Dr. Nagl leaves a lauded legacy

A portrait of Dr. Nagl- Jack Suter ’23

Ninth Head of School Dr. John Nagl has shaped Haverford to form the culture, the campus, and the present-day soul of our community. After eight years and a difficult decision, Dr. Nagl announced his resignation, effective at the end of the 2021 academic year. 

Many still recall an early day at Haverford, when Dr. Nagl was officially installed. His request that all teachers choose walk-in songs—Dr. Nagl himself chose “Dream On” by Aerosmith—the Haligoluks, a faculty rock band proudly initiated by Dr. Nagl, playing music in the background; and a Hogwarts witch doctor staff and a leggy lamp were just a few of the signs that Haverford and the role of the headmaster were entering a new era.

“I remember distinctly when Dr. Nagl was inducted as head of school, and he played Spinal Tap, which is an alternative rock and roll movie about this fictional band. He then got a member of Spinal Tap to speak in a recorded message, and [Dr. Nagl] himself came out of a [huge box] to start things,” English teacher Mr. Keefe said. “It was refreshing to see a head of school have a sense of humor about himself and be excited to be at Haverford.”

The rest of his first year was relatively uneventful, save for the numerous snow days, until an alumni scandal broke out in “the Main Line Takeover Project.” This difficult episode resulted in, among other things, Dr. Nagl’s cherished Brother’s Keeper program.

 “I remain immensely proud of the Brother’s Keeper program, and the lives it has changed for the better.”

Dr. John Nagl

“I remain immensely proud of the Brother’s Keeper program, and the lives it has changed for the better,” Dr. Nagl said.

Dr. Nagl was also tasked in that first year with starting plans for the new middle school. Having completed the herculean project last year, he crowns this achievement as a great success.

 “I am also proud of raising the money for and finishing the new middle school on time and on budget, despite everything with COVID,” Dr. Nagl said.

Dr. Nagl speaking at the Thanksgiving Assembly, 2019 – Courtesy of Communications

 Around the upper school, he is delighted to have spent much time promoting extracurriculars through founding the Hephaestus Society and the arts through his support of the faculty band. Dr. Nagl also values the funds he has raised to ensure more tuition assistance for students, and his contribution to a new strategic plan for the school from 2020 to 2025. 

 “This plan is focused on character and culture, with an additional focus on 21st-century education and learning, which was prevalent because it helped us prepare for virtual learning during COVID,” Dr. Nagl said.

 He spent his final year battling the pandemic and is ultimately thrilled with the outcome of this year.

     “I am extremely grateful to have been able to have majority in-person learning,” Dr. Nagl continued, “and just recently, it all came to an end with something that looked a little bit normal.” 

“It has been such an asset to have Dr. Nagl in the helm. He is always the most informed in the room, and he balanced the difficult meetings by always bringing a certain amount of levity.”

Mr. Mark Fifer

     In regards to this year, Head of Upper School Mr. Mark Fifer said, “It has been such an asset to have Dr. Nagl in the helm. He is always the most informed in the room, and he balanced the difficult meetings by always bringing a certain amount of levity.”

     Despite all the aforementioned achievements, Dr. Nagl’s greatest impact lies in the community’s spirit. Two of his goals from the beginning have been, first, to have students understand and cherish the privilege of attending Haverford, and, second, to shape the school so it was a joy for the teachers to teach the boys.

     “I wanted the faculty to see it as a privilege, and a responsibility, to spend time with such fine men and help them grow, learn,” Dr. Nagl. said. 

     Part of this mission of fostering a group of dedicated teachers and preparing boys for life involved hiring a diverse faculty. 

     Upper School Dean of Students Mr. Luqman Kolade said, “Dr. Nagl challenged this place in many ways, especially with the people he hired. For students, you don’t notice that necessarily, but, since I’ve been here, the staff has become much more diverse in a number of different ways from a very insular pool—we hired people who went to Haverford or were connected to Haverford.” 

