He had all the elements he needed to sell it – white dress shirt, beard, and body leaning into the pulpit before him. The sight was so familiar to the Fuller Hall crowd that many began laughing before he even spoke. He talked about Ubuntu, prime numbers, and butterflies breaking from their cocoon. The speech became more bizarre the more he went on. The crowd roared with laughter.
Tom Lovett, the real one, stood stageside and watched his satirized self grow more animated. The student impersonating him jumbled phrases from his speeches into a mess of metaphors while the headmaster turned a rare shade of deep red and shook silently — as he does in a laughing fit. This impression was better than most.
“When kids use your talks against you, it’s a sign they’ve been listening,” Lovett said. “And if it shows up in a skit, you know you’ve made a difference.”
Being the headmaster’s last LI Weekend Pep Chapel, it was fitting that it should include a skit that threw a compilation of his own words back at him.
Though likely unintended, it was a strange kind of strange compliment – suggesting that they truly had listened all along, that he had made a difference.
Lovett delivered his final chapel talk at the end of May to a mostly empty room and video camera. The speech was focused on love – a final message to the senior class as they prepared to graduate following socially-distant final semester.
“…As we end this school year, and some of us look forward to returning to campus and some of us will not be returning to campus, I want us to recommit ourselves to this spirit of love,” the headmaster said to the soon-to-be graduates. “As we do, we’ll be changed for the better. We’ll be changed for good. And what starts here, will change our world for good.”
White dress shirt and beard still in effect, the speech sounded like years past, before the coronavirus and further removed from his retirement; once again, he made the case to come together, learn from hardship and emerge stronger than before.
This is how many remember Lovett’s 19 years at the helm of St. Johnsbury Academy; steadily leading the school and community forward, regardless of circumstances. His tenure, bookended by 9/11 and a pandemic, often called for him to speak and act amidst tragedy. The years between, which made up the majority of his time, are remembered for tangible and cultural growth among students, faculty and community members alike.
Lovett oversaw significant growth in day and boarding student enrollment, millions of dollars in gifts to the school, significant renovations of campus landmarks, funding for community projects and organizations, the foundation of new school departments, and the creation of St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju in South Korea. Beyond that, he worked tirelessly to push students from all walks of life to dream bigger, perform better and love more deeply than they did when they arrived. For their own part, students outperformed.
“To have a school that offers such great opportunities despite the socioeconomic and rural reality of the area is really something that’s terribly unique,” said Scott Beck, a social studies teacher at the Academy and Vermont state representative for St. Johnsbury. “Tom was the headmaster during a time when schools were simply asked to do a lot more … if you just take a look at how the Academy’s responded, whether it be in its course catalog or the social welfare component, that’s really been his contribution.”
Reinforced by mottos and example, members of the Academy community often measured Lovett’s impact by the quality of the school’s culture.
“You knew that it was a place where you were always supposed to respect others and receive respect.” said Laurence LeBlanc, `14, a former student body president reminiscing on her time at the school. “It was focused on being inclusive and making the place better than you found it, but it was also about holding each other accountable.”
Culture was a priority for Lovett and the school administration throughout his tenure, according to Beth Choiniere, Assistant Headmaster for Campus Life.
“Everything he’s built has focused around culture,” Choiniere said. “It’s all been focused on putting people and relationships at the center of everything you do. Not money or budget or any other nonsense. It’s about being human and showing kindness.”
Lovett began each day as headmaster admitting his faults and pleading for help.
Waking around 5 a.m., he would open his Bible and pray the words in Wisdom, chapter 9 – a passage in which the reader asks God to help guide him beyond his human limitations. A devout Catholic, Lovett prayed about most decisions he had to make through his career. He said he couldn’t have done it otherwise.
“I asked to be shown what’s important, because there’s too much that’s important,” he said.
As much as the headmaster was known to be a creature of habit, his schedule functioned like a living organism. There were, of course, some staples like morning chapel, class, and administrative meetings. Beyond that, there was an evolving list of more to do.
“There was never a day that wasn’t busy,” said Karen Aldridge, his secretary for 15 years. “Anything could come up – emergencies, kids screwing up, faculty screwing up, sometimes the state would rear its head on the independence issue – the volume of work he had to do was just really a lot.”
Beyond the school, he managed to find other projects: coaching youth basketball at Good Shepherd Catholic School, teaching a confirmation class at Corpus Christi Parish, becoming a board director for Help Kids India, and most recently taking courses to become an ordained deacon.
“The more I got to know Mr. Lovett, the more I was surprised to new ways he was working in our community, the greater community and even the international community,” said Michele LeBlanc ‘16, a former student body president.
Laurence, Michele’s sister, said she was always impressed by his presence across campus – showing up to events he may not have had time for, including her very own Capstone.
