Recently appointed Head of School Jeff Bell shares how excited he is about joining the Gibbons community and reflects on the journey that has guided him here.
Jeff Bell has plenty of passions. Cardinal Gibbons High School has become among his primary passions ever since he was named Head of School in December 2019. He officially assumes the position on July 1, 2020. Until then, Jeff has been and will continue to be busy getting to know his Cardinal Gibbons family. In that same spirit, we asked Jeff to share with us how excited he is about joining Gibbons and reflecting on the journey that has guided him here.
Q. Tell us about your childhood.
A. I grew up in Florissant, a middle-class suburb outside of St. Louis. My father worked for Boeing, and my mother was a special education teacher. I also have an older sister who now works as a lawyer in Phoenix. I had a wonderful childhood, steeped in the Catholic tradition. I attended a parochial Catholic school, St. Angela Merici, where I played a wide range of sports and did many of the typical activities for a young boy growing up in the 80s: I played video games, rode bikes with my friends, and ran around the neighborhood until called inside. It was pretty ideal. I was very close to my maternal grandparents. My grandfather, Francis Kinkel, had a profound influence on my life. He was an English professor at Fontbonne College (now University) for 40 years. He died when I was 10, but even all these years later, he continues to have a significant influence on my faith and family life.
Q. Tell us about your educational background, starting with high school.
A. I attended St. Louis University High School(SLUH), an all-boys Jesuit high school. My high school experience profoundly formed me and set me on course to the current moment. I made lifelong friends at SLUH, played varsity football and volleyball, and developed a passion for literature. My college years were spent at The University of Missouri, where I double-majored in English and Religious Studies. Mizzou’s small but vibrant Religious Studies department fueled my interest in the academic study of religion. Immediately after college, I began a master’s degree program at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. My studies focused on the psychology and philosophy of religion, ethics, and the practices of grief and mourning. While at Lake Forest Academy, where I taught English, coached volleyball, and served as a dorm parent, I began work on a Ph.D. in Theology with a focus on Health Care Ethics at Loyola University Chicago. After my older daughter, Charlotte, was born, I withdrew from the program to bring life with a newborn a little more into balance. More recently, I have completed an MBA at Loyola University Chicago to deepen my knowledge in the business and finance side of schools.
Q: Who played a crucial role in shaping you as a person, an educator, and an administrator?
A: As mentioned above, my grandfather has had a deep impact on my faith and choice of profession. An award he won at Fontbonne for excellence in teaching will be displayed in my office when you come in next year. (It’s the only decorating I’ve done so far.) The award serves as a reminder of what he stood for--a deep commitment to students, to Catholic education, to kindness, and to family. I am also blessed with parents who have provided steady, loving guidance to me throughout my journey in life, always supporting my interests and endeavors. My wife, Kim, has also shaped me as an educator and administrator. We worked together at Lake Forest Academy and St. Andrew's-Sewanee School. She is twice the educator that I am, and I have learned a great deal about how to teach and work with students from her. She keeps me grounded, gives me honest feedback, and helps me keep perspective on the job.
Q: How would you describe yourself – your personality – as an educator and administrator?
A: On the most granular level, I am innovative and creative. I want to help create and work in an environment where people are inspired and have a sense of purpose. It is a gift to be able to support educators so they can do their best work with students. Nurturing student voice is paramount to student success and the success of a school. These are the people we dedicate our lives to serving. We need to listen carefully to what they have to say and show them we value their perspective.
More broadly, I am high energy, and I plan to have a visible presence at Gibbons. In other words, you are rarely going to see me in my office! I love walking around school, chatting with students, checking in with colleagues, and soaking in the daily life of the school. Relationships are everything, and I love engaging in the authentic, day-to-day interactions that build community and contribute to the collective spirit of a place and the people in it.
The core of my educational philosophy is simple and can be phrased as a question: What does it mean to live a good and meaningful life? Almost everything I do in school as a school leader is in the service of addressing that question. After all, if what we are doing lacks meaning or humanity, we need to think about how we can do better.
Q: Why is it vital for you to work in Catholic education in general and at Cardinal Gibbons in particular?
