“You want to take my 7th and 8th grade boys? TAKE THEM!” -Fr. Malcolm Kennedy
I’ll tell you how the School started and you can take it from there. Because it will take me a few minutes to explain. The School started in 1969 but The Heights began a few years earlier just in a single not-detached house at 3817 Cathedral Avenue, which was a center of Opus Dei where a few of us lived and we wanted to begin something with education for young people.
First they were devoted to study methods and then we became a much more ambitious project of special seminars for gifted high school students and this was funded by the government, Title III of the 1965 Education Act which provided funds for supplementary education centers, and that’s in essence what we were. And there were no others around! We were it for supplementary education centers. We offered programs in specialized subjects, neurology, oceanography, Camus, Chinese History, a great variety of subjects and it was very popular. We held these seminars for the most part at St. Albans School. We had a lot of good cooperation with them as I was friends with the headmaster, Cannon Martin, and the assistant headmaster whose name was John Davis, and partly as a result of that experience and prestige and reputation that we acquired through these programs we were able to start the School.
We built the Garrison Street facility to be able to house these other kinds of programs that I’ve described and it was by the end of 1966 or early 1967 that the facility was completed. We had interest payments to meet and the facility was there and wasn’t being used during the day. All our programs were in the evenings or on weekends, not during everyday school hours. We just discussed the idea; maybe we could run a small junior high or middle school here at this facility during the school days and that could help pay the rent? So we floated that idea and I think what was helpful was the fact that there were families in the Chevy Chase and Bethesda areas that were keen on either the programs we were doing or had ties to Opus Dei and that was crucial, the fact that there were large families with boys of middle school age. The Kolfs, O’Donnells, Lullis, Lados, Piedras, Gatewoods, these were all families that we knew that had boys of this age. So we began with them, they were the nucleus. I don’t know if we would have been able to do it if these families weren’t there, or if we hadn’t developed this reputation in the education field because of these special seminars.
So we made the decision. Let’s try to establish a middle school. We’ll see where it goes. We weren’t really sure. The idea was just to use the facility. There wasn’t much commitment at this point to develop a full scale high school or certainly not a lower school.
Now, Opus Dei doesn’t run schools, so this was just an independent school and not part of the Catholic School system, nonetheless it was going to be teaching a Catholic education. So we broached the subject with the Archbishop of Washington and it was a smart thing that we went around to the various parochial schools in the area, like Blessed Sacrament, Saint Ann’s, Little Flower, Annunciation, and I remember I went with Dr. Lado to some of these schools. He was the founder and dean of the Georgetown School of Languages and Linguistics so he was kind of a big name and he was one of the parents pushing us to start this school. So that was helpful. He was there and we’d go visit the various principles of the parochial grade schools. We didn’t want them to feel that we were invading their territory. They took the news well.
There was a legendary principal at Blessed Sacrament and her name was Sister Paschal. She had been around for a long time. She said, you want to take my 7th and 8th grade boys? TAKE THEM! We’d be DELIGHTED to be rid of them. At that time in the life of a 7th or 8th grade boy it wasn’t easy for the nuns to handle them. I wasn’t expecting that reaction. That was wonderful. So then we announced the school in the springtime of 1969 for 7th and 8th grade in the fall.
“Bob Jackson wrote to me asking if I wanted to come teach. I wrote back and said No!” -Joe McPherson
I first heard about The Heights when I lived in Boston, through Opus Dei, as I had been attending events with them; actives that Bob Jackson directed (one of the most formative influences on the school, of course). He was up at Harvard when I was there, doing research in Physical Chemistry. We heard about how The Heights was starting. I went to the Philippines after college for a couple years, and Bob wrote to me asking if I wanted to come teach. I wrote back and said No! I had a job offer in Japan and I was going to head there.
There was a summer program at Arnold Hall with some Heights boys and I had nothing else going on that summer so I helped out. Someone asked, will you take this busload of kids back to Washington? Dick Loria, Gerry Kolf, Winnie Perez, Andy Jones. I scared the hell out of them with ghost stories. I took them back and remember Scotty Wright met us down there. I wanted to see Bob too because we were close. He asked me to stick around and help with a summer camp and so I did. I was a PE director with Rich Joseph who taught at The Heights and later taught at the Air Force academy; a physicist. Gerry Sheppherd was teaching at the school and we had gone to high school and Harvard together. Bob asks me again to teach just for a year. So I taught for a year. Really liked it.
I was going to go to Harvard Business School but decided not to. I really wanted a profession, though not sure I could teach my whole life. So I went to Georgetown Law School in the evenings and got my law degree.
I kept pushing for a new campus. So in 1976/77 there was a committee with myself, Gerry Mitchell, and Howard Brown, and we met every Wednesday at the Hot Shoppes in Bethesda (long gone). We discussed ideas, visited places, did crazy things. We visited almost every private school around to see how they were set up, we’d take our kids and go on a Saturday. We talked to a lot of people and then met a man who ran the McLean School in Potomac, who was trying to sell. It was at Camp Inverness and was a proprietary school, a for-profit. We had some money but not much money. I got a little money from some guy I had picked up on the side of Nebraska avenue! He was drunk because his brother had just got cancer. Gave us a deposit. We became friends. He was the first Santa Claus at a Heights Christmas Party.
“There was this idea of putting parents first, and teachers second, and students third.” -Fr. Arne Panula
I knew Bob Jackson when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and he was doing his doctorate in Chemistry. A Brit, but not a proper Brit. Class and panache, sense of humor. A wit which could be earthy. He had a vision of education which was the FORMING OF THE WHOLE PERSON. We never talked about that vision of his - it was more from what I saw than what I heard directly from him.
From the spirit of Saint Josemaria Escriva there is this idea of putting parents first, and teachers second, and students third. It’s a unique idea for most educators who usually try to focus on the students and pay lip service to the parents. But this hierarchy of things, seeing that the school was supposed to support the parents (not to take their place, but to back them up) and helping them be better parents and educators - Bob was great for that. The prestige he had professionally with a PhD from Harvard, there were a lot of avenues that were open to him. And he decided to dedicate his time to teaching and running a school, even with the problems of development, meeting with parents, the challenges with students - through it all he had a sense that he needed to have the parents on board with him. Otherwise, this practical guy knew that anything he did for the boys at school could simply be undone at home.
“Teaching is a vocation, a calling, do you have this in your blood?” -Tom Royals
Both Joe [McPherson] and Bob [Jackson] had a different way of looking at teachers and the teaching profession in general, a BIG-HEARTED way. Teaching is a vocation, a calling, “do you have this in your blood?” they’d ask. It’s a vocation of knowledge and of intellectual dominion - are you passionate about a topic? You don’t need to know everything about it, but love it.
I wanted to be a part of a place with a tone and tenor like that. I remember treasuring those get-togethers at the The Heights on Garrison Street with Bob and Joe, in the classroom, the lunchroom, in the faculty room, it was just a treat to enter into that world and being invited in and wanting to be in that world. Just the way Jackson talked… “You’ll want to read every ****** book that I recommend Tom! Just one at a time - and ENJOY it - then move on. I don’t know how they did it at St. John’s and up at Providence, but you need to love learning. Read in a relaxed way - not because you have to. Do it for the enjoyment!”
That’s what I cherished - it was really something.