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Debra White, crusader in academic technology, passionate advocate for students of color, dies at 59
Dr. Debra Saunders-White served on the St. George’s faculty for just four years from 1994-1998, but her influence on the school was undeniable. In that short time, Deb changed the course of our history with her visionary outlook on technology and diversity issues — and gained many admirers with her intelligence, strength of conviction, warmth and humor.
Deb passed away on Nov. 26, 2016, after a battle with kidney cancer. She was 59.
St. George’s first director of technology, a dorm parent, coach and teacher, Deb propelled the school into the future in many aspects. A former IBM marketing executive, she launched the school’s first initiatives to provide students with technology-supported learning in the classroom. With financial and philosophical backing from benefactors such as former Microsoft treasurer Craig Watjen ’54 and educator Al Merck ’39, she established St. George’s first desktop computing lab and touted the virtues of technology use by teachers, many of whom were admittedly not easy converts. “She introduced me to the wonderful world of computers and showed me how they could enhance my teaching,” said former chair of the Spanish Department Mafalda Nula, who became fast friends with Deb as a fellow dorm parent in Buell. “She was forever patient and encouraging when explaining technology to me, even though I was technologically challenged at first.”
Also the first black female administrator, Deb pioneered the school’s expanding diversity efforts and helped numerous students of varying backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances embrace the boarding school experience and thrive on the Hilltop. She initiated conversations with former Headmaster Chuck Hamblet on the need for a person to play the central role in our diversity efforts,” noted current Director of Diversity Dr. Kim Bullock.
Other former colleagues and students describe Deb as “fearless,” “visionary,” “respected,” “energetic” and “funny.”
“Through her unflagging optimism, her tireless perseverance, her personal magnetism and warm intelligence, she pushed us forward and guided us as we modernized our technological infrastructure and administrative processes,” said Director of Academic Research Pat Moss, who worked alongside Deb as Academic Dean.
Former Assistant Head of School for External Affairs Joe Gould agreed. “Deb was a remarkable person and important educational leader. Her tenure at SG was fairly short but, as Kim Bullock so rightly says, her impact on the school at a very important time was most significant.”
After St. George’s Deb went on to an illustrious career in education reform and school leadership, which eventually led to her most recent post: chancellor of North Carolina Central University. Prior to that she was vice president for technology and chief information officer at Hampton University, and deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Throughout her career, she remained passionate and committed to helping young minority students prepare for and succeed in college. Several students wrote to say that during her time on the Hilltop, Deb was instrumental in their experience. Said Rashad Randolph ’98, now an upper school dean at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn: “Mrs. White was an amazing advisor, educator and visionary. She was one of the main reasons why I became an educator.”
Read more remembrances of Deb below:
“[Deb] had vision and she had the ability to motivate others and elevate others to bring those visions to fruition. She was without question central and pivotal to SG history in her role as an administrator moving the school into the new age of technology and as a woman of color modeling and advocating for diversity and inclusion for faculty and students. SG, like the other schools she touched, will continue to be impacted by her work.”
— Longtime friend and Director of Diversity and science teacher Dr. Kim Bullock
“I still remember Deb’s wonderful smile and comforting disposition. She was so bright and she was able to work with anyone and make them feel appreciated. I witnessed how she was just as comfortable interacting with Maya Angelou as she was teaching a class of freshman boys. She possessed a special intellect and seemed fearless when it came to maintaining high standards — but what a great sense of humor! I feel like she was respected and loved by all who had the good fortune to have known her.”
— Art Department Chair Mike Hansel ’76
“Deb was a remarkable person and important educational leader. Her tenure at SG was fairly short but, as Kim Bullock so rightly says, her impact on the school at a very important time was most significant. Both our technology program (academic and administrative) and our diversity program indeed ‘stand on Deb's shoulders.’ Her intellect, her directness and her charm prompted rapid progress for a school that traditionally held back.”
— Former Assistant Head of School for External Affairs Joe Gould
“As a teaching colleague, fellow track coach, neighbor in Buell and foremost as a friend, I will always cherish my time spent with Deb White.”
— Math teacher Warren Williams
“Deb and her family lived next door to our family in Buell, called ‘New Dorm’ at the time, during her time at St. George's. We shared many days and nights laughing (and crying) together as we dorm-parented our senior girls. As well our children played for hours outside on the playground. As a dorm parent, teacher, coach and advisor Deb was always professional, loving and nurturing to our students and I cherished working with her. My heartfelt condolences to Paige and CW.”
— Science teacher Holly Williams
“Mrs. White was instrumental in my success at St George’s. From advisor dinners or just long talks in her office, she always pushed me to succeed while being there with open arms during the tough times. Her positive energy, open mind and smile was something I looked forward to seeing each day on the Hilltop.”
