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Graduates, Head of School Get Their Diplomas

Head of School Sheila Culbert looked at the soon-to-be-graduates of Loomis Chaffee’s 108th class on Sunday, May 26, and knew this year, more than ever, she could relate to what they were experiencing. She was “graduating,” too.

After 16 years at the school’s helm, Sheila is retiring next month.

“As we stand here today, you and I are in pretty similar situations,” Sheila said to the Class of 2024 in her Commencement address. “We are all facing the great unknown. Granted, it’s taken a little longer for me to graduate from Loomis than you.”

To mark the occasion, she was given a framed diploma signed by the members of the Class of 2024.

The Commencement ceremony unfurled gracefully on a summerlike day at the traditional location overlooking the Farmington River and flanked by the Loomis Family Homestead and the Head of School’s House, which itself was flanked by rhododendrons and peonies in full bloom. The graduating class processed from Grubbs Quadrangle and through Founders Hall before settling into their seats.

Duncan MacLean ’90, chairman of the Board of Trustees, provided the greeting for the day, and the Rev. Ryan Heckman delivered the benediction at the end of the ceremonies.

Sheila Culbert gets her diploma signed by the Class of 2024.

Sheila Culbert gets her "diploma," too, this one signed by the members of the Class of 2024.   

Sheila offered lessons from her life’s path, which at times has taken unlikely turns. She told the class that she hoped they would “not be too wedded to a plan or, rather, that you [will] be open to opportunities as they present themselves. As Emily Dickinson would say, ‘Dwell in possibility.’ Or John Lennon: ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.’ So, live your life. Yes, make plans, but be prepared for change — and a lot of it.  

“What happens to us,” she continued, “is a combination of happenstance and purposefulness, pragmatic choices and idealistic aspirations, as well as, unfortunately, setbacks and bumps in the road, and instances of tragedy and great sadness.”

She spoke of the death of her son Will eight years ago and the loss of her parents and two of her siblings.

“I am not a believer in the idea that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” she said. “If anything, the accumulation of blows over a lifetime makes us more vulnerable and fragile, not the other way around. Trauma exacts a toll. It changes you in fundamental and unexpected ways. 

“Will died in 2016, and by then I had been at Loomis for eight years and was well-versed in the school’s motto  — ne cede malis. Don’t give in to adversity,” Sheila continued. “It was perhaps a line that I would trot out without too much thought. Like, ‘Buck up little camper. You’ve got this.’ Now, though, I had to really wrestle with it. How do we not give in? How do we build our resilience in the face of adversity?” 

She said she learned what was important in life and let go of some ingrained habits. She also shared habits of life that she found can make a difference when grief sets in. “They are both simple and effective: Value your family and friends, spend time in nature, and practice gratitude and kindness,” she said.

For Sheila, the restorative joy of nature became an integral part of her life on the Island. She urged the graduates to “take out your earbuds and listen, listen intently” to the world around them and to “pay attention to the birds and animals that share the space with you.”

Sheila became an avid birder and bird photographer as she walked along the many acres of Loomis land. Fittingly, the class token given to Sheila by each senior — a Commencement tradition — was a memento in the shape of a camera.

Sheila was appointed head of school in 2008. Under her tenure, the campus and the programming changed significantly. Major construction and renovation projects have transformed the campus in the past 16 years, and the establishment of five interdisciplinary centers has expanded the school’s educational offerings.

Class Speaker Owen Caligiuri witnessed much of that transition. Owen was 6 years old when his family moved onto campus as his mom Lori started working as a history teacher and dorm head. Sheila said Owen “has been deeply involved in the Loomis community” and that he “has graced the Island with his outgoing nature and inclusive leadership.”

Owen’s Commencement speech brought him back to his freshman year amid COVID-19 restrictions.

“I’m not sure if you remember, but freshman year we were required to take these ‘Healthy Living’ classes,” Owen said. “These ‘classes’ ranged from fishing with Coach [Donnie] McKillop, flexibility with Ms. [Jean] Sapula, and even reading books with Mr. [Jake] Leyden. I was lucky enough to take the DJing 101 course.”

