Chapel Talk: The strength of one's character (by Catherine Rodrigue)

An alumnus from the Class of 1943 has underwritten the cost of two portraits in the Chapel -- the one above for Mr. Green and a replacement portrait for his own headmaster, Dr. Saunders. The gentleman hopes that in 70 years time, students will still think as highly of Mr. Green as he does of Dr. Saunders.

Below follows the text of the speech given in Chapel by Catherine Rodrigue on May 20, 2013.

Thank you Ms. Gleason.  Ms. Gleason asked me to say a few words about Mr. Green this morning.  This is his last Chapel.  Saturday will be the Seniors' last Chapel.

The opening song this morning was the theme song from one of Mr. Green’s favorite movies, Dirty Dancing.  Mr. Green has a fondness for sappy movies about teen love, Dirty Dancing, The Notebook, and for nostalgic stories about famous race horses, Seabiscuit, Secretariat.  He laughs, a lot, at slapstick comedies like Austin Powers movies.

I didn’t know any of these things before joining Mr. Green at Peddie, and by then I had already worked with Mr. Green for nine years.  It’s challenging to write about him because he gives up so little about himself!

In the past month, we have heard a lot about Mr. Green’s accomplishments as Peddie’s 15th Head of School, and you can read about those online and in the last Peddie News edition.

I thought I would take a different tack this morning and talk about how Mr. Green’s character and a few experiences as a teenager/young adult might have prepared him to lead Peddie School thirty years later.

By character, I don’t mean moral or ethical integrity. That type of character cannot be fixed at that age, or maybe at any age.

Each of YOU possesses qualities—habits, temperaments, intellectual and physical talents, emotional intelligence, things like that—that will be part of you ten, twenty, thirty years away.  The challenge is figuring out which ones work best for you, which ones plug you into life, bring happiness to you and to others.  

I think Mr. Green figured some of this out as teenager, maybe even before.

Let me start by saying Mr. Green was not the smartest child in his family, he certainly was not the smartest in his high school, and he definitely was not the smartest at his university, Wesleyan. And HE knew it.

That’s as smarts are measured in schools, with letters and GPA’s and prizes and college lists.  Pretty flimsy, insubstantial stuff, really.  Not much to build a life on there.

I suspect Mr. Green’s character was already made-up of some substantial stuff by the time he got to college, and I will highlight five “virtues” first formed when he was a teenager, virtues he undoubtedly recognized in himself and cultivated, and each of which ultimately prepared him for his work as Peddie’s head of school.

Taking the Lead

Some personality traits seem fated.

Mr. Green was a child of the 1950’s, though just barely, and he is the oldest of four brothers.  Now, literature, law, and mythology all attach great significance to first born sons, probably not without reason.  For a charmed period, the first born enjoys the sole attention of parents and grandparents… before his little world gets rocked by the next born, and the next, and the next.

From an early age, Mr. Green wanted to lead, and he had a literal little band of brothers who followed him, and then his friends and theirs followed him as well.

Back then, and now I am talking about the late 1960s and 1970s, play and conflict and fights and resolutions typically happened out of view and reach of parents.  In a family of four brothers, there’s a lot of rough and tumble, often intense rivalries, and complicated feelings of loyalty and resentment. It’s hard to get and keep the respect of siblings.

But Mr. Green succeeded - probably with a little physical force, though as one of his brothers recalls, “John always seemed more physically imposing than he actually was.”  But mostly he seemed to lead through artful persuasion.

Telling Stories

Mr. Green’s favorite childhood cartoon was called Commander McBragg.  Commander McBragg was a cartoon character who wove elaborate tales about his superhuman exploits.  Each cartoon lasted about ninety seconds. McBragg’s disbelieving listener gradually got taken in by the Commander’s story.

As a teenager, John drew-in his family and friends by telling stories, often fictions, and by making listeners feel as though they were part of a story.  Meaningless, disorganized games would suddenly take on meaning through Mr. Green’s narration.  A tennis game would become a Wimbledon match, a neighborhood football game the Super Bowl, and a putt-putt golf outing a day at the Masters.

The storytelling became part of the game, gave life to it, made it simultaneously pressure-packed and fun.

He hooked the mob of kids around him, and they hated and loved it:  hated the pressure he inflicted on them, but loved the energy he brought with him.

He made them think what was going on in their lives on a given day or during a given week was far more exciting and important than it ever was.  That’s a remarkable gift, and Mr. Green used it most often in sport.

A Winning Attitude

Mr. Green thrived on competition.  He played most every sport offered in the 1970s, including crew.

Winning mattered to him not so much for the won-loss records, but for the ways games tested him.  “John wanted to be the best,” his brother said.

He worked harder or played harder or cared more than anyone else on the basketball floor.  He worked and willed himself to winning, and he expected the same of his teammates.

“John taught us toughness and resilience, how to compete and how to deal with pressure,” his brother says.

Learning Humility

This type of personality can be insufferable, and there’s no doubt Mr. Green as a young man irritated his brothers.  They gave me a lot of material for this morning’s Chapel, some of which I chose not to use.

We all possess positive traits that, tweaked only slightly, become negative, and we have to be alert to this.

Humility tempers our sharper edges, and Mr. Green got doses of that. Mr. Green’s father, also a headmaster, walked his school at night and turned out the lights.  That would teach you something about humility.

His mother tells me Mr. Green, and his brothers, “were sent to work every summer at a local textile mill.”  There, he worked maintenance at the bottom of a male-dominated hierarchy, getting paid little, but being schooled in humility and taught about toughness and resilience.

For Mr. Green, athletics also taught humility.  He was a good high school and college basketball player, but he played in what might be the golden age of basketball.  Mr. Green was no Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.  He wasn’t even Buzz Peterson, though he looks a lot like him.  His junior season at Wesleyan Mr. Green’s basketball team was 16-6; his senior season, they finished 5-16.  That’s a lesson in humility.

Listening for History

There’s a last trait that Mr. Green’s family never mentions, but that must have been part of Mr. Green as a young man.  He learned to listen.  And I don’t mean that he just remembered names or facts.

I had a history professor at the University of Georgia who said, “you are what you study.”  Mr. Green studied history, formally and informally.

The United States of the 1960s and 1970s was a serious place:  the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Great Society, the Moon Landing, Watergate, cultural change and protests and assassinations and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation.  All of this was packed into twelve years.  These were big stories, one after another.

For all of the talk of his outsized stories, Mr. Green heard these stories too, and he heard the voices of the people who made them.

Object Lesson

I don’t think it’s hard for all of us in Chapel this morning to understand and appreciate how Mr. Green’s character has stamped itself on this community.

He has made each of us feel as though we have been part of something important, significant, meaningful.  While not quite child’s play, he has made Peddie serious and fun.

This week, starting this morning, he brings his story and twelve magical years to an end.