Head of School's Remarks by Robert Henderson Jr. '76

Thirty-six years ago I sat where these seniors are sitting, wearing my blue blazer and white pants. It is all a total blur in my memory. I think I remember that one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Warner, was our graduation speaker, and that he was quite entertaining, but for the life of me I can’t recall what he said. I also can assure you that absolutely the furthest thing from my imagination was that I would return to Nobles 24 years after that graduation to serve as Head of School. I was utterly self-absorbed at that stage my life and, while grateful for my experience here, as well for my close connection to many teachers, I was truly joyous to be done and to move on to new and different things. In that context, ending up in my current job is the greatest surprise of my life.

It has also been both the greatest honor and responsibility of my life. I sometimes say in public forums when asked about returning to my alma mater that while I enjoyed my experience as a student at Nobles, I would not have returned to the school I attended. By that I genuinely mean no disrespect to the many people I loved and admired at the school in those days, nor to the several members of the staff who are still teaching here. Rather, I mean that Nobles was a quite different place in the early 1970s. As I have heard Mr. Baker say, Nobles in that era was much more of the 19th-century than the 20th. The school was far more homogenous than today in nearly every respect, from composition of the student body and faculty to the breadth and imagination of the overall program. The last three and a half decades have been a period of dynamic and rapid development for this school, and it is that dynamic curve that drew me back.

And yet I was also pleased to learn that the most essential aspects of the mission and culture of this place were still intact and healthy after all those years. The commitment to high expectations for intellectual and character development were, if anything, significantly enhanced as compared to my student days. The conviction in this community that close and salutary mentoring relationships between teachers and students are essential for learning remained at the core of the school’s teaching philosophy. And the belief that the purpose of a Nobles education is to inspire service to others and leadership for the public good, while expressed in a slightly more modernized idiom, remained the central concept in the school mission.

So it was that combination of inspirations, both dedication to dynamic progress and a grounding in unalterable principles, that led me to Dedham after many years in different school cultures and time zones. Hopefully, that same balance will keep this remarkable class of graduating seniors connected here as well, and perhaps some of them, or maybe even most of them, will be drawn to serve this community in a variety of ways even a generation from now.

Behind me, on the hill above this tent, a project is nearing completion that is a living and vibrant expression of this balance between change and tradition. The Castle is a venerable building and serves as the central icon of this school. However, it was not originally constructed to serve a community. Rather, the Castle was originally the personal expression of a single man in the 1880s, Albert Nickerson, who poured his substantial resources into building his perfect residence, and it is riddled with the quirks of his taste and personality. When his heirs could not afford to maintain this property, they sold it to the school in 1921, and Nobles moved from Beacon Street in Boston to Bridge Street in Dedham. For several years the entire school inhabited the Castle, before gradually adding more space as the program and enrollment slowly expanded, in fits and starts, over several decades.

While there have been episodes of limited renovation and repair, the reality is that the Castle was used harder and harder through recent years, accommodating an ever-larger number of people, expanding its operations to a year-round basis with the dramatic expansion of summer programs. The wear and tear, indeed the substantial decay, was showing. Yet the scale and cost of the task of revitalizing the building seemed completely overwhelming.

Starting several years ago, many members of this community began in earnest to think and plan about the future of the Castle. It became clear that once any significant work started, every major code would be triggered and all the major systems would have to be replaced; this meant fire suppression, disability access, heat, electricity, and so forth. Moreover, the architectural challenge was immense, building a modern and functional addition to a building originally designed in the mid-nineteenth century by H.H. Richardson, one of giants in American architectural history. Additional space would need to be complementary yet subordinate to the original, both on the interior and exterior. Faculty living quarters needed to be significantly expanded and improved. Meeting space was badly needed. Dining space had to be roughly doubled to serve the needs of the current size of the community, as well as to obviate lunch service as the major constriction on the school’s academic schedule and curriculum. Kitchen and serving spaces required dramatic expansion and improvement. And, of course, as many here well recall, the Castle needed bathrooms!

So, as with the culture, program and mission of the school, the challenge was to bolster treasured traditions and the most important inheritances from our past with dynamic and transformative thinking about our progress and future. The goal was to ensure that the Castle would continue to serve as the most important metaphor for the strength and purpose of this community. In the end, a building designed as the idiosyncratic expression of one man’s narcissism and wealth would be transformed to become the proudest architectural and programmatic expression of this community’s culture and mission. I believe that when the space opens at the end of this summer, that will have been accomplished, and when the Class of 2012 returns to visit and for reunions, they will recognize and feel immediately at home in the new Castle, owning it equally with generations of Nobles students to come.

This is, of course, what we also intend in our work with a given class in the school. We hope to have imbued each graduating First Class with the intellectual and character tools, inclinations, and experiences essential to make them agents for positive change in the world. The Class of 2012 has been particularly notable in this regard, and I genuinely believe they will leave here and go on to provide dedicated and enlightened leadership for the public good in the myriad fields of endeavor they ultimately will choose for themselves.

I extend my thanks, congratulations and very best wishes to the Class of 2012 for the wonderful challenges and adventures that lie ahead of them.

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Head of School's Remarks by Robert Henderson Jr. '76