, the structure of the schedule and our clear expectations help boys understand what they need to do in order to succeed. For fifth and sixth formers, we offer more freedom within the structure so that they can exercise increased independence, autonomy, and self-awareness.

The school’s first headmaster, J. Carter Walker, never talked about “executive function,” but he and his faculty, as well as succeeding generations of teachers and coaches, knew intuitively what boys need. Much of what we do here is designed to help a boy build the discipline to regulate himself and make good choices. He has to get himself out of bed and to class on time without the hounding of his mother. Seated meal three nights a week starts at exactly 6:15, not when you want to roll off the couch and peek in the fridge. Study hall is two hours a night, six nights a week. We’re one of the few places left where boys go to class on Saturday morning, even on the second Saturday of November before The Game against Episcopal High School.

In the zero tolerance, single sanction world of the Woodberry honor system, boys learn how regulate themselves by protecting their integrity when they don’t know an answer on a test. They have to respect what belongs to their classmates, even when they’re tempted to take it, and they are charged with telling the truth, even when they know they’ll be held accountable. Without the luxury of a second chance, Woodberry boys learn to make good choices every day when it comes to drugs and alcohol, a long-held school policy that builds the grooves of healthy decision-making. In short, just about everything we do helps a boy learn how to learn and how to take care of himself. Here he builds the neurological musculature of a better developed pre-frontal cortex, and here he learns to stay focused on the signal in a noisy world of increasing distraction.

The patterns we establish often stay with a boy for life. I remember a gathering in Charlotte when the parent of an alumnus referred to his friend Hooper Hardison ’79 and said, “I learned from Hooper that you’ll get ahead in life if you work every Saturday morning.” Hooper was quick to say, “I learned that at Woodberry.” Another alumnus told me that he goes to church every week with his family, not because he did when he was a boy at home, but because that’s what we do at Woodberry.

Graduating seniors tell me the same kinds of stories. In small group conversations every year, they tell me what they value most about the Woodberry experience. One of the prominent threads, coming from every sector of the class, is an enduring self-confidence in knowing how to make good decisions and manage time effectively. This kind of independence, established through the structure of the Woodberry experience and then exercised through a pattern of good decisions that a boy learns over time, is exactly what we mean when we say that in a world of extraordinary and mindless distraction, Woodberry has never mattered more.  And given the challenges we see, it’s clear to me that boys have never needed a Woodberry experience more than they do today.

Opening Chapel



The following is a sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, August 27, 2017 for “Opening Chapel.”

For several years now I’ve enjoyed an ongoing dialogue with Woodberry boys centered around a foundational question: Does the brotherhood create the culture, or does the culture create the brotherhood? Most Woodberry alumni and most old boys will say without a moment’s hesitation that the best one-word description of our community is “brotherhood.” And because that answer comes so quickly to the tongue, we’re tempted to think that the brotherhood generates all that’s good here. But I’ve come to understand that it’s the culture of intellectual thoroughness, moral integrity, good sportsmanship, and a reverence for things sacred that forges, tempers, and shapes the brotherhood that you enjoy. Without a culture that holds us to a higher standard, we’d revert to our more primal selves, looking out for number one and undermining anyone in our way to get to the top and stay there. You don’t need to look further than countless stories in the Old Testament, books like Lord of the Flies, or movies like “The Hunger Games” to be reminded that in his most natural state, man falls prey to the temptation to advance his own selfish interests rather than to forge the brotherhood of virtue, decency, respect, oneness, and equality that marks Woodberry Forest at its best.

Not long ago I was introduced to a compelling image defining culture that I’d like to share with you tonight. Imagine a pyramid capturing everything important to a community like Woodberry Forest. At the foundation are values, that is to say the standards by which we live. For the faculty, it’s simple: here we commit that every boy in our care will be known, challenged, and loved. And in return, we call on you to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other. For both faculty and students, our values are shaped by a shared assumption that our healthy community demands a level of selflessness that is often absent in the world beyond.

Just a little higher than values on the culture pyramid are beliefs, that is to say the aspirations and the unshakeable truths that we share in common, no matter when we graduated or wherever we’re from. Here we aspire to excellence in everything we undertake. We reach up in all areas of school life: in academics, athletics, and the arts, and also in our interactions with each other. We learn from disappointment, defeat, and difficulty, but we’re unwavering in our commitment to excellence as a foundational belief. And of course we embrace the Honor System as the essence of what it means to live an open and responsible life, respecting others, just as we are respected in return. By taking responsibility for our own work, respecting what belongs to others, and telling the truth, even when it’s hard, we’re practicing a belief that every one of us matters as much as everyone else.

