Dear Class of 2019

Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Below is the letter I wrote to our 2019 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook.

Dear Members of the Class of 2019,

I have always enjoyed the opportunity to offer some reflections to our graduates in this yearbook letter in each of the ten years I have been privileged to serve as Head of All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Writing this letter feels a bit different for me because it is the last one I shall write. However, you are in a similar situation as the members of each of the previous graduating classes to whom I have written a letter.

I have always felt a bit of a strange connection with poet T.S. Eliot since we share the same birthdate (September 26 although Eliot arrived on this earth 58 years before I did) and same hometown (St. Louis, a place that Eliot came to dislike in some ways and one for which I retain considerable affection).

T.S. Eliot had a particular fascination with time and frequently referenced the mysteries of time in his poetry and other works. All of us at ASEDS have passed by some of those words many times as we walked through the gate. 

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.

While I make no claim to be an expert analyst of Eliot’s work, I do know that I have been particularly conscious of these words this year. For you and for me, this is a year of endings and beginnings. The endings we experience this year are definitive and clear: graduation for you and retirement for me. I would suggest that your next big beginning is also quite clear: high school. Beginning retirement is not yet clearly structured, and so I have some work to do. But for each of us, whatever our next beginning, we need to face it with a sense of faith, purpose, and excitement. Whatever the subtleties of T.S. Eliot’s musings on time, he is correct that beginnings and ends are woven into the fabric of our lives:

And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

No matter our stage of life, no matter the endings and beginnings we may face, we live life in the same time: always now.

Some of you joined the All Saints’ community the same year I did, and many of you have joined us over the past ten years. Please know that I have delighted in walking this ASEDS path with all of you, with each of you.

And as we celebrate this ending, let me close with a few more words of wisdom from T.S. Eliot that I hope embolden us as face new beginnings:

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

With great affection and appreciation,

Leo P. Dressel

Head of School

Counting the Days


Over the past few months as my final year as head of school rolled along, I have been asked on a number of occasions whether I was counting the days until my retirement. I guess my short answer to that question has been yes and no. This entry is meant to explain that answer a bit more fully.

Certainly, there is a practical benefit to counting the days. It keeps us on track and provides needed structure to our lives. In my current professional situation, I need to keep track of- to count- the days since there is a finite and dwindling amount of time for me to accomplish the goals and tasks I have set for myself this year. Schools count the days regularly to make sure that we have enough time to achieve our goals for our students. Apart from school life, counting the days helps to keep us grounded and correctly oriented in time. Our recent long holiday break made that abundantly clear to me. At several points during the break, I had trouble recalling the day and the date because the ordinary structure of my life was restructured (or unstructured) for over two weeks. So, during those moments of disorientation, I had to take time to count the days to regain my temporal equilibrium.

Now I turn to my no response to the question of whether I was counting the days until my retirement. Some years ago, my wife Jan was a co-founder of a support group in St. Louis for persons living with cancer. The group had a lovely name that clarifies exactly my no response: Make Today Count. The critical issue is not to count the days but rather to make the days count- each day. The wisdom of twelve step programs is similar: One day at a time. This wisdom holds true not only for those of us facing a major transition in life but also for each of us no matter our life circumstances. Going forward, that is the most important answer to this question: Are you counting the days? No, I am doing my best to make each day count!

Until next time,


I Recommend This Neighborhood

In what was a surprise to me, the cinematic highlight of my summer was viewing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”—a biographical film about Fred Rogers, the revered host of the long-running public television show Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

Since I was born too soon to be a childhood viewer of the show (think Howdy Doody instead), the film provided me an introduction to the show and to the person who created it. I knew more about Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, the satirical take-off created by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. Probably because of that admittedly funny but certainly misleading effort by Mr. Murphy, I did not expect much of the film.

The film proved to be one of the most moving I have ever seen, particularly so since I have spent years in school settings surrounded by school children close to my heart. Mister Rogers is one of the most effective teachers I have ever had an opportunity to observe and appreciate. He moved me to tears several times during the film.

