Roderick M. Theobald P’09 ’14 of the English Department faculty delivered the Baccalaureate Address on May 25, using his backpack as a metaphor for memory, as he spoke about the "picture memories" that ground us and guide us forward through life. Theobald is retiring at the end of this month, after four decades of teaching, including 23 years at The Frederick Gunn School. In keeping with tradition, as the Baccalaureate speaker he selected the readings for the all-school program, which included the Walt Whitman poem, “I Hear America Singing,” read by Ed Surjan, Educational Technology and Library Director, and Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese,” read by Kara Gritti of the History Department faculty. Theobald also selected a piece of music, “The Road Home,” by Stephen Paulus, which was performed by four senior vocalists: Erin-Elizabeth Ryan ’21, Drew Sutherland ’21, Yolanda Wang ’21, and Maggie Xiang ’21.
“The Baccalaureate Service is the moment that we use in the school to begin the process of celebrating our seniors and sending them out into the world,” said Head of School Peter Becker. “To do that, we invite a member of our faculty to address the school with some words of wisdom. It’s a simple service with layers of meaning, honoring our seniors, and honoring the collective wisdom of our community, embodied by a respected teacher among us.”
Theobald, Becker noted, has been a teacher since 1978, and has dedicated his life and career to independent schools, beginning with The Boys’ Latin School in Baltimore, where he was a student. “Mr. Theobald is what we call reverently in boarding schools, a school person. A school person is a teacher or administrator in a boarding school who loves the whole ecosystem, who believes passionately in the transformational power of a teaching and learning community filled with teachers who practice hope and optimism about each student.”
Over four decades, he has served as a teacher and coach at Berwick Academy in Maine, at The American International School (TASIS) in Surrey, England, at Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire, at Wasatch Academy in Utah, and at The Frederick Gunn School, arriving in 1998 with his wife, Karoline, who joined him as a member of the English Department faculty, and their two young daughters, Maisie Theobald Dokonal ’09 and Lindsay Theobald ’14, who grew up here and became Gunn graduates. Through the years, Theobald developed a keen insight into students and the teaching craft, and shared his passions as a guitarist and avid fly-fisherman.
“We all know he cuts a dashing figure on his beloved cobalt blue Honda Metropolitan moped. And he’s the only person in Washington able to pull that off sporting a tweed jacket and a bow tie,” Becker said. “His signature bow tie, I am told, is an homage to Archibald Cox…one of the prosecutors during the Watergate trial, which unfolded as Mr. Theobald came of age.”
“He is a team player who is ‘all in’ at school with a great sense of humor and care for students and colleagues,” Becker said.
As Theobald took his place at the podium on the stage of the Tisch Family Auditorium, he settled beside him the backpack he has carried every day to class, from which he removed and displayed particular objects he had chosen for the occasion, which remind him of his "picture memories."
“Much as the characters do in Tim O’Brien’s novel ‘The Things They Carried,’ I carry images and keepsakes in the backpack of my memory. Images and keepsakes that shape me, ground me, and direct me to move forward, much as a compass helps me to navigate. And I suspect that we each have such keepsakes and memories that allow us to move forward intrepidly on our journeys,” Theobald said.
The objects included a replica of a wooden canoe, the size of a demi-baguette, which he said reminded him of his days working with the Outdoor Club. “Everyday was an adventure and every afternoon brought real joy to my life.” His memento from the faculty band – a miniature guitar in its own case. From the school prom a few years ago – a framed photo of him with Karoline. There was also a framed picture of their daughter, Maisie, when she was a prefect at the school, standing next to Prefect Kurt Bailey ’09, the son of colleague and fellow Gunn parent, Steven Bailey P’09 of the Science Department faculty. “That was an important time for all of us.”
“This you may think is strange,” he said, removing from a Wrigley's Doublemint gum tin, a petrified banana. “It does still have the Chiquita sticker on it,” he noted cheerily. “This was from the year 2000 when our wrestling team won the Western New England tournament and somehow it ended up in my pocket, and it remained there for many years. It became a good luck talisman, for those of us on the wrestling team, and there have been a number of students, occasionally, who have asked to hold the banana before an AP exam.”
The track gang he worked on as a gandy-dancer for the Canton Railroad in the industrial port of Baltimore was captured in a black-and-white photograph. “Each member of the team possessed human flaws, but if you looked deep within each of them, you saw what [John] Steinbeck saw as the face of humanity, the complexity and goodness found in most of us. To this day, I appreciate the human, hidden treasures of life that I discovered beyond the walls of my school while working on the railroad. They taught me more about human nature and cooperation through the benefits of hard physical labor than I could learn in any classroom or on any playing field.”
Theobald held up a newspaper article from the time he portrayed noted local architect Ehrick Rossiter, Class of 1870, in the annual Washington Cemetery tour. The article was memorable because it was written by his dear friend, the late George Krimsky ’60, an accomplished journalist and husband of the late Paula Krimsky, who served for many years as the School Archivist. “George was without a doubt the most interesting person I have ever known,” he said.
Next came a framed copy of The New Yorker from 9-11, the cover dark except for the magazine’s masthead. “Sadly, I was in the Tisch Schoolhouse when the towers fell in 2001, and I keep this as a reminder to always proceed in life with caution but always embrace the good things ahead of us.”
From The New York Times, November 5, 2008, he had saved the article announcing that Barack Obama had won the U.S. presidency. Beneath the word “Obama,” the front-page headline read, “Racial barrier falls in decisive victory.” When the election results rolled in, he and other faculty members wept for joy, he recalled.
Setting the backpack aside, Theobald addressed the audience: “I encourage you all to collect your own memories like keepsakes. To understand our present and our possible futures we need to become grounded in our past in order to grow, just as the hardwood trees do outside of Teddy House, which was once Bache Dormitory, with long robust roots, grounding us through our memories while making sense from whence we have come and where we need to go.”
“Memory and imagination are intertwined,” Theobald said. “Important memories will, as the author John Steinbeck wrote in his novel ‘Cannery Row,’ burn into our picture memories. Memories give us the landscape to grow and enhance our curiosity, and ultimately to solve problems and to ponder solutions. Look backward into your memories to navigate life. Even as you move forward, they become episodes of the important times that shape us, define us, and eventually, accumulate into a mosaic of pictures that become the cairns that direct us on life’s journey ahead.”
To hear more of Theobald’s picture memories, and his advice to the Class of 2021, watch the video on our End-of-Year Events page.