HOTSEAT- Conway's cause: Ministering to STAB
Charlottesville's toniest private school was on the skids when George Conway took the headmaster job at St. Anne's-Belfield in 1982. "Xerox wouldn't deliver paper without us paying cash," he remembers.
A former girls' boarding school, St. Anne's merged with Belfield School in 1970– and proceeded to run through seven headmasters in 11 years. "They were at the bottom of the barrel, and they chose me," he laughs.
Conway is still laughing 24 years later after turning St. Anne's-Belfield into a prestigious prep school where parents pony up $12,000 to send their scions to kindergarten, and $18,000 for 11th and 12th grade.
Just don't call it a "snobby rich kid, self-satisfied school," instructs Conway, who gives himself failing grades for not conveying to the public STAB's diversity, both racially and financially. One-third of the 860 students are on scholarship, and 15 are refugees from International Rescue Committee, their tuition paid by an anonymous benefactor.
"It's not a white-bread school," insists Conway. "It's a lot more complex and more diverse than the community perceives."
Public perception is perhaps colored by this being the school where Charlottesville's rich and famous– John Grisham, Sissy Spacek, Howie Long– have sent their kids (and all provided blurbs for the cover of Conway's 2001 Giving Good Gifts: The Spiritual Journey of Parenthood). And the school has played a role in local dramas, such as getting named in a 2000 lawsuit against Grisham and the school's development director.
No matter what the scandal, Conway has steered the school through with equanimity. Once when a reporter asked about STAB grads who had been arrested for burning images of male reproductive organs onto the football field, he commented, "This must be a slow news day."
Conway himself didn't go to a prep school. He grew up in a coal mining town in northeast Pennsylvania, and stayed home to attend Wilkes College because his father was ill.
"I always wanted to be a minister, and I enjoyed school," says Conway, who dreamed of being a professor of philosophical theology. "A wise professor at Princeton kindly said I wasn't really smart enough to do that," he says.
Instead, he got a job teaching at Princeton Day School, thanks to his football coaching expertise. From there he moved to Hotchkiss and Woodberry Forest before taking the job at St. Anne's-Belfield.
He built buildings, increased teacher salaries, and turned St. Anne's into a venerable institution. But instead of resting on his laurels to retirement, Conway is making the class of 2006 his last. And like some graduates, he's not sure what he's going to do next.
"It got to the point where I thought if I don't do something else, I'm not going to have the opportunity," he says.
Whatever comes next, it will likely be some combination of consulting with institutions, public speaking, and writing. "When you last this long, you've made every mistake imaginable, so you have a reservoir of advice," he says.
Certainly he can advise on negotiating institutional politics and dealing with difficult parents. "We have people who believe they're purchasing something," he says. But when pressed for tales of rich parents from hell, Conway takes the charitable route.
"When you talk about children, it makes people vulnerable in ways they're not in the rest of their life," he observes. "It brings out complex emotions or fears."
Conway says he's always seen his job at St. Anne's-Belfield, with its 145 employees and 720 families, as a ministry. He'll give up the headmaster's house, and he may retire some of his dozen or so blue blazers, but odds are, whatever he does next, it will include shepherding a flock somewhere.
Why here? STAB called.
What's worst about living here? The lack of political will to solve our local problems
Favorite hangout? The faculty lounge (unfortunately, they stop talking when I walk in)
Most overrated virtue? If consensus building were a virtue, it would be overrated.
People would be surprised to know: Deep inside, I'm scared to death.
What would you change about yourself? My left knee
Proudest accomplishment? The reestablishment of St. Anne's-Belfield as a great school
People find most annoying about you: I dont leave well enough alone.
Whom do you admire? People who help kids
Favorite book? The Bible. Really.
Subject that causes you to rant? Media bias dressed up as journalism
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Improved knee implants
Biggest 21st-century creep out? Militant fundamentalism
What do you drive? A geezermobile (according to my daughter)
In your car CD player right now: Macy Gray
Next journey? To Glenmore
Most trouble youve ever gotten in? Every time I try to be funny.
Regret: I have failed to convince more people of the great treasure St. Anne's-Belfield School is to this community.
Favorite comfort food: Cheese
Always in your refrigerator: Rose's Lime Juice
Must-see TV: Anything with "football" in the title
Favorite cartoon: Shoe
Describe a perfect day. A morning of reading and writing, an afternoon of bicycle riding followed by a good cigar, an evening cooking dinner for friends and my wife
Walter Mitty fantasy: Passing Lance Armstrong on the Mont Ventoux (going up or down)
Whod play you in the movie? Gene Hackman
Most embarrassing moment? Once, at a party, I was talking and not paying attention (as often happens). I reached behind me to pat my wife on the shoulder, but she had moved, and I patted her chest.
Best advice you ever got? Rich people have souls.
Favorite bumper sticker? If mama aint happy, aint nobody happy.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO