Over Spring Break this past semester, my wife Jane and I zipped up to Annapolis, MD to visit Dudley Herbert and his butler Dr. Roger Herbert and Chef Gretchen. For those of you who know and love The Duds as we do, I’m pleased to report that he is in excellent hands and still fascinated with squirrels and his fellow canines. Caring for his staff continues to be job number one. Many of you also know that Roger left his position as OA Director last year to pursue a lifelong dream of teaching Ethics at the Naval Academy. I was so very grateful to get to shadow him for a day in this new role.
I mention Roger because, during his tenure as Director, he embraced and advanced the “betterment of human character” aspect of our mission here at The Outdoor Academy. Michael Brown, who preceded Roger in that position, helped set the stage by formalizing the four cornerstones and seven principles of OA. We’ve since developed specific curricular content, which has been introduced to our students mostly through the planning and facilitation of our Student Dean, Susan Daily. “Curricular content” may sound dry, but I assure you, it is a living, breathing, and daily part of our lives here. It is our way of life, in fact, and we are continuing to seek opportunities to amplify its importance in the OA student’s experience.
Several years back, Roger introduced a class in Ethics at OA, which was taught to all students in four sessions in various places and times – one memorable class for me was deep in the Smokies among the big trees of the Boogerman Trail. The “moral thermocline” became part of our daily conversations because of those classes and Roger’s efforts continue with our Leadership & Ethics instructor David Morgan. Michael Brown’s framed principles of Integrity and Gratitude still look across our dining room each day, and Susan Daily, our Dean of Students, leads us into the deeper corners of our characters each Monday evening. In one way or another, each day Socrates and Aristotle still challenge us with “are you a virtuous person?”
For this next part, I first must tell you that I came of age embedded in the anti-establishment anger directed at the military-industrial complex and the Vietnam War, so the salient message for me in Annapolis was the OA connection to Roger’s Ethics course for midshipmen – students just four years down the pike from our OA kids in their education. This is ethical teaching writ large – young men and women who may someday have to apply this ethics course to life-or-death decisions. I must say my eyes were opened and I was more than impressed; it was very poignant to watch Roger guide these young minds through the philosophical conundrums their military careers will bring to them. Roger mentioned that it was a required course – a good thing and for some it may be remembered only as that hour with Dr. Herbert before they got to their technical training. But for others, these seeds fall on fertile minds.
This leads to the second part of my take-home message from Roger and Gretchen. I know I’m not going to do this justice, because this was not just part of the “tour”, but rather a visceral experience. It is tricky to discuss heroes in this age and culture, but my distinct impression as I walked the grounds and classrooms and engineering labs (astonishing, by the way) of the Naval Academy, was that this was a culture of hero-worship. This could read like a criticism to a jaded citizen, but actually this seems to be a place of respectful tradition and history. Statuary and memorial plaques are everywhere. John Paul Jones rests in a Baroque marble crypt beneath the chapel where we listened to a young Marine practice Elgar’s “Nimrod” on the huge organ – classic, heroic funereal music. Outside of the Naval Academy grounds, Americans are told that leaders and heroes are commonplace; that we all deserve a participation trophy for simply doing good things, expected things. It has become our message to our children. But these memorials are decidedly more. They are clearly meant to inspire. The message here doesn’t feel like overblown adulation to a hero that you fail to even notice after a few passes, but rather a subtle and constant nod from, not to great men and women that apparently walk among us. Some of those heroes of the Naval Academy are just folks that somehow became their best selves, leading others virtuously day to day, sometimes into battle, sometimes as teachers. Other memorials honor truly remarkable sagas told on historic stages. And yet, some years ago, all of these heroes had their turn as simply the student in the desk next to you, perhaps in Roger’s Ethics class.
The connection for me hit the next Monday with the expectant faces in my World History class back in the Sun Lodge. It’s a cliché, but have no doubt, these truly are the “leaders of tomorrow” and what they get from teachers can be absolutely life-changing. Yes, I know, another cliché; this one can be stunningly true. Case in point: we took the OA students this spring to hear Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, an OA alum, speak on her work with Project Drawdown, a multi-faceted global consortium that is tackling climate change on all fronts at once. It is huge and daunting and courageous. But here it is – Katharine starts her presentation with a photo of her handmade OA journal. Her tenth-grade haiku on the cover is a note to her future self on what she will do with her life, which is pretty much “make the world a better place. Susan Daily’s grading comment in the corner of the photo says simply “Do this…Be this.” And it is now so.
Eagle’s Nest Foundation, as you know, is deeply invested in character development. It is not a bullet point of our mission; rather, it is the mission. It probably sounds overblown, idealistic, unrealistic, and too ambitious to pull off. But it is not and it simply must not be too big or too much effort to commit to changing young lives.
Perhaps you caught the Spring Eagle character survey results and our introduction to Niambi Jaha-Echols, a remarkable woman who is guiding our Centennial Priorities efforts to make our community more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. Be sure to check back for the second part of this blog series on character for updates on where Eagle’s Nest and The Outdoor Academy are headed.
By Ted Wesemann