Goodbye, Mr. Woodward

June 12, 2012 Heather Hoerle
Goodbye, Mr. Woodward

On June 1st, I posted a tribute on Facebook to one of my favorite teachers who, after 44 years, has just retired from Westtown School (PA), where he taught English and Latin. Here is what I wrote about Tom Woodward:

“Today, I honor a mentor, friend and colleague who is leaving a long and exceptional teaching career at Westtown School and ‘retires.’ Woody was my 10th grade English teacher, but he played a more important role in my life outside of the academic lessons.

Woody taught me to speak truth to power. He taught me to love irreverence. He showed me the beauty in old things (particularly silver). He taught me the value of a great and long meal with friends—and conversation going late into the night. He gave me my first asparagus fork (sterling silver, of course!).

Woody has lived his life proudly, without apology, and has stood as a model to every student who felt ‘different.’ He made all of us laugh at ourselves and earn his respect through persistence and determination.

Westtown School and Tom Woodward are forever tied together in my heart and I remain eternally grateful for all of the lessons that Woody gave to me and to his other charges. Talk about a life well lived!”

Tom Woodward is one of those unforgettable teachers whose lessons go far beyond the classroom. He used humor and sarcasm with adolescents, but never made any of us feel unloved. He was relentless in setting high expectations for each one of us. Those standards and that humor were remembered by many on Facebook. Indeed, I touched a nerve. More than 100 people commented on Woody’s retirement, sharing their own stories about his influence on their lives:

“You taught me to read, write, analyze and treat others like a real human being, and for that and so much more I will always thank you.”

“If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be working on my second book.”

“Exposure to TS Elliot and James Joyce, structuring an argument, and comparing Hamlet to Dobie Gillis... memories that last a lifetime.”

“My book just won a national award. I was chastened to be a better writer- by you. Thanks!”

“Who's going to coach the croquet team next year?”

“There are heroes in the world… we need them. Hope it is humbling to be one.”

“Where are they putting the Woodward Wing?”

Every school has a Tom Woodward – a legendary teacher whose lessons stay with students long after graduation. Gifted and connected teachers like Woody are critical to the work of admission, because through their commitment to young people, they fulfill the mission of your school. Long-serving, gifted teachers are part of the DNA of any institution and their history across many generations of students creates emotional attachments for students and alumni alike (in Woody’s case, the inspired teaching was peppered with sarcasm and regular conversations which have carried me through my 20s, 30s, 40s and now 50s… he was my lifetime connection to my alma mater).

Forging strong bonds with exceptional faculty members should be high on every admission officer’s to-do list. Not only is it important to know your school’s teaching legends, it is also critical to have stories to relate in your work with prospective families about these special teachers and their gifts.

Don’t be afraid to involve top teachers in the work of enrollment management. Long ago when I worked in the Westtown admission office, I grew tired of Tom Woodward’s cynical comments about new students and invited him to join the Admission Committee. It should be no surprise that he became the most committed member of that decision-making group, offering keen insight into student files as a result of his deep teaching experience. By assisting our office, Tom built a bridge between faculty and administration at the school which made for positive school-wide relations back in the 1980s, when there was a national decline in student numbers and pressure was high to fill the school.

As you ease into your summer activities, take time to visit with your school’s exceptional teachers to hear what they’ve been up to, and to build connections between your work and theirs. As for me, in a few weeks I have a date with Tom Woodward to celebrate his wonderful career. Fittingly, I am thinking of bringing along a basket of peaches, as a salute to the man who taught students to admire T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Together, we will “dare to eat a peach” and have a festive time remembering his brilliant career and his influence on the lives of so many students (and adults).

About the Author

Heather Hoerle

Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer

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