On May 24, the community gathered for formal advisor dinner and the annual Baccalaureate Service, the first in a weeklong series of events designed to prepare for Commencement. Students and faculty gathered in the Tisch Family Auditorium for the service, which began with opening remarks delivered by Head of School Peter Becker and an invocation by Karoline Theobald P’09 ’14, whose husband, Rod Theobald P’09 ’14, a fellow member of the English Department faculty, delivered the Baccalaureate Address in 2021 upon his retirement from the school.
“It is more of a solemn moment of recognition than it is a celebration. It is communal preparation for our seniors to cross the threshold from this school into the world outside. This transition is a big deal, one that all of you have to look forward to,” Becker said, addressing the students directly.
It is school’s tradition to invite someone from within the community to share words of wisdom with the seniors and with the entire community, and this year’s Baccalaureate Address was delivered by Jesse Perkins of the Dean of Students Office, who has been a faculty member since 2008 and also serves as the school’s COVID-19 Coordinator and Director of Summer Programs. As part of that tradition, Perkins helped to compose the Baccalaureate Service, selecting two readings: an Irish blessing, “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You,” read by Cassie Ruscz, Director of Residential Life and a member of the World Languages faculty; and Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers,” read by Blaire Farrar of the English Department faculty.
Hailing from a family of independent school educators, Perkins grew up on the campus of The Holderness School in New Hampshire. “His understanding of the power of a boarding school comes to him naturally, and he has always believed deeply in the multifaceted nature of boarding school life. As a thinker, as an athlete, an outdoorsman and as a musician, Mr. Perkins embodies the ideals of our school and very much walks the walk,” Becker said in his introduction, citing Perkins’ contributions as an integral part of the growth of the Music Program, Head Coach for Varsity Football, a lacrosse coach, and Assistant Director of Athletics.
Perkins has grown the school’s Summer Programs “to an emerging area of distinction,” Becker said, and his experience and administrative expertise have made him excel in the challenging role of COVID Coordinator at a tough time. “Mr. Perkins tackled that challenge in the same way he does all challenges, and in the same way that we hope our students will — with a sense of curiosity, enthusiasm, resilience, and a passion to do the task as well as it can be done.”
A graduate of The Holderness School, Perkins won the Music Prize and was captain of the football and lacrosse teams. He graduated from Connecticut College, where he double majored in Visual Arts and Music Theory and Composition, and played lacrosse and club hockey. He worked for eight years for the New England Conservatory in Boston before returning to boarding schools, first at The Forman School in Litchfield, and then at Gunn. A prolific songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist, he has performed throughout the greater New England and New York music scene, including as the front man for his band, Lorntell, and as the bass player for the Best Of Hartford 2018's Best Rock Band, Audio Jane. He also holds a master’s degree from Wesleyan University.
In his address, Perkins encouraged the graduating class to take with them a few things “that can’t fit in any suitcase: all the great friendships, amazing memories and valuable life lessons you’ve created and experienced here.” He also encouraged the seniors to take with them the school motto, A Good Person is Always Learning.
“There are a lot of different ways you can be always learning. I want to focus specifically on trying new things that you may have no experience with and being open to new possibilities,” he said, sharing stories about three people in his life who made the choice to learn something new, and how those decisions completely redefined each of them and set them on a new course. “These are all people I respect and admire, and their stories continue to influence me today.”
First, he spoke about his father, Mark Perkins, who first watched a lacrosse game while visiting his older brother, Tommy, at Hobart College. “My father had never seen this sport before, but immediately fell in love with it. It was fast and exciting and it captured his imagination. He was so intent on learning how to play that he only applied to colleges that had lacrosse teams,” Perkins recalled.
Ultimately, his father was accepted at Hobart and joined the school’s football team, while setting and achieving the goal of getting a lacrosse stick and learning how to catch and throw. That spring, he made Hobart’s JV lacrosse team as a midfielder, and he continued to play both football and lacrosse at the college for all four years. He was named varsity captain and All-American in both sports as a senior. “Lacrosse had become a huge part of his life, and after graduating, it was the cornerstone of his career. He went on to coach both football and lacrosse every single year until he retired.”
Second, Perkins spoke about a friend from college, Matt Malone, who decided to move to Aspen, Colorado, with a group of friends, including his new girlfriend, Melissa, the summer after graduation. Everyone in the group was a skier, except for Malone, who consistently turned down invitations to try the sport, no matter how many times he was asked. “At some point, he realized he had the perfect opportunity — and a good reason — to learn how to ski. So without telling anyone, he signed up for lessons, in hopes of some day being able to keep up with his friends, and, more importantly, keep up with Melissa.”
Malone quickly took to the sport, and within a few months, he was able to tell his friends about the sacred lessons he had been taking. A few years later, he and Melissa got married, moved back to the East Coast, and started a family. They had three daughters, and when they were old enough, Malone signed them up for skiing lessons. He also helped to coach them when they decided to try racing. “They continued to make skiing a big part of their lives and he just kept getting better,” Perkins said. “Eventually skiing became the defining activity of their family, something they all loved, could all enjoy together and it continues to be that for them every winter.”
The last story Perkins shared was also about someone who adopted a growth mindset, although under different and more challenging circumstances. His grandmother, Patricia Pursell, made the decision to start a new career after her husband of 20 years decided he wanted a different life, and left one night, without saying a word. “He completely abandoned her and their four children. They had been married since she was 18 and she spent their entire marriage raising their kids, so she had never had a career of her own, and hadn’t gone to college,” Perkins said. “She was heartbroken but resilient and determined to find a way to provide for her children. Her father came to her with the idea that she should consider a career in real estate,” based on her outgoing personality and as an engaged member of her community.
Pursell started studying, waking up two hours before her children each morning. “Within a year she sold her first house and after a lot of hard work, she was soon named Realtor of The Year in the Greater Philadelphia area for four years in a row. She continued to provide an amazing life for her children, who all grew up happy, healthy and successful, with loving families of their own.”
Reflecting on the three stories he shared, Perkins said each of them made an impact on him at different times in his life. “It seems to me that most people don’t regret what they did or tried in their lives, they only regret when they didn’t follow through on something or never even attempted it,” he told the Class of 2022. “You might be a natural at it right off the bat, or you might need to start waking up earlier to get some extra studying in. Either way, I hope you’ll embrace the idea of always learning. And when you do find yourself with the opportunity to try something new, I encourage you to give it a little time and effort and see where it leads, because it just might change your life.”