Beyond values and beliefs on the culture pyramid lies the realm of actions, meaning what we do that either advances or undermines what we value and what we say we believe. No matter what the circumstances, are we consistent and predictable, or do we instead waver and whither depending on the company we’re in, the pressure we’re under, or the time of day, week or school year? Are we two-faced like the Greek god Janus, or are we open, true and recognizable for all the world to see? Are we at peace with ourselves and our fellow man, or are we trying to make ourselves into someone we’re not? Here we aim to act on our beliefs—to work hard, to build our character, and to learn how to take care of each other, and through acts large and small, day after day, you add to the construction of a culture of oneness and unity that binds you together as brothers.

It’s not every day that we’re confronted with a defining moment or moral dilemma. And so you might be wondering how you’ll know if you’re ready when such a moment comes or dilemma presents itself. One good answer is to take care of what you can control and build the muscle necessary to be ready when called upon. Admiral William H. McRaven, a former Navy Seal, shares some great advice in a popular book entitled, Make Your Bed. A simple act for sure, but no matter how poorly the rest of day might go, everyone can make his bed, and you’ll have accomplished something right away. The little things matter, often more than you’d ever predict. So control what you can control. Resist the urge to fall for a “double sleep in” and waste away half of the day. Be on time, even if you think you can get away with being a little late. Leave your phone in your room if you can’t resist the buzz in your pocket. Learn how to be present in the moment and leave the past behind and leave what you can’t do now for another day.

These interior conflicts are far from simple and never easily resolved. At last year’s baccalaureate I shared with the graduating seniors a parable that highlights the battle within. You may be familiar with the Native American who was teaching his grandchildren about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, ego, and unfaithfulness. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, forgiveness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faithfulness. This same fight is going on inside you and every other person too.” They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Driven by values, beliefs and actions and at the very top of the culture pyramid lie artifacts, or what you might call symbols, that represent the culture that shapes the brotherhood. Architectural artifacts here at Woodberry include St. Andrew’s Chapel, where we gather every week as one community to give thanks to God for His many blessings and to take time from our busy lives to pray for our broken world. A hymn like tonight’s recessional might serve as an artifact of oneness and remind us that “in Christ there is no east or west.” Tonight’s readings from the Old and New Testament serve as artifacts to connect man to God and Christ. In this evening’s psalm we’re called to “live together in unity,” and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we’re urged not to “be proud,” but to “be willing to associate with people of low position” as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians we’re challenged to “clothe” ourselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” surely apt descriptors of what it means to live in community with others.   

Two of my favorite Woodberry artifacts are printed in your service leaflets. In several minutes we’ll recite the Boy’s Prayer, a timeless tradition here at Woodberry that reminds us how to align our actions with our values and beliefs. It is, in fact, a reasonably good frame for measuring character, the theme that will mark the current school year that has just begun. The Boy’s Prayer acts as a sturdy guide for what it is to live a life of character— that we keep ourselves clean in our thoughts, words and deeds; that we choose the hard right over the easy wrong; that we work hard and play fair, even when no one’s watching; that we seek forgiveness when we stray from the path and forgive when others make their own mistakes; and that we take the opportunities presented to us each day to do some good for others, surely a good description of what it means to take care of each other.

The Boy’s Prayer captures the essence of character but merely scratches the surface on community, what it means to live out our beliefs together, as one unified body. We aim for that here at Woodberry. We’re far more than the sum of our individual parts. Here the community means more than we do on our own. One of my favorite historical artifacts for community comes from John Winthrop, aboard the Arbella in 1630, en route to New England from the licentiousness of London with hopes of creating what he called “a city upon a hill,” a beacon of light in a broken and sinful world. Winthrop and his fellow Puritans had plenty of flaws, but his “Modell of Christian Charity” has much to offer when it comes to living together in community as one body: “We must,” he thundered, “be knit together in this work as one man; we must hold each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to rid ourselves of our excesses to supply others’ necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own and rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and common work, our community as members of the same body.”

