Investiture Ceremony for LFA's 30th Head of School
On October 19, 2019, José M. De Jesús was formally installed as Lake Forest Academy's 30th Head of School during an investiture ceremony on LFA's campus. Over 200 guests gathered in the George W. Blossom Jr. Memorial Courtyard of Reid Hall to celebrate the Academy's history, present, and future.
To the students, I pledge to never forget that in the end all we do is about you. To fight for you to have the opportunity to excel while staying whole.
To the parents, I pledge to never take for granted your decision to send your children to us every morning. It is a sacred trust that I also make as a father each day.
To the alumni, I pledge to listen to your stories, to learn from them, to share them. To keep the spirit of Ferry hall and LFA alive by honoring where we come from.
To the faculty and staff, I pledge to do all I can to help you shine, to help the school grow through your creativity, brilliance and hard work.
To the trustees, I pledge to partner with you in securing the programmatic and financial future of this remarkable place.You’ve bestowed an incredible honor and responsibility, and I will dedicate my heart and mind as we walk these amazing souls to their libraries.
And to my family and friends - I pledge to be there for you- no matter what.
- José M. De Jesús, LFA's 30th Head of School
In a moment like this I am filled with extraordinary gratitude.
I want to start by thanking John Marlatt and our devoted trustees for entrusting me with being your 30th head of school. John, it is an honor to partner with a man of your character in service to Lake Forest Academy.
I want to give thanks to the many people who made this day happen. Namely, Rob Buckla and Chris Tennyson, chairs of the investiture committee, an investiture committee which consisted of trustees, faculty and parents. Thanks for your time and efforts.
I want to thank Rachael Josephsen for being the most awesome event general ever, and the rest of the Advancement team for once more making me and the school look good. I want to thank Jason Koening, Steven Ryder and Tim Plambeck for helping us with our sights and sounds.
I want to thank the facilities and catering team for their hard work all weekend. Every day you work humbly to help people in the academy shine. I appreciate you and see you. Thank you y gracias.
I also want to thank the people who’ve performed and spoken today. Coax, The Lin Brothers, our amazing student body president Anna Schilling, Sheldon, Javaid and Eric my brothers from assorted mothers, my mentor and champion Bruce Dennis, and my co-teacher and role model Chris Dozois.
I want to thank my old family, colleagues and friends who traveled to get here while I also thank my new family, colleagues and friends, thank you for honoring me with your presence.
I want to thank John and Loring Strudwick for their service to the school and their wonderful support during this transition.
I want to thank my mother, who is here today, for all of her work and struggle in service to my growth. I want to thank my brother Philip and his wife my sister Julia, in particular for bringing my nephew Theo into my life. It was while holding a one-day-old Theo almost two years ago that I first thought, “maybe the Chicago winters wouldn’t be THAT bad”
I want to thank my wife, Andrea, who is also an English teacher at LFA, my daughter Bela, LFA Class of 2022 and my little man Joaquin, who yesterday became LFA Prep Hockey’s biggest fan. I love you and appreciate you and am lucky to be your husband and dad. Thank you for being on this journey with me.
And finally I want to thank my ancestors who sacrificed so much to make a day like this possible. I hope they are taking a moment from their perpetual domino game in the sky to smile on me today. Also, thanks for the weather.
In 1983 my mom took me with her friend to see the movie The Right Stuff. This movie was about fighter pilots and astronauts. To me there was nothing cooler than seeing Chuck Yeager fly a plane past the sound barrier or to see John Glenn orbit the earth in his Mercury capsule, and although my English was just getting to fluent and I was a chubby kid with average hand eye co-ordination, I was convinced I was going to be an astronaut. I needed to learn more.
Being that this was 15 years before Google, I soon realized that there was only one way to get the knowledge I craved- a trip to the Bloomingdale library on 100th street between Amsterdam and Columbus, where my trusted school librarian ASSURED me they would have books that our under resourced school library didn’t have.
But I had a problem. Although the walk between my elementary school, PS 75 on 96th street and West End and the Bloomingdale Public Library on W. 100th between Amsterdam and Columbus was only 6 city blocks, this walk would cross over to a neighborhood that had fallen on tough times due to the crack epidemic that ravaged parts of New York in the 80s. There was a gang, The Decepticons, that were rumored to travel in that area, and as much as I wanted to know more about being an astronaut, there was no way I was going to walk to the library. I was crestfallen.