The intentional low production value of the show was not only charming; it was also consistent with Mister Rogers’ belief in simply profound core values. The power of those values did not require fancy visual and technological enhancements.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not a nostalgic piece of hagiography. Mister Rogers is certainly depicted lovingly but also very honestly. The film makes clear that Mister Rogers was not only keenly attuned to the feelings and vulnerabilities of children; he was acutely aware of his own humanity and his own weaknesses. This awareness clearly contributed to the effectiveness of his teaching and connection with young people. Similarly, this combination enabled him to help children better understand troubling and tragic events in our society without terrifying them.

While the gentle humor of Mister Rogers was a key to his effectiveness, I think that the most significant factor in his success was that he took children seriously. He understood the importance of social-emotional learning before that term became widely known.

As another school year begins, I recommend a visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to inspire educators and parents.

Until next time,

The Long Haul

Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Below is the letter I wrote to our 2018 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook.


Dear Members of the Class of 2018,

I am happy to have this annual opportunity to share a message with our graduates as they leave our school for their next educational destination. As is the case with every school year, this one has passed incredibly quickly for me. But from your much more youthful perspective, your experience at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School—be it for one year or ten—may seem like it has been a long haul.

I write to extol the virtues of the long haul, whether it be in school or in life. There is something very important and valuable in the “daily-ness” of life. Growth ordinarily comes in very small increments, almost invisibly on any given day, but much more apparent over a longer period of time. In fact, significant success and achievement really only occurs over the long haul.

Our world is impatient with the long haul. I think of this as the “breaking news” phenomenon. I suspect not many of you are patrons of the cable news networks. If you were, you would understand quite well what I mean regarding breaking news. While the term suggests something of utmost urgency and rare occurrence, viewers of these networks know that “breaking news” is commonplace. Very few hours go by without an announcement of such news. This reflects our culture’s infatuation with the right now, the exciting, the immediately important—none of which are characteristic of the long haul.

In my own life, there have been “Aha” moments, but those have occurred very infrequently. Most of what I have learned and how I have grown as a person has happened over the long haul. While “breaking news” is at first glance much more exciting, for most of us most of the time the “long haul” provides the most important and substantive growth in our lives.

While your graduation is a wonderful occasion, it is not breaking news. Rather I see is as an important moment in the long haul of your lives. May that long haul eventually lead each of you to become the wonderful and fully developed person you are meant to be.

With great affection and appreciation,

Leo P. Dressel

Head of School

Facing Retirement, Still Embracing Purpose

Last month I announced to my school community that I would retire at the end of the 2018-19 academic year. Articulating this long-anticipated intention in public fashion elicited a range of responses. Gratitude was at the forefront, but other responses also welled up in me. I was certainly pleased to have the word out in the public forum at last. I started my full-time teaching career in 1971, and my first school administrative assignment began in 1978. Believe me, dear reader, that those dates sound far longer ago to you than they feel to me. I thus had to face the befuddlement many others before me have experienced when confronting some version of this question: How on earth did this happen so swiftly? There was also the companion wistfulness that comes with the approaching cessation of work that I have loved for so many years. Mixed in was a bit of the inevitable anxiety that comes with the unknown elements of my post-retirement life.

Finally, there was relief and encouragement when I remembered the simple truth that one does not have to have a job to have a purpose. Purpose has primacy over occupation. That having been said, I do not discount the challenges in finding the new shape and path of my purposeful life after having had the privilege of serving for so many years in places and positions with awesome purpose built in. Keeping a passion for purpose is the key to a fruitful life no matter one’s circumstances. We must endeavor to find our purpose and not wait for purpose to find us. In schools we are blessed to be immersed in a place and an enterprise saturated by purpose of the noblest kind. I shall miss that blessing when I retire. I know that I don’t want to enter retirement waiting for purpose to find me, but there are many details yet to be determined. Nonetheless, I have one clear commitment no matter what: I shall live a life of purpose until the day that my time on earth ends.

