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Observations and investigations of Norfolk Academy, its long history, and the many lives it has shaped. By Toy Savage '71, who has spent almost 50 years at the school, first as a student, then as a teacher and coach. Author of the book Norfolk Academy - The Heart of Tidewater, Mr. Savage retired in summer 2022 but continues to have a research office on campus. 

 

Experience, Judgment, and Love for Students

Will Point Us in the Right Direction    

You can’t help but like the guy. This is a sentiment I have heard a lot since Travis Larrabee arrived on campus as our new Head of School. He is the first new Head in 22 years and only the fourth permanent one since 1950. As such he steps into a role previously occupied by superb leaders for almost three-quarters of a century. He must certainly feel the force of great expectations, but nothing in his demeanor betrays that awareness. 

We have had several informal conversations and one official sit-down. I enjoyed every moment. I was reminded of one of my dear departed father’s 10 rules for living. As a group they ranged from wry observations to important pieces of advice. One of Dad’s favorite ones was, Never speak at your first committee meeting. Listen. If we spoke for 45 minutes, I realized that Travis had added but one important idea of his own, and that came at about the 35-minute mark. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, but I was made to feel instantly listened to and valued. As we parted ways I thought, impressive! 

Similarly, at the first all-school faculty and staff meeting in August, Travis showed both a reverence for and a delight in the work we do. Being able to combine the sanctity of helping young people grow up and the unbridled joy in doing so is a powerful feat. Earlier in the week I had made my annual presentation to new faculty on the history of the school. I always conclude my talk with two points that new teachers, I believe, must understand. First is the top-notch guardianship and leadership of our Board of Trustees. Second is the room that that gives faculty to reach students in fundamentally important ways. If I get the chance next year to reprise my appearance, I will be sure first to get some language from Mr. Larrabee that makes that second point better than I ever have. 

Events will surely accelerate. You can’t run an enterprise as large and complex as ours and not expect a few challenges along the way. There will soon be a moment where a choice must be made, with no option being perfect. But after two months here, Travis Larrabee has given every indication that his experience, his judgment, and his love for students will point us in the right direction. 

In his opening remarks to faculty, new Board Chair John Wynne Jr., described how Gary Laws, long-time Middle School Director, changed his life. It seems that Mr. Laws took to pulling young John out of study hall regularly ostensibly to discuss a book they were reading together. Mr. Wynne observed that it took him a while to realize that Mr. Laws was really trying to promote something of a course correction in John’s attitude toward school. Our Board Chair urged everyone to be on the lookout for those opportunities and not to miss the chance to put them to use. 

Travis has already done that in a small way for me. He said that he hoped to schedule an interview with every faculty member in his first year. With each of us he is already looking for a Laws/Wynne opportunity. What an asset! 

It really is hard not to like the guy. 

– August 2023

Two More Cents

I can’t help myself. 

After all that has been said and done to commemorate Dennis Manning’s 22 years as Headmaster, some of which has been literally cast in bronze, you would not think there was anything more to say. Yet I feel compelled to add my thoughts to the somewhat monumental mountain of praise and gratitude the has issued forth in the past month or so. 

If anything has been missed in the avalanche of tribute it has been the recognition of Dennis Manning as a fighter. We all know him as a lover of poetry, particularly Yeats, and a devotee of etymology. We all see the bow ties and the somewhat formal dress. But few know how tough this man is. As our school has faced challenges, particularly Covid, that could only be taken on by those who never ask any Why Me? questions, Dennis was perfect. In all the battles he has waged on behalf of Norfolk Academy, he has never betrayed a hint of feeling that things are somehow not fair. For Dennis, they are what they are. And to the extent that he never allowed himself to feel being put upon (or at least give voice to such a feeling), he empowered those around him to do the same. I must say that at the conclusion of several conversations I have had with him over the decades, I have found myself walking away and thinking to myself, Wow! That’s strong! 

