Vol. LXII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
(Photo by Linda Arntzenius)
“It’s been great fun and I am exceptionally loyal to this institution, which changed my life in remarkable ways. I have been here as a student, faculty member, coach, dean of students, and, after leaving for 22 years, came back to lead the school. I really believe in its mission and it’s been a pleasure to be a part of it.”
James Byer, Headmaster, The Hun School of Princeton
Regarded by his peers as a consummate professional with a passion for his work, James Byer is credited with upgrading The Hun School of Princeton’s academic curriculum, and for a forward-thinking strategic plan that has changed the look of the 45-acre campus. He’s also guided the school, which was founded in 1914 by John Gale Hun, through its largest ever capital campaign. During his tenure, the co-educational college prep’s endowment has grown to some $16 million. As a result, Hun’s student body includes kids from diverse social and economic backgrounds. In a recent letter to the school community announcing Mr. Byer’s retirement at the end of the 2008-09 school year, Joseph P. Deane, chairman of the board of trustees, acknowledged the headmaster as the school’s “public face, the guiding hand and the true inspiration.”
Now approaching his retirement, Mr. Byer, who grew up in Trenton where his father was a general practitioner, looks back on almost five decades in education, a career that he said he fell into “accidentally.”
“I’m a product of the Trenton Public School system. When I came to Hun for the ninth grade it was because I had not been a very good student in the Trenton system and my parents decided I needed structure and academic motivation.”
A tall man with a lean build, he has been an athlete all his life, racking up awards in the 1960s, including Mercer County Outstanding Athlete of the Decade, and continues to do so. He was named to The Hun School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002 and is a five-time Trenton District Amateur Golf Champion and winner of many other district and regional tournaments. He was listed in the Trenton District Golf Association Hall of Fame in 1990.
After graduating from The Hun School in 1962, he went to Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, where he was part of the varsity team that won two national championships. “That was a highlight of my life,” he said.
The Accidental Teacher
After graduating from Marietta with a bachelor’s degree in economics, he was not quite sure of what to do next. He’d been accepted to law school and to a master’s program in economics and was considering a future as a professional golfer when The Hun School’s fifth and longest serving headmaster Paul R. Chesebro suggested a position in the school’s history department. “I thought I would transition into adulthood by teaching for a few years and I ended up loving the profession, loved being with kids, loved the environment.”
He arrived at Hun with his bride, Susan. They were both students at Marietta when they married 42 years ago. Their daughter Stephanie was born while they were living in Hun faculty housing. Besides teaching, Mr. Byer coached crew and basketball and was a dorm master. In 1969, he was appointed Dean of Students, his first administrative position.
Since his days as a student at Hun, he has observed enormous changes in education in a world that is much smaller and more fast paced. “The contemporary challenge is to provide a relevant experience for students in and out of the classroom with new programs, services, and approaches to young people in a generation more technologically competent than a lot of us older people.”
In 1972, Mr. Byer left New Jersey to take up a position at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He pursued advanced degrees in educational administration at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale in 1978 and 1993, and was headmaster of the University School there. Then, after 22 years in Florida, he was invited back to his old school to take up the reins as headmaster in 1994.
“The job of headmaster changes periodically as the needs of the school change. In the first few years, I was immersed in academics and education and, administratively, trying to build a cohesive community and create a strategic plan for the school.” After overseeing major renovations to the dining hall and academic center, as well as new faculty housing, a new library, and a new athletic facility, Mr. Byer has led a capital funding campaign for the last five years “in order to pay for the facilities that were so sorely needed.” While he still manages some time in the classroom as a substitute when needed, he’s most often off-campus trying to make sure the endowment continues to grow.
The most gratifying aspect of his job, he said, is to see children grow up and to be a part of their lives. “At Hun, we think of ourselves as preparing future leaders of society. We have kids who are, potentially, academically capable of doing work that is very stimulating, are adventurous by nature and potentially very productive citizens and leaders of our society.”
The most challenging part is when he’s been called upon to help parents, peers, and the school community deal with the death of a child, an experience that he described as “sad and tumultuous for everyone.” In his 42 years as an educator, he’s faced this difficulty seven times and found the events of 9/11 to be similarly distressing. “People did not at first comprehend the severity or significance of the event in which several parents were lost.” It is his job to find ways to take such an event and create learning from it for the entire school community.
While obviously proud of the physical changes to campus during his tenure as headmaster, Mr. Byer is quick to point out that the facilities are “simply a backdrop to the educational programs that we offer.” He’d like to see a third “A” for art added to Hun’s duality of Academics and Athletics, and the renovation of the school’s old auditorium is on the horizon.
A commanding figure, Mr. Byer confesses to a playful side. He once trod the boards with students in a production of “West Side Story” and was recently persuaded to take the part of 007 in a James Bond spoof filmed at the school. Even so, his faculty and students may be surprised to learn that their headmaster once donned cape, wig, and sunglasses for an Elvis Presley impersonation and a karaoke rendition of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog.” Sadly, the performance was not recorded.
Last month, on the brink of his fifteenth year as head of the school, Mr. Byer announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2008-09 academic year. By then, he will have completed 43 years as a career educator, 25 years of which will have been at Hun: four as a student, six as a young faculty member, and 15 as headmaster. He plans to split his time between New Jersey and Florida, where his strategic plan centers on golf. “I’ve always toyed with the idea even though I’m a terrible putter, but I think I could compete.”
While he knows that he will miss the students most of all, he is looking forward to a flexible schedule that includes time for reading outside of his profession. All of John Grisham’s novels are on his list, as well as works by WW II historical fiction writer Jeff Shaara, whose recent title, The Rising Tide, about the North African campaign, is one of Mr. Byer’s favorites).
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