Here at Woodberry, an artifact for community is the school song, “Amici.” Images of boys singing “Amici,” arm in arm, at the end of the Episcopal game and at Amici Night and Graduation come readily to mind as reflections of an artifact that highlights our values, beliefs, and actions. Old boys and faculty know the first verse by heart, and new boys should learn it soon. The language is of brotherhood and community, and it comes forth clearly with references to “our strong band,” and “sealed by friendship’s tie,” as well as “unwavering,” “true,” and “when we from life shall part.”

To all 130 new boys who come from all over the nation and the world, as well as to our new faculty, welcome. I hope that you come to know Woodberry as a second home, a culture and a community shaped by place and defined by values and beliefs that are bigger than we will ever be but challenging us to build our character so that we might be bigger and more noble than we would have been on our own.

Wrestling with Why


The following is a sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, May 21, ahead of the annual “Senior Shake.”

Deep in the winter of 1985, I was limping my way through John Reimers’ trimester course on the novel. I can’t say that I ever fully understood Mr. Reimers or his methods, but I did enjoy the class. Like those of you who have had his class or have it now, I knew that I was in the presence of a well-read, deeply interesting, sometimes frustrating, and occasionally mercurial man. I don’t remember many details, but I have never forgotten one encounter that I wish to share with you tonight. We were reading Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and when we came to class one day, Mr. Reimers announced that we would have a quiz. We closed our books, took out some paper, and awaited his instructions. Nothing happened. And then he walked over to the board and wrote one question that we were to answer. “Why?” We moaned and groaned to no avail. He completely ignored our pleading inquiries about how we should answer the question. So we began to write. Many of my classmates wrote several paragraphs and learned later that they’d failed the quiz. I had no idea what Mr. Reimers wanted, so in a fit of frustration, I answered the question “why?” with “because,” and got a “C.” One boy in my class answered, “why not?” and earned an “A.”

At the time I chalked up this Woodberry memory of John Reimers to what I believed to be his arbitrary and capricious methods of instruction. But over the years I’ve come to understand that there was method to the madness—that John wanted us to understand that there are occasions in life when we will never be able to answer the question “why?” Please don’t misunderstand me. Your eagerness and willingness to ask “why?” and to search for the truth is essential to what it means to be an educated citizen in our democracy. Critical thinking is learning how to ask the right question at the right time and then building a case based on facts to solve a problem that needs to be addressed. Those who never ask “why?” typically follow the herd and fall short of their potential, but those who take time to ask put themselves in a position to lead and to serve in communities larger than we will ever be.

But there are undoubtedly times in life when we’ll never be able to answer the question “why?”, and “why not” comes about as close as we may ever get to the truth. Like many of you, I’ve wrestled with one question I’ll never be able to answer: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why are some children afflicted with a terrible illness when most of us are healthy? Why would God stand idly by and allow six million Jews to be killed in the concentration camps? Why are some born into privilege and comfort when others are born into miserable poverty and social chaos? Why do some die in an earthquake or tornado when others are spared? Why does a boy lose his father in the blink of an eye just four years after the death of his mother?

Such questions rattle us to the core and have theological, moral, and psychological implications for how we come to see the world and our place in the human community. As you wrestle with “why?” I want to offer one more story that’s personal to me. After my first semester in college, my parents bought me a car from a friend of a family friend in Dallas. I was back at UVa at the start of the second semester, so a friend of my dad’s drove a navy blue, two-door Honda Prelude to Nashville, where a fraternity brother and I met him one weekend in late January. After the hand-off we set out on the trek to Charlottesville on a cold Sunday night, and all felt right with the world. Near the town of Bristol, snow started to fall. It had not accumulated on the highway, so I felt like I could safely continue the trip back to UVa. Several miles later an 18-wheeler in front of me braked, and when I followed suit, I lost control of the car as we spun around the interstate on a sheet of black ice. The last thing I remember is seeing from the rearview mirror another 18-wheeler coming straight at us. I have no memory of the collision that ensued, but do have a vague recollection of the Tennessee state trooper who woke us up as he came upon the accident and drove us to the hospital to be checked. Fortunately my friend suffered only a sprained thumb. I thought I was fine, but it turns out that I’d fractured my skull (Jennifer, by the way, wonders occasionally if I’ve ever fully recovered!) and stayed for several days in the Bristol hospital before heading home to Texas to restore my health.

