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Northfield Mount Hermon Honors Five Retiring Faculty

April 7, 2022 — Five Northfield Mount Hermon faculty members who have collectively dedicated 186 years of service to the school will retire at the end of the 2021–22 academic year. English teachers David Dowdy P’15, ’18 and Margaret (Meg) Donnelly P’96, ’18; math teacher James Vollinger, P’01, ’06 ’08; Choral and Vocal Programs Director Sheila Heffernon P’01, ’02, ’08; and math teacher Mace Foehl P’11, ’14 (left to right) have served the school as teachers — and as coaches, deans, department chairs, advisors, in the dorms, and more. 

“It is incredibly difficult to say goodbye to devoted colleagues,” said Head of School Brian Hargrove. “Sheila, Meg, David, Jim, and Mace are leaders on this campus as teachers and mentors to students and adults alike. Together, they have nurtured generations, empowered them to live our mission, and shaped the very essence of Northfield Mount Hermon. So, as we celebrate their many contributions, let us also give space for a very difficult reality — they will be missed on this campus each and every day.”

Bea Garcia P ’09, assistant head of school for academic programs and dean of faculty, said, “While it is quite impossible to name all their contributions, Sheila, Meg, David, Jim, and Mace have engaged our students’ intellects and celebrated their success at NMH and beyond. It is now our turn to thank and celebrate these accomplished and compassionate educators. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do for our school.”

“I feel incredibly grateful that my vocation is my avocation.” ~ Sheila Heffernon, Director of Choral and Vocal Programs

Sheila Heffernon - NMH Retiree

Whether teaching 9th-grade introduction to music or overseeing the many choral productions, the central thread throughout Sheila Heffernon’s 42 years at NMH is “voice.” 

“If I could look back and feel good about anything, it’s that I have empowered people in trying to find their voices,” she said. “I haven’t told them what to do with it, but I empowered them to want to take the risk to try to give voice to what’s inside of them.”

Heffernon is director of the choral and vocal programs and has shepherded thousands of students in song. Every NMH student has been involved in some sort of singing, in part because “at every all-school gathering, we sing,” said Heffernon’s colleague of 25 years Gretel Schatz, chair of the performing arts department. At major school-wide events, most of which are held in Memorial Chapel, Heffernon leads all students, faculty, and staff in the singing of the school song “Jerusalem” — and that direction includes how to sing it. For less formal events, it’s tradition for students to scream out the lyrics, “Bring me my ARROWS!”

Heffernon has taught Music Introduction, Music Appreciation, Arts Foundations, AP Music Theory, Advanced Applied Music, Mozart, the Evolution of Hip Hop, and Diversity and Social Justice. She has led the NMH Singers for her entire 42 years at the school, and she has led the Select Women’s Ensemble since she created it in 1994. NMH choirs under her direction have performed in Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, the Washington National Cathedral, and the White House. She has traveled with singing groups to Hong Kong, China, Korea, Taiwan, Russia, Austria, Germany, Canada, and Italy, where they performed in St. Peter’s Basilica. As chair of the performing arts department for 16 years, she worked with the board of trustees to help get the Rhodes Art Center built.

“Sheila embodies student-centered teaching,” Gretel said. “She’s a veteran teacher but has never stopped learning and growing — always trying something new while sticking to high standards.” Gretel recalled teaching with Heffernon in the inaugural arts foundations course. “She had students dribbling basketballs to teach them about beat and syncopation.”

What first drew Heffernon to NMH was a deep sense of community. “Community has been so central to everything. It’s what I felt coming here.” And what has kept her here? “While I deeply value all three parts of our school motto, ‘the head, the heart and the hand,’ it is the heart that has kept me here all these years,” she said. “And the heart can be felt deeply in the many students who, all these years, have created music. For them, I am most grateful.”

“To invest in the life of another human being, to participate in his or her self-discovery and maturation, is one of the great privileges of life.” ~ David Dowdy, English teacher

David Dowdy - NMH retiree

Reflecting on his 40 years at NMH, English teacher David Dowdy says he is grateful to live and work in a place that continues to “revive and inspire me.” He says he owes much to his colleagues, teachers whose “creativity and commitment have impressed and taught me so profoundly. I still question how I landed a position among such gifted, intelligent, and kind folk.” 

Dowdy has taught English courses to nearly every grade level, including 9th-grade English, sophomore world literature, English to new juniors, and postgraduate English, as well as several electives including Shakespeare; literature and composition; Outlaws, Outcasts, and Castaways; and Big Books: Authors You Should Know, a course he created and has taught for the past 12 years. Dowdy also taught the Irish Literature and History seminar for seniors, which included a three-week study tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and a similar seminar on Italian Literature and History. 

In addition to teaching, he has served in many other roles at the school. He has coached girls’ JV soccer, with stints coaching thirds basketball and intramural ultimate. Since 1996, he has served as faculty advisor to the Catholic student affinity group; he also taught a Catholic confirmation class at NMH that ran for nearly 27 years and served more than 120 students. He has worked as a faculty assistant on NMH Farm, played the French horn in the NMH Symphony Orchestra, and served as a dorm head.

Dowdy is grateful for the many opportunities to teach and learn, not the least of which is the autonomy in the classroom that NMH faculty are afforded. He said, “There’s more money to be made making widgets, and there’s more prestige or glamour associated with other professions, but I doubt much else can match the joy and satisfaction I get leading students I love to the literature I love.”

“I am so grateful that I can be grateful.” ~ Meg Donnelly, English teacher

Meg Donnelly - NMH Retiree

“Pay attention. Be amazed. Tell about it.” Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” are on display in Meg Donnelly’s classroom. According to her colleague Lori Veilleux, chair of the religious studies and philosophy department, Donnelly’s teaching is well aligned with Oliver’s advice. 