My favorite motion picture of all time may be Chariots of Fire, the story of the 1924 British Summer Olympic team. The screenplay was based upon the journal kept by E. Aubrey Montague, a distance runner who did not medal but was at the soul of the team. In one scene, Harold Abrahams, 100-meter gold medal winner, future long-time head of British athletics, and who was driven by an unquenchable desire to overcome the anti-Semitism he had experienced, finds Montague in a quiet moment and says to him, “Aubrey, you are my most complete man.” Abrahams then describes his friend as one who can take life as it has been handed him without resentment, much less bitterness. Abrahams then rues his inability to do the same. 

That is how I feel about Dennis Manning. Put aside the erudite scholar of poetry. Take from your mind’s eye, for a moment, the crisply pressed shirts and the orange and blue bow ties. Ignore the etymology references from the O. E. D. What remains is a gentleman who has worked tirelessly and without any wish for recognition on behalf of this school, this faculty, and these students for 22 years. He has built us up – he has made us all better for those efforts. I presuppose to think that I speak for all of us. 

He is my most complete man. 

– June 2023

Dennis Manning

Field Day 2023 – The Beat Goes On 

Fifty.  I think that’s how many Field Days I have attended. Eleven as a student, two as a parent of young twins, 36 as a faculty member, and now one as a grandparent. Each phase has revealed a new side of the day to me.

As a teacher I lived, breathed and ate Field Day. Before things got more formal, the Faculty Follies were an exercise in improv, with such famous routines as the Mr. Beach Beauty Contest, the West Ghent Garden Club Pie Fight, and the memorable appearance of Elwood and Joliet Jake Blues with a stirring rendition of Soul Man. I would play my assigned role, race to get cleaned up, and then call the day-ending prize raffle. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

The one constant over the decades is the good will. Thousands of Bulldogs roaming the fields and the buildings, pride-filled eyes of Lower School parents at the plays produced, squeals of delight as one faculty member after another met his fate in the dunking booth. Children’s faces painted as lions, peppermint sticks lodged in lemons, hot dogs and burgers served up by Mr. Duquette, and for many years Mrs. Masterson. As families graduated from year to year, some standards fell by the wayside, such as Walter Hoffman’s clam fritters and Charlie Merriam’s antique cars. But any gaps were always filled admirably.

There were moments rising to the level of danger. On the Friday before the great day, Mr. Laws would annually convene Middle School students and tell them to have a great time, but to stay under some modicum of control. “We can’t have you racing around a corner and wasting Grandma,” he would say. I guess it had some effect, but there was the ninth grader who insisted on riding his unicycle the whole day (only one or two moments of unintended contact), and the junior whose first swing of his newly-acquired four iron sent the Titleist crashing through the window of Frau Holmes’s classroom. His father was not well pleased.

But there has always been that mountain of good will.

In my new role as grandparent I spent most of my day on the Midway. The 4-year-old loves the slides and the bouncy houses. As such, I saw a different side of the event than I was used to. It occurred to me as I wandered around that I recognized only a tiny percentage of other parents and students. My first reaction was sadness, as if Field Day had somehow gotten away from me without my permission.

But as I thought further, it occurred to me that the refreshing of attendees is crucial, even necessary, to the continued success of the day. The last thing Field Day should be is an exercise in nostalgia. We’ve even added an event where next year’s first graders are formally welcomed by juniors, who will become their senior buddies come August. Counter-intuitively, one of our oldest school traditions is aimed squarely at the new.

Let us not take for granted the miracle that is the first Saturday in May. Part of the genius behind Field Day is the coming together of parent volunteers. There is an absolute value added by working shoulder to shoulder on the Art Show or the Golf Tournament or the various and sundry retail booths. There is, I believe, even greater value in looking around a crowded campus on a splendid spring day and realizing what a special place this is.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

– May 2023

Field Day

An Imperfectly Perfect Holiday 

‘Tis the season! These last few weeks of December draw us to great excitement. The prospect of two weeks off from classes overwhelms the anxiety of exams for most students, and faculty, particularly those who aren’t coaching, look forward to the down time after closing out the semester with a rush.

