Giving Thanks for Woodberry Forest School

I only get to be new as headmaster here once, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to see the community anew and to imagine ways we can make a great school even better. It’s important for me to celebrate the past, understand the school and what makes it special today, and also embrace purposeful evolution to assure that we’re always positioned to prepare boys for their future. To that end, I’ve had conversations with prefects, the administrative team, the Advisory Council, and the teaching faculty around three main topics: 1. Tell me about a time you were proud of Woodberry Forest, 2. What’s working well?, and 3. What should get better?

As we bid farewell to the boys at the conclusion of their fall trimester exams and head into the holiday season, I want to take some time to give thanks for Woodberry Forest and share some of the feedback that I’ve received about specific times we’ve been proud of the school. Time and again I hear from students and teachers about community-wide service projects like hosting Special Olympics on campus or the Habitat build organized by the fourth form. These are opportunities that we seize to exercise leadership on behalf of others. We are reminded that the world is so much bigger than we are and that we can and should make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.

Parents routinely point to changes they see in their sons when the boys return home for holiday breaks. One mother of a sixth former told me that she and her husband dropped their son off as a new boy and drove home teary-eyed at what they were sacrificing. Six weeks later, they came back to Woodberry for Parents Weekend. They were sitting in their car, watching boys moving from class to class and to the Reynolds Family Dining Room for lunch. The father thought he saw their son. He said, “Look, there he is.” The mother replied, “No it’s not.” The father said, “Yes, it is.” The boy came closer, still not seeing his parents, and his mother had to admit that he was indeed her son. “He carried himself so differently, in a good way, just six weeks later. I knew then that Woodberry was worth it.”

I have heard many heart-warming stories about ways Woodberry has come together in times of crisis to support a boy enduring a death in the family, a teacher whose child is struggled through an illness, or an alumnus navigating one of life’s challenges. I heard about a bus from Fork Union Military Academy that was stranded on Highway 15 on its way to St. Alban’s in Washington, DC, for a football game. Woodberry offered its own buses to the Cadets at no charge so that they could make it to their game on time. These days, we’d likely worry about liability and furnish all kinds of reasons why we wouldn’t or couldn’t step up, but I admire the school for doing what was right for a school community in need.

There are so many great Woodberry stories — and we all have one or two. We have here so much more than a beautiful campus dotted with majestic buildings, so much more than a healthy endowment, and so much more than a list of accomplishments aimed at college matriculation, victories on the athletic fields, and scores on standardized tests. What we have here is the kind of culture that makes us better and challenges us to reach for high standards while embracing a place that is so much bigger and more enduring than we will ever be. It’s the kind of place where a boy has the opportunity to act and lead in ways he never would have at home.

A common refrain I hear from our faculty is pride in how the boys comport themselves off campus. One teacher told me — with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of cynicism — that the boys often carry themselves more impressively off campus than on campus! And then the stories came pouring forth, one after another. I heard about a game in 1995 that our football team played against Strasburg High School. The letter from the school’s principal to Athletic Director Bill Davis is extraordinary and shows the full force of the Woodberry community and how we carry ourselves off campus.

It is, I must admit, a little easier to be dignified and gracious after winning like we did in that game. It’s a little more challenging for a boy to conduct himself with dignity after suffering a drubbing at a school two hours from Woodberry on a Tuesday night when he is staring up at a mountain of school work with tests and projects and papers due by the end of the week. But that’s exactly what happened two years ago when Matthew Keating took a JV baseball team to Lynchburg. Lynchburg Christian Academy’s team hammered our boys that day, 20-2. If you’ve played and you’ve coached, you know that these kinds of days happen, and they’re a test of character and fortitude. You can tell a lot about a boy and a school in how they win and how they lose.

On the way home, the boys stopped for a bite to eat before arriving late into study hall. Coach Keating had no idea what had occurred on the way back to Woodberry near Lovingston, Virginia, on 29 North. The following day we received a voice mail from a woman who knew nothing of the school. She had encountered our boys at the restaurant and wanted to pass on what she’d seen and experienced. Boys who handle themselves with grace in situations like this are learning what it means to be a man and to take care of others. It’s a statement about a culture and a community built and re-built here for over 125 years, and it’s why I’m thankful for Woodberry Forest.