Even though he retired in 2009 after 39 years at North Cross, former English teacher and drama coach Gates DeHart still impacts the people on our campus. If you're not sure, just ask any of the seniors working on their DeHart Projects, the actors performing in The Importance of Being Earnest this weekend, or current English teachers Jennifer Sanders ’03 andMichael Schaefer.
Almost every morning this time of the school year, a senior makes a DeHart Project presentation in Fishburn Auditorium—a project that requires a thesis, significant research, analytical writing, and a polished presentation to nearly 200 people. While Headmaster Emerson Johnson is credited with starting the tradition of a senior speech, under Gates’ stewardship the project was given room to grow, evolve, and become the balance of research, writing, and presentation we recognize today.
That transition, however, was not always smooth. “When I arrived in 1970, there was much more emphasis on the speech,” he recalled. “At some point during that decade, there was more emphasis on the paper and there was a student who produced a sixty page paper which was excessive. Then, during the late 80s and early 90s the students got extremely creative and we had these extravaganzas on the stage—one act plays with costumes and sets, written and directed by the senior. They were impressive, but we had to pull back.”
As the theatre director, he was also in charge of two or three theatre performances every year. Before Fishburn Auditorium was completed in the 1980s, the early theatre performances took place in the Cartledge Multi-purpose room on a stage no bigger than an office. The stage may have been small, but the results were big. “For lighting, we used two pound coffee cans painted black with 150 watt bulbs on a dimmer switch.” On that small stage he directed a number of notable productions. “We did John Brown’s Body and Spoon River Anthology. In those days we used faculty and students in our productions. We had a cyclorama in the back, lighted from behind, to give the audience the feeling of depth. It was good work.”
Gates continues to influence our current set of stage actors. He took time to help out this week with the current production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Polly Jones’ absence. He helped with the final dress rehearsal on Wednesday, and he will give the curtain speech on Saturday night before the actors go on stage.
Mr. DeHart came to North Cross in 1970 to teach English after stints at The Miller School and Virginia Episcopal School. During his 39 year career at North Cross, Gates taught a variety of courses, including Advanced English Grammar, Nineteenth Century American Literature, Greek Tragedy, Comedy, Literature of the 1920s in England and America, Drama Survey, Eighth Grade English, Ninth Grade English, Shakespeare (six major works), Black Studies, Short Story, and Crucible of Conscience. In 1983 the yearbook was dedicated to him, and in 2007 he received the Excellence in Teaching award.
Gates continues to help guide two current English teachers. Michael Schaeferrecalled how Gates came to observe his class last year. “As a teacher, he was incredibly supportive,” Michael recalled. “We were doing a unit on The Great Gatsby. It was special to have someone so wise and gracious. He was so positive and offered a number of insights into one of my favorite books.”
Jennifer Sanders ’03 remembers that when she arrived in the upper school as a student in the late 1990s, Gates was already considered an institution. “I was lucky enough to have him for several classes during my time here. Many of the books that I read in his class are still among my favorites. To this day, I even carry a copy of The Winter of Our Discontent in my purse. He was a wonderful teacher; intellectual and engaging in the classroom, but also interested in the lives and personalities of the young people he taught.”
But his influence on Jennifer extended beyond her years as a student. “As a student teacher at Patrick Henry, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of being responsible for the education of one hundred and twenty students. Gates was kind enough to meet with me to provide counsel and encouragement even though I was no longer his student, at least, not officially. In my first year as a teacher at North Cross, and even today, I still feel like a student of Gates'. From Gates, I learned how to engage a classroom of teenagers, to enjoy teaching, and, most of all, to value the wonderful potential in every child.”