We are told that this is the time of miracles, both secular and spiritual. The menorah burns for eight nights, a jolly old elf somehow delivers gifts to the entire world in one night, and, if you are Christian, you believe that the newborn Prince of Peace sleeps in a manger without crying.

It seems that there is a danger lurking here, that we have to guard against over-promising. I just returned from having tests done at Sentara Leigh hospital, and I can tell you that for many of the patients I passed wheeling down the corridors there was nothing joyous to contemplate. I started to wonder at the power of myth, and continued to sink lower as my wife and I went straight from the hospital to Costco, which was, to quote David Byrne and the Talking Heads, same as it ever was. 

Then, as we were loading the trunk, who should appear in the next parking place? Mike and Cathy Horstman. I have known and loved both since 1986 – Mike and I served on the Middle School faculty together for some 13 years. He has also been my faithful golfing buddy for three decades. We don’t see each other often now that we are retired. In fact, our last meeting was my retirement lunch in June. I was overjoyed and buoyed by the chance encounter. Maybe, this is the most wonderful time of the year. 

Mike Horstman, back during his days as a Middle School teacher.

Driving home I made a list of improbable delights that have arrived on the doorstep lately. 

  • Tommy Hudgins '72 wrote a perfectly lovely and occasionally accurate article on me for the Fall 2022 Academy magazine. I don’t deserve it but am grateful nonetheless. 
  • It was arranged for Gary Laws and I to meet with Tony Bennett, University of Virginia men’s basketball coach. 
  • My sister, who I have not seen since Covid, is coming to visit. 
  • My adorable youngest grandchild, who just turned one, took his first steps the other day. He made it all the way from the playpen to the coffee table. 

Surely, there are many imperfections swirling around us. There are funerals to attend and infirmities to combat. Families might not gather together as we wish. Appliances and furnaces may go on the fritz. There is nothing in any holiday story to prohibit these. 

But you know what? It has begun to occur to me that the beauty of the season is not having everything go perfectly, or even getting what we wish for. It is making ourselves available to cherish joy when it happens on its own. More than that, it is in occupying ourselves in the effort to provide joy for others that we find deepest satisfaction. 

For many years the Lower School put on a holiday song performance organized and executed by Chris Kypros, long-time music director for that building. Each grade level sang several songs. An annual standard for the fourth grade was titled, It’s in the Giving We Receive. My fondest wish, dear reader, is that you get to experience both. 

Talk to you next year. 

– December 2022 

The Genesis of a Great Idea: Seminar Program turns 30 

Tom Duquette has undertaken the audacious task of discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one act at a time, in seminar format over the course of the 2022–23 school year. Each part of this Alumni Seminar Series is led by different members of our faculty, and as you might imagine, the scrutiny of the text is word by word. About 30 alumni participated in each of the first two sessions; the next is December 1. 

How we got to this idea makes for an interesting story that says a lot about our school. 

In the fall of 1985, Patty Masterson, a brilliant English teacher who came to us via the Country Day School for Girls, and Rachel Hopkins, longtime Lower School Director, attended a conference on new research and thinking about teaching in Tarrytown, New York. Led by Dee Dickenson, a well-known expert in the field, Patty and Rachel were quickly won over to the idea that there was a better way to educate young people than lecture and subsequent assessment. In 1985, our school was presenting new material in much the same way it had a century earlier. Dickenson and her co-presenters offered a radical new model for the classroom, one in which students were every bit as active as the teacher. The two women returned to Norfolk on a zealous mission to lift up the Academy. 

In the summer of 1986, Patty organized and presented a multi-national conference she called The Common Wealth in Education. For four days our faculty was exposed to cutting-edge research and philosophy. Headmaster John Tucker recognized the significance of the moment and set the school on a revolutionary path. Norfolk Academy would become one of only seven member schools of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to adopt the new model, referred to in shorthand as “School Improvement.” (For a detailed look at that conference, search thesavagechronicles.org archives and read Four Days in August.) It is impossible to overstate the consequence of that conference and the five further ones that followed. 