“Meg helps students notice what they see,” said Veilleux, who has been Donnelly’s teaching partner for Humanities I for the past four years. “She allows them to find their own way — and then she follows.

“She sees value in the wildest tangents,” Veilleux continued. “She models wonder and joy and helps [students] see their ideas as valuable and interesting. One of her best-used lines is, ‘Oh! Don’t you just love that part of the story? Tell us more.’ She literally hands out gold stars for good insights and questions.”

Over her 40 years at NMH, Donnelly has taught all levels of English for ninth through 12th grades. She is particularly proud of her work to help create the Humanities 1 course — or HUM 1. Required of all ninth graders, it asks students to contemplate four “essential questions”:

Who am I? 

What is my place?

What does it mean to be human? 

How, then, shall I live? 

Along with HUM 1, her favorite courses to teach have been the Creative Nonfiction senior elective course and the New Zealand literature elective course, which involved leading the study abroad program to that country from 2005–19.

Donnelly said, “All three ask students to look closely at the world around them and find the stories — to examine their own lived experiences, connect those experiences with what they have read, and create new revelations. When it works, it is magic!”

For over 20 years, Donnelly has coached JV tennis. She has also coached JV field hockey and basketball, as well as varsity tennis. She’s been involved in dorm duty in some form since her first year at NMH, with the exception of the year of a teacher exchange in Perth, Australia. Since 2003, she has done dorm duty in ninth grade girls’ dormitories. 

A campus resident for most of her time at NMH, Donnelly and her husband, Glenn Minshall, the school’s staff photographer, have already begun packing up their home at Mount Hermon. Donnelly said she has numerous sweet memories and this year “is even sweeter.” 

“I’m very, very grateful,” she said. “I wanted to leave loving the place, and I am so grateful that I can be grateful.” 

“Being in a learning environment is fun. There’s just something good about it.”~ Jim Vollinger, math teacher

Jim Vollinger - NMH Retiree

Jim Vollinger is pretty sure he’s been teaching mathematics at NMH for 35 years. “I wish I knew. Let’s go with 35,” he said. But the number of years doesn’t matter nearly as much as his overall experience of spending over three decades at teaching — and coaching — high school students. “To boil it down to a single statement, being in a learning environment is fun,” he said. “There’s just something good about it.”

He added, “There’s always energy here, and it’s usually positive. That rubs off on you. And I think you feel a certain responsibility to continue that. And kids keep you young.” 

Vollinger has taught all levels of NMH student, teaching Algebra 1 and 2 and Calculus AB courses. Vollinger’s longtime friend and colleague, NMH science teacher Craig Hefner, recalled a time when his own son had the benefit of learning from Vollinger. “He turned all of algebra into shapes — squares, rectangles, and cubes. I was dumbfounded. It was as though I had been seeing in two dimensions and suddenly the third dimension was revealed to me. It completely changed the way I saw algebra,” said Hefner. “He is a genuinely original thinker and visionary in the teaching of math concepts.”

At NMH, Vollinger coached boys’ varsity soccer for more than a decade. And he has coached both boys’ and girls’ JV soccer and served as the JV hockey coach and varsity assistant hockey coach here. He also served in the dorms.

Vollinger said, “There’s something intrinsically valuable in seeing someone learn, whether it’s on the ballfields or in the classroom.”

Hefner coached soccer with Vollinger in their early years at the school and described him as an exceptional athlete. “I expected him to be good at soccer — he played in college and beyond,” Hefner said. “However, any time I played a sport with Jim, be it volleyball, basketball, or even hockey, which he never played formally, he was always one of the best in terms of both skill and vision. In spite of his extraordinary talent, Jim is always humble and never flashy or boastful about his abilities.”

Vollinger’s quiet, controlled approach rubbed off on the students he coached. Hefner recalled a scrimmage between the JV and varsity soccer teams. “The varsity shouted at each other and kicked long balls up field to chase down. Jim’s team consistently and quietly passed the ball upfield — and into the goal. JV won the game 3-1. It was the only time I have ever seen a JV team defeat the varsity team, but that’s how good of a coach Jim is.”

“My ongoing relationships with students present and past continue to energize me and make all the hard work so fulfilling.”~ Mace Foehl, math teacher and golf coach

Mace Foehl - NMH Retiree

Mace Foehl is retiring after 34 years of teaching and coaching at NMH. She arrived in 1988 after graduating from Williams College, where she played varsity field hockey and varsity squash. Mace loved being able to continue her love for sports by coaching, as well as teaching, at NMH.

At NMH, Foehl has taught all levels of mathematics and, most recently, AP BC Calculus. She’s also a reader for the College Board. Soon after her arrival here, she became the varsity field hockey coach, a role she served in for 25 years, winning a New England championship along the way. She has also coached ice hockey. In 1996, she started coaching varsity golf, and she continues today as head coach. She also competes herself at the amatuer level all over Massachusetts. Today, she is still the only woman coach in the league.

Foehl said, “The delightful students I have taught and coached over the years have kept me here. My ongoing relationships with students past and present continue to energize me and make all the hard work so fulfilling.”

Foehl will return to her roots in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she and her husband and fellow faculty member, Nate Hemphill, have purchased a house. She’s excited to immerse herself in both the town and college communities. “There’s plenty for me to do, and I’m a doer,” she said. “I’d like to combine my passion for sports and my work as an ally. I’d like to start a First Tee program in western Massachusetts. First Tee is a nonprofit youth development organization that builds strength of character and self-confidence through the game of golf.”