Teaching Profession

Headmaster Leaves 45-Year Legacy of Tradition

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 05, 2002 4 min read
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Jack Pidgeon made some changes at the Kiski School during his 45-year tenure as headmaster, but he is proudest of what he didn’t change.

When Mr. Pidgeon retired last week from the 220-student private boarding school for boys in western Pennsylvania at age 78, some things were just as true as when he took the helm of the school in 1957. “Boys still wear coats and ties,” he said. “They still say, ‘Yes, sir, No sir.’ There’s no such thing as a personality conflict between teachers and students. The teacher is right and the student is wrong.”

Moreover, Kiski is still a school for boys, he said. He didn’t give in to pressure to go coeducational as did Andover, Exeter, Deerfield, and many other private schools in the 1960s and 1970s. (“Tribute to a ‘Head Master,’” Commentary, Nov. 25, 1998.)

“We’ve found a small vein in the American public that believes in the same things that we do, and we held on long enough and we are able to tap in to that vein,” said Mr. Pidgeon.

Because so many single-sex schools became coed and most new private schools are coed, the few remaining single-sex college- preparatory schools such as Kiski are prospering because they fill a niche, said Patrick F. Bassett, the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, based in Washington.

Mr. Pidgeon’s tenure is second in length among current private school heads only to that of Beatrice Hood, who has headed Twin Spring Farm Educational Impressions in Ambler, Pa., for 46 years, according to the NAIS.

Besides keeping single-sex education alive, Mr. Bassett said, Mr. Pidgeon has played an important role in the private school realm for another reason: He was both a protégé and a mentor in a private school tradition of headmasters who train other headmasters through personal example.

Leaders such as the legendary Frank L. Boyden, who was the headmaster of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts from 1902 to 1968, and Mr. Pidgeon prepared members of their faculties to be school heads through “moral modeling,” Mr. Bassett explained. They were great human beings, he said, who understood the concept of the teachable moment.

“You know who in your community or faculty should become an administrator, you identify it, reward it, and expose potential leaders to aspects of the business,” Mr. Bassett said. “But the main thing is to have them watch you in action.”

Lessons Learned

John A. Pidgeon learned how to become a headmaster from Mr. Boyden during the eight years he spent as a coach and Latin teacher at Deerfield Academy, from 1949 to 1957. The dedicated Mr. Boyden, who was a perfectionist, was profiled in John McPhee’s book The Headmaster, published in 1966.

“I learned how to run a school,” Mr. Pidgeon said last week, reflecting on his time at Deerfield. “The real base of power is with the boys. If you could work with boys, you were really the headmaster.”

Mr. Pidgeon said he tried to re-create the Deerfield of the 1950s when he became the headmaster at Kiski, located 33 miles east of Pittsburgh in Saltsburg, Pa. “We are the version of Deerfield that I knew in 1950,” he said.

For example, as was true at Deerfield in that era, the boys at Kiski sit down together three times a day for meals. They’re required to participate in intramural sports each term as part of the Deerfield philosophy that young men should be kept busy.

By contrast, Mr. Pidgeon said he deliberately hasn’t implemented at Kiski some of the practices that he observed at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he attended high school as a “scholarship boy” in the 1940s.

It still rubs Mr. Pidgeon the wrong way that as a student who received financial aid at the famed private school that also graduated both Presidents Bush, he was required to wait on tables for the boys who paid full tuition, and who had no such duties.

The son of Irish-American woolen-mill workers in Lawrence, Mass., Mr. Pidgeon said he’s tried to create a democratic climate at Kiski, focusing on teaching boys tolerance and humility.

At Kiski, as was true at Deerfield under Mr. Boyden’s leadership, all students take turns waiting on tables. About 10 percent of Kiski’s students come from low-income families, about 10 percent come from high-income families, and the rest are from middle-income families, according to Mr. Pidgeon. Tuition and room and board total $27,500 a year.

Over the years, Mr. Pidgeon has made a few changes at Kiski, which serves grades 9-12. For instance, the school has embraced technology and requires that each student lease or own a laptop computer, even though Mr. Pidgeon still writes on a yellow pad.

During his tenure, Mr. Pidgeon trained at least eight faculty members to be headmasters. His protégés include Bob Johnson, now retired, who was the headmaster of Durham Academy, Milwaukee Country Day School, and Charlotte Country Day School. Reno F. DiOrio, who is now a trustee of Kiski and the headmaster of the Linsly School in Wheeling, W. Va., also worked under Mr. Pidgeon.

Mr. Pidgeon’s hallmark, Mr. DiOrio said, has been to expect a certain kind of behavior from boys: “Whether it pertains to how you treat each other, or adults, or what kind of sportsmanship you show on the field—you treat your opponent with respect.”

He added, “These are times in society when most of those things take a back seat. He still stresses them.”

Mr. Pidgeon, who says he left the Kiski campus overnight only about 10 times during his 41/2 decades as its head, plans to coach and teach at the school during his retirement. Along with the backing of Kiski’s board of trustees, he has selected his own replacement, Christopher A. Brueningsen, a former Kiski teacher and the head of the upper school at Nichols School in Buffalo, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as Headmaster Leaves 45-Year Legacy of Tradition

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