One of those consequences was the creation of the Seminar Program in Tunstall. For a year, Upper School faculty members followed the lead of Mortimer Adler’s “Paideia Proposal.” We ran several practice seminars at the campus home of Will Stacey, Tunstall Division Director. Not everybody was fully on board – for some it represented a challenge to their comfort level, and for everyone it was a lot of work. There were many unfamiliar techniques that had to be mastered. For example, Adler taught that discussion leaders should prepare two or three opener questions that required more than a yes or no response, and then a series of more specific follow-up questions. It turned out that doing this well was something of an art form. But by September 1991, we were ready to go live with the student body. 

At the outset the seminars were not about topics but challenging pieces of literature. We chose the Book of Genesis as our first reading. It took an entire school day, with two long discussion sessions, time to write reflective essays, and a communal session with presenters. That first day featured a rabbi, an Episcopal priest, a feminist school chaplain, and an avowed, published atheist. I presided over the discussion. I remember two moments especially. The first was when I asked the rabbi why the God of Genesis seemed so angry and was treated to a five-minute lecture on the difference between anger and wrath. That one was pre-planned. The second was not. When I asked the chaplain a question that referred to God as male, she made clear to me the shortcomings of my world view. The students ate it up with a spoon. This was way more fun than they had anticipated. 

For the next 15 years we repeated the exercise three or four times annually. The readings varied from important pieces of social science to education to music to poetry. And though by the beginning of the 21st century, events had overtaken the seminar routine and it yielded to differing formats, its creation had well served its purpose. To a person, Tunstall faculty members understood that active learning was now part of the school’s DNA. Even science and math teachers (it is impossible, for instance, to dissect a fetal pig by a process of shared inquiry) recognized how much involving their students beyond the mere taking of notes improved our school. 

So when Mr. Duquette brings the gavel down on Act III, he will be carrying on an idea that first arrived on our campus more than 30 years ago. We have all, teachers and students, been made better for it. And so, to twist the meaning of the Prince of Denmark, we are all “nobler in the mind.”  

Seminar

Dance Master Elbert Watson joins Teacher-Coach Tom Duquette for an Alumni Seminar in March 2022. 

– November 2022


The Big Maroon

I began my association with Norfolk Academy as a second grader in the fall of 1960. The first three grades (one room each) were held, quite literally, in the “Little Red Schoolhouse” behind the main building and beside the refectory. I was lucky enough to be under the tutelage of Lucille Sebren in the second grade and the inimitable Lucy Penzold in the third. I have written tributes to both of them in these pages before. Each in her own way did a lot to fashion me as a human being. 

Physical Education for grades one through three was exactly that – kickball, dodgeball, basketball on 8-foot hoops when the weather wouldn’t let you outside. But when you hit the fourth grade, it was on. Tackle football in full pads. This was the big time. There were enough students (NA was an all-boys school at that time) in grades four through six to form four teams, known simply by the color of their well-used jerseys. Seniors acted as coaches. The field had no yard lines, and out of bounds was marked by the matching lines of magnolia trees in front of the main building. But for us, it might as well have been the NFL. 

In my sixth-grade year I found myself as a halfback (we used an old-fashioned “T” formation) on the “Big Maroon.” At quarterback was Bobby King, oversized for his age and fairly athletic, and the other halfback was Tom Murray, new to the school that year. But our chief weapon was fullback Rusty Luhring, who was absolutely “ginormous” and who required at least three opponents to be brought down.  Our coaches were Barclay Winn and Alan Rashkind, and they put in a rudimentary offensive scheme that we could all master. It involved four plays, with Rusty up the middle every other down. 

Toy Savage's 1964 Lower School football team. Mr. Savage is in the second row, fourth from the right. 

Toy Savage's 1964 Lower School football team. Mr. Savage is in the second row, fourth from the right. 

