Woodberry Forest School

A Hard Thing Worth Doing

May  20, 2019.       Woodberry Forest School Senior Shake

The following sermon was given by Dr. Byron Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, September 1, 2019, on Opening Day.

At midnight on June 30 we stopped counting. For the past 365 days, from July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019, we had, as we do every year, counted the number of living alumni who had made a gift to the school’s Amici Fund. Alumni giving over a twelve month period is one important demonstration of love for and devotion to an alma mater, and I’m proud that this past year 65.5 percent, for a total of 3,597 alumni, made gifts to the school. The year before it had been at 65 percent, good enough for first in the nation for secondary schools. The extraordinary generosity of our alumni through the annual Amici Fund matters to Woodberry Forest, and yet it’s not by any means the only or even most important reflection of the alumni love for the Tiger Nation.

Earlier this summer, former senior master Bob Vasquez was in a serious automobile accident, and in that tragic accident, his beloved wife, Elinor, died. Five days later, almost sixty alumni, many of whom graduated in the 1950s and 1960s, traveled to Orange for her funeral so that they could support their former teacher, coach, and adviser, a man who served here for close to forty years and retired over twenty years ago. 

Mr. Vasquez was my Spanish 2 teacher my new boy year at Woodberry, and my prevailing memories of that experience are that the course was rigorous and demanding and that I struggled to earn a decent grade that would have basically been gifted to me for merely showing up at my previous school. Beyond the steep learning curve and the sheer difficulty of the class, what I remember is that Mr. Vasquez, through his investment in each of his students, conveyed to me that I was known, challenged, and loved in a community that is far bigger than any of us will ever be. The alumni who showed up to take care of Mr. Vasquez came back because he had taken care of us when we were boys, and now we had the opportunity to make sure that the Woodberry family came through for him in his time of grief and sorrow.  

I’m often overwhelmed at these outward demonstrations of love for our alma mater and personal support for the members of our community. I’m routinely left uncertain about what exactly explains this deep and unbroken emotional bond. It’s not common. In fact, it is unusual, and it verges on exceptional. What explains it? Some say it’s the sheer beauty of the campus or the brotherhood, the friendships that mark our time at Woodberry and generate memories that last a lifetime. Others might point to tradition, special events like the Bonfire, The Game, hunting on campus, fishing in the Rapidan, the candlelight service of lessons and carols at Christmas here in St. Andrew’s Chapel, or graduation in front of The Residence. Still others might believe it’s an unshaken belief in the all boys, all boarding education that animates our mission.

Surely all of these explanations play a part, yet I have become convinced that the single greatest force that drives alumni love for and devotion to Woodberry Forest is our collective belief that coming here is a hard thing worth doing, and doing the right way. Every alumnus knows that there are times of struggle and disappointment, moments of doubt, and perhaps even despair, periods that each of us wonders, “What am I doing and why am I here?” And yet, just at the start of another year in the life of the school, I’m reminded that when we slog through those moments of difficulty together, we grow into a fuller and more complete version of who we were meant to be.

A hard thing worth doing, the right way. It’s a message that comes through clearly in the lessons tonight from Hebrews and from Luke, and it flows forth through the Christian faith sealed into the founding of Woodberry Forest. In the message from Hebrews we’re called on to practice “mutual love” and urged to “show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” And in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus captures this same virtue of humble hospitality as he calls on his followers to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to the banquets we host. In the days that follow each of us can lend a helping hand to a boy finding his way, just the way that someone before helped us out when we were new ourselves. These are the moments that the ligaments of brotherhood connect into a dynamic culture that energizes each of us to be better than we would have been on our own.  

The Gospel according to Luke calls on us to embrace humility, no matter what our station or position: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Even more to the point, genuine hospitality requires heart-felt and authentic empathy, a deep understanding of each other and an enduring belief that in God’s eyes, each of us, whether a new boy, old boy, senior member of the faculty, or headmaster, is equal, no better or worse than anyone else. Furthermore, we might think of hospitality as a higher and more idealized form of what it means to take care of each other. Old boys know that each year we on the faculty renew our commitment that every single boy in our care will be known, challenged, and loved. In return, we ask that every boy opens himself up and out to the courageous vulnerability required to become known, challenged, and loved, and that you learn here what it means to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other. 

My own vision of taking care of each other is a community in which we’re all inspired to reach higher than we would have ever reached on our own because of the goodness and decency of those around us. It means that we hold each other accountable for our commitment to character over pure achievement, for what the Boys’ Prayer calls our unswerving devotion to the hard right over the easy wrong. This vision is consistent with the kind of accountability to self and others that comes through in Toughness by Jay Bilas, who will visit Woodberry on September 11. It’s the cultural currency that we pay forward and receive back simultaneously, the kind of connectivity that binds us together in what Shakespeare in Henry V describes as “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” a vision of connectivity that reminds us that in the midst of a hard thing worth doing, each of us matters and we’re counted upon by others to do what needs to be done.