     When Mr. Kolade mentioned that he had noticed the shift in hiring to Dr. Nagl, he recalls Dr. Nagl was ecstatic.

     “At the beginning of last year, I went up to him and said, ‘This is the most diverse group of new faculty that I’ve seen,’ and he was super happy to hear that and said, ‘Yeah, that makes me proud,” Mr. Kolade said.

     But far beyond the changes that Dr. Nagl has made around the school, his presence, his character, and even a mere subtle greeting have impacted those with whom he has interacted. All the students and faculty interviewed for this article, aside from Dr. Nagl, without fail, detailed the genuine care that Dr. Nagl has shown toward themselves and everyone in the community. Fittingly enough, when Dr. Nagl was asked for the one thing that he wishes students will remember about him he said,

     “I want them to know that I cared deeply about every one of them.”

     Sixth Former Student Body President Cyril Leahy described his first few close interactions with Dr. Nagl.

“…he really has created a strong connection with the students and the student body.”

Cyril Leahy ’21

     “He can be intimidating at first, but once you get to know him better—because when you’re talking to him, you have to kind of ease into conversations—and you’ve made your way through the official stuff, he is very caring and often asks if there’s any way he can help with any of the ventures I’m currently involved in,” Leahy continued, “I was surprised that someone of his stature would ask those types of questions, but he really has created a strong connection with the students and the student body.”

     For one, Leahy recalled how Dr. Nagl supported his effort to suggest a book to the English department in early 2021. 

     “I was afraid that he would be too busy, but he was so supportive,” Leahy said.

     By the time of his final meeting with Dr. Nagl, Leahy had formed a close connection with the head of school.

     “He gave me some really great advice and was basically an open book. We have a more mentorship relationship rather than a strict work relationship, which is really cool,” Leahy said. 

     Both Sixth Formers Drew Loughnane and Kieran Dias-Lalcaca interacted with Dr. Nagl in a different sphere: as his students in the Modern Middle East history course. For Dr. Nagl, teaching students was something he was only able to do this year.

     “I was really fortunate this last year, with the middle school built, with the Character at Our Core campaign completed, and the strategic plan done, to be able to teach full time. I really enjoyed doing that; I like engaging with boys as scholars,” Dr. Nagl said.

     For Dias-Lalcaca, this interaction was what pushed him past that boundary of acquaintance, into getting to know Dr. Nagl and enjoying a shared interest in international relations.

Dr. Nagl addresses the impeachment process during a “History beyond the headlines” session in the library, Thursday, December 5, 2019 – Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

     “Once you get to know Dr. Nagl beyond as headmaster and move into teacher and student realm, he’s someone who’s extremely caring about each and every student, but also cares beyond your understanding of the material, uses the material to develop you as holistically as a person.” Dias-Lalcaca said, “He makes you a better thinker and more adept at understanding the world around you, pushes you to question what assumptions you make, and to draw out the nuance behind what you see.”

     Loughnane found himself often staggered, but not at all surprised—for Dr. Nagl is, in fact, a Rhodes scholar and retired Lieutenant Colonel—by the knowledge Dr. Nagl possessed. 

     “He is one of the most knowledgeable teachers I’ve ever had,” Loughnane said. “And he never tried to force his ideas on anyone but did rebut and encourage dialogue. He did not let anyone get by without them doing their best.”

     Mr. Fifer, Mr. Keefe, and Mr. Kolade knew Dr. Nagl as a colleague, a leader, a friend, and even a career advisor. Working alongside him in various leadership teams, Mr. Fifer described the density of knowledge that Dr. Nagl brought to meetings, but always balanced it with a lighthearted joke. Aside from other things, Mr. Fifer listed Dr. Nagl’s jovial character as one of the things the community will miss.  

     “He is a well-known public figure in the world of national security, and he brings intellectual vibrancy and credibility, but never lets that get in the way of having fun. The community will miss the deep relationships, fist bumps, jokes that only he thinks is funny, and the granular mundane moments. It will miss EA Days when Dr. Nagl has been present and so invested in the community,” Mr. Fifer said.

