This year, after thirty-three years, Ralph Lelii will retire from George School. We will honor Ralph, as well as Terry Culleton and Paul Machemer ’65, during Alumni Weekend on Saturday, May 4 at 10:00 a.m. in the meetinghouse. Associate Head of School Scott Spence penned the following tribute to Ralph in appreciation of his many years of service as a teacher and the International Baccalaureate Program Director:
With undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Villanova and experience teaching at Cardinal Dougherty in Philadelphia and Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, NJ, Ralph joined the George School faculty in 1987 as a teacher of English. Ralph taught a wide range of English classes, then added Yearbook, Newspaper, and, of course, Theory of Knowledge (ToK). In addition to teaching, Ralph was the coordinator of our International Affiliation Committee, a golf coach, a class sponsor, assembly coordinator, a caring and supportive advisor, and for many years the Clerk of the Faculty. Ralph became the head of the English department in 1992 and served in that role until 1996, when he became the coordinator of the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program. Ralph was the first Price Chairholder, a Swayne Preceptor, and Independence Foundation Chairholder. He received Technology Investigatory Committee and Andrew Bourns Social Justice grants. More recently, he demonstrated his love of the community and his desire to share its intellectual vibrancy by curating two TEDx conferences. Ralph has also led numerous service trips, and established trips to India and Vietnam (which was the first high school group to visit that country). With Linda, he is the father of two GS graduates (Sarah ’96 and Rachel ’99).
In the classroom, Ralph used literature as a tool for nurturing adolescents’ love of inquiry and beauty, and experienced teaching as a continuation of his own education throughout his career. He created a safe place for students to voice their views, used disarming humor to welcome disagreement, and established an expectation for serious critical thinking. Ralph’s sincere interest in students’ ideas and his uncanny ability to stay in touch with students’ feelings and concerns made his classroom at once rigorous and comfortable. His development as a teacher of Theory of Knowledge influenced all of his courses as he became attuned to the benefit of an epistemological approach to teaching and learning, and influenced many faculty to see its benefits as well. By route of Socratic dialogue and dialectic Ralph helped students synthesize with remarkable clarity the clash of knowledge claims across the academic spectrum. It didn’t much matter whether a student took English, Yearbook, or ToK. He would project the same values: deep interest in the personal development of students and encouragement to stretch beyond themselves intellectually; dedication to contextualizing learning at George School by locating it within the broader intellectual world; and a commitment to the understanding that teaching and learning is a moral endeavor that inspires intellectual and moral excellence. Students were attracted to and assured by the clarity of this ethos in Ralph’s classroom, not to mention that he could move as easily from Plato to Seinfeld to Freud, and back to Plato.
Under Ralph’s leadership, the IB program more than doubled in terms of diploma candidates and expanded its course offerings and possible paths to a diploma. It has also maintained a stellar 95% diploma success rate (the international rate is 81%), with average scores well above the world average in usually 80% of the subjects offered. Recently, for five years straight, from 2013 to 2017, George School had a 100% success rate. While around 45 students will aim for the diploma per year, more than 200 will sit for examinations. Throughout this expansion, Ralph continued to treat his work on the IB as a labor of love. Never too busy to meet with students and faculty, he gave them his complete focus, relieved stress by being silly one minute and profound the next, and put life in perspective. Ralph’s leadership extended from his buoying up spirits of students flagging under the IB workload to communicating an ethos of effort and intellect to parents and teachers. His personal pastoral care inspired them to feel a part of something larger than themselves, larger than GS, making the extra time and effort feel worth it. Indeed, the relationships Ralph developed with students, faculty, and parents have been fundamental to the success of IB. Moreover, Ralph has done critically important and inspiring work knitting the IB diploma program into the fabric of George School’s culture and curriculum. A deep believer in the resonance between Friends education and the IB program, Ralph’s role during our curriculum review process about 15 years ago was critical in demonstrating that we were enhancing our identity when we expanded and better integrated our IB offerings, while deepening our commitment to Friends education.
Serving as Clerk of Faculty probably longer than anyone else, this weighty Friend managed through the strength of relationships to repeatedly return the community to its touchstone of Quaker process, faith, and practice. The respect with which the community holds him, his use of humor, and his credibility as an intellectual and teacher helped us reach unity at critical junctures.
Whether through the posting of daily poems and collegial adulations, or schtick and musical tributes at faculty meetings, Ralph has done so much to build morale and camaraderie while enhancing the intellectual discourse of our community. His support of colleagues has been formative to their own understanding of what it means to teach at a Quaker school. We are heavily indebted to Ralph for his leadership, his scholarship, his citizenship, his spiritual messages in meeting for worship, and above all for his range of strengths as a wonderful teacher.
Thank you, Ralph!