It means that through the twists and turns and the peaks and valleys of a long and rigorous school year and through every nook and cranny of the Woodberry journey, you will undoubtedly struggle. For some it will be homesickness or a freak injury in football you didn’t deserve. For others it will be frustration at Friday night study hall or Saturday classes or lights out when friends from home are living it up and taking the easy way out. Still others will struggle through challenges at home with parents who might be divorcing, grandparents passing away, loved ones becoming sick, or someone you love enduring a tragedy while you’re off at school. Through all of this you’re called on to stand shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow with each other as equals, rooted in the ideals and values that have stood the test of time here for over 130 years. And through that journey of peaks and valleys you’ll know why Amici means so much to the Woodberry brotherhood. 

Two weeks ago I saw a clip of an interview that captured the essence of brotherly hospitality and the power of what it means to take care of each other. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was interviewing the comedian Stephen Colbert. Mr. Cooper’s mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, recently died, and he is still grieving. Choking back tears as he asked Mr. Colbert a question, Mr. Cooper stated that “You (once) told an interviewer that you have learned to — in your words — ‘love the thing that I wish had not happened.’ You went on to say, ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ Do you really believe that?”

I was familiar with Mr. Colbert as host of “The Late Show” and earlier as a wicked political satirist on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” I had no idea that when he was ten years old, his father and two older brothers died in a plane crash and that he, along with his mother and seven surviving siblings, have wrestled with this massive loss for most of their lives. But when Mr. Cooper asked this honest question about suffering and punishments from God being gifts, Mr. Colbert took care of his grieving friend in much the same way that Jesus took care of those who followed him and how we can care for each other here at Woodberry Forest.

Mr. Colbert noted that “It is a gift to exist, and with that existence comes suffering. If you are grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.” Most Americans are hard-wired to avoid suffering at almost any cost, and yet Mr. Colbert reminds us that to live into our fullest selves, we must lean into the struggle and even the suffering, and through that suffering, according to Mr. Colbert, “you get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to love more deeply and understand what it’s like to be a human being.” 

The entirety of the Woodberry experience beckons each of you forth as we start a new year. And if you have the bravery and the courage to lift the veil, to live into the struggles without the many masks of the world beyond, you’ll become more fully yourselves here, you’ll learn to take care of each other in the highest-minded and most whole-hearted kind of way. And you’ll agree with the thousands of alumni who understand that Woodberry is a hard thing worth doing, the right way. Amen.


Life Without a Veil


The following is the Baccalaureate sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Saturday, May 25, 2019, preceding the formal Woodberry graduation ceremony. 

Dozens if not hundreds of times over the past two, three, or four years, you have walked through the Barbee Center past the iconic mural of an early baseball team here at Woodberry, a mural anchored by a quotation worth remembering forever: “Effort in sport is a matter of character rather than reward. It is an end in itself, not a means to an end.” Now that you are on the cusp of graduation, it is worth reflecting on the fundamental, overarching purpose of Woodberry Forest. What is it for? Why does the school exist? If you have truly and fully embraced all that we are, what will you have gained from your experience here? We’ve said that Woodberry is a hard thing worth doing the right way, but why is that? This morning I’d like to focus my remarks on the concept of “character rather than reward” and connect that ideal to the invitation we all enjoy to live an undivided life without a veil.

Most adolescents go to high school because it is another rung on the proverbial ladder and a next step to college. The most accomplished strive for good grades and high test scores. Of course they have opportunities to explore the arts and play sports, occasionally at the highest levels. They develop friendships that can be sustaining and elevating, and they might establish a relationship or two with a teacher or a coach who shapes their experiences in powerful and important ways. The prize, though, is college, and while there are of course individuals who look for a grander meaning above the fray and a larger purpose to all of the effort, the truth of the matter is that many educational experiences are not a “matter of character rather than reward.”

The ideal Woodberry experience, however, is designed to turn those transactional experiences into a transformational opportunity for every boy in the Tiger Nation. Here we elevate character over reward, and it is important for us all to remember that the parchment of the diploma that makes alumni equal forever is far more valuable than any award bestowed upon an individual on Amici Night or later this morning. And why is that the case? Because character matters most, and it will last you a lifetime and it has the capacity to shape those around you for the good of all.