     It can be difficult to have an appropriate mix of seriousness and levity, but Dr. Nagl has done so.

     “He has found that balance between thinking and laughing very well. I’m going to miss his sense of humor and the way in which he cared for his team members,” Mr. Fifer said.

     Leahy echoed Dr. Nagl’s grasp of the stage and his easily distinguishable speaking style, and his passion for the community.

     “We will miss his speeches. Dr. Nagl is one of the best speakers, not because he always has groundbreaking ideas, but more because of his tone and his grasp of the stage. He has this cool and utter confidence, especially with his ‘ladies and gentlemen, faculty, and staff’ opening. He gives insight in his speeches and shows that he cares through the speeches,” Leahy said. “He believes in the students, faculty, and the school mission.”

“I will remember him [Dr. Nagl] as someone who brought humor to faculty events that are usually dusty and dry events with the faculty band. I will remember him as just trying his best to make a community in this place.”

Mr. Daniel Keefe

     Mr. Keefe will miss him like missing a friend. Over the years, he has grown to connect with Dr. Nagl over a shared interest in unpacking movies to analyze various themes. 

     “It’s difficult to be at a place and see people who you care about move on to other opportunities. I will remember him as someone who brought humor to faculty events that are usually dusty and dry events with the faculty band. I will remember him as just trying his best to make a community in this place,” Mr. Keefe said.

     Beyond work-related conversations, Mr. Keefe described how they were close in the way that they would share about their families. But even the little things that made Dr. Nagl a close friend of his, Mr. Keefe will miss.

     “Dr. Nagl consistently would say something to me along the lines of ‘You’re doing great work Dan Keefe and you’re a handsome man. On my end, I’d like to say, ‘Dr. Nagl, you’ve done great work for the Haverford school, and you’re a handsome man,’” Mr. Keefe said. 

     Mr. Kolade found Dr. Nagl was someone who he could always talk to about anything. More recently, Dr. Nagl advised Mr. Kolade on his future career. 

     “When I go into his office, I always mean to stop in for a bit, but always stay a while, until I have to go teach or something. His door is always open,” Mr. Kolade said. “He encouraged me to think about my career and encouraged me to be dean. I had a tough time balancing time and commitments, he worked with me to sort it out. He’s told me that the highlight of his day is talking to people.” 

     This relationship is unlike any other that Mr. Kolade has experienced.

Dr. Locke (left) and Dr. Nagl (right) holding the sweater in 2016- Mr. Jim Rose

     “Dr. Nagl is always himself—he doesn’t know how to be any other way than being an honest person. He cares about his faculty, he told me something like, ‘If you didn’t know, if you ever need me, I got you in the future.’ He cares for the place, and he cares for the boys. He’s the first head of school that I’ve formed that close of a relationship with,” Mr. Kolade said. 

     As he returns to public service—in a currently confidential position—with a concern for the direction of the nation, Dr. Nagl has left behind a legacy that will extend beyond his tenure. For Dias-Lalcaca, that legacy is shaping the values of Haverford students, and, effectively, their future roles in the world. 

     “His focus was not only developing smart, athletic, and successful men, but also men of character,” Dias-Lalcaca said.   

     For Mr. Keefe, that legacy is transitioning the school into a place of greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

     “He has left a faculty that will continue the work that he has started in terms of making the school safe and equitable,” Mr. Keefe said. This is his greatest legacy, and he has celebrated people who were moving us in that direction. [Dr. Nagl’s leaving] is bittersweet.”

“Life is a joy, enjoy it. Take care of each other.”

Dr. John Nagl

     In a final message to the students, faculty, and staff, and everyone in the Haverford community, Dr. Nagl said,  “Life is a joy, enjoy it. Take care of each other.”

Author: Jeffrey Yang '22

Managing editor Jeffrey Yang has written for The Index since 2018. He previously served as news editor. His feature "Fords immigrants under the spotlight: Mr. Kan's citizenship odyssey" earned a Gold Key from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing Awards.