A: Gibbons represents the opportunity to align my faith life, my professional life, and my personal life. I have felt called to work in Catholic education for years, but the right fit has not presented itself at the right time until now. Perhaps there’s something to be said for gaining a broad range of experience to ready oneself for one’s true calling. Having worked in boarding schools and independent schools for nearly 20 years, I have learned a lot about how schools can be true agents for change in students' lives. Due to my professional background in independent schools, I may seem like an outsider to contemporary models of Catholic education; however, in my experience, being able to enter an institution with both a deep sense of personal connection as well as fresh eyes as a professional has the most potential to benefit the institution and the people who are already a part of it. I want to add my voice to the many who seek to make Catholic education, and more specifically, Gibbons, as strong and as vibrant as it can be.
I am humbled by the fact that God has led me to this moment in my life, and I will use every ounce of everything I’ve learned up until this point to help forward the mission of Gibbons and to serve students, their families, the educators, and the broader community.
Q: What was your first impression of Cardinal Gibbons?
A: When Kim and I first walked onto campus the night before our interview, we were blown away by the beauty of the space, by each person we met, and by the fact that it was a Sunday night and the school felt as awake and alive as if it were a Tuesday morning or a Friday night football game. That night at Gibbons, a play was about to begin. For us, it felt like the next act of our lives was also beginning. It took about 30 seconds to realize that this was the place that we wanted to be.
Q: What was your initial reaction when you were asked to be our Head of School?
A: Joy. Pure and simple. As soon as I got off the phone with Tim Throndson, I jumped in my car and drove straight to my wife's school so that I could tell her in person. Gibbons immediately felt like a perfect match for both of us. We feel so fortunate and grateful.
Meanwhile, my excitement about Gibbons only grows stronger as I engage in conversations with more members of the community. Every tradition, every strength, every team, and even every challenge fills me with excitement and energy. I can’t wait to get started and to be there with you all.
Q: What is something new that you have learned about Gibbons?
A: Gibbons culture. What it is, what it isn’t, how it impacts the school. In my many conversations with educators, board members, students, alumni, and parents over the past few months, I have learned that Gibbons is a place full of love, creativity, and energy. Gibbons provides everyone in the community the chance to engage with the school in their own way. This investment in people and the core belief that everyone has significant value at the school inspires me. For more reasons than I can enumerate, Gibbons is a perfect fit for me as an educator, as a person of faith, and as a head of school.
Q: Tell us a little about your family?
A: My wife, Kim, and I have been married for 14 years. We met at Lake Forest Academy, where we both taught English and served as coaches and dorm parents. Kim is an award-winning middle and high school English teacher. She is also a poet with an MFA from Boston University, where she worked closely with Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States. Kim is a runner and a hiker and a voracious reader. And like me, she could not be more excited to join the Gibbons community. Charlotte, our older daughter, is 12. She is currently in 7th grade. Charlotte is a competitive volleyball player, having played on a travel team for the past four years. She loves math and language arts and all animals but especially our dogs. Mia, our younger daughter, is ten and in 5th grade. Mia also plays volleyball. She loves Dungeons and Dragons, a capella music, and pretty much every subject in school. We have two dogs adopted from a shelter, Holly and Frankie. They’re both mixes of who-knows-what, but Holly looks a little like an Australian Shepherd and Frankie looks like Toto from the Wizard of Oz!
Q: What are you and your family most looking forward to about your move to NC?
A: Well, it’s January in Chicago and temperatures, while mild, have been hovering recently around 30 degrees and snow is expected this weekend. I can say that we are genuinely excited about the Raleigh weather and the opportunity to spend more time outside! But more importantly, we love the beauty of North Carolina and the kindness of all the people we have been blessed to meet. We all love to hike, so having mountains within striking distance is particularly appealing. Additionally, some of our best friends live in Asheville, so we are happy to be nearer to them.
Q: How do you like to unwind?
A: Just like during my childhood, my outlets center around sports and family. I love playing competitive tennis. I played a lot as a kid, picked it back up four years ago, and now I play on a couple of local teams. I love to read and sit around the fire with my wife, Kim, and our girls. When we are all at home as a family, we also love to try new recipes and make dinner together.