We were a juggernaut. We were the Ken Jennings of Lower School football. At the end of the season we were something like 22 – 0, and hadn’t been threatened. I remember one play, a “crossbuck,” whose design made Coach Winn very proud, where I got the ball, broke through the line and streaked, as much as my 12-year-old legs would allow, for the imaginary goal line. The only difficulty was not a defender, but the fact that my belt was not snug. Fifteen yards down the field I had to stop to pull my pants up, at which point my pursuers caught up and brought the play to an unceremonious close. Barclay still laughs out loud about that moment today. 

Why these memories now?  How are they instructive? This is not an argument for the sport of football itself. While I do not agree with it, I can fully understand the argument from some that because of its inherent violence and risk of brain injury, football is an institution we can do without. I personally believe that as an enterprise, football is worth the risks. But that’s not my point. 

Two things made these playing days instructive. First, having seniors act as coaches communicated a lot to a 12-year-old. I worshipped the ground Coach Winn stood on. When I taught his son and then two of his grandchildren years later, it was but a continuation of symbiosis across the grade levels. Each reaps the benefits of being linked to the other. We know this today, but in 2022 it's tougher to get Upper and Lower schoolers connected. It’s great when it happens, as in the senior-first grade ice cream social. But I wish it would happen every day. 

Second, there was an innocence to it all. No parents attended the games we played three days a week. We didn’t dress differently on game day or have team breakfasts. We simply went out, and for lack of a better word, played. And when the game was the only thing, there was more room to learn all the things competition could teach you. Middle School Pit Ball, so dearly loved by Royster students, is a fairly close version of this. If you pay attention, you can watch the students learning how to win and how to lose and how to play fair, and, in particular, what happens to you when you don’t do the latter. The simplicity of the game is what so many find attractive. Alas, such simplicity is harder and harder to find.

Go, Big Maroon!! 

October 2022


On the Shoulders of Giants

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 

Sir Isaac Newton penned these famous words in 1675. Much of Newton’s work would provide the basics of physics for two and half centuries. But then, Albert Einstein and his successors began to understand how the universe works in fundamentally different ways. Those more recent explorations of time, space, and matter by themselves do nothing, however, to limit the importance of Newton’s “laws.” 

In an interesting way, Norfolk Academy has followed the same model. That is, for generations, particularly after the philosophy of Thomas Dewey became accepted, Norfolk Academy achieved greatness through the visions of its “giants.” Since the outbreak of new research in the 1980s, substantive changes to our approach to education have taken place, and it is not too absurd to draw parallels between Newton and Einstein on one hand and Massey and Manning on the other. As someone who has witnessed up close for over 60 years the evolution of pedagogy, I am in a unique position to make a few observations. 

There will never be as dominant a personality associated with our school than James B. Massey, Jr. As Headmaster from 1950 to 1978, he commanded the respect and love of all who worked for him or attended school here during that time. The word reverence may capture it best. I have written much about this giant, and I have watched and listened as powerful captains of industry and commerce give him unwavering credit for their progress as human beings. If you want to learn more about his dynamism, read my earlier Chronicle entitled, simply, Red, or his chapter in Norfolk’s Academy – the Heart of Tidewater that I wrote almost 20 years ago. 

James B. Massey Jr., Norfolk Academy Headmaster from 1950 until 1978. 

James B. Massey Jr., Norfolk Academy Headmaster from 1950 until 1978. 

There are others – John Tucker, Charlie Cumiskey, Patty Masterson, and Arthur MacConochie, to name a few, who obviously pass muster as giants. And there are folks more recently associated with the Academy whom I could name, but the risks of omission are much more telling when one lists the living or very recently passed. 

On the other hand, it is important to point out that the progress made by this school over the past 40 years has been cumulative. This is only possible when there is such consistency and permanence within school administration and the Board of Trustees. Having only three headmasters over the course of 73 years is unparalleled in American independent education. There’s never a “square one” to have to go back to. Each generation of leadership has the luxury of seeing the long term, both in the past and in the future. 