Then a miracle happened. Two of my friends learned about my disappointment and offered to walk with me. These boys were a whole year older and were as tough as a ten year old could be. Both were recent immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic and I found out years later that one of those boys had been homeless right around the time this story takes place. But no matter. There they were. And we set out on our quest like Harry, Hermoine and Ron setting out to challenge Voldemort. Like the hulk, captain America and Ironman going after Thanos. Like Tom, Huck and Jim- you get the point.
The walk to the library was uneventful. I hurried into the library and after a conversation with an enthusiastic librarian I was clutching 6 books, the maximum they allowed me to take out, who’s pages were brimming with the knowledge I so desperately sought. While taking my library card out of my wallet, I realized, with terror, that the guys were probably gone. In my excitement to get my books I never asked them to wait. Not only would I have to walk through that tough neighborhood alone, I would have to do so holding books about astronauts. I nervously thanked the librarian and walked to the main doors, ready to make a run for it.
Before I had a chance to start my awkward book-burdened run, I saw my friends standing there. “You ready, Jose” they asked. “Yeah, I’m ready” I said, and we walked towards my bus stop together.
Sadly, I lost touch with those two friends, and I’m not sure if either boy graduated from high school or college. I doubt it. Opportunity was sparse for them. But I know that without them I am not here today. Elio and Bernardo’s act of kindness allowed me to seek MY passion and knowledge. Their taking a risk in walking me allowed me the opportunity to learn. And it wasn’t until I wrote this, while sitting behind my desk, that I realized that for the last 23 years I have been trying to do for my students what they did for me- and that is to be by their side on their walk to their libraries.
This would not be the last time I would experience such fellowship. For six years, between 7th and 12th grade, I rode the 1 train uptown to the Bronx with my boys, black and brown men who, in the case of examples like Sheldon and Shadeed, rode 90 minutes on the subway each way to go to school. Tired and disheveled I would saunter into the second car of the subway and plop myself down. As the steel of the city went by us I was gradually awakened with talks about hip hop music, the knicks and girls we liked. When we got to 242nd street, the last stop on the subway, we would walk up the hill to the school as our wealthier friends passed us on the bus. We attended one of the most elite private schools in America and together we not only survived but we excelled in that space. Javaid would be Valedictorian, Eric would be Captain of the Football team, and Sheldon would be Student Body president. We were no joke, and we could shine because we had each other.
Just like Elio and Bernardo, without those men on that train I am not here today. During the first day of my last two jobs I’ve taken a picture of my placard at my door and written to them - “this doesn’t happen without you”. I’m thrilled that my children call them uncle.
I’ve been lucky during my life to have people have my back, love me unconditionally and let me be my best self while I pursued my passions and excellence in my studies. My relationships and my scholarship are inextricably linked, since without safety it is hard for us to learn, and without being oneself it is hard for one to grow. We built communities on that walk and on that train even though our environments sometimes tried to get in the way.
Over the last three and a half months I have been meeting with every faculty and staff member at the Academy along with some students, parents, alums and trustees. I have to this point done 80 interviews. I ask everyone the same questions- what brought you to LFA and what keeps you here, What do you cherish and what would you change.
The stories about what brought people to LFA vary dramatically. I love hearing stories of Bill Dolbee persistently calling them about a job, or how Chris Tennyson was tapped with giving the future Maggie Tennyson a tour as the new math teacher (I never got an answer on who like whom first). But as varied as the stories are about what brought them to LFA, the answers as to what keeps them at LFA converge. The three top answers to what people cherish are 1) a caring community, 2) our diversity, and 3) school traditions. People love this school because of the alchemy that brings students from 35 countries, 13 states, and over a dozen Illinois counties together. Yet despite these differences, my interviews have been filled with stories of ways that the community has looked out for each other- a teacher suddenly ill having all of their classes covered, a scared 9th grader having a senior give them a hug on the first day of pre-season, roommates from different parts of the world become-life long friends. What the people who I’ve spoken to have explained to me is that above all, the key to the school’s excellence is the community itself.
This past March, my daughter Bela and I did an audio tour of the Roman Forum. Towards the middle of the tour we were awestruck as we stood in the shadows of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, built in 312 AD. The Basilica was designed to be a space where business, trade and other public transactions could be done. It was a place where the community could gather. Even in its ruined state the basilica revealed the key to the enormous structure - four gigantic columns.
Like that Basilica, LFA has four pillars that hold up our community that you can see behind me: Character, Scholarship, Responsibility and Citizenship. A vibrant, caring and productive community is not possible if people of good character don’t take on the responsibility of citizenship. Great scholarship, one that is bold, creative and full of life can’t bloom without a strong community to support it, without the basilica above to protect it.