The honor system and a culture of moral integrity mean more to Woodberry alumni than any worldly accomplishment. Reflect back on how far you’ve come in these few years. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can each allow that when we came to Woodberry it was not natural to take full responsibility for our own academic work when you might have cheated for a higher grade, or to respect always what belongs to others even when the dorm fridge is stocked with cokes that aren’t yours and you’re really thirsty, or to tell the truth always, even when we knew we might get in trouble. But over the years it has become natural, and the foundation of your character has been established for life. You’ve made good on that quote in the Barbee: “effort is a matter of character rather than reward.” We are here this morning to celebrate the undivided life, in other words, life without a veil, and to lift up that noble form of deep integrity in a Woodberry rite of passage that will mark you as a Tiger forever.

The character of which I speak, by the way, is far more than mere endurance all the way to graduation. It is the way that I believe God wants us to live our lives: open, free, honest, trusting. No matter where you go on to college, no matter what your profession, no matter what your material circumstances, we are called to life without a veil. If you’ve truly embraced the honor system beyond a set of rules to obey just to graduate and instead you’ve seen it as a life force woven into your identity, you’ve caught glimpses of life without a veil. Over your time here those glimpses have developed into a fuller, deeper, more panoramic view of who you really are, a keener understanding of the purpose of life, and and a more complete appreciation of your place in our community and beyond. Here you have come to belong. Here you are rooted. Here you will always be welcomed back for who you are and for what you mean in a community that values character over reward.

Living without a veil is a life challenge, and your graduation from Woodberry is a mere moment on that journey. Like many of you, I got my learner’s permit when I was fifteen. I grew up in northwest Texas, where the highways are straight and flat and traffic is light. And I had a trusting father. In the summer after I got my learner’s permit, the two of us went on a road trip. For a while Dad drove and I sat in the passenger seat. But he’s always loved a nap, and when he got tired, he’d put the car on cruise control and crank his seat back, doze off, and let me steer from the passenger seat. I could see way up to the horizon, and if we needed to brake, I’d nudge him and he’d oblige. But we loved the cruise control. And we made up games like trying to go as many consecutive miles as possible on those northwest Texas highways without having to tap the brake.

That made, as you might imagine, construction zones a real nuisance. I remember thinking that summer, “I can’t wait until all of this construction is over. Then we’ll really be able to go.” Well the truth of the matter is, of course, that roads are always under construction, kind of like the Walker Building! And each of us is under construction, too. If we are building our character, we will always be under construction, open and eager to learn a little more and grow a little more.  

There is no finish line for life without a veil, simply because the swirl of forces in the world will always make it incredibly hard to live life without a veil or to take our many masks off, first for ourselves and then for those we love and trust. The Christian tradition is full of examples that elevate light over darkness and orient us to the purpose of life without a veil. In Paul’s letter to Corinthians, he makes reference to “treasure in clay jars,” the beautiful truth that each of us is unique as a child of God in a body made of clay, ever attentive to God’s voice commanding us to “Let light shine out of darkness.” In the Gospel according to Matthew we learn of the very moment that Jesus died: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” It was torn in two so that we might embrace the opportunity to live without a veil, first to ourselves, and then one to another.

Of all the forces in our wider culture that make life without a veil so very hard to embrace, fear stands supreme. Fear holds us back. Fear has us assembling and projecting layers of masks for self protection. Fear makes it hard for you to be you, and fear dulls the piercing and redemptive power of the undeserved gift of God’s grace and His assurance that each of us, stripped of any earthy accolade or material possession, is enough. We like to think of fear as unique to our circumstances, and while it is true that fear ebbs and flows culturally, it has always been with us as an constant element of the human condition. I recently learned that the life-giving phrase “Do not be afraid” is repeated 366 times in the Bible, once for every day, and once, perhaps, for no reason at all.

Sometimes the forces of fear come from the world beyond, but more than occasionally, they originate with us. The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has shared that his favorite story about fear comes from India: “It is several thousand years old, and it is a story about a man who was condemned to spend a night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If he made the slightest little stir, the snake was on top of him and he was dead. So he stood in the corner of the cell, opposite where the snake was, and he was petrified. He barely dared to breathe for fear of alerting the snake, and he stood stiff and petrified all night long. As the first bars of light began to come into the cell at dawn, he began to make out the shape of a snake, and he was saying to himself, wasn’t I lucky that I never stirred. But when the full force of light came in with the full dawn, he noticed that it wasn’t a snake at all. It was an old rope. Now the story is banal, but the moral of the story is profound: in a lot of the rooms of our minds, there are harmless old ropes thrown in corners, but when our fear begins to work on them, we convert them into monsters who hold us prisoners in the bleakest, most impoverished rooms of our hearts.”

