Assistant Head of School Ann Pickrell and Academic Dean Greg Tuleja retire after a combined 79 years of exceptional service to Williston
When Assistant Head of School Ann Pickrell and Academic Dean Greg Tuleja began their careers at Williston, Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president, Michael Jackson’s new album Thriller was filling the airwaves, and IBM had just introduced what it was calling a PC. Over the next four decades, the world would change considerably, but the guiding presence of Pickrell and Tuleja at Williston would remain a reassuring constant. As teachers, administrators, coaches, dorm parents, and advisors, they would demonstrate the empathetic professionalism that distinguishes the school today. With their double retirement at the end of this academic year, a remarkable era comes to a close, even as their example continues to shape the institution.
The heartfelt words of their former students suggest just how consequential their impact has been. “What Williston, and specifically Ms. Pickrell, taught outside the classroom are the lessons I carry with me every day,” noted Olivia Moses Clough ’09, one of dozens who recently posted tributes to the pair on the Williston website. “I am forever grateful for the privilege of her counsel.” Added Abbie Coscia ’19, “I promise without Mr. T, I would not have made it through my years at Williston. The most amazing mentor, advisor, coach, and person all in one.”
For all of their achievements as educators and coaches, these interpersonal connections are what Pickrell and Tuleja say they most cherish about their time at Williston, relationships forged in the unique environment of boarding school. “Williston is a student’s home away from home,” Pickrell explains. “We don’t take the place of their parents, but we’re an additional parent. I’m still in touch with people that went here 40 years ago.” Tuleja agrees: “When these alums come back, and they’re running up to you because they haven’t seen you in years and want to say hello—there’s something really warm and valuable and authentic about the relationship that’s established here.” How did these two educators become so beloved by the Williston community? To understand that, we have to start at the beginning…
Ann Pickrell grew up surrounded by educators.
When she was a child in southern Vermont, her grandmother, parents, and several aunts and uncles were all teachers. She too was interested in the profession, but as a three-sport high school athlete, she had a passion for coaching. At Springfield College, she majored in physical education and history. On a lark after graduation, she interviewed for a position teaching history at Cushing Academy. She got the job and stayed for four years, coaching field hockey, skiing, and track and field, and starting a girls lacrosse team. By the time she left in 1982, she had risen to Associate Director of Admissions.
At Williston, Pickrell began her career teaching science and physical education at the Middle School, but soon was hired as Associate Director of Admissions, a post she held for 10 years. She then spent 20 years as Director of Admissions, and has served as Assistant Head of School for the last 10.
Over those four decades she also was head of John Wright dormitory (at the time, the school’s newest girls’ residence), traveled extensively around the world as a school representative, compiled impressive records as the head coach of varsity field hockey for 30 years, and launched the girls golf program in 2003. But it is her work as a student advisor that she found most rewarding, “helping students, getting to know their families,” she explains. “I’ve been here long enough that for some of the students that are now at Williston, I was their parent’s dorm parent, or advisor, or coach.”
She also proved a helpful advisor to a young Greg Tuleja, who had arrived on campus a year after her. “She was crucially important to me in trying to figure out how to navigate the boarding side of things,” he recalls. “Ann always professed finding the balance between being authoritative and being approachable. You can’t be friends with the teenagers, but you can be friendly with them. They should feel they can talk to you. We have that balance as coaches and as teachers, but in the dorm, it’s crucial to find that. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.”
The benefits of time have given Pickrell a rare perspective on the foundational forces that continue to shape the education profession: the introduction of computers and technology into the classroom, the expansion of arts programs and other extracurriculars, and the focus on issues of equity and diversity, particularly within independent schools. And in the wake of these developments, as the world has become more divided and distrustful, she sees independent schools like Williston playing a key role in building bridges.
“Williston has students from 30 different countries this year and from all over the U.S.,” she points out. “Developing those connections—that trust, that respect, that sense of purpose—is important. Access is another issue. Independent schools have been traditionally the places for the elite. That’s changing at the college level, and at the independent school level.” Leaving Williston is bittersweet for Pickrell, but she notes she is 66 and her husband is 73, and “I just don’t want to regret that we didn’t have the time to spend together. The pandemic has shown that you can’t take anything for granted.” She plans to travel, play golf, and put some time into her Chesterfield home. “I’m someone who likes to be active,” she says, as if her 40 years of achievements at Williston had not demonstrated that already. “I’ll keep busy.”
Greg Tuleja could cite any number of highlights to of his 39-year career at Williston:
his legendary run as girls cross-country coach, his accomplishments as a teacher of music and English, his success as an administrator culminating in his work as Academic Dean. But what stands out for him is something more personal. “When I’m in my office and students come by just to say hello, that to me is everything that Williston has meant to me,” he says. “Those moments happen all the time, and those are the biggest ones for me.”
That he would today be held in such high regard by generations of runners and students may not have been imaginable to the 32-year-old musician, fresh out of a master’s program in flute, who arrived at Williston in 1983. Born and raised in New Jersey, he had earned his undergraduate degree in biology at Rutgers, then taught himself enough piano to play in rock bands around New York City for a decade. He also played flute (handy for his band’s Jethro Tull covers) and gave flute lessons, and he soon realized just how much he enjoyed teaching. He started at Williston half-time, teaching two classes and coaching two sports, and living in a dorm with 75 sophomore boys.
By the next year he was a full-time teacher, then served as a college counselor, Director of Studies, and eventually Academic Dean. When he began to miss the classroom mid-career, he returned to teach English 9 and AP Music Theory.
Tuleja’s appointment as Head Coach of girls cross-country by Athletic Director Rick Francis may be his most serendipitous moment at Williston. “The team had only been in existence for about three or four years with different coaches,” recalls Tuleja, who had been a recreational runner and coached youth baseball in New Jersey. “When Rick gave it to me, I certainly didn’t think that I was going to stick with it for 40 years. But it turned out to be absolutely perfect for me.”
And, as the record books show, for Williston. His teams would have 25 consecutive winning seasons (including three undefeated) and two NEPSAC championships, and compile an astounding record of 274–95. As great coaches do, Tuleja sees his job as being about more than sports. “My first rule every year is to make sure that the kids know that I appreciate what they’re doing, and that I know how hard it is,” he explains. “To run 3.1 miles as fast as we ask them to run is emotionally, mentally, and physically challenging. And to see these girls come through the finish line, having given it everything, every single Saturday, they need to hear from the coaches that we see that.”
As an administrator in a constantly evolving profession, Tuleja has had to confront challenges of his own, notably responding to the changing role of technology in the classrooms, developing academic support services for students, and working to make Williston socioeconomically diverse as well as financially healthy. What keeps him encouraged is the passion of Williston students, a quality that today remains as strong as ever, he says.
“I’ve always felt that the kids here want to be here,” he explains. “That struck me my very first year. They were eager not only in cross-country, but in the music classroom, and in the dorms. They were excited about being at the school and they wanted a connection with the adults. Nearly 40 years later, that’s still the same.”
Looking ahead to his retirement, Tuleja is planning trips to Europe and the United Kingdom with his wife, Frances, who has dual citizenship with Ireland. “That’s always been a big dream of ours, to spend part of our retirement in Ireland,” he says. (His son, Owen ’05, now lives in Poland.) He’ll also have more time to devote to his poetry writing. And in a drawer in his desk, he’s kept the many notes of appreciation that alums have sent him over the years. “I’m going to go through them very, very slowly,” he says. “One by one.”