A Tribute to Mr. Gleason by Head of Middle School John Gifford
I started a letter to Mr. Gleason a week before he died. It still sits on my desk unfinished; two pages, handwritten. It remains there because I can’t yet bring myself to throw it away. I knew that Mr. Gleason was sick, his illness was the motivation for my reaching out to him.
But I was surprised and so sad for him and for his family when I heard the news. I was also deeply disappointed that I hadn’t finished my letter in time. The painfully deliberate nature of my attempts to articulate his impact on my life had proven too slow. I really wanted to express my admiration and my appreciation to Mr. Gleason. I wanted him to know.
Because he was a deeply religious man, I take some solace in the idea of expressing myself here with the idea that my thoughts will still reach him. During my time as a member of the faculty and an administrator at Nobles, I have been fortunate to work alongside Dick Baker and Bob Henderson. I can say with some authority (from the perspective of my front row seat) that the two approached their headships with very distinct styles. It has been interesting to see that two such different approaches can still serve this school so well. It seems that there is indeed more than one way to skin a cat.
While my vantage point to observe the headship of Mr. Gleason was quite different, it had equal impact. Mr. Gleason was my headmaster. Perhaps it is strange to express this with some degree of possessiveness and pride, but that is how I mean it. I feel proud and privileged to have been a student during his tenure. I feel lucky.
While most headmasters emerge from years in classrooms to run schools, they are hardly allowed in the classroom during their headship. Teaching is deemed less important because it impacts too few students. Mr. Gleason did teach and he taught exceptionally well. In doing so, he helped solidify a tradition at Nobles that is now relatively rare at other schools. Dick Baker taught just as Bob Henderson does today. For all of these heads, I’d wager that the teaching was actually more for them than for their students. It is true that it is a great effort expended for 14 students.
I believe that Mr. Gleason made his biggest impact in the early hours of the day. Morning assembly was also Mr. Gleason’s classroom. It seems to me that he had a message for us each and every day. These were not off-the-cuff thoughts, these were well-crafted, thoughtful communications. They ran the gamut to underscore and explain the long standing values of the school. Themes that remain steadfast in the Nobles mission statement were reimagined and made to come alive each morning through his stories. Hard work. Service to others. Honesty.
His delivery was smooth, almost soothing. The preacher in Mr. Gleason came through – there was a meter and cadence to his words that made ideas stick in your head. And most of the time, those words had to do with a single theme: family.
“Family” was his way of tackling a topic that we continue stress with equal passion. Today we talk about “respect for others” and “being good to each other." Ted worked to make it more personal than that. While some criticized the family metaphor as inappropriate for a complex school community, Ted knew full-well that it was aspirational. Families too can be made up of diverse opinions and thorny disagreements. In the end, however, they are family and by dint of that relationship the family members are responsible for each other in a powerful way.
His expectations for the way in which we should care for each other were lofty and he illustrated them through countless stories and examples. Perhaps it is my perspective on Nobles as an adult rather than a teenager, but I only feel that the need for us to care for each other has grown rather than been diminished. Life is challenging and complicated for young people today. They seem to have worries that are more daunting than ours were. The cultural expectations of success put on young people seem higher. Mr. Gleason engrained in the very psyche of this institution that one of the ways that we balance such pressures is through community support. It is through family.
In my work with students, sometimes I use Ted’s old stories. With students in the Middle School, I have settled on “be good to each other” as the guiding theme. They usually are good to each other but just as in actual families, there are times when they are less charitable to each other. Even then I know that they have heard from me and others about the expectations of this community and what we aspire to. I’ll never be able to match the eloquence with which Mr. Gleason delivered the message, but I’ll honor him for as long as I can by working to perpetuate his core message at Noble and Greenough School.