— Former student Chris Machado ’98
“[Deb] was a force — smart, funny, energetic, and visionary. She was able to move a traditional school forward in dramatic ways. That's not easy. She brought everyone on board and never wavered in the face of obstacles (at least not publicly). I was the Dean of Students at the time, so the two of us spent a fair amount of time together, navigating through the rocky waters of technology integration into student life (can you imagine life without email?). It was a challenging time and I learned so much from her about how to manage change and accept that things don’t always go as planned. We laughed a lot — I do remember that as she had the most wonderful laugh. We were so lucky to have her here as evidenced by the incredible work she continued after leaving.”
— Dean of Faculty Beezie Bickford
“In the short time I got to know Deb from her days at SG, she was one of the most fun-loving, interesting and powerful people I’ve ever met. It never surprised me to see all the great things she achieved in her life and how great her kids turned out. Marybeth and I shared a lot of good times outside of school with her, the Bullocks, the Hansels and Mary Corcoran. We all miss her.”
— Dean of Afternoon Programs John Mackay
“When Deb arrived at St. George’s, we knew that she would be a key player in moving St. George’s toward a more robust, holistic integration of technology into the life of the school. None of us fully anticipated, however, just how transformational her relatively short tenure would prove to be. Through her unflagging optimism, her tireless perseverance, her personal magnetism and warm intelligence, she pushed us forward and guided us as we modernized our technological infrastructure and administrative processes. A memorably visionary and dynamic colleague, she was unstoppable. And we are a better school for it.”
— Director of Academic Research Pat Moss
“Mrs. White was instrumental in helping me transition to boarding school life during my stay at St. George’s School. The lessons that she taught me during my time at St. George’s have transcended to my life outside of St. George’s today. I will always remember and thank Mrs. White for the lessons she taught me. Thank you, Mrs. White.”
— Lewis Usher ’99
“Mrs. White was an amazing advisor, educator and visionary. She was one of the main reasons why I became an educator. Her love for others and desire to make everything (and everyone) around her joyous was unparalleled.”
— Rashad Randolph ’98
“My ‘amiga’ Deb and I were next-door neighbors on campus and shared dorm-parenting responsibilities for 32 girls in Buell Dormitory. She taught me about kindness and compassion when dealing with teenage girls. As the technology guru for the school, she also introduced me to the wonderful world of computers and showed me how they could enhance my teaching. She was forever patient and encouraging when explaining technology to me, even though I was technologically challenged at first. She was my partner on the Multicultural Committee and she was always acutely aware and mindful of cultural and economic differences. Brilliant, competent, kind, compassionate, generous, intuitive, patient, poised and elegant — these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think about Deb. I feel blessed and privileged to have known her. She left very big shoes to fill, and I will certainly miss her.”
— Chair of the Spanish Department Emeritus Mafalda Gatani Nula
It’s been a week of spirited events on the Hilltop, with tons of Dragon Pride in the air. On Friday evening, we inducted 23 Dragons into the Sports Hall of Fame (attended by 15, right) in a celebratory dinner event that included all the students decked out in red, white and black. After the induction ceremony, the students headed for a pep rally in Madeira Hall and zebra-crushing ceremony outside. Attending the Friday dinner as well was Tom Wang ’89, now the chief product officer at Turo, an internet-based car-sharing service based in San Francisco. As it turns out, Tom is the author of the St. George’s Fable that is read every year by the prefects the night before the Middlesex Games. His legacy lives on! Check out the video production of the fable starring this year’s prefects and produced by student film enthusiast Tony Wang ’19.
Save the dates for:
To RSVP, or for more information about any of these events, email us at email@example.com
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Designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, Memorial School House was completed in 1923 and was meant to serve as a lasting monument honoring those alumni and faculty who served in WWI.
As of 1919 when the monument was conceived, 80 percent of the school’s alumni had served, according to School Archivist Valerie Simpson, and by the time the building was completed, 15 alumni and one faculty member had died.
“As reported in the school publications at the time, an academic building was chosen so as to form a ‘living legacy’ that would bond all future generations of students to those men who served and sacrificed for the noble cause of defending a free, educated society,” Simpson writes.
Over the last few years, Memorial School House’s slate roof was replaced and its gilded cupola renovated.
The building is slated for additional major restoration in the coming years.
Visit a photo gallery of the collection.
Dr. BJ Miller, St. George’s Class of 1989, was the featured speaker during a milestone weekend for the school in late February that also included the formal dedication of our impressive new Academic Center.
Miller, a palliative care specialist in San Francisco who sustained devastating injuries in a freak accident in college, captivated the audience Feb. 26 with his intellectual and creative ruminations on human suffering and end-of-life health care.
Watch Dr. Miller’s talk on our Vimeo channel.