Until next time,


Simply Abide

It has been many months since I have posted a blog entry, something about which I am a bit embarrassed. Over that time I have regularly excused myself from this task by buying into the cult of “busyness” in our culture. Being busy is a badge of honor in our society, and I’ve been wearing my badge for many months now. Being engaged in life is certainly a good thing, but I reference the excessive commotion we sometimes embrace. It does damage to our relationships and our sense of self.

I had a conversation with a colleague today about changes I have observed during my decades in education. While there is considerable truth to the adage that kids are kids no matter the time and place, but one change I would suggest is that young people today are much more adept at interactive technologies, but not as highly developed regarding interpersonal and introspective schools. And, among other things, the busyness cult is responsible for some of that. Adults bear considerable responsibility for this phenomenon.


The above has been very much on my mind because of something that I read this past weekend: a piece in the Forward Day by Day daily meditation and prayer guide. Saturday’s entry focused on a passage from the Book of Haggai, the work of a so-called minor prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures. The reflection focused on a single old-fashioned and quaint word, abide, and its connotation of stillness and lack of movement. In our abiding, we find the Spirit of God. I am reminded of the inscription that Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung had carved above his door:

Busyness will always find us—and overwhelm us at times. We must consciously choose abiding. In this busy holiday season, I encourage readers to give themselves the gift of abiding and discover the Spirit that abides in that stillness. Or as the late Jesuit poet and activist Daniel Berrigan once put it: Don’t just do something—stand there.

Until next time,


Serving a World in Need

Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School.  Below is the letter I wrote to our 2017 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook.  I suggest that the circumstances in the world remain as daunting as when this reflection was written.


Dear Members of the Class of 2017,

Because of deadlines necessary for publication of our yearbook in a timely fashion, I write this annual message to graduates months before graduation.  In fact, I am composing this letter on a peaceful morning on a quiet campus during the Christmas break on one of the last days of 2016.  I bring that up because of the many expressions I have seen recently on social media that this year cannot end soon enough.  In a sense that is certainly understandable in light of the events of the year: unspeakable violence at home and abroad, an emotionally tumultuous election season, and the deaths of an unusually high number of iconic figures.

2016 will be a memory by the time you read this, and the rest of your lives will await you.  Whether or not you were in the “good riddance” segment of the population when 2016 ended, I urge each of you to resist such a temptation going forward no matter the circumstances of any particular year, month, day, or hour.  We reject the gift of time at our peril, and- may I suggest in light of our mission statement- at the world’s peril.  Especially in light of rather than in spite of the disturbing events in our world, it is all the more important that you embrace our fond hope for you “to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.”  We best not reject or attempt to escape a world in need (which will always be the case until the end of time), but rather we do well to serve that world in any way that is true to our best selves.

So I encourage you to continue to move forward and to love and embrace the world.  Resist the temptation to disengage in the face of challenges, difficulties, and tragic events.  My wish for you is one that Jonathan Swift expressed many years ago:

May you live all the days of your life.

Until next time,

Civil Religion?

Naturalization CeremonyLast week, for the fifth straight year, we hosted a naturalization ceremony at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, welcoming 30 new US citizens representing 28 different countries of origin.  My heart is still filled with joy because of that experience, which I believe epitomized the best of our human- and American- values.  That, in turn, put me in the mind of the term civil religion, first coined by the French philosopher Rousseau.  I became familiar with the more recent use of that language studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the 1970s at a time when sociologist Robert Bellah of the University of California had developed a compelling theory of civil religion’s role in American society.  His thesis was that there is a unifying non-denominational set of core values that epitomize the essence of the American character.  (He further asserted that every society has its own brand of civil religion).  Bellah also cautioned against the tendency of some to equate this notion of civil religion too closely with a specific explicit religious tradition.

I have reflected on Bellah’s work and the naturalization ceremony within the context of contemporary society.  Many have (rightfully) lamented the decline of civility in our society.  And one could also assert some activities presented in the name of religion are neither civil nor religious.  One of the reasons that this year’s naturalization ceremony was so inspiring and consoling is that it was both Civil and civil- a specific civic commitment conducted within an atmosphere of civility, hospitality, and acceptance.  Similarly, the ceremony was both Religious and religious- hosted by an Episcopal school with multiple references to an inclusive God.  As such it served as antidote and encouragement as we in the United States struggle to find a path back to the lofty notion of civil religion so eloquently articulated by Robert Bellah 50 or so years ago.

