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Alumni Panel Offers Life Lessons and Portrait of Evolving Academy Community

The title of the Seminar Day panel was “Norfolk Academy Through the Decades," but the emotional stories told by six alumni, spanning graduating classes from 1974 to 2006, offered much more than a portrait of an evolving school community.

Through candid, emotional stories about what they gained during their years of schooling, often growing by overcoming adversity, they gave Upper School students dozens of life lessons to unpack and reflect upon.

The panelists included:

  • Dr. Jesse Anderson '75, a podiatrist with his own practice, AAL Podiatry Associates, and a Bulldog parent;
  • Sandra Porter Leon '80, nutritionist and professor at Tidewater Community College, a Norfolk Academy Trustee, and parent of alumni;
  • Merrick Michaels McCabe '98, senior vice president at Towne Bank and a member of the Alumni Association and a current Bulldog parent;
  • Preston Whiteway '00, a film producer and former director of the award-winning Eugene O'Neill Theater Center;
  • Ian Holder '03, senior planner at Merrill Lynch and a Norfolk Academy Trustee;
  • Whitney Nexsen Szoke '06, assistant principal at Cox High School.

Corey Brooks '22, President of NA's UNITID Club, introduced the panelists, and Headmaster Dennis Manning served as the moderator, asking questions developed by the students.

Panelists talked openly about challenges they faced growing up - whether because of race, religion, sexual orientation, family situation, or economic status.

Dr. Anderson, who was the first African American student at Norfolk Academy when he enrolled in 1970 as a 7th grader, talked frankly about his reluctance to come to Norfolk Academy, a school that was across the street from his neighborhood, L & J Gardens. However, he had made friends with two students who lived on the NA campus, Craig and Royce Jones (brothers of Tricia Affronti '79, who works in the bookstore); the two brothers came across the street to play football with kids at L & J Gardens. So Anderson agreed with his parents to try Academy for a year, as long as other African American students would enroll soon.

By his second year, he found that he had made many close friends, mainly from athletic teams. The following year, he was joined by two more African American students -- Dr. Anderson's cousin and Dr. Frank Mercer III '76. The school's academic rigor and its approach to problem-solving gave him confidence, as well as his own ability to succeed in what had initially felt like a foreign world.

“I found that I could navigate in a world that was unknown to me," he said. “Dealing in the white world, I could handle it. And that was what the world would be, living in America."

Preston Whiteway '00, whose theatrical work as a director and producer earned the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center a National Medal of Arts and a Regional Theater Tony Award, noted in his opening words that it was moving to return to NA as “an out, gay man." He recalled that his extreme shyness as a young student sometimes prompted him to walk through the halls with an arm over his face, imagining that “if I couldn't see them, they couldn't see me." Yet, his participation in theatrical performances, often from behind the scenes--he recalled operating lights for West Side Story--and his ninth grade and Senior Speech helped him find his voice and love of storytelling, and led him to his current career in theater and film.

“It gave me an ease in speaking around the world," he said.

Ian Holder '03 said jokingly that one of his challenges was getting to school on time. After some laughter, he offered the more serious backdrop: He grew up with a single mother, who worked three jobs to get him and his two brothers through school. He needed to be self-motivated at home, and he benefited from the attention he got at school, both in class and on teams. When Holder, who was an outstanding soccer player and star midfielder for University of Virginia, tried out for lacrosse in his sophomore year, Coaches Tom Duquette and Neil Duffy supplied him with equipment and succinct advice--go after the ground balls and when you get the ball, pass it to someone who “knows what to do with it."

“Without the support of all the teachers and coaches, I wouldn't be here today," he said. “We are all going to have struggles, embrace them," he said.

Others echoed his sentiments about the enduring impact of teacher-coaches. Whitney Nexsen Szoke '06 recalled an exercise that Neil Duffy, her physics teacher, used to teach students about how to greet one another in the hallways, including making eye contact, smiling, and saying hello. Merrick Michaels McCabe '98 said that a middle school teacher advised her to “start each day with a grateful heart," a habit that she uses to this day.

Sandra Porter Leon '80 noted her gratitude to former Headmaster John H. Tucker Jr., who helped make the school more welcoming for Jewish students. When she was in school, observant Jews were not able to earn the coveted perfect attendance record, because students had an “unexcused absence" for missing school for the two most important holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now, the entire school community gets those holidays off. 

Dr. Anderson closed the panel by speaking directly to the students about their duty to uphold Academy's reputation and high standards now and as they go to college and into the world. “Don't let the Bulldog mascot down!" he said. “Take on the responsibility of being a Bulldog--it's an honor. Don't take it for granted." 

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