In this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew we’re given the good news that in the swirl of worries about tomorrow, the light for life without a veil comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is constant, and it resides in each of us. We’re invited to follow God and shine a light on our darkest selves so that we might love others as we have been loved. Mrs. Hulsey, who has taught me more about courage than I could have imagined, has a card taped to the mirror in our bathroom. It says simply, “feed your faith, and all your fears will starve to death.” Life without a veil is, in Woodberry language, a matter of character rather than reward, and it will always be the hard right over the easy wrong.

As you bid farewell later this afternoon, I urge you not to expect the rest of the world to care right away that you went to Woodberry Forest. Instead, let your actions show them the difference that Woodberry has made in your hearts and through your character as you live in 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 and arrogance on those around you. Be humble and hungry always. Wear your experience here lightly on the outside and hold in your heart always 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 to reach beyond yourself, but always have something to prove, or else you are settling for a life of mediocrity that falls short of your potential.

Most of all, remember always that you matter and that you, through God’s grace, are enough. Lean into life without a veil so that you might serve others wrestling with their own struggles with darkness that each of us endures. Understand that we are one band of Tiger brothers, each blessed with opportunities to do a little good every day, and so, as the Boy’s Prayer concludes, “grow more like Christ.” Amen.        


Only a Little Longer

May  20, 2019.      
Woodberry Forest School Senior Shake

The following sermon was given by Dr. Byron Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Monday, May, 20, 2019, ahead of the annual “Senior Shake.”

Not long after he graduated from Woodberry in 1974, former chairman of the board of trustees Sion Boney, a man whose love for our alma mater is unsurpassed, was visiting with some family friends who had just driven through the school. Impressed by the beauty and the splendor of our campus, the couple said to Sion that Woodberry reminded them of a country club. “Yeah,” Sion, responded with mock indignation, “a country club run by Nazis.” Sion exaggerated wildly, but I think we can all acknowledge that there are occasions that students and faculty alike feel like we’re in a prison of sorts, denied the conveniences of the world beyond and the full weekends of blissful freedom that for most Americans punctuate the close of the business week or the rhythm of the day school schedule that comes to an end on Friday afternoons.

I’ve recently heard “prison” defined metaphorically as anytime we feel pinched by the twin forces of limited space and unlimited time. But in tonight’s Gospel reading from John, we’re taken back to the drama of the Last Supper, and we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “I am with you only a little longer.” Knowing that he is headed the following day to the cross for crucifiction, Jesus challenges his followers with a “new commandment” to “love one another.” “Just as I have loved you,” he emphasizes, “you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“Only a little longer.” At this moment in every school year I enjoy reflecting on the essence of time. It is, without question, our most precious resource. Once squandered, it can never be reclaimed. And if prison can be defined as the metaphorical bondage that comes with a heavy sense of unlimited time and limited space, surely freedom might be understood as a clear-headed appreciation of what many seniors and departing faculty might define as the intersection of very limited time and unlimited space. Underformers and even some members of the faculty haven’t truly grasped this. We know we will be back, grooved into the routines of the year to come. Many of us are eager for the end of the year and the sweetness of summer free from study hall, lights out, Saturday classes, evening duty, early morning faculty meetings, and 8:00 a.m. classes.

“Only a little longer,” and a clarion call to “love one another as I have loved you.” The language in tonight’s Gospel resonates with our commitment on the faculty to know, challenge, and love each of you, and our expectation that here you will learn to work hard, build your character, and (perhaps most importantly) take care of each other. These are high-minded ideals, and it’s important to acknowledge that we are a flawed community full of crooked timber, and we do not always deliver on our commitment to know, challenge, and love you. And you have not always followed through with our expectation that you will work hard, build your character, and take care of each other.

Even with our shortcomings, however, I want to convey tonight my belief that the Woodberry community is defined by the kind of love to which Christ calls his disciples. My overriding memory of the class of 2019 is shaped by my belief that you have invested in the best of who we are and the most enduring elements of goodness, decency, and humility that course through the alumni community. Many of these acts of love are not seen by most of us, most of the time. In fact it’s through the underknown folds of the subculture that these forms of taking care of each other penetrate most deeply and leave such a lasting imprint on our community. These acts anchor us with a sense of belonging and rootedness that gives us the courage to take off our masks for each other and live into who we are meant to be. You will surely have your own examples of the kind of love that I’m holding up this evening, and I invite you to take some time, no matter who or where you are in the Woodberry community, to reflect on those times that you were known, challenged, and loved by the faculty and those times when you were taken care of and loved by each other in the way that Christ called on his disciples to love one another.

