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Letter from Steve Piltch - January 2017


January 30, 2017

Dear Shipley Families,

I do not know about you, but on a day-to-day basis, life is frenetic and full enough that I rarely think about the important big picture questions that have made me who I am: how I got to this moment; who played an important role in my development; where I am going. While I reflect about School and my family all the time, I rarely take the time to think about my own life in an intense way unless something unusual happens. That something occurred earlier this month when, within three days, several people of consequence in my life passed away with no warning. Although all of them were important to me in their own ways, two of them – Coach Curtis W. Tong and Graham Barrott – played vital roles as mentors in my life (Curtis Tong) or in the lives of our students (Graham Barrott).

Coach Tong, or Coach as I have lovingly referred to him as for more than forty years, arrived at Williams College with his wife, Jinx (whom out of deep respect and much love I still refer to as Mrs. T.), and three children in the fall of 1973 to become the Director of Physical Education, Men’s Varsity Basketball Coach, and Women’s Varsity Tennis Coach. As a new student that fall and member of the freshman basketball team, I got to know Coach a little bit as we traveled to games together, as he handled some of our practices, and as I spent time at varsity practice.

At the end of the season, he met with each of the freshman players to talk about the future. My meeting may have been the most important moment of my college years. In it, he told me that although there was a place on the team for me if I chose to try to play the next year, he thought I could make a much bigger and more important contribution as the team manager. When I left the meeting, I was disheartened. He was clearly telling me that I was not good enough to play. But he was also saying that I could still be a valuable part of the team. When I got over the disappointment, I knew I needed to take him up on the offer.

For the next three years I had the privilege of watching him coach while talking strategy, scouting games, and playing squash with him. But the most important time I had with him may have been in the car, where his stories were great and his lessons endless. He provided me and many others with the most consistent and important lessons of our lives.

A person of principle and conviction, Coach had high expectations of everyone associated with the team. He thought it important that you work hard, understand your role, and support all of your teammates. He expected you to learn from mistakes on the court and in life so that you could become better players and better people.

Although Coach hated to lose, he believed that the lessons you learned from losing were more important and permanent. He wanted you to do well and to do good. Before I had heard of Shipley, he espoused and believed in the pursuit of our mission, which speaks to educational excellence, love of learning, and compassionate participation in the world. He also embodied our motto: “Courage for the Deed; Grace for the Doing.”

Truly committed to the education of the whole person, Coach left Williams in 1983 to become the Chairman of Physical Education and Director of Athletics at Pomona-Pitzer. He served in that role for 15 years and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2015.

Interestingly, Coach developed his values and perspective in a complex and difficult way. A child of missionaries, he was interned for 3 years (from the ages of 7-10) in different camps in the Philippines during World War II. Though he never spoke to me during my college years about this experience, it had shaped his life in a powerful and important way. He witnessed horrific things and had to deal with fear, starvation, illness, and the loss of many close to him, but he came out of it with incredible resilience, a deep and abiding love for others, and incredible faith in what people could do. (He wrote about this experience in the book Child of War: Son of Angels.)

Although many of us may not have appreciated everything he said or did when we were students, we have all grown to understand just how committed he was on our behalf and how important he was in influencing our lives. The exchange among us earlier this month when he passed away was special. Some forty years after we have graduated college, former teammates and/or classmates relived our moments with him with tears in our eyes and love in our hearts. Following is one of the comments that may have captured all of our perspectives best:

“Over the last few days, I've had so many memories about Coach and how kind he was to me and my family. He was such a role model for tolerance and acceptance, and for being what a coach and teacher should be. I feel lucky to have been part of the larger ‘family’ he and Jinx had.”

Coach and Mrs. T believed in us as individuals and as a group at a time when we did not always believe in ourselves and they did what they could to foster our development. We all know how fortunate we are to have been touched by them. They did what they could to spur our success, a success not vested in wins and losses, but in the way each of us lives our life.

In similar fashion, Graham Barrott, who was the father of our Computer Science Program and “the grandfather of our STEAM Program” according to Margaret van Steenwyk, passed away a day after Coach. Graham played the same role for many of our students as Coach did for me. As I wrote to our alumni and past colleagues following his passing, Graham was an incredible man whom I loved – and he was something of a role model to me, too. You can read about him, along with the introduction by former Head of Upper School Tom Nammack at our 2002 commencement when Graham was our speaker, here.

Alumni’s comments about Graham reinforce the role that he played in the lives of the people in our community. Following is just a sampling of the things said:

“Mr. Barrott was one of a kind. I'll never forget walking into school the first day of senior year with a baseball cap on, bumping into him, and having him disarm me by briefly abandoning his charming and mischievous veneer by whispering in my ear, ‘Stark, take your cap off please. We're expecting more of you this year.’ He was referring to my role as Student Body President, and even today I'm reminded of the little lesson it taught me in responsibility.”

“Mr. Barrott was one of the people I looked up to most and try to remember and emulate as a teacher now. His playful attitude but high expectations, his odd way of referring to punctuation (like calling a colon a 'double dottie') – he was why I got into Comp Sci, which was one of my majors at college… We were lucky to have him.”

Coach and Graham were birds of a feather. Although I do not think either one of them would have identified himself as a role model or mentor, they both used their roles as educators to impact people beyond the level that anyone could expect or anticipate. In the context of Shipley’s values, they were committed to the idea that rigor and support plus character yields deeply rooted success, and both believed that the way you lived your life is much more important than the achievements you have during it.

Both grateful and lucky to have had Coach (and Mrs. T.) and Graham in my life, and in Graham’s case, in the lives of our students, I hope you have similar people in yours. If you do, remember the lessons they have taught you and pass those lessons, the love, and the commitment on to others. Most of all, be sure to let those mentors know of the difference they have made in your life.

Coach, Graham – Thank you for making a difference in the lives of so many people. You will be missed.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.