This summer, we were saddened to learn of the deaths of former longtime faculty members Rick Francis and Dick Gregory. With 92 years of teaching and coaching between them, they profoundly influenced legions of students—and were role models for many young teachers, too. We asked Director of Athletics Mark Conroy and former faculty member Greg Tuleja to share their reflections on these two epic figures.
I had the good fortune of meeting Rick Francis when I was a young athletic director and coach at a junior boarding school in Connecticut in the late 80s. Rick and I served together on an athletic planning committee for a New England teachers conference, and his warmth, personality, and generosity of spirit made an immediate impact on me. I learned early on that, in the NEPSAC athletic director world, Rick Francis commanded tremendous respect from his peers as someone who was not only a sage voice of experience but a mentor to so many because he modeled integrity and collegiality.
I also learned that Rick and I had a great deal in common as former college athletes who shared a great love for athletics in general and coaching football in particular! As a football coach, Rick was never one to rest on his laurels and was always looking for innovative ways to get an edge over his competition. In my experience, he was one of the few prep head coaches who actively looked for prospective players—reaching out to me and other junior coaches on a regular basis to inquire about possible candidates for Williston. Not surprisingly, a number of my boys went on to play for Coach Francis. This gave me another window into Rick as a coach and mentor. To a person, my former players had tremendous experiences playing for him. His teams were always exceptionally well coached. At the root of his success was his ability to connect with the boys who played for him on a personal level. He used this platform to impact the lives of his players long after they had the great privilege of playing for him.
As we all know well, athletics are a very visible part of boarding school life. More often than not, our impressions of peer schools are formed through the athletic lens as we host and visit peer schools literally hundreds of times in any given school year. For me, Williston always stood out as a school that not only had competitive, well-coached teams, but also seemed to have a warm and welcoming, authentic school community. Lessons around sportsmanship were at the core of Coach Francis’ leadership as both a coach and athletic director.
Stepping into Rick Francis’ sizeable shoes in 2000 was a tremendous privilege and a responsibility. From everything that I have learned about Rick’s predecessor Dale Lash (Williston’s Athletic Director from 1942 to 1967), I am certain that Rick inherited the same sense of responsibility when he became Athletic Director in 1967. Competing with great sportsmanship and representing Williston with class had been a priority of Coach Lash’s tenure. I feel strongly that the legacy of Williston athletics, as it is for the Williston community, is that sports are used not only as a powerful platform to teach life skills but also as a reflection of what Williston values as a school community. There is no question in my mind that Rick Francis not only embodied all that is good in athletics, but also built on this legacy during his long, distinguished tenure. — Mark Conroy
I met Dick in the summer of 1983, when I first visited Williston to interview for a part-time music teaching position. In contrast to the then Head of School, who greeted me in shorts and bare feet, Dick gave me a campus tour in 85-degree heat, dressed in sharply pleated trousers, shined loafers, jacket, and tie (he would have called it a “necktie”). Dick was gracious and engaging, and took a great interest in me, as he would continue to do for decades after. Karin O’Neil and Bob St. George decided to take a chance on a completely green young musician, fresh out of grad school, and I was hired.
Later that week, I received from Dick a five-page handwritten letter of congratulations, in his beautiful penmanship and impeccable prose. The letter was an introduction to the musical life of the school, intelligent, funny, and encouraging, characteristics that would become reliable features of our long friendship. I was nervous about my new job, but after reading that letter (three times), I knew that there was at least one person at Williston who would be in my corner, a seasoned, well-regarded veteran, eager to help me get started. I was yet to learn of Dick Gregory’s brilliant talents as a musician.
Dick’s extraordinary ability as a composer, arranger, and performer (piano, violin, viola, and yes, tuba) was an absolute revelation to me when I arrived. One of Haydn’s string quartets had been appropriated by the school as the Williston hymn, and at some point during my first few years, Dick and I were asked to put together a student group to perform the piece. We did not happen to have two violins, a viola, or a cello, so we were faced with the task of rewriting the quartet for the forces that we did have—flutes, clarinet, and French horn, as I remember. My plan was to work from the score and transcribe Haydn’s string parts, making the necessary adjustments for keys and ranges. Dick’s strategy was more direct. As I watched him, in some amazement, he simply sat down at his desk, took out some blank sheet music, and started writing out the score, using only his memory. In about half an hour, all four parts of the 32-measure piece were written out, transposed for our wind quartet. By the way, he did this, not with a pencil, but with a black nonerasable marker. I would discover the next day at rehearsal that in the several pages of four-part writing, there were no errors. Dick would be surprised that I still remember that incident 40 years later. That musical feat, and so many others like it, although spectacular to me, was for him routine.
Dick was an unfailing advocate, advisor, and friend. I sometimes wondered how he could do such a good job propping up a brand-new teacher, while he was also teaching art history and English, and running three choral groups, including the already legendary Caterwaulers, and the newer but also impressive Widdigers. He was also designing costumes for theater productions (he was very skilled in drawing and adept behind a sewing machine). Dick was also busy directing school plays, writing original plays, and serving as the Ford Hall dorm head. Through our years together at the school, first when I was part of the music program and later when I was not, Dick was a constant source of knowledge and inspiration to me.
For some years after his retirement, Dick used to meet his fellow retirees Bob Couch ’50, Ray Brown, and Al Shaler for weekly Friday morning coffee in the Stu-Bop. Somehow, I got a standing invitation to join them, which I often did, when Heads of School Brian Wright or Bob Hill no doubt expected me to be hard at work in my office in the Schoolhouse. But seeing Dick again was worth the trip across campus. He was, in the most authentic sense, a scholar and a true gentleman, and I feel grateful to have known him and worked so closely with him for so many years. Dick helped me to unravel the mysteries to be found in that wonderful and bewildering species known as “the teenager,” and I know that many hundreds of former students and singers who once populated these paths and these buildings will remember Dick as I do, with great affection, admiration, and respect. — Greg Tuleja