Story by Jennifer Sutton
Portraits by Chattman Photography
Lettering by Mark Verlander
Brain Hargrove is a runner.
In June, a few weeks before he officially started his tenure as head of school, he and his family came to NMH to drop off a couple carloads of their belongings, and he slipped out for a jog early one morning. “Want to see the route I found?” he asked later, happily pulling out his phone.
Hargrove views his daily runs as a time to think and plan and take stock. At NMH, he prefers to run outside. He likes to look around and see what’s happening on campus, take in the expansive views and the stillness of the Connecticut River, say hello to other early risers. He likes to push himself on the hills, which hints at the energy and discipline he is bringing to his new job.
Hargrove is exuberantly cheerful. He takes the stairs two at a time. He’s also straightforward. “I am not mysterious,” he says. “I stay to the facts and you’re always going to know where I stand.” He likes to talk with people, swap stories. Mostly what he wants to talk about these days is teamwork and collaboration — his partnership with his wife, Linda, and working together with his new NMH colleagues to celebrate the school and find opportunities to make it better. He is uncomfortable with the fact that this story is about him. “Ego is a barrier to good work,” he says.
Hargrove’s goal for this year, as he told faculty in late May, is to establish himself as a “servant leader” for NMH. “I am going to fight relentlessly for our students and for all of you,” he said. He wants to meet one on one with employees, parents, and alumni; visit classes and sports practices and choir rehearsals; shadow teachers and students. He wants to immerse himself in the school’s culture and get a better handle on its strengths and challenges.
“There are nearly 30,000 NMH alumni out there, most of whom would say this place helped launch them, so there is tremendous work happening here,” he says. “I believe that NMH’s greatest endowment, its secret weapon, is its people. My biggest task right now is to understand what makes them — us — tick.”
Before he even sat down at his desk in Holbrook Hall, Hargrove understood this: NMH has a history of disrupting the status quo. “It’s in our DNA,” he says. “D.L. Moody was not doing what other people were doing. He was focused on serving people who weren’t being served, and doing it with such effectiveness that there was no diminution of the quality of the experience.” That history is partly what drew Hargrove to NMH. It’s a story he wants NMH to be able to tell about itself again, today and for decades to come. “I want to make sure that kids who should be at NMH can be here,” he says. “It’s not enough to be a really good independent school. There are a lot of those. We need to be different, to follow our disruptive history. I think we can do that.”
The other factor that drew Hargrove to NMH was what he and Linda saw as soon as they started visiting campus. “Every time we came, students engaged with me, they looked me in the eye and said, ‘Hi,’ and they were smiling. Kids don’t smile if they’re not known, if they’re not loved, if they’re not being met where they are. That is the most important thing.”
Hargrove is the youngest of four boys, born in Bonham, Texas, a small town just south of the Oklahoma border. His mother was a teacher and his father was a minister who changed careers and went into real estate when Hargrove was a toddler. The family moved to a Dallas suburb, where Hargrove spent much of his childhood with a pack of neighborhood kids, riding bikes to the local athletic fields and to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees.
The family’s income fluctuated with the real estate business, so they often relied on Hargrove’s mother’s teaching salary. Finances got especially tight when the economy crashed in the mid-1980s, but even then, Hargrove’s parents were drumming the idea of philanthropy and service into their sons. Hargrove recalls, “They talked about different ways we could support our community, and they always said that the best thing about having money, even a little money, was giving it away.”
Hargrove’s parents also taught their sons how to wrestle with ideas. Hargrove’s maternal grandfather, David Cheavens, was an Associated Press reporter and bureau chief in Texas, then chair of the journalism department at Baylor University; the family had a tradition of reading the newspaper together, and arguing about what they read. Other relatives, Hargrove says, were preachers, teachers, and farmers. The ideas that education is the only thing that can’t be taken away from a person, that families stick together and share a purpose, that how you take care of a place matters — these were the cornerstones of Hargrove’s young life.
Hargrove was a late bloomer during junior high and not particularly athletic, which can be rough in Texas, where football is king. He channeled his energy into a youth group at the Lutheran church his family attended, and soon became its president. “That’s where I started to find my conviction, and a strong voice,” he says. His family was rooted in the Dallas school system — his mother taught English and in a gifted-and-talented program, and his brothers all went to public high school — but his parents enrolled him at St. Mark’s School of Texas, a private boys’ school. They had been horrified the previous year when one of his middle-school math teachers recommended that Hargrove stay away from algebra “because it would be a challenge,” and an English teacher assured them that she would keep writing assignments to a minimum.
St. Mark’s was a giant academic leap. “All of a sudden, I was in this crazy academic environment with people who swam really fast and had a lot more training than I did,” Hargrove says. But his mother helped him with writing assignments — “she was the best teacher I ever had,” he says — and he also started to grow, so he joined the football and wrestling teams. Being a reliable teammate was important to him. “I had a sense of ‘This is right, this is wrong; this is what’s been asked of us; this is what we’ve committed to.’” In 1987, when the economy nosedived during Hargrove’s senior year, his parents scraped together tuition money so he could graduate. “It was a real family sacrifice for him to be able to continue as a student,” says David Dini, a longtime friend who has worked at St. Mark’s for 25 years, the last five as its head.
