by Clark Groome
Francis P. “Frank” Steel Jr. has taken the term “school lifer” to a new, rarely reached, plateau.
Private school “lifers” are usually defined as kids who spend their entire school careers at one school, most often from kindergarten through 12th grade. With the exception of a few years before school and five years between graduation and being hired, Steel has spent 46 of his 55 years at CHA and, after the 2011 merger, SCH.
Steel, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s head of school, is departing the local institution to become head of schools at Gulliver Schools in Coral Gables, Fla., effective July 1.
When Gulliver announced Steel’s appointment it said, “Frank is the perfect choice for the head of schools. [He] brings effective leadership skills to the job. His integrity, drive for academic excellence and management skills will ensure that [our legacy] lives on.”
Steel was born into the Chestnut Hill Academy family. His father was a teacher there for 22 years, retiring in 1977, the same year young Frank graduated after 14 years as a student.
After four years at Yale, where he earned a B.A. in American studies, he took a year off and then began teaching at CHA in 1982. He got an M.A. in history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989.
While he never consciously planned to become a teacher while in high school and college, Steel said in a recent interview, “My Dad’s family’s lifestyle was based around a teaching calendar – his life was as a teacher, so you’re exposed to that.”
So when the need for history teacher came up in the summer, he applied, went through a regular hiring procedure and got the job.
When he applied for the open job in 1982, he said he “was interviewing with banks and sort of looking [for a job] the way a liberal arts major out of college looks at everything.”
“I think I thought I’d be a teacher later in life,” he said, noting that that was what his father had done. “We both ended up in the field we were meant for. I ended up there sooner.”
He has often said that the job taps into his passions, allowing him to be in a classroom at the beginning of the day and on a field, rink or court in the afternoon.
During his time on the faculty he taught United States history while also offering courses in economics and psychology. Over the years he coached soccer, ice hockey, squash, baseball, golf, and, most notably, tennis, a squad he led to six Inter-Academic League championships.
Gradually he became interested in administration, becoming the head of the Senior School in 1992, a position he held until he was elected headmaster effective July 1, 2002, at a time when the school was thriving.
His first year was a difficult one because he and the school were sued by the family of a boy expelled for an off-campus incident.
“It was,” Steel said, “the worst 18 months I could imagine. The amount of time I spent on that was time I wasn’t spending on important things at school.
“The silver lining is that you learn what it means to take a stand and be in a place and weather the storm.”
He also learned that when you’re the headmaster “you’re always controversial because there’s always somebody who doesn’t like something you’re doing.”
But, he said, he loved the job, adding, “The first thing I liked was being the head of this school,”
He also discovered that he liked fund-raising, which surprised him, as did the comfort he ultimately reached with making decisions.
One of the best parts of his time at CHA/SCH was his partnership with Priscilla Sands, formerly Springside’s head of school and now SCH’s president. “I have a really deep respect for [Priscilla] as a thinker and an educator.”
That respect is clearly mutual. Sands announced at this year’s SCH Reunion weekend in early May that the school’s new sports pavilion, located near the SCH tennis courts, has been named “The Francis P. Steel Jr. ’77 Sports Pavilion.” In addition, Sands said, the rose gardens next to the pavilion and the courts have been named to honor Steel’s wife, Betsy Flint Steel, a 1978 Springside graduate.
Earlier that day the CHA Alumni Association renamed its Special Recognition Award, given occasionally to alumni for extraordinary service to the school, the “Francis P. Steel Jr. ’77 Award.”
The two headmasters with whom Steel worked, Barnaby Roberts (head 1979-1990) and Richard Parker (1990-2002) also commented on their old colleague.
When Roberts hired Steel he said he “saw someone who had a tremendous amount to give to the school.”
“I hired him,” he said, “not only because he would be a good teacher but because he was the epitome of, forgive the cliché, the well-rounded individual.”
Parker noted the personal generosity of his successor.
“When we moved to CHA in 1990, Frank and Betsy invited us all to dinner that very first night, knowing we had just moved from New Hampshire,” Parker said. “We didn’t know each other, and no one asked them to look after us – they simply did, and that tells you a lot about the Steels.”
In looking back at his time as CHA’s headmaster and SCH’s head of school, Steel said, “You get your time to steward the school through its current phase. What you hope to do is leave it better than when you started. I really believe that our two schools and now our school are a much better place than they were when [Priscilla and I] first started.”
What he’ll miss most when he heads south, he said, is “the warmth that has always been part of this community.”
“I don’t think anyone can leave a school like this and not miss the relationships that you’ve built with faculty, parents and students who are here and who have graduated,” he said.
Priscilla Sands in her remarks at the dedication of the sports pavilion said that the Steel name now joins the pantheon of others associated with the school: Harris, Jordan/Kline/Lea/O’Neill, Kingsley, Landreth, Pearson, Rorer and Woodward.
She also said, summing up the feelings of many, that “No one who has ever worn the CHA jersey stripes (which stand for courage, honesty, integrity, loyalty and sportsmanship) has worn them better than Frank Steel.”