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The Hill School's 2021 Commencement Ceremony

The Hill School's 170th Commencement Ceremony took place on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Headmaster Lehman P’16 ’18 welcomed the graduates and their families before asking the graduating class to offer a collective thanks to those who supported them throughout their respective journeys: parents, grandparents, and siblings; Hill faculty and staff; and the form deans.

He then invited James T. Olson, SGA senator, to address his class as this year’s Sixth Form Commencement Speaker. Jamie reflected on how easy it can be in the competitive nature of a place like Hill and often fall into a trap of always comparing oneself to others. His message to his classmates was to focus on the memories and the bright futures that lie ahead of each one of them and let that competitiveness exist as a push to do better and be better people.

“I am eternally grateful for Hill and for the opportunity to have known each and every one of you over the past four years," said Olson, continuing: “Thanks to Hill, I got to have teachers who truly have a passion for educating. Thanks to Hill, I got to meet students from parts of the world I will never see myself and hear their stories. Thanks to Hill, I learned things about myself that I would have never known otherwise. To this day, I am so deeply inspired by the talents of my peers and the passion and dedication that they put into those passions. The past four years have been imperfect, unpredictable, and a rollercoaster of emotions and events to say the very least, but what matters is that we’re here now, all together . . . .”

Students celebrate in the Dell after Commencement!

“Looking out at you all, I don’t see numbers, or GPA’s, or attributes, but only memories of the friends who made me laugh harder than I’ve ever laughed, teachers who have made me think more critically than I’ve ever thought, and peers who have pushed me harder than I’ve ever been pushed. These memories are the gifts I will carry with me for the rest of my life, so for everyone who has been a part of my journey here, you have my eternal gratitude.” Watch Jamie’s address.

Preston G. Athey '67 Addresses the Class of 2021

Mr. Lehman then invited Retiring Board Chairman Preston G. Athey ’67 to the stage to address the Class of 2021. Mr. Athey had been named the recipient of the 2021 Sixth Form Leadership Award during the previous evening’s Class Day Gala.

During his address, Mr. Athey shared the different ways one could choose to measure happiness or contentment in life, noting that for some it could be career success, power, fame, or riches. Though for many, “accomplishing the big things in life” will center around making a difference in the world and “putting other people ahead of yourself.”

He then posed the question of “what does it mean to be a hero?” and touched upon several “societal” definitions and notable heroes of our time – recipients of the Congressional Medal of Freedom; famous airline pilot Captain Sully Sullenberger, who saved all 155 passengers aboard his flight by safely and bravely landing the plane in the Hudson River after engine failure; and Mother Teresa, who dedicated her life to serving the sick and poor in India.

Noting that he draws inspiration from these individuals, he emphasized how so many others, including the class of 2021, can make a difference in the world be being a quiet hero. He then recounted several stories of seemingly unknown individuals who made all the difference in the lives of others by their courage, kindness, and selfless acts, who all turned out to be graduates of The Hill School: William Borden, class of 1903, wealthy socialite turned Christian missionary who donated his fortune to China Mission Society upon his untimely death at age 2; Keenan Fernandez ’07, who lost her life trying to save a drowning friend in Nepal;  Tom Walter ’87, college baseball coach who donated a kidney to a player who was in desperate need of a transplant; Alex Lange ’14, who postponed her own college graduation to  donate bone marrow to a stranger in need; Lenny Simpson ’68,  accomplished African- American tennis player who grew up in the Jim Crow South who now runs a youth tennis non-profit, One Love Tennis; and Courtney Neese ’00 and Athey Family Master of English and Chair of Hill’s English Department, who dedicates her life to her students and incorporates service learning into her AP English curriculum.

“I like to think that The Hill School helped to shape how all of these heroes approached life,” said Mr. Athey, continuing: “Our motto “Whatsoever Things Are True” may mean different things to each of us, but if we really believe it, it can have a powerful influence on how we conduct ourselves, and on how we treat others.”

Mr. Athey concluded by noting to graduates that “those who decide to make a difference by serving others also end up highly contented in their lives.” 