We prayed for our US citizens that morning that their embrace of the American Dream will strengthen our country in the ways that immigrants who preceded them have done for so many years.  May all of us who are US citizens embrace that Dream with renewed commitment and conviction.

Until next time…

My best,

An Honor Roll for Each of Us

Integrity Last month we celebrated the first Honors Chapel of our school year.  Over the years reactions to such events have become more diverse and complex, with various questions raised: In the case of recognition for good conduct, why do we honor students for things we expect of them as a matter of course?  Do we adults hold ourselves to the same standards for our behavior?  Regarding academic honors, why do we use grades as the sole criteria for recognition?  Does that not leave out some of our grittiest students whose persistence and achievement might not be fully recognized by the numbers?  Good questions indeed, and they usually inspire me to focus on inclusion in my remarks at these chapels.  At last month’s Honors Chapel I noted an “honor roll” available to everyone.’s first definition of “honor” reads as follows: honesty, fairness, and integrity in one’s beliefs and actions.

Living a life with honor is attainable for each of us, no matter our “grades.”  However, it is not necessarily an easy thing to do.  In fact, at least in my case, it has been a lifelong journey to live more honorably over time.  What has helped me immensely has been my spiritual practice to thank God each day for the gift of that day and to express my desire to live that day with honor.  At the end of the day, I spend a brief time reflecting prayerfully on whether I have truly lived it with honor.  I have days when my reflection is tinged with regret when I recognize the moments when I could have acted more honorably.  In those moments I pray that I may have the gift of another day on which I can once again commit to living it with honor.

I thought of those remarks again this month when I read the news that had selected “xenophobia” as its Word of the Year: fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.  How sad that this is so, but it also serves as added inspiration to aspire to find a place on the one honor roll that really matters.

Until next time…

My best,

Birthdays That End in Zero

Mr. Dressel's Birthday

Last week I celebrated my 70th birthday, a number I once could not have imagined.  I am on the “cutting edge” of the baby boom generation since those of us born in 1946 are considered the first (or oldest, if you prefer) baby boomers.  We clung to the notion not to trust anyone over 30 until we reached that age.  I suspect that baby boomers like myself are responsible for the entire 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc., phenomenon.  I actually saw a suggestion in a magazine that 70 is now the new 50!  That nugget arrived on my radar just in time for my 70th birthday.  I don’t believe it, but I do welcome the notion that attitude and engagement with life makes a huge difference regarding how we choose to live each day.

Some birthdays resonate more than others, and those that end in zero are among them.  Actually, I was provided some helpful perspective years ago by my now-deceased mother.  She sent me a happy 30th birthday card on my 29th birthday (see comment above about not trusting everyone over 30 and the presumed traumatic effect of turning that age for baby boomers).  I had to conclude that it could not be that big a deal if my own mother lost count.  Last year this lesson was reinforced when a friend sent me a happy 70th birthday card a year early.

Nonetheless, there is something when both digits in a person’s age change.  Completion of another decade of life feels like a bit of an accomplishment.  And to me, it feels even more like a blessing.  My birthday was made especially memorable since I was able to spend it in the midst of our students, faculty, and staff.  How many people are lucky enough to be serenaded on one’s birthday by well over 500 people, the vast majority of whom are age 14 and under?  I am still feeling incredibly blessed today, a good reminder that each day can be blessed if we embrace it as the gift it is.  Today is after all in a very real sense the only one we have to embrace.

Until next time…

My best,

P.S. An observation: We first baby boomers seem to love the spotlight and have difficulty leaving the stage.  Two people with whom I share the same birth year have already served as US Presidents, and another is a candidate this year.  That said, I feel supremely grateful that I have the privilege to do the work I do in the community in which I do it!