Many years ago as a young alumnus, I met up with my headmaster, Emmett Wright. At some point our conversation turned to a discussion of friendship and his relationship with John Reimers. He said, “John is a true friend.” I asked him what he meant by “true friend,” and he said, the “kind of friend who, when you call him and say you need help, he doesn’t ask what’s wrong or what’s happening, but says simply, ‘Where are you?’” Not long ago I learned by accident of a group of Mrs. Hulsey’s friends who would gather here in St. Andrew’s Chapel to pray for her health and our family. Unseen, unheralded acts of love that foster rootedness, belonging, and gratitude for the blessings of this life in our community.

I remember a Saturday lunch in a nearly deserted dining hall early in this school year. It was about 12:30 p.m., and one of our exchange students from South Africa was sitting on his own. Two seniors came through the buffet line, and rather than sitting together in the sixth-form section, they took a seat with the fifth-form South African.

A graduating senior came as a new-boy fourth former. You were brave enough to tell me that upon arriving here you were absolutely terrified that you wouldn’t fit into our community. Early in that first week of school an old boy classmate who had already completed his first year at Woodberry approached the anxious new boy and threw an arm around him before saying, “You have a lot ahead of you here. And you’ll either love it or hate it. You need to be who you are, and if you are, you’ll be part of the brotherhood like everyone else.” That act of decency was the first moment that the new boy thought he might belong here, and the friendship these two seniors enjoy today will last a lifetime. The advice “to be who you are” aligns with a comment that one of last year’s seniors shared with me as he described what he valued most about the Woodberry experience. “If you can’t be yourself at Woodberry,” he claimed, “you’re gonna get crushed. But if you can be yourself, you’ll be part of the brotherhood forever.”

Having the courage to take off the layers of our many masks in the presence of each other, is, I believe, the essence of our culture and it captures the best of who we are as an all-boys, all-boarding community. Living with authenticity is a foundational part of personal integrity, and it establishes a fertile field of trust that distinguishes our community. At your best you’ve learned how to do that here, and I applaud the courage it takes to make yourselves vulnerable in the presence of those who care for you. And being who you really are, without guile or pretention, also seeds the field for the unconditional love that Jesus models in the New Testament. We’re called on to take our masks off in the presence of God. I am an Episcopalian, and I am routinely comforted by the opening prayer that marks the beginning of every celebration of Holy Communion in our church: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your name.”

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Who did Jesus love, and how were they loved? Jesus loved the vulnerable, the misfits, the downtrodden, and the least among us. He loves, as we learned in Sunday school, “all the little children.” But he also loved the social pariahs, the prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus loved a wide range of castoffs who only had in common the courage to take their masks off to be loved by the Son of Man and to then to share that love in return. Many of you have learned how to do that here, and that has been, in my estimation, a fundamental part of your Woodberry education.

Taking your mask off, by the way, almost never happens in prison. It’s way too risky. Those who are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons have an image to protect just to survive. There’s swagger and hulk and brawn on full display, and the mask that prisoners often project retards their social and emotional growth often leaving them unprepared for life on the outside when they are released. So when any one of us falls prey to the temptation to think that we’re imprisoned through that toxic combination of unlimited time and limited space, we undoubtedly squander the precious gift of time and surrender opportunities for ongoing growth and development.

Moving beyond the water balloons and the irritation that came for many of us on the faculty with the “Senior Skip,” I want to salute the class of 2019. Boys who have yet to make it to their senior year have not fully grasped what many of you can articulate so eloquently. They don’t see time as finite in the way that you do. They haven’t yet understood that the bonds of “Amici” are far more than meaningful relationships between your close friends. Instead, it is the bond that ties together your class as a whole, the connected tissue of groups of boys that once were cliques and are now far closer to a unified whole. You have modeled that oneness for those who have been paying attention, and I thank you.

One of you recently wrote that “the incredible power of the Woodberry bond is in its capacity to turn ordinary events into traditions and ordinary conversations into deep emotional sharing. Woodberry creates a self-sufficient support system on dorm after classes are over. With very little effort and proactive kindness, friendship returns a hundredfold. Sometimes, a simple ‘How are you doing today? You look worried,’ can turn into an all-nighter talking about deep, personal vulnerabilities.”

“Only a little longer.” Your charge, as graduates after this week, will be to take the courage and love and rootedness that you have experienced here to the world beyond, fiercely committed to the kind of unconditional love that Jesus calls us share with each other. Through the love that each of you gives as a husband, father, professional leader, and servant of your community, you’ll be known as a courageous man of faith and a Woodberry boy forever. Amen.       


Which Star Will you Follow

screen shot 2019-01-08 at 1.47.18 pm

“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.