“I think he always showed up in part because he really enjoyed these kinds of things but also because his goal was to show the school he was there as a support for them,” Laurence said. “His presence was almost expected at a lot of things he wasn’t obligated to show up to.”
Many Hilltopper fans can likely point to his spot in the back corner of Alumni Gymnasium or south endzone on Fairbanks Field. On opening night of a play, he was there; a student art gala, there too.
Following performances or prior commitments, Lovett likely returned to work until uncertain hours. To those passing by, light from the window of his Colby Hall office often signaled it was late into the night.
When asked how he managed all the work, the headmaster emphasized the importance of faith and steadfast support from his wife, Ann. In the school, he said similarly motivated members of his administrative team and staff helped shoulder the burden.
When asked how he prioritized, he said it’s simple: “Kids first, always.”
The secret to his focus — what, beyond prayer, drove each decision stemmed from this philosophy. It’s how he evaluated teachers, how he measured success.
“They only get four years,” he explained. “They are the neediest people in schools, so when it comes to stress, or parents, or something else, that has to come after. This is a four-year window to change their lives – you can actually save their lives.”
Lovett has an abundance of examples of this and, known to be a gifted storyteller, shares them regularly. Stories of growth, resilience, redemption – in which kids who had suffered or screwed up found the ability to perform beyond their imagination and others’ expectations.
“In most of the cases, these kids have just needed someone to take them seriously,” he said. “They need to be shown that they’re worth someone’s investment and then they will almost do the rest on their own.”
The headmaster has another prayer he says in the morning, but he reads it from the Notes app on his iPhone. It’s a list of names – those of loved ones, colleagues and even strangers, often who are struggling or infirmed.
“He says it’s meditative, but it’s almost like he starts his day by shouldering the weight of the world,” said Mark Tashjian, headmaster at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vt. and friend to Lovett. “He operates at an emotional, empathic level that is extraordinary… but the downside of it is, not everyone can feel at that level and get out of bed the next day.”
In more candid moments, the headmaster acknowledges the toll of the job. As he finished the school year amidst coronavirus, he said days were long and hard. In 2012, with the pain and aftermath of Melissa Jenkins’s death – well, that just about killed him, he said.
Tragedy may not have defined Lovett’s career, but it undeniably took place. Many recall the sense of calm and assurance he brought to those grappling with any harsh new reality thrust upon them. In particular, his words following the death of Melissa Jenkins resonated in the hearts and minds of many in the Academy community.
He claimed his role was to play pastor and develop a message. When he did, the words stuck and the community rallied; love won, it was given to those who needed it most, healing took place.
“In all of those times, he’s been that person to provide safety and peace,” said Tammi Cady, Assistant Head for Advancement. “There were just moments where you would watch and respect him not only for his poise but for putting himself in that situation.”
For a few months, the headmaster has made baby steps cleaning out his office, notorious for maintaining piles of papers and objects across every flat surface. He said he’s found cards and paintings, gifts and poems, as well as other keepsakes that have caused him to take pause in the busywork.
“You look at all of this stuff and it’s just good to remember. You can feel that you’ve had a lucky life. My heart is full. If it were any fuller, it would overflow,” Lovett expressed.
Among the piles, he said he’s also found mementos from decades ago – some from people who have since passed – that act as reminders of the twists of fate in his career and how he found his calling.
The story begins with Bernier Mayo making him promise to take the headmaster role before even hiring him as a teacher. When he made preparations to retire decades later, Bernier followed up on the promise and asked him again. Lovett planned to decline. Mrs. Lovett asked him to reconsider.
“’You pray about everything else,’ she told me, ‘Why don’t you pray about this?’,” Lovett recalled. After he did, he officially applied for the position soon after.
“It had to be a calling,” said Lovett. “If this was just a job, if it wasn’t my vocation, I don’t know how I’d do it.”
After all his practice, Lovett said he has the key elements of chapel talks down to a science: make it relevant, be vulnerable, share a new insight, then bring it all to a final point to change or reinforce a behavior.
He’s grown so familiar with writing them that nearly everything he has recently written begins in “chapel talk format” before it is converted to the proper form. “It’s just easier that way,” he’s claimed.
With so much of the job ingrained in him – both in mindset and routine – Lovett said he wonders what it will be like to give it up.
Time and school budget permitting, Lovett plans to continue to teach an English class at the Academy next year while he completes his diaconate studies. Maybe he’ll find a coaching role too. Regardless, he said, he’ll find somewhere and some way to teach.
He wants to keep writing too, though the audience would be less obvious. For years, he has grown accustomed to his daily message, as have thousands of others, who watched the bearded man in the white dress shirt preach from the Colby Hall stage. The image is almost immortalized for his audience, as are the words themselves.
You could even go so far as to say Lovett’s legacy was like a chapel talk. All the key elements were there: He met students where they were, was vulnerable, taught, and even brought it all together to a point.
Love each other. Change for good. Then you may change the world for good too.