Haverford headmaster announces retirement

Love, Kudos, Remembrance is an occassional series profiling people from the Main Line who stumble into grand loves, stand out to their neighbors and whose memories remain after they're gone.

Long after the Thanksgiving holiday Haverford School students like senior Fitz Tepper remain thankful for Headmaster Joseph Cox, who he met at the school's ice cream social in 1998.

Joseph Cox has been The Haverford School's headmaster for 15 years. He retires next June 2013.

Tepper said the junior kindergarteners were given Frisbees and while enjoying his new toy, he accidentally threw it onto the eight-foot roof of the former lower school building.

"Dr. Cox saw this happen and walked over, lifted me onto the roof and I retrieved the Frisbee," Tepper said. "That's his most important quality, his approachability, that has made him really popular among all the students here."

Staff and students like Tepper are eager to show their appreciation for Cox since his retirement for June 2013 was announced earlier this month. Although it's about a year and a half away, the Haverford School campus community already feels a loss for Cox, who has been the school's headmaster for 14 years.

"It felt like the right time, and I'm leaving it a bit of a better place than it was, and leaving it a great place for boys of all ages," Cox said.

Cox, who holds a master's degree and a Ph.D in English from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, added that he also made his retirement announcement early to give the school board enough time to search for a new headmaster.

Cox has 30 years as a U.S. Army officer under his belt, retiring with the rank of colonel and commanding a battalion in the 101st Airborn Division before concluding his military career as an English professor at West Point.

In addition to his military career, Cox authored two books, a collection of poetry titled Gardens Close and an anthology of early American war prose, The Written Wars. In addition to poetry, Cox writes essays and op-eds for numerous publications, such as WHYY's NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Writing and military experience aside, his admirers highlight his accomplishments as Haverford School headmaster.

"I think what's most interesting about him is that while maintaining the traditions of the Haverford School, he's also incorporated forward thinking," said Chris Fox, the art director who's taught at the school for 30 years. "And he could be authoritarian while doing it, but he doesn't, which is kind of funny coming from a military guy."

Two of Cox's accomplishments, staff and students say, highlight his forward thinking, were the school board approvals of the new teaching evaluation model and the school's honor code, both of which occurred 10 years ago.

Cox sought to reward good teachers with appropriate pay, and accomplished this with the passing of an evaluation system of department heads, division heads and teachers' peers to offer a more competitive compensation and benefits plan, rather than the previous system which rewarded teachers based on seniority. Cox said headmasters from prep schools around the world frequently inquire about the system, which was featured in the fall 2003 issue of Independent School Magazine.

"I look at that the meeting when that passed as a real turning point for the school and the board," Cox said. "The board really put everything it had behind ensuring we had the best teachers so the students would get the best education possible."

Fox said the headmaster's approach to the design of the new upper school building, completed in 2008, was also instrumental in increasing a sense of community. He said Cox encouraged more open space, for the once narrow hallways and the construction of circular enclosures called "learning pods."

"Kids adopted these open spaces, studying in them and hanging in various areas, and it changed the culture of the school overnight," Fox added. "I don't think I've ever seen architecture change a culture so quickly."

Come summer 2013, Cox says he and his wife, Kathy Stevenson, will return to their house in Lake Forest, Ill.

"I'll probably excercise more than I do now, in addtition to fishing and writing," Cox laughed. "The overall plan is to try to do nothing for a while, which is the advice experts always try and give retiring headmasters."

Nevertheless, Cox said what he'll miss most about being headmaster is the students.

"When I was a battalion commander, I had 660 young men to work with, and then I came here and had 893 young men to work with," he said. "They have amazing character and they make [the job] worthwhile."

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