Hargrove went on to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he studied political science, history, and Spanish; briefly wrestled; and was elected president of the student body. His financial aid package seesawed with the family’s income, so he helped pay for school by working nearly every student job available on campus. He made fundraising phone calls, drove shuttle buses, read textbooks to a blind student, gave admission tours, and picked up shifts in a coffee shop called the Bullet Hole.
“I was used to work,” he says. In junior high and high school, Hargrove got yardwork and pool-cleaning jobs; even in third grade, he’d been entrepreneurial. “I would say to another kid, ‘I’ll give you two pencils for that pen,’ and I would build my inventory. Then I’d say, ‘OK everyone, come on over to my desk and let’s see what we’ve got.’”
Pursuing opportunities, getting people onboard with this project or that project — it’s what Hargrove had watched his father do. As a teenager, he often tagged along when his father went to work. “We never kicked the soccer ball around or played catch. Instead, we walked property. When he was leasing 30-story office buildings, I would show the space. I knew all the people working on the crew.”
Hargrove followed a similar philosophical path. He called up the president of Gettysburg College, whom he’d gotten to know when he was student body president, and asked for a job. He had already earned an M.B.A. from Texas State University in one year, traveled alone through Europe and Asia for six months, and worked briefly for his father and brother in Dallas. Gettysburg had just launched a major fundraising campaign, and Hargrove joined it, going out on the road to meet with alumni and talk about a school he loved and felt he could help. He was 23.
In his six years at Gettysburg, Hargrove relished what he called “mission drive.” He referred to the same idea when he spoke to NMH faculty last spring. “This work that we get to do is sacred,” he said. “We get to change the world, one student at a time.”
It was that feeling, that calling, that he knew he wanted to return to. He had left Gettysburg to try something new: working for a New York City executive-recruiting firm, where he quickly became a partner and vice president. He also met and married Linda Caire, a Louisiana native who had just finished law school in New Orleans and gotten a job on Wall Street.
September 11 changed everything. “We knew we wanted to have a family,” Hargrove says, “and we wanted it to happen near one of our families.” The couple moved back to Dallas. Hargrove started an architectural salvage business and then sold it, then joined a company that provided data services to colleges and independent schools. It wasn’t quite the mission he was looking for, but at least it was connected to education.
In 2004, St. Mark’s, his old high school, where he had volunteered for years, asked him to take over its development office. He had already established a scholarship fund at St. Mark’s in honor of his parents and what they did to keep him in school there. “Brian wanted to expand accessibility for other students into the future,” says Dini, who hired Hargrove. “He has this innate motivation to advance the common good.” On campus, the two men worked in adjoining offices at the top of a staircase, and Dini could literally hear Hargrove coming into work every day. “He’d be whistling and saying, ‘Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!’ A lot of people thought, ‘He can’t be serious. He’s putting on a show.’ And I’d say, ‘With Brian, there is no show.’ There is nothing inauthentic about him. He has boundless energy and passion.” At St. Mark’s, Hargrove helped raise $110 million in eight years.
In 2012, he moved on to Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, where, as assistant head of school for advancement and communications, he led a $300 million capital campaign. Katie Titus, the head of Mercersburg, says, “What I appreciated about Brian was that he would challenge the norm, and it was always, always, always to make the school better. He was the one to question, to say, ‘Hey, I’m not suggesting we need to change this, but let’s ask ourselves why we’ve been doing it this way.’” Titus calls Hargrove a collaborator who “will work tirelessly to serve the school.”
Despite Hargrove’s record as a fundraiser, he sees his role at NMH extending far beyond that. “I was hired to be head of the whole school,” he says. “Yes, I’ll be out there building connections with alumni, parents, and friends, but I also will be on campus, seeking to understand and support what the faculty and students are doing — what we are all doing.”
When NMH launched its search for a new head in the spring of 2018, some of Hargrove’s friends urged him to make himself a candidate. “I told them I wasn’t interested in a New England boarding school that’s all about being a New England boarding school,” he says. “They told me, ‘That’s not NMH.’”
The more he and Linda got drawn into the search process, the more they saw a school uniquely positioned to carve out a different path from other schools. “Moody was disrupting with purpose when he started Northfield and Mount Hermon 140 years ago,” he says. “How are we going to disrupt with purpose as we think about the next 140 years?”
That’s a huge question. To answer it, Hargrove plans to spend much of this year listening and learning. He’s already gotten a decent start, according to Sheila Heffernon, director of NMH’s music and choral programs. “I’ve noticed how Brian moves beyond polite conversation and is ready to delve into the personal,” she says. “I think this is how he has learned so much about NMH and the people who work here so quickly.”
Hargrove says, “It’s clear that people are deeply committed to this place. But often you’re committed to your own version of a place, the one that you see. What about the one that we can all see together? After I understand those common threads, then I can figure out what we can point to, as a group, and say, ‘These are our priorities.’”
Hargrove believes that one of those priorities should be strengthening financial aid. He met an NMH alum who told him about his childhood in Egypt during the 1950s and the religious crackdown that instilled fear in Coptic Christian families like his. The alum’s father had heard of NMH, and called the school. His son needed to get out of the country, he said. The family couldn’t pay anything. Could NMH help? The answer that came back from the school was, Yes. Send him.
Hargrove shared this story with the faculty last spring. “If I got that call today, I could not say yes so easily,” he says, acknowledging the school’s limited financial-aid budget. “I’m not OK with that. None of us should be. So we’ve got work to do. Let’s get on with it.”
This article was featured in NMH Magazine.