A wise friend of mine, who knows our school as well as I do, characterized this growth in an interesting way. He says that Mr. Massey saved the school and made it a fundamentally “good” place. John Tucker took us beyond “good” to “great” at the national level. Dennis Manning’s tenure has seen us grow beyond great to being a powerhouse with an international footprint. And yet none of the basic mission of the school has been lost in any of this. Every year we graduate a group of right-minded, curious people who understand service to be an essential part of citizenship. 

As someone who no longer labors fulltime here, I will nonetheless be fascinated to see what the next evolutionary step will be. In a nation facing vexatious questions, Norfolk Academy has the freedom to confront a future with vision and hope. 

It is good to begin again. 

September 2022


Steady as She Goes: Jeff Boyd completes his first year as Middle School Director
 

Jeff Boyd became the Director of the Royster Division in August 2021. As the new captain of our ship, he faced unpredictable winds and tides. For one thing, he was succeeding Tommy Hudgins, who had acted as an interim Director for the preceding two years, and who, with considerable help from his administrative team and enduring support from our Board of Trustees, had guided us through our long Covid nightmare. Not to torture the “Captain” metaphor too much, but under Tommy’s leadership the Royster ship had “weathered every rack” of the pandemic beyond anyone’s hopes or expectations. So, Jeff had a tough act to follow. 

Additionally, there were multiple questions and unknowns confronting Jeff and the faculty as the 2021-22 school year approached. They ranged from the many practical questions of personal distancing to the use of technology, and how to manage interscholastic sports and arts activities. More importantly, no one could predict the costs of the prolonged alterations to normal routine paid by young adolescents at such a critical point in their development. What academic expectations for them were reasonable? How could we try to catch them up after such a drawn-out period of decreased social interaction? What would reasonable discipline look like? Everyone knew that we were facing a very “new normal.” 

Middle School Director Jeff Boyd teaches an English class in 2021-22.

Middle School Director Jeff Boyd teaches an English class during his first year at Norfolk Academy, 2021-22. 

As a Middle School faculty, we learned two things about Jeff quickly. The first was that he had more energy and dedication for his work than one would have thought possible. (Another challenge Jeff faced was that his wife, Amanda, remained in Durham for the school year finishing her fellowship in gastroenterology at Duke University Hospital. To see her and their little girl Noa would require a rush-hour trek down I-95 and back every Friday.) Jeff filled in the weekday hours he might have spent being a husband and a father with boundless enthusiasm for taking care of us instead. Second, we learned how gregarious and approachable he is. Any moments of potential hesitancy in asking “the new guy” a question evaporated almost instantly. 

As the days turned into weeks it also became apparent just how solid was his judgment about all things Middle School. Part of his strength came from a lifetime of attending and teaching at powerful independent schools. Then, too, were his undergraduate degree from Brown and his masters degree in Education from Harvard. But his ability to make the right call, time after time, came from more than just a resumé. Jeff displayed a wisdom beyond what you can learn at school. For one thing he was an excellent listener. For another he understood that “culture eats curriculum for breakfast,” and so he set about quietly, subtly learning of our school culture from everyone from the cleaning and maintenance staffs to Headmaster Dennis Manning and the school’s administrative team. He had no difficulty disposing of pre-conceived notions in favor of lining up with how we do things. It may be that as he goes forward, he will want to nudge our school in this direction or that. But he showed the great and good common sense not to force any issue just as he was settling in. 

Truth be told, the pandemic had had negative effects on our student body that were deep, far-ranging, and impossible to program your way around. In particular, the social costs paid by some of our students by the forced separation were very high. One by one, however, Jeff led his faculty to implement responses to those questions we might not have seen coming. We had to think hard about socialization and teamwork and discipline. There were times you wanted to shake your head. Well, with Jeff behind the wheel we spared ourselves the indulgence of shaking our heads and instead lifted our eyes quickly to focus on navigating the complicated course downstream. 

I am sure there are students, families, and faculty who at this moment wish we had handled this or that issue differently. That is inevitable. What was far from inevitable was that we would gain a captain with such remarkable skills. 

Welcome aboard, Jeff. What a great first year. Where do we head next?

Summer 2022


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