Celebrating Ralph Lelii

Ralph Lelii will retire from George School after 33 years of service.

by Terry and Nancy Culleton

One of Ralph Lelii’s favorite plays is A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s vision of Thomas More, a man who, no matter the consequences, remains true to his conscience – or what Friends would call “That of God Within.” More is “a man for all seasons” because his faithfulness transcends shifts in power and fortune.

This integrity is especially evident in one of Ralph’s favorite lines, when More responds to an ambitious young man’s dismissal of teaching as a profession in which even if he were a great teacher the larger world would know nothing of it. More counters that those who would know would be: “You, your pupils, your friends. God. Not a bad public.”

For over thirty-three years Ralph has pursued the art of teaching in exactly this light: with wisdom, humility, and what they might have called in More’s time “lovingkindness.” Across these years, Ralph’s “public” has grown and grown, including legions of young men and women who point to Ralph as a polestar in their lives, someone to whom they could always return for affirmation–yes, of things the world affirms, but, more importantly, of things their “inner light” would honor.

Without fail, in his relationships with us all, Ralph has connected students, colleagues, and friends to “That of God Within” – that is, to their real selves. It’s no wonder that so many of us are led to call this Sicilian-American Catholic Quaker “the Godfather.”

One can only surmise that, watching from above, the Divine Being in More’s “public” has also remained a true fan of this irreplaceable mentor and friend.

One of the ironies of Thomas More’s character is that, while he is recognized by one and all as an eminently talented jurist and administrator, he accepts the responsibilities of leadership as dutiful labors, not occasions for self-aggrandizement.

Anyone who knows Ralph will recognize a parallel disposition.

Without fanfare or self-seeking, Ralph has brought an unflagging spirit of wise and soulful leadership to George School. For twenty-four years he has been the school’s IB Coordinator, determinedly building the program into a major, defining aspect of George School’s curriculum.
In addition, he’s led twelve international service trips to places like Vietnam, Israel/Palestine, and India. Ralph would say George School opened the world to him, but what is equally true is that, in his work as IB Coordinator and as service trip leader, Ralph has opened the world to George School.

Here at home, Ralph served for eleven years as a galvanizing Clerk of Faculty, leading us all through countless curricular transitions, community crises, and celebratory moments with steady devotion to the premise that all voices must be heard and all considerations honored. Time after time Ralph has found public and private ways to pay tribute to the toil and dedication of his colleagues and the profession we serve.

Ralph has sat on the Board of the Children’s Center, organized two TEDx conferences, acted as a behind-the-scenes impresario for countless “Old School” assemblies, and super-buddied at least fifteen of his fellow teachers, along with one Head of School, who has lived to tell the tale.
Yet, if you asked Ralph, he would tell you that the thing he is proudest of is that he has taught English for his entire time here.

“A teacher is absolutely all I ever wanted to be,” he’ll tell you, and, indeed, those who have profited most from their association with him have been his students, all of whom have felt implicitly how lucky they were, and have continued to understand the depth of Ralph’s influence long after they’ve moved on.

Ralph, despite his immense intellectual range, has cared primarily about what his students have thought and felt and has always responded in kind. For thirty-three years Ralph has given his students and advisees unconditional respect. He’s made IB students feel that their hard work is valued and valuable. For Ralph the stewardship of students’ intellectual development and emotional well-being has been a sacred trust.

Lest all this make Ralph sound like a direct heir of the woman he refers to as his “sainted Aunt Rosie,” we must not neglect Ralph’s unregenerate silliness. Thomas More himself, sainted man, is scolded once or twice in Ralph’s favorite play for his often silly “wit.”

Down through the years we’ve been regaled with an unrelenting stream of Ralph-schtick: the one-liners, the over-the-top taunts, the tall tales, and, of course, the limericks.

Limericks about everything from flamingoes to pedagogical jargon. In fact, Ralph and another far less mature member of the English Department once published over one hundred Geezer Limericks on First-Class (our previous email software) in the course of a single weekend. That might be why the school dropped First-Class and picked up Outlook—although that hasn’t stopped him.

Ralph, you have truly been our man for all seasons. Thank you from the school, the entire faculty and staff, the Board, the three administrations you have faithfully served, and, of course, all your students—your thousands of students—for everything you have done to make us better people and better citizens of the world.

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