Several weeks later the insurance adjuster sent us a harrowing photograph of the two-door Honda Prelude after the accident. It was, for me, the single moment in my life that cemented my understanding of the world and my tiny place in it. The car was absolutely crushed. It’s almost unfathomable that anyone could have survived or not been maimed for life. I was tempted to believe that God had reached out and spared my friend and me in that moment of peril and that He had big plans for my life. But that view of God does not account for the undeserved suffering in the world, those who lose their lives in tornadoes and tsunamis, those who perish at the hands of evil tyrants, those who get sick when others are healthy. We’re left with that vexing question, “Why?”

“Why not?” may be about the best answer that we can offer in the wake of terrible loss and undeserved suffering. If we hold to the belief that God gives people what they deserve, we come to see ourselves as righteous if we’ve not yet been afflicted. But then we come to blame ourselves unfairly when tragedy strikes. Our God of love can quite quickly turn into a God of spite and vengeance, and that does not work for me. Instead, I have come to see life as an undeserved gift from God who created all and knows all but does not control all. After seeing that photograph of my pancaked Honda Prelude and putting that single moment in the context of the suffering in the world, I know there’s no good reason for me to have been spared while others perish.

Even though “Why?” is a good question to ask, I hope that we don’t stop with “Why not?” as an answer. It can, after all, be a little too blasé, a little too indifferent, a little too uncaring and fatalistic. In the face of suffering, I hope you’ll be brave enough and courageous enough to ask deeper and more penetrating questions, like “Given what has happened, what am I called to do?” or as the Jewish Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?” Kushner makes clear that “the God I believe in does not send us the problem.” Instead, through prayer, “He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.” You will get the answers through your faith, through careful conversation with your conscience, through your best relationships, and through, I hope, the foundational beliefs that you’ve learned here at Woodberry.

Many, like the Old Testament’s Job and the Apostle Paul from tonight’s readings, find solace and strength and bravery in prayer. Paul understands suffering to be an opportunity to build endurance which yields character and finally hope for troubled times. Those who have suffered and lean into their suffering seem hard-wired to serve their fellow man, much like we call on you here to take care of each other. A man I’ve long admired is the deceased Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived three years in Jewish concentration camps in World War II and then wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946. Frankl had every reason to be bitter and resentful. His wife, parents, and brother all died in the camps, and yet he somehow rose above the evil depravity he’d witnessed and found meaning and actually freedom through the experience. In the face of the cruel capriciousness of his captors, Frankl looked inward to his moral being and outward to his fellow inmates for the strength he needed to survive and prove worthy of his suffering.

Frankl came to understand that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.” Frankl had been separated from his wife and family and knew he’d likely never see them again, but that brutal fact did not erase the power of love that sustained him. He reminds me that nothing can take away the love we have for our family and friends and for our Woodberry brothers. It was also in the camps that Frankl embraced the freedom of his existence. The ideal of freedom and the reality of a concentration camp seem like a woefully misaligned paradox, and I understand that many of you feel far from free at Woodberry with study hall on Friday nights, classes on Saturday, demerit hall on Saturday night, the many rules in the Blue Book, and our high standards for your behavior that run counter to the ways of the world. I’m reminded of the former board chair, Sion Boney, who said jokingly many years ago when a family friend visited our campus for the first time and compared it to a country club that Woodberry might be better understood as a “country club run by Nazis.”

Freedom in the midst of a concentration camp or freedom and Woodberry Forest don’t make sense on the surface. But listen carefully to what Frankl means, and listen for the ways his message connects to our charge that you take care of each other and wade bravely into the suffering rather than stand idly by. “We who lived in concentration camps,” Frankl wrote, “can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

Choice is the essence of freedom, and while there is much in life that we cannot control, times in life that leave us reeling with no way to answer “why,” each of us has the freedom to make a choice about how we handle the unexpected twists and turns that lie ahead. In the days and weeks and years to come, each of us should spend a little less time seeking success or happiness or searching for meaning. We should, instead, understand that success and happiness and meaning come from our moral beliefs, a dedication to noble causes greater than we will ever be, and to an unconditional commitment to relationships secured by a transcendent love that knows no bounds and sustains us through the best and worst of times. That’s what I hope you’ve gotten here from your teachers and your coaches and the best of your friends, and I hope that’s what you’ll take from here to make the world better as proud and humble alumni of Woodberry Forest.