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Retired St. Margaret’s headmaster looks back on 10 years of work

Marcus Hurlbut hugs a student during an all-school gathering to celebrate his last day as headmaster. Photo by Brian Park
Marcus Hurlbut hugs a student during an all-school gathering to celebrate his last day as headmaster. Photo by Brian Park

By Brian Park

Marcus Hurlbut knew there was something special planned to celebrate his last day as headmaster at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School. But it wasn’t until he emerged from his office that he realized the lengths the school had gone to give him a warm send-off.

Upon exiting his office, Hurlbut was greeted by a human tunnel, made up of more than 1,200 Tartans. The entire student body, along with faculty and parents, dressed in red shirts that read, “School’s Out, Forever a Tartan”—a nod to the name of Hurlbut’s boat but also, a message celebrating his 10 years as the leader and public face of St. Margaret’s.

As he made his way through the tunnel, which serpentined through the campus and ended with an all-school gathering at Pasternack Field House, Hurlbut was met with cheers, high-fives, hugs and warm wishes.

“It would be hard for me to imagine a more important gift than that,” Hurlbut said. “Somebody asked me to imagine what my last month would look and feel like, but this was so much better than I ever could have imagined.”

On Saturday, Hurlbut presided over his final commencement ceremony for the class of 2013. He and his wife Pat will now leave south Orange County for their home in Westhampton, N.Y. to be closer to their grandchildren, who live in Hurlbut’s hometown, Boston.

A student breaks from the line to give Headmaster Marcus Hurlbut a hug. Photo by Brian Park
A student breaks from the line to give Headmaster Marcus Hurlbut a hug. Photo by Brian Park

Hurlbut said he initially thought about retiring last year. But after speaking with St. Margaret’s board president Michael Berchtold, Hurlbut said he was convinced to stay to help put the finishing touches on the school’s new $22.5 million Performing Arts Center, which opened in August and whose main theatre bears his name.

“In retrospect, I would’ve hated missing it,” Hurlbut said. “I was pretty sure this would be the last school I’d be the head of when I came here, and I was very eager to make it the best experience possible, and it hasn’t disappointed me.”

Reflecting back on his time at St. Margaret’s, Hurlbut said he is especially proud of the school’s ability to produce well-rounded students. That, he said, is a product of good hires and department and administrative leaders from different disciplines and interests reaching out to one another to help create a comprehensive liberal arts experience.

“The sum of the whole is bigger than its parts, and that was part of our philosophy,” Hurlbut said. “Our athletic director and arts director talk a lot. I made it very clear that we needed to be the people who would facilitate kids in their multiple interests and not people who would stand in the way.”

In addition to establishing high performance standards in the classroom, on the athletic field and in the arts, Hurlbut said it was important to emphasize the value of community service to students. From volunteering efforts in San Juan Capistrano to fundraisers in response to national events, students from all three levels of the school—lower, middle and upper—regularly organized and executed several efforts that were in-step with Hurlbut’s favorite adage: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

“Mr. Hurlbut leads by example. His actions spoke much louder than his words,” said senior Mattingly Messina, who will attend Villanova University in the fall to study political science. “He really highlighted the qualities that a leader should have, by his words but also his work. I saw qualities in him that I’d love to emulate.”

St. Margaret's Headmaster Marcus Hurlbut (right) works with a volunteer from Operation Blessing during renovation efforts in Breezy Point, Queens. Courtesy photo
St. Margaret’s Headmaster Marcus Hurlbut (right) works with a volunteer from Operation Blessing during renovation efforts in Breezy Point, Queens. Courtesy photo

There is no greater example, Hurlbut said, of the school’s dedication to service than when in January, he and a group of 11 upper school students, including Messina, and five adult chaperones traveled to New York and New Jersey to provide on-the-ground support for Hurricane Sandy victims.

“I saw a man who was so unbelievably selfless, who worked tirelessly, and consequently, he pushed us to do things I didn’t think I was capable of doing,” Messina said.

From that trip, Messina said he forged a strong relationship with his peers and with Hurlbut. When he finally makes the move to Philadelphia to start school, Messina said he expects to make several visits to New York and hopes to reconnect with his high school headmaster there.

“I’ll be paying him visits, announced or unannounced,” Messina said. “He’ll be a lifelong friend.”

Berchtold, who has served as board president for the last four years and five years in all, said he will miss Hurlbut both professionally and personally.

“He’s been so successful in running the school day to day that the board has been able to do what they’re supposed to, which is to partner with him and focus on the long term planning of the school,” Berchtold said.

Even in his last year, Hurlbut played a critical role in setting the school’s priorities for the future, according to Berchtold. In the coming years, St. Margaret’s will place a greater emphasis on five key initiatives: a global education, diversity and inclusivity, environmental sustainability, a curricular focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and health and wellness.

Although he wasn’t involved in every step of the process, Berchtold said the board and its search committee often relied on Hurlbut’s input to find a suitable successor, including having candidates visit St. Margaret’s to speak with him. In October, the school announced the hiring of William Moseley as its next headmaster. Moseley, who is finishing up an interim role as headmaster at St. Andrew’s School in Florida, will begin his new job July 1.

“(Marcus) has given the great gift of handing the baton on to someone who can carry on his work over the last decade,” Berchtold said. “He’s got a big heart and so much compassion and love for our kids, families and the school community. I admire it so much in his character—that I will miss.”

During the all-school assembly on his last day, student speakers told Hurlbut that he had no need to worry and that they would carry on his work.

“The kids work hard to preserve the culture of St. Margaret’s,” Hurlbut said. “I love the concept that ‘we’ll take it from here.’ There’s no greater complement than that.”

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