As he prepared his remarks to the class, Owen put together a playlist to illustrate the experience of the past four years. “Apart from the cool transitions and airhorns,” Owen said, “the key to being a successful DJ is building a great playlist.” And in this case, a meaningful playlist.

Freshman year song: “Leave the Door Open” by Bruno Mars and Anderson Peak, which Owen said was a nod to leaving the door open to your room when there were visitors. He and his buddies got into trouble for neglecting this rule, he said, which required a visit to the dean’s office.

Sophomore year song: “About Damn Time” by Lizzo, in recognition of when the school lifted outdoor mask requirements.

Junior year song: “I’m Good” by David Guetta and Bebe Rexha, which he said samples the classic 1990s dance song “Blue (Da Be Dee)” by Eiffel 65. The songs make you want to dance, he said, and by junior year COVID felt largely like a thing of the past.

Senior year song: “End of beginning” by Djo, reflecting the Class of 2024 moving from one phase of their lives to another, he said. 

Every good DJ needs a few extras on their playlist, he added, so he selected “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones as a tribute to Sheila’s retirement and her British roots. And, looking to 2029, the fifth-year reunion of the class, he chose “The Way” by Arianna Grande and Mac Miller, a nod to both The Way, the walking path that cuts through campus, “and most importantly the way Loomis changed our lives. ... If I could play an air horn sound effect, now would be the time.”

Sheila’s final words to the students sent them out to the world with a challenge.

“As you leave here, remember to not only nurture your inner self and to strive to be your best possible self, but also to honor the Founders’ wish that you be an agent for the common good," she said. “Be the good the Founders hoped would be their legacy and express gratitude and kindness always.

wen Caliguiri  at commencement speaking

Class Speaker Owen Caligiuri hits all the right notes in his speech.

2024 Commencement Prizes

The Loomis Family Prize: Anh Nhat Hoang Dao and Jason Chen (tie)

Established in 1921, the Loomis Family Prize for scholarship honors the Founders and their successors in the Loomis family who have contributed time, energy, and fortune to nurture the growth of The Loomis Institute.  It is awarded to the first scholar of the graduating class.

The Nathaniel Horton Batchelder Prize: Owen Giacomo Caligiuri

Established in 1916, this prize honors Gwendolen Sedgwick Batchelder and her husband Nathaniel Horton Batchelder, who served the school as our first headmaster from 1912 to 1949. Sculptor Evelyn Longman Batchelder designed the medallion through which the faculty recognize a student within the graduating class for industry, loyalty, and integrity.

The Jennie Loomis Prize: Preston Thomas McNulty Socha

Established in 1929, the Jennie Loomis Prize, a medallion also designed by sculptor Evelyn Longman Batchelder, honors Miss Jennie Loomis and her mother, Mrs. Jennie Cooke Loomis. Through this prize, the faculty recognize a student in the graduating class for outstanding contributions to the school community.

The Florence E. Sellers Prize: Lauren Ann Sonnenfeld

Established in 1955, the Florence E. Sellers Prize is awarded in loving memory of Florence Sellers, director of the Chaffee School from 1936 to 1954. The prize recognizes a student of the graduating class whom the faculty has judged to have the characteristics of Mrs. Sellers: a quest for excellence, self-discipline, and a concern for others.

Sheila and Angela Commencement 2024

Ammidon Prize winner Angela Adu-Boateng.

The Ammidon Prize: Angela Nana Adjoa Ahenba Adu-Boateng

Established in 1964 by former Chairman of the Board of Trustees Hoyt Ammidon ’28, the Ammidon Prize is awarded annually to a student of the graduating class who, in the judgment of the faculty, has made an outstanding commitment to the common good through concern for others, both on and off the Island.

2024 Class Night Prizes

Sellers Faculty Prizes: Angela Xinyi Ye and Chelsea Juliana Ndzana-Zogo

The Charles Edgar Sellers Prize is given by the faculty in loving memory of Charles Edgar Sellers, beloved teacher and coach, in recognition of personal achievement and service to the Loomis Chaffee community.



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