Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

My Mentor and the Starting Point of School – Remembering Joe Segar

By Todd R. Nelson

Todd Nelson

Last September, as I convened the opening faculty meeting of the year, one of the great mentors in my life passed away. Joe Segar, WW II veteran, father, teacher, teacher of teachers, school head, fisherman, poetry lover, husband to Carol for 60 years, slipped away, his sons gathered by his side.

A tribute to Segar was published in the Boston Globe that week. “During his twenty-six years as Director, he led Shady Hill School to be a more diverse and inclusive institution. He took a special interest in the training and cultivation of good teachers. He was dedicated to the faculty members that came to work at the School and to the apprentices who entered the Teacher Training Course while earning graduate degrees at Lesley University. Mr. Segar also oversaw a substantial improvement to the Shady Hill campus while maintaining its essential simplicity.

I liked that. Shady Hill was like a little village for kids. The scale of the buildings wasn’t overwhelming, and there was ample space between them—room to roam. One could sense the vestigial orchard and farmland on which the school was cited. It was one of the last farms in Cambridge.

“Joe was born in 1925 in Wilmington, Delaware to Anna and Ralph Segar,” it continued. “His early life, like so many others of his generation, was deeply affected by the depression. He moved to Virginia when his father found work at the Department of the Interior working for Harold Ickes. He always remembered this as a happy time for him and his sister Barbara, particularly after they moved to what was then rural McLean, VA. There he could join the volunteer fire department, roam the woods with his friend John Hudgins, raise chickens, and hunt with his beloved dog Freckles.

“Joe entered the Army right out of high school in 1943, trained in Alabama and California eventually becoming an instructor at Fort Ord. He was sent to the Pacific in 1944 as a Sergeant in the 43rd Infantry Division and was involved in several island campaigns until he was badly injured in fighting on Luzon in the Philippines January 20th, 1945. His long recovery process led to meeting his future wife Carol, then a physical therapist at Cushing General Hospital in Framingham, MA. They were married Sept. 13, 1947.”

There is great mentoring simply in the rehearsal of the facts of Joe’s remarkable life, mentoring that will long persist for the countless educators and school leaders whose lives he touched. For my own part, I think of Joe every day as I enter my office or visit a classroom, talk on the phone, meet with teachers and parents, watch children at work and play, and think about what schools should mean in a fast-paced evolution that often feels like a collision with unfamiliar demands and opportunities.

One thing always comes to mind: a poem that Joe shared with me when my son, our first child, entered school. In turn I have shared it with many others. It’s a poem I seem to carry in my “hip pocket.”

In “September, First day of School,” the father in poet Howard Nemerov has arrived at the same door of his own letting go as a boy, a lifetime ago, as he drops off his son for his first day of school. He is also realizing that he will return, still the student, but with the pangs of the parent, for the same young man finishing 18 years hence. He thinks of the incredible act of trust it is to place him in the hands of teachers, trust in the very functions and foibles of school itself. It’s a hand-off that we all make every year, with greater and greater ease and less ceremony after that first big day—but a hand-off nonetheless. The first time is the biggest. Nemerov summons a humble desire,

May the fathers he finds

Among his teachers have a care of him

More than his father could. How that will look

I do not know, I do not need to know.

Even our tears belong to ritual.

But may great kindness come of it in the end.

It is the peculiar privilege of people who work in schools to enjoy an inaugural day of our own every year as we watch the newcomers enter the schoolhouse doors. I had 22 of my own student first days, 18 with each of my children, not counting college; and now my 30th as a teacher. And yet, each time I am new, and school is new.

The son is father to the man; the student to the teacher; the school head to the youngest child, and so on, literal and figurative doorway upon doorway. We are all trustees of this entrance and transition and fresh opportunity.

Two phrases also come to mind when I think of Joe Segar. Of course it’s unfair and inaccurate to distill Joe’s impact on my teaching career down to such small parcels, but perhaps they’re emblematic of his larger thoughtfulness and influence and will trigger the memories of moments others have shared.

One August, at a before-school faculty meeting, Joe said, “I wish we could have a sign out front saying ‘Shady Hill: Just a school.’” He said it with love and exasperation. How succinct—a familiar teacher feeling! He was reflecting the hope that schools could resist some of the expanding pressures to be everything everyone wanted them to be. Joe would never have diluted the power and influence of education, but he was a good defender of school against inappropriate or misapplied standards or demands. Stick to educating! It’s okay to be “Just a school,” after all. And that’s still being a lot. Its simplicity inspires authenticity and focus; clear mission and purpose. Of course a school led by Joe would never be “just a school.” The phrase stuck. I’ve passed it on, when appropriate.

“Benign Neglect,” is the second phrase. Joe and I were talking after he had met with some parents who were seeking his advice. They were frustrated, worried, anxiously looking for control and leverage with a daughter’s ineffectiveness and torpor and potential failure. “I suggested they use a little benign neglect,” he said. “They need to ease up.”  I see it as a little ancient wisdom now being confirmed in the laboratory: kids need down time, a little boredom is okay and may even lead to creativity. Constant entertainment and stimulation might not be so good. Solving problems for kids actually decreases their resiliency. Parents can be effective and responsible by simply observing, as well as problem solving. They don’t need to control everything. Good parenting can also mean not taking responsibility at times. Good progressive education advice. The phrase stuck. I’ve passed it on, when appropriate.

Phrases and poems, a glimpse of a mentor in a certain setting, a turn of phrase, a tone of voice, or the image of a glint in the eye or facial expression—we all have a stockpile of these special memories. They surface as points of reference—a kind of compass or North Star of teaching, parenting, and leading—at just the right moment. Like Joe, or the poem by Nemerov, these memories inhabit the intersection and the interstices of parenting and teaching. This poem in particular conveys everything I feel, and more than I can say, about the enduring presence of Joe’s mentoring voice and wisdom in my life. You’ll hear it too. And you owe it to yourself to track it down and put it in your pocket.

The poem closes,

“Even our tears belong to ritual.

But may great kindness come of it in the end.”


Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, PA. 

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 and is filed under *ISSUES, November 2011, Todd Nelson. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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