Spires inspire academy leader

September 03, 1997


Staff Writer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Douglas Hale remembers the first time he saw the spire looming over the Mercersburg landscape.

It was his first visit to Mercersburg Academy.

"It was an extraordinary moment when I saw that magnificent spire," he said.

He knew even then that this was where he wanted to be.

"I came away completely charmed by the school, the people and the town. I was not prepared for how beautiful the campus was going to be."

Hale, 46, was hired from a field of more than 100 candidates to be the sixth head of the private preparatory school since it opened 105 years ago.


The title was changed from headmaster this year to encourage more women applicants for the post, said school spokeswoman Debra L. Collins.

Several women were in the original applicant pool, she said.

Hale was headmaster at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. He spent 24 years there, starting as a teacher then rising through the ranks to become headmaster, a post he held for four years.

A Tennessee native, Hale was valedictorian at McMinnville High School in 1969. He went to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on a basketball scholarship and graduated in 1979. He was hired to teach English at Baylor.

"It's the only place I ever worked other than here," Hale said.

He earned a master's degree from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1981.

Hale grew up in a family of 10 children. He was the third youngest. His father died in an accident when Hale was 7.

Emotion crosses his face when he speaks of his mother, now 79 and doing well back in McMinnville.

"She's one of my personal heroes, part of a vanishing breed of woman. She's had a hard life, lost two husbands and two children, but still thinks her life is full and rich. She thinks of me as being equal to the vice president of the United States," he said.

The rest of his siblings stayed in Tennessee. Several, like Hale, have professional careers.

Hale said he left Baylor because it was time for new challenges and surroundings.

"I could have happily stayed there. They wanted me to, but I knew if I stayed another four or five years that I would be there until I retired," he said.

Baylor, twice the size of Mercersburg Academy with more than 800 students, was getting even bigger, he said.

"I wanted a smaller school, a place where l would know the students and their parents."

Mercersburg Academy has a national reputation; Baylor's is regional, he said. He wasn't planning to leave Baylor for another year, but the Mercersburg post opened when Walter H. Burgin Jr. retired in June after 25 years as headmaster. Burgin now is teaching at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

Hale said he sees no need for major changes at Mercersburg. "It is a beautiful, well-run school, established in every way. But the landscape of the future will be increasingly dotted with new and nettlesome issues. For example, the instructional, curricular and budgetary implications of this technological world are staggering," he said.

A strong and ever-growing endowment will be critical for independent schools like Mercersburg to maintain salary levels that will attract and hold the best teachers, he said.

There are 65 professional staffers at the school plus another 90 support staffers to make it one of the largest employers in the Mercersburg area.

The academy has a $12.5 million budget. The money comes from an annual slice of about $2.5 million from the school's $65 million endowment fund, yearly contributions and tuition. Boarding students pay $21,500 a year. Day students pay $14,400, Collins said.

Hale, an avid reader, collects old books as a hobby. He and his wife, Peggy, a teacher, have two grown children.

Official installation ceremonies will be Sept. 15.

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