A Surprise Announcement in Honor of Mr. and Mrs. Athey

What came next was a surprise announcement for both Mr. Athey himself and all in attendance at the event.  Though he would never consider himself one of the quiet heroes, that’s exactly what Mr. Athey, along wife his wife, Nancy, have been to Hill through the years. And, with his impending retirement from the Board, the School and Board of Trustees wanted to do something special to honor him for giving so much back to The Hill – financially as well with his time, wisdom, leadership, and friendship.

Before unveiling the surprise for the Atheys, Headmaster Lehman shared important news of a transformative gift the couple recently bestowed upon The Hill:

Preston and Nancy Athey are, by far, the most generous donors in the history of The Hill School.  Prior to assuming his role as Chairman of the Board in 2013, Preston informed me that he would be donating $10 million to endow teacher compensation, at that time the largest single gift in the School’s history.  Since that time, he has made numerous leadership gifts to support many projects and initiatives at Hill including restoration of our beloved Alumni Chapel and the Dining Hall, expansion of financial aid, and various dormitory improvements, to name just a few.  He also donated the funds needed to ensure that our COVID-19 mitigation expenses would not cut into our operating budget this year or prevent any students from attending Hill due to family financial difficulties.  Then, a few months ago, as Preston prepared to retire from the Board, he quietly informed me that he and Nancy would be making another transformational gift to bookend his service as Board Chair and to support additional faculty compensation and a new financial aid program to commemorate The Hill’s 100th anniversary of alumni ownership and governance.  That donation arrived a few weeks ago and you are the first ones to know about it:  I am pleased to share that Mr. and Mrs. Athey have donated nearly $12 million, exceeding their 2013 record-setting gift.   Although Preston’s first gift to The Hill was $5.36 in 1968, the year after he graduated, and his lifetime giving to Hill today totals more than $30 million, it has never been about the dollar amount to Preston, rather it’s always about advancing The Hill community, and most importantly, the impact our students make when they go out into the world.  

“He is indeed a quiet and unassuming hero for The Hill, so that others, like all of our graduates here today, can go out and lead lives of purpose and heroism,” said Mr. Lehman. 

Mr. Lehman then surprised the Atheys by announcing that by unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees, and quietly behind the scenes, the Academic Center has been dedicated in their honor and now bears the name the Athey Academic Center. 

Presentation of Special Awards

Headmaster Lehman recognized faculty members who will be leaving The Hill at the conclusion of the school year. They are: Ms. Rebecca Shipper ’14, Mathematics Fellow; Ms. Sophia Gantenbein, World Languages Fellow; Mr. Brett Dioguardi, Chair of Sustainability and Instructor of Science; Mrs. Kelsey Bessette, Adjunct Instructor of History and Social Sciences; Ms. Erin Ruane, Chair of the Science Department & Henry J. Colbath Instructor in Science; Mr. Yassine Benzinane P’21, Chair of the World Languages Department & Herbert B. Finnegan Memorial Chair in World Languages; Mr. Andrew Bessette, Instructor of Mathematics; and Mr. Nathaniel  Yinger ’05, Sports Information Director.

He also noted two treasured faculty awards established by former faculty members of the School which were presented during the Dial Dedication ceremony held last week. Yassine Benzinane P’21 was the recipient of the John H. Woodward Master Teacher Award. Bowen Borgeson, instructor of history and dorm parent Foster Dormitory, received the David and Virginia Giammattei Award for Excellence in House and Dormitory Parenting.

Headmaster Lehman then called 13 young men and women to the stage to receive special prizes.  See below for a complete list of Special Prize Winners and their citations.

Members of the Class of 2021 and their family, friends, and Hill faculty all joined voices in singing the School song, "A Thousand Hands," followed by the official presentation of the diplomas by Mr. Athey. Graduates also continued a meaningful tradition as new alumni: As they crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, they dropped a gold or silver dollar into a wooden box, symbolizing each graduate's first donation to The Hill as an alumnus. The Reverend Khristi Adams, Hill chaplain, concluded the ceremony with the benediction.

Before heading to the Dell Pond to make their splash as new alumni, each graduate placed a brick engraved with their name on the center pathway on the Quad. After aquick change into their “Hill Alumni” t-shirts, the Class of 2021 celebrated their new alumni status with the traditional plunge into the water.