Interim Middle School Director Tommy Hudgins came home this fall to Norfolk Academy, back to the place where he got two beginnings in his life—first as a young and energetic student, and then, right after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Washington and Lee, as an English teacher and coach, which launched him into a four-decade career as an educator.
So when he stepped to the podium of the Johnson Theater as this year’s Homecoming speaker, he had stories, photos, and a definition of home—infused with the power of literature and perspective wrought by his travels. “What makes a place ‘home’ is the sense that you belong there—that you leave a piece of your heart there when you depart. You may or may not be conscious of it.”
Hudgins gave his speech on a Friday (Oct. 18) packed with Homecoming activities, a day that began with cheers and high-fives from cheerleaders, football players, and the Bulldog, as students entered the Lower School. Homecoming 2019 included a pep rally for Lower School students; a luncheon and student panel for the Cornerstone Society, a group for alumni who have celebrated their 50th reunions; the annual dance-off pep rally for Middle and Upper School students; a full array of athletic contests, including a Game Day dinner before the varsity football game against St. John Paul the Great High School from Dumfries; and the Homecoming Dance (on Saturday).
Hudgins opened his speech by giving Upper School student a glimpse of NA in days of yore—when he was a fourth grader attending NA on its former campus at Ward’s Corner. A photo of the 1964 yearbook, Horizons, offered the evidence. In those days, the school was an all-boys enterprise, and “every student grades four to six stayed after school to play football.” The youngest boys played in gear that was handed down from the older boys, so nothing fit right, from helmets to the oversize football pants.
The highlight of the season came at Homecoming, when the youngest boys provided the half-time entertainment for the varsity game, by playing five-minute games in front of an enormous crowd. For an eight-year-old, it was exciting, if a bit nerve-wracking; Hudgins recalled his joy at running down the field, fiercely pursued by the fastest runner in the grade, to score a touchdown, clutching the football in one hand and holding up his pants with the other.
He went on to play baseball for the Bulldogs; a 1968 photo showed the junior varsity baseball team with Hudgins, an eighth grader, and “freshman pitching ace” Toy Savage ’71, who has held an array of teaching and administrative positions at Norfolk Academy and currently teaches history in the Middle School.
Growing more serious, Hudgins said that he has been asked countless times how it feels to be back at Norfolk Academy after 21 years away. While the campus has changed drastically, “the heart of the place is still the same,” he said. “It beats with the rhythm of friendliness and determination, of laughter and sweat, of pride in work completed and resolve to tackle tasks yet undone.”
Hudgins has said to many who ask that “it feels like home…what I haven’t said to anyone yet—what I will tell you now—is that it feels like home, because I have found in you that piece of my heart that I left behind.”
He said that he has forged a new connection with the school through watching the many ways that students demonstrate their deep connection to it: “I have watched you walk the halls of this school. I have watched you represent it on the athletic fields. I have watched you give of yourselves to younger students, to foreign students, to strangers in the community. I have watched you laugh and joke and play with each other. I don’t know you well, but I feel we have an intimate association. We are connected, you and I, both to and by this place.”
He closed with a hope that Upper School students will experience what he is currently enjoying—expressed through a quotation from British poet T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”