“It was one of the best [talks] I have attended — both in and out of St. George's,” said Toreali Kurmanov ’16. “In addition, Dr. Miller proves that SG alumni are some of the most motivated and inspirational people out there.”
Updates regarding the ongoing investigation into past incidents of sexual abuse at St. George's may be found at Healing St. George's.
Following is an editorial that recently ran in St. George's school newspaper, The Red & White:
Students weigh in on recent media reports of St. George’s troubled past
By Taylor Kirkpatrick ’16
On behalf of the Red & White Editorial Board and the student body, I would like to address some issues that have become front and center for our community as of late. As everyone is aware, St. George’s has been the focus of international media attention for events that have transpired in our past which are painful for all who are involved. While we all wish that these events had never occurred, it is our responsibility, as a community, to own up to our past, while also propelling ourselves into the future.
Since this scandal has surfaced, a couple of things have become abundantly clear. As students, we all still get up and go to class every day and we still love our school. However, we continue our jobs here as students while remaining keenly aware of the severity of the situation and compassionate towards the victims harmed.
Over the past couple of months, as the allegations have emerged, the Red & White Editorial Board has taken the opportunity to reach out to students throughout our community to understand the impact of these unfortunate events on life at St. Georges for the current student body. While many find themselves at a distance from these events, due to the fact that they happened many years ago, the students feel that the administration has successfully kept the student body informed and abreast of the state of affairs.
Honor Board member Annie Kim ’16 explained, “Mr. Peterson has done a really good job trying to keep us, the students, out of it, but at the same time, he has given us as much information as possible so that we can prepare ourselves for what is to come.” Many students agreed on the fact that they feel well informed about the allegations, but also understand their distance from the events in our school’s past. “I feel really detached from the situation, but it still pains me to think that this used to happen and I hope that everything gets resolved,” said fellow Honor Board member, Laura Edson ’16. While most students feel a sense of detachment from the allegations, there is no lack of empathy for those who were involved. “The school, for me, personally, has been nothing but positive and I know that is the case for a lot of my friends and classmates as well. I hope that everything goes smoothly from here and that these victims can be helped,” said Senior Prefect, Tim Baumann ’16. Fellow prefect, Caroline Macaulay ’16, agreed, “I have a feeling that it will all work out, but at the same time, it is odd to be removed from a situation that hits so close to home.”
As a community, I think that it is also important to understand that while St. George’s may be the one highlighted in the news now, we are not alone in these incidents. Unfortunately, sexual abuse has been a reality in the past for many schools and communities. However, this does not excuse the actions that we must still remain responsible for. “If we want to grow from this experience and become a better school, we need to talk about this and look back on what we did wrong and fix it, so looking forward we don’t make that mistake again,” said Head of the Honor Board Freddy Gregoire ’16. “I think that there’s a lot to learn from all of this.”
When alumnus Dr. BJ Miller ’89 gave a talk on Feb. 26 in honor of the official opening of the new Academic Center, he reiterated his pride for St. George’s and explained how impressed he was with how we have united in the face of these hard times. Dr. Miller, a palliative care specialist and executive director of the “Zen Hospice Project” in San Francisco, went on to speak about the nature of pain and suffering. While the majority of the suffering that Dr. Miller encounters is centered around his hospice work, he explained that it is a reality for all humans to suffer, in some way, at least once in their lifetime.
To me, Dr. Miller’s words about suffering can be paralleled with the incidents our community is currently facing. However, it seems that, universally, the St. George’s community feels that this suffering can bring us closer together and make us stronger for the future. “Even though we are in a tornado right now, there is definitely still a silver lining,” said Edson.
Many alumni have banned together on social media to support the community and show their love for the school. “I think that it is awesome that former Dragons are posting on Facebook about their Dragon pride,” said Daisy Mayer ’17. Edson explained, “Mr. Peterson has a saying about rooting for and not against. I think that is exactly what the alumni and present students are doing. It’s a really positive reaction.”
Boarding schools are special because of the unique opportunity to live among teachers and mentors. These events give current students an appreciation for the safety and security that we all feel on the Hilltop today.
Kate Zernike ’86 was at her home in Montclair, N.J., getting her two boys — Frits, 8, and Nicolaas, 6 — ready for school on May 13 when a text message popped up on her cell phone. A friend was asking if she could drop off her own son at Kate’s house before the school bus arrived. There had been an accident in Philadelphia, the friend reported, and she needed to get to the hospital where the friend’s husband was to undergo emergency surgery.
Then came an email from Zernike’s boss, the Metro editor at The New York Times, Wendell Jamieson. “Can I lend you to National?” he asked. Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, on its way from Washington to New York and carrying 238 passengers, had crashed at 9:30 p.m. the night before.
Zernike needed to start reporting. Read the full article
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