Without those pillars the community we aspire to be is impossible. And with the foundation of these pillars we are able to do the business of learning and growing. With our pillars we have the safety to pursue excellence, to strive to be the very best version of ourselves, the self we didn’t even know was possible.
Of the traditions most cherished by the community two stand out. They are the bookends of the academic year, the all school handshake to start the year and the Moving Up Ceremony to end the year. Each are designed to symbolically bring the community to a start and a close. Both of these are personifications of community and an expression of the four pillars.
A community like ours should have trouble existing today. A diverse school with varying political views, backgrounds, nationalities and experiences should not work during a time of startling national division and growing xenophobia. But here we are in our imperfect beauty. We must consistently strive to have a community where every member can be the best version of themselves. We must celebrate our achievements and boldly look at ways we are currently falling short of this goal, we must listen to everyone’s voices and engage one another with empathy and love.
And in so doing this, in so building and sustaining this community, LFA can be an example outside of our walls, we can share our expertise and experiences and recognize that our school is not isolated from the rest of the world. LFA can be a place where people come to learn about how to have challenging conversations, how to connect with those even when you disagree, how to build empathy through the telling of our stories, how to engage people in different countries, and how to, in a historical moment when we are flooded with a cacophony of distractions, simply listen deeply to others.
For over 160 years Chicagoland has built inspiring communities in the crossroads, where one might not think community can exist. In 1848 the Illinois and Michigan Canal canal was built to connect Lake Michigan with the Mississipi river. In the mid 19th century there would be over 30 railroad connections going through the Chicago area, connecting the nation from sea to sea. For two decades, Ohare was the busiest airport in the world and currently it serves as a hub to two airlines that connect the world. Eastern-europeans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and yes, Puerto Ricans have come to Chicagoland to seek opportunity. And although LFA and Ferry Hall were first started as a retreat from the big city, it is clear that LFA personifies the spirit of this area, a meeting in the middle for so many, a beautiful community where it otherwise should not exist. A community some people might not want to see exist.
And that is a proudly diverse community, united with common values, in service to each other’s growth and to the world around us.
I recognize this is asking a lot. But we’ve got this. And we can only do this together, in ways as small as holding a door or as big as saving a life.
Coming to this investiture is not a passive event. LFA needs you. Our community needs you. I need you.
I ask for your patience, to recognize that whether it is knowing what an Italian beef is or fully understanding a tradition that my learning will take time.
I ask for your engagement. That you seek ways to participate, that you respond with time and treasure when you can, that you recognize that each one of you has an important role in building and sustaining our community.
Finally, I ask that you have an open mind, and that you have faith in who we are and what we can be. That we can as a community make a difference.
In return, in this beautiful place where so many people have given vows in the past, I pledge the following:
- To the students, I pledge to never forget that in the end all we do is about you. To fight for you to have the opportunity to excel while staying whole.
- To the parents, I pledge to never take for granted your decision to send your children to us every morning. It is a sacred trust that I also make as a father each day.
- To the alumni, I pledge to listen to your stories, to learn from them, to share them. To keep the spirit of Ferry hall and LFA alive by honoring where we come from.
- To the faculty and staff, I pledge to do all I can to help YOU shine, to help the school grow through your creativity, brilliance and hard work.
- To the trustees, I pledge to partner with you in securing the programmatic and financial future of this remarkable place. You’ve bestowed an incredible honor and responsibility, and I will dedicate my heart and mind as we walk these amazing souls to their libraries.
- And to my family and friends - I pledge to be there for you- no matter what.
Those pledges are given to you on this day in the spirit of preserving and growing this community we hold dear. For with all of the opportunities, gorgeous buildings and exciting programs, in the end, the greatest gift we have as a community is each other.
32 years after her father took that walk to Bloomingdale library, my daughter anxiously awaited for her guests to arrive in Wood House. 11 girls came to the house, coming from places ranging from Lake Forest to Australia. China to Mexico. Two of them honored me by carrying their country’s flags today. Once the girls got to the house they listened to One Direction, ate Lou Malnati’s, and ate a ton of brownies while they snuggled watching a movie. And although this isn’t New York, and she wasn’t going to look for books on astronauts or take the 1 train uptown, I saw something very familiar in the way my daughter felt that evening. I saw her be her best self, in the embrace of those around her. And I imagine that some day, many years from now, she will remember that evening and all it did for her. She will remember that feeling of unity and common purpose that I feel so deeply today. The one that Elio and Bernardo gave me 35 years ago and I vow to continue giving to all of you with all I have.
Thank you for being here. Thank you for your partnership in service to our school. And thank you for the honor of being your head. It is the honor of a life time.
Now I invite you to celebrate inside Reid Hall.